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The underwater wonders of the UK’s seas, a story in photographs

Nick and Caroline Robertson-Brown

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From the Jurassic Coast of Dorset to the northernmost waters of Scotland, there is a huge array of incredible landscapes and animals beneath the water’s surface in the UK. The Marine Conservation Society has gathered together some of the amazing ocean imagery capturing the wonders of UK seas by talented photographers and divers around the country.

Read the photographers’ stories behind the captivating images, enjoy some unexpected sightings and get inspired to head to the UK’s coasts and seas as lockdown eases and summer draws closer.

The Marine Conservation Society’s sightings programme asks beachgoers to report animals including jellyfish, turtles and basking sharks when they spot them in UK waters. Divers can join Seasearch, a volunteer diving programme that monitors underwater life, with the opportunity to hone underwater photography skills.

Creatures of the deep

Photographer: Kirsty Andrews

Sea hare, Swanage Pier, Dorset, UK, June 2020

The story: Sea hares look brown and sluggish at first glance but if you look closely they have delicate patterns and colours. I used a snooted spotlight effect to show this off and highlight the head tentacles which resemble a hare’s ears, giving this animal its common name.

Photographer: James Lynott

Fluorescent fireworks anemoneInveraray, Loch Fyne, July 2020.

The storyOver recent years underwater fluorescence photography has become a passion of mine, particularly in British waters. I never know quite what I’m going to find that will fluoresce under the blue (near UV) light. After spending the day diving at the Garvellachs my buddy and I decided to stop off for an evening dive in Loch Fyne. The site we decided on was at Inveraray slip which is fantastic for fireworks anemones. This particularly large individual was a favourite of mine from this dive as I was able to capture the whole anemone with its long tentacles stretched out within frame. 

Photographer: Dan Bolt

Flabellina pedata nudibranch, Swanage pier, England, 14 July 2020.

The storyThe colours of this nudibranch make it not only one of our most flamboyant, but also easiest to spot! In a dark area under the pier this individual was making its way along a stalk of kelp. A flash of pink and purple in my torch light caught my eye, and so I had the pleasure of observing it for several minutes before I moved on.

Photographer: Kirsty Andrews

Tompot blenny, Babbacombe Beach, Torquay, Devon, UK, June 2020.

The story: This tompot blenny is presenting a smiley face to the camera but he’s actually carefully guarding a stash of eggs in the crack behind him.  Male tompots can be quite feisty in guarding their territory, which they keep clean and tidy, ready for several females to lay eggs in, if they’re lucky.  They will fertilise the eggs and guard them for around a month in the early Summer.

Forests of the sea

Photographer: Kirsty Andrews

Grey seals in surge, taken at Eilean Cluimhrig, Loch Eriboll, Scotland, UK

The story: The Grey seals on the North coast of Scotland are not as accustomed to divers as in some UK locations, but it was fun to watch them enjoying themselves at a distance.  They were far more comfortable in the surging waves than I was, as I clung on to kelp to capture this photo. 

Photographer: Alex Mustard

Young Lumpsucker, Kinlochbervie, Sutherland, Scotland. 4th November 2020 

The story: This young lumpsucker was about the size of a tennis ball and was living attached to the blades of sugar kelp. My buddy Kirsty Andrews found this one and I photographed it with one of my flashes backlighting the kelp to reveal its golden colour. As always with great finds, it was at the end of a long and chilly November dive, so I only had time for a few pictures before I had to bid it goodbye. I like the featherstar arms peeking into the background of this image, which are so characteristic of this area in the far north west of Scotland. 

Photographer: Paul Naylor

Spiny starfish (Marthasterias glacialis), Wembury, Devon, 4th June 2020.

The story: This starfish slowly walking up to the top of the kelp canopy was seeking a good vantage point from where it could release its spawn. A chemical sent out by females with their eggs prompts neighbouring starfish to join the party.

Photographer: James Lynott

Brown crab in amongst dense animal turf, Falls of Lora, Loch Etive. 15th August 2020.

The storySituated at the narrow entrance to Loch Etive, near Oban, the Falls of Lora has a reputation of being a bit of a scary dive. Given that the tide races through creating upwells, whirlpools, and standing waves, it’s easy to understand why. But done at the right time it is an excellent site and easily a favourite shore dive of mine. There is such amazing underwater topography and proliferation of life at this site, there was plenty to admire and photograph. While swimming along one of the gullies this crab caught my eye as it seemed to be comfortably nestled into the yellow breadcrumb sponge and hydroids surrounding it. 

Into the blue

Photographer: Alex Mustard

Blue Shark. Penzance, Cornwall, England. 29th September 2020 

The story: I’d only seen blue sharks in British waters once before, so was delighted to get the chance on a sunny late-September day in 2020. After a few hours waiting the sharks started arriving, as their numbers built up they became more confident and rewarded me and my buddy with plenty of close passes. This frame of a beautiful female slicing through the autumnal sun was a favourite and stands out because of the blobs of atmospheric lens flare. Blue sharks are sadly the world’s most fished shark, so it was a real treat to see them. 

Photographer: Matt Doggett

Bib or pouting (Trisopterus luscus), Jurassic Coast, Dorset.

The story: Photographing these large shoals can be a challenge as the fish are highly reflective and change direction constantly. One summer I was drifting through crystal clear waters over an area of huge boulders off the Jurassic Coast in Dorset. The boulder tops were covered with red seaweeds, sponges and antenna hydroids. Suddenly I was joined by this small shoal of bib which swam alongside and just in front of me for several minutes. They would often bunch together nicely, allowing me to snap away as we floated along in the gentle current. It’s wonderful, relaxing dives like this that give you fond memories of British diving and keep you coming back for more. 

Photographer: Mark Kirkland

Basking shark, Isle of Coll, July 2020.

The story: I’ve been over to the Island regularly in the last few years to photograph this huge fish as it migrates up the west coast of Scotland. I wanted to do something different from the classic head-on open mouth shot so I had a custom bit of photography gear built to try and take split shots – something that was rarely seen. It was 2 years in the planning and a real technical challenge due to the dark, plankton rich waters but I had a glorious week on the island with multiple dreamy encounters. This shot was taken on the last night, just as the sun was setting.

Photographer: Kevin Morgans

Atlantic Puffin, Fair Isle, Shetland.

The story: When photographing an animal, eye contact is a critical component, allowing your viewer to connect with the image. This image breaks many of the traditional rules. The setting sun, the uneasy pose of the puffin and scene all throw up many questions and thoughts. Where is the puffin looking? What is it thinking? What lies beyond the horizon?

For more information about the Marine Conservation Society visit their website by clicking here.

Title image: Mark Kirkland

News

Whale world record and the power of citizen science

Nick and Caroline Robertson-Brown

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A sperm whale has been observed in the Azores archipelago in the middle of the Atlantic ocean over a 34 year time span, setting an observation record in the Atlantic and very possibly the world. The observations over this record-breaking time span were made by a combination of scientists and citizen scientists, showing once again the power of this increasingly prominent branch of science.

34 year record

The female sperm whale “19” was first seen in 1987 in the Azores during the research cruises of the International Fund for Animal Welfare. Scientists know she is a female, because she was spotted with several calves over the years. Thirty-four years later she was spotted again by cetacean scientist Lisa Steiner of Whale Watch Azores.

In between she was recorded in 1991, 1994, 2002, 2004, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2015, 2016 and 2021 by a combination of science and citizen science projects. She has not been seen outside of the Azores, but it is possible that her group has travelled to other parts of Macaronesia, like several other groups have.

CSI of the seas

Steiner, who is based on the Azores and has followed whales around the North Atlantic for 33 years, says: “Whale tails (flukes) are like fingerprints. By photographing flukes and then matching them up like a CSI of the seas, we can trace the movements of the animals. Being able to follow an animal for 34 years is amazing and once again shows the power of long-term datasets.” The significance of such findings goes well beyond mere scientific curiosity, however. As Steiner explains, “hearing the histories of individual whales catches the public’s imagination, because personal stories are much more interesting to the general public than generalisations, leading to increased interest and support. That support is priceless when protections for animals are being considered”.

Lisa Steiner (right) with citizen scientists spotting whales in front of Pico Island, Azores

Death and conservation

One example is whale “3418”, also a sperm whale, who was killed by a high-speed ferry in the Canaries. He had been seen for 15 years in the Azores, beginning when he was still a calf, before making the trip to the Canary Islands. His tragic and premature death is being used to promote speed limits of the high-speed inter-island ferries around the Canaries.

Citizen science gathers valuable data

Citizen science is defined as public participation in scientific research. Outcomes are often advancements in scientific research, as well as an increase in the public’s understanding of science. In nature conservation in particular, international citizen science has become increasingly important as a duel stream of data and funding. An example of this, citizen scientists of Biosphere Expeditions (an international non-profit NGO at the forefront of wildlife conservation powered by citizen science) have worked with Steiner on an annual Azores expedition since 2004 and contributed to this record-breaking fluke dataset.

Sperm whale fluke (c) Lisa Steiner

Dr. Matthias Hammer, founder and executive director of Biosphere Expeditions, says the NGO “is proud to have contributed a piece of the puzzle to this Atlantic or possibly world record. This shows again how citizen science is part of the solution. This recent achievement is just the latest in a long line of citizen science contributions since our foundation in 1999, such as the creation of protected areas on four continents, amongst many others. Thank you to all our citizen and professional scientist, as well as all the other helpers over the years.”

For more information about Biosphere Expeditions visit their website by clicking here.

Header image: Sperm whale and calf (c) Gabriel Barathieu

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Blogs

Take an immersive dive below the waves off the Welsh coast using 360 VR: Common Spider Crab (Watch Video)

JD Scuba

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A week-long series from Jake Davies…

Below the waves off the Welsh coast, there are a range of species and habitats that can be seen. However, you don’t have to venture too far from the shore to see them or don’t have to leave the comfort of your home. Using 360 videos provides an immersive feeling of being below the water and encountering many species and habitats from diving one of the most important habitats and species that aren’t often seen whilst diving. For more of an experience of being below the waves, the VR videos can be viewed using a VR headset.

Take a VR dive just off the shore and explore what can be found within the shallow waters of a sandy beach. Fish can be founding cruising amongst the seaweed and numerous crustacean (Crabs, lobster, prawns, shrimps) species can be found walking around the seafloor. Common Spider Crabs (Maja brachydactyla) are one of the largest crabs species found along the coast and during the early summer, they aggregate in large numbers to moult which allows them to grow.


Follow Jake aka JD Scuba on the YouTube channel @Don’t Think Just Blog.

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