Diving the Farnes Islands

Seals, birds and some cracking dives in Northumberland

Author: Pat
4th February 2012

Take the A1 north out of London. After 300 miles, turn right. You have reached your destination.

The Farnes Islands form part of the wild Northumberland coast. These craggy windswept rocks are adorned with a couple of lighthouses and an awful lot of seabirds. Viewed from the village of Seahouses, the promontories positively glistened some 2 or 3 miles distant in the bright sunlight of a clear Thursday evening. With divers trickling into the Ship Inn and the ale beginning to slip down, the long weekend of diving was about to begin. Few of us could wait to board our hardboat by the jetty and get out to the rocks.

A misapprehension though, since this was neither our departure point nor our boat at all. In fact it was Beadnell Bay some 2 miles south of Seahouses, a secluded cove with long, shallow sandy beach entry. Water transport was to be a giant orange RIB called ‘Ocean Explorer’ with room for all eleven divers.

Thursday’s blue skies had turned hangover-grey by Friday, but more ominously the winds were beginning to pick up. The wild appeal of the Farnes is something of an Achilles Heel since the 20-odd islands are well exposed to North Sea storms and easily blown out. Nonetheless, it was within the limits and as the RIB raced out and we neared the islands thousands of seabirds (mainly Puffins, Gulls and Guillemots) hoved into view. What the guidebooks don’t tell you is that these birds all need to go to the loo somewhere, and this is it. The stench of droppings brings tears to your eyes. If the islands weren’t already a mile offshore, we’d have towed them there by now…

a fellow diver failed to notice the largish grey mammal sniffing his heels

With one eye on the tide, the skipper dropped us in on a site known as Big Harcar. Surface cragginess continues down below with walls, boulders and tumbling rocks forming the topography. But barren topsides hide an abundance of life down below, as we swam through gardens covered in Dead Man’s Fingers, Sea Urchins and starfish. Visibility was quite poor and water cold, but through the gloom several large seals zoomed in and out around us. Eventually, I signalled to a fellow diver who’d failed to notice a largish grey mammal curiously sniffing his heels.

Second dive of the day was a sheltered bay close to Knocks Reef, formed of a sandy bottom in about 5 metres. The young seal zipping around offered us an opportunity to get up close in brighter water. The word ‘cute’ is oft applied to babies and loved ones but surely it has no purer meaning than when describing a seal in its element. I challenge anyone not to swim with these magnificent animals and find yourself guffawing behind your reg at their wide-eyed innocence.

What a high!

Saturday, we were blown out. Boo.

Sunday, we were blown out. Boo again.

Luckily for us, this was a four-day trip and about the same time as cheesed off weekend divers were arriving back at their desks, we were heading out on the boat for more. Two days of strong winds had left their mark in the form of some pretty shocking vis, which can’t have been more than a few metres. First site was called Blue Caps, with seals staring intently up on the surface but failing to put in an appearance underwater. Or, if they did maybe we just missed them, since the experience was closer to a night dive as our powerful torch beams cut through the gloom. The site itself is glorious, with a wall down to about 20m covered in life and crabs galore – in particular Velvet Swimming and Edible crabs, plus lobsters.

For lunch the skipper moored the boat in a lagoon next to the lighthouse and the troop sunned themselves on terra firma. Seals were beginning to take a serious interest at this point and it wasn’t long before divers were hastily throwing down sandwiches and piling into the water for some snorkelling. A friend was first into the breach and in partnership with a nosey seal provided much inadvertent comedy: no matter which way Neil was facing, a seal’s head would pop up directly behind him. Proper pantomime stuff.

Last dive of the trip was Longstone End, a kelp covered shelf at about 10 metres, which slopes away to infinity and is caked with Dead Man’s Fingers. Here different diving styles seemed to show themselves, with one duo swimming off to cover a lot of ground – eventually being carried right around the headland. Conversely, my buddy and myself barely shifted ten horizontal metres from where we dropped in and went for the forensic approach. Our reward was a young Scorpionfish perched on a rock, although a lack of movement enhanced the chill of 10-degree water, challenging our drysuits. Some cracking diving completed, the Farnes are a real treat. Just pray to the weather gods first.

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