Seeing a basking shark is a treasured experience for Uk divers, but they are threatened both by fishing and boats.
Seeing a basking shark is a treasured experience for Uk divers, but they are threatened both by fishing and boats.


TWO DIVING DOCS: Dr Keith Hiscock (left) is Executive Secretary and Programme Director of the Plymouth-based MarLIN Marine Biological Association. He was instrumental in establishing the first UK voluntary marine nature reserve at Lundy in 1972. Dr Jean-Luc Solandt globetrotted between 1993 and 2002, undertaking diving research and conservation work for his PhD and Coral Cay Conservation. Now based in landlocked Ross on Wye, he is Biodiversity Policy Officer for the Marine Conservation Society - and dives whenever he can.


THE MARINE BILL WHITE PAPER consultation launched in March offers hope that some of the UK's richest marine-life locations will now be protected in an effective way.
Since the mid-1960s, when a group of marine biologists and scientific divers suggested that the introduction of 'underwater reserves' would be a good idea, we have stumbled through the weak provisions for Marine Nature Reserves introduced in 1981 (there are only three reserves in the UK) and implementation of the EU Habitats Directive of 1992.
This led to the creation of 57 marine Special Areas of Conservation (SACs) around our coasts, based on a peculiar set of habitats put forward for protection, and poor selection criteria.
Still, at least sometimes reluctant government departments were persuaded to take action. Successful voluntary marine protected areas continue to operate, often now contained within these SACs.
You can see what the White Paper proposes by visiting www.defra.gov.uk/ environment/water/marine. Similar proposals are likely to be made for Scotland and Wales. The proposal is for Marine Conservation Zones - or Nationally Important Marine Areas, depending on which part of the UK you dive in. Putting scientific criteria to one side, I would emphasise the importance of the 'wow' factor in deciding where these protected areas should be.
Divers have their own ideas of what constitutes a marine-biodiversity hotspot, and they know where many of them are. It might mean somewhere with lots of fish, a place with colourful marine life, somewhere that porpoises are regularly seen or, if you have natural history leanings, a location that provides the chance to see a great variety of species, including rare and scarce ones.
Whatever your idea of a biodiversity hotspot, because they are increasingly threatened as our seas get busier we want to protect them to give us a chance to see nature as it should look.
The No-Take Zone around Lundy is 1.27sq miles, or 0.00045% of the UK continental shelf area - and it's the only area in the UK that is totally protected.
Identifying biodiversity hotspots for protection is a way for divers to get 'more bang for your buck', and the Marine Biological Association has been testing ways of doing that for WWF-UK.
Working on the basis that such hotspots are areas of high species and habitat richness that include representative, rare and threatened features, we analysed survey data from 120 UK locations to produce six measures of biodiversity.
The results did not necessarily confirm the 'old favourites', but such places as Plymouth Sound and estuaries, Salcombe Harbour to Start Point and the Menai Strait ranked highly.
Some measures were affected by the south-to-north natural decline in variety of species, and some because predominantly rock or sediment had been surveyed.
For one measure, Average Taxonomic Distinctness, a reasonably even spread of 'hot' locations was identified, including what might be thought surprises. It was expected that Lundy should emerge as hot, but then so did Unst in Shetland.
For some areas, though they are well-known to divers and scientists as being rich in marine life, there was too little survey data available to enable analysis.
Scotland's Firth of Lorn, which has many special features and a wide variety of species, is an example.
The report demonstrated criteria and measures to be used in identifying and describing areas for protection. Two of the measures identified locations with a high abundance of species and habitats that are rare or threatened with decline. Here places such as Plymouth reefs and Skomer Island in Wales ranked highly.
Such species and habitats are registered as 'Nationally Important Marine Features' and the final list will provide an important touchstone for marine environment management and protection.
There has also been much activity in recent years to refine the identification of marine protected areas through a programme called the Review of Marine Nature Conservation.
Armed with the information and the criteria, we just need some effective tools to protect the best areas to represent the range of UK marine life.
Hotspot and other scientific measures involve analysing data, but much of what we know - the 'soft intelligence' - is what you and I as divers see, enjoy and think special.
We still need more scientific surveys and understanding of how marine eco-systems 'work' but we can all make our views known about where the special places should be and how we want to see them protected.
We have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to influence the protection of much of what makes UK diving special.


Aurelia Aurita, otherwise known as the moon jellyfish.
Divers and soft intelligence
Learning to dive, at Port Erin Marine Laboratory on the Isle of Man in 1991, I was faced with the wonder of a new world, and excitement at meeting what had fascinated me since I was an 8-year-old, confronted with a sticker book of 'marine monsters'.
After 16 years of diving all over the world, I'm still amazed at what each dive can offer - even when looking at a sea-urchin home for weeks on end during a research project in Jamaica.
But it's not only marine biologists who record marine wildlife on and under water - you can get involved as well, and make a valuable contribution to conservation research in the UK.
Did you know that the Marine Conservation Society was started in 1983 not by professional conservationists but by divers concerned by the impact of pollution and fishing on the seabed?
From Wick to Land's End, recreational divers have always been invaluable in reporting animals at the surface, as well as on the seabed where professional marine biologists can't reach - there simply aren't enough divers!
Every time any one of us dives, we're looking for the things that stand out from the norm. UK divers can help marine biologists and conservationists to understand where and when unusual and rare species are found.
Professional recording of marine wildlife is extremely expensive and requires technical skills beyond the scope of most exponents (namely diving). It therefore lags way behind our knowledge on land, leaving us with a fairly patchy idea of what lies at and below the surface of our seas.
Reports of marine species by the public have resulted in considerable successes in species protection. The MCS has been analysing basking-shark sightings since 1987, and this has helped us to better conserve this spectacular creature.
A large part of British society now understands how fisheries can endanger species such as sharks, and this has indirectly played a part in making landing of basking sharks illegal in all EC waters.
Your accurate sightings of rare and threatened species and habitats help the MCS and other organisations' campaign for Marine Protected Areas, where destruction of vulnerable species (collateral damage) can be banned from vulnerable areas.
Sightings can effectively be split into two categories: species that swim in open surface waters (fish, whales, dolphins, fish, turtles), and bottom-dwelling and generally sessile species (invertebrates - soft corals, sponges, bryozoans and molluscs - and crustaceans).
Keep a slate on the boat (and take one on your dive) to report your location (latitude/longitude); date; time; habitat and number of these species. These are essential categories, but the more information that can be collected at each sighting the better - for example, water temperature, weather and sea state.
Reporting of marine species on dives
is carried out throughout the UK by Seasearch, a project dedicated to training any diver in the basics of recording marine wildlife. Twelve regional co-ordinators provide training courses for recreational divers throughout the year.
Project sightings are split between a number of organisations because of the size of the workload and because different bodies have different areas of expertise.

SURFACE SWIMMERS
BASKING SHARKS
(Cetorhinus maximus)
SIZE: 2-11m
LOCATION: West coasts, Isle of Man, Channel Islands, West Ireland
WHEN: April-October
FOOD: Zooplankton (copepods)
WHY REPORT SIGHTINGS: Endangered/threatened by bycatch and boat harassment
CONTACT: Marine Conservation Society (MCS), 01989 566 017; mcsuk.org

JELLYFISH
SIZE: Up to 1m across the bell; all coasts
WHEN: Spring/summer
FOOD: Plankton, fish, crustaceans
WHY REPORT SIGHTINGS: Principal food of the leatherback turtle
CONTACT: MCS, 01989 566 017; mcsuk.org

Lion's mane jellyfish

WHALES
SIZE: 3m (pilot whale) - 27m (blue whale)
LOCATION: Offshore, mainly west coast
WHEN: Year-round but more common in summer
FOOD: Plankton (baleen whales), squid, fish
WHY REPORT SIGHTINGS: Whales are still caught by Norway for 'research'. Factory ships catch species that migrate between Norwegian and UK waters, affecting our population
CONTACT: WDCS , 01249 449500; wdcs.org

Minke whale. GRAEME CRESSWELL/BREATHTAKINGWHALES.COM


UNUSUAL FISH
SPECIES: Mola mola (ocean sunfish), jack, tuna, swordfish, triggerfish, seahorses and other subtropical and tropical species
WHY REPORT SIGHTINGS: To see how climate change is affecting presence in UK waters
CONTACT: Doug Herdson, National Marine Aquarium 01752 600301, education@national-aquarium.co.uk.

PORPOISES & DOLPHINS
SIZE: 1m (harbour porpoise) - 3m (bottlenose dolphin)
LOCATION: West UK/Irish coasts for most dolphin species; North Sea predominantly for harbour porpoise
WHEN: Year-round
FOOD: Fish, shellfish, crustaceans, squid
WHY REPORT SIGHTINGS: Bycatch with the gillnet fisheries (inshore) and pair trawling (further offshore) results in deaths.
CONTACT: Whale & Dolphin Conservation Society (WDCS), 01249 449500, wdcs.org

LEATHERBACK TURTLES
(Dermochelys coriacea)
SIZE: Up to 3m
LOCATION; West coast, especially Carmarthen Bay, Tremadog Bay and western Ireland
WHEN: Spring/summer
FOOD: Jellyfish
WHY REPORT SIGHTINGS: One of the most endangered species in the world ? migrates from nesting grounds in the Caribbean to feed on UK jellyfish blooms
CONTACT: MCS, 01989 566 017; mcsuk.org

SEABED SPECIES AND HABITATS
EELGRASS
(Zostera marina)
SIZE: Blades up to 1m long
FOOD: Photosynthesis ? a rare flowering marine plant
WHY REPORT SIGHTINGS: Threatened habitat (by hand bait-digging, coastal development and pollution). Important nursery ground for commercial fish and shellfish
CONTACT: MarLIN, 01752 633336, www.marlin.ac.uk/rml/rec_logon.php

FANSHELLS
(Atrina fragilis)
SIZE: Up to 40cm long (by about 20cm at the aperture)
FOOD: Filter-feeder ? organic detritus, plankton
HABITAT: Mud and sand, sometimes very close to shore
WHY REPORT SIGHTINGS: Very rare (only nine UK locations known). Damaged in deeper water by fisheries.
CONTACT: MCS, mcsuk.org

CRAYFISH
(Panulirus elephas)
SIZE: About 50cm
FOOD: Scavenger
WHY REPORT SIGHTINGS: Overfished by divers and potters, rare
CONTACT: MarLIN, 01752 633336, www.marlin.ac.uk/rml/rec_logon.phpa

POTATO CRISP BRYOZOANS OR ROSS CORALS
(Pentapora foliacea)
SIZE: Up to 20cm across
FOOD: Filter-feeder
WHY REPORT SIGHTINGS: Damaged by bottom fishing gear in areas of mixed habitat/reefs
CONTACT: MarLIN, 01752 633336, www.marlin.ac.uk/rml/rec_logon.php

PINK SEAFANS
(Eunicella verrucosa)
SIZE: Up to 1m (largest colonies in Channel Islands and Skomer Island, Wales)
FOOD: Stings plankton and gathers organic detritus with polyps on arms.
HABITAT: Rocky reefs 10-50m+
WHY REPORT SIGHTINGS: Threatened by benthic trawling. Huge numbers have been removed in Lyme Bay by scallop dredgers
CONTACT: Seasearch/MCS, seasearch.org.uk

MAERL (Phmatolithon sp. or Lithothamnion sp.) SIZE: Can form reefs up to 100m across FOOD: Photosynthetic ? a calcareous (made of limestone) algae WHY REPORT SIGHTINGS: Damaged by pollution, coastal developments, fish-farms and dredging CONTACT: MarLIN, 01752 633336, www.marlin.ac.uk/rml/rec_logon.php

FURTHER CONTACTS
* Report on UK marine biodiversity hotspots, wwf.org.uk
* Marine Protected Areas, ukmpas.org
* Marine Reserves Now petition, mcsuk.org
* Survey data, www.searchnbn.net
* Joining in surveys, seasearch.org.uk
* Marine species and habitat information, www.marlin.ac.uk

Chris Wood's book Observers Guide to Marine Life of Britain and Ireland (MCS, £11.50) introduces the animals and plants most regularly seen by divers