Divers are cataloguing the animals, plants and fish living in some of Britain’s most inhospitable habitats for the first time.
It is hoped that surveys of reefs off the northeast coast of Scotland will identify areas requiring protection from offshore wind and tidal farms, as well as the anchors of ships.
Run by the Marine Conservation Society, the Seasearch project trains recreational divers to identify rare and endangered species and record them.
The data collected has already led to the creation of several special areas of conservation off the coasts around the country.
The new reefs to be included in these surveys are at Duncansby Head and the Pentland Skerries, in the Pentland Firth, and beneath Dunnotar Castle, Stonehaven.
These areas are seldom dived and the records collected will be the first for the reefs. Divers from the Inverness Sub-Aqua Club carried out the first two weekends of recording in May and discovered sponges, sea anemones and swimming crabs.
However, it is too early to say whether there are any populations of rare fish, animals or plants that would need protection.
George Brown, of the MCS, who organised the Pentland Firth dive, said: “The Pentland Skerries and the mainland coastline around Duncansby Head are subject to some of the harshest sea and tidal conditions around the British Isles, but below the surface lies another world.
“How life can exist in such vivid colour and diversity in such hostility is a wonder.”
Marion Perutz, who co-ordinates Seasearch in the north- east and who organised the weekend dive at Stonehaven, said the underwater life there was similarly spectacular.
“Beneath the towering cliffs of Duncansby Head, we entered an amazing world of caves and tunnels blanketed in brilliant sponges, seasquirts and sparkling sea anemones.
“So far we have only just begun to obtain records from this spectacular area of coastline in the north-east of Scotland.
“We are still in need of many more.”
Further dives at reefs in the area are planned for the first weekends in July and August. Divers taking part in Seasearch surveys are asked to look for 40 threatened marine species.
Among the areas to have benefited from information collected by Seasearch is Lamlash Bay, Arran.
Divers there discovered a previously unknown eelgrass bed, which is one of the habitats identified as needing protection under the government’s biodiversity action plan.
The area also contained one of the healthiest maerl (a form of seaweed) beds in the Clyde estuary. The records collected ensured that a pipeline that would have gone through the maerl bed was moved to a less sensitive location.
One of the species divers have been asked to record is the northern sea fan, a type of mussel. It is not a protected species, but hosts the sea fan anemone, which is identified as needing protection under the government’s biodiversity action plan.
Divers have recorded sea fans in the Firth of Lorn, western sites on the Isle of Mull, the mouth of Loch Sunart, and around Skye.
They plan to collect more records to enable them to develop a fuller picture of the sea fans’ range.
Source: The Herald