Are those weather worn rocks lining the shore, or members of the Farne Islands’ 5,000-strong grey seal colony? In answer, as we draw closer a dappled face rises to assess whether the boat that we’re travelling on poses a threat.
We’re given a brief, dismissive look then the creature closes its big black eyes and lays its head back down onto a pillow of seaweed. It’s a sunny day here in North East England and the seals remind me of bathers taking advantage of the fine conditions. But, if I was going to have a lie down I’d go for one of the sandy beaches over on Northumberland’s mainland, a couple of miles away, rather than this rugged shore, but can understand why seals and seabirds favour the seclusion.
Back in the Middle Ages, hermits and monks also withdrew here, to focus on spiritual matters. On Inner Farne, the largest of these Islands, a tiny belfry juts from St Cuthbert’s Chapel: a compact place of worship with arched windows. The stone-built chapel is named after the former prior of Lindisfarne who died here in 687 and is buried in Durham Cathedral. It stands next to a stone tower that once provided monks with protection from potential raiders and now shelters the rangers who monitor wildlife. Looking towards the mainland, beyond the historic buildings, we catch an impressive view of Bamburgh Castle.
But it’s the prospect of seeing wildlife, rather than legacies of Northumberland’s medieval heritage, that tempted me to take this boat tour. The decision to do so was spontaneous, stimulated by sunshine and the calmness of the sea. A chalkboard sign by the ticket booth, over in the fishing village of Seahouses, states that 39,962 pairs of puffins were recorded on the Farne Islands during the last census, and, with more than 49,000 guillemots counted here in 2016, sightings are a sure thing. The captain points out a group of cormorants and a kittywake on the starboard side; simultaneously the breeze carries a whiff of pungent seabird droppings, prompting a chorus of gasps from those of us out on deck.
A well-timed distraction appears in the shape of Longstone Lighthouse, where, our captain tells us, Grace Darling, the daughter of its keeper became a Victorian heroine after rowing a boat to help rescue survivors from the Forfarshire, a paddle steamer that sank in 1838. Numerous wrecks litter the seabed around the islands, making them popular with scuba divers, despite the cold, murky water of the North Sea. A head breaks the water directly to our right. Another follows. Seals surfacing, fishless, from a hunt. They wriggle on their bellies up out of the water, onto the shores of Staple Island.
The captain manoeuvres the boat around so we can better observe the colony, whose adult members are impressively camouflaged. We hear how their pups are born with white fur each October. I make a mental note to return for this fluffy spectacle, but for now I train my eyes and try to spot these Farne rock stars.