Diving with Seals in the Farne Islands has always been a hot topic at UoNSSAC, and this trip was no different. After the poor vis experienced by our last trip to the Farnes, we were all eagerly awaiting another opportunity to dive with some playful Seals. Once everyone arrived it took a while for everyone to navigate the 500m or so distance to the pub from the accommodation, but we made it and enjoyed a lovely meal our conversation was abuzz with talk of seals, the GoPro advert, and how well Madelaine had done so far in getting everyone in the right place at the right time.
The next morning, we all woke up excited. Despite being freezing from the lack of heating in the house, having forgotten my under suit, and that no-one brought bacon for breakfast, I was raring to find my way to Seahouses to get in the water. After a moment’s discussion, we quickly realised that Beadnell Sands was our launch site as opposed to Seahouses, where we usually depart from. Not to bother, though. Off we went, in convoy, trying not to hold up traffic or get lost and ending up doing both. By some miracle we managed to arrive early and began to kit up, but something was amiss…
“Guys, there’s no pier for a hard boat.” “What’s that tractor doing?” “There are quite a few trailers for RIBS parked around here…”
“Madelaine! You did book a hard boat, right? Right?!”
Alas, we hadn’t booked a hard boat. An inflatable pulled up, attached itself to the tractor and was dragged onto the beach. A dismayed Madelaine, profoundly apologetic, climbed into the RIB in her semi-dry and looked slightly concerned to say the least. Undeterred, we jumped in and held on to the boat as it hurled itself through the water. Within minutes we arrived at the dive site, and, exhilarated by both the unexpected mode of transport and the site of hundreds of seals swimming, flopping and bathing in and around the water, we kitted up and prepared to jump in. “Oh, by the way everyone,” chirped our skipper, “The bite of a seal it 10 times stronger than that of a dogs. Be safe!”
The stark warning didn’t put us off from diving, and what an experience that dive was! The seals, distant at first, began swimming around us. Soon, they approached us closer and closer, then commenced chasing each other around us. They then began chasing us! Some seemed to work in pairs, one acting to distract us from a distance and the other coming in to ‘grab’ our fins. 40 minutes flew by in the water, so a quick lunch followed as we swapped tanks and fell back into the sea of awaiting seals.
The second dive followed in the same vein as the first, the seals were like puppies underwater, playing and swimming around the shallows. When a seal came close, we learnt that it paid off well to ‘ignore’ it, and look at something else. Lorna had passed on the message to wave some kelp around, as they seemed to love the waving of fins. With this in mind, I found some kelp with which to lure in a seal. It worked like magic. One, which has been circling myself and my buddy for some time, stopped immediately. Lowering itself to my level, it slowly swam closer, elongating its neck, and moving its head inquisitively to see what on earth this funny creature was doing to some seaweed. Soon, it was within a couple of meters. Then, one meter. Half a meter. Slowly, it pushed out its nose to sniff. The seals big black eyes gazed upwards in my direction. Remembering the skippers’ advice, I retracted my hand slowly but the seal followed it. An awkward moment ensued, as neither of us knew what to do. It was then that I placed my hand on the seal and gently stroked the top of its head. One, two strokes, then I moved my hand to under its neck. A third, short pat on the neck was quite enough for both of us. As I remembered again that this guy could easily bite my hand off, I retracted my fingers, and my new companion went on his merry way.
An audible ‘Hell Yeah!’, a ridiculous underwater dance, and several hi-fives with my buddy later, I brought myself under control after one of the most incredibly surreal experiences of my life.
Back on the boat, similar stories were shared by everyone in the water. The seals had been even friendlier on the second dive, and spirits were high. A spectacular pub tea topped off a fantastic day at the Farnes, despite the organisational confusions of the morning.
Another bacon-less breakfast came and went, along with another (quicker) drive to the beach, and another exhilarating journey to the dive site.
The seals were out in force again, and in greater numbers. With no need to go below 5m to see our amphibious friends, we eagerly jumped back in the water. As playful as ever, seals darted through the water around us, chasing our fins and playing games. It quickly became apparent that some seals were not in a playful mood. Bubbles from below disturbed some sunbathing seals on the surface, and other seals were disturbed from a peaceful underwater nap by concerned divers assuming the worst. Startled seals soon became amicable, if a little over friendly, chasing and fin-biting, and in one case swimming through the legs of an unsuspecting Brian, dangerously close to sensitive areas of the body.
No sooner had the dive begun than it was over. Instead of returning to the boat, we took our 70bar and remained on the surface. Seals circled us and continued to play games. One in particular entertained himself by popping his head out of the water, waiting for me to pop my head up, and then popped back under the surface. Another took amusement in swimming close to Madelaine and diving into the water, forcefully propelling water in her direction.
It’s not every day you see a friend get splashed in the face by a seal, and at that point we climbed in the boat for some of Simon’s signature cake. Another successful dive later, we returned to shore and got towed out of the water by the tractor.
Thanks to Madelaine Shine for organising this trip. It was a first time for me diving with seals, and I would do this again in a heartbeat!
All writing, video and picture credits to Phil Fieldhouse