IN THE WORLD OF SCIENCE, we talk about “ecological succession”. This is a rather dry and unattractive term to describe something quite beautiful. Ecological succession describes the way in which an “eco-system” changes over time.
This time-frame might be throughout millennia or over a shorter period, within a relatively small space, such as a sunken wreck or across our deepest oceans. It’s what happens when a shipwreck such as HMS Scylla becomes colonised and begins to grow life.
As divers we are constant witness to this ecological succession. It starts on a new wreck with a fine covering of algae and barnacles, and develops into a reef packed with life.
However, in my mind the term ecological succession conjures up images of something that is quite linear and has a beginning and an end. But it appears that there is no such thing in this crazy, chaotic world, and that our environment and our lives around us, thankfully, constantly change in circles within circles without a clear beginning or end.
Perhaps a more palatable term to describe this ecological succession is the great “circle of life”.
The Solace Stones off the Dorset coast celebrate this circle of life, and I was delighted to be invited to dive them.
I had first heard about them shortly after the loss of a close relative. I was feeling reflective and grieving for the loss of a loved one, contemplating the magnitude and importance of life and death. Hearing about the logical way in which these stones created life during a time of loss seemed beautifully befitting, both comforting and emotive.
THE SOLACE STONES are pyramids of pure, white stone before they are lowered to the seabed. They have a lovely tactile, smooth quality to them and are reminiscent of the tombs built for the pharaohs and their queens.
The pyramids also reminded me of the pyramids of biomass that were described to me at university – the way in which energy is passed on at each trophic level.
The trophic level represents the different levels of producers such as the seaweed or algae at the base of this pyramid, followed by the succession of herbivores that feed on the algae, the primary consumers that eat them, and finally the few apex predators.
These special Solace Stones, built using local Portland stone and designed in conjunction with Southampton University, had special holes and fissures on their surface. The holes are suitable for a variety of marine life from the different trophic levels to find solace.
However, what makes these pyramids unusual is that there is also a space for the ashes of a loved one to be enclosed within the pyramid and covered with a plaque, as a memorial to somebody whose final resting place it is appropriate should be in the sea.
I was to dive some of the pyramids and would be able to see ecological succession at first-hand while honouring the final resting place of individuals who had loved the sea.
The pyramids had been placed on the seabed at various points off the Dorset coast over the past two years.
I was diving with local O’Three director Marcus, and we travelled out to the stones with Pete from Dive Beyond. Looking at the wide expansive horizon, I imagined how comforting it must be for those who are grieving to be taking their loved one’s stone to its final resting place.
The sea has a wonderful restorative quality. It heals and soothes our salty souls, and perhaps makes us recognise the small but not insignificant part we play in the interwoven planet of life.
INITIALLY WE WERE to dive a fairly recently laid stone. The pyramidal monolith, appearing from the depths as we descended, had a wonderfully atmospheric air of peace, calm and solidity. The stone was still white but its surface had started to encrust with the first part of that ecological succession – a fine layer of algae.
As a living reef that would help to reseed local marine lifes, the pyramid had fissures at its base specifically sized to fit young lobsters.
Not that far from the Solace Stones lies a lobster restocking reef. Juveniles had been released to help seed and nourish the natural lobster populations by allowing them to grow on to sexual maturity.
Two thousand tonnes of Portland stone were placed on the seabed just before the London Olympics in 2012 as a habitat for these lobsters. I wondered if this freshly laid stone might have any signs of crustaceans using the holes and fissures as protection from predators. There were signs of burrowing around the holes, but no residents yet.
It wasn’t until I got my photos up on the computer post-dive that I realised that the commemorative plaque of this stone, laid only in July 2016, had a little clingfish swimming on its surface, a gentle nod to the life that would soon flourish here with Paul Bromley, “a brave husband” now, in his time of rest, creating a reef of life. This seemed such a suitable memorial to a brave man.
We swam on to find the other stones laid in June 2014 and September 2015, and Marcus offered for me to go ahead so that I might be the first to arrive and capture any life on camera.
I had everything crossed that we might see something, but there are never any guarantees with marine life.
I was immediately struck by the softened glow and gentle appearance of the older stones. They were now covered in a host of life, enough to keep any diver with an interest in “squidge” happy.
Barnacles, tunicates, bryozoans and all manner of invertebrates encrusted the stones. The whiteness could be seen no more; instead there was resplendent life everywhere you looked.
I SOON SAW A CONGER EEL at the base of the first pyramid. I assume that it had cleared an area there as a safe haven in which to rest. The eel looked at me with apparent suspicion and slowly swam from the pyramid, while a leopard-spotted goby swam into the space the conger had vacated.
How wonderful! The Solace Stones had become a living, breathing reef for a multitude of invertebrates, crustaceans and vertebrates. The larger holes higher up on the stones were home to edible crabs that looked very comfortable in their relatively new home.
As I approached the final pyramid, a good-sized lobster scurried across the seabed and, seeing my intrusion, backed into a hollowed-out space below the pyramid – finding solace yet again. It appeared that this aspiration of creating a living reef to help restock lobsters and generate a full circle of life had come to fruition after only two years.
Before we left I took a photo of the pyramid in its full glory. The hard edges were softened by the bryozoans and a torchlight shone down on its apex, giving it an ethereal glow. I noted the inscription of the stone: “Peter Anthony Noice… A Gentle Man”.
This gentle man had, in turn, created a soft, gentle space for an entire community of marine life. I felt grateful to him for giving me the chance of having this enchanting experience.
Surfacing to a gratefully received hot squash and chocolate bar I was left exhilarated, contemplative and touched by what I’d seen.
It took some time for my thoughts to clarify and become logical. I went on this dive to see how in our death we might create life, but I discovered more than that. The reef isn’t just a lovely memorial but it’s also fast becoming a unique dive-site.
The seabed surrounding the stones is covered in mostly dead current-washed maerl and fluttering queenie scallops. The odd goby darted from point to point on a seabed that was not uninteresting but lacking in diversity.
The Solace Stones created a haven for other life that made the seabed sparkle all the more. But as well as that, there was something comforting, consolidating and life-affirming about diving the Solace Stones. I hoped to dive them again.
In life we too often avoid discussing death and then, when it does come to us, we’re somewhat surprised that it should befall our loved ones despite the fact that it does, with such certainty, come to all of us.
Our goal in life shouldn’t be to live forever but to create something that will. Through the Solace Stones, salty souls have a way of creating something beautiful that really will last forever.
They can also be enjoyed by others as old life begets new and the great circle of life continues to swirl and spin around them, creating change and radiant life – in that, we can all find solace.
The Solace Stones site is located three miles east of Weymouth & Portland and is the only one of its kind in the UK.
Weymouth & Portland Solace Reef Ltd forms part of the Weymouth & Portland Wreck to Reef project and details of its services can be found at www.solacestones.co.uk
Maya Plass stayed at Sea Barn Campsite, which costs £20 a night (www.seabarnfarm.co.uk) and dived with Dive Beyond, Portland (www.divebeyond.co.uk).
For more information about the area go to www.visit-dorset.com