A popular joke amongst SCUBA divers is that landlubbers miss out on most of the planet... a tease perhaps but it is true that you can feel further from humanity by going underwater locally than via a long haul flight on the surface. The surface is our natural habitat and to spend just a little time somewhere else is a rare privilege – it's outer space or under the sea! I regret I didn’t start diving earlier and for nearly twenty years I’ve been trying to make up for lost time, I hope after reading this you’ll want to explore underwater too, and I think I’ve found just the place for you to start!
For me North Norfolk's chalk reef is a very, very special place. It’s so near to the everyday but a world away from what we understand. It is a welcoming wilderness with countless wonders and, best of all, no mobile coverage. The chalk reef is at least 20 miles long. The first western exposure was recorded just of the Norfolk Wildlife Trust reserve at Cley Marshes – just east of the ancient forest found recently, another fantastic story of amateur discovery for another day! Then running and growing past Weybourne to its most majestic features off Sheringham before spreading out past Cromer with an enigmatic flourish at Overstrand in a prelude to diving out of sight at Trimingham. As far as I know!
My 'understanding' of the chalk at each site is typical human conceit. Chalk runs under much of Britain – from Flamborough Head down to the white cliffs of Dover and over to Wiltshire’s horses. We see only what breaks the surface. Underwater veneers of sand, gravel, shell and shingle can move on an hourly basis so divers see only snapshots of what the sea chooses to share with us. One day's 2m high walls can become the merest finger of chalk tomorrow and plain sand the day after. So while I think of some sites as dramatic and others as restrained every dive brings surprises as the sea shuffles habitats and we guess a little more about the way animals and plants survive in this violent paradise.
As undiscovered wildernesses go the chalk reef is pretty convenient. There's plenty of parking, ice cream, chips and great hot chocolate nearby, and hell it even sticks out of the water in several places! This proximity fools us into thinking that there is something mundane about the largest single wildlife feature the county has and it has led us to underestimate its value. For centuries man has plundered, polluted and feared the sea without realising all it had to offer. The seawater colouring our blue planet has the capacity to save us from our self destructive mistakes; it has tamed apocalyptic global warming before, driven immense productivity for millions of years while powering global air conditioning and yet we still appear willing to risk it all.
Underwater conservation is years behind the efforts on land simply because the many human impacts are out of immediate sight. As the truism goes, they are literally out of mind. Sadly it has been more than two generations since Jacques Cousteau showed that people really respond to the beauty and novelty of marine environments. His pioneering, barnstorming underwater exploration captivated young and old.
As a marine conservationist I'm frustrated and, even worse, trying to share what can I see pitches me against other interests who see financial opportunity but can’t yet see the wider value of our world underwater. I get plenty of abuse from those who are happy to misinform and make hay while marine policy is stuck in the dark. Marine life speaks for itself when people see it but how off-earth can we open this amazing world up to all, or at least those who aren't hydrophobic?
A splash of inspiration hit me last year as I swam back from diving off Sheringham, one of my favourite places to think. Crossing the town’s old, long retired sewage pipe I realised it wasn't just big litter. It was a gift, a chaperone for anyone wanting to start their own relationship with the reef. Snorkelling isn't as easy as it looks, natural explorers might plunge on down but lots of people flounder. At first dunk beginners often find that the sun behind them lights up anything in the water and makes it hard to see deeper – like driving in the snow. However, dive beyond that and magically, even on a poor day, you can look up and see the surface! But where do you start on a 20 mile reef? That is the question, answered by just letting people know where the pipe is. Within 20 minutes of marking the trail a young couple were snorkelling on it… fantastic!
This summer has been great for diving and the perfect time to gently plant the idea into the public domain. I hope the snorkel trail won’t feel alien. The old pipe is an established part of the coastal furniture and as it’s a very, very long time since it performed its original, inglorious task it’s well overdue a new career! Just like marked walkways on a reserve it can help get you closer to nature whilst keeping you and the wildlife as safe as possible.
There’s no harm in thinking new things through and thoughtful folk have asked sensible stuff such as ‘Is it safe?’ Conveniently this is an area where people have always enjoyed swimming and a prepared snorkeler is just a swimmer - with a mask so they can see, a snorkel so they don’t drink water, fins so they can swim faster and probably a wetsuit so they don’t get cold. One might even imagine it would be safer. Although there's a conservatism in British life that snipes against anything new I hope a simple iron pipe can bypass that! In all fairness almost everyone has been very keen and I hope it can be officially opened next summer.
No one will ever know the sea like marine organisms do. The sea isn’t in your blood unless you live in it. I've been told by fishermen that nothing survives winter storms yet I return every year to find the same cast and crew. Factors other than violence can have a greater influence, velvet swimming crabs dislike the cold and for others it is the sweeping movements of sand that dictate where they will settle. Sand might appear to be a habitat nothing would savour but it is just another facet of the reef system – often rapidly adopted by molluscs and sandmason worms which use its protection. When another wave moves it on we'll find animals waiting patiently to be uncovered so they can flourish again. To assume we can map it is naïve, to appreciate and document it is a duty.
We are confronted by a paradox that even the most cryptic and easily disturbed nature needs to be appreciated so that threats and impacts can be understood. Old school study has traditionally been remote – judging the seabed by what comes up from dredges or snapping random photos with suspended cameras really isn’t rocket science. It’s important to take a proper look, throwing gear into the sea doesn't give you a full grasp of any ecosystem. The very suggestion that established human interests are in fact 'recent' and detrimental is often interpreted as an attack. However, what is being sought is a broader view, taken as a system it is almost always possible to produce a sustainable outcome with greater benefit and smaller impacts. Humans need humility, the vision to see that our timescales are fleeting beside those of a natural world where we have only just arrived in a violent storm of extinctions and exploitation.
Last week I had a break from this downbeat adult world. I was invited to speak to a high school at the centre of the reef. To see and hear the reactions of children to nature is heartening. It's vital they are as fully informed and comprehending of the world as possible. Applying historical values to the future rather than the lessons learnt is a dead end. More than ever we must raise ourselves above recent ugly politics to a modern enlightenment if we want future generations to thrive on our planet. The designation of the reef as a Marine Conservation Zone is good news for everyone, providing they care about the future of Norfolk’s marine environment. If you love nature and Norfolk why wouldn’t you want to embrace it all?