By Nadja Hohenadhl, 4th Year SAMS UHI Marine Science student
The west coast of Scotland
Facing the North Atlantic Ocean, SAMS UHI is located on the rigid shoreline of Argyll & Bute. It is the council area with Scotland´’s longest coastline, home to many sea lochs and islands. About 23 of the latter are inhabited, including the Islands of Bute, Kerrera and Mull. To visit them, you can catch the ferry right in Oban Bay, as it is known as the `Gateway to the Isles´.
The combination of three factors makes the underwater environment in Argyll a special place for marine life. The UK is sitting on the western edge of the European continental shelf. It has deep basins and a long coastline, which were carved by glaciers, and warm Gulf Stream currents which are mixing with colder freshwater runoff.
Firth of Lorn
Beaches at and around SAMS UHI are directly located on the Firth of Lorn and Dunstaffnage Bay. A firth is an arm of the sea, reaching deep into the Scottish hillside, whereas a sea loch is like a lake, almost completely enclosed by the coastline. Here, the rocky shores are marked with distinct tide lines, covered in dense populations of barnacles and muddled brown kelp. The intertidal area, sometimes flooded and sometimes exposed to air due to the tides, is a tough environment to live in. Marine species have adapted to the harsh conditions, all in a unique evolutionary way. Seawater is trapped to survive the time they are uncovered by the sea.
Somewhat deeper, the first 10 metres depth along the coast receive the most light from the sun, so here we have photosynthetic organisms, kelp, and microscopic critters on the sea bed and floating around. The various species of kelp and millions of planktonic organisms provide habitats and a food source to a great deal of marine life. These jagged rocky reefs and deceivingly empty mudflats are amongst the most diverse marine communities in the UK and Europe.
Ferocious vs gentle
Part of the Firth are the Sounds of Clachan, Cuan and Luing. Together with the Falls of Lora and the Gulf of Corryvreckan, SAMS UHI is located near some of the most tidal exposed areas of the north-east Atlantic including the world´s third biggest natural whirlpool.
On the contrary, the upper sea lochs, surrounded by lucid green mountains, are completely sheltered from the ocean and only experience mild tidal changes. An entirely different and very slow habitat.
Between the two we can find a great variety of life, including species that usually occur only in deep water, like the feather star Leptometra celtica.
Deep sea habitats
Within Argyll, the almost parallel coastlines and deep waters stem from the last major ice age – about 20,000 years ago – when glaciers carved their way downhill from the remnants of the Caledonian mountains. The deepest part of the Firth is nearly 200m, between Kerrera and Mull. Even sea lochs can be as deep as 140m (Loch Etive).
Within the Firth and in the Lochs are multiple large and small ship wrecks and plane wrecks, sitting on the sea bed, waiting to be explored by SCUBA divers. Today these are artificial reefs, inhabited by marine creatures of all sorts.
From sponges to cold water coral, from tubeworms to wrasses, from thornback rays to catsharks, and from harbour porpoise to minke whale, the rich biodiversity of marine life is only a few metres away from where SAMS UHI students study the ocean.
Start your Marine Science journey at SAMS UHI. Find out more about our BSc Marine Science programme.