Amazing Wildlife Encounters: Farne-tastic Diving

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Nick and Caroline Robertson-Brown from Frogfish Photography take a group of divers and underwater photographers to the Farne Islands to dive with some very special British marine life…

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Sunrise in the Farne Islands as we head out to dive

The Farne Islands is a remote cluster of rocks and islets found just off the north-east coast of England, 40 miles south of Scotland. The closest town is Seahouses, and it is from this harbour (or Beadnell Bay) that you can set out on the short ride to this amazing outcrop of Northumberland. There are some 20 islands (although some of these are only visible at low tide) and they are made up of an outer and inner group of islands. They are internationally famous for their wildlife with huge numbers of birds, including puffins, selecting this as their breeding grounds during the summer months. Going ashore on most of these islands is not allowed, in an effort to protect the wildlife living there. Tourists flock to the region and take boat rides to see and photograph the wildlife, and they nearly all come to see the most charismatic of the species residing here – puffins and the seals.

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An Atlantic Grey Seal curves towards the camera at the surface of sea in the Farne Islands

We aim to dive the Farne Islands at least twice every year; once in peak summer season to try to get the best weather, and then also at the end of October to try to be there for the seal pupping season, when over 1000 seals are born each year, and you can get incredible, close-up and intimate underwater encounters with these amazing wild animals. We always take the trip with Paul Walker from Farne Island Divers, who is a great skipper, and has truly expert knowledge of these islands. He has a huge RIB that not only can get us to the dive sites before the slower hard boats arrive, but that can also be manoeuvred much closer in, to where the seals are resting and, of course, to get us to the very best sites. The ability to get right up to the rocks also means that we get to enjoy plenty of the bird life and can spend our surface intervals watching the puffins and other seabirds whilst warming up with a mug of hot soup.

The diving here, however, is not only about the seals, but also offers great marine scenery with gullies lined with hundreds of anemones, juvenile fish and crustaceans hiding amongst the kelp forests and wrecks to explore. Whilst this superb UK diving is not to be overlooked, most importantly to us, it offers our divers and budding photographers the chance to get in, photograph and interact with the local seals. To really enhance the possibility of seeing the seals up close, you need to stay in the relatively shallow water, and so this experience is a great way to get people enthusing about UK diving.

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Looking out for seals amongst the kelp

One of our favourite sites is Little Harcar, diving along a small, shallow wall, to a maximum depth of about 10m. Your initial encounter may well be with a larger seal buzzing you, flashing past far too quickly to even raise your camera to try to get off a shot. Gullies in the rock face are a good place to explore, and you will often see the seals playing overhead. Keep going and you will enter a small bay area, and this is where all the serious action happens. It seems to be a place where the seals like to relax in one of the many cracks in the rock, which may have a sleeping seal wedged in for a bit of shut-eye. The young ones are most likely to be awake and up for a bit of fun, and they will follow you for a while, occasionally grabbing your fin, until they pluck up the courage to come around and have a good look at you. This is the sort of UK dive site that can have you staying in the water for well over an hour, regardless of the cool water off the rugged yet beautiful north east coastline. As an underwater photographer, it is, sometimes, hard to know which way to point the camera, when you have 3 or more eager seals vying for your attention.

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When the vis is good there is no better place to dive

Our experienced skipper, Paul, always waits until we’re out and on the islands to select the best dive site. Bobbing in the water, close to shore to assess the currents, tides and also whether the seals look like they are in the right frame of mind and are up for a spot of playing about with divers. Just because there are large numbers of seals lying about on the island doesn’t mean they are in the mood for swimming with humans. Most of the islands will have a group of seals, hauled up on the shore for a spot of R & R, often after they have been out on a hunting expedition; but when approached by a boat, many will dive into the water and then pop up their heads to look at you inquisitively. When you have lots of seals in the water, all looking at the boat, as if to ask when you might be getting in, you sort of get the feeling that it is going to be a good dive.

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Colourful corals and anemones cover the shallow reef walls

On our most recent trip, the weather looked like it might ruin our final day of diving, with large waves beating up onto shore, but Paul found us an amazing and very sheltered spot, and as he manoeuvred the boat into position, what look like at least 100 seal heads popped up out of the water, pleading with those puppy dog eyes for you to come and play. Our skipper still seemed a little dubious about the dive; “It’s only 4-5m deep here and you will have to stay away from that channel only 15 m away, which has a 5 knot current ripping through it. Are you sure you want to dive here?”  Came the question from our skipper. The response was inevitable. “Too right,” came the reply as all 10 of us started scrambling into our dive gear. It was one of the best days diving we have ever had in the Farne Islands. The sun was shining and we were in shallow water, with playful seals and beautiful scenery. As underwater photographers, particularly, there is not a better dive anywhere in the UK, and possibly further afield too when it is like this!

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Two photographers get in close for a shot of this young seaBack on land, there is plenty to do in the area, with the imposing profile of Bamburgh castle visible on the horizon just along the coast, and you can also visit Lindisfarne when the tides are right for making the crossing along the causeway. After a day of excitement, diving in playing with his endearing creatures, most chose to sit and select from a great line-up of real ales served at The Ship Inn overlooking the harbour and the sea wall.

To find out more about Farne Island Divers, visit www.farneislanddivers.co.uk.

To find out more about Frogfish Photography and the courses and trips they offer, visit www.frogfishphotography.com.

Nick and Caroline Robertson-Brown

Nick and Caroline Robertson-Brown

Nick and Caroline Robertson-Brown are a husband and wife team of underwater photographers. Both have degrees in environmental biology from Manchester University, with Caroline also having a masters in animal behaviour. Nick is a fellow of the Royal Photographic Society in underwater wildlife photography and he also has a masters in teaching. They are passionate about marine conservation and hope that their images can inspire people to look after the world's seas and oceans. Their Manchester-based company, Frogfish Photography, offers a wide range of services and advice. They offer tuition with their own tailor made course - the Complete Underwater Photography Award. The modules of the course have been written to complement the corresponding chapters in Nick's own book: Underwater Photography Art and Techniques. They also offer equipment sales and underwater photography trips in the UK and abroad. For more information visit www.frogfishphotography.com.

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