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The Ecologist’s Travels: Expedition WET

The Western Ecology Tour – Expedition WET led by Andy Clark was an expedition like no other. 10 days of camping and travelling across the West Coast, starting in the North of Scotland, down towards the Llŷn Peninsula in North Wales and finally to Pembrokeshire.
Throughout the expedition, the crew explored the wonderful diving that the UK had to offer, but most importantly, raised awareness of three important conservation projects. These projects are: Shark & Skate Citizen Science Scotland, Project Seagrass, and Neptune’s Army of Rubbish Cleaners (NARC). 

 

Diver looking in next pulled out of the water
Photo by Ollie Putnam 

Leg 1 – Scotland

Day 1: The crew of Expedition WET came from all reaches of the UK. Some as far south as Bristol, with myself and Ollie from York. We set off early, a long drive up to Loch Carron ahead of us. Once we reached the M6 we spotted a bright green Corsa with a compressed air sign on the boot, this was one of our crew making their way up from Chester. Soon we reached Abington where we all met together for the first time in person. The crew consisted of a team of cinematographers, photographers, marine biologists and divers. We all share a passion for marine conservation which is the rationale behind this expedition.

 

Scottish highlands with green shrubbery and cloudy blue sky

Photo by Ross McLaren

From Abington we made our way up towards Loch Carron. The scenic highland landscapes along the way encouraged us to take breaks and soak in the fresh Scottish air. We spotted Red Deer on the roadsides, Grey Seals in the passing lochs and plenty of Buzzards soaring across the hills. Eventually we made it to the ‘Wee Campsite’, and immediately were welcomed by thousands, and I mean thousands of midges. Once our tents were set up, we huddled together and prepared for the activities over the next couple of days.

Day 2: We were greeted by more midges the next morning, so we raced in and out of the tent as we prepared gear for our first few dives of the expedition. Loch Duich, a 5-mile loch in the Skye and Lochalsh district was our first dive site.

 

Left image of brittlestars and right image shows diver in Loch Duich

Photo by Ross McLaren | Photo by Hannah Milancovic

Our dives were led by researchers from Shark & Skate Citizen Science Scotland. The first site was a muck dive, with a steady slope which was home to an abundance of marine life including Brittlestars, Spider Crabs and Lobsters. The next dive was named ‘The Rubbish Dump’, unfortunately the area is popular amongst fly-tippers.

The crew climbed a rocky descent towards the muddy reef that was littered with rubbish ranging from plates, bottles, fishing hooks, and animal bones. Although heavily littered, this site was still abundant with marine life. Our crew even found Small-spotted Catshark egg cases. Following this dive, the crew felt they needed a boost. What better way than cliff jumping! The third dive at Loch Duich was at School Bay, another muddy-bottomed site with an abundance of critters small and large.

 

Top left image shows sea creature, bottom left shows divers preparing, right image shows person jumping into the loch

Photo by Chris Rickard (Top Left) | Photo by Hannah Milankovic (Bottom Left and Right) 

It was 20:00 once the crew had wrapped up diving. We headed back to our camp site for fajitas and a re-cap, huddling together to review the dive site for the next day. Chris Rickard led the briefing and described all three dive sites across Loch Carron. Loch Carron was of particular interest, with reports of sightings of both adult and juvenile Flapper Skates.

Day 3: The following morning after a fresh, hot coffee, we drove to the next dive site at Loch Carron. Conservation Bay was located down a steep track, requiring all those with heavy cameras to take two trips. This dive was known for having a gentle current and boasted a wall covered in soft coral, known as Dead Man’s Fingers.

The second dive was located across the other side of Loch Carron and started at Castle Bay. This dive site had a strong current, so we walked around the headland to begin the dive and drift back into the bay. There was once again an abundance of Dead Man’s Fingers and numerous critters including Sea Urchins, Decorator Crabs and Flame Shells.

 

Left image of divers walking into the water, right image shows diver underwater with coral in the foreground

Photo by Hannah Milankovic | Photo by Ollie Putnam

The Scottish leg of the expedition was coming to an end, so the crew took the opportunity to interview the team from Shark & Skate Citizen Science Scotland, including lead scientist Dr Lauren Smith. During the interview, both Lauren and Chris spoke at length about the importance of citizen science for marine conservation. Lauren explained that Flapper Skates are critically endangered, and Chris had been the first to discover an egg-laying site in the Inner Sound of Skye in late 2019. Since then, Lauren and Chris have been working on consolidating sightings of Flapper Skates and their egg cases as well as other sharks and skates found around the Scottish coastline. They had formed the group 'Shark and Skate Citizen Science Scotland’ with the aim of engaging the general public and beach goers, as well as anglers, divers and snorkelers to submit sightings, ask for help with identification and to disseminate information about the shark and skate species we have in our waters. The crew of Expedition WET were thrilled to be able to spread the word about the citizen science group and raise awareness about the amazing species, habitats and their conservation around our coastline.

Day 4: Goodbye, Midges. Time to head back on the road. Next destination – Llŷn Peninsula in North Wales. To break up the 9-hour journey, Andy kindly invited the crew to have pizza at his home in Wigan. This was a great opportunity to brief the team once more before meeting at the next campsite.

 

Collection of images showing Llyn Peninsula in North Wales

Photo by Chris Rickard (Top Left) | Photo by Ollie Putnam (Bottom Left) | Photo by Hannah Milankovic (Top and Bottom Right) 

Leg 2: Llŷn Peninsula in North Wales

It was close to 19:00 before we had arrived at our next campsite, but we were greeted by a beautiful sunset over the Welsh hills. We set up camp and prepared our gear for the next morning.

Day 5: The following morning, we were joined by Jake Davies, who works for Project Seagrass and assists with seagrass monitoring. He briefed us on the task ahead, surveying the beautiful seagrass meadows in Morfa Nefyn. The seagrass meadows play an important role in sequestering carbon from the atmosphere, stabilising the seabed, and provide food, habitat and nursery areas for numerous vertebrate and invertebrate species. The crew carefully snorkelled across the meadow to capture beautiful images of the seagrass.

 

Diver with goggles above water and bottom half of image showing underwater seagrass

Photo by Donovan Lewis

Shortly after, Jake was interviewed by the crew to develop a further understanding into his work with Project Seagrass and how Expedition WET can help to raise awareness of these incredible ecosystems.

Day 6: The following morning, we were preparing for our first scuba dive in Wales at Porth Ysgaden, a small bay host to a variety of marine life. Amongst the seabed, kelp and reef were an abundance of Spider Crabs, Fifteen-Spined Sticklebacks and Nudibranchs. We even managed to find a Small-spotted Catshark which was almost perfectly camouflaged on the reef. In-between dives, the crew went on an egg case hunt. We collected over 20 egg cases from a small section of the beach, all of which were from the Bull Huss also known as the Large-Spotted Dogfish or Nursehound.

We’ve encountered incredible marine life, some of us even ticking species off of our bucket list, showing that you don’t necessarily have to travel abroad for great diving. Most importantly, we’ve raised awareness of the three incredible marine conservation projects that are making a positive difference to our marine habitats.

Top: Diver with catfish, Middle: Bench on coast at Porth Ysgaden, Bottom: Mermaid's Purses

Photos by Ollie Putnam

We returned for a night dive at Porth Ysgaden. There is something so magical about exploring the underwater world under the cover of darkness, you never know which species you’ll encounter. Lucky for us, we spotted two more Small-Spotted Catsharks, resting on the seabed. We even witnessed one of the sharks almost catch a Sand Eel which had swum into its eye! Many assume that all shark species are dangerous and they can be in their own right, however these small sharks only grow up to a metre in length and feed primarily on crabs, molluscs and other small fish. They are a pleasure to dive with and capturing a shot of a shark swimming over a reef or through a kelp forest is every underwater cinematographer’s dream.

Day 7: The next morning, the crew quickly packed up their tents during a heavy downpour and headed South towards Pembrokeshire.

Leg 3: Pembrokeshire
Left: Marine litter on harbour wall including shopping cart, lobster pots and fishing net, Right: Banner tied to harbour fence saying "Underwater Clean Up in Operation"
The drive to Pembrokeshire was the shortest leg of the expedition, taking just over five hours to reach the final campsite. We stayed at West Hook Farm, a beautiful campsite located next to Martin’s Haven on the Marloes Peninsula, with panoramic views of the ocean. We met with Lloyd Jones, a commercial diver and instructor with over 14 years of experience diving around the Pembrokeshire coastline. He would be joining us on our dive the following morning with Neptune’s Army of Rubbish Cleaners (NARC).

 

Girl sat on slipway wearing t-shirt saying 'N.A.R.C Decade of Rubbish Diving'
Photo by Lloyd Jones
Day 8: The following morning, the crew gathered at Hobb’s Point in Pembroke Dock. We met with David Kennard, the founder of NARC, as well as other NARC volunteers and also the Harbour Authority. NARC were the UK’s first underwater clean up group. Whilst litter washed up or left on our shoreline can be seen, the same cannot always be said for marine litter that is below the surface of the ocean.
With the support of NARC volunteers and the Harbour Authority, the crew were able to lift a shopping trolley, scooter, fishing nets and 4 oil drums from the seabed.
The highest presence of litter spotted on the seabed was from recreational fishing with weights, rods, hooks and endless amounts of line. This type of litter is not only detrimental to the marine life but can be extremely hazardous to divers and other water users, especially when the visibility is low. After the rubbish was sorted for disposal, the crew set up an interview with David. It was a pleasure to hear about how NARC began back in 2005, and all of the incredible victories they’ve had since then.
The team were in high spirits following this dive, so we headed to the marina for an afternoon ice-cream in the sunshine. Lloyd briefed the crew of the next dive site, which was located 5 minutes away from our campsite, Martin’s Haven. This site is part of the Skomer Marine Nature Reserve.
This was a great dive, we spotted an abundance of Spider Crabs, a Pink Sea Fan, Scallops, Moon Jellyfish and more.
Series of 6 dive shots from WET Expedition
Photos by Ollie Putnam | Photos by Donovan Lewis (Top and Bottom Right)  
Day 9: The following day we embarked on our final dive of the Expedition. Once again led by Lloyd, we were introduced to our next dive site at Stackpole Quay, a small bay surrounded by limestone cliffs located on the South Pembrokeshire Coast. During this shallow dive we encountered more Catsharks, Spider Crabs, Dover Sole and Lobsters.
Unfortunately, we also found large amounts of discarded fishing wire and hooks. One had even got caught on a Spider Crab, so we were careful to not injure the crab as we retrieved it.
After our final dive we treated ourselves to the best post-dive snack – scones and a cup of tea! We couldn’t believe we had finished our final dive and we were one day away from the end of Expedition WET.
That evening, we had our final meal together at the Lobster Inn in Marloes. We spent that evening reminiscing about the trip. We laughed at the blunders (like Ollie leaving his drysuit unzipped when entering the water for one of the dives!). We reflected on the disheartening amount of litter spotted on the majority of the dive sites but also celebrated what we had achieved.

We’ve learnt so much about the wonderful Western Coast. We’ve travelled hundreds of miles, from the dramatic landscapes of the Highlands to the beautiful Welsh hills. We’ve experienced that minimalistic lifestyle which we all crave and need, camping in the elements, cooking basic food and sharing stories around a campfire. We’ve encountered incredible marine life, some of us even ticking species off of our bucket list, showing that you don’t necessarily have to travel abroad for great diving. Most importantly, we’ve raised awareness of the three incredible marine conservation projects that are making a positive difference to our marine habitats. 

 

Members of Expedition: W.E.T stand in a line smiling
Photo by Ollie Velasco
Day 10: The last day of Expedition WET. We said our goodbyes and wished everybody a safe journey home. As a crew, we met as strangers but departed as friends, all who vowed to meet again either topside or under the sea. Stay tuned for Expedition WET2!

 

Words by Hannah Milankovic


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