How I became a Citizen Scientist with “Capturing our Coast” in Scotland

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It all started with a post from Bangor University, Wales, shared by a friend on Facebook. The post was saying “WANTED: budding scientists to capture our coast. If you have a passion for the UK’s coastline, you are invited to help make history by being part of the largest coastal marine citizen science project ever undertaken.” With my diving experience in Scotland and marine biology being a big part of the fun of becoming a responsible diver, it was enough to have me clicking on the link. 10 minutes of reading later, I registered for the first training event organised in North Berwick, Scotland.

What is the “Capturing our Coast” citizen science project?

“Capturing our Coast”, or “CoCoast”, is a citizen science project organised by a partnership of 7 universities and marine science associations throughout the UK. I discovered the concept of citizen science on my training day and loved it right away. The concept is to let citizens be involved in scientific protocols and not just listening to scientists. The promise? Support from experts of the field, fascinating learnings with no previous experience required, the satisfaction of being useful and a lot of fun!

The goal of CoCoast is to collect a massive database of rocky shores species (seaweeds, crustaceans, molluscs and so on) all around Britain, to study the impact of climate change and other human activities. To achieve this, they are training hundreds of volunteers (everything is 100% free of charge) from Cornwall to Scotland, equipping them with the proper tools and giving them support through a website, emails and social gatherings. I thought it was the perfect opportunity to review my first citizen science project on my diving blog.

My CoCoast training in North Berwick

Right after I registered for the training, I shared the post myself on Facebook. I quickly found an enthusiastic buddy: my friend Carrie, who is an artist inspired by Scotland nature and wildlife. She was just as excited as me by this new activity that would include spending much time counting seashells on the seashore!

We took the option of taking a train from Edinburgh Waverley Station a bit earlier than necessary. It was in case of delays but also to have some time for taking pictures while walking through North Berwick to the Scottish Seabirds Centre. This adorable seaside town has scenic views along its coastal streets. With the early morning light and only a few people yet outside, it was ideal for a couple of great shots.

Dr Hannah Grist, who is a marine biology expert working at SAMS (Scottish Association for Marine Science) in Oban, warmly welcomed us with tea and cookies at the Scottish Seabird Centre. We started with a first theory session explaining the principle of the project and what citizen science is. We then learnt the protocol to realise a survey with the measuring tape as a transect (guideline) and the quadrat (a metallic frame with 100 cells) to count the different species.

We went to the rocky shore of North Berwick right after to practice these new skills. We were quite lucky with the weather but a good raincoat and “wellies” were not a luxury. We did not do a full survey. As we were still learning, it took us more time than necessary. I quickly realised that of the trickiest things was to name seaweeds! They almost all looked the same to me, but I was there to learn so I did my best.

After a complimentary lunch with a warm soup and some tasty sandwiches, we finished by a last theory session focusing on the different species and their characteristics. I learnt so much but also realised than even some other marine biologists were attending, scuba diving in Scotland taught me already a lot about the local marine fauna. At the end of the presentation, we learnt that we had to choose a “Species Pack”: volunteers are not recording all the same species. It allows every person to become an expert at identifying 8 target species. For me, it will be “Absolutely Crabulous”!

Volunteers only decide at the end of the training if they want to enrol in the project. If they do, they are given the tools to do surveys: the quadrat, the 30m measuring tape, a clipboard and a waterproof species identification guide.

On top of this, we were offered a complimentary visit to the Scottish Seabird Centre. This place is packed with activities related to marine ecosystems: there is a platform to observe Bass Rock with telescopes and a room with motorised webcams to watch seabirds and seals on the different islands of the Firth of Forth.

My first CoCoast surveys at Cramond Promenade, Edinburgh

For my first survey, I followed the recommendation to go to a local rocky shore not further away than 1-hour driving. As I never had the opportunity to explore Cramond Island, an island in the Firth of Forth accessible by walking at low tide, I decided to head to Cramond Promenade to survey one of its rocky shores.

A couple of days before the survey, I checked the tide timetables, so I knew the low tide was at 5.20 pm. You need to start the survey 2 hours before the low tide. You study first the low shore, and you finish by the mid-shore to avoid being trapped by the tide. As always, like while scuba diving, safety first!

I was lucky; the sun was shining, and the view on the Firth was stunning that day. I had prepared my citizen scientist gear in a light backpack with:

  • My measuring tape
  • My “Absolutely Crabulous” identification guide
  • The surveying protocol as a reminder
  • A clipboard with 2 survey data sheets
  • A couple of pens (just in case)
  • A fully charged smartphone for GPS coordinate
  • A bottle of water

I identified the different shore levels by the visible change of algae (this method is called biological zonation) and placed the full length of my measuring tape parallel to the sea on the low shore. Then by picking 10 random numbers, I placed my quadrat consecutively along the transect formed by my measuring tape yellow line (if I picked 3, I had to place it at 3m on the transect).

It took me 1h45 to do the low shore and mid-shore surveys, so I found my training was good as I was not hesitating too much. The method is quite simple: you have 100 cells in the quadrat. If you have 36 cells covered with seaweed (the algae canopy), then it means that 36% of the quadrat is covered by them. For every quadrat, I need to check each item on my list and count the number of cells of the quadrat where I can find them, easy!

I loved spending an afternoon on the beach and taking the time to look carefully at the different species present in my quadrat. We usually never take enough time for observation. It gave me a new perspective on the numbers of species you can find on the shore. I was as excited to find a tiny shore crab as I am when I find a new small nudibranch underwater!

The cherry on top was to finish the day with a long walking tour to Cramond Island to get the views of the Forth Bridges, Fife, May Islands, Edinburgh and even North Berwick.

Takeaways from my volunteering experience with CoCoast

When I am not diving, being able to go to the coast with a clear goal is the main reason I decided to join CoCoast as a volunteer. I quickly found there were many other benefits to participating in this enthralling project:

  • Discovering what citizen science is: If I hadn’t joined CoCoast, I would have never heard about the concept. Since then, I did research and found out there were many other wildlife citizen science projects and many include scuba diving.
  • Improving my marine biology knowledge: As a Divemaster, it is a skill that I need to keep learning.
  • Practising the quadrat surveying protocol: I realised that this protocol is standard for this kind of projects, so my experience will help me to join other projects hopefully including scuba diving!
  • Organising a small-scale scientific expedition: from the preparation of the gear, checking the tides, doing the actual survey, making sure you take thoroughly pictures of every quadrat, filling the data survey sheet and finally inputting them on the website is a fulfilling experience.
  • Spending more time outside on the beach: I cannot dive all the time so when I cannot, I think doing a CoCoast survey will be from now on the best way to spend a fun afternoon while being useful and enjoying the seaside.
  • Socialising with like-minded people: One of the cool aspects of the CoCoast program is that it includes social events to let volunteers meet each other, ask questions and maybe find a new buddy to do surveys with.

Here are my other blog post about ocean conservation, sustainable living and responsible travel:

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Posted by Florine

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