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A Seasearch Weekend

It’s a 2 to 2.5 hr drive to Aberystwyth from Bridgend and I’m rendezvousing with Leon and Sheena, two more Seasearchers, just outside Swansea- but as usual, they’re running late! I decide to make the journey solo. About an hour later and just after leaving Lampeter, the shape of a beautiful Red Kite appears against the clear blue sky. It’s a privilege to see this once endangered species soaring above the trees and hedgerows, on a regular basis, again in Mid Wales. I hope this is a good omen for the rest of the weekend!

Kate Lock’s directions are spot on and they take me straight to our meeting point at the University Boat House at Aberystwyth. I’m the first one to arrive and I promptly get out my folding chair and sit in the sun, pondering what the day will bring.

I’d not dived this far North before but had it on good authority, that Sarn Cynfelin was a really nice dive and with the sea like a millpond and the sun shining in the clear blue sky I was really looking forward to a good day’s Seasearching.

Eventually everyone arrived and we were ready to go to the boat.
Diving was arranged with Philip Hughes - at sites around Sarn Cynfellin.   This is an area being studied by Friends of Cardigan Bay for dolphin activities and Seasearch is’ ground truthing’ some of the areas......building on surveys started in 2005.  it’s a shame there is no funding available to help volunteers with the cost of the surveys!

Marine Reserves Now  "Marine Reserves Now - Get the message”

The boat was moored  a good 6m below the Jetty and the only way to get all our kit onboard was either by the ladder or lowered on a rope, we opted for the rope. It was hard work and we all hoped that it would be worth the effort.

Half an hour later we were ready to set off. As we left the shelter of the harbour we were greeted by a solitary, inquisitive dolphin and it instantly dawned on me that this was going to be a good weekend.
It took us 45 minutes to reach the dive site and when we arrived, we eagerly kitted up wondering what lay below.

I was’ buddied’ with a BSAC diver named Howard and we went through the essential buddy checks before making a backward roll entry into the sparkling and inviting water below.  As we started out descent, it was obvious that the’ viz’ was good as we were able to see the seabed a staggering 9 metres below. Happy days!

The bottom was covered in vast swathes of Mares Tail, a golden brown grass like seaweed about 300mm long which danced and swayed in the one knot current.  As we drifted effortlessly over the sea floor, the vegetation became interspersed with huge tracts of juvenile Mussels. We gave each other the OK sign and proceeded with the business of recording everything we saw on the dive. We had agreed before the dive that Howard would record everything on a slate and I would back it up with photographic evidence.

It was a nice easy dive with a maximum time of 45 minutes which we decided on because of the current and the distance we would drift on the current.  We recorded and photographed many species and these included, Dahlia Anemones, Dragonets, Bib, Pollock, Hermit Crabs Common Stars, Bloody Henry’s and even a Spider Crab with a clump of juvenile Mussels and a Snakelock Anemone attached to its shell.

Velvet Swimming CrabVelvet   Swimming Crab

Toward the end of the dive, we saw a Greater Pipefish and as this was one of  our objectives to record we ascended as a happy buddy pair.

The boat moved to the next site and we went through our routines before again entering the water.
The second dive was even better than the first, with much greater quantities of everything we had previously seen and the seabed was a vast array of colour made up of red, green and brown seaweeds covering cobbles and boulders. There were Tompot Blennies watching us from every crevice, Butterfish, large lobsters and edible crabs peering from their shelters under rocks and ledges.

We were encountering both Snake and Greater Pipefish every few metres that we traveled. We were diving as a threesome and every time we looked at each other you could see that the grins would have been wide, if it wasn’t for the regulators in our mouths.

The dive lasted a ‘species- packed’  65 minutes, 5 minutes more than the planned time but well within the safe limits of no decompression diving and with plenty of air remaining. We talked excitedly about our “fantastic day’s diving” once back on board the boat, before filling in the Seasearch recording forms on which everything we saw on both dives were recorded on separate forms with the gps position noted so that  mapping of the underwater environment for the area could be made.

Back on dry land, it was time to head for campsites and friends’ houses for the night, before meeting at Newquay harbour, an hour south of Aberystwyth at 800hrs sharp the next morning. We set out at 700 hrs and the weather was the same as the previous day. Sunshine and clear blue sky. Someone was smiling down on us.

The boat was loaded and Steve Hartley our skipper pointed her in the direction of Mwnt. The sea was like glass and there were pods of dolphin breaching in 4 places all around us. It was a very “spiritual experience”.
After steaming south for about an hour and a half, we arrived at our dive site. The purpose of the first dive was to try and establish why dolphins are regularly seen at this site. We intended to survey the seafloor, in order to establish if there was any logical reason why dolphins frequented this area- whether it be food or topography.

Dive briefing was completed and buddy checks were done (we were diving as a 3. Leon, Sheena and myself and as we had done this on many occasions before, there was no pressure).  We entered the inviting water and descended to a depth of 12m, the’ viz’ was only about 3m so we stayed quite close to each other throughout the dive and again adopted the ‘one write’ and the ‘other photograph’ method of recording. Leon was using video and I was taking stills.

There was very little recording done on the dive because we only saw 4 species in total on a seabed of sand and mud. The only reason I can think of for the dolphins to be regularly seen there, was to build sandcastles!!
We eagerly waited for our planned dive time to arrive so we could end the boredom ( 59 minutes looking at only sand can be quite challenging!) and get back on the boat.

Our Survey Form took approximately 5 minutes to complete. Dragonet, Gurnard, Dogfish and Masked Crabs all seen on a flat, sandy bottom with a maximum depth of 14.3 metres. BORING!
Next, we cruised  northward back toward Newquay for our second and last dive of the weekend.
We had decided that if the dive was the same as the first dive, 20 minutes would be quite enough to endure but, on descending, it became obvious that we were going to enjoy this one.
Ten metres of ‘viz’ on a rocky sea floor with sand interspersed.

Greater Pipefish

 Greater Pipefish

I dropped straight on to a Greater Pipefish and spent several minutes photographing it, it stayed still, even when Leon got to within 150mm of it with the video. There were Kelp Forests, Lobsters and large Edible Crabs. There were short turf, tall turf, Bib, Pollock, Long- spined sea scorpion, Dogfish and Nudibranchs in varying shapes and sizes, busily grazing  on nearly every piece of seaweed.

I spent as much time as possible photographing the 4 species that I encountered and with the brightness of their colours , yellow, red,  violet and orange, they would not have been out of place on any tropical reef. Few people realize the colourful diversity of life forms below the surface of British waters.
A little over 55 minutes later, we were beginning our ascent and safety stop. Even though the maximum depth was only 8 metres, we felt it safer to err on the side of caution and make a mandatory safety stop for 3 minutes.

Once back on the boat, we talked excitedly about what we had seen and one photograph in particular caused my colleague, Kate Lock, to go into raptures of excitement. Kate is a Marine Biologist and works for the Skomer Marine Nature Reserve, she is also the ‘Regional Co-Ordinator for Seasearch in South West Wales. She exclaimed “Do you know how rare that is?” I obviously didn’t and told her so.
She went on to explain that it was a species called “Okenia elegans”.

Seasearch Okenia Elegans copyright Ian WilliamsOkenia elegans © Ian Williams                  

She checked its distribution and there has only about 15 recorded sightings in the UK!!!  There are a couple in Scotland so it is not a northern record BUT up to now the only records in Wales are from Skomer (or close by) and we were 30 miles North of this is still a really unusual sighting.......And I had a photograph to prove I’d seen it.

I felt brilliant! A bit of a celebrity even, I puffed my chest out and strutted off the boat feeling quite euphoric. I couldn’t wait to tell friends and family about my “Slug”, but they didn’t seem to get that excited. Perhaps they were hiding their excitement?  I began to wonder if it really was only divers and Seasearchers who truly appreciated the mysterious and vibrant living kingdom beneath the British waves.

I feel extremely privileged to be able to experience this amazing life and view these wonderful things under the sea. It is a total mystery to me why there are vast amounts of money spent on space research when we do not know what is hidden in the depths of our own oceans.

We made arrangements for our next Seaseach weekend, a survey of Urchins and Starfish off Skomer Island in two weeks time. I can’t wait!

I said my good-byes and headed for home with happy thoughts of a memorable weekend’s diving fresh in my mind.

Diving animation



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