SeaSearch Diving in Northern Ireland

SeaSearch is a volunteer group of experienced divers. Their aim is to map out the various types of sea bed found in the near-shore zone around Britain and Ireland. They record what lives in each area, establishing the richest sites for marine life, the sites where there are problems and the sites which need protection.

Divers are some of sharks, skates and rays closest allies. They have a unique skill set to take part in citizen science projects like Sea Deep. That is why we work with SeaSearch divers in recording underwater sightings of sharks, skates, rays, and their eggcases.

Richard Bloore has written a fascinating piece about what it is like to be a SeaSearch diver. Read on to discover what it takes.

Seasearch diving changes the way you dive. You notice more. Instead of just swimming along seeing the big “stuff” and thinking “oh, that’s nice”. You start stopping, looking and seeing more than you could imagine. As you get your eye in a goby becomes a black goby, or maybe it’s a sand goby. A bobtail squid darts off in a puff of sand, a tiny spider crab raises its 2mm long claws in defiance. Worms shoot back into their tubes, dragonets lie still hoping their camouflage is working.

A closer look, a scribble on a slate, a photograph to look at in detail later, a check through the books or internet; a chat with fellow Seasearchers and identification is confirmed. The report form is completed. That is a seasearch dive.

Seasearch diving, organised by region across UK and Ireland, is open to all physically fit divers who are certified at a minimum as BSAC Sports Diver, PADI AOW or CMAS 2* level who have a number of cold water dives in their logbooks. Divers who have trained and only dived in the tropics would find the Seasearch process a bit challenging. Conditions around most of our coasts are cool at best, it can even be cold with visibility down to a couple of metres. Currents and surface conditions can also be entertaining so suitable experience is essential.

Specific Seasearch training is at two levels: - the Observer and the Surveyor.  The former is a one day course covering completion of the reporting forms and some guidance on animal groups, types of seaweed at a general level as well as how to draw a sketch of the dive area. The surveyor level is a two day course going into much more detail. These forms are both longer and require a more specific approach on habitat description. Latin names become essential instead of the less specific English ones.

Once trained up the dives can begin. Although report forms are welcome from any dives completed around our shores some six days diving are organised each year between May and October. It is always great to see old friends from the previous season and to welcome new ones. The dive sites selected are chosen for a specific reason; a maerl or sea grass bed to check on health. Or to an area that had been noted in the past for target species such as skate. Wherever we end up the dives are interesting and useful. Organised dives do not always happen as planned if the weather cannot allow for safe diving and the boat skipper’s word is final.

The more you dive in this way, observing, noting and identifying, the more you learn. The marine environment has many interdependencies. For example, if you see a particular hydroid that a specific nudibranch you know feeds on, when you see it you look for that nudibranch.

All the data are collected by region and collated centrally. The data are used to monitor marine life generally but also help support the arguments for the protection of certain environments. Here in NI our work has helped prevent the dumping of silt in Carlingford Lough and the establishment of a marine conservation zone at Waterfoot protecting the vulnerable sea grass beds.

I have not mentioned seaweeds, given there are over 600 species in British waters it is a subject all of its own.

So, we look forward to next season hoping the weather is kinder than this year. Many of us dive throughout the winter to keep our skills honed and completing report forms where we can.