This week Dispatches from the Field is happy to welcome a guest post from Rebekah Butler, an M.Sc. student in Conservation and Biodiversity at University of Exeter’s Centre for Ecology and Conservation.
“The Sea, once it casts its spell, holds one in its net of wonder forever.” Jacques Cousteau
I have always felt drawn to the ocean and have fond memories of stomping through rock pools come rain or shine (mostly rain) on family holidays as a child growing up in North Wales. As I grew, I became more and more fascinated with the natural world and scrambling along the shoreline just wasn’t enough for me anymore: I had to get in. The solution was to become a mermaid (or as close to one as possible). It quickly transpired that a life within the marine realm was not a totally realistic plan for my future and so I set out to complete my SCUBA diving qualification, enjoying many bewitching dives throughout South East Asia after completing my undergraduate biology degree.
Although every second beneath the waves filled me with wonderment and I was finally able to experience becoming one with the world that had intrigued me for so long, it was rare to experience a dive free from signs of human impact on the marine realm and this distressed me deeply. This experience only confirmed my aspirations to work in marine conservation and so, after completing a research internship with Marine Conservation Cambodia (another story for another day), I embarked on the Conservation and Biodiversity Master of Science (MSc) degree programme at the University of Exeter’s Centre for Ecology and Conservation in Cornwall, UK.
Studying in Cornwall is amazing! Besides the endless pasties, pints and cream teas, the sea is deeply rooted in Cornish culture and it is not surprising why; the coast is only a short journey away wherever you are and the weather changes with the sea from Cornish ‘mizzle’ (a sort of sea mist/fine rain that doesn’t feel wet but gets your clothes soaked through within seconds) to bright and breezy sunshine within a matter of minutes.
As part of the MSc I am currently carrying out an independent research project investigating the impact of artificial structures on local marine biological diversity. What does this actually mean, though? Basically it means that I am looking at the difference in the number of species found on natural rocky shore areas and non-natural coastal defence structures like the seawalls and harbour walls around the Cornish coast. These structures are now dominant features of our coastlines worldwide and as the seas become stormier and sea levels are predicted to rise with climate change, the construction of sea defences is increasing at a phenomenal rate (some estimates report an increase of 400% in the last 30 years!). The construction of these structures drastically changes natural rocky shore areas that are known to support an incredible diversity of species and it is important to investigate whether artificial structures can support the same species as natural areas.
On the ground this means a hell of a lot of fun for me – armed with my quadrat, wellingtons and joined by my awesome project partner Kristy, I’ve visited many locations around Cornwall surveying the species richness of rocky shores and coastal structures. A few teething issues are always to be expected when beginning fieldwork and on our first day, I remember waking up early to prepare our materials and my backpack, excitedly making my way to meet Kristy at the train station while soaking in the Cornish sun…only to realise that I had forgotten our quadrat – DOH! Not to worry, I thought, and ran down to collect it, determined to have a successful day in the field. On arrival we chose our survey location, stunned at the beauty of Falmouth, the town we currently call home. Placing our first quadrat down, we were astounded by the variation in life present before us and aspired to record all species present. Although we had some knowledge of rocky shore plants and animals, it was completely overwhelming! On that first day we managed to record only three quadrats out of the ten that we had planned before the tide moved us on.
However, practice does make perfect and before long we were flying through our surveys. Our increased efficiency definitely helped in the first month, when the weather was still cold and drizzly and hats, gloves, waterproofs and a flask of coffee were a necessity…
OK so the flask of coffee is still essential but we have now swapped the extra layers for lashings of sunscreen and sunglasses instead.
Now I know that Cornwall isn’t Bali or the Bahamas but sometimes you’d find it difficult to assume otherwise; just check out these pics!
Not only have we gotten to experience such beautiful conditions, but we have also experienced nature at its finest: witnessing elegant gannets diving metres away from us, kestrels flying overhead, fish hiding from the piercing sun within the nooks and crannies of seawalls, as well as many amazing rock pool finds. Two of my favourite finds throughout our fieldwork are pictured here. The first was a miniature rock pool, no bigger than a bottle cap, providing a refuge for two tiny beadlet anemones, and the second was a small space within a rock face where we saw seven species.
These finds really drove home the diversity of life that rocky shores support! If this project has taught me anything, it’s to take time to look at the smaller things. Although at first glance a rocky shore may just look like stone covered in seaweed, if you get a bit closer and get down on your hands and knees, it truly comes alive. So what are you waiting for? Get your wellies on and get stuck in!
Rebekah Butler is currently studying for an MSc in Conservation and Biodiversity at University of Exeter’s Centre for Ecology and Conservation. The project is ongoing and if people are interested in seeing how it develops/more findings/general marine conservation news and information you can follow her on twitter at @rebekahbutler. Rebekah is ecstatic to announce that in October she will begin a PhD in mangrove ecology at the University of Hong Kong’s Swire Institute of Marine Science.