THE FARNE ISLANDS are one of those fabled British diving spots I had long meant to visit. When the invitation to join a trip there came from old friends (and accomplished underwater shooters) Dave Baker and Paul Pettit, it was too good to miss.
All the more so because my diving had been limited not only by Covid-19 but also the recent birth of our second baby daughter. Dave and Paul make an annual pilgrimage to the Farnes, and knowing that my UK diving experience was limited, they were eager to show me just how good it gets.
Grey seals were the headline act, and I was familiar with the viral videos of exceptionally friendly seals interacting with divers in this location.
Excitement built on the long drive from Exeter up north, accompanied by a steady soundtrack of underwater photography podcasts and shows – one of few blessings of the Covid-19 era has been the outpouring of great online content.
We arrived at our base in Seahouses to glorious blue skies and sunny weather, but with the wind due to pick up next day there was the usual trepidation as to whether the diving would go ahead.
An inquisitive grey seal.
A dive-trip is always a source of excitement, but in these troubled times the prospect of an underwater escape was even more keenly anticipated.
Our small group, composed of old friends and new, instantly bonded in the special way that divers tend to have – by a passion that unites even the most disparate of characters through shared appreciation for being under the sea.
We regaled each other with scuba stories from times past, tales of incredible aquatic encounters, and memorable diver cock-ups!
Although the next day saw the skies turn grey, it wasn’t enough to discourage our skipper. So we filled our bellies with a hearty English breakfast and headed for the harbour.
The thing with UK diving, especially for those (like me) who have done the bulk of their diving in tropical climes, is that there is no mollycoddling.
We were expected to show up with our own cylinders and weights, and then lug everything to the boat.
I imagine it’s the combination of this hardy dive prep, as well as the challenging conditions, that sometimes causes hardcore British divers to look down their noses a bit at divers more accustomed to being eased into a BC before jumping into warm, tropical waters with nothing more than a rashvest as protection.
From the harbour we reached the Farne Islands in 20 minutes, and the soulful call of grey seals reached our ears.
It is a far more gentle cry than that of their cousin, the California sea-lion – like a cross between a melancholic dog and an owl, it’s a soothing, vulnerable sound that echoes around the bays of these islands.
The Farnes are now owned by the National Trust, and there is a long history of conservation there.
Back in the 7th century, monks were the first human inhabitants of these isolated islands, and St Cuthbert’s special law protecting seabirds, made in 676, is thought to be the first conservation law of its kind for birds anywhere in the world.
Although grey seals are protected and carefully monitored by the trust today, they didn’t always enjoy such a privileged existence and have long been hunted by humans, with the monks prizing them for both their flesh and oil.