ssweb.jpg Seasearch in East Anglia
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The Seasearch project in the Eastern region

(Written for the Evening Star - September 2007)

Sometimes when there’s an environmental item on the news it seems like ‘the environment’ was invented sometime in the last 6 months. Sharper minds will realise that the situation has been developing for a long while and it is the fine details that are still emerging. Each ‘crisis’ is a reminder that we have a responsibility to the environment but is only a snapshot update of the situation. Without historical data we are missing the big picture that tells us how far and fast things are changing. Luckily there have always been groups concerned with our surroundings and their collected records now allow us to get a perspective on some of the emerging stories. It’s this kind of evidence which can be used to support such initiatives as the campaign for a Marine Bill to protect the seas.

One such archive has been built up by the Marine Conservation Society’s Seasearch project. Seasearch has been running since the mid 1980s when it was devised to harness the enthusiasm of amateur divers to complete the picture of the UK’s Marine wildlife. Early on, the project was pioneered in a few areas but in 1999 a steering committee was formed to develop the project on a national basis. Since then most of the country has gained local chapters of Seasearch… The diver’s favourites; the South coast, Scotland and Wales are well covered but there is still plenty of coast without resident surveyors. The East Anglian Coast is the one with the most gaps between surveys and so earlier this year it got its own area coordinator to help foster the project in our home region. The coordinator is really two people, Dawn Watson and Rob Spray. Rob and Dawn have been diving for more than 9 years now and although they have dived worldwide they love exploring their own home region.

Unfortunately there’s no quick fix to complete a snapshot our marine life as in the North Sea we have one of the hardest of British seas to explore. Not because of its savage weather, but because of its justifiably murky reputation. There are some fantastic sites off shore, many within the reach of freshly qualified divers, but it is simply impossible to guarantee a dive on them.  Thus most divers in the region will do all of their diving on other coasts or abroad, which is a shame for them and us. Around Felixstowe, for example, there is an eagerly awaited but unpredictable 4 week period where the visibility is good enough for an enjoyable dive. This lifts the veil on the stunning wrecks of the North Sea. Often the narcotic quality of breathing air at depth adds to the sense of magic, but overcome the awe and you soon notice that whilst we may be almost bereft of rocky reefs and clear water, there is no shortage of wildlife. As you go slightly further North, diving from Southwold and Lowestoft for example, the season is longer. There are wrecks aplenty, often deeper and darker than further South, but as you continue up into Norfolk there are shallower options. Norfolk is the region’s hottest dive destination with options from 3 to 30m+ accessible from the shore and boats. The water is often relatively clear and it is again rich in wildlife. Down South, divers in Essex have an even harder time than those in Suffolk; browsing the websites of dive clubs in Essex suggests there is little to tempt anyone into the sea – which means few opportunities to gather information on wildlife. However a Seasearch course has just run in Essex at the Orca Dive Academy supported by the Essex Biodiversity Partnership. We wish them all the best in pioneering surveys of their secret coast.

This year we have spent a lot of time underwater on the very special inshore wrecks of North Norfolk. These offer fabulous wildlife within easy (if strenuous) reach of the beach car parks. These are great place to see the range of flora and fauna and practice observation. They are a unique training resource and invaluable for building experience as well as a pleasure to dive in themselves. With the shortage of local opportunities we have also taken part in the national program of Seasearch dives – run by the more established regions – which are open to visiting Seasearchers and are a great opportunity to add to the survey. We hope the Eastern region will be able to show similar hospitality in the coming seasons.

So what can you do? Seasearch is a divers’ project so you do need to dive to take part – the perfect excuse to start? Once qualified the next step is the Seasearch Observer course which will top up your marine identification skills and show how easy it is to start collecting data. No one expects you to be Jacques Cousteau from the start, but your information will start contributing to the picture of Britain’s marine landscape straight away. For a lot of divers this course really opens their eyes to the diversity of life every dive offers. We’ve had loads of positive feedback after the courses and even more after the first few dives where divers start to relish how much there is to spot. Several of the Ipswich dive clubs have attended recent events and the next is set for October 6/7th. The Argonauts and O2Dive can both run their own surveying trips now and we hope more will soon follow their example. Club activities cover the major British amateur diving bodies but there are of course a growing number of professional centres who are equally important to the project. Learn Scuba in Lowestoft have already run a course and their Observers are starting to return surveys.

There has been some pioneering work by North Norfolk Divers club who formed Norfolk Seasearch in 2004 but they can cover only part of their region and many more clubs are needed to take part. There are 10s of clubs in Essex, Suffolk and Norfolk so there are plenty more potential Seasearchers, to say nothing of the region’s inshore counties. I fervently hope there are many divers out there already proving me wrong – are you diving in East Anglia and enjoying the wildlife? We’d love to hear from you. At present East Anglia is the least surveyed region and Suffolk and Essex are trailing way behind Norfolk - we’re hoping that will prompt a little competitive interest!

If you are interested in Seasearch, marine conservation or getting started in diving there are local and national bodies ready to help. If your ambitions don’t go beneath the surface there are still plenty of things to do. The Shorething beach survey weekend is coming up in September and the MCS are looking for information on pipefish and jellyfish spottings. The Wildlife Trusts have rock pooling sessions where possible.

Adding extra relevance to the collection of information is the growing campaign amongst wildlife and diving organisations to press for the creation of a Marine Bill, legislation which would formally protect the marine environment. The Bill had been promised for this session of parliament but has slipped from the program. This omission has not been missed and there is a concerted campaign to have it reinstated as soon as possible. The Wildlife Trusts and Marine Conservation Society are leading this activity and the Seasearch program is an important source of the information to support the need for protection of marine environment and the establishment of reserves in particularly important areas.

Remember - Any dive can be a Seasearch dive!

Resources:

Seasearch is a nationwide project run by The Marine Conservation Society

Our Local Seasearch page has more information on what we are doing

The Shore Thing is an initiative of MarLIN, the Marine Life Information Network - Shorething

If you fancy a dive our guide to North Norfolk shore diveable shipwrecks is here.

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