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
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