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Tired of mooching around aimlessly under water Want to inject more purpose into your plunges John Liddiard looks at how divers can get involved in underwater projects and expeditions in the UK

I THINK MOST OF US WHO HAVE BEEN DIVING FOR MORE THAN A YEAR OR TWO want something more from our dives than just looking around. Some get into the questionable practice of hunting for souvenirs, others explore technical diving projects. Among other things, I became involved in photography and sketching wrecks.
Others find satisfaction in marine biology and archaeology, both of which interests can be pursued through projects and expeditions. Things that come to mind are overseas environmental projects such as Coral Cay Conservation or sunken treasure ships in the Caribbean, but there are also many opportunities to get involved in these fields in the UK.
A real expedition should have a clearly defined purpose beyond going diving in a group. The very word expedition conveys an impression of roughing it rather than living in luxury, and expeditions are certainly not holidays; there is a lot of work involved. But if you are a dedicated diver looking for a new challenge, becoming a volunteer on a scientific or archaeological project could be just what you need.
On the biological side, the Marine Conservation Society (MCS) has a regular schedule, from social-diving weekends through gathering species lists at marine reserves to extended surveys of coastal areas.
As a volunteer, all you need is a diving qualification. You dont need to know anything about marine biology, but you do need to be enthusiastic about learning. One of the purposes of these expeditions is for members to learn more about the life in the sea.

I have been asking MCS members about expeditions they have experienced. A popular choice was a long weekend at the Skomer Marine Nature Reserve in Pembrokeshire, with full-board accommodation in a local guest-house.
Skomer has been the subject of many surveys and there are considerable records of both habitat and species, says Jane Burnett, when I ask about the background to this trip. These records benefit from being continuously updated and we were asked to record as many species as possible and to compile a list of species for each site.
Jane might have been a species recorder on the trip, but as she admits: My buddy was much better than I was. She really did know her stuff.
Although many MCS trips involve survey work, some consist primarily of groups of people getting together for a few days wreck-free diving. Chris and Carol Puddephatt see such trips as a chance to do some more scenic diving: Were active on the usual BSAC club diving trips, but also like to mix with groups whose interest is primarily marine life on more scenic dives.
Last year we went to Sark for a week and the Eddystone for a weekend with MCS groups. Neither trip had a specific scientific project, but some members were filling out Seasearch survey forms for every dive.
Mixing with other MCS members helps in developing marine-life identification skills, says Jane. I find it very educational to dive with people who know what theyre looking at. After-dive discussions are usually fascinating and some of their knowledge, hopefully, rubs off on me. I also think diving with marine biologists helps to make me more observant.
The Sark trip was particularly good for nudibranchs, say Chris and Carol, continuing this theme. We found ourselves really getting into looking at macro life, seeing how many we could spot.
It is this attention to detail, and the chance to spend time looking at things close up, that draws photographers to the MCS. I find the trips usually attract a few photographers, perhaps because of the type of diving involved, says another member, Gary Rhodes. Dives tend to be carried out at a fairly leisurely pace, looking at and identifying the wildlife seen. This type of diving lends itself very well to photography.
Im sure youll recognise the scenario - you come across a nice subject and in a flurry of hands you try to get off a few shots, only to look up and see your buddys fins disappear into the gloom. Conversely, it can be incredibly frustrating for another diver to be saddled with a photographer who moves at a speed the average nudibranch would be ashamed of!
Jane finds photography on normal club dives quite difficult as Im often the only one with a camera and no one wants to dive with me because Im so slow. On any MCS dive there usually seem to be one or two other photographers. Anyway, divers interested in marine biology and photographers tend to be fairly compatible. We both go down and dont move!
Gary had a nice bonus from his photography at Skomer: After last years trip, I loaned a number of slides to Chris Wood at the MCS. He was kind enough to identify many of them for me, and in the process informed me that I had a nice shot of a scarlet and gold cup coral. Would it be OK to send it to Sue Daly, who was preparing an article on British corals for BBC Wildlife magazine
I agreed, of course, and later had the satisfaction of seeing it in print. Its the first time Ive had a picture in a national magazine. It makes all the effort and hair-tearing worthwhile.
The benefits of diving with the MCS are nicely summed up by Jane, who would recommend it to anyone who wishes to develop their diving or marine-biology skills, meet new people, do something a little different from the usual branch diving and feel they are doing something useful for the marine environment.

The other main arena for scientific projects and expeditions in the UK is archaeology, and this comes under the general umbrella of the Nautical Archaeology Society. Unlike the MCS, NAS projects all require additional marine archaeology training. At an introductory level, this is the NAS Part 1 course.
This two-day course involves classroom theory and swimming-pool exercises, measuring and sketching some practice sites laid out on the bottom of a swimming pool. I did one of these courses a few years ago and it was a really fun weekend. I learned a lot about surveying techniques, which is worth knowing for general diving. The cost is about £65.
One of the easiest archaeological ventures for amateur divers to get involved with is the SolMap project, an ongoing survey of the Solent area organised by Gary Momber of the Hampshire and Wight Trust for Maritime Archaeology. Each summer there is a one- or two-week field trip to survey historical shipwrecks and the submerged (but once-dry) coastline of the Solent.
Tim Walsh has been a regular participant for the past three years: I got involved with underwater archaeology about five years ago by organising an NAS Part 1 course for members of the Bristol University diving club, he says.
Then in 1998 the first SolMap project was advertised in Diver. I volunteered and really enjoyed myself. I returned in 1999 with other club-members and the club boats and compressor and have a similar group involved this year.
A newcomer to the project is Graeme Herlihy. My personal objective was simply to try an aspect of diving I had not been involved in before, he says, adding, slightly tongue-in-cheek, my role was partly of course as the provider of a boat! The SolMap project is run with whatever equipment is available to the organisers and anything which participating divers bring with them. If you can come along with a boat or compressor it always helps, but you dont have to bring anything other than your own diving gear.
So what did Tim have to do Ive done a lot of work collecting core samples through the seabed to determine the strata at different places. Ive also done some planning and survey work and have been involved in placing and retrieving lines and other project paraphernalia. Projects have been on shipwrecks and on Mesolithic sunken forests.
SolMap has made some unique finds among these sunken forests. Last year the divers found shards of flint pushed out of a lobster burrow. Subsequent searches and excavation has revealed more shards as well as flint tools - evidence of a human settlement on the now-submerged area.
Graemes involvement had more to do with the shipwrecks. For me, there was a real perverse pleasure that I didnt expect, that came from actually diving for a purpose. I have been diving for 15 years and in every case the reason to do the dive was to do the dive!
Here, after lobbing the various bits of the framework over the side and finding them again, we had to carry them to the right part of the wreck and bolt it all together.
This all took about half an hour, which was time spent actually doing something constructive. The wreck site was very interesting, particularly when there were people at hand who knew what they were looking at and could point out the various recognisable features.
I asked Tim what he thought of the diving. These arent spectacular underwater scenes in clear visibility, but you will develop your own diving skills tremendously by having to focus on the simple underwater work and having to function as part of a team.
You dont have to be a particularly experienced diver to participate. Id recommend such projects to any diver who is looking for something a little different to do in addition to recreational diving - absolutely anyone.
Many people wont fancy the idea of scrabbling around in limited viz, looking at remains of old ships timbers or fragments of copper sheathing. I could imagine, however, that they might be pleasantly surprised at how rewarding participation can be when you are with other divers with experienced eyes.

Numerous other marine archaeology projects are going on around the country, from surveying the remains of the Stirling Castle on the Goodwin Sands to the wrecks of the Swan and HMS Dartmouth in the Sound of Mull.
But remember, most of these projects are not holidays. Everyone has to help out with a fair bit of general expedition work, and for many that is half the fun.
The more effort and dedication you put into a project, the more satisfaction you get out of it.


Putting
Putting that survey frame together
measuring
measuring the depth of a core sample
diving
diving tasks for the day are assigned at a morning briefing
underwater
underwater note-taking
Assembling
Assembling an air lift
sandbags
sandbags are used to protect an excavation site between dives
a
a flint tool, held as the original owner would have used it
checking
checking notes before the dive begins

JOIN IN THE SEARCH
Seasearch is a national project open to all sport divers who have an interest in what they are seeing under water.

You dont need to be trained in marine biology to participate; it is just a matter of recording what you see on a slate and then transferring it to a standard recording form once back on dry land.

Although it is most useful to identify something with its full name, an unscientific description such as rocks with lots of small anemones can still be of use.

You dont even have to be on an official MCS expedition to participate. Many divers fill out Seasearch forms for their club diving trips. For more information, contact the MCS.


CONTACTS
MARINE CONSERVATION SOCIETY, 01989 566017, www.mcsuk.org - projects, expeditions and links to regional marine conservation groups
NAUTICAL ARCHAEOLOGY SOCIETY, 023 9281 8419, www.nasportsmouth.org.uk - training, projects and links to various regional marine archaeology groups
HAMPSHIRE AND WIGHT TRUST FOR MARITIME ARCHAEOLOGY (SolMap project), 02380 593290, www.soc.soton.ac.uk/HWTMA
FOR THE HISTORIC WRECKS IN THE SOUND OF MULL, Philip Robertson of Lochaline Dive Centre is Scottish training officer for the Nautical Archaeology Society, 01967 421627, freespace.virgin.net/
lochaline.divecentre





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