SO YOU WANT SEALS...
Divernet

When was the last time on a UK dive that you saw anything bigger than a moderate-sized pollack Indeed, have you ever seen anything much bigger than a moderate-sized pollack
The chances of doing so are pretty limited in most places, so how about a holiday in the Farne Islands, which will guarantee close encounters with our largest mammal, the grey seal And I mean close - not just some hazy apparition in the green gloom at the extremity of visibility, but eyeball-to-eyeball interaction if you want it!
With a population of around 8000 seals, easy access and the locals all geared up to get divers out among them, those in the know now come from all over Europe to enjoy an experience that will live in the memory for a long, long time.
To see seals under water, dives need to be planned around low water. This is their favoured time for resting, either in the water or, more likely, hauled out onto the rocks and islands.
A quiet approach by boat and a gentle entry to the water will avoid spooking them and sending them off in all directions. Although well used to divers, seals still appear to be intensely curious and many of those on the rocks will come into the water to join in the fun.

FAT TORPEDOES
Under water, some are a little cautious and will hang back but I like to overcome this by taking my time and making no moves towards them. Quite the opposite in fact - by backing off as seals approach, they seem to gain confidence.
Zooming in from all directions like fat torpedoes, they demonstrate a superb, supple manoeuvrability, even executing 180 turns without making the slightest apparent effort. While mesmerised by the display, my sixth sense usually trips in at this stage and when I turn round there will be another seal hanging all of 20cm away, closely scrutinising the back of my neck!
Some will even bite protruding bits such as fins, snorkels and computers, which can be alarming the first time it happens. It is done quite gently, however, and seems to be a seals way of feeling the consistency of unusual objects and checking them out.
Autumn signifies the start of the breeding season and the bulls then get territorial, rounding up harems of cows and seeing off possible rivals in titanic slugging matches. A mature bull seal is a powerful, impressive beast with a neck like the tyre of a small tractor. Weighing something like 300kg, they must be capable of doing serious damage and, although I have never heard of anybody having a problem, at that time of the year, I certainly would avoid getting between one and any cows that are around.
But seals are just the icing on the cake and this is a superb diving area, renowned for all sorts of wildlife, both above- and below-water. There are around 30 different islands, all wild, lonely and rugged, with evocative names such as Wamses, Knivestone and Glororum Shad. The best sites for seals include Knivestone, Longstone, Megstone and Crumstone.
The variety and number of birds wheeling and calling all around simply adds to the atmosphere. Travelling out to the islands is guaranteed to create a tingle of anticipation in even the most Òbeen there, done thatÓ diver. And many visitors come just for the bird life, because this is quite an amazing place.

Map BEWARE DIVE-BOMBERS!
Not only are the seals approachable but, so far as I am aware, this is the only place in Britain where it is possible to stand literally feet from nesting seabirds - terns, puffins, guillemots, shags, eider ducks and kittiwakes - which elsewhere will not let you within half a mile of them.
Take a hat, however - nesting terns will dive-bomb you and peck your head, and they usually draw blood!
The islands strange topography of steps and steep faces extends below the surface, making this one of our most scenic diving areas. It has rightly has been included as part of a Special Area of Conservation that the UK is setting up under the ECs Habitats Directive.
Covering several square miles, the potential is enormous, with enough dive sites to keep the most fanatical diver busy for the next ten years. But, in common with many places that provide dramatic and interesting diving, tidal currents can be wild in many places, and call for careful planning and good boat cover.
Superb current-swept canyons and plunging faces with walls carpeted in soft corals, sponges, anemones and other low-growing, multi-coloured invertebrate life can be found at the more tide-affected locations. Exhilarating drift dives are there for the asking. And if there is an unfavourable wind or swell, there are plenty of worthwhile sheltered sites which are also suitable for novices.

WRECKS AND SCRAPYARDS
The North Sea is not the greatest place for fish but on any dive you are likely to see pollack, coalfish, ballan wrasse, anglerfish, topknots and ling. For those who dive mainly western and southern shores, there are several species you might not have come across before, such as lumpsucker, the rather aggressive-looking wolf-fish and cod. There are also many lesser octopus, a species undergoing a population explosion on the East Coast.
Many wrecks are scattered around the islands, but unless you want to venture into 50m-plus, they are pretty well smashed and picked over. There is still quite a lot left of the Chris Christensen off the south-west tip of Longstone but one that is definitely worth a visit is the Somali, a substantial ship of almost 8000 tons.
As it lies in a depth of almost 30m, it has suffered little from winter storms and, although extensively salvaged, it still looks something like a wreck as opposed to a scrapyard. Situated a few miles south of the Farne Islands off Beadnell Point, there is usually little trouble in locating the site, due to its popularity.
On any favourable tide there will be inflatables as well as charter boats out of Seahouses, all putting divers down.
Diving this area and finding the best spots without prior knowledge is not easy. An almost-bewildering array of potential sites all look much the same from the surface but can vary tremendously below. Tides are quite complicated, with the time of slack water varying throughout the islands. Get it wrong and you can be in a current of anything up to 10 knots and, in seconds, be swept round the corner of an adjacent island, out of sight of your cover boat when you surface.
For a first visit, using a charter boat takes a lot of beating. There are quite a few available, taking up to 12 divers, and you can learn for the future while taking in all the sites you want in safety. It is however, perfectly practical to bring your own boat and there are good shore facilities, particularly at Beadnell.


FACTFILE
GETTING THERE: Seahouses and Beadnell are about 6 miles from the A1.
DIVING DETAILS: For charter boats see Diver classified ads or obtain list from Tourist Information Board (01665 720884 summer, 01289 330733 winter). Book well in advance. For launching your own boat, a short slipway leads to hard sand at Seahouses but this can get crowded, with difficult parking in July/August (Harbourmaster 01665 720033). Beach launch by tractor at Beadnell 2 miles away (01665 721259). Air available from the Lodge (01665 720158), Stan Hall (01665 720615) and Ian Douglas (01665 720059).
ACCOMMODATION: Everything from camping, bunkhouses and many B&Bs to hotels. Tourist Information can provide a list and brochures, or see Diver classified ads.
FOR NON-DIVERS: Great area for a family holiday. Boat trips to islands to see birds and seals. Miles of uncrowded, clean beaches. Holy Island /Lindisfarne via tidal causeway. Several castles nearby. Superb country inland - Northumberland National Park, Chillingham , wild white cattle, excellent walking. Usual pubs, amusements in Seahouses.
HAZARDS: Water temperature cold - around 5°C in April/May, 14°C approx in August, so a drysuit is recommended
DIVING SUITABLE FOR: All levels but some of the best sites are not suitable for novices.
Cost: Boat charter for 12 divers around £200 per day (two dives) mid-week, £260 at weekends. Accommodation around £17 per head per night in a decent B&B. Daily launch plus car parking about £10.
PROS: Very scenic and exciting diving. Huge number of sites. Guaranteed to see seals
CONS: Cold water, limited fish life, tidal variations