Divernet

DRIVING SOUTH OVER THE BORDER INTO ENGLAND, childhood memories flooded back into my mind. After years of enjoyable holidaying down in Northumberland, there had been quite an interval since I had last visited the area.
Lindisfarne Castle stood proud on its Holy Island, linked to the mainland by a tidal causeway. Images of crab sandwiches and Lindisfarne mead floated into my brain.
Further down the coast and off the main drag of the A1, the majestic red sandstone ramparts of Bamburgh Castle soared into view. In the distance I could see my destination, lying between one and four miles offshore - the Farne Islands.
The starting point for todays adventure would be Seahouses Harbour. I had last dived from here 14 years ago with skipper Stan Hall, but today I would be out with his eldest son Lee, who has been ferrying divers for the past seven years.
His dayboat Farne Diver headed into the swell. I joined members of a club from Mansfield who had been chartering Lees boat for the past four years. They were a hoot.
Our first choice of dive site was ruled out by the unfavourable conditions, but with so many small islets and an experienced skipper, a safer option was soon found, on the pinnacles off Staple Island. Kitted up and champing at the bit, I was quickly over the side and descending through 24m of bright green water.
A man-made structure was the first thing I noted, a boiler from the wreck of the St Andre. She had been travelling north with a cargo of iron ore destined for Grangemouth when she ran into the Crumstone in 1908. Eleven hundred tonnes of steel drifted while she sank, eventually taking the plunge to the bottom in her present position, at the easternmost end of the cliffs of Staple Island.
I swam south-east, taking in her flattened hull. A large cod darted out from the shelter of the wreck, only to dart back in smartly as it spied me. I would find out later why fish are so very wary in this part of the world.

neon-blue fintips
I eventually arrived at the flattened bow and retraced my route to the boiler. A ballan wrasse accompanied me on my inspection of its home. Finning inshore in a westerly direction, the second boiler came into view. Here the boulder slope leading to the cliffs of Staple Island took on a more pronounced upward angle.
Wreckage was dispersed over the whole area. At a depth of around 16m the cliff turned vertical. On a clear, sunny day it could be a stunning site but today the kelp was swaying and the surface layers were filled with bubbles.
After our tour of the wreck the dive took on a scenic theme. More ballan wrasse were noted, a vividly coloured male with neon-blue fintips dancing with a smaller female dressed in her usual reds and brown. They were sufficiently occupied to be unaware of my presence - a bit risky, considering some of the larger residents nearby.
As we finned further west, the wall improved all the time, with more anemones appearing and pink and orange sponges encrusting the walls. Cowries and painted top shells abounded.

twist in loops
I was impressed by the quantity and variety of small life, but larger creatures were hidden away as well, as I soon found when I shone my light into a narrow crack to be greeted by the familiar pink and white mottled appearance of a resting octopus. Its tentacles began to twist in loops, but unfortunately it wasnt planning to come out to play. Semi-spherical white objects littered the seabed here. It took me a while but eventually I realised that these were remnants of the eggs of the seabirds that lined the tall cliffs above the waterline.
It was a reminder that things were not always as tranquil above water as I was experiencing below.
I decided to fin on and was rewarded by spotting a large deepwater anemone, pure white in colour. Just as my film ran out, the ballan wrasse started coming very close - same old story. I had pictures of ballan wrasse but was soon kicking myself for forgetting to keep back some frames for the spectacle that usually entertains divers on deco stops here.
I had been warned of what to expect, but it was not until the first silver shadow flew past me that I remembered that this was the playground for razorbills and guillemots, I was soon surrounded, with some coming in for a very close look indeed.

buzzed by seals
Hot coffee in hand back aboard Farne Diver, we discussed the dive and found that we had all shared a similarly enjoyable experience.
Half-time was not a period of rest for the energetic, however, because the chance to snorkel with part of a large group of resident grey seals soon presented itself. A hundred or so seals were lying in various states of unconsciousness on Little Hurker.
We entered the water some way off and were soon surrounded by inquisitive animals flitting around on the edge of the 4m viz. Hugh from the Mansfield club was doing his best sea-lion impersonation and surprisingly seemed to have the closest encounter, with some of the younger animals.
That said, I did have my fin gently pulled when a group of four seals buzzed me all at once. It was a wonderful experience and I was surprised that only four of us took the opportunity to meet these fantastic animals close up.
After all this excitement and another cup of coffee, we waited until white water appeared along a reef inshore of the Knivestone, the Farnes most offshore island.

majestic reef
This large reef is uncovered only at low tide and has claimed many ships as victims. Our dive would be on one of these, the Abyssinia, at 5753 tonnes reckoned to be the largest ship wrecked on the Farne Islands.
This German steamship, just over 137m long and built in 1900 by Palmers & Co at Newcastle, ended her career by ripping her hull open on the Knivestone on 3 September, 1921.
The wreckage lies strewn over the western side of the majestic reef but in fact forms only part of its attraction. This site was one of the most scenic I had ever visited.
We waited for the tide to slacken and for enough of the reef to show above the water to give us some protection from the tide that charges around here. The current can make diving difficult but also acts as a conveyor-belt, supplying all those filter-feeding creatures with food.
Talk in Farne Divers wheelhouse fell back to the equivalent dive the previous year, and how the huge prop had been seen in 10m of water. Its a large reef, and finding the prop was by no means a certainty, but Lee was confident.
As soon as my head was under water I could see the density of soft corals adorning the walls and knew I was on for a great dive. I hovered above the kelp line, making minor adjustments to my camera system. A large grey seal stared at me from 5m away before melting into the kelp. Descending in a westerly direction, I noted a circular hole and then four large coraline-encrusted prop blades. Lee had been spot on.
On one of these pink blades I noted a butterfish swaying in the tide, impersonating a piece of seaweed, and got close enough to capture its behaviour on film. I had noted such behaviour before but this time something looked wrong. The butterfish was vertical in the water.
It was not until the autofocus hit the mark that I noted the jaws of the scorpionfish trapping the poor butterfish. A macro photographer could spend a whole dive taking in the life on this prop alone.

menacing pursuit
Descending the reef again, I came across the engine block and crankshaft. A ballan wrasse had made its home in this wreckage and soon emerged to keep an eye on me. He was friendly and came very close, filling my viewfinder nicely before shooting off at high speed.
I had never seen a wrasse move so fast in my life, and looked up over the camera just in time to see a torpedo-like seal glide past in menacing pursuit. I now knew why the cod on the St Andre had disappeared so quickly.
Further down the reef, in 24m of water, the two boilers rose a good 4m off the sea floor. Other fittings were strewn around, and on my ascent I passed over large cogs and winches. Back at 15m on the west side of the reef, a gully opened up and I followed it a short way, noting a vivid red sunstar crawling over some wreckage.
My air was by now running a bit low, so I headed back along the reef in an easterly direction, quickly passing over the prop again. East of this I entered a gully which grew increasingly impressive as I followed it. Soon I found myself back down in 20m, in a narrow gully only around 3m wide, with walls rising over 10m above me on both sides.
The covering of life was total. Beautiful white and orange dead mens fingers covered every space. A large red dahlia anemone was raised off the coarse-sand seabed and, as I composed the shot, another grey seal glided past along the narrow passageway. This area could make a dive in its own right, as it is spectacular enough, but I was nearing my reserve and the ascent could no longer be put off.

join in praise
More coffee, and excited chatter once again filled the wheelhouse of the Farne Diver as we headed back into Seahouses. I had enjoyed my days diving and, as the Mansfield crowd packed away their dive gear, it sounded as if they had done so as well.
The Farne Islands is a special diving destination. Wreck divers and scenic divers join in praising the area, completing dives together and possibly enjoying them for quite different reasons. I will never leave it so long to visit the Farnes again.

The
The Farne Lighthouse
Ballan
Ballan wrasse on the wreck of the St Andre ore-carrier
A
A big brass nut seen on the wreck
Diver
Diver on the cliffs of Staple Island
a
a velvet-backed swimming crab eating a ragworm
One
One of the Farne Diving Services boats
A
A scorpionfish consumes an unfortunate butterfish

FACTFILE

GETTING THERE The Farne Islands lie on the Northumbrian coast some 50 miles south of Edinburgh and 50 miles north of Newcastle. Its a two-hour drive along the A1 from either city.
DIVING:Farne Diving Services of Beadnell has three charter boats, Farne Diver, Hope Of Life and St Ebba 4 (01665 720615, www.farnedivingservices.co.uk).
ACCOMMODATION: Seahouses, Bamburgh and Beadnell all provide B&B accommodation and there many caravan parks within a short distance. Farne Diving Services can provide bunkhouse or B&B accommodation.
NON-DIVING ACTIVITIES: Bamburgh and Lindisfarne castles, Holy Island, Berwick upon Tweed, beaches at Bamburgh and Seahouses, boat trips to the Farnes. Seahouses has amusement arcades, an aquarium and museums. Bamburgh has Grace Darlings Museum.
COSTS: Boat hire around£20. The FDS bunkhouse costs£70 a night for 12, B&B£20, dormitory (for six)£90, camping£8.
FURTHER INFORMATION: Northumbria Tourist Board, 0191 3753049, www.ntb.org.uk.




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