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Boating around the Farne Islands

Back in June, I took myself on a little adventure north up to Seahouses, to sail around the Farne Islands. My work at sea has instilled in me a desire to broaden my knowledge of seabirds and the Farne Islands is a fantastic, natural location to view these up close and personal (at a very, very safe distance of course!).

Image: Longstone Lighthouse, Longstone Rock, Farne Islands. Northumberland, 2022.

If I’m honest, my main goal was to see puffins. I’ve longed to see them properly and during the summer they have their gorgeous, colourful bills and bright orange feet, so the timing was perfect. I would have been happy to see other species like guillemots, razorbills, kittiwakes and shags, but I was reeeeally excited to see the puffins.

I hopped onto the small boat and we set off out of Seahouses, the Farne Islands visible in the distance. It was quite a choppy ride over to the islands, the waves were small but there was a slight swell (probably a sea state 3), and some of the passengers were already gripping the sides with slightly panicked faces. I consider myself a fairly well seasoned seafarer now so I didn’t feel anything, I just let the waves rock me from side to side, camera and mammoth, telephoto lens in hand. Sometimes you can see dolphins in this area, usually bottlenose, but unfortunately, I didn’t spot any on this occasion.

Before we even approached one of the islands, we could see, hear and smell the buzz of seabirds. Guillemots and razorbills were launching themselves into the water from the cliffs, squawking and splashing around. Terns and gulls were flapping chaotically overhead. The place was alive with birds zooming around in every direction. We neared one of the islands and saw before us a colony of common guillemots, our ‘penguins’ of the northern hemisphere, standing tall, jam-packed against one another. Of course, they are not actually penguins but somewhat resemble them in an endearing, distant cousin kind of way. Common guillemots (Uria aalge) are brown in colour with white underbellies and are part of the auk family. In amongst the guillemots were razorbills (Alca torda) too, which have black heads, black and white bodies and a thin white line protruding from their beaks. Some of my favourite facts about guillemots include the following:

  • Eggs are pyriform (pear-shaped) and have a tapered end to stop them rolling off sea cliffs

  • Chicks are called jumplings because when they are young they can’t fly, so in order to reach the water they just simply have to perform the leap of faith into the water

Image: Common guillemots atop one of the islands. Farne Islands, Northumberland, 2022.

Image: Our penguins of the north - common guillemots. Farne Islands, Northumberland, 2022.

Image: A mixture of guillemots, razorbills, kittiwakes and gulls. Farne Islands, Northumberland, 2022.

After observing thousands (and thousands) of guillemots, we ventured further around the Farne Islands, always on the lookout for more wildlife. It wasn’t long before we spotted a seal pup scooting away from the water’s surface, retreating to higher ground. It was lovely to see a young pup and I had hopes of seeing more seals before the trip finished. I certainly was not disappointed! There were several grey seals patrolling the shallow waters of the rocky shoreline, bobbing their heads up and down. Some of them even dived and splashed around, putting on a little show. The boat kept a very safe, responsible distance and cut the engine to reduce disturbance to the animals. The Farne Islands are a popular breeding ground for grey seals, with an estimated 2000 pups born every autumn.

Images: Seal pup (left), adult grey seal (right). Farne Islands, Northumberland, 2022.

But the star of the show was this guy! As we turned the corner, we spotted a grey seal hauled out on some moss-covered rocks, resting and basking in the sun. Again, we cut the engine and admired the seal from a safe distance. As we were just about to leave, the seal seemed to give us a nonchalant nod as if to say, ‘what are you looking at?!’ and flung its head back. It made everyone on the boat chuckle!

Image: Cool as a cucumber. Hauled out grey seal resting on some mossy rocks. Farne Islands, Northumberland, 2022.

Image: Grey seal thrusting its head backwards as if to say goodbye. Farne Islands, Northumberland, 2022.

We started weaving slowly through the inner areas of the Farne Islands on our route back to Seahouses. I was patiently waiting, camera and mammoth lens still in hand, for my first precious glimpse of Atlantic puffins (Fratercula arctica). There are thought to be over 43,000 breeding pairs that return to the Farne Islands each year – so I was bound to see one, right…? Believe it or not, they are quite skittish and love to fly off when boats approach, so when we did finally get our first look at them, they were careering away from us in the opposite direction. It was fascinating to see them try and take off, legs flailing atop the water’s surface, as if to try and grip the water. I managed to capture a few action shots of a small puffinry (or colony) of puffins taking off near the boat.

Images: Puffin action shots as they took to the skies. Farne Islands, Northumberland, 2022.

I was really happy I’d managed to take a few photos of the puffins, and rather impressed that they were moderately in focus, as the boat had been rocking from side to side for the trip’s entirety. But the best was yet to come. We were just about head back to land and the boat began to turn around, when the skipper said there were puffins on our right. Luckily, I was stood on the right-hand side and I had a perfect view of some puffins that were bobbing on the water’s surface, (surprisingly) unphased by the presence of the boat. I quickly aimed my telephoto lens at one puffin in particular which was resting on a wavelet, beak glowing red in the sunlight. After admiring this individual for a while, I finally put my camera down as we started to move off again towards the direction of land. At this moment, I managed to capture the real ‘money shot’ (wink, wink). The puffin I’d been watching took to the sky and flew past me, wings beating frantically in a flurry. I spammed my shutter button, praying for a decent photograph, then watched as it flew away into the distance. I was absolutely buzzing about my first puffin encounters and couldn’t wait to look at the photos when I got home.

Image: Beak aglow - puffin resting on the surface. Farne Islands, Northumberland, 2022.

Image: My personal 'money shot' - puffin mid-flight. Farne Islands, Northumberland, 2022.

I was really fortunate in my timing when I visited the Farne Islands in June. Shortly after my visit, the National Trust was forced to close this beautiful area due to an increase in the breakout of avian flu. Bird flu first originated in China in 1997 and has been detected outside the country since 2003. The disease is easily spread through bodily fluids, faeces and food sources and has an incredibly high infection rate. It has had and continues to have devastating impacts on wild bird species across the UK, as well as the rest of the world. It is estimated that over 97 million birds have been affected this year alone, 3.8 million of which were in the UK. Many of these seabirds have low reproduction rates and only produce a single egg per year, so a decrease in the number of adult birds will drastically affect future breeding populations to come. There is also growing concern that migratory species, such as the Arctic tern, will carry and spread the disease to pristine, polar environments. For now, the true extent of the situation is unknown, but it is devastating to say the least. Please do not handle any sick birds as avian flu can be passed onto humans.

I had a fabulous time boating around the Farne Islands in the hopes of finally seeing my beloved puffins. Hopefully next year I will be able to visit again and see the nature reserve in all her glory!


Defra -

House of Lords Library

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