The Farne Islands, a little south of Lindisfarne (tidal holy island, a spiritual haven), overlooked by the majestic Bamburgh Castle (allegedly the house of Lancelot and Galahad, the round table knights), and home to one of the UK’s grey seal colonies…..
It’s Saturday morning, it’s our first dive, we’ve strode like giants off the back of the good ship ‘Sovereign’ and we’re bobbing about in the North Sea. The magic of the islands is uplifting. Literally, uplifting. Most of us can’t sink ! In our road trip north, we’ve developed additional buoyancy syndrome. I wonder if the few that have submerged may, in fact, be witches. There’s a call for extra weight all round and, sufficiently re-leaded up, there’s collectively more success. We dive.
We hit the kelp forest and get our bearings. Me, human, noisy lumbering lump of rubber clad biped; Sammy (on surfacing, it seems everyone’s encountered seal turns out to be called Sammy), swift, graceful, furry smooth, fin tailed Grey Seal (aka Halichoerus grypus, meaning "hooked-nosed sea pig”, which seems a little harsh of whoever wrote the latin dictionary). The seals circle round their bubble blowing visitors, a little cautious but not in the least shy. They swish in, they swish out. It seems best to just find a spot in the kelp and let them swim by. Patrolling round trying to find these beasties just invites their disdain and/or a swift exit into the grey-blue. It’s a good first dive, we’re getting our north sea legs, seals have been spotted, everyone is pretty happy.
The second dive is even better. The water’s clearer, deeper, less kelpy, a small canyon between two rocky outcrops. Sammy has brought along quite an extended family and friends. We follow the wall to our left shoulder. There’s a lot of human-seal interaction going on. The seals show off, mocking our lack of agility in the water with their swift turns, buoyancy control, barrel rolls, quick ascents, faster descents. They gnaw, I hope playfully, rather than hungrily, on our fins and gear. We have become teething toys for the North Sea’s grey seal population. It’s glorious. As we finally also ascend, we dutifully oblige our PADI forebears with a regulation 5 metre, 3 minute safety stop. Sammy and his buddies seem genuinely perplexed and make multiple attempts to demonstrate to us just how easy those last few metres are to the surface. We stick where we are. They come back, nudge us, stare us out and encourage us once more. On the third attempt, our computers have relented and up we go. We bob to the surface and start swimming slowly to the dive-boat. Puppy dog seal faces watch us, meerkat-ing out of the sea surface for a while, then get bored and disappear back into the brine, else to their fave spots on the rocks. Well cheered, we also head to terra firma for the evening.
We’re stopping over in the wonderfully named town of Seahouses; a harbour, some houses by the sea (hence the name, I guess), a couple of decent pubs (well stocked with ales, crisps and locals), a dive club and a couple of B&Bs. After a quick scrub up, we’re back out and hitting the town at The Olde Ship Inn. A breakaway few go in search of the ‘legendary’ local Alnwick Rum. I never get to find out why it’s legendary. Instead, we move on to ‘Elan’, the local Italian and eat hungrily and heartily. It’s a good place to be and we’re well looked after. Matt re-appears with a bottle of Lindisfarne Raspberry Wine. Yes, really. I don’t imagine it was ever envisaged to be a pairing for pizza or pasta, but you have to try these things, you never know, you might get a buzz out it. (This was the strap line philosophy of my best friend from college. I’m glad this rallying call remains alive and kicking). However, in this case, I’d suggest that you’re not missing out too much should you never get the opportunity of sampling this particular fruit based tipple.
We awake next morning for a hearty B&B breakfast. Someone mentions the temperature of the sea. Our landlady points out her 10 year old daughter had been out for a dive the previous week in her 5mm wet suit. They’re a tough breed up these parts. We’re soft and glad of our drysuits and thermals. Outside, the wind has picked up and the tides are not our friend. Even I, a landlubber, can see how the water is being forced and deflected through channels and reefs, before being dispatched at speed towards somewhere in the vicinity of Bergen, Norway. It’s reassuring to know that, besides our unflappable skipper, our dive band includes one her majesty’s marines and an RNLI-er. The seals are enjoying the surf - but we need them to be on the sheltered side of the islands. Just as it looks like we’re going to be blown out and have to head back to shore, some hope comes over the radio. We take a swell (!) ride down the coast and whisk into the lee of one of the other islands. Seals ahoy. We quickly kit up, and jump in. It’s so shallow here, like diving in a rock pool, indeed finding crabs, a lobster and various small critters as well as a few lazy seals.
And good news, the sea calms a little more and we get a further dive in. The seals come back and fly around us, nibble our fins and it’s a great last dip to say goodbye to the seals and the islands. Then, back to the harbour and the Olde Ship for a celebratory pint and a bag of fish and chips before heading back south. London and the big city beckons. It’s a long drive home, music cranked up to 11.
It’s been a fabulous weekend. If you haven’t done this trip before, put it on your list and do go if you get the opportunity. And say ‘hi’ to Sammy for us.
With thanks to…..
- Sammy the seal, his/her friends and family for sharing the sea with us
- My new and old friends : Aileen, Cathy, Debashish, Ed, Matt, Paul, Ro, Scott C, Scott I, Steffi and Suse
- Dive Boat : Sovereign Diving and skipper, Ron
- All at the Olde School House B&B
- The folk and food at Elan Pizzeria
- For the brilliant photos and video : Paul “The Fish” de Jong (video); Suse “The Camara” Colgan (underwater stills)
- Special thanks : Aileen for arranging this whole gig, getting me and everyone organised, and for getting me there