SWLA blog: The Wildlife Trusts' Undersea Wildlife Art Award 2012

The Wildlife Trusts’ Underwater Award is a unique bursary to fund diving lessons to explore life in UK seas. This year's lucky winner, Harriet Mead, describes her experience of trying to draw beneath the waves. 

A dab (flatfish) nestled in the reef.

The Wildlife Trusts’ Underwater Award is a unique bursary that funds diving lessons to help people explore the amazing life in our seas. This year's lucky winner, Harriet Mead, describes how she learned to draw underwater. 

The Undersea Wildlife Art Award has been run by the Wildlife Trusts for the last five years - and this year I was thrilled to be chosen. 

The bursary offers an amazing chance to learn to dive and I hoped to use the experience of venturing into the sea off the North Norfolk coast to inspire my work and celebrate the diversity of life off our shores.

I was quick to learn that nothing involved with diving can be performed in an elegant way on dry land - you end up feeling like a zombie with a toddler’s capacity for achievement.

It is a major triumph just to undo or do up straps, buckles and zips, and moving around with all the kit on is a mammoth task.

Underwater it is a different matter - your buoyancy changes and everything that was a hindrance becomes a help. The first thing that strikes you is the noise of every exhaled breath bubbling past your mask. 

© Kate Risely

Harriet drawing beneath the waves. © Kate Risely

Underwater sketching

The relatively unexplored Cromer Shoal Chalk Beds are an amazing haven for all sorts of marine life. Despite fairly poor visibility I was blessed with views of edible crabs, shore crabs and spider crabs hidden in the gullies and cracks of the chalk reef.

The gobies darting around on the sand were so well camouflaged they were only visible when they moved. A small lobster waved its claws in defiance as it marched backwards to find shelter in the rocks. My attempts at drawing it were comical. 

Trying to contend with thick gloves, cold hands, five metres underwater, while trying to swap sheets of paper pinned by a bulldog clip and using graphite sticks anchored by string to the board, was even more tricky than I had imagined.

As we made our way back to the surface, my dive buddy Kate pointed out the shadow of something - a fan perhaps? Suddenly, I could see it was a flatfish settled in the sand with its telltale fins revealing its presence.

© Kate Risely

A lobster waves its claws as Harriet attempts to sketch it. © Kate Risely

Marine wonders

My second dive was on the wreck of the Rosalie and I was rewarded with the astonishing sight of walls of anenomes crusting every surface of the World War II vessel.

Wrasse and bib (common fish of the cod family) made their homes in the architecture of the collapsing deck and it was easy to forget that it was iron, not rock, that was playing host to this extraordinary mass of life.

Despite my inexperience I followed Kate around parts of the wreck, finning under beams as we marvelled at the sight of a sugar pink nudibranch, sea slugs and tiny skeleton shrimps nestled among the sponges.

We swam back across the sand bed that was punctuated by occasional little outcrops of chalk, following the ripples of sand sculpted by the sea which was a clue that we were heading back to shore. 

© Kate Risely

A pink nudibranch (Flabellina pedata) and plumrose anemones. © Kate Risely

Disappearing ink

Not long before the end of the dive, sharp-eyed Kate spotted two immature greater pipefish masquerading as detritus. They look like straightened-out seahorses so it was easy to see the family resemblance.

However, the highlight of the day had to be seeing the little cuttlefish. It was the size of a large bumblebee and turned black in front of my mask and then darted backwards with a small burst of ink.

This tactic is designed to divert potential predators to allow it to escape, but being so small it only managed to travel a few inches.

But, the little cuttlefish had another trick up its sleeve - a second form of defence. It dropped down to the seabed where, with a shuffle of its tentacles, it wept the sand over its head and disappeared in front of my eyes – simply stunning.

© Harriet Mead

Padlock cuttlefish by Harriet Mead, inspired by her experience scuba diving. © Harriet Mead


Harriet Mead is an award-winning sculptor inspired by wildlife, who works with scrap metal to create 'natural history out of agricultural history'.

She is President of the Society of Wildlife Artists (SWLA), a regular member on Artists for Nature Foundation expeditions and is on the steering group for New Networks for Nature.

The Natural Eye, is the annual exhibition of the SWLA which runs from 1– 11 November at the Mall Galleries in London showcasing over 375 pieces of the best artwork influenced by the natural world.

It will include drawings and sculptures Harriet has made as a result of her adventures beneath the ocean. 

Find out more about the Cromer Shoal Chalk Beds. 

Find out more about Harriet Mead's artwork.

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