Year of the sea hare

Julie Hatcher, Centre Manager at Dorset Wildlife Trust, on being furloughed by the sea.

Being furloughed from my job with Dorset Wildlife Trust has been both a blessing and a curse. I run the Wild Seas Centre on the shoreline in Dorset. Under strict lockdown restrictions, the first few weeks were tough. I worried about the visitor centre and what might happen in my absence. More than that, I could no longer get my daily dose of Vitamin Sea. Normally, my leisure time mirrors my work time – spreading the word about the beauty and variety of wildlife in our British seas. So I began a weekly blog, sharing my thoughts and experiences of marine wildlife. Just spending time focussing on the sea made life easier.

With camera in hand, furlough has given me time to capture the summer activities happening out of sight beneath the waves.

With the gentle easing of lockdown in May I was able to get back to exploring the shores and shallows along my stretch of coast. With camera in hand, furlough has given me time to capture the summer activities happening out of sight beneath the waves. I have appreciated the freedom of being able to dive more – up to 4 times a week when conditions were good. I decided to use this precious time to stock up on inspiration, experiences and photographs for when I got back to work.

snorkle

Julie Hatcher

Sea hares have featured large. They are everywhere, on the seashore and hanging from every surface beneath the sea. There are tiny ones no bigger than my finger nail and large ones the size of a fat apple. Some are pale, some dark, some plain, others spotted, singly, in pairs or groups of three or more. Each one seems to pose for the camera and whatever angle you photograph them from, their eyes seem to be looking directly at you in Mona Lisa fashion. I have taken hundreds of photos, both whilst diving and by just holding my camera underwater in rockpools and clicking away.

Sea hares have become one of my all-time favourite sea creatures this year but I have also fallen in love with nudibranchs. For years I’ve been jealous of divers in other parts of the country who spot beautiful, colourful and extraordinarily varied nudibranchs on every dive. I very rarely spotted them. This year I treated myself to a prescription diving mask to aid my aging eyesight, and wow! Suddenly I’m seeing nudis in Dorset too! With my new macro camera lens I’ve even got a few decent shots.

Sea hare

Julie Hatcher

One hard to photograph animal is the stalked jellyfish. They hang out on the very tips of the most delicate of seaweeds. Constantly sweeping back and forth as the water surges, it is like trying to snap a bird perched in the thinnest, top-most branches on a windy day. I have managed only one or two decent photos this year but these are more important than most as stalked jellyfish are one of the features for which the Purbeck Coast Marine Conservation Zone (MCZ), including Kimmeridge Bay where I work, was designated. So recording these here is a joy.

People have asked me if there are more animals about this year because of lockdown’s reduced disturbance. I don’t know and I’m not sure anyone does. It was, after all, such a short time and not all activities in the sea were stopped. However we have a chance to find out, with the government currently considering setting up some Highly Protected Marine Areas (HPMAs), where only non-damaging activities are permitted. Wouldn’t it be great to set some areas of the sea aside and see what difference we could REALLY make by leaving them untouched to rewild in their own time?

Julie Hatcher is the Wild Seas Centre Manager at Dorset’s Wildlife Trust Wild Seas Centre in Kimmerdige and wrote this blog from and in a personal capacity during her time furloughed from work.