Scientist's appeal for photos and stories about sea

Do you have an intriguing old photograph of a mystery fish, an old map of the Isle of Man or a family story about the sea?

Do you have an intriguing old photograph of a mystery fish, an old map of the Isle of Man or a family story about the sea?

Manx marine biologist and writer Dr Fiona Gell would like to hear more.

Fiona is the recipient of the Corlett Bolton Research Award. This was a grant awarded by local advocates Corlett Bolton to support a research project in the Isle of Man with the aim of enhancing knowledge and understanding an element of either the Island’s environment, culture, history, or society.

The aim of Fiona’s project is to explore historical sources to understand more about the Manx marine environment and help inform its future management. Globally, the Island’s marine environment has changed dramatically over the past century and understanding what we have lost and how things have changed is essential to ensure we take care of our marine life for the future.

The study focuses on six key species and habitats: basking sharks, oyster banks, horse mussel reefs, seagrass meadows, saltmarshes and flapper skate (previously known as common skate) but will also try to build a picture of the historic extent of other species and habitats.

Fiona is using old marine science documents and other local archives to explore the Island’s marine environmental history but believes that important information may also be held by the Isle of Man’s sea-loving community.

Dr Fiona Gell with her novel, Spring Tides

Fiona explained: ‘We have a strong maritime heritage in the Isle of Man and many of us have a family history connected to the sea. I’ve found fascinating family photos giving glimpses into the history of our seas, and I’m sure lots more exist in albums and biscuit tins around the Island. It would be great to make use of these more unusual resources to help piece together what our marine life used to look like and what we may have lost over the years.’

Some of the clues that Fiona would be interested in include:

  • Historic photos of basking sharks – very little historic evidence of basking shark abundance and distributions is available and old photos could be really helpful.
  • Old game fishing photos – a family photo of a flapper/common skate that was caught by a visiting game fisherman in Port Erin gives us a fascinating glimpse into the past, when these enormous skate which are now critically endangered, were more common.
  • Giant skate egg cases – the egg cases (mermaids’ purses) of common/flapper skate are often 15-20cm, so much bigger than the common dogfish mermaids’ purses normally found.
  • Locations of seagrass – we have some wonderful seagrass beds around the Island, some of which have only been recorded scientifically in the last few years. If you or your family have memories or records of seagrass beds that no longer exist, that is valuable information that could help future efforts to restore this valuable habitat.
  • Oyster reefs – there were once extensive beds of oysters off the east of the Isle of Man that supported a large fishery. Do you know anything about this or have an maps or other information about this long lost seabed feature?
  • Horse mussel reefs – the Island has the most diverse horse mussel reefs in the whole of the British Isles, for example the reefs protected in the Little Ness Marine Nature Reserve and Ramsey Bay Marine Nature Reserve, but some of them have been lost. If you know of maps or other records of this important habitat that could help build a picture of the historic distribution.
  • Saltmarshes – saltmarshes are important carbon stores and also protect our coasts and towns from flooding. Historic photographs of current and past saltmarsh areas, for example around the Sulby river estuary in Ramsey and at Langness could really help understand how these areas have changed.

Fiona will be bringing together all the information she finds in a report about the history of Manx seas, which she hopes will help inform and inspire conservation efforts in the Manx marine environment.

If you think you can help, or would like more information about the study, please get in touch with Fiona by emailing

Or if you’d prefer to write in, please write to Dr Fiona Gell at University College Isle of Man, where she is an Honorary Fellow:

Dr Fiona Gell, c/o Gail Corrin, Higher Education Manager, University College Isle of Man, Homefield Road, Douglas, Isle of Man, IM2 6RB

The Corlett Bolton Research Award was established to support research in the Isle of Man community and celebrates the community-focused business’s 30th anniversary in 2023.

Dr Fiona Gell’s book, Spring Tides: Exploring Marine Life on the Isle of Man, was published by Weidenfeld and Nicolson in 2022 and is now available in paperback, as an e-book and audiobook.

Main photo: the historic image of skate being landed at Port Erin.

Posted up on 17th December 2023


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