To find nudibranchs, you need to know what they feed on. It's easier to spot sponges, anemones or hydroids, and then start looking for the small slugs
THE FRESH, NORWEGIAN AIR and the mountains rising towards the sky gave me a great feeling of tranquillity. We certainly don’t have anything like this back home in Denmark, where I come from.
But I wasn’t here only to admire the mountains, I had come to dive in the clear waters off Norway’s west coast.
I had travelled to Gulen Dive Resort two hours north of Bergen to take part in an exciting workshop, one of a very few of its kind. The Nudibranch Safari takes place at the end of March, which is generally the best time to spot the small, colourful molluscs in Norwegian waters.
Gulen is not new territory for me, and I had looked forward to coming back, but the focus would be quite different this time.
Arriving on the Wednesday night, I could hardly wait to enter the water. Luckily, the house reef was just a few short steps from the dive-shop, and after preparing my camera and dive gear the wintery water was soon closing in over my head.
With me in the water was Nudibranch Safari host Christian Skauge. What better company I thought. He knows the house reef like the back of his hand, and knows where the rarest and strangest nudibranchs can be found.
We reached the first kelp stalks at a few metres’ depth, but no matter how hard I looked, I couldn’t see any nudibranchs anywhere.
We continued deeper, and arrived at an area that at first hardly seemed to be teeming with life. Then we started looking in between rocks and in empty sea-shells, and different nudibranchs started popping out.
I had my most powerful macro lens on, ready to photograph even the smallest nudibranchs – and we found them in all sizes.
AFTER SPENDING AS MUCH TIME at around 20m as our computers would allow, we turned and headed for shallower water. It was only then that I realised there were plenty of nudibranchs on the kelp after all.
Very often, this is what happens when you’re looking for the ocean’s smaller inhabitants – your eyes need a little time to adjust to the scale.
The dive resort was open from Tuesday, when the first participants from Switzerland and Germany arrived and started diving.
The other participants arrived from all over Scandinavia in the next few days, and when Norway’s biggest nudibranch experts Jussi Evertsen and Torkild Bakken from the University of Nature & Science in Trondheim arrived on Thursday night, the event kicked off
These scientists have been mapping the biology and distribution of nudibranchs along the central part of the Norwegian coast.
The workshop was planned to give the participants plenty of time in the water and the chance to listen to the lectures.
On Friday night Christian Skauge took us through a series of techniques for photographing nudibranchs, illustrated with his own images.
There has been little recent research into nudibranchs in Norway, so Jussi and Torkild had plenty to learn when they started their project in 1997.
It was interesting to hear them explain how they work. Many species are so similar that images are not enough to separate them – other methods have to be employed. They study the nudibranchs under the microscope and even use DNA barcoding to get a definitive identification.
Norwegian waters are home to almost 100 nudibranch species, about 60 of them in diveable depths. At the house reef of Gulen Dive Resort, no fewer than 54 had been documented to date!
Jussi and Torkild have mapped the DNA of some 70% of the nudibranchs in Norwegian waters, and this work has thrown up some surprises. For example, it seems that some slugs on land with their own shells are genetically closer to their homeless cousins in the ocean than to other land slugs!
On Friday we dived the house reef to bits from early morning. Everyone was in the water several times searching for rare treats, and enjoyed 20m visibility.
As the winter had been short and mild the water temperature was a balmy 7°C, 3-4° warmer than usual at this time of the year.
The upside was that we could stay a little longer under water before our teeth started chattering. The downside Fewer species, because nudibranchs prefer really cold water. All the same, I was finding one species after another.
My trigger-finger was in constant use, and I obtained some good images of both common and rarer species.
The nudibranchs may have thought the water slightly warm, but I still tended to get cold towards the end of the dives. Surfacing to warm coffee waffles with strawberry jam was a true delight every time.
Jussi and Torkild had brought stereoscopes from the university for us to use to study the collected nudibranchs close up and in great detail. With their help, we were able to identify the species we had found before releasing them unharmed back into the ocean.
DURING THE NUDIBRANCH SAFARI we found some 30 species, much the same number as you would find on a tropical coral reef – and the colours and shapes were equally astonishing!
Taking into consideration that the high water temperature was not ideal for nudibranchs, this was a world-class result. One of the most exciting finds this year was the extremely rare Berghia norvegica, never seen in the wild since its original discovery by bottom-scrape in 1939.
This nudibranch has been found only in Norway, and the lucky divers who got to see it at the workshop now belong to a very exclusive club. If you’re not already a nudinerd when you book this safari, you will certainly have become one by the time you leave for home!
The next Nudibranch Safaris at Gulen Dive Resort take place from 8-11 March, with guest speakers Alex Mustard, Bernard Picton and Christian Skauge, and 14-17 March with Picton, Skauge, Jussi Evertsen and Torkild Bakken. Unlimited house-reef diving, lectures, workshop and three nights in shared twin rooms with self-catering facilities costs 4390 krone (around £480). Details at www.scubapixel.com/nudisafari. Dive Gulen Resort, www.divegulen.com.
The Nudibranch Project: www.nudibranchia.