Scuba diving with seals in the Farne Islands is one of the best places in the UK to see them
Some of my best and most memorable diving has been at the Farne Islands. As a nature lover and more of a naturalist-type scuba diver I love wildlife, so Farne Islands diving with seals is a real treat for me.
The Farne Islands are in the North Sea just north of Newcastle so it’s cold. Farne Islands diving with seals is worth braving the cold waters of the North Sea. The best time to dive the Farne Islands is late September to early October when adolescent seals want to play. Water temperatures are 12-15°C (54-59°F) and the seals are inquisitive about and playful with scuba divers.
Farne Islands offers some of the best scuba diving in the UK (if you can brave the cold).
Where are the Farne Islands
The Farnes Islands are a group of islands just off the coast of Northumberland. To get to the Farne Islands you need to board a boat from Seahouses habour.
Seahouses is about 50 miles and an hours drive from Newcastle Upon Tyne, on the East coast of the UK, which is where Farne Islands dive boats charter run daily scuba diving trips.
There are 28 islands in total. The number of visible islands depends on the state of the tide. The Islands are between 1 1/2 to 4 3/4 miles off the mainland. The islands include an inner group of islands and the outer group.
Diving with seals in the Farne Islands
Personally for me diving the Farne Islands (also known as The Farnes) is about diving with the seals. You can dive wrecks a number of great drift diving too, but it’s the seals for me every time.
When I scuba dived with Saffron Walden BSAC dive club I would arrange a dive trip to The Farnes every year. Some years it was so popular that I had to arrange for two separate dive boats. One year we took our club rib to dive along side the local hard boat operated by Sovereign Diving. This meant that part of the group dived from the rib whilst others dived from Sovereign Diving’s charter boat.
The organisation of two separate dive boats did become a bit of a nightmare. The difficulty came in pairing people into dive buddy pairs. I had to keep an eye on first-time open water divers, beginner divers, couples, instructors etc.
But this showed the popularity of the dive site, as we’d have around 24 scuba divers from the one dive club going on this trip.
The interest lies in the colony of over 8,000 grey seals (8,032 were estimated in 2017), with a few common seals (Harbour Seals) too. Each year they have around 1,500-2,000 seal pups, with 2,295 borne in 2017.
The Farne Islands, along with Donna Nook in Lincolnshire, are the main breeding populations in the UK for grey seals.
When is the best time to scuba dive the Farne Islands?
The best time to dive the Farne Islands with seals is late September to early October. The adolescent seals are around and the water temperature is between 12-15°C (54-59°F). At this time they are very inquisitive and will engage with scuba divers.
Some of my best diving in the Farne Islands has been in September and October. The best part about this time of year is the number of adolescent seals.
The great thing about the adolescent’s is they want to play and they’re extremely inquisitive.
By this time they’ve left the safety of their parents. They are weaned within 18 days of being borne, but then spend a further 20 days in the seal colony before heading out for an independent life in the sea. So the parents are not protective over their young, which makes it safe to dive with them.
If you are lucky, you’ll get chance to get close up and personal to the seals. Sometimes, as you’ll see in the video below, you can even touch them.
At this time of year you won’t get to see the Puffins though, as they’ve long gone and migrated to the Atlantic Ocean to spend the winter months there.
Many of those divers interested in diving with seals are also keen on diving in the Galapagos Islands too. If you are interested about diving the Galapagos Islands, please take a read of this page about Galapagos diving from a liveaboard. Included in this article is a very handy table of the best time to go, together with a handy liveaboard comparison chart.
Warmer water temperatures in the Farnes
The other great thing about diving in late September, early October is the temperature of the water in the Farne Islands.
At this time of year you are looking at around 14°C (57°F) in September and 12°C (54°F) in October. However, it has been known for the water temperature to reach around 14-15°C (57-59°F) in October too.
See below for a calendar of average water temperatures in the Farne Islands
With water temperatures at close to 60 Fahrenheit some even opt for a wetsuit rather than a dry suit. However, I’d still recommend a semi-drysuit with at least 5mm thickness. Plus with a double layer around the torso to keep your core warm.
More Reading: What is the difference between a wetsuit and a dry suit?
Having said that, the downside of a wetsuit or a semi-drysuit is keeping warm between dives. At this time of year, and in particular October (subject to an Indian Summer), the air temperature may be cold.
You may be contending with rain and winds, which includes a wind-chill factor. Cold and wind are less of a problem for drysuit diving, as you don’t get wet. If you haven’t yet dived in a drysuit, you may like to read this article about what drysuit diving is like.
The Farne Islands are situated in the North Sea and it can get quite cold. So please bear all this in mind when choosing the type of insulation or thermal protection. I have personally dived in the Farne Islands in both a semi-drysuit and a drysuit.
My recommendation is to go for the drysuit every time.
Tips for scuba diving with the seals
As I’ve dived with seals many times and experienced some amazing times, I want to share what I’ve learnt from diving with them.
Always look behind you as seals will hide where you can’t see them
You may be merrily scubbering along wondering where all the seals are, when all the time they are right behind you.
Seals are funny creatures. They seem to think that if they are behind you where you can’t see them they are safe. Or at least that’s what it looks like.
Whenever I did my diver briefings (plus during my buddy check) I would always explain this to the divers to regularly check behind themselves. This was especially the case for Farne Island newbies who hadn’t scuba dived at the Farne Islands before. You may even feel a tug on your fins as they are very playful.
Often times I’ve been swimming along on a dive and turned to see several seals nipping at my fins. Or they seem to like to nip at the hoses around the top of your dive tank.
Many of the seals will swim away when you look around. But if you’re lucky they’ll stay with you.
Look in the gullies for seals sleeping
On the seabed around the Farnes Islands there are gullies where the seals like to hide away. They tend to sleep on the bottom in these gullies.
Story of an experience with a close encounter with a seal in the Farne Islands
One time, and I wished I had a Gopro at the time or a camera, I had a buddy with me and it was her very first open water scuba dive.
We were at between 10-15 metres (33-50 feet) and I noticed a seal asleep. She was gentle rolling in the swell side to side.
I turned to my trainee buddy, and pointed to the seal. We slowly approached her. She opened her eyes as we were only a few feet away, but she seemed okay with our presence.
We got to within touching distance and we lay there in front of this beautiful creature. She stared back at us with her lovely big eyes.
I gently reached out with my left hand and held it up to her. What happened next amazed me.
A wild seal nibbled my hand like a pet dog!
She opened her mouth and started to gentle nibble my hand (I had no gloves on). At one point all my fingers were in her mouth. This was a wild animal gently nibbling me like a playful dog. She didn’t hurt me and was so gentle. What an amazing experience.
When she finished nibbling my hand, she then allowed us both to stroke her gently too. She just lay there willing to be friendly and felt totally un-threatened by our presence. She seemed to enjoy the interaction, as we spent several minutes in her company.
We returned to the dive boat with huge smiles across our faces. This was my dive buddy’s very first open water dive. What an amazing thing to experience for a first dive. I told her that this didn’t happen everyday and that she was extremely lucky to have witnessed what we both just saw.
So the moral of the story is to always look along the gullies for the sleeping seals. However, I’m not sure I would recommend you put your bare hand in the mouth like I did. You never know what the next seal might do.
Take things slowly and gently when scuba diving with seals
Seals are quite timid creatures, but some are bolder than others. As seen in the above story some are even happy to be stroked. You will also see in the video below how some are more than happy to be touched, rubbed and stroked by scuba divers.
The key to getting close to these beautiful creatures is to take everything slowly.
Let the seals come to you when they are ready
Apart from if you find them lying around sleeping on the seabed, as described above, let the seals come to you.
The biggest mistake most scuba dives make is to approach them.
Set your buoyancy and float on your back and slowly retreat
One of the best tips I can give is to set your buoyancy correctly and then float on your back. At the same time if you slowly fin and retreat backwards in the water, this seems to peek their curiosity.
The two pictures of a seal with my blue fin were both taken in this position.
For some reason this position in the water appears less threatening to them and if they are around they will come closer.
Dive near to the Farne Islands where most of the seals congregate
This may seem like an obvious tip, but many people go to the Farne Islands to dive on the wrecks. If you don’t dive near to the islands themselves, you rarely see the seals.
For the best opportunity to interact with seals is to go Farne Islands diving in September/October
I recommend you go Farne Islands diving in late September to early October time, as this is a good time to see the seals.
At this time of year there are many adolescent seals looking to play and be inquisitive around scuba divers.
As these baby seals have grown up and left the protection of their parents, the parents are no longer overly protective towards them.
Farne Islands diving water temperature
The sea around the Farne Islands is the North Sea and for most of the year the waters are pretty cold. But if you visit at the best time to see the seals, which is late September to early October, the water temperature can reach 14-15°C (57-59°F). However, on average is more likely to be between 12-14°C (54-57°F).
For me this is still drysuit diving conditions. However, many dive this in thicker wetsuits and for many years and before I purchased a drysuit, I dived the Farne Islands in my semi-drysuit.
Farne Islands water and air temperature calendar
A rough idea of water and air temperatures in the Farne Islands are as follows:
- January – Water Temperature 7°C (45°F)/Air temperature 6°C (43°F).
- February – Water Temperature 6°C (43°F)/Air temperature 6°C (43°F).
- March – Water Temperature 6°C (43°F)/Air temperature 8°C (46°F).
- April – Water Temperature 7°C (45°F)/Air temperature 10°C (50°F).
- May – Water Temperature 9°C (48°F)/Air temperature 12°C (54°F).
- June – Water Temperature 12°C (54°F)/Air temperature 16°C (61°F).
- July – Water Temperature 14°C (57°F)/Air temperature 18°C (64°F).
- August – Water Temperature 15°C (59°F)/Air temperature 18°C (64°F).
- September – Water Temperature 14°C (57°F)/Air temperature 16°C (61°F).
- October – Water Temperature 12°C (54°F)/Air temperature 13°C (55°F).
- November – Water Temperature 10°C (50°F)/Air temperature 10°C (50°F).
- December – Water Temperature 8°C (46°F)/Air temperature 7°C (45°F).
Farne Islands water visibility
The water visibility in the Farne Islands tends to fluctuate between 5-15 metres (16-50 feet), but has been known to be as good as 25 metres (82 feet) on occasion.
Most times when I’ve dived the Farnes the comparable water visibility for UK waters has been pretty good.
If you are going to the Farne Islands for the seal diving experience, unless the visibility is extremely bad, this shouldn’t affect your chances of seeing the seals.
The seals come very close to scuba divers. This is true particularly later in the year with the adolescent seals.
This means that you can get an ‘up close and personal view of the seals,’ even in the lower visibility waters.
Even though the Farne Islands are situated in the North Sea, which in most parts around the south east coast of the UK are brown and dirty, this is not true of the waters around the Farnes.
Instead of the brown waters that you see in places off the east cost of Essex and the like, the north part of the North Sea is very much clearer that that.
Farne Islands other sea creatures and sea-life
In addition to the seals there are plenty of other sea creatures to see. These include anemones, starfish and plenty of sponges.
You maybe also lucky to spot an octopus, together with crabs and lobsters in the area. There also plenty of pipefish too, which the puffins seem to like eating. Pipefish are sea-horse like creatures, which can be found hiding in the kelp and seaweed.
Also, for those whale lovers amongst you very occasionally Killer Whales (Orcas) can be seen in the area. They are rare sightings and Andy Douglas of Sovereign Diving has seen them on a few occasions. You never know you may be lucky.
However, if you read this article on Killer Whales in Northumberland, this does confuse the issue.
But there’s no disputing the dolphin sightings around the Farne Islands. Dolphins are known to frequent the area, as can be seen in this video on the Chronical news pages.
For those scuba diver-ornithologists – you may get to see puffins
The Farne Islands are also home for a part of the year to around 37,000 pairs of puffins.
The Farne Islands is the largest breeding colony of Puffins in the UK. But their numbers are on the decline, which is shown by the fact that in 2003 there were 55,674 breeding pairs.
To spot Puffins at the Farne Islands your best time to visit is during their peak breeding season. This is between May and June. However, if you’re combining this with Farne Island diving too, the North Sea waters will be much colder and around 9°C (48°F). Definitely drysuit diving conditions.
At this time there are no adolescent seals in the water, and for me the seal diving is never as good as it is in October time.
Farne Islands accommodation for Farnes seal diving
For accommodation for Farne Islands diving I recommend you book into one of the many bed and breakfasts in Seahouses.
I recommend The Olde School House for accommodation there, which is where I have stayed. This is also owned by Andy Douglas and provides a great full English breakfast. This sets you up for a good day’s diving in the Farne Islands.
Farne Islands diving charters
There are a few dive boat charter companies, but I’ve always used Sovereign Diving and dived with Andy Douglas.
Andy knows his stuff and is a great dive boat skipper. He has always accommodated me with my dive trips and helped me to organise all my club trips there. The boat itself is a very stable boat with a diver lift at the back. The diving is very civilised, as the diver lift raises you completely out of the water fully kitted up.
There are other diving charters you can use in the Farne Islands, but I’ve not dived with them.
Here’s a video from Sovereign Divers website, which shows how friendly these seals can be:
You’ll see from this footage how friendly and interactive the seals are. This doesn’t always happen like this, but you may be lucky to get some very close up encounters like the divers in this video.
Farne Islands diving wrecks
As you would expect around islands there are many wrecks. This also includes the Farne Islands.
However, most of the wrecks are very old and most of the wrecks have rotted away. Most seem to have been the old wooden ships.
In the above image is of the Britannia ship wreck. This was taken by Richard Booth a member of Tyneside 114 British Sub Aqua Club. They have shared some great pictures. There are more on their website here: Tyneside 114 BSAC club.
There are also ship wrecks that can be found in deeper waters off from the Farne Islands. The most famous of these is the Somali.
The Somali was a 6810 tonne passenger-cargo steamer. She was bound for Hong Kong when she was bombed in the Second World War. She sank on 27 March 1941 and now lies in 29 meters of water just of Beadnell.
Below is a video of this wreck if you want to see what it looks like before you visit.
Snorkelling with seals Farne Islands
Snorkelling with Farne Island seals is almost as much fun as scuba diving, as the adolescent seals will also play with snorkelers too. Sovereign Diving also offer snorkelling trips from Seahouses Harbour. If you want to book on a snorkelling trip, Fifth Point Diving offer trips with Sovereign Diving.
You will need a warm exposure suit to keep warm when snorkelling in the North Sea. A thick wetsuit or a semi-drysuit is necessary, but better still would be a drysuit.
I hope you enjoyed this article about scuba diving with seals Farne Islands
I’d love to hear from you. Tell us about your adventures of diving and snorkeling, in the comments below. Please also share your photos. Either from your underwater cameras or videos from your waterproof Gopro’s!
If this article hasn’t answered all of your questions. If you have more questions either about snorkeling or scuba diving (or specifically about scuba diving with seals Farne Islands), please comment below with your questions.
There will also be many more articles about scuba diving (and snorkeling) for you to read and learn about these fabulous sports.
Have fun and be safe!