I have always been one of those divers who gets as much enjoyment from looking at the smaller marine creatures as the bigger ones. I’m quite happy to potter around at a leisurely pace gazing into nooks and crannies and around rocks to see what forms of life are present. I generally tended to gauge the quantity of ‘life’ present by the numbers of fish and crabs and lobsters I saw. I’ve always enjoyed looking at curious objects and various colourful ‘things’ growing, but apart from a handful, I never quite knew exactly what I was looking at. It was with this in mind that I enrolled on the Seasearch Observer Course held in Sligo at the weekend.
Seasearch describes itself as ‘a project for volunteer sports divers who have an interest in what they’re seeing under water, want to learn more and want to help protect the marine environment around the coasts of Britain and Ireland.’
The course ran over two days in Sligo. The first day was classroom based and was delivered by Chris Wood, the Seasearch Coordinator and author of two books on the marine life of Britain and Ireland. During the day we learned how to identify marine life and habitats. One thing that really struck me was the amount of animal life that actually exists in our coastal waters. I’m not just talking about fish life. A lot of things that I previously thought was just ‘something nice growing on a rock’ turned out in fact to be an actual animal. Similarly, some of those seaweed type yokes were indeed animals as well. Chris went through a number of slides throughout the day, bit by bit putting the whole jigsaw together.
The animals fell into various categories depending on their complexity. For lovers of that old Irish tradition of ‘tracing’ this was a veritable delightful eye opener. That black sea cucumber that we often see is no longer just a black sea cucumber. Oh no, he is now one of them cotton spinners. He’d be related to the starfish from over the rock. They’d be all from the echinoderm family. You can tell them lads a mile off with their spiny skin and system of tube feet. Oh yeah, and the real rebel of the gang, the sea urchin with his ultra spikey spines. Ok, maybe I’ve over Gaelicised it a bit, but you get the drift (pun intended). There’s generally some feature in common with the various creatures that dictates what genus or family they belong to. Barnacles for instance are in the same Crustacean family as the Crab, both are animals living in a hard outer casing. Barnacles however have the distinction of having the longest penis in the animal world in proportion to their own size. Seven times their own body length apparently. A necessity given that once settled on a rock or whatever, they have to stay put. It doesn’t leave much room for romantic wining and dining!
The second day involved two dives putting into practise all we had learned on the first day. I was rather pleased, I must admit, to hear I was buddied with Deirdre Greer, the Irish Seasearch Coordinator. At least I’d have someone knowledgeable to query later on about the types of life I’d identified and she would be able to point out things that I might otherwise miss. Our first dive was at Thumb Rock just outside Mullaghmore harbour. The boat dropped us off and we descended down 4 metres to a kelp forest. Shoals of Two Spotted Goby and various Wrasse accompanied us as we headed North East along the seabed which sloped down before dropping off at 16 metres down to about 20. The wall was covered in Dead Mans Fingers. Along the rocks on the sea bed were several Pink Sea Fans, Cotton Spinners, Sea Urchins, Starfish and Orange Sponges. Deirdre pointed out some white substance encircling part of one of the Pink Sea Fans, which she later told me were eggs from a Pink Sea Fan Slug. Under ledges we saw a Common Prawn, quite a large Ling, Lobster and Crab. Out from the wall face I saw some Common Dragonet darting along the sandy bottom. On sandy ledges along the wall some Leopard Spotted Goby kept a keen eye on our progress as we watched the slow progress of the aptly named, tasty looking, Candy Striped Flatworm. Fish life was plentiful with some Bib, Poor Cod and more being unusually partly ignored by me as I studied all the other life forms. Visibility was around 10 metres with a water temperature of 12 degrees. We were slowly rising along the wall as we came towards the end of our dive. There was a perceptible change in water temperature around the 12 metre mark and the walls resembled a fireworks display frozen in time with Jewel Anemones fighting for space with each other as far as the eye could see. Their colour changed as the orientation of the wall to which they clung changed. Even on the safety stop there was life a plenty and not just the Frosty Sea Mat which had colonised the Kelp. After the dive we completed our Seasearch forms detailing the landscape observed and the marine life present. This in itself is a very worthwhile exercise as it copperfastens all that you have learned as you compare notes and relive the dive over in your head.
Our second dive was in the same general area but heading South East sloping down to 20 metres and then following the edge North East. There was fish everywhere! The seabed was comprised mainly of boulders adorned with Cotton Spinners, Sea Urchins and Pink Sea Fans. Colourful Sea Slugs, Sponges, Sea Squirts and Anemones festooned the landscape. Deirdre was taking photos along the rock face as I moved out a bit and spotted the unmistakable form of a John Dory. I went over to alert Deirdre and when we returned I had lost him. I had only ever seen one of these before. It was on a night dive near Caherdaniel in Co. Kerry. I remembered how the John Dory had remained in the one spot as we shone our lights on him. In the darkness he was the only one on that underwater stage, and he knew it! We sat there mesmerised as he slowly hovered above the sandy bottom rotating from side to side unperturbed by his new audience. Remembering this I guessed he probably hadn’t moved too far and eventually spotted our Sligo John again. They are one of those fish that really leave me awestruck. According to my newly acquired guide to Marine Life of Britain and Ireland they have a primarily South Western distribution and is a potential indicator of climate change should numbers increase in Northern waters. This is part of the work carried out by Seasearch, recording and capturing changes in population of various marine creatures which aids in conservation. Moving along I’m reminded of the Red Sea such was the abundance of life. We see Dead Mans Fingers, a large cluster of Red Fingers, more large Ling, Goldsinnys, Bibs, Jellyfish, Leopard Spotted Gobys, Encrusting Sponge and another intoxicating display of Jewel Anemones. Rising up at the end of our dive who should we meet at 5 metres sitting at the edge of the kelp but another John Dory. I’m pretty sure it was a different one as he swam directly towards me to within inches of my mask and passed right by me filling my field of vision at a slow leisurely pace. There was no way the earlier one sprinted ahead of us to meet us at the end of the dive. Although you never know, I’ve been known to have a profound effect on aquatic life.
The boat was waiting for us on the surface, our location easily identified by the bubbles breaking the flat calm surface water. The cluster of clouds that had hung over Benbulben had dissipated revealing clear blue skies. I sat contented on the side of the rib kindly provided by Sligo Sub Aqua Club for the course as we headed back to the pier at Mullaghmore. A whole new underwater world had revealed itself to me over the weekend. It’s always been there, I just didn’t know what it was. Would I recommend doing a Seasearch Observer Course? Yes, absolutely! Knowing what you’re looking at enhances your dive experience beyond compare. And hopefully through recording sea life and habitats observed we can all help in ensuring our natural resources are preserved intact for future generations.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to make some barnacle brew!