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  • Writer's pictureLee Hankinson

Farne Islands- Frigid cold waters and sleepy, snotty seals

Updated: Nov 1, 2022

The theme for the trip was definitely sleepy seals, this trip was just before pupping season and the waters were much colder than expected, therefor there were a lot of sleeping heavily pregnant expecting mums and lots of snoozing younger seals in the rougher shallows.

Under the Surface

Having been incredibly lucky with 'warm' water with my previous UK dives, I decided to brave Farnes in my wetsuit(s) in early August. Looking at the weather forecast, water temperatures of 15 - 16 C were expected. I knew that would be cold for my doubled up wetsuits, but doable. As soon as I hit the water, I knew it was a bit chillier than expected, but when I looked at my computer I saw 12 C displayed as I was sinking into the murky green depths, I knew this was going to be a bit of a shaky ride.

The ecosystem is full of red and green algae which was calm and peaceful

Dropping over a wall we were confronted with massive fields of 'Dead Man's Fingers' (Alcyonium digitatum), a type of soft coral that loves cool rocky habitats. Within these coral s were urchins, crabs, nudies, sea spiders and swathes of fish darting about above them. Seeing the corals against the green water backdrop is always quite an haunting and beautiful scene.

Dead man's fingers, urchins and the progressively increasing green waters as we drop further over the wall

Around a corner and we saw a mass of waving kelp fronds, wafting about in the current and creating a cover above the more open substrate below. Coming in from below the kelp we saw that there were copious lobsters hiding in the low lying algae, moving about pretty openly.

Curious lobster checking out the new visitor under the kelp curtain above.

Near the end of the first dive, we parked ourselves in a wide and deep rocky channel that opened in to a calm area at the end. In the little hidy-hole, in the very low light waters we found loads of very sleepy seals that were tucking themselves away, except for one seemingly very spry and sociable little seal who took a shinning to both my camera as well as my dive buddies booties and fins (The latter of which ts very nearly escaped with).

Seal coming in for a port inspection

Darting in and out of the murky waters was almost like a hit-and-run tag game for this seal. We were wondering when it would turn up next when you would either feel your fins start to get dragged or a seal pup would pull on the underwater handbrake right in front of you for a quick 'Hi and bye' before vanishing into the dark waters again.

Seal popping out of the gloom like a little seal ghost

The timing of the trip occurred just before pupping season and the waters were much colder than expected, therefor there were a lot of sleeping mums and lots of snoozing younger seals in the shallows. This little one found a nice comfy crevasse to wedge itself into and didn't move a muscle as I took its portrait shot and moved away. What was interesting though was that plenty of these seals had very snotty noses, as seen in the photo below. Something I haven't seen in any other dive with seals before but have read about mites causing a similar issue in the species. but I'm assuming it was just a bit of the sniffles going round. I captured the snotty noses on this one and the seal on the cover photo.

Another snotty nose and sleepy seal

This was a pregnant mum to be who was doing its best impression of a stuffed sausage. No snotty nose on this one and looking rather at peace.

Seal or sausage?

How to Get There:

Farne Islands just a short boat trip off the coast of Northumberland, near the English / Scottish border. The day trip lasts around 8 to 10 hours on a double dive so I'd recommend staying for the weekend and being prepared for the typical early starts to the diving trip. We stayed at a local camp ground which was a 10 minute drive from the harbour. The charter boat we went with was Billy Shiel and the boat and staff were great and they put us right on site, with great advice and were prompt with the pick-up at the end of the dive.

When to Go:

Visibility can drop down in cooler times and water temperatures fluctuate with the seasons around (6-16°C) so go for the warmer months for better luck and pack your wet suit or dry suit accordingly, or ask the local dive centers for suitable hire gear. Popular times run from July through to September/October.

Tips and Techniques for Farnes

  • The journey across is short, so have your gear ready to go.

  • Underwater, the biggest tip is to be PATIENCE. Typically post up when you find a nice background of kelp and lighting at your back and almost ignore the seals, keep them in your peripheral if you can, they will come to check you out when they are comfortable. Or if they are taking a nap slowly move in staying low, take a shot and move away to let them snooze away.

  • Get low, don't bury yourself or damage the kelp but get low enough to shoot up and give space for seals to approach or move away.

  • The water is cold and it is a very easy site to navigate so make sure you are warm enough to keep hand functionality while waiting around. In a wetty, my dive time was based on body warmth, not air, so take care of yourself, or ya know, dive in a dry suit, like I will next time.

  • The site is pretty shallow with best action and scenery at 5-15 meters. Most interactions were on the shallower side.

  • Use a fisheye if you have it otherwise a wide-angle lens, or a wide-angle attachment to capture the close encounters with the seals.They will get extremely close to you if you have patience. Just be on the shutter speed as the seals can dart through fast from a distance, or just wait for the coveted super close up shots.

  • Macro life was also exceptional, with nudies, crustaceans and other goodies everywhere once you have your eye in. Dedicating a dive to macro, or a interchangeable macro wet lens will keep you happy.

  • Particularly in the cooler months there are often lots of particles in the water so visibility can drop. Good strobe placement will save you hours of editing later on.

  • Even though they want to interact with you, avoid the temptations to touch them back, they are wild animals. Let them decide what they are comfortable with. It also avoids a progression of what is considered appropriate ethics for wildlife interaction if you just don't touch them and encourage other to do the same.

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