Diving with purpose

Snakelocks anemone ©Dominic Cooper

Volunteer dive surveys for marine conservation

To me the excitement of diving is the unknown. In the UK the water is rarely clear enough to see beyond four or five meters, so as you descend into the green blue below you really don’t know what you are going to find. The dives are all well planned, you have used the charts and so you know roughly what type of seabed is there, you also know the depth and you have a good idea of what the currents will be doing, but there is always a sense of excitement and anticipation as the seabed forms begin to appear beneath you.

It’s a privilege to be able to visit this other world and I have found that this experience changes you. When I started to dive I became more and more aware of the pressing need to protect marine life after witnessing both its great beauty and fragile vulnerability.  I wanted to do something to support the marine conservation efforts being made by the Wildlife Trusts and other NGOs and this is when I discovered Seasearch.

Diver on an underwater survey

Diver on underwater survey ©Dominic Flint

It appears that one of the biggest barriers to getting people and the government to appreciate and value our marine wildlife is that almost all of it is out of sight. Getting information on what is down there is only possible if you dive, employ commercial divers or use very expensive video systems. This makes good information costly, and this is where volunteers come in. Through the Seasearch project recreational divers give their time and expertise for free to record the undersea habitats around the UK’s coast. They take photographs and record the sands and gravels, the rock types and forms, the seaweeds and animals attached to the rocks, the crabs and other creatures that crawl over the seabed and the fish that swim above, round and through them. I have dived with Seasearch for nearly ten years now.

As I waited, a large dark shape loomed out of the cloudy water.

All this recording may make it sound rather routine but it isn’t, there is always the unexpected. A while ago when coming to the end of a long leisurely dive on a rock wall in the Scilly Isles my dive ended with a very large surprise. The sheer rock wall went from the surface down to 40 meters or more and I had spent most of the dive photographing the densely packed kaleidoscopic anemones and colonial animals that  fed on the rich plankton that clouded the water. Some sites are so fascinating that you really didn’t want the dive to end, but the dive plan has to be followed so I swam away from the wall and started my three minute safety stop.

As I waited, a large dark shape loomed out of the cloudy water. My first thought was that it was the dive boat but as it came closer it clearly had far too many edges and angles to be the boat. It was a few meters away when I realised that the edges were of the fins of a pair of basking sharks, each easily over 4 meters long and swimming towards me with their huge mouths wide open. I fumbled for my camera but it was still set for anemone close-ups so I only managed to take a blurred image of their tails as they disappeared past me back into the gloom. The picture was poor, not one for the dive magazines! But the dive was amazing, I was on cloud nine for the rest of the day and the local Wildlife Trust even got me to describe my close encounter, and the value of volunteer recording, on the local radio news.

Basking shark

Basking shark ©Dominic Flint

Information from any dive is useful and not just that from diving “new” sites. Repeat records improve our understanding of the sites and their marine wildlife, sometimes showing up something quite unexpected.

Sometimes the unexpected is quite shocking. A number of years ago we dived on a usually vibrant seagrass bed and videoed the damage caused after a scallop fishing boat had dredged through the middle of it. What was left was a scene of devastation with uprooted broken plants, dragged rocks and raked sand. Gathering this sort of evidence strengthened the conservation arguments and encouraged the official bodies to take action to protect this site from further damage.

The unexpected has lead to a bit of over excitement as well. I have dived the wreck of the Rose Hill in Whitsun Bay Cornwall many times but on one dive, to my great surprise, I found a colony of the rare pink sea fan anemone on the rudder plate. When I climbed the ladder back on to the dive boat I was so excited that my companions, most of whom were there more for the spectacle of the wreck than to see seven tiny pink-brown blobs on a sea fan, thought I’d gone a little crazy or got the bends! 

I love to go diving in UK waters and feel privileged to be able to visit this hidden world that so few get to see firsthand. Through Seasearch I have been fortunate to dive with many excellent divers and marine naturalists, both novice and expert. Over the years I have learnt a great deal about our UK marine wildlife and had the opportunity to contribute to marine conservatio, which has given a real purpose to my diving and has given me some unforgettable diving experiences.