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The Living Coast Undersea Experience – how to see underwater!

Karen Poley, Creative Producer

In early 2014 I heard a talk by Rich Howarth from The Living Coast, the Brighton & Lewes Downs UNESCO World Biosphere Region, in which he mentioned that the Beachy Head West Marine Conservation Zone (MCZ) had just been designated off the coast of Brighton.  The MCZ runs between Brighton Marina & Beachy Head & out to see for a half a mile or so.   It is a unique chalk reef, created by waves eroding chalk cliffs along the coastline, & is home to abundant wildlife, including rare short-snouted seahorses & threatened species, such as blue mussel beds & native oysters. 

I was staggered!  I had no idea that anything was alive down there!  I know how daft that sounds, but I grew up on the Sussex coast in an era when people stopped going in the water following a few too many sewage spills.  Since then, I’ve never really gone back in, or ever thought that much about it.

My first thought now, was ‘How can we see the MCZ?’  And the answer is, that its pretty tricky unless you can dive, & even then there’s only a couple of weeks of the year that the water is clear enough to see much.   Obviously, most people can’t afford to dive, but surely everyone, especially the thousands living within a couple of miles of the MCZ, would want to see it if they could.

With a background in producing outdoor arts events, performances & community engagement projects, I wondered about creating an underwater MCZ experience in a street with giant projections & maybe some performance.  But it quickly became apparent that a ton of technology would be required &, to be viable, it would need to be filled with lots & lots & lots of people; hardly the ethereal & relatively quiet experience of being underwater. 

As I talked to various artists, creatives & technical people, I realised that hardly anyone knew about the Biosphere or MCZ designations, & helping raising awareness of these became a second key idea.

Simon Wilkinson of C!RCA69, suggested virtual reality, a relatively new technology utterly perfect for creating an immersive, underwater experience.  Being virtually in the marine environment, exploring the chalk gully formations & seeing marine life all around, is a powerful & awe inspiring, kinaesthetic experience.  Just like diving but without getting wet. 

In partnership with The Living Coast, Sussex IFCA (Inshore Fisheries & Conservation Authority) & Sussex Wildlife Trust, ideas developed around modelling the MCZ’s chalk reef to create a 3.5m square area for exploration, populated by a long, long list of marine plants & animals found locally. 

The result is an extraordinary & very real experience, which we are now starting to tour, as a pilot, to communities along the MCZ coastline.  The next dates are over the Easter holidays, starting with a trip to funders, the National Marine Aquarium in Plymouth, on 6th & 7th April. 

Further info & dates here:  http://www.kp-projects.co.uk/the-living-coast-undersea-experience/

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The Living Coast Undersea Experience is funded by Arts Council England, National Marine Aquarium, Sussex Community Foundation, South Downs National Park & Heritage Lottery Fund.