The coal barge and the jewel anemones

Aequorea Forbesiana: Jellyfish, 1852
The abundance of skate, bass, cuttlefish and John Dory in Lyme Bay speaks for itself - the sea-bed’s recovery has been rapid and spectacular.

The sea and what it means to us, the uses we make of it, even in a pandemic, are never far from view in a place like this.

Cunard’s Queen Mary 2, the world’s fastest cruise ship, has been moored in Weymouth Bay since March, alongside several other such vessels. Massive on-board generators have to be kept running, though at reduced power. Fumes from their giant funnels spread and settle in a brown pall over the bay and its crowded beaches.

The release of pent-up psychological pressure was felt everywhere along this coast as lockdown restrictions were eased. Erratic driving, massed revelry on beaches, piles of trash left behind. The imagery from all this stirred readily into the febrile news mix.

The sea and what it means to us, the uses we make of it, even in a pandemic, are never far from view in a place like this.

Protection

The beer cans and the behaviour were still swinging in and out of the headlines when a review appeared making the case for HPMAs around the UK coast. Environmentalists love to wrap their doings in impenetrable acronyms. Perhaps they feel it lends them a professional mystique. They can perhaps hardly complain then if the public pays no attention.

There are at present no HPMAs of significant size anywhere in UK waters. That matters because HPMA stands for Highly Protected Marine Areas – i.e. areas where there is no fishing or extractive activity at all. A better name for them would be Really Protected Marine Areas, as distinct from the Not Really Protected Marine Areas, in which our seas abound.

That distinction has of late been exposed even more starkly than usual. Difficulties in mounting patrols during lockdown made it harder to track vessels and led, predictably, to illegal fishing, in the Cardigan Bay ‘protected area’ and elsewhere.

Lyme Bay is home to a rare success story in all this. More than 70 square miles of it have been closed to all towed gear (scallop dredges, beam and otter trawls) and this ban has held since 2008, with rare incursions resulting in heavy fines.

The sea-bed’s recovery has been closely studied by Plymouth University. The reserve is managed by a coalition of inshore fishermen, biologists and conservation bodies – the Wildlife Trusts and Blue Marine.

Recovery 

But even inside this area, potting, trawling and recreational fishing are still permitted everywhere. A recent report from Plymouth University, undertaken in collaboration with fishermen, has explored the impact of potting on the sea bed. Unsurprisingly, it isn’t always zero.

As the first, most successful and best-studied of the UK’s larger Marine Protected Areas, it is the obvious candidate to build on this achievement by closing part of it to all fishing and then watching what happens.

It’s worth recalling that the partial protection it now enjoys was fiercely resisted by government and industry lobbyists, on the grounds that it ‘wouldn’t work’. It manifestly has worked. The present abundance of skate, bass, cuttlefish and john dory in Lyme Bay speaks for itself. The sea-bed’s recovery has been rapid and spectacular. What has happened here is just what industry lobbyists told us never could.

Therein lies its significance for all our coastal waters. With fewer of us travelling abroad this summer – however traumatic the reasons – might this not be a time to pay less attention to scuffles on beaches and more to reviews into HPMAs, whether or not such reviews made it onto your Twitter feed?

The relationship of our offshore habitats to the wider culture generally and the media in particular is not as often or as carefully examined as it should be. Two short years ago much was being made of Blue Planet 2. The programme reached a vast audience around the world. It seemed to be television at its best, although some in the UK criticised the series for dwelling too much upon seas remote from Britain.

Problems on this scale cannot be solved by one broadcasting corporation, let alone by one presenter or his team. It is surely up to every coastal community to be continually re-inventing its relationship with the sea. The area around Lyme Bay is in some ways peculiarly well-suited to this, and not just for the reasons I’ve already given.

Broadcasting

The remarkable sequence of rocks of which this coast is made date from the Triassic, Jurassic and Cretaceous. These form the centre piece of the Jurassic Coast, a World Heritage Site designated in 2001. It’s a region as well explored by geologists as it is admired by visitors and has been long before the ‘Jurassic Coast’ was thought of.

In 1839 a geological fault just west of Lyme Regis caused a massive landslip. It caused an entire offshore reef to rear up out of the water ‘covered with sea weed, shell fish and other marine productions.’ The mechanics of this, known as ‘rotational movement’, were still then unknown. The geologist and palaeontologist William Coneybeare lived nearby and his friend William Buckland happened to be staying. They were already engaged in the fierce debate about the role of single catastrophes in geological change and reported to learned journals within days. It was not until the 1980s, though, that the event was fully understood.

The upending of an entire landscape created ravines, revealed new cliffs and left behind isolated rock pinnacles. After 1900 ‘the Undercliff’, as the site is known, was left un-grazed. The high canopy which towers over the visitor today is the result. It is essentially the West Country’s earliest rewilding project, all be it brought about by necessity rather than intentionally. It is an outstanding, easily accessible and closely studied example of how a landscape, freed from traditional use, can regenerate.

HPMAs would do the same thing but offshore and intentionally, which is more difficult because – except after major geological upheavals – the sea bed is out of sight to most of us. This surely explains much of the difficulty in establishing them. Governments have to be persuaded to steer the process.

There’s a role for wildlife documentaries here, to generate national or even global waves of concern big enough that governments notice them.

Wonders

But there’s a role for another approach, too. Peter Glanvill is a retired GP who has been diving Lyme Bay for more than 50 years. He was the first person I interviewed as lockdown measures were eased. I’d attended one of his slide-talks, given to a local association, just before the pandemic began.

Taught to dive in the Dart estuary by the same man who taught David Attenborough, Peter has been taking a camera down with him since the 1960s. He has watched the gradual disintegration of war-time wrecks. The deck railings of a coal barge torpedoed in 1918 have fallen off.

Its boiler is now covered in jewel anemones. An enthusiast for the Marine Protected Area, he has seen with his own eyes the recent return of angler fish and crawfish, the ever-greater numbers of octopus.

After spending time around Lyme Bay, the Victorian novelist Charles Kingsley recommended to his readers what he called the ‘wonders of the shore’: ‘for wonders there are around you at every step, stranger than ever opium-eater dreamed, and yet to be seen at no greater expense than a very little time and trouble.’

Many of the creatures Peter has photographed are ‘stranger than opium-eater ever dreamed’ and they are as near at hand now as they ever were. Kingsley also suggests that anyone wanting to know about the sea talk to fishermen and others who know it well. Descending in person to the sea-bed struck Kingsley as a strange idea but he acknowledged the antiquity of the human dream that we might one day visit the ocean floor.

Care

In the Greek myth, for example, Glaucus was a fisherman who finds a herb with which he can restore the fish he catches to life. Trying some of this herb himself he becomes immortal but also grows fins and scales, living thereafter in the sea and acquiring prophetic powers.

Kingsley’s book, named after Glaucus, argues that the way we engage with the sea has always been primarily through the imagination.

Peter and I sit on separate benches in a park in Lyme Regis overlooking the bay. I ask about how he took to diving and there are several answers. One is ‘I just always want to know what’s around the corner.’ Another is the story of how his father, also a doctor, saw Jacques Cousteau on TV, learnt to dive and took his son along.

Peter has preserved the logbook from his first dive, in search of spider crabs off Seatown in the summer of 1967. It’s clear also, from the beauty of his photographs and from the way he talks about the creatures in them, that to observe closely, over time, is to care.

Beach-cleaning groups have sprung up everywhere in recent years. Less well known are the divers picking old lead fishing weights from the sea bed and removing them by the tonne, or cutting old lobsters free from the carelessly discarded fishing line in which they become entangled. Peter has done both.

Community 

Peter is friendly with a generation of fishermen who took him out on their boats. He is an enthusiast for the Marine Protected Area not because he belongs to some online community which is in the habit of enthusing about it.

He has seen for himself the growing abundance of fauna that depend on an undisturbed sea bed. He doesn’t speak about it with the puffery of an advocate but rather with a kind of modesty that Twitter gallops straight past.

What if the necessary reinvention of our relationship with the sea looks much more like this than it looks like Blue Planet 2? That relationship, after all, can only be reinvented in actual places. A screen may help with that – or it may hinder. Either way, it’s what happens in actual places which is decisive.

We’ve already seen that people have been paying attention to the underwater world here for much longer than 50 years. Kingsley’s Glaucus (1855) was part of a conversation, starting out as a review of Philip Henry Gosse’s A Naturalist’s Rambles On the Devonshire Coast (1853).

Gosse had taken his family to live close to Lyme Bay, just outside Torquay, in a bid to restore his health. He restored it by engaging in what he loved best: ‘the study of the curious forms, and still more curious instincts, of animated beings … Few, very few,’ he went on, ‘are at all aware of the many strange… wondrous objects that are to be found by searching on those shores that every season are crowded by idle pleasure-seekers.’

Reinvention 

Gosse would become the David Attenborough of his day, lecturing tirelessly on marine biology. The first underwater photographs were taken in this same decade, by an enterprising Weymouth solicitor called William Thompson.

Gosse had also lived in Weymouth but seems not to have noticed this innovation. He had or, rather, had invented something that seemed to him a likelier means of mass persuasion, namely, the home aquarium. He invented a recipe for artificial sea water, too, so that specimens collected on Lyme Bay’s foreshore could be taken back to the living rooms of London or Birmingham and continue there to instruct and enchant.

Gosse was a distinguished biologist and a correspondent with Darwin. ‘Precision’, he wrote, ‘is the very soul of science’ and he meant it.

But his ‘ramblings’ were not intended as a ‘book of systematic zoology.’ Their purpose was a wider one. He pressed into service ‘personal narrative, local anecdote, and traditionary legend.’ He quotes the poets and the Bible. His aim was to awaken as large an audience as possible to his news that ‘prodigies’ are ‘all in sight of inattentive man.’

To read Kingsley and Gosse on Lyme Bay now is to read two deeply engaged thinkers, both in touch with Darwin, just before publication of The Origin of Species. Both men were Christians and even as they describe those prodigies, ‘all in sight’ to anyone with eyes to see, they enlist their surroundings in the debate about how new forms of life emerge, how life reinvents itself.

Ideal

It is for this too, surely, that they still deserve our attention. The great argument today does not pit the science of zoology against literalist Christianity. But the clergyman-novelist Kingsley’s account of this is more prescient in some ways than the scientist Gosse.

As they wrote, London’s Great Exhibition of 1851 was a recent memory and Crystal Palace was still a popular attraction.

It was also something close to a temple dedicated to humankind’s new and austerely ‘rationalised’ ideal, one which industrial civilisation would soon deliver. The vast cast-iron-and-plate-glass structure and its implied vision for the future appalled Fedor Dostoevski when he visited London.

It appalled Kingsley too. He repeatedly marvels at the intricate structure of even, or especially, the smallest marine creatures, contrasting the loveliness of a sea urchin’s design, say, with the grandomania and boastfulness of Crystal Palace.

Crystal Palace burnt down long ago but the world-view of which it was an expression is with us still. It is much the same philosophy that built our malls and motorways and cruise ships. The same philosophy has both overfished our oceans (to stock our supermarkets) and put endless obstacles in the way of real marine protection.

Imagination 

I mentioned earlier that a review on HPMAs appeared during lockdown and was largely ignored. One of those who wrote it, Joan Edwards, now with the Wildlife Trusts, was once involved with the response to an American oil company which had applied to drill through the reefs in Lyme Bay for the oil that is known to lie beneath them.

The oil company was dissuaded. Thirty years later those same reefs are part of a Marine Protected Area and Ms Edwards is on a panel making the case for fully protected areas to be established at last around our coast. The sediments that accumulate where the sea bed is undisturbed are known to absorb carbon more efficiently even than trees.

That review was engaging with the most urgent issue of our time. People have been thinking through this stretch of coast for many years. There’s no reason why we shouldn’t. Kingsley chuckled over visitors walking ‘up one parade and down another’, falling asleep over bad novels and having their umbrellas stolen, waking up for a nightlife which is ‘a soulless rechauffé of third-rate London frivolity.’ This is how ‘thousands spend the golden weeks of summer.’

Is what he describes entirely unrecognisable? And yet there the sea horses and the cup corals are, to this day, only a little way offshore.

Between West Bay and Seaton, half a mile out, runs a submarine ledge teeming with marine life, rising to within 10 ft of the surface before it plunging sheer to the sea bed. With Glaucus, then, with Gosse and Kingsley, with Glanvill and Edwards and Attenborough, let us glide along it in imagination and remind ourselves why knowing it is there has, in a sense, never mattered so urgently as it does now.  

This Author 

Horatio Morpurgo is a writer and campaigner. His most recent book, The Paradoxal Compass (2017), sets current efforts to protect Lyme Bay in the longer historical context of the West Country's relationship with the sea.    

MERCH

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