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David Phillips, Eric Smith, Steve Allnut (all free divers who film footage) and Catrine Priestley (video editor)

Sussex Underwater’s First Year – A Wave of Awareness

Sussex Underwater are a group who are passionate about the sea off Sussex and bringing it back to its former glory.” – Catrine Priestley, Admin of Sussex Underwater, who very kindly consented to update me about the wonderous work her collective has been doing this past year.

The group was started by local diver Steve Allnut back in March, and it is now being run by a few local divers, including Catrine, pictured above.

They campaigned for the introduction of the Nearshore Trawling byelaw for over 20 years, having witnessed first-hand the destruction of the sea bed. This byelaw was finally passed on 24 March this year, a hard-fought victory for the ocean lovers of Sussex. The law made it illegal to use bottom trawling fishing practices between Shoreham and Selsey.

So, what is all the fuss about? Bottom trawling is an incredibly destructive way of fishing which has been used extensively in the Sussex Bay since the 80’s. Huge nets are dragged along the seabed by twin boats, this is called Pair Trawling, in the spring months just as everything is trying to grow. These heavy wide nets are designed to catch Bream but take every other living thing, including sharks, starfish, kelp and seaweed – leaving the seabed a scarred, lifeless, wasteland. Seriously, it is one of the most destructive and all-consuming fishing practices out there. And it has been going on for at least 3 months every year for 30 years. You have to wonder, if this kind of habitat destruction was more visible, say if it was over the land, would it not have been banned from the off?  

Local divers such as Steve saw this on-going destruction first-hand. They feel that what they had been witnessing for the last 20 years had gone on unchallenged because to so many people, the sea was; Out of sight, Out of mind. And he’s right – who can really tell what’s going on underneath that rare sunset over a glassy sea? So, The Sussex Underwater group was set up to show the people what was happening under the water, and to hopefully document the return of the kelp and sea life to our shores. 

 

In March Steve dived one of his favorite places: Bognor Rocks. He had been watching the kelp in this area since 2017. Luckily the beds here are protected by a reef so they are one of the last remaining kelp beds in Sussex.  Steve found that the kelp was coming back and it was looking really healthy. Probably due to the lack of activity in the sea due to covid lockdowns the year before. Steve filmed this recovery and got some incredible underwater shots. These formed the basis for the making of Sussex Underwater’s first film, published on their social media sites, and it really took off. Since then, they haven’t looked back.

Sussex Underwater now has over 4,000 people in the group, and their reach has stretched beyond even their impressive collection of ocean-lovers – some of their posts have reached 100,000 people. This includes fisherman, anglers, divers, local environmental campaigners, schools and churches, to name a few. And best of all – everyone is welcome to join in the conversation, no matter where your love of the ocean comes from. This may seem like a no brainer, but if you’ve ever witnessed a staunch vegan and a fisherman meet at a bar, you know that peaceful discussion is generally off-menu!

Sussex Underwater aims to capture the Sussex bay’s return to glory over the next few years. They hope to do this by filming beneath Sussex’s coastline, and are encouraging others to do the same and post on their Facebook group.

The most popular videos and photos on the site are the sea creatures.People are taken back by the variety of sea creatures we have living right beside us in Sussex, these really inspire passion in people” says Catrine. One of the favourites was the lump sucker, with its bright pinky orange colour and large lips… it is a fascinating creature to see. Steve managed to film a mother sitting over her eggs and oxygenating the water around them – helping her babies have only the freshest water to breathe. And they sit like this for weeks, a struggle which I think many parents stuck in lockdown might juuust be able to relate to!

 

“Most people don’t get to see what is under the sea. It’s a different world. They find our video and photos fascinating because of this.” – Catrine Priestley

 

This is just one example of the fascinating ocean neighbours we have been living beside all this time. Did you know that there are dolphins and seals living in the Sussex Bay area too? Sussex Underwater started to get people posting videos of dolphins and seals they were seeing this summer – and it caused quite a big stir. Their divers even managed to get a great film of Dolphins playing in the wake of their boats, to much excitement online of course!

As the group has grown so has the awareness of the urgent need to protect our sea. 

Sussex Underwater’s “Cuttlefish Eggs” campaign back in July really highlighted that local people have been inspired to help the sea”. There was an unusual summer storm right at the time the cuttlefish were laying their eggs this year, usually they would have been protected by the kelp beds but they are no longer there. Sadly because of this, thousands of eggs washed up on our Sussex shores.

 

cuttlefish, egg, mission
Cuttlefish Egg Saving Mission

 

In response Steve sent out a call to arms via the Facebook page and Instagram. He asked people to go down to their local beach with a bucket and pick up the cuttlefish eggs. Then, once it was safe to do so, place them back in the sea. Hundreds of people answered the call. As well as that they had people posting videos and photos of the cuttlefish eggs hatching in the buckets and the releases, spreading awareness of the urgent need to protect our wildlife from man-made disasters such as this.

 

“It was really heart-warming to think that these people had really grown to love the marine life on their doorstep and wanted to help it.”

 

As the group grew so did the topics covered. Some of the most discussed topics this year have been the Southern Water sewage leaks – a hot topic here at BN1 too! One of our divers Paul Boniface posted the sewage he had witnessed when out in the sea. This post went viral and contributed to the debate that was subsequently held on the matter in parliament. Sussex Underwater continues to encourage people to write to their local MP’s about these issues.

Sussex Underwater have now become one of many groups that are part of the kelp restoration project in Sussex. As such they were invited along to the Kelp Summit in Shoreham in November, which was run by Sussex Wildlife Trust. Catrine says This was an exciting and inspiring day, bringing together the science behind why kelp is so important and what it’s return means to local people.” The team were able to make a film for the summit with some of their group members in it, where it was great to have the local peoples voices there talking about what the kelps’ return means to them.

One of Sussex Underwater’s divers, Eric Smith, was heavily involved with getting the trawler ban through and is currently having a documentary made by Big Wave TV about his part in it. The pilot for this was also shown at the summit, and will be an ongoing project for next year – hopefully documenting the return of the kelp after the ecosystem gets a chance to recover from the now-illegal trawlers.

“We were really pleased when Eric took a video of the kelps returning to the Indiana wreck off Worthing this year. This is a wreck that was trawled for many years and all the kelp has disappeared. At the beginning of the year, we saw a few kelp plants regrowing and by October there were over 50 plants. The fish were starting to congregate around the kelp and this is shown in the film we put on the Facebook group. This is incredible news for the kelps recovery and hopefully shows that nature can resort itself.”

Next year Sussex Underwater promises to bring you more videos of the kelp returning and much more sea life. They have some ideas tofilm inside bream beds and on different wrecks” in the area. They also have a few projects that they are working on with local authorities and organisations, where behind the scenes they will try to bring back the seabed to its former glory. They also hope to bring you news and information about how the public can help as these exciting projects develop. 

As well as this they are also planning to do more school visits and talk to the community to educate and raise awareness of how important our seas are.

All the incredible videos described in this article are freely available on Sussex Underwater’s various social media sites, simply search “Sussex Underwater” to access this incredible community of ocean lovers (and protectors). Trust me – as a member myself since this summer, it is well worth filling your feed with Ocean Love.

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