Science of the Sea

29 Nov 2012
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Scotland's coastal waters are host to an amazing array of riches: the finest seafood; rare marine wildlife; rich pockets of gas and oil; whales, porpoises and seals that inspire mythology and tourism alike. But the importance of Scotland's seas goes even deeper than that. . .

The oceans and seas surrounding Scotland are beautiful and sometimes dangerous, but most of all, extraordinarily fertile, in more ways than one. Supporting 8,000 complex species of marine wildlife, including basking sharks and even leatherback turtles, Scottish waters are also, of course, the mainstay of the fishing industry, with over 60% of the total UK catch found here. But increasingly, the seas' riches extend to more than something to be savoured in newsprint with an extra portion of chips. It seems that a growing number of people are as keen to observe Scottish sea creatures as they are to eat them, and the revenue from marine wildlife tourism whale and dolphin-watching trips, for example has reached a staggering 57 million, creating more than 2,500 jobs in the Highlands and Islands alone.

Scotland's natural marine heritage is unique, due in no small part to the geographic position of the country. The North Atlantic Drift (Gulf Stream) brings warm waters to the west coast while cold sub-Arctic waters reach down to the Northern Isles. Unusual currents and tide patterns along with the varied geology of the underwater landscape result in a complex and mysterious environment in which the tiniest algae thrive alongside the great majestic beasts of the deep. The extremes of life underwater are particularly striking on the west coast, where the difference between sheltered sea loch and exposed cliff and beach is dramatic, and can occur within just a kilometre.

Who needs the Great Barrier Reef?

The rocks that form Scotland's land mass do not end at the water's edge. Cliffs on land are transformed into submarine walls while gently sloping rocky shores become terraces and reefs. The rock surface is colonised by kelp and seaweeds, forming the underwater forests which fringe many parts of the Scottish coast. Wildlife thrives there, and it's marine life like sea anemones, brittle stars and sea urchins, as well as the more prosaically named sponges and sea squirts that bring divers from all over the world to Scotland's often startlingly clear waters. Indeed the 1000-metre-deep cold water coral reefs in the Atlantic over the Darwin Mounds (now granted special protection by the European Union) and the rare serpulid reefs formed by marine worms found in Loch Creran in Argyll are thought to form the best reefs of this type in the world and more than 800 different species of plant and animals have been recorded living among the coral. This means the Scottish reefs are as rich in biodiversity as some tropical coral reefs.

Ecology matters

Sustaining the natural marine environment while also supporting the vital oil, gas and fishing industries is a major challenge in Scotland today. With more recent developments such as harnessing wave and tidal power (Scotland has more than 25% of Europe's wind and tidal energy and 10% of its wave resource), the fragile balance between biodiversity and the impact of human activity is being actively addressed by government, academic institutions and wildlife groups.

Salty science

A major player in the Scottish underwater world is The Scottish Association for Marine Science (SAMS) based at the renowned Dunstaffnage Marine Laboratory on the shores of the Firth of Lorn. Founded over 110 years ago in 1884 by Dr John Murray, a marine scientist who took part in the Challenger Expedition (1872-1876), the first ever full-scale oceanographic expedition, SAMS continues a long tradition of scientific excellence and boasts two research ships and a world-class research library.

Equally impressive is the University Marine Biological Station at Millport, Isle of Cumbrae which plays a major part in securing Scotland's high reputation as a centre of marine biology education and research. There are laboratories, a thriving diving facility and even a museum and aquarium open to the public. The Station is the largest supplier of marine plants and animals in Britain, with both living and preserved material shipped nationally and internationally. This multifunctional centre also operates as a weather station for the Meteorological Office and has collected daily sea temperatures for over 40 years one of the most comprehensive sets of data in the world and therefore central to any study of global warming. And should you ever find yourself with 'the bends' whilst diving in the waters off the west coast of Scotland, a visit to the diving unit's recompression chamber will set you right.

Catching the wave

And it's not just seabirds flocking to Scotland's waters. Tourists are visiting Scotland's coastline in record numbers, to experience the thrills of surfing or diving or simply to observe sea creatures in their natural habitat which is where the Scottish Sea Life centre at Oban, on the west coast, comes in. The centre combines a spectacular aquarium with a busy seal sanctuary plus more unusual rescue initiatives aimed at vulnerable animals like the rare, native spiny seahorses which are reared from birth in a pioneering breeding programme.

Further afield, the Hebridean Whale and Dolphin Trust carries out vital conservation work with bottlenose dolphins and minke whales, among others, while its Marine Discovery Centre on the Isle of Mull and floating 'classroom' vessel delivers environmental education throughout the islands of Argyll.

Overseas

Scottish universities are leading the way when it comes to marine research, and much of the work that is being done is based internationally. At the University of St Andrews, the Sea Mammal Research Unit has completed a survey of southern sea lions in the Falkland Islands; Stirling University's overseas marine research projects include work on mangrove biodiversity in Thailand, while Aberdeen's Scottish Fish Immunology Research Centre comes at an opportune time for the world of aquaculture. Also at the University of Aberdeen, research work is regularly carried out from the Arctic to the Antarctic - its cutting edge research facility Oceanlab is a truly 21st century centre with a fleet of deep sea robot landers that can work to depths of 6000m, providing access to over 95% of the world's ocean floor.

Ocean-breaking news

Fascination with the sea is ages old and there is still much to learn about its power and potential. Work by Scottish scientists is at the forefront of marine research and intricate detection of minute species is carried out alongside the more headline-grabbing stories. One such dramatic announcement was the discovery of an alien species of seaweed in Loch Ryan in Dumfries and Galloway. Jap or wire weed (Sargassum muticum) could seriously threaten native sea flora and even damage boats and shell-fishing equipment. On a more positive note, a remarkable research project at Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh is aimed at finding antibiotic-producing marine bacteria. Amazingly, scientists have isolated a bacterial strain living on seaweed on the shores of the Forth, which is lethal against one of the so-called 'superbugs'. Could Scottish sea slime be the next wonder drug? It's possible. Even though we will probably never completely fathom the mysteries of the deep waters of Scotland, Scottish scientists are doing their best to get to the bottom of it.

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