John Liddiard went back to school this summer, to make sure he would recognise anything special that swam his way
LOOKING AROUND THE CLASSROOM, the divers gathered for the Seasearch Observer course are not what I would have expected. Some of them look like hardened wreckies and tekkies. Many are quite experienced divers. But at the same time, there are also some relatively new divers. What they all want to learn more about is the marine life they see when diving. For the past few years, Darren Ferris has been following the typical wreck-diving route to twin-sets and decompression stops. 'My buddy for some evening dives was doing Seasearch, and I realised there was so much more I could learn about the marine life,' he says. 'I was initially apprehensive that I wouldn't know enough to get started, but the course is very reassuring.' It's a two-day course with a day of classroom work followed by a day of diving. By the end of the course, everyone will have completed two Seasearch Observer forms, which count towards the five completed and verified forms needed for the Seasearch Observer qualification. Or to put it in diving terms, five dives focusing on marine life and habitat, with guidance and feedback from real experts in the field. Seasearch is a volunteer project to map the various types of seabed and resident marine life around the British Isles. Any diver can participate, either by joining Seasearch-organised dives or simply by recording what they see on any dive. Regional organisers check the observation or survey forms the divers submit and enter the results into the Seasearch Database. This is used to update the National Biodiversity Network database and made available online (see linked article). In the classroom, local co-ordinator Sally Sharrock leads the divers through a well-polished combination of presentations and exercises. It's structured on completing the observer form, but to do this means learning about the types of marine life and habitat seen in the British Isles. Sally adds colour with little gems of marine trivia. Darren comments on hermit crabs: 'I had always pretty much ignored them, but it's amazing to know that when they move shells they also move their anemones across,' he says. By lunchtime we have spread out from the classroom across much of the floor of the In-Deep Dive Centre at Mountbatten. Groups of divers work through stacks of cards with photographs of marine life and are matching the cards to categories. If they can identify a card precisely, that's great, but Seasearch works at many levels, so knowing simple things such as the differences between anemones and sea squirts is also useful. The final exercise of the afternoon is a virtual dive - a video of a dive that the divers watch in real time and make notes on, completing a Seasearch Observer form at the end. The diving part of the course begins at Fairylands, a series of gullies and pinnacles near Hilsea Point. The value of photographs and video is not lost on the divers, several recording their dives on video or pocket digital cameras, then using this to help fill in the forms afterwards. 'It doesn't have to be professional quality - even very basic photographs can be checked against a guide book or shown to an expert to help identify something,' says Darren, who recorded his dives on a video camera. Reviewing the reports from the dive, Sally is impressed with the progress of the group. 'These are some of the best first reports I have ever seen,' she says. 'It's so rewarding to see them getting so enthusiastic about the marine life. I think in many cases they already knew what animals they were looking at, but just didn't have a name to put to them.' I ask Sally how this compares to a typical course: 'We usually get a 50/50 mix of male and female divers, with one or two years' diving experience. Most of this group are much more experienced,' she says, adding that 'anyone can make a worthwhile contribution, whatever their level of diving and the depths they dive to.' With this in mind, Seasearch also has an advanced course, the Seasearch Surveyors' Course, aimed at experienced Seasearchers and those who already have a good basic knowledge of marine life. 'It's a big step,' says Sally. 'I would recommend at least a solid season's diving at the Seasearch Observer level before doing the Surveyor course.'
I JOIN AN ADVANCED GROUP surveying the Plymouth Drop-off, a typical bunch of UK divers, though with plenty of slates and pencils and cameras, ranging from pocket digital to video. Kat Brown has been Seasearching for several years. 'I fill in survey forms for nearly all my leisure dives,' she says. 'I would have said 100%, but there were some dives the other week that I didn't make notes for. We were taking video, so I suppose I could complete a survey from that.' When not Seasearching, Kat works as a diving instructor at Plymouth University. 'If I'm taking a student for a dive, just to build up their hours under water and not doing exercises, I often do Seasearch and get them to help.' Returning to the Mountbatten centre, divers gather in the bar to complete their survey forms. Various marine-life ID books are spread across the table, divers occasionally looking up to ask others advice about something they have seen. 'The survey forms are a fair bit of work, though they do get easier with experience. The observer forms are much easier, so some divers prefer to stay at that level,' says Kat.
For a second dive, there is talk of heading out to the wreck of the Rosehill (Wreck Tour 96, February 2007). Seasearch is monitoring the seafans that adorn the flattened hull of the wreck. With the northerly wind picking up, they instead opt for a more sheltered drift by Hilsea Point. I catch up with Darren a couple of weeks later. He has completed two more Observer dives, and is off again that evening. 'It wasn't just a course to get the badge. Knowing what you're looking at encourages you to look harder and notice the things that are unusual and special,' he says. What about those who don't become long-term participants in Seasearch? Sally concludes: 'After the initial surge of enthusiasm, about 20% of participants become long-term contributors. Even those that don't regularly return Observer forms find what they have learned about marine life useful for their everyday diving.'
One-day Seasearch courses cost ?30-?40, weekend courses with diving ?70-?90. Call Seasearch on 07776 142096 or visit www.seasearch. org.uk. In-Deep Dive Centre, 01752 405400, www.indeep.co.uk. Kara-C, 0797 4015846, www.kara-c.co.uk
Spread out across the floor of In-Deep, divers classify marine life from photographs.