The Farne Islands.

Updated 13-6-2013

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There are numerous sites - both wreck and scenic.

"St. Andre" - Staple Island.
"Snowdonia" - Wamses.
Staple Island and The Pinnacles.
"Abessinia" - Knivestone.
"Jan Van Ryswick" - Whirl Rocks.
The Blue Caps.
"Chris Christenson" - Longstone.
The Hopper - south-east of Longstone.
Longstone Ends - south-west of Longstone.
Northern Hares - north end of Longstone.
Crumstone and Fang.
Plus un-identified wrecks - Gun Rocks, Crumstone and N. Longstone.

Farnes from south
-- The Islands from the south --

Getting there.

Whether approaching from north or south, Seahouses is well signposted from the A1 and Beadnell is about 4 Km to the south.
RIBs can be launched from either Beadnell or Seahouses.
Being somewhat further from the islands, a launch from Beadnell will require more fuel and travelling time. For 2013, the daily tractor assisted launch/retrieve service operates under (I believe) private control. This now costs £25 but be advised that no private vehicles are allowed on the beach. There are toilet/shower facilities available adjacent to the public council-run car park.
Launching at Seahouses costs £30. Car parking charges apply whether parking on the pier or the council-run park in the town. Also, there's no tractor facility and the toilets are a fair walk uphill from the harbour. The slip is open from 8:30 until 6:00 daily.
Be advised that the Seahouses Harbour Master does not tolerate boats launched from Beadnell putting in to Seahouses!

Numerous charter boats are available from Seahouses (approx. £40 per person per day(2013), the classified advertisements in the likes of Diver magazine list plenty of contacts; see the end of the next section.

General information.

Map of the Farnes

The Outer Farnes offer some of the best diving in Northumberland however planning dives here can be most frustrating; their exposed situation and the vagaries of our weather often mean that plans have to be changed at a moments notice.

None of the wrecks on the Farnes are recognisable as ships. Storms and time have reduced them to piles of debris, the boilers and engine-blocks often being the biggest bits of surviving wreckage. The most substantial remains can usually be found in the lee of south facing reefs.
As a very general rule, the underwater terrain on the northerly sides of the islands tends to be shallower with gradually sloping reefs whereas the south sides tend to be more dramatic walls to deeper water.
On the outer islands, the nutrient-rich, clean waters mean that kelp can thrive down to 12 or so metres to be abruptly replaced with swathes of Alcyonium (Dead Mens Fingers) and sponges making these areas particularly attractive for photographers.

Sea fog can roll in within minutes, reducing surface visibility to less than 30 metres. New visitors would be advised to pre-load "safe" G.P.S. waypoints at say the seaward end of Beadnell Point and/or Seahouses harbour for a return in fog. My co-ordinates for 300 metres south-east of Beadnell Point are: 55 33.158N, 01 36.830W, and approximate co-ordinates for 300 metres north of Seahouses harbour are: 55 35.220N, 01 38.800W (please confirm when leaving harbour).

Being exposed causes greater heat loss before and between dives, protective clothing and hot drinks are recommended if doing more than one dive, even during the summer.

Currents are severe and sometimes seem unpredictable. As the tide turns, confused seas can develop rapidly. Personal flares or delayed SMBs (sausages) are essential, whilst xenon beacons look impressive, they're of no use in daylight!

Whilst many sites on the islands require little diving experience, the ability to kit/de-kit promptly and efficiently is very important. The short slack-water "window" on most sites usually dictates that the first wave of divers enter the water when the tide is still "running". They finish, exit and de-kit at the same time as the second wave kit-up and enter during the slack period. Finally, the second wave finish and exit whilst the current is running in the opposite direction. There's no time to "mess about", each diver should know exactly where every item of kit is. Usually, the bulk of the more experienced divers will go in the first wave as they're often better able to contend with diving through a surface current.

As a general rule, flood currents flow from north to south (or parallel to the coast), ebbs run the opposite way.
Slack water occurs about one hour after the tide turns at Blyth/Tynemouth, so during the summer, simply add two hours to the GMT table times for Blyth/Tyne and that'll give you a close enough time for slack at Seahouses/Farnes in BST. If you're using Seahouses (North Sunderland) tables, the tides are about 40 minutes earlier, so you only need to add about 80 minutes.
Always aim to arrive on site with plenty of time to spare, the theoretical times can sometimes be up to 30 minutes early or late depending on wind direction and conditions elsewhere.

Air fills are available from William Shiel's operation (see links below) and Sovereign Diving at Seahouses (in the industrial estate about a mile inland of the harbour) who offer air to 300 Bar and the only Nitrox within 30 miles, Eyemouth being the next nearest.
I'm unsure if Stan Hall's (at Beadnell) still has a compressor.

Charter boat diving on the Farnes, like that in the rest of the UK differs to that found at resorts in the Carribean and to a lesser extent, the Med and Red Sea; the boats don't provide "Dive Guides", those "experts" you're meant to mindlessly follow around for 30 minutes, for one thing, the vis here precludes this practice.
You hire the boat (or seats on it), the skipper asks the majority where they'd like to dive and if the tides/conditions are favourable he'll take you there, give a short pre-dive briefing and leave it to you to organise yourselves. If conditions aren't suitable he'll suggest alternative sites.
This suits most of the divers who come here, 99% of whom are club divers from the various agencies who are fully capable of planning and conducting their own dives.
After the first dive the skipper will motor somewhere sheltered amongst the islands to have lunch then take you on to a second site - usually after a couple of hours (or more if you want) surface interval.
Some of the many charter boat operators are:

Lee/Stan Hall, ("Hope Of Life", "St Ebba 4" & "Farne Diver"), Tel: 01665 720615
Sovereign Diving, ("Sovereign..."), Tel: 01665 720059
William Shiel, ("Glad Tidings..."), Tel: 01665 721297
Jonathon Dawson, ("Three Sisters" & "Julie D"), Tel: 01665 720865
"Guide Me", Tel: 01665 721797
Farne Island Divers, Tel: 01327 860895

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The sites.

Staple Island from south
-- Staple Island from the southeast --

St. Andre.

Max. depth: 25 mtrs
Minimum grade: Novice
Currents: Negligible

The St. Andre was 70m long, 1100 tonnes and sank in 1908 after hitting the Crumstone and drifting here whilst carrying wrought iron to Grangemouth. Wrasse (which can be hand fed) can be seen on every dive and octopus and huge edible crabs are not uncommon.
If you lose your bearings, just head up the slope (north-west) to shallower water and safety. As for wreckage, like all the wrecks here it's flattened, the majority of wreckage is supported above the seabed by girders - leaving plenty of space for various critters beneath, cod, ling, wolf-fish etc.
From the shallows under the island at 9m, girders ribs and plates lead you down a slope (southeast-ish) to the first boiler standing on its end at the eastern edge of the site in about 21m then, about 10m further on, to the second at about 22m lying on it's side. There's little point venturing further east or southeast as most of the wreckage lies to the west; anchor chain, a hawse pipe and bollards can be found scattered around the plating - which in places is now almost indistinguishable from the seabed and it's here that part of the prop shaft rests which you can follow back to the shallows. This eventually leads you to the remains of the bladeless propeller and rudder post. The rudder itself is detached and lies on the seabed - sometimes partly covered with sand and shale.

Map of Staple area

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Max. depth: 10 mtrs
Minimum grade: Novice
Currents: Negligible

The Snowdonia is so well broken up that it's not uncommon to dive the site and see no trace of it. Just a few metres from the west side of the Brownsman and amongst the heavy kelp that fringes the island, the few remaining bits are so encrusted with concretions that they're almost invisible. A large anchor, chain, un-identifiable metal chunks and quit a few bits of heavy timber are all that can be seen. The only reason for diving here is that it's about the only site that's diveable during a easterly or southerly "blow" at mid-tide.

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Staple Island and The Pinnacles

Max. depth: 25 mtrs
Minimum grade: Confident Novice
Currents: Negligible

Pinnacles from westStaple Island is the first island of the outer group and has the highest cliffs. Those on its west side fall into fairly shallow water which continues across to Gun Rocks.

At the south end of Staple Island stand the "Pinnacles" - rock columns almost as high as the cliffs. With huge boulders scattered around the sloping seabed and conger and wolf-fish hiding amongst them this makes an interesting dive; the shoals of saithe(?) which seem to gather here in late summer are really spectacular. Very often at this site, if you glance up towards the surface you can see puffins or other seabirds "swimming" underwater - possibly attracted by bubbles or reflections from your first-stage's metalwork.
On the southeast corner of the island lies the wreck of the St. Andre (described earlier), often the first wreck-site dived by trainees. Plates, girders, propshaft and boilers together with a large population of wrasse (some of which can be hand fed if you're patient) make a good early season dive. Depths in this area are typically 15 to 24 metres, currents are minimal - provided you stay in the lee of the island.

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Piper Gut.

Max. depth: 18 mtrs
Minimum grade: Sports
Currents: Severe at mid tide. Drift dive.

To the north of Staple is Brownsman, north of this are the Wamses' and east of these is Piper Gut; on the east side of this lies Big Harcar. It was on the northwest corner of this rock that the Forfarshire struck and to which Grace Darling made her epic journey of rescue. A drift dive through the 'Gut is exhilarating, but don't expect to see any trace of the wreck on the featureless seabed.

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Gun Rocks.

Max. depth: 13+ mtrs
Minimum grade: Novice
Currents: Slack water preferred

Cannon at Gun Rocks

This is an old site (circa 1700), so old in fact that there's no wreckage just cannon and a few cannon balls. The area where the cannon are - the south side - is very shallow (4m) and heavily infested with kelp although a few metres to the west it drops rapidly into Staple Sound - more than 20m deep. This channel is scoured with strong currents - do not descend into it!
This can be an interesting dive with the ever present hope that you might discover something of historical importance. As it's usually a second dive - used to "finish off" a bottle it's invariably spoilt by divers being under-weighted, I'm sure you know the formula:- buoyant cylinder + shallow water = bums in the air. Quite a lot of archaeological work was carried out here in the '60's, sword hilts and other assorted bits were found including a small bronze cannon but alas, of the wreck itself nothing remains with the result that nobody can say with any certainty what nationality it was or how it came to be here.

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Max. depth: 25+ mtrs
Minimum grade: Sports Diver
Currents: Avoid spring tides, slack preferred

Anemones, sponges, corals and indeed anything which relies on the plentiful food supply provided by the currents which swirl around here festoon every surface. The only identifiable wreck amongst many is the Abessinia - supposedly the largest vessel wrecked on the islands, she lies down the western slope of the Knivestone reef as deep as 17m, but unlike the St. Andre, her debris - bows close to the reef - appears to be piled up in a jumble and covered with life. Her boilers are the largest intact items to be seen and it's not uncommon to come across seals "dozing" amongst the wreckage.
Following a shallow gully on the seabed from just north of the boilers will bring you to yet more unidentified wreckage. Swimming up into the shallows here brings you to the Abessinia's massive engines and even more debris in about 12m.
This is preferably a slack-water dive if you want to explore the wreck fully although it's possible to take advantage of the shelter provided by the reef and dive the north side of the reef during the later half of the ebb and the early flood if one stays close to it. The south side of the Knivestone can be dived with care during the flooding tide although the area you can cover is more limited than on the north side. At or near high water, the reef provides little shelter from the current and should be avoided, SMBs should be carried by every diver.

Map of Knivestone area

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Jan Van Ryswick and Whirl Rocks.

Max. depth: 30+ mtrs
Minimum grade: Experienced Sports Diver
Currents: Severe, slack water only

About eighty metres to the north-east of Knivestone are Whirl Rocks, aptly named as anyone who's been in the vicinity in anything other than perfect conditions and at slack water will testify. The sea appears to boil as hundreds of tonnes of tidal water finds its path blocked by a line of reefs which cause the depth to change abruptly from 35 to 5 metres. Over the millennia the reef has been cut and split with gullies and canyons - a favourite playground for the grey seals which often accompany the first divers into the water and which are, it seems, attracted by brightly coloured 'suits and fins. Fish near Whirl Rocks
There are bits of wreckage along most of this reef and in one place, about 20m from one of the canyons are what we believe could be the remains of the Jan Van Ryswick. Anchoring over the reef just as the ebb tide is ending and entering into about 6m, the first-timer here can't fail to be impressed when the seabed disappears - to be replaced by a wall dropping to 18m. If you're lucky and the anchor is in the right place and the vis is good, you might see plates and ribs cascading down from the bottom of the reef to where the boilers, engine and prop' lie in about 25m. If you're really, really lucky you'll be able to see the boilers while still close to the reef! And if you're not lucky you'll just have to swim along the wall till you find the right canyon, and if "it's just not you're lucky day" you'll have to make do with exploring the sheer-walled, colourful, life-filled gullies accompanied by seals, wrasse and shoals of saithe and pollack etc, etc. (In case you hadn't realised, I really like this site!).

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Max. depth: 22+ mtrs
Minimum grade: Experienced Sports Diver
Currents: Severe, slack water recommended.

The southeast side of Knivestone, unless dived at slack, can be quite restrictive as it's almost impossible to swim beyond the shelter of the reef - either west to the Abessinia or northeast towards Whirl Rocks with any tide running. However, it's possible to have an enjoyable dive to the north of the reef mid-tide; for a couple of hours either side of low-water the reef provides a sheltered site allowing access to the Abessinia and the numerous gullies on the north side.
So why dive close to the reef here? One popular reason is .... seals!
On almost every visit here divers are repeatedly teased by "gangs" of juveniles who seem to derive as much enjoyment from the encounters as we do. Curious seal I've been told that blowing bubbles is a seal's way of expressing anger, so rebreather users have a distinct advantage over open-circuit divers who, unless they exhale very gently will tend to dicourage all but the most inquisitive. Strangely, some individuals aren't put off by eye contact - something usually guaranteed to end an encounter and should you come across a seal lying on the seabed, one method of approaching which I've used quite successfully, it is to gently drop down to the seabed yourself and edge yourself closer sideways - trying to appear uninterested in the seal as you do it (no guarantees).
The Knivestone has a narrow cleft running through it from northeast to southwest in which seals can almost always be seen, you'll know when you're in the proper gully because at the bottom of it lie large amounts of vintage anchor chain. The water at the northern end of the gully is about 9m deep and if you follow it through the rock you'll ascend to about 3m just before descending again to exit near the Abessinia's wreckage.Seal, chin tickle
If you enter on the north side of the rock - where most charter boats drop their divers, as you drop down over the kelp covered lip of the reef you'll find a propeller in about 12 metres, following the slope down you'll eventually encounter a shallow but distinct gully. If you follow this south-west(ish), you'll come across small bits of wreckage and if you turn right in this area and follow the slope down to about 20 metres you'll find an engine and a couple of boilers from an unidentified wreck. Returning to and continuing to follow the gully will eventually lead up and round to the Abessinia.
If, instead of following the gully southwest, you follow it northeast, it develops more sheer sides until at about 21 metres it opens out at the northeastern most end of the Knivestone. If there's no current apparent you can venture out and keeping the cliff on your left, follow the reef around until you're once again heading southwest. This'll eventually bring you to one of the boilers and debris fields mentioned earlier. Don't be tempted to try and exit this gully if there's any current running; you'll be in the narrow channel between the Knivestone and Whirl Rocks and that's not a nice place to be at anything other than slack water!
On a spring tide, with short slack periods, it's not impossible to enter on the north side, drift round to the south, enjoy the seals during slack then drift back to the north as the tide turns. Not impossible, but not for the faint-hearted as the currents can be quite serious! and SMBs are a must!

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Blue Caps from south
-- The Blue Caps from the south --

Blue Caps.

Max. depth: 25 mtrs
Minimum grade: Confident Novice
Currents: Negligible

East again to the Blue Caps, a series of islets whose exposed tops are dark blue hue (hence the name). This is usually a reasonable site, especially if the sun is shining on a summer afternoon and being sheltered on three sides is often dived when conditions elsewhere are unfavourable. The underwater terrain, especially at the extreme eastern end of the site consists of almost sheer walls and gullies with small overhangs and large crevices where seals sometimes "snooze". Wrasse and octopus are numerous here, and if you frequently look over your shoulder you'll almost certainly catch a glimpse of an inquisitive seal. A few words of caution ... I've sometimes encountered strong southerly currents here on ebb tides (when they should be either non-existent or at best northerly). Don't ask how or why, it's just another peculiarity of the islands.

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Chris Christenson.

Max. depth: 34+ mtrs
Minimum grade: Experienced divers only
Currents: Severe, slack water only

About 200m to the SSW of Knivestone, just off the southern tip of Longstone is the Chris Christenson, a Danish steamer that sank in WW1 though not through enemy action. It used to be an easy site to locate until the lighthouse commissioners decided to remove the radio mast which provided the only decent transit for her location. Now, although every one knows roughly where she is, we always have trouble pin-pointing her - mainly because being so flattened little shows on the echo sounder - unless you manage to get above the boilers which stand about 2.5m above the seabed. She lies at the bottom of the reef - about 10m from it - in about 31-34m but if you're not careful, it's very easy to find yourself at 38m and in the grip of a strong current. As well as the usual boilers (two), plates, propshaft (and prop' in the shallows), bollards and enormous winches she has - or had, it's now broken - an impressive steering wheel (as pictured on the front of the "Dive North east" guide). This lies close to the more southerly boiler near one of the huge winches. There used to be what seemed like a tiled seabed! - probably a section of saloon flooring but I've not re-located it since first seeing it many years ago, it's probably covered with shale now. The real seabed is shale over rock and is often covered with Dead Men's Fingers and anemones - making it a very colourful dive. Her rudder and prop' lie up the slope at around 20 metres, close to the bottom of the vertical part of the reef.
Everyone wants to dive her - not just because of the wheel but because she's the deepest easily accessed wreck on the Farnes and the nearby reef face is ideal for a slow ascent after a long dive. Seal encounters are almost always assured on this reef which makes the deco' time seem to pass more quickly. Like all the good sites, slack water is a must.

Map of Longstone

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Southeast side of Longstone - The Hopper.

Max. depth: 30+ mtrs
Minimum grade: Confident Novice
Currents: Avoid spring flood tide

This area, known as The Hopper, can be dived in most conditions except strong easterlies. The reef drops sheer from the surface to 20 metres then shelves to more than 30 metres but it's not worth going this deep as severe currents are encountered away from the reef. There are narrow canyons leading up and through into the small lagoon behind, seals zoom through these as they inspect you. In one of these there is what appears to be a cannon (but unfortunately it's just pipe) an old anchor and other bits of debris - perhaps there are more interesting things further down the slope?.

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Southwest side of Longstone - Longstone Ends.

Max. depth: 30+ mtrs
Minimum grade: Confident, experienced Novice
Currents: Avoid spring tides

The southern end of this site can be covered at the end of a dive on the Chris Christenson; it may be dived in most conditions except strong westerlies/southerlies. Entry into Crawfords Gut, hard against the southwest side of Longstone into about 12 metres then keeping the reef on your left follow the reef south. As you near the end of the site, the reef is cut with dramatic gullys down to 18 metres. The rudder of the Chris Christenson lies on the slope at about 21 metres and her prop' is above at about 19 metres. A pile of chain and various other bits of debris litter this area.
Severe currents are usually encounterd if you venture much beyond this at anything other than slack-water. Seals are common and in good conditions this is a very photogenic site.

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Northern Hares.

Max. depth: 25+ mtrs
Minimum grade: Confident Novice
Currents: Avoid spring flood tides

At the north end of the Longstone lies the remains of what is probably the Lochleven 'though we can't say for certain. I've dived here safely during the ebb tide when conditions elsewhere have been unfavourable and the wreckage is an added bonus. There's not a lot of it to see except sections of hull, a winch and bollards 'though with good vis' the kelp fronds and abundance of light (it's only in about 6m) make it quite picturesque and good for photography if you're that way inclined. After about 5 minutes, when you've finished exploring the wreckage you can venture further east - down to 20mtr+ amongst some stepped reefs and impressive canyons. This is another good area for close encounters with seals. It was also in this area I came across one of the biggest lobsters I've ever seen; its "crusher" nipper was at least as big as my gloved hand and no, I didn't take it (I wouldn't have had a pot big enough to cook it anyway:-)).

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Max. depth: 25 mtrs on west, 30+ mtrs on east
Minimum grade: Confident Novice (west/south), Sports Diver (east)
Currents: Avoid spring tides, slack required for dives on the exposed reef.

Due south of Longstone is the Crumstone; split into three sections by gullies in the form of a "T". Small pieces of wreckage litter the southern leg. Here you don't need to look for seals, they'll come to you. Sometimes the first you know of them is when they playfully nibble your fins but they're not so appealing when the more amorous ones seem to be trying to get into your drysuit with you! Strong currents sweep this site but it can be dived at slack and with care in the very early and late stages of neap tides.
The submerged reef to the south-east can be quite spectacular - near the island a vertical wall of about 17 mtr gradually changes to a series of steep terraces smothered in colourful dead-men's fingers etc. with the seabed at the extreme end at about 28 metres. An old Admiralty Pattern anchor lies near the seaward end of these terraces.
Attentive boat cover is essential here as the currents at the seaward end of this reef are severe. I'd recommend entering in the lee of the island, submerging and then exploring out to the south-east near the seabed - ensuring sufficient air is retained to return along a shallower part of the reef so as to benefit from the shelter of the island before surfacing.

Map of Crumstone

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Max. depth: 28 mtrs
Minimum grade: Confident Novice
Currents: Severe, avoid spring tides

100 mtr southwest of Crumstone lies this oval shaped submerged reef. It can only be found with an echo sounder, its southern face falling sheer from about 5 mtr to 18 mtr, similarly populated to Whirl Rocks this is a colourful dive along a vertical wall. It can be dived with care in the very early part of an ebb tide although no attempt should be made to circumnavigate the rock as the currents race past the "corners".

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The Britannia.

Max. depth: 30 mtrs
Minimum grade: Confident Novice
Currents: Slack water only

She is well broken and lies about 1400m south of the Blue Caps on the west side of the Callers. This is a long, low lying reef extending some distance to the NW from the Crumstone, much of it is just below the surface even at low water and so must be regarded as a serious hazard to propellers!. One way to locate her is to determine the highest part of the northern end of the Callers (about 200 metres from the Crumstone) - obviously not possible at high water - and motor south about 30 metres, drop in close to the reef and dive at right angles to it.
I've only dived here a few times yet each time I manage to see bits that I've missed before. The wreckage is distributed over a large area in depths of 9 to almost 26 metres - depending on the tide, there is supposedly some wreckage in deeper water but I haven't ventured that far out yet, a small section of superstructure (the bows) and a winch lie in about 23m (at low water) and assorted debris is strewn both northwards and up the slope towards the reef. Even more debris is scattered in the shallows hard up against the reef wall. The following co-ordinates (untried) are, I'm assured, right over the deepest parts of the wreckage: 55 37.687N, 01 36.295W. This is a slack water dive - the currents on the other side of the reef are those responsible for two divers being swept away and (allegedly) floating around until they landed at Boulmer some 13 miles south and 22 hours later.

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The Coryton.

Max. depth: 9 mtrs
Minimum grade: Novice
Currents: Negligible

Whilst not strictly within the Farne Islands, the wreck of the Coryton a half mile off Ross Sands (on the north side of Budle Bay, just south of Holy Island) is sometimes used as a backup site when conditions within the islands are too bad - i.e. during a south-easterly "blow". She lies in approximate position N55 38 360, W001 45 910 and often has lobster pots dropped around her.
In average depths of 8 metres (9.5 in some scours), she at first doesn't sound too appealing, but she provides a pleasant, easy dive.
A light kelp covering hides the remains of superstructure complete with toilets, winches, huge boiler and prop-shaft that are spread over (and under) a sand and shale seabed and I've no doubt new areas of interest are uncovered after each storm; a chunk of what appears to be bow section reputedly lies some metres further south. Being shallow and having lots of nooks and crannies that are home to huge numbers of juvenile fish, prawns, crabs and lobsters with lots of light reflected from the seabed, it's ideal for photographers, and her shallowness makes her all the more appealing after a deep deco' dive on the Islands.

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