5.00am. That was the time I put on my alarm clock that morning of early September. My dry suit and my diving equipment were ready in my bag and the 2 filled scuba diving cylinders were waiting for me in the car. At 5.30am, after a quick coffee, I was on the road. While the sun was rising on a beautiful day, I was crossing the Scottish border for the very first time. It is not the first time I had to wake up so early. I know with scuba diving that incredible underwater experiences often require an early start (read my adventure with the thresher sharks in Malapascua, Philippines or my expedition to Netrani Island in India). This time, it was to avoid severe weather coming later in the morning. This is the price of the safety to go scuba diving in the United Kingdom. You need to check the weather even more than anywhere else, and adapt to the situation and sometimes cancel.
This article is also available in French.
When I arrived at 7.30am at the quiet harbour of Seahouses, Northumberland, the sky was blue and the sun was shining. It was so worth it! While the boat was sailing to the Farne Islands, 2 to 3 miles away, a protected area for seabirds and the home of almost 4 000 grey seals, we had a stunning view of Bamburgh Castle. This beautiful red stone castle is just above the dunes of the kilometers long sandy beach between Bamburgh and Seahouses.
Where to dive with seals in England?
There are many places in the world where you can dive with seals or sea lions. After my first experience in Puerto Madryn, Patagonia, in Argentina, I was very interested in researching all the best destinations where I could enjoy this fun experience again. Famous places include diving with seals in the Galapagos, Monterrey in California, and New Zealand. Yet, England is the only country with some many places to go diving with the Atlantic grey seals. One of the main reason is that the United Kingdom is home to half of the world’s population of grey seals. The Farne Islands are the highlight of the north, there is also Blakeney Point in Norfolk, whereas Lundy Island and the Isles of Scilly are the gems of the south.
Underwater highlights of the Farne Islands
The dive sites of the Farne Islands are interesting by their diversity. There is a mix of kelp forests, walls covered in soft corals and sandy bottoms. I also enjoy the diverse marine life to see there: for the first time in the UK, I saw an enormous lobster. I was surprised as they are not as patient as the velvet crabs. Don’t get too close as they can be quite aggressive and won’t hesitate to show you as they use their pincers. Between a rock and the sand, I also found a group of crayfish hanging around with a group of pink shrimps. It was a great opportunity for macro photography. I was less lucky with nudibranchs. I saw only one when we descended on the first dive on the leave of a kelp. Local divers told me that is was quite usual and if I come back in November they are everywhere!
How to enjoy a dive with the seals?
We started our scuba expedition with the deepest dive at 15m to check if the seals wanted to play there on the sandy bottom. We saw one quickly, but it is only after our exploration of the walls, once back in the shallow waters of the kelp forest that the seals were waiting for us.
I found them to be shier than the sea lions of Patagonia, but they were so curious and would come around us, especially from the back to check us out. Like the sea lions, they just love nibbling fins! The brighter the fins are, the more attracted they will be. Be aware if you have bright white fins! It didn’t bother me at all, I loved it because it was great to have this playful interaction with them. I felt like playing with the dogs.
The best tips I can give you if you want to be really close to them: don’t move too much, keep your arms along your body and just move your head looking at them showing how curious you are too! I noticed that all the divers showing their hands to them asking for a cuddle were not very successful and somehow it was scaring them. By staying still this how my camera got a seal’s kiss!
To discover how fun and cute it is to dive with the grey seals, watch my video “A dive with the seals, Farne Islands, England”.
When is the best time to go diving with the seals at the Farne Islands?
Farne Islands can be almost dive all year-long but if you want to increase your chances of an underwater encounter with grey seals, September is the month to go. It seems in the summer, the grey seals prefer sunbathing in the sun than playing with divers. In September, according to explanations I got, the young seals, born the year before, are at their most playful state. For a chance to see the pups (baby seals) with their white fur coat, November/December is the period of the births.
What are the interesting things to do around Seahouses?
Seahouses is a tiny fisherman village that benefits from the sea life watching tours of the Farne Islands. As a result, it is to stay around after your dive but this is very small. Many nice pubs and fish and chips restaurant. For a change, I had a delicious lemon sole in my fish and chips at Neptune Fish Restaurant. You can also enjoy a crab sandwich or a traditional ice-cream while walking along the harbour. If you are traveling with non-divers, the Farne Islands are a great place where people can enjoy a seabird & seal watching tour while you are away for diving.
The highlight of my afternoon after the diving was definitely the long walk I took along the long white sandy beach from Seahouses to Bamburgh. I had no ideas that I could find such beautiful beaches on the east coast! First you have to cross the dunes covered with wild flowers and then for kilometres you have this huge strip of sand with a view on the Farne Islands and Bamburgh Castle fiercely standing above the dunes.
I finished my day in the charming old town of Berwick-upon-Tweed for a coffee before heading back home in Scotland, as Edinburgh is only less than an hour driving away. I especially enjoyed the quays with the view on the 3 bridges after crossing the walls surrounding the town.
If you want to live the same adventure, I warmly recommend you to contact Ace Divers.
Based in Glasgow, they mainly gather locals as passionate about scuba diving as about Scotland. They organise scuba diving trips with the seals to the Farne Islands in September and October.
Ace Divers – Glasgow, Scotland, UK
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