Exploration

Exploring Scottish lochs

Cal Major is a vet, ocean advocate and world-record stand up paddleboard adventurer who founded the UK charity Seaful to reconnect people to the ocean. In this column, she takes us on an adventurous and colourful dive in one of Scotland's mystical lochs.

Words by Cal Major
Photograph by Chris Rickard

I recently had my first scuba dive of the year. It doesn’t matter how many times I dive here in Scotland, I always come away with a sense of total amazement that such an amount and diversity of life lives here underwater. I think it has something to do with the dark expanse of cold water that belies the colours and movement and wonder beneath the waves.

I was invited for a day’s diving by my friend, Chris Rickard. It felt exciting to be able to spend time with Chris on something purely for joy – most of our past encounters have either involved me interviewing him about seabed destruction for our ‘Scotland: Ocean Nation’ series, at conferences about the threats facing whales, or, most recently, when I called him to report a dead flapper skate I’d found on my local beach. Chris and his colleague Lauren run an organisation called Shark and Skate Scotland, set up to conserve elasmobranchs in our waters. Flapper skates, formerly known as common skate, are the largest species of skate in the world and they are critically endangered. I could not believe the size of the one I found on the beach; more than 1.5 metres wing to wing, and more than 2 metres nose to tail. It was so huge and heavy I couldn’t flip it over myself. And that was presumably why there was a rope through a neatly cut hole in its cheek. The suspicion is that this unfortunate animal had been caught up in a trawl net, and because it’s illegal to catch and land them, it had been thrown overboard with the assistance of this rope.

It was with great excitement that I accepted Chris’ invitation to go for a couple of dives in some of the West coast’s sea lochs. As a passionate advocate for better ocean protection, I was intrigued to experience the activity that so deeply connects him with our seas together. Now, I have a good deal of experience diving in warmer countries, but I do find scuba in Scotland to be a bit more challenging. As we kitted up on the shore, climbing into thermal layers and contorting ourselves into drysuits, we went from chilly to dangerously overheating within seconds. I was ready to descend into the depths, and I could not believe what we saw. The first dive was over mud – fuller of life than I could have ever imagined, with clams, squat lobsters, sea pens and crabs all competing for their own little patch. We swam past a wall covered in purple and white corals, while sea squirts and crustaceans darted between them for cover. At 30 metres of depth, there was very little light left except from our torches, and yet still so much beauty – an alien world just out of sight.

Our second dive was even more exceptional. We swam out from a completely unassuming shore, some bladderwrack at the surface the only indication that anything might be alive below. I was instantly plunged into a forest of sugar kelp with vast leaves multiple times bigger than me. Flying amongst it in the current was magical, as I was swept past urchins, enormous starfish and crabs all making their homes in this living underwater forest. As we rounded a corner, I saw the habitat I was most excited about: a flame shell reef, a thick bed of life, engineered by a small bivalve mollusc with bright orange coloured tentacles. These reefs are a home and spawning ground to many other species – an essential hive of biodiversity for the ecosystem. They also form blue carbon stores, locking away carbon at the depths of the ocean. There used to be numerous around Scotland, but they are now rare, partly as a result of scallop dredging. Better protection is desperately needed to prevent this most damaging form of industrial fishing in these fragile places, and there’s a call to bring back a historical limit which would ban dredging and trawling close to shore. We now continued on towards a huge wall covered in dead man’s fingers – a pale orange soft coral. On the rock amongst the corals, I spotted perfectly camouflaged nudibranchs, or sea slugs.

Shortly after, we surfaced – cold but elated, and full of a renewed sense of wonder for our vastly unexplored underwater world – an unknown from both a scientific point of view (only 5% of our ocean is explored) and from a societal point of view. I imagine that most of the visitors that day to these popular Scottish lochs had no idea just what was in the water below. I hope these words can help spread the awe and wonder I feel every time I make it underwater here.

Photograph by Chris Rickard
Issue 37
Supported by WEBSITE_sponsorlogos_krystal-300x123-1

This column appears in ISSUE 37: WILD ALASKA of Oceanographic Magazine

Issue 37
Supported by WEBSITE_sponsorlogos_krystal-300x123-1
Supported by WEBSITE_sponsorlogos_krystal-300x123-1

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