Can such a rainbow coalition really be found in English waters? Our marine-life man Paul Naylor has a new book out, and here he uses some of its images to prove that Brit critters aren't half as grey as they're painted
Rock Cook Rasse
It happens all the time. 'What are you going to look at, mate?' the young lads call, as I stagger past them down the beach wearing steamy-hot diving gear and carrying a camera housing that is getting heavier by the second. 'All sorts of things,' I reply. 'Sea anemones, corals, crabs, colourful fish...' and then I cut myself short as the cylinder grows yet heavier on my back. The lads mutter: 'What's he on?' in a sceptical but friendly way, then wander off, probably thinking that only someone prone to hallucinating would dress like that anyway. People do find it difficult to believe that a wonderful array of colourful creatures can be found around our coasts, and even divers are not immune from such scepticism. 'Where were those taken, then?' I am often asked about certain pictures after a talk to a diving club. My questioner seems to expect me to reveal the existence of a barely dived rock pinnacle off a deserted Scottish island, and is amazed when my response is 'about 100 metres off Paignton beach'. I suppose that's the key point for us divers: we can get carried away rushing out to those clearwater locations that are a bum-numbing RIB ride off the coast, forgetting that the wonderful colours of our marine life are everywhere! That is not to play down the appeal of offshore sites because I, for one, would never turn down a dive on them. The clear water allows wonderful vistas to be viewed, while the currents that sweep past encourage beautiful animals such as sea anemones and soft corals to grow in profusion. This combination means that the colourful patchwork created by the budding of different colour forms of jewel anemones, for instance, can be fully appreciated. Many of the creatures seen at these famous locations, however, can also be found living in muddy inshore waters. Close examination of overhangs and gullies close to a rocky shore often reveals dazzling groups of jewel anemones, even if there is plenty of sediment about. There are also different animals to be appreciated. The wonderful snakelocks anemone, for example, resplendent in green and purple, might be overlooked by divers because it lives among seaweed in shallow water. This is no coincidence; the symbiotic algae living within its tentacles need sunlight to thrive. That kelp we are desperate to get past to reach the 'proper' part of the dive is worth a second glance too, because of the colourful animals that live there. The blue-rayed limpet, for example, digs itself into pits in the kelp, and has a kelp-coloured shell, but is given away by markings of the most exquisite kingfisher-blue. There are all sorts of other vibrant invertebrates, too, such as sea slugs, cuttlefish and starfish, which are just as numerous in the shallows as in deeper water. The same goes for fish. Most divers are familiar with the spectacular cuckoo wrasse, usually found offshore, but the corkwing, its smaller relative, is sometimes overlooked. Corkwings are seen in huge numbers in shallow rocky bays, and can be fabulously coloured in the breeding season. Virtually everywhere you dive around Britain, there will be wonderful colours on view; its just that you have to look harder for it in some places than in others. Our marine animals are not colourful only in the conventional sense, but in their habits and lifestyles. Sex-changers, wife-swappers and orgy-addicts are encountered every time we go underwater, not to mention all the creatures that have developed numerous cunning ways of capturing, avoiding or co-operating with their neighbours. Sea anemones might look beautiful to us, but not to a shrimp captured by thousands of their miniature harpoons, injected with poison and slowly devoured. Sea hares might appear dull in comparison to their fellow sea slugs, the more flamboyant nudibranchs, but they can form huge mating chains, with each individual acting as male and female to different neighbours. Sea hares live for no more than a year, but what a year! Females of the humble-looking slipper limpet secrete a substance into the water that maintains the masculinity of nearby males. Left to their own devices, the males would become females. The cuckoo wrasse goes the other way. If a dominant male dies or deserts his harem, one of the females changes sex and takes his place. The ballan wrasse does exactly the same, but doesn't make a song and dance about it with a gaudy colour change. The male corkwing wrasse might seem like a devoted father and home-builder, but he tries to invite as many females as possible into his nest to lay their eggs. Other males might pretend to be females, gain entry to the nest, and then fertilise a visiting female's eggs before the male in residence can do so. There are intricate partnerships on display too. Touch one of the little hermit crabs that crawls over a muddy seabed, and the anemone wrapped round its shell could shoot out its defensive white threads, which are loaded with stinging cells. These aptly named cloak anemones also produce an extension to the hermit crab's shell as it grows, thus freeing it from the dangerous and time-consuming house moves that would otherwise be necessary. Even experienced divers might be surprised to learn that fish 'cleaning stations', normally associated with coral reefs, are frequently found in our home waters. A cautious approach to a rocky outcrop or piece of wreckage, where wrasse congregate in numbers, might result in the sight of small rock cook wrasse cleaning the parasites from a larger ballan wrasse. Both types of colour, the conventional and the 'lifestyle' sort, are displayed in my new book; the second edition of Marine Animals of the South West. While divers can certainly use the book to identify what they see, I hope it will do much more and reveal the colourful lives of the animals we often take for granted. Wherever possible, there are pairs or sequences of photographs to show the creatures going about their lives. All are taken under water rather than in an aquarium, so they are things any diver might see. For the diver reluctant to enter our cooler waters, I hope it provides amazement that so many animals of such colour, in both senses of the word, are found very close to home and desperately need to be conserved. I now keep a copy of the book in the car; I'll show it to the lads on the beach next time they ask me what I've seen.
BIGGER BOOK SAME PRICE The second edition of Marine Animals of the South West by Dr Paul Naylor is essentially a new book. It is more than 60 per cent bigger, with 144 pages instead of the previous 88, and now contains 200 photographs, 130 of which are new. The book contains descriptions of intriguing aspects of the animals' lives, and covers a wider variety of species than before, but the price remains unchanged at £11.95. A valuable marine-life ID resource, but a good read in its own right, it is available from Underwater World, 020 8943 4288, or e-mail email@example.com