5.00 am. That was the time I put on my alarm clock that morning of early September. My drysuit and my diving equipment were ready in my bag and the 2 filled scuba diving cylinders were waiting for me in the car. At 5.30 am, after a quick coffee, I was on the road, ready to go diving in the Farnes Islands.
From Edinburgh to Seahouses
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. Incredible underwater experiences often require an early start. This time, it was to avoid severe weather coming later in the morning. This is the price of 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.
When I arrived at 7.30 am at the quiet harbour of Seahouses, Northumberland, the sky was blue and the sun was shining. It was worth going on an early drive. While the boat was sailing to the Farne Islands, 2 to 3 miles away, we enjoyed a stunning view of Bamburgh Castle. This beautiful red stone castle is just above the dunes of the kilometres-long sandy beach between Bamburgh and Seahouses.
Once we approached the red and white lighthouse, I knew we would soon arrive at the Farne Islands. The islands are a protected area for seabirds and a colony of almost 4,000 Atlantic grey seals.
Why the UK is one of the best places in the world to dive with seals?
There are many places in the world where you can dive with seals or sea lions. After my first experience in Puerto Madryn, Argentina, I started looking for all the 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 many places where you can dive with 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 Northern English, there is also Blakeney Point in Norfolk, whereas Lundy Island and the Isles of Scilly are the gems of Cornwall. Being so close to the Scottish borders, the Farne Islands are often associated with Scapa Flow as a part of Scotland”s dive sites.
The Farne Islands: one of the best dive sites in the UK
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 on my first dive hanging on a piece of kelp. Local divers told me that is was quite usual and if I came back in November they would be 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!
When is the best time to go scuba diving with the seals?
Farne Islands can be almost dived all year-long but if you want to increase your chances of an underwater encounter with grey seals, September is the right period 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 births.
What to do near 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 travelling 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 scuba diving was definitely the long walk I took along the long white sandy beach of Bamburgh. I had no ideas that I could find such beautiful beaches on the east coast of England.
First, you have to cross the dunes covered with wildflowers 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 made a final stop 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 still had some time to walk along the quays. From there, there is a fantastic view of the three bridges of Berwick.
I couldn’t help but smile when I saw in the window of an old bookstore a few copies of the famous Wilson’s Tales of the Borders (and of Scotland) before getting back to my car.
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