Undersea

In the third wave of our Sea-change series, marine biologist and conservationist Fiona Gell tells her story of leaving and return to the Isle of Man and a lifelong love of the world undersea, diving among its reefs and seagrass meadows.
lives in the Isle of Man and has worked in marine research and conservation for over 20 years, specialising in marine protected areas. She is now working on climate change. Her poetry has been published in journals including The Rialto, The Stinging Fly and Wasafiri. She has also written about marine conservation for The Guardian.

Beginning 

When I was about eight years old, I had a dream which I can still remember as a series of clear images. In the dream I am in Ramsey Bay, in the north of the Isle of Man, where I grew up. I am on the rocks below the green brooghs* that slope steeply down from Maughold Head. Somehow, the whole of the seabed has been revealed to me. I can see the glossy leather straps of kelp and outcrops of rocky reef, studded with burgundy and moss green anemones and encrusted with orange sponges and pink coralline algae. In the weed-swept gullies, copper callig* swim and lobster scuttle across the sand between their rocky hiding places. It’s like that magical moment at the lowest spring tides, when an extra expanse of seabed is exposed, uncovering animals and plants that are almost truly marine; diverse and colourful and only revealed for a few minutes before the tide begins to rise again. In the dream it isn’t clear whether the sea has momentarily disappeared or the seabed has been lit from beneath by some supernatural light. But the effect is the same, the underwater landscape is clearly visible in all its complexity and beauty. 

At that age I often looked down through clear waters from the bow of my Dad’s little rowing boat and spent long hours rockpooling on the shores of the Bay, and beach-combing at the tideline. I had never snorkelled or dived, so the seabed I dreamt must have been conjured from glimpses and hints. I never had that dream again and no other seabed sites were ever illuminated for me in quite the same way, but sometime afterwards I found a sheet of wrapping paper in the little seaside bookshop I loved spending time in as a child. It showed an ocean scene, from creature-filled seabed to wheeling gulls above the surface. It was the nearest thing I’d found to illustrating my dream. I had it blu-tacked to my wall all through school and for my first couple of years at University, before it must have got lost or jettisoned during one of my many moves. 

Around the same time as that dream I started to think about becoming a marine biologist. When we went fishing for mackerel and callig my Dad showed me how to gut the fish. Then, while they were frying in the house, I’d keep going with the knife in the backyard, dissecting the heads and examining the parasitic worms that were left with the guts. That opportunity to explore and understand how fish work was my real hook into studying biology. 

I spent my school work experience at the 100-year-old Port Erin Marine Laboratory, on the other side of Port Erin Bay from my grandparents’ house, in the south of the Isle of Man. Appropriately, I spent days dissecting herring to find their tiny otoliths, the ear bones that can be used to age fish and can tell their life story through the way that certain elements are laid down as they grow. The laboratory had a mythology around it when I was growing up. My grandmother came from a family of fishermen and they would take any unusual fish or lobsters they caught to the aquarium at the laboratory. I came home each day with herring blood on my shirt and stories about what actually went on inside the building; the scientists from all over the world, the long term monitoring of sea temperature and new research on king scallops, and that unique marine lab smell: sea air, salt water tanks and the tang of sea life.  

 

Exploring 

I was 19 when I saw my first coral reef. With a mask and snorkel, the clear waters of the Red Sea revealed a landscape I could never have imagined. I drifted out over the reef above the Blue Hole at Dahab in Egypt and I couldn’t believe it was real. In a coastal café, I sat on the floor and ate parrotfish, discovering that even their bones were blue and exotic.  

Travelling back to Egypt two years later to do research for the Ras Mohammed National Park for my dissertation, I learnt to dive, a whole new enchantment. Amongst car-sized Napoleon wrasse and humphead parrot fish bigger than me I could fly over coral gardens, and then glide down into gullies, just be breathing out. I spent weeks snorkelling on a small areas of reef flat following individuals of two species of butterflyfish to map their territories and record their interactions. We camped in the Sinai desert and walked straight into the sea each morning, each to our own study site. I’d never spent so much time actually underwater and I became part of that little reef community, recognising each cave and bommie, and distinguishing between my research subjects by tiny fin nicks or imperfections in their patterns.  

A curious grouper became a regular visitor to my site. In our first encounter I felt a shadow behind me and looked over my shoulder to see its huge, looming mottled body and classic fishy features looking at me gloomily. I slowly swam away and got out of the water but everyone else was still in the sea, so I just got back in again. After that, I got used to its huge shape silently appearing behind me. To live day to day in a functioning ecosystem other than your own is a privilege; learning who really does eat who when your butterflyfish familiar disappears in a flurry of scales and a retreating snapper.  

When I finished my degree I felt steered away from pure biology and towards practical conservation and management. It was the mid-1990s and in scientific circles there was a clear understanding of the threats and challenges facing the oceans. I went to the Quirimba Archipelago in Northern Mozambique to carry on my research.  I ordered the Admiralty Charts and thrilled as I pored over the scattering of islands along the coast from the Tanzanian border down to Pemba Bay in the south, one of the largest natural harbours in the world. It was only two years since Mozambique’s devastating civil war had finished and there was very little travel information available. So I read old books about the stonefish and mangroves and shark fishermen. 

We set off for Mozambique from Dar es Salaam in an old trading dhow that had previously been used to take cement to Zanzibar. We sank after ten days at sea and had to set off again a couple of weeks later, minus most of our scientific equipment. When I got to Mozambique I joined local fishermen to study their fishery on the seagrass meadows between the island and the mainland. I snorkelled inside their seine net as they corralled the frantic fish; green mottled seagrass parrot fish, grey-green rabbit fish and tiny bi-coloured wrasse. Most were caught but some rays were able to escape. The seagrass beds were much more important than the coral reefs for those coastal communities. Returning from fishing to the natural harbour amongst the mangroves, half the village would be there. Women would barter diamond-shaped peanut cakes for the catch and the children would come and help clean and prepare them for drying in the sun. The sand was thick with years’ worth of fish scales and the desiccated bodies of pipefish and filefish (the only species not eaten).  

At that time, the people living in those remote islands were almost completely dependent on the seagrass beds for their food and for their income. The 11 species of seagrass sustained nearly 300 species of fish and shellfish. Marine conservation is sometimes polarised between pure preservation, and more pragmatic approaches that recognise that millions of people still depend directly on fishing.  I began to be interested in Marine Protected Areas, places that are protected to benefit the marine life within them and for the wider benefit of the oceans, and which can help people to fish more sustainably. 

Day and night we could hear the roar of the surf breaking on the reefs on the other side of the island, and eventually we were able to dive there. Flying along with the current, accompanied by tuna and jacks, with the magnetic pull of the blue on one side and the colour and activity of the reef on the other, was exhilarating and terrifying at the same time. 

I spent years living in coastal communities and working with fishermen to understand their livelihood. But I began to worry about the carbon impact of all those long haul flights, and the ethical dilemmas of working as a specialist in developing countries.  Shortly after I left, these reefs were bleached beyond recognition in the first major global bleaching event. I couldn’t help but make the connection between having the opportunity to see these reefs and adding to the problem by flying around the world. 

 

Returning 

I went back to my own island. After ten years of diving on reefs and seagrass meadows around the world, I came home. On my first dive the water was surprisingly clear and it was strange to see so many familiar things – kelp, whelks, scallops – alive and in situ rather than washed up on the beach. Later, I dived at many other sites around the Island and began to piece together my own map of our underwater landscapes; the rock-enclosed oases of scallops that dredgers can’t reach, the walls of animal turf like seventies carpets draped over rocks, the seal hunting grounds. At the same time, a scientific survey of all our waters has given us a habitat map of our seas. 

The whole of Ramsey Bay has been revealed by science. And there is a rich band of kelp forest in the shallow, rock strewn coastal waters just off Maughold Brooghs. The kelp is studded with iridescent striped blue-rayed limpets and the rocky reefs are as colourful as I dreamt them. But there is also a bright green band of eelgrass meadow we didn’t know existed. I heard about it from a retired fisherman who’d found a small patch more than 50 years ago. When we dived there, we found a much more extensive meadow than expected. I could dive in eelgrass all day; shallow water, well-lit and clear with clouds of rust-coloured two-spot gobies drift over the green. Each blade of eelgrass is fuzzed with a layer of epiphytic algae that provides food for seas’ nails and juvenile fish, much more digestible that the grass itself. Eelgrass beds are nursery grounds for many species of fish and shellfish, they stabilise sediment, protecting coasts against erosion and they store remarkably high concentrations of carbon in their root systems, contributing to climate change mitigation (part of our ‘blue carbon’). 

If my dream had illuminated the whole bay, I would have seen the horse mussel reefs off the Point of Ayre which were only discovered in the 1990s. Whilst I was familiar with the clusters of blue mussels festooning the legs of the pier, I’d never heard of horse mussels when I was growing up. Large, long-lived mussels, much bigger than blue mussels, build up into reefs and shape the seabed into mounds and platforms. Their hard shells and knotted byssus threads provide endless opportunities for other animals and plants to attach and establish, creating some of the most biodiverse areas in the Irish Sea. They thrive in strong currents and are covered in white and orange soft corals that fluff out their tentacles to feed on passing plankton. 

And underneath the dramatic sand cliffs of the High Shellags there are maerl beds, another marine habitat I hadn’t heard of as a child. This red seaweed lives in a thin pink veneer that lays down nodules of hard calcareous skeleton. Manx fishermen call this habitat ‘corals’ and it does look very like a delicate branching coral. Baby cod and juvenile queen scallops gravitate to the pink matrix of maerl, which provides food and a surface to attach to for hundreds of other species.  

Summer makes me glad I am home by the sea. Yesterday I swam at Port-e-Vullen, within the Marine Nature Reserve and just inshore from the kelp beds, eelgrass meadows and rocky reefs that I dreamed about. The water was warm and plankton rich, gannets dived offshore and I breathed in the scent of fresh seaweed and calm sea. The sea temperature records from Port Erin Marine Laboratory show a 1° increase in sea temperatures over 100  years, but in recent decades the increase has been accelerating. 

It is overwhelming to think of the challenges we have ahead to take care of our oceans and face up to climate change, but at least those special habitats within the bay are now protected and part of a network of marine protected areas around the Isle of Man, throughout Europe and around the world. They are sustaining fisheries, storing carbon, filtering the water I swim in and protecting the coast from erosion. They are keeping us alive. 

 

*brooghs – Manx vernacular – steep bank or grassy cliff or headland 

*callig – Manx Gaelic name for pollack – still in common use by fishermen and anglers 

 

Image : Birthing Pool by Anne Campbell

Colour photogram of whelk egg sac

Photograms allow a unique perspective that sits somewhere between a macro lens and a microscopic view, allowing us to look at nature in a different way, giving a greater appreciation of its infinite complexity and connectivity. In doing so, perhaps we can move away from our dominant humancentrric view of the world and towards a more holistic regard.

Anne Campbell is an artist, photographer and lyricist based in Aberdeenshire, Scotland. She runs the darkrooms at Gray’s School of Art where she teacher analogue photography, specialising in alternative processes. She also shares a studio in Monymusk with five other artists and regularly exhibits her work around the UK. annecampbell.photography

 

Private: Dark Mountain: Issue 15

The Spring 2019 issue is a collection of non-fiction, fiction, poetry and artwork that responds to the ‘age of fire’.

 

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