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Marine Life & Conservation

Saving Seahorses during a Pandemic

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Around the world, it’s the same story: divers used to being in the water everyday are finding themselves stuck at home. Programs, training, dive expos, expeditions and underwater research have all been cancelled or postponed. But what about the divers who couldn’t just pack up their bags and wait until the pandemic blew over? We sat down with Vasilis Mentogiannis, founder of the Hippocampus Marine Institute, to hear about ‘prototype housing’, his underwater surveillance project nearly destroyed by the pandemic.

A Diver’s Greek Paradise

Since 2007, Vasilis Mentogiannis has dedicated his professional life to studying seahorses. Fast forward a decade and Vasilis founded the Hippocampus Marine Institute, a non-profit organization whose main focus is the study and protection of seahorses. His work didn’t stop there, however. Up until the days of the COVID-19 outbreak, he had spent his time doing research with a team at a wreck site just off the coast of Peristera Island in Greece. On this particular Greek island, divers are able to examine one of the most important wrecks of the classical era (sometime around 425 BC), as this sunken merchant barge carried more than 3,000 wine amphorae.

A Narrow Escape

It was at this very spot, as Vasilis and his research team were installing their prototype housing system around the amphorae that they received the order to evacuate. When asked further about the project, Vasilis responded that prototype housing is “the installation of an underwater, self-powered system (equipped with solar panels) providing real-time video streaming from five cameras. The housing system is connected to a land station which collects data and statistics regarding the weather, wind speed and direction, rainfall, and UV rays at the wreck site. The ultimate goal is to collect all data necessary to create the technical conditions for breeding seahorses in order to implement their population.”

Today, this area is closed off to divers, and the camera system is able to both live-stream the wreck site from underwater for anyone to see online as well as provide surveillance, keeping the location safe from any such divers thinking they might like to make off with an amphora or two. Unfortunately, the global pandemic brought Vasilis’ work to a screeching halt. “When the virus made its way to Greece, we were still performing the system installation. It was really difficult because we had to stop all our activities and return to Athens.” Vasilis goes on to explain the potential danger of leaving a project like this so abruptly and unfinished, “If we had left the system as it was, it would have been destroyed as soon as the next bout of bad weather hit.”

Luckily, Vasilis and his team were able to finish the installation in time as well as apply a few key protective measures. “It was a really stressful situation. The day after we left the site, the weather got bad. I imagine if we hadn’t stayed to secure it, it would have been destroyed by now.” The potential losses were enormous, Mentogiannis continues, including a 200-meter power cable and fiber optic cable, an underwater hub, solar panels, batteries, etc.

Vasilis credits the company Divesoft for the role it played in providing the much-needed equipment that made such a time-critical project possible. The reliable Freedom computers came in when Vasilis was feeling the pressure to complete the installation. With the help of a good team and the right dive gear, Vasilis was able to complete the project in time, making his prototype housing system a success.

Prototype Housing’s Next Application

Now, Vasilis is waiting at home, hoping the outbreak will come to an end as soon as possible. His intentions are to prepare his prototype housing “seahorse cage-hotels” for surveying and protecting the Stratoni seahorse colony (also located in Greece, just north of the Peristera Island wreck). “The same system will be tested in Stratoni, but with a different task. The main goal will be to recognize the seahorses and provide as much feedback and information as possible,” explains Vasilis. “One of our first systems is about 90% ready, but we haven’t been able to test it as the virus closed all of us off at home.”

Hope for the Future

We’re looking forward to the day to come in which Vasilis, his team, as well as the rest of us, can return to the water. At times like these, we have to keep positive and try to focus on the good. Vasilis is more than satisfied that they were able to finish their installation work and save their project in Greece. Now he, like so many of us, is just itching to get back to his prototype housing projects, and is especially looking forward to seeing the seahorses again. Coronavirus may have succeeded at slowing Vasilis and his team down, but the fight’s not over yet. A priority to preserve and safeguard the remaining seahorse population in the area remains.

For more information about the Hippocampus Marine Institute visit their website by clicking here.

Jeff Goodman is the Editor-at-Large for Scubaverse.com with responsibility for conservation and underwater videography. Jeff is an award-winning TV wildlife and underwater cameraman and film maker who lives in Cornwall, UK. With over 10,000 dives to his credit he has dived in many different environments around the world.

Marine Life & Conservation

Boating and conservation worlds unite to save Studland’s seagrass and seahorses

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Charity The Seahorse Trust and national marina group boatfolk have joined forces to deliver a practical solution for saving Studland’s unique marine environment.

The two organisations have collaborated on a not-for-profit scheme to put ten ‘eco-moorings’ into Studland Bay to give boaters an attractive, environmentally friendly alternative to dropping their anchors. The dropping of anchors has damaging consequences for seabed environments including seagrass meadows. This is a significant concern as seagrass provides essential habitat for species including seahorses and also stores up to twice as much carbon per hectare as terrestrial forests, playing a major role in keeping climate change in check.

The scheme was recently approved by the Marine Management Organisation (MMO) following its designation in 2019 as a Marine Conservation Zone (MCZ) and installation of the new eco-moorings is now underway. The organisations’ eco-mooring proposal was supported by letters from high-profile conservation advocates including Chris Packham and Steve Backshall. The scheme is also being supported by Mitch Tonks and Rockfish who will provide funding for the installation of one of the eco-moorings.

The MCZ designation was made on the basis of Studland Bay’s seagrass meadows, which are an internationally important breeding ground for the Spiny Seahorse, one of Britain’s native seahorse species. The Spiny Seahorse was protected in 2008 under the Wildlife and Countryside Act following campaigning by the Seahorse Trust. The legal aim of the MCZ designation was to return both seagrass and seahorses to ‘favourable condition’.

Image: Ross Young

Neil Garrick-Maidment, Founder and Executive Director of The Seahorse Trust said: “The designation of Studland Bay as a Marine Conservation Zone was a long-awaited and hugely significant moment in safeguarding UK seahorse populations. It is now vital that the area is effectively protected and that everyone who uses the bay does so responsibly and sustainably. I am delighted to be working with boatfolk to develop a practical solution, which allows boaters to continue enjoying this remarkable site, in a way which also enables the conservation of rare seagrass meadows and crucial seahorse breeding grounds.”

Michael Prideaux, Managing Director of boatfolk said: “In late August, I met Neil on the beach at Studland Bay. We were united by our shared passion for the environment and by a desire to work with, and alongside, the boating community for a solution that everyone can get behind. boatfolk is all about making it easy for people to get out on the water and to enjoy their time afloat. Providing an alternative option at Studland that protects this incredible marine environment is about doing the right thing for boaters and for our planet. Financial return is not an objective here; we are committed to making Studland Bay a sustainable boating destination for generations to come and are proud to be putting our name and resources behind the scheme.”

The scheme forms part of boatfolk’s wider sustainability strategy, Coastline Deadline, a new platform designed to back projects which have a real, positive and measurable impact on the coastline.

Michael Prideaux adds, “We know our industry has an impact on the environment and that not enough is being done to raise awareness and change behaviours. Our goal isn’t to stop people boating. In fact, it’s the opposite. By making changes now we want to ensure that the coastline and oceans remain a place that can be enjoyed for generations to come.”

Image: Neil Garrick-Maidment

The benefits of eco-moorings are well-documented. Such moorings involve a helical screw anchor being driven into the seabed. An elastic rode is then attached, connecting the anchor system with the mooring buoy. The elastic rode will stretch at higher tides and contract at lower tides meaning that none of the equipment scours the seagrass around it. The moorings also provide a hassle-free option for boaters, saving them the trouble of having to drop their own anchors (which can often drag before taking a hold and leave the boat owner to clean the equipment afterwards).

Neil Garrick-Maidment and Michael Prideaux commented: “The Seahorse Trust and boatfolk are united in a clear belief that eco-moorings are the way forward for Studland, allowing boaters to continue enjoying the site while seagrass and seahorses thrive alongside. We were thrilled  to secure  MMO approval   for our proposal, which we believe provides a practical and collaborative roadmap to finally giving Studland Bay the effective protection it deserves, and are delighted that installation of the eco-moorings is now underway following successful tests of the helical screw.

The Seahorse Trust and boatfolk are very grateful to award-winning Devon and Dorset restaurant group Rockfish for their generous sponsorship of one of the initial ten eco-moorings.

Mitch Tonks, restaurateur, Rockfish and Seahorse restaurants, and co-founder of the Devon Environment Foundation, expressed his support for the scheme: “We believe Rockfish has a purpose beyond our restaurants. This is exactly the sort of project we like to support – practical, visible and useful, as well as changing the way we impact our world. It’s this on-the-ground stuff we love that people like The Seahorse Trust go out there and do.”

For more information on the work of The Seahorse Trust visit their website by clicking here.

Header image: Neil Garrick-Maidment

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Marine Life & Conservation

Huge thresher shark is the latest of six murals to be painted around the Solent this summer

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The murals celebrate the Solent’s extraordinary marine life – marking National Marine Week.

Secrets of the Solent have commissioned street artist ATM to paint a series of marine-themed artworks at various locations around the Solent this summer. The latest mural to be finished shows a thresher shark on the Langstone Harbour Office. Langstone Harbour is an important area for wildlife as well as a bustling seaside destination for sailing and water sports.

Artist ATM, who is painting all six murals, is well-known for his iconic wildlife street art. This, his second artwork of the series, took three days to paint freehand, from a scaffolding platform. The thresher shark was chosen out of six marine species to be the subject of the artwork by the local community, who were asked to vote via an online form or in person on the Hayling Ferry.

Secrets of the Solent hope the mural will become a landmark in Langstone Harbour and inspire visitors to learn more about this enigmatic oceanic shark. The project, which is supported by the National Lottery Heritage Fund, works to celebrate and raise awareness of Solent’s diverse marine environment.

Aiming to highlight the exotic and unusual creatures found close to our coasts, artist ATM says: “I really enjoyed painting the thresher shark because it’s such an amazing looking animal, with a tail as long as its body. I hope when people see the murals, they will become more aware of what lives under the waves and the importance of protecting the vital habitats within the Solent.”

Dr Tim Ferrero, Senior Marine Biologist at Hampshire & Isle of Wight Wildlife Trust says: “The thresher shark is a wonderful animal that visits our waters every summer. It comes to an area to the east of the Isle of Wight, and this appears to be where the sharks breed and have their young. Not many people know that we have thresher sharks in our region, and so having our mural here on the side of the Langstone Harbour Office building is a fantastic way of raising awareness of this mysterious ocean wanderer. I really hope that people will come away with the knowledge that the Solent, our harbours and our seas are incredibly important for wildlife.”

Rachel Bryan, Project Manager for Secrets of the Solent at Hampshire & Isle of Wight Wildlife Trust comments: “We are really excited to have street artist ATM painting a thresher shark on the side of the Langstone Harbour Office building. We chose this building because of its prominent location right on the entrance to Langstone Harbour so that anyone who’s visiting, whether that’s walkers, cyclists or people coming in and out of the harbour on their jet-skis or sailing boats, will all be able to see our thresher shark. People on the Portsmouth side of the harbour will also be able to see the mural from across the water.”

The thresher shark is a mysterious predator which spends most of its time in oceanic waters. It uses its huge whip-like tail as an incredibly effective tool for hunting its prey. Herding small fish into tight shoals, the shark will lash at them with its tail, stunning several in one hit and making them easier to catch.

Secrets of the Solent hope to work with the species this summer to discover more about its behaviour.

Dr Tim Ferrero explains: “Nobody really knows where thresher sharks go in the ocean. Later this summer we are hoping that we are going to be able to attach a satellite tag to a thresher shark and monitor its progress for an entire year. This will provide really important information that will help us learn so much more about the shark’s annual life cycle.”

The new thresher shark mural is a fantastic start to National Marine Week (24th July – 8th August), which celebrates the unique marine wildlife and habitats we have here in the UK. Over the two weeks, Wildlife Trusts around the country will be running a series of exciting events to celebrate the marine environment. We really hope people will be inspired by our murals and want to learn more about each chosen species.

Events in the Solent include the launch of a new Solent marine film on the 29th July, installation of a new Seabin on the 4th August to reduce marine litter, and citizen science surveys throughout summer.

For more information click here.

Header image: Bret Charman

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