Secret wonders of Scotland’s marine environment

North Berwick aims to be at the forefront of inspiring everyone about the wonders of the marine environment with its planned national marine centre. John Baxter tells us more.

A painted goby - Loch Sween.

A painted goby – Loch Sween.

The wonderful marine environment and wildlife of Scotland are one of the best kept secrets. Talk to people about the spectacular natural heritage and scenery of Scotland and most will know about the glories of the Cairngorms or the beauty of Loch Lomond or the remote expanses of the Flow Country. But nothing, or very little, of our marine habitats and species. This is a secret that needs to be shared and appreciated by everyone.

Who hasn’t heard of the coral reefs of the Great Barrier Reef or the Red Sea? Scotland’s seas are equally if not more spectacular with a diverse range of landscapes such as the towering seamounts that rise from the deep seabed to over 1,500m (higher than Ben Nevis) to the long sinuous sea lochs. Our seas have a diverse range of amazing animals and plants including sea pen forests, flame shell beds, cold-water coral reefs, seabirds, basking sharks (the second largest fish in the world), porpoise, whales and dolphins. The problem is that they are largely out of sight and inaccessible to most people.

The health of the seas around Scotland is vital to everyone’s wellbeing, sustaining life through the provision of food, oxygen, energy, as well as providing recreation and inspiration. We are constantly discovering more through ground-breaking research carried out at Scottish universities, including the mapping of the sea bed and the tracking of basking sharks, seals and skate using a combination of satellite and mobile phone technology.

Advances in scientific research are also helping us to understand more and more about the seas around us and we are realising what a friend it has been to us as we face the greatest current challenge of climate change. The seas have absorbed huge quantities of heat that would otherwise have resulted in ever higher air temperatures. Some marine wildlife, such as maerl, a delicate red calcareous seaweed, trap and store carbon, locking it away in its skeleton for thousands of years, thus helping to mitigate the impacts of climate change.

A flame shell on a maerl bed.

A flame shell on a maerl bed.

There are so many wonders to share, so many exciting stories to tell, so much still to learn about Scotland’s seas. The proposed national marine centre at North Berwick will provide the opportunity for everyone to discover these wonders without even getting wet. Through its planned education programmes, it will inspire future generations to help protect and respect the marine environment, and through its citizen science programme get involved, be it through shore clean ups, marine animals stranding reporting schemes, or climate change monitoring.

Having worked for over 40 years in marine scientific research and conservation in Scotland I have been privileged to visit some amazing places such as St Kilda, the Orkney Islands, the Bass Rock, and work with some great scientists. I have been very lucky, and not everyone will have the opportunities I have had, but I am convinced that the national marine centre will afford all those that visit, glimpses of what is in the seas around Scotland and I am certain nobody will fail to be inspired.

Professor John Baxter leads the national marine centre’s Marine Advisory Group and is Principal Adviser – Marine – at Scottish Natural Heritage.

Find out more about the national marine centre project here.

Images © SNH

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