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The Grind. Is campaigning for it to stop or condemning it on social media hypocritical?

Recently killed pilot whales at the end of a grind or grindadrap. Torshavn, Streymoy, Faroes.
  • The grind, or grindadrap, is a non-commercial, community based whale and dolphin drive in the Faroe Islands.  It is a bloody, some say barbaric, affair.  Most notable among the groups campaigning for the grind to stop are the organisation Sea Shepherd.  Earlier this month, Sea Shepherd UK wrote to 16 cruise ship companies, asking them to stop visiting the Faroe Islands until the grind stops.
Recently killed pilot whales at the end of a grind or grindadrap. Torshavn,  Streymoy, Faroes.

Recently killed pilot whales at the end of a grind or grindadrap. Torshavn, Streymoy, Faroes, May, 2019.

The grind, or grindadrap, is a non-commercial, community based whale and dolphin drive in the Faroe Islands.  Around 840 pilot whales and white sided dolphins are killed every year.  This is done by local boats driving them in to designated beaches (there are 26 around the Faroe Islands. Grinds occur spontaneously, when pilot whale pods are sighted. It can only be initiated by sightings from land.  The whales are driven by small boats on to the beaches, where local people gather and kill the whales using a specially designed lance that severs the spinal chord.  The meat is not sold, but distributed equally and freely to all households in the Faroes.  It is bloody, some say barbaric, affair.  There are widespread calls in Europe and North America for it to be halted.  Most prominent among the groups opposing the grind is Sea Shepherd, who have an ongoing campaign, Operation Bloody Fjords, to stop or disrupt the grind.

I was in the middle of writing a completely different blog when the topic of the Grind started resurfacing on social media posts.  The post most frequently reposted, and commented upon, that I saw, was one from Sea Shepherd calling upon cruise ships to stop visiting the Faroe Islands until the Grind is stopped.  Published on the Sea Shepherd UK website, this has been shared on Facebook and other social media platforms, as widely reposted and commented upon, including by several friends and work colleagues.  In this, Sea Shepherd UK has written to 16 cruise ship companies (12th August 2019) calling on them postpone visits the Faroe Islands until the hunting of pilot whales and dolphins is stopped.

This is part of a larger campaign by Sea Shepherd UK, known as Operation Bloody Fjords, aimed at halting or disrupting the grind in the Faroes.  This is something I have given a fair bit of thought to and so, at the risk of alienating quite a few people, I decided to write this blog.

So to firstly declare my own interest in this matter. I consider myself a conservationist; for most of my professional career I worked as a freelance marine biologist/environmental consultant. I have a particular interest in the effects of fisheries on the marine environment, having worked for over 20 years collecting data on the effects of benthic mobile fishing gear on seabed marine life and habitats, and working to establish no fishing zones and monitoring their effectiveness.

Secondly, I work – as a self-employed contractor, on small cruise ships and have more than once been to the Faroes on such ships (though this is entirely a personal blog and represents solely my own views).

Thirdly, I have witnessed a grind, in 2018, and have talked to quite a few Faroese about it the grind and their views on the subject.

I should also add I am no fan of Sea Shepherd, or their founder Paul Watson. I consider them overly aggressive and confrontational with little or no science behind any of their activities, largely ineffective in terms of conservation, and that the prime (often sole) beneficiary of their activities are the finances of Sea Shepherd and their media profile.  Sea Shepherd also prominently bills itself as a conservation body, but nowhere in their letter to cruise companies, or on their website campaign information, do they mention conservation.  The most obvious reason for this is that the grind has no real impact on the conservation of pilot whales and their campaign has nothing to do with conservation. But more of that later.

I am genuinely conflicted regarding the grind.  There is no doubt that pilot whales and white-sided dolphins are highly intelligent social animals.   So I absolutely do not like to see them killed.  Reposting and commenting on social media is quick and easy. It requires little effort and, unfortunately, often little thought.  It can however have significant effect if done by a large number of people.  For me, the core questions are proportionality, effectiveness and comparison of the action I am considering condemning with my own actions.  We don’t want to spend our lives endlessly condemning things on social media to little effect, so it is a question of priorities – what is really important and what is not. Equally we should not be hypocritical: condemning things where our own personal deleterious impact is actually greater.  With the Faroese pilot whale and dolphin hunt I believe the key questions are, sustainability and cruelty, so I will attempt to address these before returning to the question asked at the top of this blog.


The number of pilot whales killed annually in the Faroes is around 840 – since detailed records began over 300 years ago, and around 640 per year (2000-2017).  All the science suggests this is a sustainable fishery.  The Central and N.E. Atlantic population of pilot whales is estimated over 750,000 (Buckland et. al, 1989) although figure is now quite old.  A more recent assessment of the Faroese pilot whale hunt (NAMMCO 2013) found that, for the grind to be sustainable, a population (in Faroese waters) of 50-80,000 pilot whales was required.  The current estimation puts the Faroese population at over 100,000.  Unless this is a significant overestimate, then the pilot whale hunt is sustainable, with around 0.1% being killed annually.  The most recent study (Pike, et al, 2019) looking at data between 1987 and 2015, indicates that the pilot whale population in the North East Atlantic is relatively stable during this period, with no long term trend of increasing or decreasing.

This is not something to be considered lightly – few British fisheries, for example, could be considered anything like as sustainable.  It is also one of the best regulated fisheries in the World. Each year every single whale or dolphin killed is recorded, along with location and species.  Very few other fisheries have such accurate records.

If one compares the pilot whales grind to fisheries in the UK (which I am very familiar with) or other developed countries:

1. it does not destroy the seabed habitat and all animals living there – unlike many of our fisheries where one hour of fishing will devastate a vast area of seabed, often for decades;

2. there is normally no bycatch; many other fisheries kill far more non-target than target species, which are simply dumped back into the ocean.


Cruelty is, almost by definition, a highly emotive issue, and not one easily quantified or compared.  However, think about this hypothetical question.

Before being born you are given two choices for your life:

  1. You will be born into captivity. You will be separated from your mother when still very young.  If male, you will be castrated before puberty.  You will never be allowed to live naturally, in a natural environment, forage naturally, eat a natural diet, live in natural family groups, mate and reproduce, care for your offspring.  You will be slaughtered when a few months old. Your natural lifespan would have been 15-20 years.
  2. You will be born in a total natural environment, surrounded by family members.  Your mother will care for you, and as you grow you will play, be protected, and learn from other family members. You will hunt, feed, socialise, reproduce and raise offspring in a family group in totally natural conditions. You may live 45-50 years, all in a completely natural environment.  Each year, there is a one in a thousand chance that you might be killed.

So if you had to choose one, which would you chose? I would be very surprised in anyone chose the first.  I suspect most people would consider the first a truly horrific fate.  Yet that is the fate of around 25 Million pigs – every single week – globally. That’s 1.5 thousand million pigs every year.  Pigs are also highly intelligent, long-lived, social animals. There is no scientific evidence that I am aware of that suggests that pigs are in any way less susceptible to experiencing pain, fear, loss or loneliness that are pilot whales, nor any rational reason why that should be so.  It is frequently said that ‘I can be against keeping farmed animals and against the grind also.  That is perfectly true, but think of the scale.  If you accept that the life of a wild pilot whale is far preferable to the life imposed on most farmed pigs, then can you really argue that campaigning against the ‘cruelty’ imposed on around 640 pilot whales demands equal effort to campaigning against the greater individual cruelty imposed on 1.5 billion pigs?  The differences in scale of suffering are almost unimaginably vast.  Yet it is not the fate of farmed animals that gets the greatest high profile media attention, or the most reposts and comments on social media.  It is the killing of around 640 pilot whales in the Faroe Islands.  If the scale of campaigning was correlated to the scale of the suffering, then we should be reposting, commenting and campaigning over a million times for every single time we repost or campaign against pilot whales being killed in the Faroes.  But of course that does not happen, reality is closer to the converse.

There is another aspect to this.  For most people the Faroes are simply a group of small, remote islands somewhere in the North Atlantic.  To vilify them online, to call for tourists to not go there, costs us nothing.  We make zero personal sacrifice, but it makes us feel good, and righteous (something Sea Shepherd are well aware of). Conversely, giving up all farmed meat, campaigning against the meat farming industry would, for most of us, involve dramatic changes to our lifestyle and significant personal sacrifices.  So instead we take the easy option of targeting something that has no effect on our own lives.

Sea Shepherd

As Sea Shepherd is the organisation driving this campaign, it is worth examining their record and modus operandi.  I make no secret of the fact I am not terribly impressed by the group. A couple of illustrative examples may help explain this. Sea Shepherd was founded by Paul Watson after he was expelled from Greenpeace in 1977 for his ‘aggressive’ approach and distain for Greenpeace’s non-violent methods.  That following year (1978) he gave an interview broadcast by the Canadian Broadcasting Association (CBC) about the Canadian harp seal cull, claiming the profitability of the campaign was why Greenpeace campaigned against the cull: ‘Well it’s definitely because it’s easier to make money and because it’s easier to make a profit because there are over a thousand animals on the endangered species list, and the harp seal isn’t one of them’ stated Watson in the radio interview. He then added ‘and now we have a dozen people this year from Greenpeace California — I mean they’re coming from the highest standard of living region in North America — they’re traveling to the place with the lowest income per year on this continent telling them not to kill seals because they’re cute but not endangered species.’ A year later his new organisation, Sea Shepherd, began their direct action campaign against the Canadian seal cull, recruiting celebrities like Brigitte Bardot and Pierce Brosnan to pose next to baby seals on the ice for publicity purposes.

More recently (2010) Sea Shepherd hit the news again when their 24m racing trimaran the MY Ady Gil collided with a Japanese whaling support vessel the MV Shonan Maru 2. The bow of the Ady Gil was badly damaged and she sunk the following day.  Both parties blamed the other; the official inquiry found that both were at fault for the collision.  Paul Watson first blamed the Japanese vessel for the collision, then blamed the Ady Gils captain, Peter Bethune, after falling out with him. Sea Shepherd claimed that the Ady Gil sunk the following day as she took on water while being towed.  Peter Bethune subsequently claimed that Paul Watson had ordered him to deliberately scuttle the Ady Gil for publicity purposes, something Watson denied.  The owner of the MY Ady Gil (the millionaire animal rights supporter Ady Gil) then took legal action against Sea Shepherd and Watson under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act. He won. The court in New York ruled that Sea Shepherd had indeed intentionally scuttled the vessel for publicity purposes and awarded compensation of half a million dollars.  In the ruling the Arbiter described Watson as ‘“highly evasive, internally contradictory, or at odds with his own prior written statements, and in certain areas simply lacking the basic indicia of genuineness that instinctively inspires confidence and trust.” She ruled that the order to scuttle her by opening the sea cocks came from Paul Watson and that the accounts given on the Whale Wars reality TV show were false and the sinking staged to maximise publicity.  Sea Shepherd tried to keep the court ruling secret from the public, but failed in this.  I described these two events as I think they well encapsulate the personality of Paul Watson and the aims of Sea Shepherd.  I have no doubt that many Sea Shepherd staff and volunteers are well meaning and honest, but the basic philosophy behind the organisation seems to be to generate conflict and drama and to maximise publicity and profits.  There is very little science behind their campaigns and not a great deal of evidence of their long term effectiveness; rather they often antagonise local people and entrench views to resist change.

Sustainability – wider aspects

In we consider the wider aspects of the sustainability argument, the comparison between the grind and meat farming is even more damning. One is totally unsustainable. It destroys huge amounts of the World’s natural resources, and is directly responsible for the extinction, or imminent extinction, of a great many species.  It is a major contributor to climate change and is a major polluter of land and waterways.  It is also one of the greatest threats to the survival of tens of millions of humans around the planet through the large scale use of antibiotics. And that one is not the killing 640 pilot whales each year.  Meat farming is one of the largest causes of deforestation and habitat destruction around the World.  It causes even greater habitat loss through the growing of crops specifically for animal feed.  Habitat loss and fragmentation are probably the biggest causes of species extinction globally.

As far as I know there is no evidence that the grind has any measurable long term environmental impact whatsoever, and the available evidence suggests it is quite sustainable.

Sea Shepherd UK has written to cruise companies asking them to cease visiting the Faroe Island until the grind is ended.  Sea Shepherd identifies itself as a conservation organisation.  It is pretty clear that, while the grind is bloody and upsetting for many to watch, it is not a conservation issue.  As someone involved in the cruise ship industry I am well aware that this is a far from perfect industry.  It does indeed have major environmental issues.  The amount and type of fuel burned by cruise ships is one.  But this is also a heavily regulated industry and one where all involved – especially those in the small ‘expedition ship’ more likely to visit the Faroes – are deeply concerned and very aware of the issues. These are regularly discussed and ways sought to reduce our plastics use, our carbon footprint and our impact on the environment in general.  One of, if not the biggest, impact is flying. You need to get your passengers to and from departure and arrival ports.  This is a problem for all cruise ships not exclusively operating in local waters, and a huge problem for the tourism and travel industry in general.  It is pretty indisputable that climate change is the biggest environmental threat to our planet at the moment.  Currently, civil aviation accounts for around 2.5% of all energy-related CO2 emissions, and 4-5% of all energy-related greenhouse gas emissions.  However, emissions from air travel grew 40% between 1990 and 2010.  Air travel is predicted to grow at around 4% a year.  Even with improvements in technology and carbon trading (i.e. buying carbon credits from less polluting industries) there is a still a real disconnect between air travels targets for reductions in greenhouse gases required to have a realistic chance of keeping climate change to the 2o C rise target set as part of the IPPC’s Paris Agreement.  In most Western developed countries, flying is the biggest single contributor to our carbon footprint.  The UK’s carbon emissions are now (latest figures 2018) around 5.6 tonnes per person.  But for one return flight (economy class) from London to Perth, Australia releases around 5 tonnes of greenhouse emissions.  So one long haul flight a year can effectively double one’s impact on climate change.  That is a pretty sobering statistic.  So let’s return to Sea Shepherd UK’s call for cruise ship companies to boycott the Faroes.  Were Sea Shepherd really a conservation organisation one might think, when targeting a particular sector, they would look at that sector’s activities and choose the most environmentally damaging and attempt to persuade them to reduce or mitigate the damaging effects of that activity. So if the target industry is the cruise ship industry, then campaigning for a boycott of the Faroe Islands makes zero sense, in terms of conservation.  If, instead, the target is the marine environmental impacts of the Faroese islanders and Government, then targeting the grind makes zero sense in conservation terms.  Now that is not to say that there are that there are no significant conservation issues with Faroese fisheries.  There are; currently, and for some years, both cod and haddock stocks within Faroese waters are severely depleted, with cod stocks at historic lows, largely due to a combination of overfishing, over-capacity and poor regulation.  Now were Sea Shepherd really a marine conservation body, that would be valid issue to campaign on.  It probably would not command the same media attention though.

Sea Shepherd has a history of focussing on marine mammals, so what are the main threats to pilot whales in the NE Atlantic, and globally.  Undoubtedly one of the biggest threats is the amount of plastic waste in the oceans.  And not just to pilot whales but a great many other marine mammals and marine life in general. On June 1st 2018, a short fin pilot whale found floating off the coast of Thailand took five days to die.  Hours before it died it started vomiting up bits of plastic.  An autopsy found 80 plastic bags in its stomach.  In March 2019, a Cuvier’s beaked whale washed up dead on the Philippines coast; an autopsy found 40kg of plastic bags in its stomach.  In April 2019 a pregnant sperm whale washed up on the Sardinian coast and was found to have over 20 kg of plastic in its stomach.  In May a dead young sperm whale washed up on the coast of Italy; again its stomach was found to be full of plastic rubbish.  This is clearly the tip of the iceberg.  Undoubtedly many toothed whales (possibly the majority) will have plastic rubbish in their stomachs and be suffering sub-lethal effects.  Equally, many will die at sea and their plastic burden will go unrecorded.  Studies have shown that pilot whales have very high levels of mercury in their tissues.  Sea Shepherd use this as part of their argument to halt the grind.  A more conservation-minded approach might be to ask why they have such high levels of mercury contamination, and what can be done about it. The main sources of organic mercury (methylmercury) in the marine environment are anthropogenic; particularly coal burning power plants, chlorine production and gold mining.  The levels of organic mercury in pilot whales is among the highest recorded for marine mammals (although it is also high in polar bears, belugas, ring seals and many other top marine predators).  In pilot whales the concentrations are considered high enough to produce neurological changes in them, along with liver and kidney abnormalities and changes in lymphocytes affecting their ability to fight infections.  Yet another likely big impact on pilot whales (and many other cetaceans) is noise pollution from ship traffic and seismic survey activities.  Like most cetaceans, pilot whales rely on vocalisation for communication over distance, for navigation and for hunting.  Anthropogenic sources of marine noise, which have grown massively in the past hundred years (and which cruise ships contribute to) has been implicated in in many adverse effects on cetaceans, including displacement and avoidance behaviour, changes in vocalisation and mass strandings.  The above all have real, profound and sometimes catastrophic effects on pilot whale populations and much other marine life besides, yet Sea Shepherd campaigns focus on none of the above. Instead, they chose to focus on an activity for which there is no evidence that it has any significant effect on pilot whale populations, on other marine species or on the wider marine environment. But it is one that garners Sea Shepherd a great deal of publicity.  In my book that disqualifies them from being considered a marine conservation organisation.

The questions posed by this blog title was: is it hypocritical to campaign for the end of the grind or to criticise it on social media?  Ultimately that depends, I believe, on your own personal lifestyle.  If you eat farmed meat, if you use disposal plastics at all (recycling doesn’t count – most ‘recycled’ plastics are shipped to Third World countries of sit around in waste collection centres) if you travel by air at all, then the answer is ‘yes’ it is hypocritical, because your own negative impacts on the environment are almost certainly greater than those of the grind. I certainly do not meet that standard, which is one reason I would be very reluctant to criticise it.  The grind is likely to slowly die out as younger peoples attitudes change; less likely as long as outsiders aggressively condemn the Faroese over it. In my view criticising and supporting campaigns to stop the grind are, and best, simply a distraction.  They divert attention, time and energy away from environmental issues that are genuinely important, and the real threats to whale and dolphin populations.

Porbeagle populations in the N.E. Atlantic critically endangered.

Porbeagle shark, Lamna nasus, caught as bycatch, on the deck of a fishing vessel, Irish Sea, UK. Colin Munro Photography

Porbeagle shark, Lamna nasus, caught as bycatch, on the deck of a fishing vessel, Irish Sea, UK. Colin Munro Photography

Porbeagle shark, Lamna nasus, caught as bycatch, on the deck of a fishing vessel, Irish Sea, UK.

Porbeagle sharks (Lamna nasus) are a temperate water species of shark belong to the mackerel shark family (Lamnidae), the same family as salmon sharks, makos and great whites. Adults are around 2.5 metres long and and weigh about 140kg. They are considered vulnerable throughout their range. The population around UK shores (NE Atlantic) is considered critically endangered (IUCN). The International Committee for Exploration of the Seas (ICES) advises that the NE Atlantic stocks may be close to collapse. A quota system for porbeagles was introduced in 2008. The Total Allowable Catch (TAC) was reduced to 436 tonnes in 2009. In UK waters a total ban on targetted fishing by commercial fishermen has been in place since 2010, with release of accidental bycatch whenever possible. ICES has called for a zero TAC since 2006; there are now proposals to bring this in to effect throughout the EU.

There is a still a problem in that porbeagles, are fast swimming predators that feed on squid and fish. Freuqently the species that fishermen are also targetting. Porbeagles may end up as accidental bycatch in trawls or in set nets. Like other mackerel sharks, porbeagles’ gills work by obligate ram ventilation. This means they need a constant flow of water past their gills in order to oxygenate their blood. Trapped in nets they quickly drown. As set nets are often deployed on the seabed then hauled 12 or 24 hours later, even if the fishermen would like to release them alive it will be too late. The Centre for Environment, Fisheries and Aquaculture Science (CEFAS) is currently conducting a DEFRA commissioned study in to the threats posed by accidental bycatch to porbeagle in UK waters. Hopefully this will result in guidance for fishermen as to the best ways to minimise the risk of accidentally catching porbeagles.

Save our Seas is working with the Marine Institute in Ireland to satellite tag porbeagles. This should help us understand portbeagle migration and possibly identify nursey areas. This has so far shown that porbeagles tagged off northern coast of Ireland have resurfaced off Lisbon, Portugal. Details of the study can be seen here.

Interesting fact: All fish are cold blooded right? Not quite. Recent studies have found that most mackerel sharks (salmon sharks, great whites, shortfin mako and porbeagles) are able to maintain their body temperature above that of the surrounding water, as marine mammals do. They acheive this by passing deoxygenated blood, heated by muscle activity and biochemical reactions, past a network of cold, oxygenated blood travelling through a network of fine arteries (the rete mirable, literally ‘wonderful net’) thus transferring heat to the arterial blood rather than simly losing it to the external environment. Salmon sharks (Lamna ditropis) sharks have been found to maintain their core temperature up to 21 degrees C above that of the surrounding water (Goldman et al, 2004)

Porbeagles are endangered throughout the Atlantic. The EU has now voted to ban commercial porbeagle fishing. Currently only Canada allows a commercial fishery, although the Canadian Government are coming under considerable pressure from conservationists within and outside Canada. More more information on this read the Friends of Hector article here.

Goldman, K.J., Anderson, S.D., Latour, R.J. and Musick, j.A., 2004. Homeothermy in adult salmon sharks, Lamna ditropis. Environmental Biology of Fishes 71 (4): 403–411.

Lyme Bay, Lane’s Ground Reef: sponge species recovery and opportunities lost

Lane's Ground Reef, a circalittoral boulder reef rich in sponges and ascidians, within Lyme Bay Closed Area, Lyme Bay, southwest England. Colin Munro Photography

This blog post has now moved to my Marine Biology website, It can be read at:

Lyme Bay, Lane’s Ground Reef: sponge species recovery and opportunities lost

New gallery: Lyme Bay Reefs and Lyme Bay Seabed stock images

Along the tide-swept crest of a low limestone ledge larger filter-feeding organisms flourish. Lyme Bay Reefs, Southwest England. (C) Colin Munro Photography.

New gallery uploaded – Lyme Bay Seabed Images and Lyme Bay Reefs

A rich epifaunal turf forms on the tide-swept edge of a rocky reef, Saw-tooth ledges Reef, Lyme bay, Southwest England. Colin Munro Photography

A rich epifaunal turf forms on the tide-swept edge of a rocky reef, Saw-tooth ledges Reef, Lyme bay, Southwest England. Image No. MBI001163

I’ve started creating a dedicated gallery of stock images documenting the seabed habitats and species of Lyme Bay. This gallery will include Lyme bay Reefs, for which the Lyme Bay Closed Area was set up to protect, and will catalogue the diversity of these reefs, but will also document some of the interesting sedimentary habitats which usually fail to receive the attention they merit.  These and more Lyme Bay images can be seen here.

A sediment covered limestone boulder reef in Lyme Bay, Southwest England. The bright yellow tassled sponge Iophon hyndmani or Iophonopsis nigricans (the two species  cannot be positively differentiated underwater) can be seen in the centre of the image; (C) Colin Munro Photography

A sediment covered limestone boulder reef in Lyme Bay, Southwest England. The bright yellow tassled sponge Iophon hyndmani or Iophonopsis nigricans (the two species cannot be positively differentiated underwater) can be seen in the centre of the image. Image No. MBI001162

Along the tide-swept crest of a low limestone ledge larger filter-feeding organisms flourish.  Lyme Bay Reefs, Southwest England. (C) Colin Munro Photography.

Along the tide-swept crest of a low limestone ledge larger filter-feeding organisms flourish. Lyme Bay Reefs, Southwest England. Image No. MBI001156

A scallop, Pecten maximus, swim away from a perceived threat. Gravel waves, Lyme Bay, Southwest England. (C) Colin Munro Photography

A scallop, Pecten maximus, swim away from a perceived threat. Gravel waves, Lyme Bay, Southwest England. Image No. MBI001173

All the images in this blog are available to license. To view a gallery (license images or purchase prints of) these, and more of my Lyme Bay seabed images go here. Alternatively you can search all my online stock images at my site through the search box (top right) here or on my main website here. Lyme Bay Reefs images, Lyme Bay seabed images, stock images.


Lyme Bay, what makes it special?

Lyme Bay, what makes it special?

I’ve published about Lyme Bay marine biological monitoring on my marine-bio-images blog   here and earlier on this blog here, looking at the monitoring of Lyme Bay Closed Area, a Marine protected Area success? Parts 1 and 2 describe the impacts mobile fishing gear, in particular scallop dredging, had been having on the reefs since at least the late 1980s. I describe the impacts of scallop dredging in detail here. I will look soon at the actual monitoring that has taken place since the closed area came in to being in 2008, but before doing so it is probably worth devoting a couple of blogs to describe why Lyme Bay is important and worth protecting; just what makes it special.

What Lyme Bay is not

In seeking to justify protection for the reefs and ‘sell’ the area to the wider public, the concepts of ‘coral gardens’ and ‘charismatic species’ has often been pushed.  Such poetic language may well raise the area’s profile and engender support in the short term, but it has lead to some fairly profound misunderstandings – including within NGOs and Government Agencies – about the bay and the reasons the reefs within are important.

A sediment covered limestone reef in Lyme Bay, Southwest England showing the profusion of sediment tolerant species that grow on such reefs. Colin Munro Photography.

A sediment covered limestone reef in Lyme Bay, Southwest England showing the profusion of sediment tolerant species that grow on such reefs. Image No. MBI001261.

Most of Lyme bay is not visually spectacular, there are few dramatic underwater rock cliffs painted with a riot of colour; nor is it beautiful clear water offering panoramic vistas across the seabed.  The reefs in Lyme bay are mostly low lying and the waters tend to be fairly gloomy and turbid.  As this is essentially a large, open, sandy bay exposed to the prevailing winds, then significant amounts of suspended sediment (at least near-shore, close to the seabed) are the norm.  Whilst winds may ease in summer, it is also prone to strong plankton blooms during May and June, with a second less pronounced bloom in late summer.  Thus underwater visibility rarely exceeds 10 metres (30ft) and frequently may be less than 3 metres (10ft).  The reefs in the bay, though numerous in the centre and east, are mostly discontinuous, forming a patchwork of low rocky outcrops surrounded by sediment.  This means that they tend to be covered by thin veneers of sediment as tide and wave action lifts and sweeps saltating sand across them.  The amount of sand will vary, depending on the size of the reef area, how high the reef rises above the surrounding sediment plain, the strength of tidal streams in that part of the bay and how strong the wind has been recently (and thus how big the waves).  This makes it a rather challenging environment both the underwater photographer and scientist attempting to record visual data.  Low light levels and high levels of suspended sediment producing lots of backscatter from lights making for tricky problems in producing good images.

An area of sediment covered boulder reef, Lyme Bay. The large white sea squirt Phallusia mammillata, and the blue-grey colonial sea squirt Diplosoma spongiforme, both characteristic of Lyme Bay, can be seen in this image. Image No. MBI001264. Colin Munro Photography

An area of sediment covered boulder reef, Lyme Bay. The large white sea squirt Phallusia mammillata, and the blue-grey colonial sea squirt Diplosoma spongiforme, both characteristic of Lyme Bay, can be seen in this image. Image No. MBI001264.

The species that make Lyme Bay different and the effects of the Closed Area

The flip side of this is that the communities on these reefs tend to be rather different from those inhabiting areas with perhaps more visually spectacular ‘clean’ reefs further west.  Species that tolerate a degree of sand and silt cover do well here.  A good example of this is the sponge Adreus fascicularis, a species found almost exclusively on silt-covered horizontal bedrock  Considered rare in UK waters, it is relatively common  on the reefs of Lyme Bay.  Similarly the large solitary sea squirt Phallusia mamillata.  A very distinctive species, the largest sea squirt found around British coasts its striking white colour stands out against the dull sediment.  More associated with silty, sheltered harbours and estuaries it is uncommon or rare on open coasts along the rest of its UK range, but quite abundant within Lyme Bay.  So the factors that make this a difficult environment in which to capture appealing images or gather data on the marine life in quite a significant contribute to Lyme Bay being an interesting and unusual environment. There are other species common here that we simply do not known enough about their ecology to say why they are more abundant in Lyme bay than elsewhere; a good example of this is the colonial sea squirt Diplosoma spongiforme. Though not rare elsewhere, it is abundant in Lyme Bay, forming mats, growing over rocks, seafans and other sponges. Similarly the tassled yellow sponge Iophon hyndmani/Iophonopsis nigricans (the two species are grouped together as very difficult to tell apart underwater) is particularly abundant in Lyme Bay. Indeed the sponge assemblages are frequently very rich and diverse on Lyme Bay reefs; for some reefs such as the boulder reefs (for example Lane’s Ground Reef in the central part of Lyme Bay) they are probably the most obvious characteristic of the reef and may well be the most diverse groups within the reef community there. Unfortunately they are still very poorly described (in part because sponge taxonomy is a difficult subject with field characteristics often not being sufficient for positive identification) and so are certainly under-reported and thus frequently undervalued in terms of the Bay’s conservation value. Yet sponges, being soft tissued and quite often slow-growing species, are amongst the most vulnerable to damage and eradication from areas of reef by mobile fishing gear. Indeed the sharp decline in sponge species occurring on Lane’s Ground Reef between 1995 and 2008 (clearly visible for video footage and still images taken by myself during this time period) was one of the most obvious and disturbing changes in the years before statutory protection from bottom-towed mobile fishing was established for central Lyme Bay.

Boulder reef, Lyme Bay.  The amount of suspended sediment in the water can be clearly seen.  The yellow tassled sponge Iophon hyndmani or Iophonopsis nigricans can be seen in the centre of the image, however the lack of sponges (and other attached life) compared to previous years is clear. Image No. MBI001267

Boulder reef, Lyme Bay. The amount of suspended sediment in the water can be clearly seen. The yellow tassled sponge Iophon hyndmani or Iophonopsis nigricans can be seen in the centre of the image, however it can be seen that many of the boulders are now (2010) bare of sponges and other attached life. Image No. MBI001267

Has there been a recovery of sponge species since the Closed Area was established in 2008? Our study (running from 2008-2010, when funding from Natural England ended) suggested that sponge recovery was beginning. Three years is too short a time in which to expect marked changes in such communities. It would also be foolish to read much in this data, three annual surveys (i.e. data being collected once a year for three years) represent only three data points. There will obviously be good years and bad years, plus a degree of error in any data collected, so a line drawn from three data points must come with huge caveats. Nevertheless, this slight improvement was noticeable. We are hopeful that we will be able to re-start our monitoring programme, albeit in a slightly reduced form, on a voluntary basis in 2013. It will be exciting to see what effects the Closed Area has had on the reef communities after five years.

More information about Lyme Bay, in particular the impacts of scallop dredging and the protected Closed Area, can be found on my marine biology blog, and on the marine-bio-images website where numerous reports on the research we have conducted here can be found.

All text and images in this blog copyright Colin Munro 2012.  All images are available to license.    Alternatively you can search all my online stock images at my  site through the search box (top right) or on my main website here.

Lyme Bay Closed Area, a Marine Protected Area success? Part 2.

Lyme Bay Closed Area, a Marine Protected Area success? Part 2.

This post follows on from Lyme Bay Closed Area, a Marine Protected Area success? Part 1, which described the damage first noted on rocky reefs in Lyme bay, Southwest England, from scallop dredging during the 1990s. This post describes the voluntary agreements set up and the ongoing problems.
As described in Part 1, the condition of the reefs in Lyme Bay had begun to deteriorate markedly by the early 1990s, and this deterioration continued more or less unchecked over the next 12 or 13 years. It would however, be wrong to suggest that all reefs were suffering equally or that nothing was happening to change this situation. Some reefs were simply too rugged for any sort of mobile fishing gear to ever be towed across them, however even they suffered from degradation around the edges. Others that were more easily worked were devastated.

The Devon Wildlife Trust had been working hard with local fishermen since the early 1990s, and voluntary agreements had been set up voluntary agreements whereby trawlers and scallop dredgers would not work in the most fragile reef habitats. The first such agreement extended voluntary protection to two reefs (known locally as Lane’s Ground, a boulder reef rich in sponges, and The Saw-Tooth Ledges, a series of limestone ledges supporting abundant seafans, soft corals and sponges). Two additional reefs were added to this agreement in 2006, The East Tennants Reef, a boulder reef supporting high densities of large seafans, and Beer Home Ground, a reef of ledges and rocky promentories composed of softer mudtstone and sandstone amongst harder limestone that had suffered quite badly from reef erosion through the action of scallop dredges. However problems remained. The first was that however sincere most local fishermen were, there was always the problem that some from further afield would see no need to abide by this agreement and, it has to be said, not all local fishermen agreed with the closure. It only took one vessel operating within the voluntary closures, maybe late at night or early morning when they were unlikley to be spotted, to cause damage that would last for years. The second problem was that the four voluntary areas were small and in no way enclosed all of even the most vulnerable reefs. An example of this is the West Tennants Reef. This is an very extensive reef in Lyme Bay terms. It is a low limestone ledge, or series of ledges, that runs parallel to the shore, about 4 miles offshore and roughly 29 metres below sea level. Although only around 10-30 metres wide over much of its length, it runs east-west for over two miles. The ledge is fairly level and free of rocky protrusions, and drops less than a metre to the surrounding seabed, thus it was very easily worked from the top of the ledge, dredges running along, parallel to the edge before eventually dropping of the edge. Strong currents sweep along this ledge, and in the early 1990s a dense band of very large seafans grew along this ledge, along with significant numbers of large axinellid sponges.

Large Axinellid sponge (Axinella dissimilis) and seafans. Most of the West Tennants Reef used to look like this.

The band was not wide, perhaps no more than 8-10 metres across, but extended for nearly two miles East-West. Although the East Tennants Reef nearby had higher densities of seafans but, simply due to its size, the west Tennants Reef supported more large seafans than any other reef in Lyme Bay. Indeed it was one of the most extensive continuous beds of large seafans in UK waters. Unfortunately, by 2007 most of these large seafans (and large sponges) had gone. As part of a wider study, I conducted a remote video survey along the reef in the summer of 2007. Instead of a dense continuous bed of seafans we found isolated patches and extensive areas of bare reef. We also saw many recently detached large seafans lying flat on the seabed and scallop dredgers working nearby. We returned a couple of days later to dive the reef and capture some better video. This can be seen here: West Tennants Reef, 2007.


It was clear that the situation in Lyme bay was continuing to deteriorate. Fortunately major changes to rectify this were also happening. Following a lengthy consultation process, with proposals submitted by the Natural England, Conservation NGOs (in particular the Wildlife Trusts) and the fishing industry, DEFRA announced that an area of some 60 square nautical miles in the central part of Lyme Bay was to be closed to mobile fishing gear by Statutory Order. There have undoubtedly been a few vessels that continued to work inside the closed area at night, especially during the first couple of years. However it’s fair to say that by and large this has been a success, in terms of maintaining an area free from the impacts of mobile bottom fishing gear. So how has that been reflected in changes, or recovery, of the fauna of the reefs within the closed area. In order to assess this two parallel studies were set up, one by Plymouth University using remote video, and one conducted by ourselves (that is my consultancy Marine Bio-images) with divers recording life at fixed stations. Data was collected over three summers; 2008, 2009 and 2010, and the findings of these studies have now been analysed and are about to be published. The next part of this blog will look in more detail at what we found and what seems to have changed since the closed area was established.

Update 10th July 2012, New blog: Lyme Bay, what makes it special?
All images and text (C) Colin Munro Photography.

Lyme Bay Closed Area, a Marine Protected Area success? Part 1.

Lyme Bay Closed Area, a Marine Protected Area success? Part 1.

Dense beds of mature pink seafans (Eunicella verrucosa), some almost a metre across, growing on pristine reef in Lyme Bay.

In 2008, the UK Government Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) closed an area of Lyme Bay, some 60 square miles in extent, roughly 10 per cent of the bay, to mobile benthic fishing gear. By mobile benthic fishing gear I mean gear that is towed across the seabed, i.e. bottom fishing trawl nets and scallop dredges. This closure was brought in to protect fragile seabed habitats and the associated marine life, in particular the subtidal rocky reefs and boulder and cobble reefs, known to occur in the central and eastern part of the bay. We’ve known for a long time, at least the late 1980s, that such heavy gear could be highly destructive to some reef species, especially fragile or soft tissued attached species such as sponges and soft corals. Of greatest concern was the increase in scallop dredging. Changes in the quota system, markets and fish prices had lead to the number of boats working with scallop dredges increasing dramatically in the late 1980s. The number of boats operating solely as scallop dredgers had also increased (vessels will often switch gear thoughout the year as fish species migrate and quotas change); thus the overall intensity of scalloping had rocketed. As far back as 1991, I conducted dive surveys for the Devon Wildlife Trust; we had heard reports from recreational divers of swathes of destruction on previously pristine reef areas. What we found was even more disturbing, not only were areas of reef being scraped clean of attached life, the very stucture of the reef was changing.

Scallop dredger in Lyme Bay. A scallop dredger hauling dredges (4 each side) to emtpy catch.

Amongst the more interesting reef areas in Lyme Bay are the boulder and cobble reefs and the mudstone ledge reefs. Boulder and cobble reefs are basically level boulder fields, most of the boulders are small, roughly football-sized and so the heavy scallop dredges can bounce and rattle across these boulders without getting damaged themselves, picking up the occasional scallop as they go. What also happens though is that the boulders are lifted out of the sediment, rolled along and banged together. As this happens the sponges and soft corals growing on the boulders are ripped off or ground to shreds. The steel teeth of the dredges rake into the sediment as the dredge travels, stirring up clouds of sediment which then subsequently settles on top of the boulders. The attached species that managed to survive intact are then smothered in a layer of sediment, blocking their delicate filter-feeding organs.


Mudstone reefs are composed of blue lias clay. This is the same hard, slate-like clay that can be seen in the fossil-rich cliffs that line much of the coast of Lyme Bay. As this clay can easily be shattered by a fossil hunters hammer, the effects of half a ton of toothed dredges being hauled across such ledges by a powerful fishing boat are quite devastating. The ledges simply crumble. Now as any good marine biologist knows, most of the larger attached fauna on reefs are filter feeding organisms – sponges, hydroids, soft corals, bryozoans etc., and as every hydrographer (and diver) knows, currents accelerate around the edges of ledges and promentories due to entrainment. So of course all the life clusters around the edges of ledges where the rich feeding currents are. Grind away the edges and you remove maybe 80% of the attached fauna and – most importantly – virtually all the large colonies. The large colonies are the structure-forming ones that provide new niches for other species, they are often the slow-growing species that can take years to re-establish (where possible), and they are also the ones with the largest reproductive potential: for example, a big seafan colony that’s maybe 15 or 20 years old is going to release many time more eggs or larvae than a little one about 5 years old thats only just reached reporductive maturity. So when the big colonies are removed this alone may drastically affect the ability of a species to maintain or re-establish its population in an area.

Reef badly damaged by scallop dredgers. Lyme Bay. Colin Munro Photography.

Reef badly damaged by scallop dredgers

So to put it mildly, the situation was not good, and was rapidly deteriorating. It only took one boat working across a reef to remove so much life that it would take years for recovery to occur. Six months of boats intensively working an area could (and did) irreversably change the structure of some reefs. As scallop stocks declined on the so-called ‘clean ground’ (areas of sandy seabed) boast began to work closer to the edges of reefs, nibbling away at the edges. Fish finders and echo sounders improved in quality, so skippers could see exactly which way ledges rose up, enabling them to work close around the most rugged ledges and pinnacles. DECCA became standard for position fixing, then was replaced by GPS, allowing every more accurate positioning of where the roughest points to be avoided were, so boats could work into reefs where previously they dare not enter. The power of vessels also increased, so when dredges did become stuck fast on a rocky ledge or large boulder the solution was often to turn on the power and pull free, often with devastating consequences for the reef. I personally witnessed this many times over the years. Boats would dredge right up the the edge of a reef, gradually extending further and further in to it through the day as the edges were ground down or boulders rolled away. Occasionally a dredger would come fast. You could see it stop dead in the water and list over to one side where the dredges on that side were caught. Watching from a couple of hundred metres away you would hear the engine rev, see the vessel sink deeper on the caught side, then suddenly lurch free to carry on around again.

Scallop dredger heeling over as the dredges on one side catch fast on the seabed. Lyme Bay. Colin Munro Photography.

Scallop dredger heeling over as the dredges on one side catch fast on the seabed.

On one occasion (whilst conducting dive surveys on a reef composed of large limestone boulders) we watched twelve dredgers work around in tight circles clipping in to the reef again and again for over six hours. We took position fixes and returned at dusk with stills and video cameras. It was about forty minutes steaming time to reach this offshore reef and the sun was disappearing as we descended to the reef and swum on a bearing towards where we had seen the boats working. It was quite black without lights when we hit the bottom at around 28 metres, visibility was very poor as the water was still full of suspended sediment from the dredgers working earlier. Even so the transition from pristine to ‘worked’ reef was clear cut and the devastating effects of that one day’s dredging were unmistakable. The entire seabed was carpeted in a layer of fine sediment, detached soft corals drifted loosely across the reef, detached seafans lay flat partially buried in sediment, fragments of the plates of ross coral (a bryozoan) littered the reef. Large boulders lay overturned with still attached seafans protruding from underneath. Only isolated patched of undisturbed reef remained where the dredgers had been working. Video footage taken during this dive, showing pristine reef from the start of the dive and damaged reef encountered later in the dive, can be downloaded from the link below (48Mb, plays in Windows Media Player or Quicktime Player).
East Tennants Reef following scallop dredging 2002


Thus began a long road to the establishment of protection for the reefs. An 18 year long campaign driven by the Devon Wildlife Trust finally lead to stautory protection for the reefs in 2008. So what has this acheived? I’ll address this in Part 2 of this blog.

Update 10th July 2012, New blog: Lyme Bay, what makes it special?
All images and text (C) Colin Munro Photography.


Sex and death in the seagrass

A common or European cuttlefish, Sepia officinalis, trapped in monofilament bottom set nets, Brixham Harbour. Each year nets are set around seagrass beds (Zostera marina) where cuttlefish come in to breed. Colin Munro Photography
A common or European cuttlefish, Sepia officinalis, trapped in monofilament bottom set nets, Brixham Harbour.  Each year nets are set around seagrass beds (Zostera marina) where cuttlefish come in to breed. Colin Munro Photography

A common or European cuttlefish, Sepia officinalis, trapped in monofilament bottom set nets, Brixham Harbour. Each year nets are set around seagrass beds (Zostera marina) where cuttlefish come in to breed. Image No. MBI000305.

Intelligent life. Few divers who have ever encountered an octopus or cuttlefish underwater cannot have been struck by a sense of an alien intelligence staring hard at them, assessing whether you are friend or foe and what you are likely to do next. That cephalopods (octopi, cuttlefish, squid and their kin) are bright has now become common knowledge; yet this is still something that sits uneasily with their molluscan nature. Great apes, whales and dolphins are easier to accept; they are mammals and so not that distantly related to us. But cephalopods? They are not even vertebrates; first cousins to slugs, snails and slipper limpets. Their blood is greeny-blue not red as the oxygen carrying molecule is copper-based rather than the iron-based haemoglobin in all mammals. They really are shape-shifting aliens from inner space. And yet, when a cuttlefish rises out of the sand or seagrass to hover in front of you, you get a real sense of cogs turning and a logical decision-making process taking place. That may, of course simply be down their binocular vision; we tend to almost intuitively associate this with intelligence (it is designed, after all, to assess distance, form mental 3D images of the World and judge when and how to strike at prey). That there is real intelligence behind those eyes is most elegantly demonstrated by the octopus, which has joined the elite group of animals that have demonstrated the use of tools to manipulate their environment in the wild. The veined octopus has recently been filmed collecting and stacking discarded coconut shells halves to use as a shelter. So far it is the only invertebrate to do so.

Cuttlefish breeding. The seagrass beds of South Devon have long been a favourite dive habitat of mine. They provide gentle, sunlit dives where one can float along in the hope of encountering a pipefish, mating sea hares and, at the right time of year, cuttlefish arriving to lay eggs. Watching a female cuttlefish lay eggs is a fascinating experience. Each pointed black egg is attached to a tuft of seagrass or weed one at a time. The female will hover before it, then after a few minutes contemplation will move forward to firmly grasp the stem with her tentacles and pull it towards her. After a minute she draws back again, to reveal a new shiny, pointed black eggs bound to the stem by a band extending out of the egg case. This process with continue for over an hour, until the stem is wrapped in what resembles a bunch of black, pointed grapes.

A common or European cuttlefish, Sepia officinalis, trapped in monofilament bottom set nets, Brixham Harbour.  Each year nets are set around seagrass beds (Zostera marina) where cuttlefish come in to breed. Colin Munro Photography.

A female common or European cuttlefish, Sepia officinalis, trapped in monofilament bottom set nets, Brixham Harbour. A male hovers nearby and will eventually also be entangled. Other males hover in the background. Image No. MBI000270.

While the eggs are laid a gang of males hover in attendance. When cuttlefish mate the male transfers the spermatophores (sperm packages) to within the females buccal cavity, using his modified fourth arm (the hectcotylus). The hectocotylus is then used to break open the spermatophores, releasing the sperm which is then temporarily stored within the female’s buccal cavity. If she subsequently mates with another male it will direct jets of water into her buccal cavity to attempt to flush out earlier sperm deposits. Consequently the most recent mate will hover above her, warding off other males that will hang around, to ensure that it is his genetic material that is passed on rather than that of his upstart rivals.

Cuttlefish in nets. Cuttlefish are, of course, a valuable catch for fishermen. They are caught in trawls out at sea and also in set nets deployed around their inshore breeding grounds. Cuttlefish grow quickly and most die shortly after breeding, so those caught after they have laid their eggs will not have any real effect on future populations. Unfortunately however, nets are often laid around the edges of breeding grounds such as seagrass nets, thus cuttlefish are caught not only when leaving the breeding ground but also when arriving, before they breed. The nets do not kill them, but they are often quite badly damaged as they twist and the fine line cuts into their flesh. Indeed I often wonder how they can be sold after their flesh is so ripped up. If a female is caught then inevitably a number of males arriving will hang around her until they too are caught. A trapped female may remain their for up to twelve hours before the nets are hauled, so the potential for catching large numbers of breeding cuttlefish is quite high. So far, this practice does not seem to have noticeably affected local cuttlefish populations. It is nonetheless rather disconcerting to watch such lovely animals twisting and turning for hours on end.

Update. In the past couple of years I, and other local divers, have seen notably fewer cuttefish hanging around in the shallow bays of South Devon during the breeding season.  This may simply be due to factors like the lousy weather we’ve had during the past couple of summers; it may also be due to the almost impenetrable ring of nets set on the edge of these bays.

Images. All the images in this blog are available to license.  You can search all my online stock images at my  Cuttlefish images, Sepia officinalis images, fishing images, stock images.

The worst whale picture you’ll ever see

The worst whale picture you’ll ever see
Humpback whale swimming under a fishing vessel, Lyme Bay, Southwest England

Humpback whale swimming under a fishing vessel, Lyme Bay, Southwest England

I have just uploaded what is probably the worst whale picture you’ve ever seen, or are likely to. For a start it was taken with an old Nikonos III camera, without use of an additional hand held light meter. Those old Nik IIIs were purely mechanical, so no built in light meter; thus exposure was based on the ‘guesstimate then bracket like hell’ maxim. Secondly, it was taken with the only wide angle lens I owned back in those days, a cheap plastic supplementary lens of rather dubious sharpness. To be honest the lack of sharpness was not really an issue. I was shooting in turbid coastal waters, where horizontal visibility near the surface was between 8-10 metres (26-33 feet); pretty good for the area as it happens but lousy for shooting whales. On top of this strong winds had been blowing so the shallow coastal water was nicely loaded with suspended sediment lifted off the seabed. This made for a rather hazy 8-10 metres visibility. As if that weren’t enough, conditions were further complicated by this occurring around 7.30pm, so the sun was getting low and light levels below the surface were dropping like a stone. To cap it all I had no fast colour film with me (yes this was waaaay back in the pre-digital days). I had not gone diving to photograph whales. I knew the visibility was likely to be lousy so I had arrived armed with a set of extension tubes for macro-photography and several rolls of Fuji Velvia 50 slide film. This produces wonderful, detail and rich, saturated colours, But it is slow! Certainly useless for photographing something the size of a bus in turbid, low light conditions. Throwing everything out of my camera bag over the deck of our dive boat I fished out an old roll of 400 asa film. Now that was more like it; still going to struggle but at least there was a chance of a recognisable image now. Only problem was it was black and white negative film (so long ago I forget exactly what). Still, it was that or nothing. So I loaded it with shaking hands are rolled over the boats gunnel into the water. The slowest shutter speed available on Nik IIIs is a 30th sec, so I wound it right down and hoped for the best. Black and white negative film is more forgiving of poor exposure than slide, which was just as well really.

So I guess I was quite fortunate (and there was a lot of luck) to get any recognisable images at all. But apart from nostalgia, why hang on to them, and why publish them online? The pictures are nearly two decades old now and after all, I have lots of lousy quality pictures from years gone by. The main reason, apart from being able to waffle on about the difficulties of photographing large marine mammals in lousy conditions, is that, eighteen years on, as far as I am aware these remain the only underwater pictures taken of a humpback whale in British coastal waters. I can still remember my utter amazement as I peered over the boat’s rail into the water below, watching a dark shape slowly rise up. As it approached the surface not more than two metres from the boat I could clearly make out a long, white object. When it was around a metre below I suddenly realised I was staring at a massive white pectoral fin. ‘Bloody hell! It’s a humpback!’ I remember shouting (okay, it may have been slightly stronger than ‘bloody’). By the time it broke the surface I was already throwing dive gear together. I loaded my camera, threw my cylinder on and rolled over the gunnel faster than any time before or since, oblivious to what anyone else was doing. I settled on the bottom at around 10 metres. I peered around but he (or she) was nowhere in sight. What now? Fortunately I didn’t have to wait long. The humpback was intensely interested in the boats echo sounder transducer and kept returning to make passes under the hull. I floated up to mid-water and simply hung there, waiting for him to return then clicked away frantically changing aperture sizes as I did so.

A small population of humpbacks inhabits the Eastern Atlantic, migrating each year between their arctic feeding grounds and breeding grounds off Cape Verde. They are frequently spotted off the West coast of Ireland as they head North or south. This guy somehow made a wrong turn off Cornwall and headed East along the English Channel. After our memorable dive he was not seen again, as far as I know. Let’s hope he made back on track.

I continue to muddle away at underwater photography, so if anyone is tempted I shall be running a series of workshops from March 2010 onwards. More info at Colin Munro photography Main Index under Courses and Workshops

If anyone knows of other humpbacks photographed underwater around the UK I’d be most interested to learn about it.

Colin Munro 3rd February 2010.