GENTLY FINNING ALONG, I watched the sunlight filter through the blades of seagrass and dapple the sand beneath. The water was a balmy 17°C and, at 7m, there was no time pressure; my only concern was dodging occasional compass jellyfish that had got their tentacles ensnared in the thong weed, and were dangling in the water column like decrepit party balloons.
My buddy Frances had paused, and I slowly wheeled back to see what she had spotted. At first it appeared that she was just staring at a clump of the seagrass – which seemed odd, as there was plenty about – but then I glimpsed the smallest flutter of movement.
Almost motionless before her, hovering aligned with the clump, was a broad-snouted pipefish (Syngnathus typhle), the green and gold of its body almost perfectly camouflaged against the tuft behind it.
Frances and I were participating in a marine biological survey of Kenmare River organised by Tony O’Callaghan, the co-ordinator of the Irish branch of Seasearch. This UK- and Irish-wide project provides training so that any diver can record what he or she is seeing under water – the records are then used to provide information for marine conservation.
I particularly enjoy Seasearch trips because they give me the chance to dive sites without a wreck (an idea considered pointless by most of my usual dive club) and to dive at a nice slow pace to record and photograph with a buddy who won’t moan at me for stopping to look at more “squidgy stuff”.
I’d long wanted to dive Kenmare River, because several rare species can be found in its sheltered waters.
In particular, I was keen to see seafans; the river is the only Irish site for the northern seafan Swiftia pallida, and it is the only known area where this and pink seafan Eunicella verrucosa can be found together.
Also on my wish-list was Lithophyllum dentatum, an unusual coralline seaweed (maerl) that forms large balls. I suspect that these are not top of everyone’s holiday bucket-list, but encountering these rare species is pretty exciting for me, as a marine biologist on a busman’s holiday.

KENMARE RIVER IS ACTUALLY A BAY, in County Kerry, lying in the extreme south-west corner of Ireland; its name comes from the gaelic Ceann Mara, meaning head of the sea. We were based in the sheltered Kilmakilloge harbour on the south side of the bay (the Beara Peninsula) and this really was a dive trip for those who like an easy life.
We were staying in Teddy O’Sullivan’s pub (also known as Helen’s bar) right on Kilmakilloge Pier, so could almost roll out of bed and into the dive-boat. Local operator Kenmare Bay Diving was based behind the pub for fills, spare and repairs.
Once back from the dive we could proceed from the boat straight into the pub, which did quite an acceptable line in meals – as long as you liked salmon or mussels (which had both pretty much hopped onto the plate from the adjacent fish-farms) or chips.
It was particularly handy for me, because I had dragged my husband and 18-month-old twins along so that I could nip in to spend some time with them between dives, and avoid the usual pre-dive faff session by keeping an eye out from our bedroom to see whether people were ready.
Irish divers are used to being self-sufficient, because in many areas on Ireland’s wild west coast there are no dive-shops or boats. Tony had co-ordinated divers from several different clubs to ensure that we were fully equipped, which had resulted in the best-supplied dive trip I have been on.
At one point we had a diver/ compressor ratio of 1:2, with large compressors trailered down by University of Limerick Sub-Aqua Club, Cork BSAC and Kilkenny SAC club-members.

FOR THE FIRST COUPLE OF DAYS of the trip we dived from Tony’s 5.5m pro Zodiac floppy inflatable (remember those from club-diving of yore).
This proved ideal, because with so many sites on our doorstep we didn’t need to venture out of Kilmakilloge’s sheltered waters for the first few days, and there were no problems getting it back into the pier at low water.
For the rest of the week, University of Limerick kindly provided its shiny twin-engined RIB Plassy Bird (a Redbay Stormforce 7.4m). Club-member Adrian Thomas acted as a dedicated skipper because he was unable to dive due to a cold, assisted by Rory McShane. In this bigger boat we were able to venture further afield across the bay.
Maerl resembles pink Twiglets, although I doubt whether it tastes as good. The crevices that form between the individual pieces make maerl beds an important habitat, because they provide nooks and crevices in which many species can hide away – not least many commercially important fish and shellfish species.
Over on the north side of the bay, Frances and I did our buddy checks and descended. We fought our way through a forest of kelp to reach a narrow gully between two rocks. The floor between them was carpeted with patches of pink (live) and white (dead) maerl, creating a rather psychedelic effect.
We happily swam along, recording species for our form as we went. I put my hand out to steady myself to take a shot of a particularly attractive green dahlia anemone, but just where it reached the seabed I noticed that it was a slightly different colour, blotchy brown rather than blotchy pink.
I took a closer look. A large eye stared up at me. In front of the eye was a delicate lacy fringe and, just visible above it, a thread-like projection. It was an anglerfish (Lophius picatorius), although a very small one at around 20cm long.
It would appear that anglerfish are like buses (at least in Kenmare) because the next day, on another maerl bed, we spotted a second one of a similar size.
This species is commonly found between 20 and 500m but it is believed that certain shallow areas act as nursery grounds – possibly including this bay.

DIVERS WHO HAD PREVIOUSLY DIVED the area had raved about Book Rocks, a site on the north side of Kilmakilloge Harbour. Just five minutes away from the pier on the edge of the channel into the harbour, it was one of our deeper sites – a heady 25m!
Here the fabled seafans could be found – supposedly. For my first dive we dropped in on the GPS position provided by the previous surveyors and I descended with bated breath – into clumps of red and brown seaweed.
I dragged poor Frances through a 60-minute aerobic workout, trying to swim to the edge of it. Suddenly, at around 55 minutes, the sloping rock ridges became increasingly covered in silt, then rapidly dropped away, forming a steep silted cliff with a few straggly-looking northern seafans (Swiftia pallida).
Finally we were approaching the right spot, but it was bad timing. Sixty minutes was our maximum bottom time, and we didn’t want to worry skipper Adrian. Reluctantly we ascended.
Take two the following day, this time buddied with Tony, and we used the marks where Frances and I had ascended and dropped into deeper water, straight onto silted seabed without a seafan in sight. Despite valiantly swimming for the whole dive, we couldn’t seem to find the right habitat.
My mood was not improved by one of the other dive-pairs remarking casually on the boat about the lovely seafan forests they had seen.
The final dive on my wish-list was a wreck in adjacent Ardgroom harbour (yes, Seasearch does sometimes dive them!). This was the location of the Lithophyllum dentatum maerl balls. This seaweed, also known as stone rose maerl, is found only in Britain and Ireland in a few inlets on Ireland’s west coast.
It was another shallow dive, and Frances and I happily splashed down into 6m of water. We weren’t sure exactly where the maerl balls were – just somewhere around the wreck – so we took a leisurely swim around its edge.
Wafting through the seaweed, my hand struck something hard and, sure enough, it was a leafy ball. Once this was spotted I found several others nearby, but they didn’t look healthy, overgrown with a dense layer of fuzzy filamentous brown algae.

THOUGHTS OF ECOLOGICAL DISASTER flashed through my mind – maybe eutrophication had been caused by a surge of nutrients from a nearby fish-farm or sewage discharge Had the maerl balls gone since the last survey in 2007
However, swimming up the back of the wreck and into shallower water we came upon some much happier-looking specimens, and slowly these became denser until they formed a continuous dense pink carpet, the leafy balls looking like a series of china roses (or, rather less romantically, small brains).
Peeping up between the balls’ leaves were delicately blue-striped trumpet anemones (Aiptasia mutabilis), and squat lobsters hurried in between them.
I breathed a long sigh of relief that the maerl balls were present, and excitedly made Frances pose for wide-angle shots over them until she got fed up and swam away.
Coming back ashore, Frances and I recorded the dive over a well–earned, slowly-poured, pint of Murphy’s.
We made a careful note of all the habitats and species we had seen and attempted a sketch of the site to give more information to whoever ends up entering the data into the national database (whoever you are, please don’t laugh too hard at my drawing!).
Kenmare Bay is a European Special Area of Conservation, and our Seasearch records will be made public so that they can be used to help conserve the important species and habitats there.
I’ll have to come back, however (and not just for another pint). Tony thinks he saw redband fish burrows on his last dive, and that requires further Seasearch investigation. And, of course, we need to track down those pesky…

Seasearch, Local dive operator Paul Tanner of Kenmare Bay Diving can offer boat charter, fills and tuition, Accommodation at Teddy O’Sullivan’s, Lauragh, Killmakilloge, 00353 646683104