Otter Lodge Blog:

Vanessa’s really wild weekend

I’m writing this in the middle of an incredibly busy tourist season on Skye. It’s surely the perfect time for me to abandon Martin and the boys to the B&B laundry and head down to the Isle of Cumbrae for a marine conservation course. It was Martin’s idea; honest (purely based on the fact that I’m better at spelling Latin names than him). If you’ve been reading our blogs you’ll know we’ve been doing a bit of work recording the stuff we see on our frequent scuba dives around Skye and Lochalsh. Our observations get sent to a fantastic project coordinated by the Marine Conservation Society called Seasearch, which gives folk like us who dive as a hobby the chance to contribute to marine conservation science.

So there I was: driving through Fort William on a Friday lunchtime, barely making twenty miles and hour behind a long line of campervans, and thinking ‘well, if you bunk off in high season you get what you deserve…’

Several hours later I was cruising across to Cumbrae on the Calmac ferry. Whoever put the ‘calm’ in ‘calmac’ was on the right lines; as soon as I step onto one of their boats my brain slows right down and empties itself of any residual chaos. It’s a zen-like experience.

Good preparation for what was to come next; which was a full day in the classroom learning about marine science. Our tutor was Natalie Hirst, the Seasearch Organiser for Scotland. Natalie is a professional marine ecologist and I discovered, to my discomfort, that my fellow students were a Professor of Evolutionary Biology and a North Sea Marine Advocacy Officer. 

Our other tutor was the Seasearch National Coordinator, Charlotte Bolton. She tried to convince me that she was wasn’t really a marine scientist; but I found out she has a PhD in Theoretical Chemistry and an Mres in Ocean Science. So, no pressure there.

The Seasearch Surveyor course was held at a brilliant place on Cumbrae called FSC Millport. This study centre for biological science began life in the late nineteenth century and is still going strong as a base for all kinds of courses and research. Not only that; it has a bar.

After spending a beautiful sunny day in darkened room, peering at pictures of seaweed, it was a big relief to get ourselves kitted up for a dive the next morning. Just like our B&B on Skye, you only needed to cross the road to get into the sea. I was pretty tickled to find out our dive would be mostly a few metres deep (we dive up to 30 metres in local sea lochs) but that’s the point about inshore diving – there’s loads of amazing stuff that is right under your nose.

After an all-too-short period of bimbling about writing notes on special waterproof paper, we were back in the classroom trying to read them. My dive buddy had taken over 150 photographs of seaweed, starfish and, erm, stuff you find on the seabed. We spent even longer trying to work out what the dickens it all was. Then we tried to work out what it meant. Luckily, there are professionals working with Seasearch that can do this properly. The amazing thing is that with careful handling, our surveys can be transformed into official entries on the national Marine Recorder, and thus become bona fide scientific data. How cool is that?

Vanessa getting down to business in her official Seasearch T-shirt