Thursday, 3 September 2009

Flipping fun in Farne

There was an episode once of Vicar of Dibley where Dawn French tried to perform a ballet routine with Darcy Bussell only to realise how hopeless her best efforts were. It comes to mind whilst reflecting on a great weekend of diving in the Farne Islands brought to us again by London School of Diving in Chiswick. Diving with the Grey Seals of Farne brought home to me my aquatic limitations whilst being captivated by the poise, elegance and power of these majestic mammals who are engagingly interactive underwater.

Trying to swim with them or copy their effortless style just invites derision and leads to dizzying exhaustion. Instead, a better method is to simply sit yourself down on a comfy rock at about 10-15 metres and wave your fins about a little. In quick time you'll immediately become a play-thing for the amusement of these curious locals who'll dart back and forth like excited puppies, sniffing, nibbling and generally checking you out. Eventually, some of the more confident individuals may permit you to show them your best moves . . . the sound you'll hear is of seals laughing.

The Farne Islands are on the Northumberland coast, just south of the Holy Isle of Lindisfarne. Up here these silky little divers are the star attraction (unless you're into Puffins!). Four thousand of them populate this rugged cluster of 15 islands (28 at low tide) and large numbers can be found sunning themselves on the rocks whilst awaiting the next delivery of nutty neoprene playmates.

We stayed at the spacious Bamburgh Castle Inn which takes pride of place in the little port of Seahouses, a town and harbour built for the sole purpose of capturing thousands of tonnes of Herring in a once bountiful era, but now re-purposed to successfully cater for the divers and tourists looking to explore the wildlife of the sea-swept rocky pinnacles just offshore. The nature of these rocks, tides and currents have accounted for hundreds of wrecks over the years.

For the diver these craggy isles offer stunning sheer cliff-faces descending vertically below the waterline for 20 or 30 metres to the boulder beds. Bright white and yellow corals, mostly Dead Man's Fingers, are flourishing here and illuminate the ravines and mazes. Lobster, octopus and crab take cover in the high kelp jungles, although sadly the kelps appear to be suffering from a surprisingly numerous sea urchin population. We managed four dives over the weekend and our furry companions accompanied us on each one. The visibility was superb throughout.

The most striking feature of the Grey Seal has to be their mesmerizing deep black eyes which give them a slightly sad looking demeanor and constant look of nervous curiosity. Finning around the boulders we'd often happen upon a less playful seal having a quiet ten minutes in a makeshift nest of beaten down kelp fronds. An almost imperceptible shimmy and flick of the tail would see it speed away into the distance, leaving us eating plankton.

Between dives we ate fish & chips, monopolized the penny push machines at the amusement arcades, played on the kiddie rides and finished off with ice cream and candy floss. Sadly, no deck chairs to complete the picture but the magnificent beaches in this part of the world match anything you'd see on the French riviera. Golden smooth sands in sheltered bays from where we launched and landed our screamingly fast RIB, the Farne Discovery skippered by Capt. Paul and his able first-mate Ben. The short trip out to the islands each day was an enjoyably white-knuckle, windswept, roller-coaster ride which quickly taught us the value of full encapsulation in dry suit and mask before leaving the beach.

Flippin' great weekend.

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