Farne Islands seals
Underwater photography is hard enough at the best of times. Add in trying to picture wild animals and you will set yourself quite a challenge. Picture the scene, you have tried for years to get a nice picture of a grey seal and you have done reasonably well but you haven’t nailed that perfect shot yet.
Poor vis and bad weather have thwarted your attempts as well as the seals themselves sometimes being hard to find, or not coming close enough to play. In days gone by running out of film was a classic excuse, but now in the digital age, you can shoot images all day. This fairly well sums up my attempts until October last year, when I visited the Farne Islands, which is the best place in the UK to play with grey seals. I met up with my friend and skipper Lee Hall, of Farne Diving Services, and had my first shot in his new boat Farne Diver 2, which is great and has loads of deck space.
The sea was calm and the sun was rising in the sky promising a beautiful autumn day. Conditions at that time of year could not have been better. The dive boat took around 30 minutes to make her way out to East Crumstone, where I hoped for some close encounters with furry friends. Entering the water visibility was an excellent eight metres. A beautiful wall covered in dead man's fingers dropped down into 20m of water. There was a nice amphitheatre here and two seals were lazily gliding about occasionally giving me a close inspection. Soon I came to a very impressive gully which is often full of seals.
Today though there was only one and it was dozing on the seafloor, allowing me to approach very closely. When it opened its eyes and saw me lying three metres away I was happy to see that it was fairly relaxed and wasn’t concerned about my close proximity. I moved both of my strobes into position and composed a shot through the viewfinder. Pressing the shutter, a flash of light and I checked the viewing screen on my camera. One side of the seal was exposed perfectly, the other was heavily in shadow. Initially I thought the setting on one of my strobes was incorrect, but it soon dawned on me that something was wrong with the strobe and it wasn’t firing at all. I made do with the single remaining strobe, but I left the water disappointed with my results - it was another failed attempt.
Looking on the bright side though, the next dive of the day was the Hopper, which is one of my favourite Farne Island dive sites and its gullies are generally always full of inquisitive grey seals. Investigating my faulty strobe, it still refused to work and on being returned to the manufacturers it was pronounced dead, which was a bit of a blow. Anyway, after a fortifying cup of Lee’s coffee, I took a giant stride off of the back of the boat and was soon in a gully full of furry friends at the Hopper. Visibility was even better at around ten metres. I soon found a resting bull lying on the seafloor and I moved in to take a shot. It looked good through the viewfinder and I triggered the shutter - click, no flash. Initially I thought I must have forgotten to turn the remaining unit back on, but no, it was on and all the settings were correct.
I later found out that on inspecting the strobe between the dives, I had transferred some silicone grease onto the battery contacts of the working strobe. This worked perfectly on the test shot on the boat due to the capacitors holding the remaining charge. The grease, however, broke the circuit and the strobe waited until I was underwater to pack up. I learnt from this mistake and always now take two test shots before entering the water. Absolutely no expletives were uttered at all through my regulator as gentle manipulation of the strobe failed to produce the desired flash of light! Ten minutes into the second dive of the day at 18m, no wait, 15m, 18, 15, 18 - what’s going on? One of my dive computers also decided to pick that moment to pack up. Thankfully, I had a back up as I headed into the next fantastic gully at the Hopper.
With no strobes I was going to have to drastically change my photography technique if I was going to get that great shot. Four seals played in this gully and looking straight up, the dark walls of the gully were topped by fronds of kelp. Between the walls the green water was bright in the sunlight. Seals passing along the gully were silhouetted and I gained some pleasing images, but at 18m this was always going to be hard work. I decided I had to get shallow and take advantage of the good vis and the sunlight. I finned right up the gully and onto the shallow reef behind. Lee had warned me to be very careful if I ended up on this reef as it’s too shallow for the boat to get in to pick divers up, but I was sure I could work my way back down the gully.
Soon I was surrounded by around a dozen seals all frolicking in the tidal water. Movement caused by the tide hitting the shallow reef and the surge moving up the gully made conditions fairly difficult. Even though it was a calm day it was very hard work to hang on and I must admit I grabbed a frond of kelp to gain some stability. Soon I was being washed back to and fro in a three-metre arc but with the help of the kelp I was able to hang in there. My main problem now was to get the correct camera settings to capture a shot of the seals that were queuing up to see me. I needed a fast shutter speed. You always do for seals as they move very quickly; add to that I was moving fairly quickly too swaying on my kelp anchor. Thankfully, with the bright sunlight, I was able to manage this in the shallow water, which was now only around 4m deep.
Looking at my results on my camera’s small viewing screen, they looked very good. With no flash there was no backscatter to worry about. Another point was that while taking pictures of seals with strobes can produce very good results, the seals themselves don’t like the flashes and they don’t stick around for long. By using ambient light the seals stayed very close. It’s definitely the way to photograph them, but this technique will only work in shallow, well-lit water. It worked so well that the seals all followed me on my fin back to the boat. All the divers were ecstatic about their dives with the seals.
Two strobes down and a faulty dive computer aside, I was very happy with the day’s diving too. On getting home, to have a proper look at my images on my PC. I found I had captured some really nice shots, but they lacked the ‘wow’ factor. The pictures I attempted in the gully were a case of what could have been, had I had working strobes. It wasn’t until I reached the images that I captured at the shallow reef that I realised I had managed to take my most pleasing grey seal picture to date. I learned valuable lessons and perhaps my strobes failing was a blessing in disguise, as I was forced out of my comfort zone and had to think and try something different. It’s certainly worthwhile knowing these techniques, should you ever have to use them. Re. my failing dive computer, it was purely a case of the battery being on its last legs. So with only one piece of kit ending up in the bin, my day was even better!
Sport Diver verdict
The Farne Islands is undoutedly one of the best places to dive with grey seals in the UK.