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Harmonising nature and community through art in Cornwall’s secret underwater gardens

Written by Tara Williams, a marine biologist and PhD postgraduate researcher at the University of Exeter. Photography by Shannon Moran.

The Helford Estuary winds its way to the English Channel like a vein bringing life to Cornish lands. To walkers, water-users and those seeking peace and quiet in the estuary’s many public gardens, this area is a cherished part of the community. It can be difficult, however, to connect with the underwater ‘half’ of the estuary despite its similarities with the land we know so well. © Shannon Moran

Cornish communities have flourished, dwindled and regrown, but the Helford Estuary has flowed steady throughout the centuries. Beginning at the small fishing town of Gweek, the estuary branches like an azure vein bringing life to the land on its journey to the English Channel. But more than that, its waters are the lifeblood of the people who live along its shores and something of a "canary in the coal mine" for wider ocean issues. Developing a greater understanding of this tidal environment could teach us as much about ourselves as it can about nature’s response to a changing world.

Watery reflections of our terrestrial lives

Estuaries are the tidal mouths of large rivers and have long been important to human communities. In the early 1300s, after crossing the southern Pacific Ocean and reaching the rugged New Zealand coastline, Polynesian settlers sought estuarine inlets for shelter and food. Abundant pāua (abalone), pipi and tuatua bivalves, titiko (mud snails), mussels and limpets acted as sustenance for voyagers whilst awaiting the arrival of the rest of their community. These settlers would later become the Māori tribes of New Zealand, for whom the country’s estuaries provided a route inland and still hold social and spiritual importance today.

Like the Māori, European settlers were attracted to estuarine environments when they began arriving in the early 19th Century. These areas act as natural harbours where communities and towns could develop; today, twenty-two of the world’s thirty-two largest cities are located along large estuaries.

The Helford Estuary in Cornwall was once one of the most important waterways in the British Isles, likely supporting a greater population than any other Cornish or Devonian estuary during the Iron Age and Romano-British periods. Immortalised by Daphne du Maurier’s novel ‘Frenchman’s Creek’, the Helford’s importance as a site of trade waned after the medieval period with the estuary becoming known as ‘Stealford’ on account of its association with pirates. Piracy, smuggling and sea monsters were not the only threat to communities and sailors traversing Cornish coastlines of old; around 6000 ships are thought to be wrecked offshore, more than on any other comparable coastline of the British Isles. The Lizard Peninsula, which begins on the southern bank of the Helford Estuary, was historically known as the ‘Graveyard of Ships’, having taken many lives through the centuries. Most of these wrecks have since been reclaimed by the sea, encrusted with bryozoans and cup corals which attract local divers, marine biologists and maritime history enthusiasts alike.

Given time, the sea reclaims all artefacts of our terrestrial human lives. Sponges, sea squirts, bryozoans and anemones encrust this wreck, defended by a velvet swimming crab. © Shannon Moran.

The Helford’s reputation greatly improved during the twentieth century when thousands of American servicemen departed from Polgwidden Cove at Trebah Gardens for Omaha Beach during the D-Day assault of June 1944. Originating from the functional mindset of the war period, the quote “A garden is a public service and having one a public duty” rings particularly true of Trebah which opened to the local community in 1987 and continues to commemorate the war effort each year. However, the connection between the Helford’s public gardens, of which there are many, and their marine counterparts offshore is still lacking. The issue is compounded by the fact that many Cornish communities experience some of Europe’s highest poverty rates, meaning families are unable to afford coastal visits or donations to conservation efforts. Despite the tourist draw of the estuary, visitors are only able to experience the above water "half" and the beauty and strife of the marine environment can be left "out of sight, out of mind".

Underwater Gardens of the Helford Estuary

Earlier this year, I was awarded funding from the University of Exeter’s marine research group, ExeterMarine, for an underwater photography project in collaboration with local award-winning underwater photographer Shannon Moran. Over the next few months, we will collect photographs and video footage of the ‘underwater gardens’ of the Helford Estuary, the plants and animals that live there and the struggles, and triumphs, they experience. Next year, we will share a photobook and exhibition with the community and visitors to the area, showcasing and celebrating the otherwise hidden life beneath the surface of one of Cornwall’s most precious eco-regions.

Photography and other artistic media are an effective way of curating care and custodianship in a community. The Māori refer to kaitiakitanga, or "guardianship" and "protection" and spread knowledge of the environment and natural systems through painting and other artwork. Integrating the work of local poets and artists, of whom the Helford Estuary has been a muse for many years, is a key aim of our project. A beautiful example is C. C. Vyvyan’s 1986 description of the estuary’s underwater scenery:

“A rock palace adorned with coloured, swaying seaweed and starfish and ever-moving fins and mermaids that sing their song of love, where the deep waters heave gently to and fro or hardly heave at all and no cold wind can enter, a place unvisited by push-nets and human legs and peering human faces.”

We hope that through strengthening the underwater garden analogy and drawing upon treasured local public gardens such as Trebah, we can connect visitors unfamiliar with the marine environment to its underwater charm. We hope to show that underwater organisms, such as jewel, strawberry and beadlet anemones, are reflections of the native, exotic and cultivated plants that cascade to sea level along the estuary.

Seagrass meadows, tunnels of kelp and bloom-like cup corals grow quietly whilst spider-like crabs creep by and shoals of whitebait flutter like birds.

Seasons affect the rhythm of life here too; days shorten underwater just as they do on land at this time of year. In many ways, the Helford Voluntary Marine Conservation Group (HVMCG), who manage parts of the estuary, are aquatic gardeners, ensuring life is looked after and pests and problems are kept away.

Scars in the seagrass bed at Durgan on the Helford Estuary perfectly track the mooring lines of boats bobbing idyllically offshore. Sailing and yachting is a vital way for water users to enjoy the Helford Estuary, but many are unaware of the environmental impact of such activities. Coupled with pollution and coastal development, boating now poses a serious threat to seagrass beds nationwide. © Shannon Moran

Despite management by underwater gardeners, the Helford Estuary is subject to threats from numerous sources. These include the spread of non-native species such as wireweed (Sargassum muticum) and slipper limpets (Crepidula fornicata), the erosion of seagrass beds by mooring lines, and pollution from fuel, sewage and chemicals. Many of these threats are now pervasive across the UK and its coastlines and are linked with health problems in human communities. The nation has lost ninety-two percent of its seagrass in the last century, and according to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affair (DEFRA), only nineteen percent of estuaries and forty-five percent of coastal waters are in "Good Ecological Status". That said, seagrass reforestation scheme Project Seagrass recently surveyed eelgrass beds (Zostera marina) throughout the Helford Estuary and found a healthy ecosystem teeming with life.

Estuaries might offer a manageable first step in overcoming these issues; if we can care for these tidal environments, we can care for the global ocean, which in turn will care for us.

Through the Underwater Gardens of the Helford Estuary, Shannon and I are linking with local and national marine conservation groups and those using artistic media to celebrate the natural world. Photography can bridge our experience of the marine world with its more hidden parts, inspiring a shared commitment to protect the treasures that lie beneath. This is more than a project to us; we’d like to inspire a movement to empower communities to become stewards of their underwater heritage, to see the reflection of their own resilience in the vibrant life below.

In discovering the beauty of the hidden gardens of the Helford Estuary, we hope to foster the idea of its legacy, preserved by the hands and hearts of the communities that call it home.

You can follow our progress on Instagram and Twitter/X: #UnderwaterGardensoftheHelford @tarracuda_ @shannonmoranphoto @exetermarine.

Words by Tara Rebecca Williams; photos by Shannon Moran.

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