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Underwater Update #3 | Winter 2021

Scotland went into its second lockdown on 26th December, so Richard Lilley of Project Seagrass wrote this update without having been able to leave the City of Edinburgh for a little over two months! However, despite the restrictions (or perhaps because of them?) this winter period has provided more opportunities to connect with people than he ever thought would have been possible.
Below, RJ gives us his latest update on the work of Project Seagrass - a charity comitted to restoring seagrass habitats around the UK for the benefit of both wildlife and people.

 

[Bay of Firth, Finstown, Orkney: Needless to say, this winter has brought a number of challenges to our islands. Yet lockdown has brought us time to connect, and new opportunities to explore]

For me this winter has been a period of reflection, both professionally and personally. Professionally, I’ve reflected on our journey to date. Project Seagrass was founded in 2013 on a wing and a prayer, and although we have come a very long way since then, we also know that we have got a long way to go if we are going to effect the changes we long to see. However, we’re certainly traveling in the right direction and I am in no doubt that our best days are still ahead of us.

What Easkey said in a recent Sunday Broadcast struck a chord with me:

“My belief is if we restore the water, we restore ourselves; if we restore the ocean, we restore ourselves”.

At Project Seagrass this is also our philosophy, and fortunately with growing public support, and the growing institutional demand for Nature Based Solutions, there is also a growing capacity to really begin to restore our oceans at scale.

Then there’s my personal life. March 2020 saw the birth of our daughter; she’s now nearly one, and whilst in some ways parenthood makes me even more committed to my chosen profession, it’s also a delicate balancing act to manage workload. My Dad has always said to me “if ever you are lucky enough to have children, spend quality time with them; they’re not small for long” Of course he was right! In what seems like the relative blink of an eye we now have a toddler! This winter it’s been so important to me to spend quality time with my loved ones.

[The view over to Arthurs Seat from Blackford Hill in Edinburgh: This winter has provided plenty of family time; from mornings spent building snowmen to evenings spent cuddling on the sofa.]

I guess the big picture is that if these last 12 months have taught us anything, it’s surely the importance of the natural world to our own wellbeing. It’s been a stark reminder of our hitherto dysfunctional relationship with nature. Right now, many of us are understandably wondering when life will get ‘back to normal’, but I don’t think we will ever really return to the old ‘normal’. We’re at the dawn of a new era, and I genuinely believe a more sustainable one.

This winter I have had the opportunity to speak to a number of business owners and leaders from several different industries. Many of these people are now asking me about what they can do to help restore nature – restoring all kinds of habitats, not just seagrass! They are taking this time to reinvent their business models, to push their organisations towards ‘Net Zero’, and in some cases they are taking a genuinely long, hard look at those unsustainable, albeit profitable systems which have been in place for a very long time. I’m not naïve enough to believe that for many organisations this has been an enforced change; however, regardless of the driver, we should be glad that for many organisations, leaders are taking a conscious decision to ‘build back better’.

I guess for me though the most exciting collaboration to come out of Lockdown 2.0 has been my connecting (or reconnecting really) with an old friend and Orkney fisherman ‘Aitor’. He is unmistakeable: a Catalan born Scallop Diver and recreational drone pilot, with a smile as wide as the Atlantic. He’s also a man who speaks with more than a hint of a Glaswegian accent! With much of the hospitality sector in the UK now closed, and with seafood exports now facing several hurdles, the demand for Orkney’s scallops has taken a sharp decline, and so Aitor has taken this time to start capturing Orkney’s majestic coastlines from above.

[Thalassiophile: You will never find Aitor to far from the sea. When he’s not diving in it, he’s surfing on it, or now increasingly he will be flying his drone over it.]

Aitor got in touch with me because, through flying his drone, he was becoming increasingly interested in the habitat ‘mosaic’ of the coastal seascape around Orkney. From his ‘birds-eye’ view he could see each and every coastal habitat linking to others on the seabed; the seagrass meadows growing adjacent to kelp forests, and the oyster reefs beside the mussel beds. It’s a view of the sea that not many of us ever get the chance to appreciate. We can see how habitats within a landscape are interconnected, but few of us ever really get to see this perspective of our coastal seascape.

[An Eye In The Sky: With its crystal clear coastal waters Orkney is the perfect place to be mapping marine habitats from above.]

Aitor said “It’s a view of Orkney I never got to see from the boat or the beach. It makes you realise just how interconnected these habitats are! From above you can see the seagrass meadows growing just off the shore beside the sugar kelp and I knew from social media that Project Seagrass were trying to record the location of these habitats with their smartphone app [SeagrassSpotter.org]; but then it struck me, I can go one better than just the location, I can record the size”

And with that, so a collaboration was born!

Whilst the recent winter storms have prevented him from flying as much as he would have liked, he has still managed to get out for some exploratory flights and Aitor is now planning a series of trips to map seagrass meadows around Deerness and Tankerness to the east of the Orkney mainland, capturing the extent of those seagrass meadows that he knows exist in the bay using his eye in the sky.

For me it’s the ultimate partnership. As someone intimately connected with the ocean, Aitor has the local knowledge of the local sites, winds and currents that I can only dream of. He knows when and where to fly, and with that knowledge he will be making a significant contribution to our understanding of the wider Orkney ecosystems.

[Waulkmill Bay, Orkney: Even this far north the light of spring is unmistakeable.]

It’s been an optimistic project on which to start the year, and as our frozen north thaws, and the equinox draws ever nearer, the first signs of spring are certainly in the air. I hope that one day soon I’ll be able to get back to the sea and enjoy its healing properties. However, until then, I’ll still be here in the city plotting our rescue plan for nature!

I hope you’re all keeping safe, and I’m genuinely looking forward to seeing the Edinburgh Finisterre community back in the store when it is safe to do so.

RJ x

Words by Dr Richard Lilley | Images courtesy of Discovering Orkney


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