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We meet the trailblazer behind SeaScapes – the UK’s first marine Landscape Partnership

With climate change effects on the ocean now well documented, Karen Daglish is spearheading a £5 million project to inspire more of us to connect with our coastline.

Written by Becky Hardy
Published 26.11.2022

Our oceans produce more than half the oxygen we breathe.

They regulate our global climate: mediating temperature and driving the weather to determine rainfall, droughts and floods. They are also the world’s largest store of carbon, with around 83% of the global carbon cycle circulated through marine waters.

Water makes up 95% of the space available to life on Earth and is home to a biodiverse abundance of species.

They’re our planet’s life support system and a global force of nature. But, as we all now know, our oceans are under threat.

In the last 200 years, oceans have trapped the extra heat caused by the rising concentration of greenhouse gases in our atmosphere. If we reach a tipping point, we’re likely to see extreme weather events, changing ocean currents, rising sea levels (and temperatures), and the melting of sea ice and ice sheets.

It would spell disaster for life as we know it. But hope is not yet lost.

Not as long as we have trailblazers like Karen Daglish in our midst.

It wasn’t until she left Newcastle University with no experience to get an interview, let alone a job, that Karen first discovered the power of community engagement. Volunteering on the regeneration of a former colliery to get her foot in door gave Karen the realisation that connecting communities with their natural environments could be a force for real, demonstrable good in the battle against climate change.

While Karen finds inspiration throughout the natural world, her passion lies in and around our waters. Through various roles in local government, civil service and philanthropic giving, Karen has led volunteering, art and creative projects, community engagement, shipwreck explorations, school participation and beach cleans in the North East to inspire more of us to connect with our incredible coastline.

All of which have honed her expertise for this most recent challenge: establishing the UK’s first marine Landscape Partnership here in the North East.

SeaScapes will focus on encouraging individuals, communities and businesses to connect with and protect our treasured coastline – from Tyne to Tees, shores and seas – through a series of events and activities.

We caught up with Karen to find out what the project could mean for the North East.

What first ignited your passion for the sea? 

Growing up in landlocked West Yorkshire, the sea wasn’t an everyday part of my life. But just about every family holiday was spent at the British seaside, so my earliest memories of the sea are happy ones of building sandcastles, jumping waves and sand-sandwiches.

It wasn’t until later in life when I learnt to dive in the warmer waters of Sumatra did I truly realise that there was a whole underwater world out there that was so different to anything I knew. This ignited the awe and wonder that still gives me tingles today when I learn something new about this incredible habitat.

 

Right now, what is the biggest threat to marine life? 

In a nutshell, us. It’s no secret that humans are slowly destroying what we can and can’t see, hidden beneath the waves. The ocean, and life within it, faces a multitude of threats – from the microplastics found in the stomachs of birds and whales, to unsustainable fishing, and chemicals from agriculture and sewage reducing oxygen levels in water and threatening marine life.

But it isn’t too late to turn things around. The ocean is also part of the solution to climate change, and there are many passionate, driven people working together to protect 30% of our ocean by 2030.

What’s SeaScapes all about? 

SeaScapes is about making connections between people and their marine and maritime heritage, so they are better able to protect it.

From the early arrival of the Romans in their wooden longships, to the gun batteries and sound mirrors that defended the country during World Wars, our coast is a network of seaways ancient and modern. We’re bringing these stories to life through a programme of diverse activities that will make the coast and the ocean a place for everyone.

 

How challenging was it for you to realise this project?

The building blocks of a good project are the team behind it. The organisations that have come together to make SeaScapes possible have been working collectively along this coastline for over 20 years. The commitment, passion, and vision has always been there, which made applying for National Lottery Heritage Fund support a more straightforward process than it otherwise could have been. If you have the right people in place, anything is possible.

This is the UK’s first marine-based Landscape Partnership. What is it about the North East’s seascape that you feel is special? 

If I had visited the Durham coastline as a fresh-faced student, it would have been unrecognisable. It’s no coincidence that the opening scenes of Alien 3 were filmed at Blast Beach, Seaham – which, at the time, resembled more moonscape than specially protected area for wildlife!

The transformation from being one of the most industrially polluted environments in the world, to the beautiful seascape we see today is nothing short of a miracle. It goes to show that if we give nature a helping hand, it has everything it needs to rejuvenate itself. That’s what makes the Tyne to Tees seascape so special to me.

Black and white image credit: Beamish Archive

Much of our natural, cultural, industrial and maritime heritage lies out of sight – would we be surprised at how much we can discover about our past and present under the waves?

Yes, you absolutely would! You don’t have to go far back in time and our seascape looked entirely different. There are clues to our past up and down the coast, often hidden in plain sight.

The carboniferous coal measures, formed in ancient swamps and forests around 310 million years ago, can be seen in the coal washed up on beaches today. Life from the Permian era, some 250 million years ago, reveals itself in a fossilised reef right in the heart of Seaham Marina. And it was only 10,000 years ago that the North Sea was low lying peaty fenlands and forest, submerged by rising sea levels at the end of the last Ice Age. You may be lucky enough to see the remains of a petrified forest at Seaton Carew, which can be exposed during a particularly harsh winter.

Join us on one of our geology walks and you’ll soon be able to read the rocks that give us an insight into our everchanging past.

The number of shipwrecks lying on the seabed between the Tyne and the Tees may surprise people. How are divers going to be working with SeaScapes to uncover the stories of these shipwrecks? 

There are over 600 shipwrecks that we know about between the Tyne and the Tees. Each of these has its own story of danger, heroism, tragedy and rescue at sea.

We are incredibly lucky to be working with a great team from Newcastle University, who are using ground-breaking photogrammetry techniques to produce digital models of some of these wrecks. Crucially for me, volunteers from dive clubs up and down the coast have been trained to use the equipment and are now recording wrecks for SeaScapes.

Sunderland Scuba Centre have got on board and have dived the UC-32 German submarine that lies hidden off Roker Pier. With their digital model and records of its sinking, we can bring the story of the wreckage to life so even those of us who prefer not to get our feet wet can experience what is essentially a war grave.

You’re delivering a range of events and activities as part of the project. Which one(s) are you most excited about? 

For me, it’s the activities we do that spark something in someone; when you can see that you’ve made a difference to how that person understands the ocean.

Whether it’s rock-pooling with toddlers and discovering a crab hidden beneath a rock, or spotting dolphins that are increasingly visiting our waters and learning how they fish – if it makes people intrigued and wanting to learn more, then it’s a success. Feeling a connection to our waters is very powerful, as it can make us all more inclined to protect them.

There are also a range of volunteering positions available with SeaScapes. What would you say to encourage any of our readers to come onboard? 

There’s something for everyone. You don’t need to be an environmentalist or have any experience of volunteering along the coast to get involved.

There’s a huge need for people to help clean up some of our beaches. We offer corporate volunteering days and can also give people the training and equipment they need to lead their own beach cleans. If you prefer to stay warm and cosy inside your home, then we have a team of volunteers researching historical archaeological records so we can have a better understanding of how communities have been shaped by the sea. We also need more people to carry out wildlife and rocky shore surveys to fill in some of the data gaps along our coast.

SeaScapes is a four-year project – what are you most hoping to achieve by the end? 

SeaScapes is just one chapter in a very long story of this coastline, and we’re certainly not planning on writing an ending.

What comes next depends on the impact we have made on people who live at, or visit, the Tyne to Tees coast. We need to ignite a connection in people so they are better able to protect this fragile ecosystem; this way, they will become part of its future.

It’s only the beginning of our greater understanding of just how essential the ocean is to life on earth, and SeaScapes is proud to be playing a part in this exciting journey.

To find out more about SeaScapes and how you can get involved, visit their website and follow them on Facebook and Instagram

And if you’re interested in volunteering with SeaScapes, drop them an email

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