There are some shocking sights beneath the waves, and diver Barbara Irvine has seen more than most.
The Jordanstown teacher waxes lyrical about some of the incredible sights she has encountered in the seas around Northern Ireland’s coastline — squab lobster, octopus uncoiling their tentacles and conger eels peering out of the funnels of wrecks.
Unfortunately she has also encountered many more unwelcome sights — human waste littering the sea bed where it should be rich with juvenile fish and starfish. And the worst thing she has seen? A toilet, tipped off a jetty and resting on the seabed less than 20 metres from the shore.
Barbara, who teaches at Mossley Primary School, only took up diving in her late 40s and it opened her eyes to a whole new world.
She and her fellow divers at Seasearch are at the front line of what is going on beneath the waves, acting as extra eyes to alert the world to how life is changing on the sea bed.
The volunteer divers are trained in how to identify and record species and habitats and report back on what they see on their dives.
Some of those sights are pretty shocking. If a beach on land is badly covered with litter, it may take time but sooner or later someone will have a go at cleaning it up. Under the sea, it’s out of sight, out of mind, and it’s much harder to get rid of.
Barbara was on her very first dive with Seasearch a year ago when she came across the toilet.
“We were examining the seabed and finding lots of signs of juvenile marine life. Then we come across a toilet,” she said.
“There must have been some building work going on and a toilet had been chucked off the jetty. The main litter we find is things thrown off boats — bottles, glass and I’ve seen the sole of a boot. You get a lot of litter near a harbour where people are fishing. You will often see fishing line caught up in the seaweed and hooks and these can be injurious to things caught up in it.”
One of Barbara’s favourite dives is in Strangford Lough, at a wreck called the MY Alastor.
This was a 1920s luxury motor yacht, built for Sir Thomas Sopwith and later sold to the Shelley family.
It was commandeered by the Royal Navy in 1939 and used as a supply ship, but after the war in 1946, she caught fire and sank.
“It’s a sheltered place, so it doesn’t matter what the weather is like. It’s a dive out to the wreck, about 20 metres out. In a sense it is litter too but it’s now completely festooned with sea life,” she said.
“It’s the most marvellous dive — I’ve been about 50 times but there’s always something new to see. There’s a conger eel that lives in the funnel, there are soft corals, anemones — it’s a fantastic place to dive because of the marine life.
“There’s a lot of traffic because it’s near a marina and the first 20 metres as you go out to the wreck are just littered with human waste — broken bottles, lots of tyres, chains, bits of metal.
“Lots of the tyres are being colonised by marine life but things like the glass bottles are no good — there’s nothing for sealife to hook onto because they’re too smooth.
“I walk my dog at the Loughshore in Newtownabbey and I’m always appalled at the amount of litter floating in the sea there — it’s more of the plastic variety. That is very dangerous to sealife, there are species such as turtles that eat jellyfish and they can sometimes eat plastic bags by mistake.
“We don’t dive in Belfast Lough though because it’s too dirty. The visibility is too bad to be able to see anything.”
Data collected by the Seasearch volunteers has already been used to designate protected areas such Rathlin, the Skerries and the Maidens and mapping the habitats on the sea bed.
The divers are already recording increased sightings of species such as the red blenny fish which appears to be expanding its range around the north coast as it responds to increasing sea temperatures.
They have also alerted the authorities to the march of invasive alien species such as wireweed, which is now widespread in Northern Ireland, and a red seaweed, Heterosiphinia japonica, which is also expanding rapidly.