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Joan Edwards

Joan Edwards is the Head of Living Seas at The Royal Society of Wildlife Trusts.

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Witnessing the wonders beneath the waves: guest blog by Chris Rose

Posted: Wednesday 28th October 2015 by LivingSeas

Chris Rose with lion's mane jellyfish image credit Nic Faulks

Chris, an established wildlife artist based in the Scottish Borders, spent this summer diving after winning the Undersea Art Award. He shares his awesome first-hand experience of witnessing the wonders beneath the waves...

We were visited by some very inquisitive seals that seemed keen to play with these strange, ungainly, bubble-blowing alien creatures that had entered their world

Perhaps it’s because we are an island nation that we are drawn to the sea.  At the first sign of the sun we flock to the seaside to play, paddle or swim in the ocean, or to simply gaze out at that vast expanse of water and enjoy the serenity of an uncluttered, far-distant horizon.  But how many of us ever stop to consider what lies beneath that apparently un-sullied surface; what lives are being lived, what plants and animals eke out their delicately balanced existence, and what damage to a fragile ecosystem goes on unseen in our name?

The Wildlife Trusts’ Living Seas vision is at the vanguard of the battle to protect our marine environment and, through the medium of art, the Undersea Art Award aims to raise awareness of the value of our seas to the quality of human life.  Art and conservation have worked together very successfully in the past and with this award The Wildlife Trusts hope to bring to a wider audience the unseen beauty and wealth of species that can be seen under the waves, and to highlight the need for conservation action.

I was, therefore, thrilled to be given the Society of Wildlife Artists and The Wildlife Trusts’ Undersea Art Award this year.  I have always loved snorkelling since first trying it at the age of ten. As a child enthralled by watching the underwater exploits of Jacques Cousteau on television, learning to scuba dive had been an almost life-long but hitherto unrealised ambition.  This award has not only allowed me to fulfil that diving ambition but has provided me with the opportunity to explore the artistic possibilities of the underwater environment.  I am fascinated by water as a subject to paint and most of my recent paintings have featured water in some form, but only ever from above the surface.

Now I had the chance to tackle the subject from an entirely different perspective.

I trained in April, taking my first training ‘Open Water’ dives in a cold, Scottish sea loch where the underwater visibility was about two metres and visibility above the surface not much better!  However, things were to improve and my first dives as a qualified diver were at the Marine Reserve at St Abb’s head on the southeast coast of Scotland.  Visibility was good and I was amazed at the variety of underwater life; soft corals called ‘Dead men’s fingers’ carpeted the rocks, sea urchins and anemones were abundant and pollack swam lazily by, keeping a wary distance.  Large polyps the size of a fist sprouted from the rocks while crabs and lobsters timidly extended claws and antennae from dark crevices.  I was also able to test out my underwater drawing kit, with rather mixed success, but at least I was able to make some sort of marks on the plastic paper with a graphite stick.  

We were treated to a ‘swim-past’ of guillemots hunting for fish 

During our 6-metre decompression safety stop we were treated to a ‘swim-past’ of guillemots hunting for fish to feed their hungry chicks – another reminder that there are warm-bloodied animals other than us that rely on a healthy sea for their survival.  In the air their rapid, stiffly-beating wings just about hold them aloft, but underwater those same wings are transformed into sleek, highly efficient paddles that sweep the birds through the water with great speed and agility.  Air trapped in their feathers was forced out by powerful swimming strokes and streamed from wingtips in a vortex of bubbles.

After my dives I would paint an acrylic field sketch from memory, which would provide the main reference material for the studio paintings I would do later.

In July I was joined on a dive at the Farne Islands by Matt Baker and the BBC Countryfile crew.  We dived to a kelp bed and were rewarded by some stunning lion’s mane jellyfish and my dive buddy discovered a beautiful white and yellow nudibranch; a sea-slug only a centimetre long.  How she found it amongst all that seaweed I’ll never know!

Perhaps most excitingly of all was a dive in the recommended Marine Conservation Zone (rMCZ) at St Mary’s Island near Newcastle.  This area has offshore reefs with a rich diversity of marine life. During the dive we were visited by some very inquisitive seals that seemed keen to play with these strange, ungainly, bubble-blowing alien creatures that had entered their world. My buddy found a blue-rayed limpet, a tiny mollusc the size of a fingernail, with a semi-transparent shell shot through with electric-blue stripes.  Perhaps more unusually, however, was a live cowrie – this small mollusc extends a mantle of living tissue over its shell depositing an outer, enamel coating, which gives cowrie shells their glossy appearance.

I have been fortunate to have dived in areas still rich in marine life, but many other areas around our coast are very far from pristine.  Even in parts of this rMCZ the sea bed has been denuded of life by dredging; recreational and commercial fishing has left discarded fishing line and net that kills marine life by entanglement; and the sea bed is littered with the toxic detritus of our careless society.

Chris' spectacular works will be exhibited at the Society of Wildlife Artists’ Natural Eye show at The Mall Galleries in London from Thursday 29 October to Sunday 8 November 2015.  Read about his sub-marine adventures here, then discover more about Chris Rose and the Undersea Art Award.

By diving this area and painting some of what I have seen I hope to encourage an appreciation of our local marine environment and to foster a genuine concern about its continued degradation.  We cannot continue to treat our sea as an unlimited food basket, a playground and a rubbish dump – it is a fragile, delicately balanced ecosystem that we all rely on.  With the appropriate level of protection our coastal seas can recover but only if we act now.  It will be of benefit to us all.

Learning to dive has introduced me to a new environment that is exciting both for the beauty of its underwater landscapes and for the strange variety of its wildlife.  Artistically it has presented new challenges and possibilities, and a completely new palette of colours!  I am looking forward to continuing my exploration of the underwater world and of the artistic potential it holds.

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