I have had the privilege of diving in many parts of the world in the ten years since I took it up, but I am not just a warm water diver, I love diving locally.
I took up diving just before my 50th birthday and from the first dive I was hooked. Quite early on I heard about Seasearch from some friends in Devon, it allowed them to dive at a reasonable cost, whilst also being useful to marine conservation. I joined a dive club nearmy home in Northern Ireland, and did a little bit of diving. Not as much as I would have liked but I travelled a lot with my job and that got in the way. The local diving I did was OK but was either shore diving or from a rib. I was OK with the cold but poor visibility I could do without!
Then a friend in England asked me to dive with her friend who was coming back to N.I. He wanted to go on a boat, so I enquired but the only option for that weekend was to tag along with a Seasearch group who had vacancies. It was not at all what I expected, first of all by going further out we had better visibility and even though there was a strong current it was a fantastic couple of dives, and a great group of people. After the dive we had coffee together and started comparing notes. Oh dear, I think I had even written down, ‘fish’ and ‘crabs’ and they had species and so much more detail. I talked with the organiser and it sounded like great ‘craic’ as they say here. She told me about their training sessions and encouraged me to join the next one. By then I had found a new local buddy and we signed up for the course together. We were taught how to identify and record what we saw and more importantly what the data would be used for. You see Seasearch is a Citizen Science project and the data is used to map local marine habitats and species distributions and to monitor trends. So whilst we don’t need to be experts, the information we provide needs to be reliable enough to determine when and where more professional research is needed.
For me it meant a reason to get out diving each month locally. I really enjoy the boat dives, not because of depth, I am happy in shallower water but it gives you the ability to go to more diverse sites. My favourite by far in N.I. is the North Wall of Rathlin. The colours are phenomenal, and there is always something to see. I have made great friends and even started to do the odd shore dive with some of them between the arranged dives when I am home, even diving on New Year’s Day in Strangford Lough. Then along came COVID and everything was put on hold.
At first before lock down, we did a number of shore dives and as a group created a collection of Whatsapp Groups to keep in touch. Lockdown kept us out of the water, and Seasearch had to cancel organised dives for the rest of the year. As lockdown started to ease we went back to shore diving and were encouraged to keep on sending in returns. I even attended an online course with Seasearch Ireland who have an ‘adopt a site’ program, collecting data multiple times on individual sites. One of our favourite dives this year has been The S.S. Empire Tana (or ‘Outer Lees wreck’) in Strangford Lough where we had that first dive of the year. Definitely our ‘adopted’ site and in June we were rewarded with a visit form a seal, who joined our dive. More recently an octopus has been around and every dive delivers something new. It has been great this year seeing the change in species at the site as the weeks progressed.
I’m still not the best recorder but I try. I miss the social side of sitting down together after a dive and thumbing through the reference guides over tea and cake, but I still try to complete the forms. We did a new site recently that was abundant with seaweeds and our local supervisor went through all my photos online to help me identify them. I’m not the best photographer either, but it helps me to have photos to compare with the books and I love to share these on social media with my diving friends around the world. Northern Ireland is abundant with marine life and so few people have had the opportunity to experience it.
Being a member of Seasearch is not only valuable for data collected, but it is fun, and it has made me a better diver, I look much more at what I see and am so much more curious.
Debra Lilley, September 2020
Find out more about Seasearch NI and how to get involved here.