WHEN ecological disaster has hit a forest the impact couldn’t be clearer. Trees devastated and cleared, whole hillsides barren.

If the same tragedy were to strike underwater however, the vast majority of the public would be completely unaware. The sea to us watching from the shore would look just the same as normal.

This is one of the key problems of marine conservation, explains Andrew Binnie, the executive director of the Community of Arran Seabed Trust (Coast).

But after a successful campaign to establish a no-take zone stretching from Arran’s east coast to the sacred Holy Isle, the group has plans to help connect people to the marine environment which often goes overlooked.

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“One thing that has come up through [the Covid pandemic] is how important for people’s mental health the connection with nature is,” Binnie says. “Sealife in particular, I think, is really important for people’s mental health and sense of well-being.”

“People may have never seen a gannet diving into the water close-up – and if you’re on a boat with fish nearby then a gannet will plunge into the water right next to you sometimes. It’s a very exciting thing for visitors to do.”

The only problem is, “for the last few years there’s been no boat that’s been capable of interpreting that area – taking scientists, researchers, visitors, schoolkids, the general public” to explore the rich marine habitat off the isle of Arran, the largest island in the Firth of Clyde.

Based in Lamlash Bay, south of the island’s main port of Brodick, Coast is working to change that, using several “significant grants” to fund the construction of a new boat.

This boat will be “multi-purpose”, using technology to monitor the no-take zone and the wider marine protected area (MPA) within which it sits, helping with the restoration of certain areas – such as reseeding depleted seagrass beds, and taking children and visitors on educational trips out onto the water.

One feature of the boat will be the use of “underwater robot cameras” to relay pictures back to “really show people what’s down there”.

“It surprises people. We show them photographs of underwater reefs around Arran and they quite often think it’s the tropics or something it’s so colourful,” Binnie says. “They have no idea that you get that kind of marine life around Scotland.”

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He says the boat will help people to get closer to sea creatures such as harbour porpoises, dolphins, and the other “fantastic” wildlife around Arran, adding: “It fills in a real need there. It will open up the whole MPA and help to explain the MPA to the general public.”

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While making no promises that such underwater robots will be used on every trip, Binnie says that their inclusion will help to make clear to people the damage being done to Scotland’s waters and key marine habitats.

He says that this should have some important benefits, not least of which will be for the environment.

Binnie explains: “A big part of what we’re doing is about looking at the extent of things like seagrass beds, mussel beds, flame shell beds, all those things are huge ways of capturing carbon. The seabed captures more carbon than peat.

“It’s really easy to destroy and disturb those kind of habitats, so we should be able to quantify how much carbon we’re already sequestering and use that as a kind of leverage for other areas to be protected, as well as looking at expanding and restoring things like seagrass beds in other areas around Arran.”