From whichever direction you approach the extreme north-east coast of England, you are guaranteed superb views of the Farne Islands. Standing out into the North Sea, barren, wild and rugged, it is a sight that will give a tremendous buzz of anticipation to anybody who loves exciting diving.
The Farnes consist of almost 30 small islands and rock outcrops in two main groups separated by Staple Sound. They are comprised primarily of a rock called whinstone, which is very prone to vertical weathering and faulting. This has produced a strange topography of steps and sheer faces above water that gives just a hint of the delights below.
The islands are an internationally important breeding ground for huge numbers of grey seals, puffins, terns, guillemots and eider ducks, and are managed by the National Trust. Attracted by the seals, killer whales are seen every year.
There are many wrecks in the area, although the more accessible are fairly well broken up. The best is reputed to be the 7000 ton Somali, which sits upright in 30m of water just to the south off Beadnell. Much of the 450ft hull is intact and makes an impressive slack-water dive. Tidal streams are fierce around the islands and the high-water movement has carved stunning underwater scenery with deep, sheer-walled gullies and faces at many locations. They also bring a rich supply of nutrients to the delight of all filter feeders and these walls are so smothered in low-growing, colourful, encrusting life, that it is often impossible to discern any rock at all.
The area is influenced by a southerly drift of Arctic water and it can be a bone-chilling 6C in May. Fish life generally is a bit sparse in the North Sea, but there are several relatively unusual species that favour this cooler water - you may come across lumpsucker, Norwegian topknot, yarrells blenny and the spectacular wolf-fish.
Another speciality is the huge, deep-water anemone, bolocera. Up to 30cm across, it is usually found below 20m and can be easily recognised by its fleshy pink or white tentacles which, unlike most other anemones, it cannot retract.

What the Farnes may lack in sheer numbers of fish is made up for by one of the most exciting encounters you are likely to have in UK waters. The grey seal is very much the star of the show here and, with a resident population of many thousands, you are bound to see them underwater (especially at Knivestone and Seal Gut on Longstone).
Juveniles are very curious and will approach repeatedly, but do not be alarmed if they take a gentle nibble at your fins.
A mature bull, at twice the weight of a red deer, is by far our largest resident mammal and a most impressive animal by any standard. Your first meeting with such a beast, with the added benefit of water magnification, will ensure a distinct tightening of your sphincter!
There is an excellent harbour at Seahouses, but most commercial boats are now engaged during the summer in running trips for naturalists, divers and holidaymakers.
Divers There are several hardboats that take up to 12 people and specialise in diving, but due to the popularity of the area prior booking is essential. Car parking is available on the harbour wall itself, with immediate access to these boats, thus minimising the humping of heavy gear.
The farthest island is only 5 miles from Seahouses and easily accessible with your own boat. A word of caution, however. Due to the tides, the best locations usually demand slack water. Take local advice on sites and timing. Despite many well-publicised difficulties between divers and locals in the past, relationships are currently excellent. On a recent visit, I found the harbour authorities both welcoming and helpful.
There is a slipway allocated to pleasure craft, open from 8.30am to 6.30pm, at a cost of 7 per day. A small extra charge applies if there are more than two occupants. Boats can be left in the harbour overnight. The slipway is quite short but leads on to hard, sand so a reasonable vehicle is needed. This area can get quite congested and there is very limited parking space at weekends.
Many boat-users prefer to base themselves at Beadnell (a couple of miles to the south) where, to take the pressure off Seahouses, the local council operates a launch facility with car park, toilets and showers. This adds only a little extra to the journey out to the islands and has proved extremely popular.
Launching Launching is provided by tractor across a superb beach and the cost per day of parking, launch and recovery is roughly similar to Seahouses. Again, this gets busy - on a not-so-good Sunday recently I counted 38 trailers.
The hourly trips to the islands, where you can stand a metre away from birds on their nests and see puffins at close quarters returning with beaks full of sand eels, are fascinating. Close-up views of seals in the water are guaranteed.
But are the Farnes worth a long trip The answer is a resounding yes. They provide lee shores when other sites on the east coast are undiveable, and visibility of 20m occurs every year, with 12m being common.
Seahouses is easily accessible, located less than 6 miles from the Al, making this an eminently practical option for a weekend trip from as far away as Ipswich or Inverness.
The Farne Islands are without doubt one of the UKs prime diving locations, and the number of divers who already visit them every suitable weekend from all over the country is sufficient recommendation in itself. Make the effort and get yourself there.
 

FACTFILE

GETTING THERE: Easy access from A1.
ACCOMMODATION: Ample bed and breakfasts in Seahouses.
DIVING: Air and accommodation available through Selby Brown, 01665 720158; Stan Hall, 01665 720615; Ian Douglas 01665 720059 (nitrox too). Air and nitrox also from Eyemouth Diving Centre 01890 751202.Charter boats: Chris Hall, 01665 720938; Ian Douglas, 01665 720059; Jon Dawson, 01665 720865; Stan Hall, 01665 720615.
LAUNCHING:Excellent harbour at Seahouses with short slipway leading to hard sand; beach launch by tractor at Beadnell. Hardboats available at Seahouses - advanced booking essential. Beadnell launch/car park, 01665 721259.
WHO WILL ENJOY THE DIVING: Dives available to suit all levels from trainee to advanced. But the best locations are exposed to strong tides and are for experienced divers only.
FOR NON-DIVERS: Excellent clean, uncrowded beaches north of Seahouses and at Beadnell. Seahouses also offers pubs, cafes and amusements, plus boat trips to see the seals and birds.
FURTHER DETAILS: Tourist Information Centre, 01665 720884.
PROS: Exciting, spectacular diving, with seals guaranteed, shore dives possible at Beadnell, great place for non-divers.
CONS: Extremely busy on good weekends and bank holidays, strong tidal streams.