I was absolutely thrilled to be awarded The Wildlife Trusts‘ Undersea Art Award 2015 recently. This award affords me the opportunity to learn to scuba dive and to then produce a series of drawings and paintings inspired by my adventures beneath the waves. This work will then be displayed at the Society of Wildlife Artists (SWLA) annual exhibition, The Natural eye, at the Mall Galleries, London, later this year.
I can’t wait to get started! Last weekend I finished my dive training and got the thumbs-up to descend into the briny depths of the North Sea which will be the source of my inspiration over the coming summer.
The award is part of The Wildlife Trusts’ Living Seas’ initiative – a plan to try to reverse the severe degradation that the UK’s marine environment has suffered through neglect and over-exploitation in recent decades. Art and conservation have worked together very successfully in the past and with this award The Wildlife Trusts hope to raise awareness, through the medium of art, of the fantastic wealth of species that can be seen under the waves and the need for conservation action.
The area I have chosen to dive and paint is a ‘recommended’ Marine Conservation Zone (rMCZ) along the Northumberland coast, broadly between St Mary’s Island just north of Newcastle and Coquet Island near Amble to the north. It is one of 23 places which the government is currently considering for designation in order to make up a network of protected areas at sea – they’ll be announcing their decision later in the year.
The amazing reef systems within the rMCZ provide habitat for a great diversity of marine life from anemones, polyps and soft corals to large numbers of molluscs, starfish, crabs, lobsters and fish, and some strikingly pretty sea slugs that I would love to see!
St Mary’s Island is already a voluntary marine reserve, and Coquet Island is European Special Protection Area, an RSPB managed reserve and a haul-out and breeding area for grey seals, which are protected under the EC Habitats Directive. Protecting the seabed around these islands would help to sustain important foraging areas for birds and seals.
However, the area is subject to a lot of human pressure. Recreational and commercial fishing, for example, has left a large amount of discarded fishing line and net that kills marine life by entanglement, and litter is a problem with anything from plastic bags to a gas cooker being found on the sea bed.
By diving this area and painting some of what I see I hope to encourage an appreciation of our local marine environment and to foster a genuine concern about its continued degradation. We cannot continue to treat our sea as an unlimited food basket, a playground and a rubbish dump – it is a fragile, delicately balanced ecosystem that we all rely on. With the appropriate level of protection our coastal seas can recover but only if we act now. It will be of benefit to us all.
Over the course of this summer and autumn my blog will be devoted to charting my progress through this bursary project, from taking the very first tentative breaths underwater to the final sketches and studio paintings. I hope you will enjoy the journey with me!
You can find out more about Marine Conservation Zones here
http://www.wildlifetrusts.org/mcz and further information about Coquet to St Marys rMCZ http://www.wildlifetrusts.org/MCZ/coquet-to-st-marys