a trip to the Isle of Wight to restore a priceless ecosystem

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Kevin grins from ear to ear at the sight of a common periwinkle. This beautiful, striated clam, clinging to a sandstone where the Solent laps the peach-colored sands of St Helens Beach, tells Kevin of something pleasantly enduring in the natural world. Like most members of our 12-member group, Kevin signed up for the Hampshire and Isle of Wight Wildlife Trust Coastal Research Volunteer Day to help alleviate his climate anxiety.

“It’s nice to be doing something for our coastal environment instead of sitting at home worrying about the ecosystem collapsing,” he says; the last time he rummaged in rock pools was as a child in the 1970s.

Kevin and I stand side by side, ankle-fat in a rock pool on the Isle of Wight, marveling at the marine life around our feet. There are molluscs of all sizes, and yards of laurel laurel; there are the peculiar potato-shaped organisms known as sea squirts and, further on in the intertidal zone, where the green seaweeds of the coast give way to golden and red tones, today’s Holy Grail: a group of flowering marine plants that represent a brightest hopes when it comes to combating climate change.

“Seagrass are the unsung heroes of marine ecosystems,” says Emily Stroud, a marine biologist, who is leading the intertidal research on the Isle of Wight. “They absorb large amounts of carbon dioxide from the surrounding seawater and their long leaves slow the flow of water, which encourages the carbon to settle to the seafloor, where it is then buried. These little stars also protect us from coastal erosion.”

It is common for seagrass to be removed to make a beach look more like postcards.

Leanne Cullen-Unsworth

Unfortunately, in most global contexts, this industrious marine flora — which includes common ribbon-shaped eels, flat-fronted enhalus grass, and Mediterranean species like Neptune grass — is in retreat. More than 90% of Britain’s seagrass has been lost, with much of this destruction taking place in the 20th century, when poor water quality caused by rapid industrialization led to a devastating disease that ravaged our native grasslands. Sediment and turbidity have played their part, as have physical damage from anchors and fishing nets, commercial seaweed production and the tourism industry – particularly in the Pacific and Southeast Asia – where the desire for pristine-looking beaches has led to the removal of seagrass.

As Stroud sees it, seagrass is a prime example of the wonders our coasts hold, if we are willing to protect these precious habitats rather than mar them for our narrow view of what constitutes a beach idyll.

“It’s common for seagrass to be removed to make the beach look more like postcards,” says Leanne Cullen-Unsworth, founder of Project Seagrass. In collaboration with the Wildlife Trust, Project Seagrass is working to raise awareness of this underappreciated habitat, while pilot projects in the Isle of Wight and Pembrokeshire explore how best to regenerate Britain’s eroded intertidal orchards.

A male cuckoo wrasse. Photography: Johan Furusjo/Alamy

In 2021, the Wildlife Trust carried out its first deployment of 1,025 mixed seagrass seed pumps in mudflats at Langstone Harbor on the Isle of Wight; they will mature into full-grown seagrass this summer.

In addition to tracking the presence and health of Solent seagrass, we are here today to monitor species of animals and algae between tides. Data from the fund’s voluntary survey, together with data from the Wildlife Trust’s Shoresearch program, will be used by the Natural England government adviser to monitor the effects of global warming. In a 2020 survey, the team spotted the pale pink eggs of a breeding sea hare — a pink snout-faced marine snail most commonly found off the coast of California. European fish and brightly colored wrasses have been recorded in Keyhaven, Hampshire.

“There are some species that we are watching,” Stroud says, “as they are indicators of climate change, like the algae in the peacock’s tail. We’re on the eastern edge for this sparse species here, so if their dispersal starts to move further north, we can assume something is seriously going on with the sea temperature.”

Fellow marine volunteer Sarah wants to set up a weekend pool school for children on the Isle of Wight, and is eager to meet her brittle stars from her bryozoans. “Not quite swimming coziness and sunglasses,” she laughs.

We peek beneath the rocks as seagulls squawk around us and kitesurfers carve across a bay bathed in spring sun. “Look,” she says, her camera trained on a rock pool that glows an almost metallic cobalt, reflecting the blue sky above. As Kevin carries the clipboard on which he’s jotting down our living findings, Sarah cautiously picks up a green shore crab, which has the roundest abdomen of a female, and twists her shapely legs around her toes. “Lovely, isn’t it?” Sarah says in awe.

We don’t have the risk assessment to turn them into mermaids

Today’s marine volunteers are a mixed bunch: locals like Sarah and Kevin, but also mainland visitors like me. In the summer, Stroud says, they see more people from the mainland, combining a period of marine volunteerism with a trip to the beautiful halls of Queen Victoria’s Retreat, Osborne House, or other eco-friendly attractions on the island, which include Tapnell Farm, where I’ll be staying.

A former dairy farm in the west of the island, Tapnell is one of Britain’s few positively energetic family resorts. It sends enough electricity back into the grid to power 100 homes each year, at a site that features eco pods made from natural materials and supplied by water from a well, a low-waste restaurant and an animal rescue center that houses kangaroos. , Vietnamese pot-bellied pigs and meerkats.

Related: My eagle-eyed winter roams the Isle of Wight

In St Helens, with the sun setting over the Solent, it’s time for this group of marine champions in formation to retreat before the tide comes in. “We don’t have the risk assessment to turn them into mermaids!” our leader screams through 12 heads, which are curiously bent over rocky pools like spring daffodils.

“Did you know that limpet teeth are the strongest natural material ever found on Earth?” Stroud asks, gesturing with a strand of green eel grass that has uprooted itself in the intertidal zone. “They are stronger than diamonds: isn’t that amazing?”

And with that, we’re heading back through the rock pools in our wellies, with a glow of well-being that trumps any beach tan.

• Hampshire and Isle of Wight Wildlife Trust Seagrass Research Volunteer Days are free and take place at multiple locations. Accommodation was provided by Tapnell Farm, whose four-person pod starts at £112 one night. Ferry transport was provided by Wightlink, which owns a new low carbon hybrid vessel, Victoria Isle of Wight, from Portsmouth to fishbourne, returns from £26.80 (on foot or by bicycle).

Three more breaks to save on the beach

Garbage collection on the beach, Cornwall
Plastic litter is the scourge of many coastal areas, affecting water quality and choking wildlife. From the secluded coves of Polperro to the sprawling sands of Penzance, Clean Cornwall organizes regular, small-scale, county-wide cleanups that anyone can participate in. cleancornwall.org

Seagrass Plantation, Pembrokeshire
The Seagrass Project’s first large-scale project, Seagrass Ocean Rescue, is restoring a massive seagrass meadow in Dale, west Wales, with seedlings created from seeds collected along the British coast. Find volunteer opportunities on the Facebook Group Volunteers page. facebook.com

Seaweed survey, Scottish coast
The Scottish coast is home to some of the largest CO fields in the worldtwo-storage of algae. In partnership with the Museum of Natural History, the Big Seaweed Search volunteer program helps map the distribution of 14 key seaweed species to preserve their health and future ocean diversity. Register for free, download your recording form and find information on websites at mcsuk.org

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