I tug on my wetsuit. There are a few people left on the beach but the main crowds have gone home. The sun is settling towards the western horizon but there will still be an hour or more of daylight left, plenty for an after-work swim.
I pick up my fins and my mask and snorkel. Down at the water’s edge, the sea laps calmly at the shingle. I look out across the blue-green surface, hiding the secret world below.
No matter how many times I’ve done this, I always feel that tingle of excitement. Every time is different, every time a new wonder is revealed.
I wade in up past my knees. Even though it’s summer, the sea is still chilly as it seeps through the wetsuit and swirls around my toes. I pull on my fins, slide the mask over my eyes and put the end of the snorkel in my mouth. I launch into the water, immediately submersed in the subaquatic world. Immediately, the concerns of my land-based world are washed away. I leave behind my worries about work, about remembering to pay the electricity bill, about doing the pile of washing up I left on the kitchen counter. Here, none of that matters.
My splash startled a plaice, just a handspan long, a juvenile. The diamond shaped flatfish settles back into the gravel of the seabed, its mottled fawn, russets, ambers and chestnuts camouflaging it perfectly.
I swim on, out into deeper water. As I glide above the seabed, I spot a whelk, a big sea snail, crawling over a boulder. A lesser spotted catshark, also known as a dogfish, lies in the shelter of the boulder. Its slender, shark-shaped body is a mottled grey and brown, an arm’s length from snout to tail. It watches me warily as I hover overhead. I notice a cluster of egg cases attached to strands of seaweed and nestled into crevices in the rock. Sometimes called mermaid’s purses, the egg cases of the shark are a golden brown, a finger’s length long, a tapered rectangular capsule with curly strands at either end. Inside each one is a baby shark. After nine months, the shark hatches and the case is washed up on the beach.
I swim on and the seabed changes as the gravel becomes interspersed with cobbles and boulders and then patches of bedrock, thrusting up in irregular reefs. It was here, a few years ago, that I found a tiny piece of kelp. Now, there’s a whole forest of it. Well, a whole patch of forest, at the very least.
The entire reef and any place where there is a sufficiently firm surface for the holdfast to grip, there are towering kelp. The tangled roots of their holdfasts taper to a slender stalk which flares out to a flattened blade, a handspan wide with crinkled edges. The coffee coloured fronds – expresso to latte – sway up through the water to where I float on the surface, four or five metres above the reef. There’s another type of kelp as well, which has multiple, smaller blades rising off a broad base above the stalk, like a many fingered hand.
I draw in a breath and dive down, swim along the edge of the kelp as if I’m soaring through a forest. The fronds sway with the current, forming mesmerising patterns of light and shade, blue and green, ochre and chocolate.
I spot a cuttlefish hovering at the edge of the forest, a submarine alien. Eight arms and two tentacles front its head, topped with large golden eyes with a ‘W’ shaped pupil. Its body is ovoid with a frilly skirt, patterned with a mesmerising assortment of designs. Its mottled brown and yellow spots change to black stripes, to white lines to grey bars. I kick back up to the surface and the cuttlefish shoots off with a jet of water from its siphon.
I drift for a time, absorbed by the wonderous diversity of this mystical underwater world. A shoal of small silver herring dart past, followed by a group of striped bib pouting, flashing silver and black. A navy blue lobster creeps out of its cave, only to duck back in as a large brown crab with black-tipped claws struts past.
I attempt to smile around the snorkel’s mouth piece. This isn’t some long-haul flight distant, exotic resort. This is just a few minutes from my house on the south coast of England. This is the murky, chilly English Channel.
This is my local area, my little piece of nature, my escape right on my doorstep.
I’ve watched this whole area flourish over the past few years. This is an underwater nature reserve where damaging activities are restricted and habitats carefully managed, monitored. This is worth protecting.
I turn back towards the beach, my heart buoyed with joy and I hold fast to the hope that this area will continue to be protected, to be enjoyed and to be a wealth of abundance.
This story follows on from the story I wrote a month ago [Sussex Kelp] in response to new legislation which prohibited trawling close inshore along the Sussex coast. The hope is that with the restriction of damaging fishing activity, the kelp which once flourished there will be able to return. The previous story extolled the joy at finding a new, tiny kelp plant. This story is set several years later, once the kelp has become more established and some of the creatures that live in kelp forests have returned.
This story is about holding fast to a vision of a healthier, more diverse, more abundant future. As well as celebrating the nature which is right on our doorstep, nature that we can interact with, support and enjoy.
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