The amazing underwater Sussex world as seen by Eric Smith

, 24 July 2022
The amazing underwater Sussex world as seen by Eric Smith
Eric Smith (left) with Dave Phillips & Steve Allnut

Many people may have come to know about the extraordinary work of Eric Smith through Sussex Underwater's raising the profile of the Sussex kelp forests and his moving role in the beautiful film The Man Who Loves Kelp.

Free divers in a boat
Eric Smith, Dave Phillips and Dave Bailey

Sussex Underwater was started by local diver Steve Allnutis to show evidence of the devastation caused under water to marine life by trawlers. It was a coming together of people who had campaigned for over 20 years for the introduction of a Nearshore Trawling Byelaw. This law was finally passed in March 2021 making it illegal to use bottom trawling fishing practices between Shoreham and Selsey. This means that the nearshore seabed off the Sussex coast is finally protected from bottom-towed trawling gears which had caused devastation to the sea bed and therefore to underwater wildlife. This is something that Eric Smith, who has been free diving off the Sussex coast for over 50 years, had witnessed and recorded first hand. He wrote a powerful article describing seeing what damage trawlers do. His testimony has been hugely important in terms of bringing this crucial change to the law.

I went to Shoreham to meet Eric and his daughter Catrine Priestley. During our discussion, Eric punctuates some points he's making by showing me some footage filmed underwater. It is an absolute delight.

Eric, I discover, grew up in the Brighton area and "was always in the sea". His father moved to Sussex in 1938, and the family would holiday in the Fens which is where Eric learnt about the countryside. "My dad was really supportive of my diving. He got glass cut to mend a broken facemask for me and bought me a snorkel from Woolworths."

Kelp - low tide on Bognor rocks
Kelp - low tide on Bognor rocks © Paul Boniface

Eric first dived at the age of eleven and has dived regularly ever since. "I have witnessed over the decades how the seabed behaves. I saw how the kelp beds covered such a large area before trawler fishing was allowed, I had to dive 1.5 miles to get out the other side of the kelp forests. But the sea was out of sight and out of mind for too long. No one saw how amazing it once was, and the terrible destruction that trawling brought about. No one apart from free divers".

Eric recently contributed a chapter about Sussex kelp to a book by Charles Clover, founder of the Marine Foundation, called Rewilding the Sea.

Through the incredible photos and videos taken by Eric and other members of Sussex Underwater, by regularly visiting schools and community groups, and events such as the Kelp Summit and the UN Climate and Ocean Convention, they are committed to showing the public what a beautiful world there is under the water, and demonstrating how the recovery is going. "When you are under the sea, you are learning all the time".

Dave Phillips, Eric Smith, Steve Allnut, Catrine Priestley
Dave Phillips, Eric Smith, Steve Allnut, Catrine Priestley

Eric explains what is special about free diving:

"We hold our breath. There's no aqualung. And a good free diver can hold their breath for four minutes. I can’t do that anymore, but I used to be able to. I might lie on the bottom of the sea and wait for the fish. You feel like part of the water because we’re not noisy we don't disturb the fish. We wear a special camouflage wetsuit, so you’re like a dolphin or seal in the water. So much more free. We are silent and part of nature".

He goes out to sea in semi-rigid inflatable boat, "the right size to keep in the garage" and dives for up to six hours a day, four or five times a week from March to November, covering a huge area. They stop in the winter because that's when fish go into deeper water.

He uses a snorkel, mask and weight belt. The bottom half of his specialized wetsuit sits high on the body to keep his midriff warm. It has a built-in hood "so when you’re face down in water, seawater won’t get into your wetsuit". He wears extra long flippers. He takes various Go Pro 10 waterproof cameras with him, suitable for the depths he dives. These are held by hand via a case which has a float, in case he lets it go. "And if the fish are timid we put the camera on the bottom of the sea, using a weight".

I ask how it feels, under the sea?

"Never mind astronauts, we are weightless the whole time. We can turn upside-down and get great shots. We can explore crevices and ledges. What we've been noticing is that there is so much noise underwater. The whole place is alive. You can hear clicking, which might be being caused by mussels."

Free diving can be dangerous. Eric has both lost friends and saved lives over the years. I ask about safety.

"You need to know your tides. It's important to be really weather conscious, and get to know cloud formations and I'd say this is an art. We dive in pairs. It's important not to push it. We have an orange marker buoy in place so boats can see where we’re diving. We always carry a knife to cut ourselves free if we need to. Early mornings are better, there are fewer people and fewer boats to disturb the fish."

I ask about Sussex Underwater. "We've got over 4000 members now. We bring a sea community together in one space - fisherman and paddleboard groups – anyone to do with the sea. We try to keep it positive because people do want to see and understand how beautiful the sea is. They often say how surprised they are at the beautiful colours. They can’t believe we’re filming in Sussex not the tropics."

Eric tells me that Bognor has the biggest area of kelp growing back now, in places that weren’t there last year. "Mussel beds coming back too. Last May, we saw three kelp plants, by June there were over 60."

Eric shows me some extraordinary footage of two animated Plaice on the seabed apparently ‘talking’. "We try to capture various life cycles of marine wildlife. We've filmed Bream building their luna pods, Baby Bream, Undulating Ray. We captured Spider Crabs mating. Fishermen don’t like them but we do! The way they move underwater is magical."

It becomes clear that many of us know very little about the amazing world under Sussex seas, and that we owe Eric and colleagues a debt of thanks for their dedication to preserving, recording and protecting it.

Find out more about Sussex Underwater via their Facebook page, or follow them on Instagram

Leave a comment