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Farne Islands revisited

by Peter Tatton

Reproduced from in focus 59 (February 1997)


I first dived the Fames about ten years ago and, for the next few years, I made them an annual trip before other commitments stopped me. So, when fellow BSoUP member Hilary Driscoll and Potters Bar Branch of the BSAC offered me a place to dive there again last October I welcomed the opportunity to revisit them.

The journey north from Hertfordshire to Seahouses, the launch site for the islands, takes about six hours, including a short meal break.

Good viz

The Fames is all boat diving. There is no good shore diving available. As the site is offshore the viz is generally good. The water temperature is cooler than the south coast so a dry suit is advisable.

Accommodation for our weekend had been arranged in a small hotel on a bed and breakfast basis at local prices by the dive operator, Ian Douglas, As with most diving arrangements, we met in the pub to plan the following day's diving.

The consensus of the group was to dive with seals. As long as the group saw or swam with them that would be fine.

No problem

That request would be no problem because the Fames is the best site to swim with seals.

The skipper, Andrew who is Ian's son, also wanted us to enjoy our diving and experience the best that the Fames could offer in the way of underwater topography and marine life.

Over the weekend, he found us four excellent sites all with slack water for our dives.

The dive boat was Sovereign III, an Aquastar 38ft vessel with twin engines, 210 sq. ft of deck space, a small cabin plus bow storage space which was excellent for safely storing dry camera gear.

On the Saturday morning we dived Blue Caps. This site was selected for its resident seal population. The seals rest on the rocky outcrops that make up this site. Below water a clilT face is present with step-like ledges on which you can sit to wait for the seals to arrive.

On this dive I used my 24-50min lens on a Nikon F801 in a Subal housing without flash. This would allow me to take a variety of shots from wide-angle to head and shoulders shots.

The most productive part of the dive was spent in about 6m of water, sitting on a ledge with my feet outstretched in front of me.

Interesting fins

Seals have always taken an interest in divers' fins so sitting with fins in front allows you to photogrpah them. On many occasions they would rub their chins on my fins, behaving like a pup resting its head on your lap.

My only regret on this dive was leaving my flashgun behind. The seals are much tamer than five years ago, staying close for head and shoulder shots.

We returned to Seahouses for lunch before diving the Pinnacles area, towards the eastern side of Staple Island, in the afternoon.

This is another site with a vertical rock face down to about 20m. Over the years, divers have been encouraged to feed the Ballan wrasse here by breaking open sea urchins. The sea urchin population doesn't seem to suffer too greatly from this activity. However, it is not necessary to do this any more as the wrasse appear the moment you pick up an urchin.

This dive gives you an excellent opportunity to photograph these fish at close range, for which I favour my 60mm lens.

Other subjects

The site is also a good one for photographing cod and, if you are lucky, octopus. The wreck of St Andre lies in this area and offers reasonable photographic opportunities of small pieces of wreckage covered in marine life. I would, however, concentrate on macro work as the sea?bed is covered in brittle stars in an array of colours.

Staple Island is home to many thousands of sea birds from May to July and it is at this time of year that you can watch them swimming underwater in the Pinnacles area. I've watched them swim all around me in open water while others rest on the surface. As yet I've not been able to photograph them

On Sunday morning we dived The Hopper, which is on the east side of Longstone. It is a good morning dive because the sun illuminates the rock face in this area.

There are many gullies, some of which lead into Longstone's central lagoon.

Wide-angle site

The rock face and gullies are covered in places with anemones and dead man's fingers. The site offers good wide-angle shots - the scenery is good and seals are often seen here.

On this dive one of our party tried an experiment with the ballen wrasse. It is well-known that Napoleon wrasse like boiled eggs but do their relatives in British waters favour such delicacies? In one hand a boiled egg was held aloft, in the other a sea urchin. These were then offiered to any passing wrasse. The boiled egg was totally ignored. This is obviously bad news for the sea urchin population as there seems no substitute for them.

Northern Hares was the site for the afternoon dive. 1 have dived this site many times and found it excellent for macro work. We dropped of some distance from the site and followed a reef towards the area. The sea-bed was completely barren with the exception of a few urchins and starfish and a marked contrast to the actual Northern Hares on other sites in the Farnes that I know.

Powerful forces

The rocks were smooth as though they had been polished and, as I swam along the reef, my thoughts were on the forces needed to create such scenery.

The area would be ideal for experimenting with diver shots. The Northern Hares themselves are an excellent site with larger gullies harbouring an array of crustacean life and fish.

The weekend was excellent with the Douglas' ensuring our group had a good time aboard Sovereign III. The tidal flow through the islands is complex so good local knowledge is essential. Combined with a hard boat, this is the best way for underwater photographers to pursue their hobby.

lan Douglas can be contacted at: Southfield House, Main Street, Seahouses (01665 720059).

Diving the Farnes will be the subject of a talk by Peter Tatton and Peter Ladell at the Society's monthly meeting on August 20.

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