Susan McFie visits a world Biodiversity Hotspot on the Mediterranean coast and looks at the work that’s taking place to reverse the tide of ocean habitat destruction.

The winding corniche of the Mediterranean’s Vermilion Coast leads to a series of seaside towns and villages, each with a distinct character. They range from the highly popular Argelès-sur-Mer with its vast sandy beaches, to the fortified village of Collioure with its endless choice of waterfront restaurants and charming back streets. Heading further south we pass through the more industrial Port-Vendres and onwards to Banyuls-Sur-Mer about five miles from the Spanish border. Rather like Hastings, the little town embraces its history of art and smuggling. But here the sense of frenetic tourism winds down to a slower pace. Banyuls proudly celebrates one of its most famous sons, the artist Aristid Malliol, with a remarkable number of his sculptures dominating the waterfront. But the village also has something special to offer the eco-tourist. 

The Arago Laboratory circa 1900

Several of the largest buildings on the seafront are closely associated with the history of environmental research. French biologist Henri de Lacaze-Duthiers set up a laboratory here for marine research in the early 1880s. The area was and still is, thanks to preservation efforts, rich in a large variety of corals, molluscs and sea anemones. Lacaze-Duthiers already had a marine laboratory at Roscoff on the coast of Brittany but the climate there was too cold for year-round research. The choice of Banyuls for a southern laboratory was partly based on suitability of weather conditions but there was also substantial private funding on offer. This was however an excellent choice as the village is situated in what is now considered one of the world’s biodiversity hotspots.


There are about 34 of these hotspots on our planet; areas extremely rich in plant and animal life. However to qualify the area must have lost at least 70% of its natural vegetation. So it’s a good-news, bad-news story. Yes we do still have these wonderful places teeming with life but the fight is on to preserve their vital habitat. These regions now make up just over 2% of the Earth’s surface yet they contain a large percentage of the planets’ remaining animal and plant life. So in terms of good news it is vital that places like the research centre of Banyuls are thriving. 


Originally known as the Arago, the laboratory collected local marine specimens and used a windmill to supply seawater to the aquariums – until 1887 when the mill was destroyed by high winds! Around the same time a dynamo was installed bringing electric light to the laboratory for the first time. The original building on the harbour wall is currently undergoing renovation. A new and impressive building on the promenade opened its doors to the public in 2017, fronted by the Biodiversarium; a museum and education centre combined with extensive aquaria. But the scientific research continues behind the public area. Through a glass wall visitors get a glimpse of the intriguing work that takes place in the other half of the building. A series of glass phials bubble with a green liquid that would not look out of place in Merlin’s cave: actually experimental work with plankton.


The laboratories are now part of an extensive complex hosting scientists and students from all over the world. In the 1800s one of the most significant visitors to the Arago was the French biologist-zoologist Louis Boutan who had spent 18 months in Australia studying new animal species. He had a particular interest in giant clams and pearl-producing molluscs. In 1884 Boutan arrived in Banyules on invitation from Lacaze-Duthiers. It was here that he learned to dive in the rather terrifying suit then named after the scaphander sea snail. 

The outfit, now known as ‘standard diving dress’, consisted of a claustrophobic brass helmet attached to a waterproof canvass suit. To counter buoyancy the driver is weighed down by lead boots and breastplate. Air is pumped into the suit via a long leather tube. The technique was in its infancy in the latter part of the 19th century, but proved invaluable for the underwater research of Lacaze-Duthiers who was notable for inveigling others into doing the actual diving.

Boutan, who was persuaded to don the suit, was soon inspired by the undersea world and said he often wished he could draw or paint the amazing sights. This desire to record what he had seen led him to experiment in methods of underwater photography. He began working with his engineer brother Auguste who drafted the first plan for an underwater camera. The early experiments were disappointing. Lighting the image was reliant upon complex processes involving magnesium, oxygen and electric current. The bulbs had a tendency to explode and burning magnesium resulted in thick clouds of magnesium oxide, which obscured the image – and doubtless did little to enhance the marine habitat.

The Natural Marine Reserve off the coast of Banyuls-sur-Mer

Gradually Boutan and his team began to create more practical and reliable equipment greatly aided by his technician Joseph David who appears in one of the first-ever underwater portraits. In 1898 Boutan published the first book of underwater photography. Much of his experimental work was carried out in Banyuls while working at the Arago where he became a professor in 1893. The scientific work was interrupted during WW1 when the building was transformed into a military hospital with much support from local people. Then during WW2 the laboratory was requis-itioned by the German army. 


Scientific study of marine life began again from the 1950s. Once more scientists were able to visit the seafront laboratory. The Arago, now known as the Observatoire Oceanologique de Banyuls-sur Mer (OOB), has welcomed thousands of students as part of their education programs in ecology, oceanography and marine biology. Today it’s rather easier to observe marine life either by snorkelling or scuba diving. Indeed classes of French school-children regularly swim out into the Natural Marine Reserve, which covers 650 hectares along six and a half kilometres of the coast from Banyuls. Fishing, watersports and anchoring are banned from much of the nature reserve, and in the most delicate areas even scuba diving is prohibited. The institution is now dedicated to sharing scientific knowledge with the general
public. Projects include monthly conferences, summer schools and participation in the annual Fête de la Science when all are invited to venture behind the Biodiversarium and visit the research laboratories. It would be well worth the trip.

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Sussex Kelp Restoration Project

Kelp is the name given to a group of brown seaweeds, usually large in size, and forming dense aggregations known as ‘kelp forests’. Historically, kelp was abundant along the Sussex coastline. But this important habitat diminished over time, leaving just a few small patches and individual plants, mostly in shallow water and along the shoreline. The Sussex Kelp Restoration Project is working to bring it back.

Until the late 1980’s the area had extensive, dense kelp beds that supported abundant marine life, including important commercial fish and shellfish species such as bass, sole, black seabream, lobsters and cuttle-fish. The kelp is now largely absent, so the ecology of the area is significantly diminished compared with the recent past.
In addition to the fisheries benefits that recovering kelp provides, coastal kelp beds help combat climate change by removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere (carbon sequestration), reduce coastal erosion by absorbing wave energy and provide a haven for wildlife.

This pioneering marine rewilding scheme aims to restore almost 200 square kilometres of lost kelp forest, a crucial
marine ecosystem. The recently confirmed Sussex Nearshore Trawling Byelaw (March 2021) means the nearshore seabed off the Sussex coast is now protected from bottom-towed trawling after successful campaigning from the Help Our Kelp partner-ship, supported by Sir David Attenborough. 

At the heart of the initiative are the Sussex Wildlife Trust, Blue Marine Foundation, Big Wave Productions, Sussex IFCA, Adur & Worthing Council, ZSL, University of Brighton, and UCL. 

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