an Isle of Wight tour to restore a priceless ecosystem

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Kevin smiles from ear to ear at the sight of a common periwinkle. Clinging to a sandstone rock where the Solent laps the peach sands of St Helens beach, this beautiful striped mollusk speaks to Kevin of something joyfully enduring in nature. Like most members of our 12-strong group, Kevin signed up for the Hampshire and Isle of Wight Wildlife Trust’s coastal survey volunteer day to help ease his climate anxiety.

“It feels good to do something for our coastal environment instead of sitting at home and worrying about ecosystem collapse,” he says; the last time he poked around in rock pools was as a child in the 1970s.

Kevin and I stand side by side, up to our well-lit ankles in a rock pool on the Isle of Wight, marveling at the marine life around our feet. There are molluscs of all sizes, and meters of blond bladderwrack; there are the distinctive potato-shaped organisms known as sea squirts, and further into the intertidal zone where the green kelp gives way to gold and red hues, today’s holy grail: a group of flowering marine plants that represent one of the planet’s brightest hopes in tackling climate change.

“Seagrasses are the unsung heroes of marine ecosystems,” says Emily Stroud, a marine biologist, who is leading today’s Isle of Wight tidal survey. “They absorb huge amounts of carbon dioxide from the surrounding seawater, and their long leaves slow the flow of water, which encourages carbon to settle on the ocean floor, where it is then buried. These little stars also protect us from coastal erosion.”

It is common for sea grass to be removed so that a beach looks more like the postcards

Leanne Cullen-Unsworth

Unfortunately, in most global contexts this hardy marine flora – which includes ribbon-like eelgrass, flatfronted enhalus grass and Mediterranean species such as Neptune grass – is in retreat. More than 90% of Britain’s seagrass has been lost, and much of this destruction occurred in the 20th century, when poor water quality caused by rapid industrialization led to a wasting disease that ravaged our native meadows. Sediments and turbidity have played their part, as has physical damage from anchors and fishing nets, commercial seaweed production and the tourism industry – particularly in the Pacific and Southeast Asia – where a desire for beaches with a pristine appearance has led to the removal of seagrass.

As Stroud sees it, seagrasses are a prime example of the wonders our shores have in store, if we are willing to protect these precious habitats rather than destroy them for our narrow view of what constitutes a beach idyll.

“It’s common for seagrass to be removed to make a beach look more postcard-like,” says Leanne Cullen-Unsworth, founder of Project Seagrass. In partnership with the Wildlife Trust, Project Seagrass is working to raise awareness of this under-sung habitat, while pilot projects on the Isle of Wight and Pembrokeshire are exploring how best to restore Britain’s eroded tidal orchards.

A male wrasse.

A male wrasse. Photo: Johan Furusjo/Alamy

In 2021, the Wildlife Trust made its first deployment of 1,025 mixed seagrass seed bombs in mud on the Isle of Wight’s Langstone Harbour; they will mature into adult seagrass this summer.

As well as tracking the presence and health of Solent sea grass, we are here today to monitor intertidal animal and algal species. The trust’s voluntary survey data, along with data from the Wildlife Trust’s Shoresearch programme, will be used by government adviser Natural England to monitor the effects of global warming. On a survey in 2020, the team discovered the bright pink eggs of a breeding sea hare—a flipped pink sea slug more commonly found on the California coast. Brightly colored European fish and cuckoo-lipped fish have been recorded at Keyhaven in Hampshire.

“There are some species that we’re keeping an eye on,” says Stroud, “as they’re climate change agents, like peacock tail algae. We’re at the eastern limit of the scarce species here, so if the spread starts to move further north, we can assume that something seriously going on with the sea temperatures.”

Fellow Navy volunteer Sarah wants to set up a weekend school for children on the Isle of Wight, and is keen to get to know her wacky kelp stars. “It’s not all swimwear and sunglasses,” she laughs.

We look under rocks while seagulls look around us and kite surfers cut across a bay bathed in spring sun. “Look,” she says, her camera trained on a rock pool that shines an almost metallic cobalt, reflecting the blue sky above. As Kevin puts down the clipboard on which he logs our live finds, Sarah carefully picks up a green beach crab, which has the rounder belly of a female, and twists its shapely legs around her fingers. “Lovely, isn’t it?” Sarah says in awe.

We don’t have the risk assessment to turn you into mermaids

Today’s marine volunteers are a mixed bunch: locals like Sarah and Kevin, but also visitors from the mainland like me. In the summer, Stroud tells me, they see more mainlanders, combining a tour of marine volunteering with a trip to the handsome halls of Queen Victoria’s later-life retreat, Osborne House, or the island’s other eco-attractions, which include Tapnell Farm, where I I stay.

Tapnell, a former dairy farm in the west of the island, is one of Britain’s handful of energy-positive family resorts. It sends enough electricity back to the grid to power 100 homes each year, on a site that has eco-pads made from natural materials and supplied with water from a borehole, a low-waste restaurant and an animal rescue center that is home to wallabies, Vietnamese pot-bellied pigs and meerkats .

Related: My eagle-eyed winter wanders the Isle of Wight

At St Helens, with the sun setting over the Solent, it’s time for this group of budding naval champions to retire before the tide rolls in. “We don’t have the risk assessment to turn you into mermaids!” our leader shouts across 12 heads, which curiously hang over rock pools like spring daffodils.

“Did you know that the teeth of the common limpet are the strongest natural material ever found on earth?” Stroud asks, gesturing to a patch of green eelgrass that had dislodged in the intertidal zone. “They are stronger than diamonds: isn’t that wonderful?”

And with that we wade back across the mountain pools in our rubber boots, with a feel-good glow that beats any beach tan.

• Hampshire and Isle of Wight Wildlife Trust volunteer seagrass survey days are free and take place at various locations. Accommodation was provided by Tapnell Farm, whose pod sleeping four costs from £112 a night. Ferry transport was provided by Wightlink, which has a new low-carbon hybrid vessel, the Victoria Isle of Wight, from Portsmouth to Fishbourne, return from £26.80 (on foot or by bicycle).

Three more beach-saving breaks

Picking up beach litter, Cornwall
Plastic litter is a nuisance in many coastal areas, affecting water quality and suffocating wildlife. From the secluded coves of Polperro to the expansive sands of Penzance, Clean Cornwall organizes regular, small-scale, county-wide clean-ups that anyone can get involved in. cleancornwall.org

Seagrass planting, Pembrokeshire
Project Seagrass’s first large-scale project, Seagrass Ocean Rescue, is re-establishing a huge seagrass bed in Dale, west Wales, using seedlings obtained from seeds collected along the British coast. Find volunteering opportunities on the Facebook group’s volunteering page. facebook.com

Seaweed search, Scottish coast
The Scottish coast is home to some of the world’s largest CO fields2– storage of kelp. In partnership with the Natural History Museum, the volunteer program Big Seaweed Search is helping to map the distribution of 14 key species of seaweed, to preserve their health and future marine diversity. Register for free, download the admission form and find information on websites at mcsuk.org

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