Cotswold Life

From the Cotswolds to the sea

Marine bi­ol­o­gist Dr Richard Smith’s ad­ven­tures to far-flung cor­ners of the ocean are the sub­ject of his new book, but were born from a child­hood in the Cotswolds

- WORDS AND PIC­TURES:

Grow­ing up in Bur­ford, West Ox­ford­shire, one of the most land-locked parts of the UK, peo­ple of­ten won­der how I went on to be­come a marine bi­ol­o­gist and un­der­wa­ter photograph­er. Hav­ing re­cently re­turned to live in the Cotswolds, I have been re­minded how for­ma­tive it was to have grown up so en­gaged with na­ture whether above or be­low the waves.

Some of my ear­li­est mem­o­ries are of run­ning around the Win­drush Val­ley, but­ter­fly net in hand, search­ing for bugs and creepy crawlies. Fre­quent vis­its to the nearby Cotswold Wildlife Park and Bour­ton-on-the-wa­ter’s Bird­land also cer­tainly played a huge part in my bur­geon­ing pas­sion for nat­u­ral his­tory. Snakes, par­rots and tur­tles were all res­i­dents of our house over the years. I also vividly re­mem­ber the dif­fer­ent species and va­ri­eties of plants I en­coun­tered dur­ing vis­its to Rose­mary Verey’s stun­ning Barns­ley House gar­dens. The in­sects drawn to the un­usual vel­vet-thorned rasp­berry bushes are par­tic­u­larly clear in my mind.

I be­lieve those early wildlife en­coun­ters fo­cused my at­ten­tions on small and un­der­ap­pre­ci­ated an­i­mals. It was th­ese that I would even­tu­ally study for my PHD, al­beit un­der­wa­ter. I was the first to study the bi­ol­ogy of pygmy sea­horses. Th­ese fishes are so small, that stretched out from the nose to the tip of the tail they’d barely reach across a five pence coin. Their cam­ou­flage and size meant that seven of the eight species we now know, have only been dis­cov­ered since the turn of the mil­len­nium.

On the reefs of Su­lawesi, In­done­sia I spent hun­dreds of hours ob­serv­ing and record­ing the so­cial and re­pro­duc­tive be­hav­iours of pygmy sea­horses for my re­search. I was the first per­son to wit­ness a pair of pygmy sea­horses mat­ing, and later the male giv­ing birth to his fry (the size of a printed comma). Although sea­horses are famed for their pa­ter­nal care and in­spir­ing monog­a­mous re­la­tion­ships, I found a small group where sev­eral males com­peted for the at­ten­tions of a sin­gle fe­male. The sea­horse’s tra­di­tional amorous seren­ity was out the win­dow, and the diminu­tive males fought vi­o­lently by at­tempt­ing to stran­gle each other with their tails.

I have made al­most 4,000 dives across six con­ti­nents, learn­ing about the un­der­dogs of coral reefs. Over the past 25 years, I have been doc­u­ment­ing my ad­ven­tures and ob­ser­va­tions which cul­mi­nated in my new book The World Be­neath: The Life and Times of Un­known Sea Crea­tures and Coral Reefs. Few sci­en­tists have been lucky enough to ex­plore and dive th­ese re­mote reefs, and there have not been many decades in which recre­ational scuba div­ing has been so ac­ces­si­ble, so it’s un­sur­pris­ing that so much re­mains to be dis­cov­ered. The book con­tains many images of new and un­de­scribed species and fas­ci­nat­ing be­hav­iours that have never be­fore been cap­tured.

My im­age of a minis­cule am­phi­pod crus­tacean sit­ting at the mouth of a sea squirt re­cently won the An­i­mal Habi­tat cat­e­gory of the Aus­tralian Ge­o­graphic Na­ture Photograph­er of the Year com­pe­ti­tion. Although it was an un­de­scribed species, we can in­fer from close rel­a­tives that this was a male sit­ting to ward off preda­tors from at­tack­ing the ha­reem of fe­males and young safely con­tained within the sea squirt. An­other am­phi­pod from the same re­gion of West Pa­pua had re­cently been named in hon­our of El­ton John and the sci­en­tist in­volved in its de­scrip­tion had shared with me this fas­ci­nat­ing be­hav­iour.

In May, I named a new species of

pygmy sea­horse from South Africa, which is the first of th­ese fishes to be dis­cov­ered in the In­dian Ocean. It’s quite hum­bling to be rolled around in huge African swells whilst a 1.5-cen­time­tre-long fish clings non­cha­lantly to a tuft of al­gae. Of course, this has hap­pened for mil­len­nia be­fore, un­be­knownst to us. For sea­horse bi­ol­o­gists, this dis­cov­ery was like find­ing a kan­ga­roo in Nor­way. Just two years be­fore, I also named a new pygmy sea­horse from Ja­pan, which had been liv­ing in plain sight just a stone’s throw from the world’s most pop­u­lous metropo­lis.

Not all my en­coun­ters have been with small crea­tures of course. In fact, my ded­i­ca­tion to pho­tograph­ing small goby fishes in Mex­ico’s Sea of Cortez caused an irate sealion to put my whole head in its mouth for at­ten­tion. Although most peo­ple might think a diver would rather not see a shark, the sad truth is that shark pop­u­la­tions around the world are dwin­dling per­ilously close to ex­tinc­tion thanks to shark finning – the re­moval of their fins for the shark fin soup trade.

I have, how­ever, been lucky enough to dive with the largest fish in the sea, the whale shark, and have been sur­rounded by great schools of ham­mer­head sharks in the Gala­pa­gos Is­lands. Both to­tally safe, and a dream come true.

Through my book, I hope to share a pas­sion for nat­u­ral his­tory that I was lucky enough to ac­quire thanks to a youth spent im­mersed in na­ture in the Cotswolds. Although the book is con­sid­ered pop­u­lar sci­ence, the 300 or so of my pho­to­graphs make it ac­ces­si­ble to a younger au­di­ence too, and I hope that this may of­fer an av­enue into a fascinatio­n with na­ture be­neath the waves for any­one who cares to dive in.

Hare in a poppy field near Swell, Glouces­ter­shire.

Pho­to­graph by Cyndi Tay­lor

 ??  ?? Grey nurse sharks in a large ocean cave. New South Wales, Aus­tralia.
Grey nurse sharks in a large ocean cave. New South Wales, Aus­tralia.
 ??  ?? Gi­ant manta ray fil­ter-feed­ing. Mal­dives.
Gi­ant manta ray fil­ter-feed­ing. Mal­dives.
 ??  ?? Anemone­fish in an anemone suf­fer­ing from coral bleach­ing. West Pa­pua, In­done­sia.
Anemone­fish in an anemone suf­fer­ing from coral bleach­ing. West Pa­pua, In­done­sia.
 ??  ?? Sea slug with bright coloura­tion to ad­ver­tise tox­ins. Su­lawesi, In­done­sia.
Sea slug with bright coloura­tion to ad­ver­tise tox­ins. Su­lawesi, In­done­sia.
 ??  ?? Denise’s pygmy sea­horse on a whip coral. Su­lawesi, In­done­sia.
Denise’s pygmy sea­horse on a whip coral. Su­lawesi, In­done­sia.
 ??  ?? Pair of golden pygmy go­b­ies in­side a can. Su­lawesi, In­done­sia.
Pair of golden pygmy go­b­ies in­side a can. Su­lawesi, In­done­sia.
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