LEE HALL, SKIPPER OF FARNE DIVER, knew the ideal site for me - the Hopper, pronounced Oppa by Geordie lads and lassies. A previous trip to the Farnes had seen the site ruled out by a big swell that crashed over the rocks, but this time the sea was calm, and we were sure that seals would be there in numbers.
I rolled in and finned towards the reef. The seabed was out of sight below, as it falls away to 30m-plus very quickly on the seaward side. But soon, through the gloom, I saw my objective - the mouth of a gully some 6m wide and 12-15m deep. The viz wasnt brilliant, but good enough at a gloomy 6m.
Looking up, I could see the sunlight filtering through the water. Then there were shapes all around me. Initially I counted eight grey seals, jostling for position some 4m away.
This was my first confrontation with a gang of seals, and at first it was a bit overwhelming, but they showed no aggression. As I finned closer to fill my viewfinder, they took it in turns to disappear out of it.
Other divers were now on the scene, and the seals had new subjects to entertain them. I decided to head up the gully, which is 30-40m long, and finned over what I thought were large boulders that covered the floor of the gully. Every so often in my peripheral vision I would catch the flash of silver of a seal passing, but none were hanging about now.
At the end of the gully I noted a good ledge where I could hang out in the hope of a closer seal encounter. Minutes passed, and so did the seals, but none stuck around for a portrait.
The viz was being well mucked up by the dozen excited divers and equally excited seals. So I decided to see what was happening outside the gully.
Off I finned, keeping close to the sea floor, over a big boulder on which a female seal rested. Further on was another boulder but this one, I noticed, had whiskers and two eyes that were staring at me. It was a big bull grey seal, and he wasnt planning to move.
I managed to get very close but it was difficult getting a shot of him against the seabed, and I had to content myself with the grey background of the gully wall. I was impressed, however. I had heard tell of extremely close encounters and wondered if these went any closer than nipping fins. It looked as if they might but my next 30 minutes of dive time would show that I had seen nothing yet.
Out of the gully, the viz reverted to its previous state. I followed the impressive vertical walls around to the south, the cliff helping me to stay now above 20m. There was plenty to see, even though the seabed was out of sight - dead mens fingers, sea urchins and brittlestars covered the walls but there were no further seals. Then I found another gully, with a couple of seals inside it.
I decided to enter, and clicked my last frame of film just as the last seal disappeared over a ridge. Running low on air, I decided that enough was enough, and turned to leave the gully.
I looked down to check whether there was any sign of those big boulders and there, less than half a metre away, directly below, a grey seal was eyeballing me. It placed its forward flipper on my arm and my attempt to turn round without flaying my fins about had me all over the shop, but the seal hung around.
I couldnt believe my luck. Both the seal and I were vertical in the water and the seal stuck out its front flipper again. The gesture was so human-like that I shook the flipper with my right hand. The seal then proceeded to place its other flipper on me, and gave me a seal hug.
In my attempt to maintain buoyancy control, it was almost as if the seal and I were waltzing up and down the gully. It was an unforgettable experience.
The seal hugged me again, and chewed gently on my gloved hand. It was simply being inquisitive, but I was a wee bit unsettled by this, my very first close seal experience, and decided to break off the encounter.
My departure was watched all the way by that seals puppy-dog eyes.
Back on Farne Diver, I couldnt wait to tell of my experience. Lee just smiled - he had seen it all before. I asked him about the chewing on my hand and he confirmed that this was just play. The seals generally nip fins and sometimes chew on your hand, but Lee has never heard of anybody being bitten or hurt. Magic.