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Close encounters of the nautical kind

By 11th July 2020July 22nd, 2020No Comments

There has been lots of attention given to the potential positive impact of lockdown on climate and nature. We have seen reduced car journeys and cancelled flights, and this was something we could never have anticipated. Hopefully, after lockdown, people will change their habits and the environment will benefit. This may, in turn, allow nature to recover some of the terrible losses of the last few hundred years, caused directly by the action of humans. This may be helped by people reconnecting with nature in a way they had not done before, or had long forgotten.

I love being outdoors, and am lucky enough to live somewhere that give plenty of opportunities for this. This last few months, like many other people, I’ve enjoyed exploring the local area, and really noticing life around me. I also enjoy swimming and as the pools are closed I’ve been getting exercise by swimming in the River Tay, which I can see from my flat. This requires a degree of care as the tides can be strong, and the water rather cold. There is also a few other fellow (non-human) swimmers to be aware of, which I’ll return to shortly (trigger warning for anyone not keen on jellyfish).

A good way to stay safe in the water, especially when swimming solo, is to know the environment, so I watch the tides and pay attention to the way it changes. Living by the water I also spend a lot of time watching, and observing the signs of nature. I’ve been lucky enough to spot seals, a wide range of bird life, and last year an otter (video below). However, my favourite sighting by a long way are the dolphins, and the joy of spotting one breaking the surface never diminishes. I’ve watched them a lot this summer, and they come very close to the shore. It seems the best time to see them is at high tide, especially when this coincides with early evening (video at the end of this post). Whenever I see them it reminds me that, despite the damage humans are doing to the planet there are still many things worth saving.

Tayport otter, in the river next to my flat.

The ecosystems we inhabit are finely balanced and a variety of creatures and organisms are required. The same food source, of fish and crustaceans, that attract the dolphins also encourage jellyfish. Having spent many hours swimming I have only had the odd close encounter, and when I did it was usually painless. This changed last week when I swim straight through a Lion’s Mane Jellyfish (see below). This species isn’t that common around Britain but does visit the coast of Scotland in the summer. It can reach an impressive size, with bright red colouring. It also has a pretty nasty sting. Luckily it isn’t dangerous, just very painful, and after taking painkillers and a hot shower the pain from my brush with my sea dwelling neighbour began to subside. I can’t be cross with the jellyfish, it was just doing what it does, trying to feed and protect itself. But I’ll try to be more careful in future. (And yes mum, if you are reading this, I should probably wear a wetsuit too…)

This got me thinking more about how we exist alongside the creatures with which we share habitats. There has also been some suggestions that jellyfish numbers are on the rise. But as the BBC reported a few years ago this might not be the case. Having shared this slightly surprising finding with a proper scientist (thanks Kaska), who did some desk research, it seems jellyfish might be on the rise in some places, and this is likely due to human activity, with climate change being the main driver. As a teacher I am always on the look out for ideas and if you want to learn more about these creatures the Oceania organisation have some great resources available.

Lion’s Mane Jellyfish in the River Tay, looking for food, or an unsuspecting swimmer.

This is a good example of how we can all learn more about our environment and also why it is important to have good scientific evidence about nature, so we can try and mitigate the impact of human activity. The post Covid-19 world presents that chance, we just have to take it. Ecosystems are so finely balanced that, as conditions change, the impact elsewhere can be felt (literally in my case) in ways we cannot predict. The pandemic has allowed some of us to really understand better our relationship planet, I really hope we don’t waste the opportunity to make things better. We also need to be careful, really careful, with all the species on the planet, even the stingy and biting ones… We need to monitor those in decline, and try to understand the impact this may have. But most importantly we have to act. This might be reducing our carbon footprint or engaging in some conservation work, either way this is too good an opportunity to waste.

If you want to see seals, dolphins, or even the lovely jellyfish then Tayport Harbour, or the common near the caravan site, is a great place to come. Look for the dolphins by watching for the dorsal fins. If you are lucky you might see them jumping too. If you are interested in open water swimming do some research, there are loads of great websites available.

Dolphins in the Tay, filmed on camera phone.
Richard Holme

You can find Richard's bio on his blog here:

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