On our doorstep: a conservation blog by Georgie Bull, Marine Biology and Coastal Ecology student

Image BIUPC winner 2020, copyright Georgie Bull

 

Hello all, and welcome to the first of a new blog series for BSoUP!

For those of you who don't know me, I'll start with a brief introduction. My name is Georgie, and I am a Marine Biology and Coastal Ecology student at the University of Plymouth. I've been diving since 2016, but really started to get into underwater photography from 2018 onwards. I am captivated by the ocean and its inhabitants as a scientist and photographer.

Me on a RIB in Torbay (photo by James Carroll)

When I first joined the society in 2018, I was inspired by the vast catalogue of images on the BSoUP website. I loved seeing the variety of subjects and techniques used to capture them, but I couldn't help but feel like something was missing. BSoUP is fortunate to have members all around the globe, photographing everything from whale sharks to anemone shrimps. This diversity makes us thrive. But we are, by title, a British/UK based Society. For reasons I will delve into throughout this introductory blog, I want to kick start a new movement within the society to showcase the amazing aquatic life we have right here on our doorstep. 

Let's start with an anecdote. 

In 2016 I completed a short work placement at London Aquarium. During a school visit, the guest experience team gave the children and teachers a card sorting activity. They were asked to sort pictures of various marine animals into two groups: UK species and tropical species. The cards featured animals such as mackerel, blue shark, humpback whale, orca, corkwing wrasse, cod, ling, conger eel, bobtail squid, and bass. Both staff and students tended to put grey or less traditionally charismatic species into the UK pile, and the more colourful or charismatic species into the tropical pile. The grand reveal at the end was that, of course, all of the animals pictured are found in UK waters either seasonally or permanently. 

Similarly, when I started my degree in 2018, I realised many of my peers weren't aware of how diverse out coastline is. Some students had come to university hoping to study tropical marine ecosystems, and were genuinely taken back when they encountered local marine life on the rocky shore or off the University boat. 

Regrettably, this attitude is more pervasive than my own experiences. Research into the public’s perception of UK Marine life reveals that biodiversity is underestimated. Just like the card sorting activity, public perception surveys show that traditionally charismatic or colourful species are less likely to be identified as native to UK waters. Less colourful and ‘plain’ looking organisms are more commonly associated with UK waters.

The issue is unfortunately more complicated than just getting people to recognise species as native. We also need to inspire people and build connections between communities and their local aquatic habitats. For example, 65% of people in a Natural England survey said they recognised seagrass, but less than 10% of people listed seagrass as a species they would like to know more about. Interestingly, seagrass was one of the most ecologically important species listed in the survey but attracted the least interest from participants. I'd also like to point out that due to my background in marine biology, I have focussed heavily on marine systems, but it's worth noting that freshwater biologists and conservationist face the same communication barriers too.

So, I guess now you're wondering what any of this has to do with the photos you have sat in Lightroom or on a memory stick somewhere. Bear with me. 

I believe one of our key responsibilities as photographers is to share images (even if they are technically imperfect). In my opinion, a sound bite detailing how seagrass stores more carbon than some forests is important, but if people don't feel inspired or connected to that ecosystem, it's unlikely to change their world view or stick in their mind. I believe photography has the power to deliver inspiration in ways that (no matter how hard us scientists try) sound bites and statistics simply cannot. We need those who capture ecosystems to share their work as far and wide as possible. How can the general public be interested in protecting organisms when they don't even know they exist? 

This is where I feel BSoUP has the potential to do amazing things. The global network and huge diversity of images I mentioned earlier is an invaluable source of inspiration. This blog series is going to tap into this resource, and provide current members, prospective members, and website visitors with stunning imagery, stories and facts about native aquatic habitats. By showcasing the beauty, ecology, and conservation issues of native habitats and species, we can connect people to what lives beneath the surface in a meaningful way.

In a 2008 survey of 3003 people in the UK, 44% of respondents considered the seabed beneath their region (or off the coast where they visit the seaside) to be generally, mostly, or utterly barren. If we are able to spread a positive message about the wonders local marine (and freshwater) habitats to such people, then we are taking a huge step in the right direction. 

I know many of our members, if not all of you, are fully aware of the types of species and habitats we have in the UK; I am almost certainly preaching to the converted. But I believe the more proactive we are with that knowledge, the better. 

If anyone wishes to get involved, or make suggestions about the kinds of habitats or animals we should cover, please do get in touch. I'd love to hear from you. Thank you for indulging me, and I look forward to interacting with more of you in the future! 

Georgie Bull - BIUPC 2020 Winner & Marine Biology & Coastal Ecology Student 

If you'd like to read the survey reports relating to public perceptions here are the links: 

Science Direct

Natural England