Secrets of the sea emerge
Delving deep to reveal Somerset Coast
Sea hares, sun starfish and stalked jellyfish are some of the initial sightings of sea life around Somerset during the area’s first survey in more than 30 years.
In a bid to better understand the marine environment and help protect it for the future, The Wildlife Trusts commissioned divers to explore the waters off Porlock Weir for a scientific underwater survey.
The dive is part of Somerset Wildlife Trust’s Living Seas initiative to raise awareness of Somerset’s marine environment through public surveys and events. The Trust is working in partnership with a range of organisations including the National Trust to develop collaborative projects that highlight the importance of our coast for wildlife and promote this to local people and visitors.
Diverse habitats, rare finds
The four professional divers and marine ecologists were excited to find two different and very diverse sea bed habitats; a boulder reef north of Gore Point and a sand and shell plain in the centre of Porlock Bay in the Bristol Channel. They recorded rare stalked jellyfish, bunches of cuttlefish and squid eggs, squat lobsters hiding in crevices, many crab and fish species, brittle and sunstar starfish plus many sea hares, which are large and exotic looking marine molluscs.
The stalked jellyfish features in the UK Biodiversity Action Plan and Feature of Conservation Importance species, meaning particular attention needs to be paid to this rare species which may be more sensitive to pressures and need targeted protection.
Many sponge species were found living on the sand and boulders during the two dives, including numerous branching and hedgehog sponges. Sponges are important components of marine habitats; simple animals which attach themselves to rock. The divers took photographs and small samples to help identify the species living there. The samples have been analysed microscopically and the creatures identified to species where possible. These provide an extensive species list for each site.
A more complete picture
The divers experienced difficulties in getting to the dive sites and on both dives, visibility was poor around 1.5metres with currents moderate on the first and much stronger on the second. Due to these challenges, and the lack of diving infrastructure nearby, these areas have not been surveyed since the 1970s.
Dominic Flint, marine scientist and leader of the dive team, said: “This survey complements the extensive intertidal, seashore, marine mammal and birdlife records collected by the Somerset Wildlife Trust members, volunteers and staff. This now provides a more complete picture of the fantastically diverse marine environment of the Somerset coast, which has been somewhat underappreciated in the past.
“The wealth of evidence provided by exploratory dive surveys like this, in areas where there is little or no habitat or seabed data, will ensure we have the evidence to secure their conservation and can be included in future discussions over marine protection and conservation measures.”
Somerset Wildlife Trust’s marine ambassador, Nigel Phillips, said: “Our beach survey work has shown that this coast is far richer in wildlife than many would expect despite murky water and fast-moving tidal currents, which made this a very frustrating place to survey.
The Wildlife Trusts’ support enabled a team of divers to carry out a sea bed survey at Porlock Bay which is so important to the future of marine species in Somerset. One of the stand-out finds of the day was the stalked jelly fish which had never before been recorded along this coast and is a UK Biodiversity Action Plan and Feature of Conservation Importance species. Somerset Wildlife Trust is delighted that this diving survey has shown just how amazingly diverse the shallow off shore waters are here.”
Joan Edwards, The Wildlife Trusts’ Head of Living Seas, said: “The UK’s vital marine natural resources can only be managed properly if they are first understood. Although some sites are well dived, there is still much we don’t know about the rich and diverse marine life we have around the UK, including Somerset. All the data collected during dives builds a better understanding of the unique and special marine environment, creating a stronger foundation to help conserve it for the future.
“We are delighted to support our colleagues at Somerset Wildlife Trust in its ambitious project to learn more about marine life in the area.”
Marine Conservation Zones
The Government is currently designating a network of Marine Conservation Zones in English waters - sites where the sea bed will be protected from damaging and degrading activity. This in turn will protect the species and habitats within, allowing marine life to thrive. Survey work in poorly understood areas, such as Porlock Bay, helps to build knowledge of the sea bed. The data gathered will help inform decision-makers about additional sites which need to be designated in order to complete a network of protected areas.
The Wildlife Trusts are working to ensure the UK’s currently under-protected waters are turned back into a thriving marine environment within a generation, for many future generations to enjoy.