Message in a bottle? How can we spread the knowledge of underwater nature?

Most people will never get to visit below the surface of the Baltic Sea themselves. Instead, underwater species need to be found from the net, books, and documentaries. It is difficult to get excited about protecting natural values which are and strange and unknown.

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Essi Keskinen

The author is Marine Biologist in the Bay of Bothnia, Quarken and the Northern Bothnian Sea, at Metsähallitus Parks & Wildlife Finland.

For many people, it comes as a surprise that so many species occur in the Baltic Sea and that in many places the underwater nature is rich and colourful, not just the dead and oxygen-free seabed that is often talked about.

It is difficult to protect something you have no knowledge of. Although there is much talk about eutrophication in the Baltic Sea and plastic litter in the oceans, at the same time, we must also remember to emphasise all that is valuable and unique about the Baltic Sea.

Many schoolchildren lack any connection with the Baltic Sea, since the clear waters they have swum and snorkelled in on their holidays in Southern Europe, as well as the colourful coral reefs they have seen on television, are more familiar than their home sea. Positive messages about the Baltic Sea are often forgotten.

What is worth protecting in the Baltic Sea?

It is difficult to see underwater. Although divers can go all the way to the bottom, swimmers can only splash on the surface, and fishermen only see what ends up in their nets. Even boaters rarely see below the surface because the waves prevent views of the seafloor. Many have seen documentaries of brightly coloured fish on stunning tropical coral reefs or when snorkelling on a sun holiday in the Mediterranean.

All too often we hear only bad news about the Baltic Sea - oxygen depletion is increasing, blue-green algae are blooming, alien species are spreading, eutrophication is beyond control, and plastic litter is ending up as microplastics in the fish we eat. However, this is not the whole truth about the underwater nature of the Baltic Sea.

The Baltic Sea is protected with the help of many international and national policy decisions, protected areas, and laws.

To stand behind such protection decisions, the citizens need to know what is worth protecting in the Baltic Sea. Many people think that the Baltic Sea is just a dead bottom and blue-green algae, and this situation can only be remedied through positive communication.

Schoolkids are fascinated by marine biology

Marine biologists carrying out their fieldwork have been well received by many schools. Regardless of the class level, the gear used by the marine biologist in the field, such as diving and sampling equipment, as well as video cameras and writing boards, can be brought to the school for the students to see. It is nice to fiddle with the equipment and fun to try out how much the diving equipment weighs.

Underwater videos are exciting because you don’t usually get to see them. All in all, the work of a marine biologist is fascinating – it is exciting to get to meet a real diver whose workplace is underwater.

Benthic fauna in an aquarium, children gather around watching.
Benthic animals become more real when they are brought up from the seabed and displayed in tanks for all to see.
Research equipment and schoolchildren.
Many kinds of equipment are used in marine research.

At boating events, you also get to explore beneath the surface

At a regatta, visitors can be attracted with a microscope, which they can use to view, for example, the seeds of aquatic plants or aquatic insects. With enough magnification, many are excited to marvel at the beauty of aquatic flowers or algae.

Similarly, at such events, people are attracted by the chance to catch samples of aquatic plants in glass jars for themselves or to lower an underwater camera into the water to see the bottom on a computer screen.

Many find it fun to take off their shoes and socks, roll up their trouser legs, and wade into the water with water binoculars. Others like to sit under the tent canopy to watch videos of underwater species, diving and other work done by a marine biologist, as well as underwater nature in general.

During the Environmental Education Days, teachers get to help marine biologists

During the Environmental Education Days, teachers put on survival suits and were able to assist marine biologists in surveying their mapping points.

With the help of binoculars, they were able to see under the water and identify species together with a marine biologist. These observations were written on field survey paper taped to writing boards. Coordinates were also taken with a hand-held GPS device, allowing the biology teachers to carry out their own research work in mapping species and habitats of the Baltic Sea.

Sea days with schools

Joint workshop days have been organised with schools, where a certain class from a school, for example, cycles to the nearby beach, where they learn about the local marine nature.

Similarly, marine biologists from Metsähallitus (Finnish Forestry Administration) have organised joint meetings between schools, local fishermen, and marine rescue associations. Within a single day, the schoolchildren are able to learn about their sea areas from a variety of perspectives. The students themselves can visit the workboats and see the marine biological equipment used in the field.

If the groups of schoolchildren have been small enough, those who are willing can put on survival suits and go wading with water binoculars.

Occasionally, diving or sea rescue exhibitions have been arranged for schoolchildren to watch from the shore. During such diving shows occurring off city shores, divers recover all sorts of harbour litter from the seafloor for display. In more natural environments, they show aquatic plants instead.

Sometimes two divers are sent on a trip, one diving and the other taking pictures with an underwater video camera. The video images are sent directly to a computer screen, allowing the audience or schoolchildren to watch the dive live, e.g. in a large tent equipped with a television.

Small children trying out water binoculars on a sandy beach.
Water binoculars are suitable for all ages.

Boat trips and other possibilities

With small special groups, half-day boat trips are sometimes arranged to nearby islands. Schoolchildren are allowed to ride in the boats with the marine biologists. On the island, they can wade in the shoreline waters wearing rescue suits, follow the dive displays, while learning about underwater nature and the work of marine biologists.

Many local nature conservation organisations and associations have invited marine biologists to talk about underwater nature.

Diving clubs have always been interested in the species that both scientists and marine biologists would like to get more information about. High schools are also interested in hearing about the state of the Baltic Sea, for example, what the average citizen can do to improve its condition, and of course, how to become a marine biologist!

Positive news from the Baltic Sea is needed

The most important thing in both civic communication and Baltic Sea education is spreading positive news and information to counterbalance all the negative news that “the Baltic Sea is dying!”.

There are many interesting and beautiful species in the Baltic Sea that the average citizen will never see unless marine biologists bring such knowledge to the surface and pass it on in schools, regattas, boat fairs, association meetings, articles, radio, television, podcasts, and social media.

In this way, the next time you go to the beach for a swim or to the summer cottage with your family, your perspective of the Baltic Sea may be completely new and positive.