FARNE ISLES - THE AMPHITHEATRE
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As I swam around the sheer underwater wall, I had high hopes. On the surface, the weather presented an overcast picture not unfamiliar for an English August Bank Holiday. But below, the visibility was better than 15 metres and I had my heart set on an encounter with inquisitive seals.

The wall parted, exposing the entrance to the Amphitheatre. Finning slowly against a steady current, I came to a flat, perfectly circular (well, almost) sandy 'stage'. There, resting on the sea-bed, were three or four grey seals. I stopped finning and gradually and gently settled down on the sand and began to imitate them.

Seals remind me of labrador puppies. They slowly crept towards me using their forward flippers as hands, until one came face-to-face with me. The secret is to extend their curiosity by very slowly retreating as they approach. The biggest mistake is to try to approach them - they quickly dart off, only to come back and nibble your fins while you are looking in the opposite direction!

One of the seals started a detailed inspection of my camera and flash guns. At this point I backed away slightly and fired the shutter. If you are lucky the flash only adds to their curiosity, which is what happened here. Seals sense objects by gently biting - in their case, tasting - them. (For a photographer each bite, if you slowly move the flash gun away, is another image on film. Fast recycling flash guns are a must. I once shot a complete roll of 36 exposures in four minutes - one every six and a half seconds!)

Recent research has revealed that the Farne Islands, a rocky, windswept group of 12 islands (some so tiny they barely merit the name) off the Northumberland coastline which are a national nature reserve, hold a strange fascination for grey seals. The Sea Mammal Research Unit at St Andrews University has been tagging and satellite tracking seals from colonies all over the North Sea. The scientists were astounded to discover seals from all over the east coast of the UK regularly head for the area.

'It is as if the area was a magnet for seals,' said Professor Mike Fedak of the unit. As yet, he and his colleagues have no good explanation for the attraction. The seals go past several similar feeding grounds to reach what is known as the Farne Box.

Whatever the reason, it makes this spot one of the best dives in the UK. The seals can be found all around the Longstone, Knifestone and Whirl Rocks. The advantage of the enclosed Amphitheatre is that you can get closer to them than in more open water.

The Amphitheatre is at the south-east tip of the Longstone (the island with the large red and white lighthouse). Approximately 100m before the entrance to the southern bay on the east of the island is a square rock that protrudes about 2m above the rest. Enter the water slightly to the south of the rock and descend to the sea-bed at about 17m. Follow the wall south for 20m and there will be an opening to the right, with a shingle bottom. Swim straight past this until the wall appears again. The depth will slowly increase to between 18 and 22m, depending upon the state of the tide. Continue for about another 20m and the opening to the amphitheatre will appear on the right.

There is no particular right or wrong time to dive here. However, I have found that if there are no seals greeting you at the surface when you arrive, they are usually not to be found underwater. In which case, travel north along the east side of the island until you find them, and then try your luck! Generally the currents are a maximum of one knot close to the wall. But avoid spring tides - if you miss the Amphitheatre and end up past the southern point, local currents exceed 5 knots and will very quickly take you half-way to Denmark! The safest dive is at slack water which is about one and a half hours after high or low water at Seahouses (see Admiralty chart 160). Another word of caution: in the summer an easterly wind can suddenly bring in a sea fog, so make sure you have a good compass and bearing (about 204 degrees true) for your return journey.

 
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