Will you explore our blue planet with us?

Date posted: 21 September 2018

Seasearch trains divers to record marine species and habitats around the coasts of Britain and Ireland. But you don’t have to be a SCUBA diver to get involved. How so? You can carry out Seasearch recording while snorkelling!

Shanny, Common blenny Norfolk. (C) Rob Spray/Dawn Watson

Seasearch is a citizen science project coordinated nationally by the Marine Conservation Society. Divers record marine species and habitats all around UK and Irish coasts. The records are shared publicly via the National Biodiversity Network Atlas website and used for marine conservation, research and education. But you don’t have to be a SCUBA diver to get involved. Seasearch snorkelling can generate extremely useful records of the habitats and species of the subtidal fringe, an area not usually surveyed by divers or rockpoolers.

In the north east of England, Seasearch snorkelling has proved a great way to fill gaps between the sites accessible to shore diving and charter boats. Eighteen new sites from Yorkshire to Northumberland were surveyed by snorkelling in 2017, including previously unsurveyed parts of two Marine Protected Areas. One of the most interesting finds was a local population of the stalked jellyfish Calvadosia cruxmelitensis, a priority species for conservation not previously recorded on the English east coast. If you would like to get involved in Seasearch, visit our website www.seasearch.org.uk for a list of training events around the country and contact your regional coordinator, who will be delighted to hear from you! Seasearch celebrates its 30th anniversary this year – there has never been a better time to get involved, so grab your mask, fins and snorkel and join us! I think these accounts of Seasearch snorkelling around the UK will inspire you!

Seasearch Snorkeller Alderney. (C) Joshua Copping

Mel Broadhurst-Allen, Alderney Wildlife Trust Seasearch is extremely active across the Channel Islands, primarily through locally based groups, but there is no active group or regular diving on the northernmost island of Alderney; here the only Seasearch surveys have been completed by visiting Seasearch divers when weather and tide allows. However, there is an appetite for snorkelling by the locals and frequent visitors.

Alderney hosts a number of bays, which support a variety of marine features, interesting habitats and great diversity of species. There are limited records of the marine life in Alderney’s inshore shallows, and such data are needed for marine conservation, research, planning, outreach and education. It therefore seemed a logical approach to set up a local Seasearch group on Alderney which uses snorkelling techniques to complement any potential diving activities.

In autumn 2017, the Alderney Seasearch Snorkel Group was formed by Alderney Wildlife Trust with the aim of recording marine life using the Seasearch methodology. The group currently comprises twelve members (die-hard enthusiasts), half of whom completed the Seasearch Observer Course with National Seasearch coordinator Charlotte Bolton, to develop their surveying skills. The group managed to complete a few surveys before winter ensued, which were remarkably simple to organise (a ‘grab your fins and go’ moment!) and thoroughly enjoyable – even when it got a bit cold and murky.

For 2018, the group aims to take a proper look at the island’s inshore kelp beds and eelgrass habitats, as well as general recording and ‘just getting out there!’. Snorkelling using Seasearch techniques has created fantastic potential for surveying the shallows in unknown areas with new and old friends.

Rob Spray, Seasearch East North Norfolk’s chalk reef is very accessible. Rather than needing mysterious directions to a secret cove it simply stretches for 20 miles past the county’s resorts. This enticing proximity is a two-edged sword; without a focal point even some quite well informed people have stormed into the sea and bobbed back to the surface confused.

The reef is within easy reach but its enigma needs to be unravelled with a little patience! My local sea tends to murk at its sandy edge and getting fledgling Cousteaus across that to the good stuff is the challenge. A solution emerged when I realised Victorian debris off Sheringham was actually a visitor attraction waiting to happen. Much as a walkway across a marsh guides visitors to rewarding sights, the town’s old iron outflow pipe can get snorkellers to the reef. It was a ready-made snorkel trail! Buoymarked and a beginner-friendly 2-5m deep, the pipe runs across the chalk as well as being an artificial reef in its own right.

The trail is just a gateway leading to the longest chalk reef in Europe. It hosts hundreds of local species in a gloriously bright setting, because one thing that sets this reef apart is how welcoming the white rock, pale sand and blue shallows make the North Sea. If you’re in Norfolk next summer (when we have over 10m visibility and over 20°C water temperature!) then a mask, snorkel and swimming costume or wetsuit are all you need to start exploring the UK’s most underrated sea. The trail starts between the Funky Mackerel cafe and the Wee Retreat (a tasteful ex-toilet), and if you drop into the nearby museum’s underwater gallery afterwards you can see what you missed!

Common Sea Urchin. (C) Anne Bignall

Anne Bignall and Penny Martin Orkney is well known as a diving location and the scuttled WWI German Fleet wrecks in Scapa Flow draw thousands of visiting divers each year. However, the islands also offer superb snorkelling opportunities. Orkney boasts an extensive coastline with many shallow and easily accessible shore sites. There is a wide range of habitats to explore, including eelgrass beds, rocky shores, kelp beds, sediment areas and a variety of manmade structures.

Surveying is best undertaken at low tide when the site can be examined in detail and at close quarters. Despite the proximity to land, this zone – between the low shore and the shallow sublittoral – is under-explored, being beyond the reach of shore surveys and too shallow for most dives. Surveying these places can therefore provide invaluable information about areas that are likely to be data deficient at present.

The waters are, of course, a little chilly, but with the use of a drysuit, it is possible to stay comfortable for up to two hours, allowing detailed and leisurely observations. Some of the best and most easily accessed sites to snorkel are the Churchill Barriers – a series of four causeways built during WWII to link Orkney’s South Isles and close the eastward entrances of Scapa Flow. Each causeway differs slightly, but all offer good opportunities for surveying. The concrete blocks used to build the barriers create an artificial wall, colonised by seaweeds, sedentary animals and shallow faunal turf, as well as providing extensive cavities for mobile species to shelter.

In the vicinity of the causeways there are large areas of sand and gravel, whilst seaweed and kelp communities colonise the natural rocky substrate. In addition, the remains of ‘blockships’ lie nearby in a few metres of water. These are disused ships that were used to block the channels in WWI and WWII, before the building of the Barriers. Remnants of these wrecks can be found in very shallow water but it is also possible to swim out and view them from above. To see more examples of snorkelling in Orkney, visit the ‘Snorkel Orkney’ Facebook group.

This article was written by Paula Lightfoot Seasearch Coordinator North East England, for our winter 2017 membership magazine ‘Marine Conservation’. If you’d like to receive our fantastic quarterly magazine straight to your door, you can become a member from as little as £3.50 per month.

Actions you can take

  1. Visit the Seasearch website

Did you know?…

Over 500,000 records of undersea species and habitats have been collected by volunteer Seasearch divers

MCS launched Seasearch in 2003 to train volunteer divers to record and monitor wildlife and habitats

Join Seasearch

Find out more about the Seasearch programme and how to get involved

Visit the Seasearch website