Sun, seahorses, sand and Sangria.

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Sun, seahorses, sand and sangria

 

Divers seem to divide into two main camps: rust-lovers and beastie-watchers. A trip to Truk would not be top of my bucket list. Studying underwater wildlife near the Medes Islands, though – now you’re talking.
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Last year, after years of searching, Gaynor Rosier discovered seahorses in Cala Montgò, near L’Escala, on the edge of the Medes Islands marine protected area (MPA) in north-east Spain. They weren’t in the Posidonia grass where everyone expected them to live, but in open water, attached to the frilly algae they resemble so closely.

Gaye now collects data on them for Project Seahorse, the KED seahorse and pipefish survey and the Seahorse Trust. Since 2009, for the Spanish Silmar project, she’s also been studying Mediterranean indicator species (Posidonia oceanica, three varieties of sea urchin, fan mussels, snakelocks anemones, white fan coral, precious red coral, reef-forming coral, dusky groupers, Turkish wrasse and red sea-squirts) in Cala Montgò, and round the headland at Punta Romanì.

Gaye’s also involved with GROC, observing opistobranchs; Project Medusa (jellyfish, comb jellies and salps); and Barcelona University’s Sea Observers. And she sends data to Earthdive and PADI’s Dive Against Debris (we collectedrubbish on every dive, from fag-ends to a bath-towel).

That’s a lot of data-collecting and sorting, so Gaye welcomes volunteers from around the world. This year I was one of them, along with my friend Helen, Jess (from Australia) and Linda (Finland).

It was the Medes Islands that got me into diving. I did a glass-bottomed boat trip six years ago, the lightbulb popped, and I signed up asap to my nearest BSAC club. The idea of this trip was to give something back at the place that led me to so much enjoyment.With accommodation and diving provided at student rates, Gaye’s company Kenna Eco-Diving fitted the bill.

I’m not a marine biologist, just an interested diver.  So what’s it like, being a marine research volunteer?

Over two weeks we did 15 dives, one at the Medes Islands and 14 in Gaye’s research areas. We dived in the mornings, doing two sessions with a brief surface interval. Our shortest dive was 36 minutes, our longest 92, with an average depth of 6.4 metres. Afternoons and evenings were free, once the data had been collated.

Observing underwater wildlife requires buoyancy control, patience and good eyesight. Shortly before the trip I’d done the BSAC Buoyancy and Trim course and been rated “black” (± 0.3 m), so I was reasonably confident of the first.

But spotting seahorses, camouflaged against the algae, was challenging. Gaye gave us good advice: if you spot one, stay with it. Leave it and you’ll lose it. Of the 28 seahorses she’s identified in Cala Montgò we saw 12, of which my total was four.

Counting urchins is much easier. In theory. But with two varieties mixed up it can be tricky, especially if they’re tiny, tucked into crevices or lurking in Posidonia grass. Gaye counts them because black urchins prefer warmer water. If their numbers rise it indicates that water temperature is rising, so correct ID is important.

Rock urchins have spines in rows, with white rings at the base. Their colour ranges from black to olive, purple and red. Black urchins are all black and their spines are less orderly. Because they like warmer water they live in the upper 4 metres, but rock urchins like a bit of warmth too. The only ones that don’t are Gaye’s third species, violet urchins, which live in deeper water.

Counting involves hovering over the Posidonia, separating fronds while keeping your fingers away from the spines, wafting in the swell, trying to remember which patch you counted while swimming away from the transect tape so you won’t count there again on the return and attempting not to overlap with the patches other people are counting, while peering to spot the little rings round the rock urchins’ spines to achieve an accurate identification. Not easy!

We counted far too many black ones, according to Gaye’s long-term figures, and Gaye and I both counted the only resident violet urchin. Oh dear.

A dive in the Medes is included in Kenna’s package if you sign up for two* weeks or more: it helps volunteers understand the greater diversity and size of wildlife in the MPA. We went in our second week, dropping in at Bernat rock.

A glorious array of gorgonian fan corals, white, yellow and pinky-red (navy-blue if you switch your torch off), grew large on the rock. Fairy basslets were everywhere, along with damselfish, Turkish and rainbow wrasse, combers and blotched picarel. Bream of all sorts – striped, zebra, two-banded, white and saddled – were definitely bigger than any we saw near L’Escala.

But the big excitements were the two huge morays sharing a hole and two mottled groupers in separate overhangs, each over a metre long and about as big around. Gaye’s point was proven: underwater life does better in MPAs than in unprotected areas.

The work we did with Gaye was not hard but it did require patience and control, and it was quite repetitive. As a diving holiday it wouldn’t suit everyone, but I found it fascinating. We were diving the same two or three sites, but the sights were always different.

One day we saw a baby cuttlefish – a first for me. Another first was snakelocks anemones with their commensal shrimps hiding among the stingers. There were tiny golden blennies with spots on their dorsal fins that change colour as you watch, lizard-fish, and schools of electric-blue juvenile damsel-fish darting everywhere.

Another dive produced a giant goby, and a large Dentex came into Cala Montgò from the open sea to hunt one day when visibility was poor.

At another site, the Illa Mateua, Gaye produced a hand-glass to show us a minute photosynthesising nudibranch, Elysia timida. A shoal of needlefish flashed past. Greater weever fish buried themselves in the sand, leaving just their eyes showing. Young wide-eyed flounder did their tiddlywink imitations, hermit crabs scuttled, and wreathy-tuft tubeworms vanished as we passed.

If anyone tells you the Med is dead, tell them to dive the Illas Medes MPA. OK, it’s only one small part of the Med, but it’s hooching with life. Better still, if they’re interested in marine biology, tell them to sign up with Kenna Eco-Diving. They’ll be fascinated and they’ll have a lot of fun.

*The minimum time has now gone up to three weeks, as numbers of divers in the MedesIslands are being restricted further to protect the wildlife.