Wildlife watching on the Farne Islands, Northumberland Coast
Updated: Jan 11
As we launch our Greentraveller's Guide to the Northumberland Coast Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, Jo Keeling boards a boat to the Farne Islands and gets up close to some of the islands' inhabitants, including puffins, guillemots and seals.
“Hold on to your hats folks, the sea’s looking a little bit lively,” the skipper calls back to us as we set out of the harbour at Seahouses towards the Farne Islands. I turn to see several rows of grinning faces – none of which have turned green yet. After riding a few rather feisty swells, the waves settle and we start to be overtaken by skeins of seabirds skimming over the waves: first gannets, then cormorants and terns, as if every living thing is being drawn towards the archipelago by some invisible force. As we near the first island, Inner Farne, the call of ‘puffins!’ causes passengers to rush to the boat edges, as these hardy little birds skitter away from our wake like clockwork toys.
The Shiel family has been running boat trips around the Farne Islands since 1918, when the odd ornithologist would ask for a lift out on the lobster boats. Today, Billy Shiel Junior (otherwise known as just William) leads a fleet of seven passenger boats and a high speed RIB on a choice of 11 trips – a slightly more sophisticated set up than when his grandfather started rowing out tour groups in his open Northumbrian coble.
We edge closer to the cliff face, sheer columns of pitch black dolerite bleached by decades of guano. The seabirds seem to be arranged in layers: cormorants drying their wings on the lower steps, nesting kittiwakes in the middle and the last of this year’s guillemots.
This cluster of islands has been attracting ornithologists for decades – and looking at the scores of seabirds arranged in front of us, it’s not hard to see why. Between May and July, the archipelago becomes a frantic seabird colony – and a puffin fanciers’ dream. 37,000 pairs of these colourful and hardy auks breed here each year, along with 22 other species of seabird. Among them you might spot eider ducks, kittiwakes, guillemots, razorbills, fulmars and Arctic terns, which regularly dive-bomb visitors during their nesting season (bring a hat).
If you time your visit well, you’re in with a chance of witnessing some of Britain’s most incredible wildlife spectacles: 1,000 grey seal pups resting on the rocks; gannets exploding into the sea to fish; humpback whales breaching; basking sharks circling the shallows and jumplings (guillemot chicks) taking a leap of faith as they leave their nests. On 11 November 2007, 28,800 little auks streamed past the Islands. It’s still an unbeaten British record and I can’t begin to imagine what that must have been like to see.
As the boat motors towards Staple Sound, I can feel the gaze of many eyes upon us and look out to see seals nodding sagely from the water, or turning their heads from their position on the rocks as if we’d rudely woken them from a nap. Up to 3,000-4,000 grey seals live here, making it the largest colony in England.
We explore the water around Staple Island and Longstone Island, as the crew spin tales about Grace Darling, the 22-year-old lighthouse keeper’s daughter who risked her life by rowing out to reach the wrecked SS Forfarshire in raging seas on 7 September 1838. A paddlesteamer called the Forfarshire had foundered on rocks and broken in half. After Grace spotted the wreck in the night, her father decided it was too rough for the lifeboat to put out from Seahouses so they replied to the call in their open coble, saving nine surviving members of the 62 crew and passengers. Grace returned a celebrity and was showered with honours. There’s an RNLI museum about her life in Bamburgh. I can’t imagine trying to row in today’s slightly chopping conditions, let alone in a full-blown gale.
Nowadays, the lighthouse is powered by solar panels and the only people to live on the Farne Islands are National Trust assistant rangers, who sleep in the old pele tower and the lighthouse cottage. As the guardian of these islands for the past 90 years, the Trust has many tales to tell. One of my favourites happened on one December morning in the late 80s, when the seal team delayed their return to the mainland in order to indulge in a huge breakfast and a game of cricket using their remaining potatoes. However, before long, a huge storm blew up and it was another two days before they could be picked up – meaning they had to scour the island for their cricket ball potatoes in order to eat, before they could return home for the winter! On that note, we turn and start to head back to dry land – a camera filled with photos of puffins and thoughts of fish and chips on our minds.
Written by Jo Keeling
Jo Keeling travelled with Billy Shiel's Farne Islands Tours, who organise boat trips around the Farne Islands throughout the year on a high speed RIB. There's a choice of 11 tours, from the Inner Farn tour to dolphin and porpoise watching on the Pelagic Criuse tour.
Diana Jarvis travelled with Serenity Boat Tours who run trips around the Inner Farne Islands, Staple Island and all-day birding trips, as well as sunset cruises and wildlife photography workshops.
The RNLI Grace Darling Museum in Bamburgh is a fascinating museum commemorating the life of the 19th-century lighthouse keeper's daugher who risked her own life to row out to a wrecked ship in raging seas.
>> For more ideas on places to stay, eat, and things to see and do on the Northumberland Coast, see: Greentraveller's Guide to the Northumberland Coast