Long-time diver and trustee of both NAS and MARINElife, Alex Denny gets excited reviewing his water-themed weekend, learning online how to record and monitor marine life and wrecks – all while staying disappointingly dry.

When I first heard about the idea of NAS running a Seasearch Observer course, I jumped at the chance to sign up. A course that combines two of my favourite things; historic shipwrecks and marine wildlife. Even better, one that suggests ways to study and survey both on the same site!

The original plan was to complete our classroom studies before heading out to sea for a dive to practice our newfound wildlife and habitat identification skills. Sadly, the coronavirus lockdown made travel and diving impossible – but undeterred, the passionate teams at NAS and Seasearch put their heads together to run the first live, online Observer course. It was a ‘leviathan’ success!

Rather than travelling north (for most of us) to Seahouses, course participants braved the sunny, flat-calm weather to log onto their laptops to connect with the other participants and tutors virtually from our own homes via ‘GoToMeeting’. This is an easy-to-use online conferencing system which allowed us to see and speak with each other live (ably controlled and occasionally muted by our host) while watching the presentations and videos, which were of very high quality.


The course was hosted by NAS’ own Education Manager Peta Knott, and our tutors for the day were Nick Reed and Charlotte Bolton. Nick is very active within both NAS and Seasearch (the event was his brainchild) while Charlotte is National Seasearch Coordinator, in the Ocean Recovery team at the Marine Conservation Society. Both are fountains of knowledge about British marine species and habitats – and, although Charlotte claims not to be an expert on wrecks, her ability to correctly identify the conning tower of the HMS m/A1 submarine on a video dive during the course indicates that she has a healthy appreciation for our maritime heritage.

The Seasearch Observer course is the ‘entry level’ for those interested in monitoring and recording underwater landscapes and their inhabitants. It is therefore akin to the NAS Underwater Recorder Day. This is a useful comparison in many ways because it draws out the parallels between the work and objectives of NAS and Seasearch, as well their training programs – which both progress onto their respective ‘Surveyor’ courses and specialisms.

NAS works to study and understand our maritime heritage and to promote its conservation, while Seasearch has the same objective for our marine life and biodiversity. As those of you who are divers will know, shipwrecks act as artificial reefs, attracting and providing protection for a wide variety of underwater species. The course leaders have identified that keen divers make repeat visits to many such sites, and that the key skills for studying, identifying and recording what we find on them are shared by those involved with both organisations.

In much the same way that interpreting archaeology relies on context, understanding our marine wildlife requires an understanding of its environment. The course therefore introduced us to different types of seabed cover types and marine landscapes (one of which of course is ‘wreckage’) as well as explaining the principles behind marine life classification, major groups and common species. It is amazing how many marine animals seem to disguise themselves as plants or feathers, and how easy it is to confuse a tube worm with a bryozoan with a seaweed.

Just as an archaeologist misidentifying a long-nine as an eight-pounder can introduce confusion and errors into interpretation and analysis, an incorrect species identification can be worse than a more certain identification at a less detailed level. The long nine and eight pounder are both guns, just as undulate and spotted are both types of ray. It is better to be approximately right than exactly wrong!

Another area common to Seasearch and NAS is that of drawing / mapping a site. While some divers may be gifted illustrators, many of us create site sketches which are more Picasso than Da Vinci. However, just as with archaeology, it is capturing accurate information rather than creating a beautiful but wholly imagined scene which is useful.  Indeed it is hoped that future projects can be run to understand both the heritage and natural importance of our sites, and that groups may consider this as part of the ‘Adopt a Wreck’ program or on favourite local sites.

We all learned a huge amount during the course – far more than I can explain here. For that reason, I hope that further NAS / Seasearch courses are run, which I can heartily recommend. All of us that attended are eagerly awaiting the time we can get back in the water and put our theory into practice.