Not a lot of people know this, but the North Sea is one of the most beautiful places in the world to make a dive. On a perfect day, the visibility is endless, the water is a beautiful blueish green and – if the tide is calculated right – there is almost no current.
On the seabed, you can find hundreds of old wrecks. Some heavily damaged, some still looking like a ship. They are almost magical time capsules. They are little paradises, full of life. Without exception the wrecks are heavily overgrown with anemones: brilliant white and soft orange colours. You see schools of fish swimming between throughout the wrecks. in nooks and crannies you find the homes of hundreds of big North Sea crabs. Sometimes you see impressive lobsters as well. And if you look closer, you’ll see all sorts of colourful little animals: nudibranchs for example, or fragile looking tube worms.
I have been diving since 2001, after I took a course during a holiday in Malawi. After I got my first diving c-card I made some dives in tropical waters. But it didn’t take long to learn to appreciate the wonderful cold waters of Northern Europe. My first North Sea dive was in 2002 and from that moment I was hooked.
Unfortunately, since those early dives I have seen a big change. The schools of cod disappeared from the wrecks. We started to find more and more lost fishing gear. And sometimes, when you arrived at a wreck, it was like entering a graveyard. There would be big lengths of lost gillnets, draped over the body of the sunken ship. In them, the last cod that can be found in this area. Dead, rotting… Of course this would attract other animals. Scavengers, like the North Sea Crabs. They also get stuck, and die very slowly.
In 2009, with a group of volunteer divers, we started to clean up this mess. Removing the nets and fishing lines, so no more animals could get stuck. But also documenting – taking pictures -so that everybody could see the problem, and maybe even more importantly, show them the beauty of our cold waters. If nobody knows how special the North Sea really is, there will be no change, and this fragile nature won’t get the protection it needs. When in 2012 the Ghost Fishing Foundation was founded, I joined immediately.
And here we are today, onboard the Arctic Sunrise, one of the famous Greenpeace ships. Greenpeace Germany is targeting the big pile of lost and abandoned ghost nets on Sylter Aussenriff, a beautiful area of the North Sea that desperately needs the protection it deserves. This is a protected area, but in reality the protection is only on paper. The Greenpeace campaign team asked the Ghost Fishing Foundation to help. Of course we said ‘Yes!’
We are here with nine volunteers divers. The conditions are almost perfect, except for the visibility. At the moment, blooming algae are a bit of a problem, but hopefully they will disappear soon. It is sunny, no wind, the sea is as flat as a mirror. Twice a day we jump out of the pilot door, into the water (eight degrees at the moment). Today we were hunting ghost nets on an unknown steel wreck at a depth of 23 meters. It’s old – it has a steam engine. And yes, there are ghost nets. As a matter of fact, we have hit the jackpot. There is a big lost trawlnet hooked on the sharp steel parts of the wrecks. But also many gill nets. We have put lift bags on the big trawlnet and are carefully cutting it loose from the wreck. It is a special feeling when you see big parts of the net leaving the wreck and floating to the surface of the North Sea. Bye bye, good riddance.
Tomorrow we will go down again. The hunt for ghost nets is not over. If you are looking for them, you will find them on every wreck. The coming days, we would like to show you the problem. Hopefully, we can also show you the beauty of the North Sea and Sylter Aussenriff.
Annet van Aarsen, 47, from Leiden, the Netherlands is a volunteer diver onboard the Arctic Sunrise.