Looe and Falmouth Coast


Looe and Falmouth

Neil Oliver visits Cornwall, England's most coastal county, and discovers more about the fishing industry in the area. Miranda Krestovnikoff explores a shipwreck.


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Welcome to the Cornish coast.

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Our journey starts in Saltash, where, since Saxon times,

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the geographical border split Devon and Cornwall across the banks of the River Tamar.

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As the railroads were opening up the wild west of America,

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the same thing was happening here in the wild west of England.

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In 1859, the year Billy the Kid was born,

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Brunel, the great railway pioneer, was opening up the gateway to Cornwall

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with this magnificent bridge across the Tamar.

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It was a huge engineering feat, taking 13 years to complete.

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No-one had seen a bridge like it.

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It was a glimpse of the future.

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For the first time, Cornwall was connected to the main line network.

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Over the following decades, it brought trade and tourism.

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Outsiders flocked to the newly-fashionable Cornish riviera.

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Look at this... "Looe, for ideal homes and holidays."

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Can't miss that!

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On the way to Looe, it's classic Cornwall all the way.

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Looe is built around its harbour and river estuary and divided into two halves.

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It's always been the quintessential picture postcard on the grand tour of Cornwall.

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It says here, in this 1960s brochure,

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"The new visitor, within 24 hours of arrival,

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"seems to be subconsciously absorbed into the atmosphere of holiday peacefulness

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"and England seems a thousand miles away."

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Romantic idyll it may be, but there's more to Looe than tourist-brochure banter.

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It's Cornwall's second-largest fishing port,

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and according to top chef Rick Stein lands some of the freshest fish in the UK.

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Dovers and monk mix!

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This is Looe Fish Auction.

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We're on the skates. First lot, here we go!

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It's a highly-charged atmosphere using the latest auctioneering technology,

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with buyers from all over Britain vying for today's catch.

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Quality doesn't come cheap.

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Today, the most expensive one I've bought is extra-large turbot, £170 for one fish.

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-Wow! Is that a typical price in here?

-It can go higher than that for turbot.

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But why do you come to THIS market? Is it a good one?

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Purely for quality, really. We buy in several other ports -

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Newlyn, Brixham and Plymouth - but this one is the best for quality.

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They go out in the morning, they land in the evening, we're buying it,

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and it's on the counter within 12 hours.

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This market's one of the most competitive in the UK,

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and its success is down to the fact that boats only go out for a day -

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day-boat fishing.

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At other ports, the bigger boats can be out up to a week.

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The freshness just can't complete with the quick turnaround of Looe.

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It may be an accident of nature, but it's created a unique opportunity.

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The port is so small and the harbour so shallow

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it can only take day-boats,

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so it's the limitations of the harbour that have created Looe's greatest asset - super-fresh fish.

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So, how would I spot that this is truly fresh fish?

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Well, look at the haddock, I mean, how stiff is that? Look!

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-Slimy...

-Right, so slime's a good sign?

-Slime's a good sign.

-Uh-huh.

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So if it's really floppy, does that mean it's...?

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Yeah, unless it's pre-rigor mortis,

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which probably takes to become rigor mortis, maybe five to six hours...

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-After it's caught.

-..and then from stiff to really floppy's not good.

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The herring, people buy them when the eyes are all red.

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Well, it takes a day or so to become red.

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I mean, look at the mackerel!

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Line-caught. You can always tell,

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by the damage around the mouth.

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Right, OK. Why is line-caught better than something out of a net?

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Fish is less stressed, and fish doesn't drown, so it makes the meat far superior.

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The gills are lovely and red and clear.

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-Right, so there's still oxygenated blood near them?

-Yeah.

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-You sound as if you love these things.

-Oh, it's a passion!

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After the fish has been auctioned to the highest bidder,

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the next stage is distribution.

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Steve Farrar is a fish merchant and middle man, but trying to get a moment with him isn't easy.

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-No, we haven't, Richard.

-No, we've got no brill.

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-There's some nice turbot...

-I've a large turbot and monk. D'you want any monk?

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90% of the fish in Looe ends up going abroad.

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I want to know why.

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Why is so much of it being exported?

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The fishing industry's simple - it's a question of supply and demand.

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You've got to send it where the best price is,

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or you're out of the game.

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So the Continent is prepared to spend more

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for the fish that we don't generally see?

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Yeah, for fish you don't generally see in the shops, quite often it's because it's gone abroad.

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Cuttlefish, squid, turbot - this is quality fish, and we're letting it get away.

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Next time you go away to foreign parts, remember -

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you and that fish are probably both on holiday.

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Let's face it, unless you live here it takes a long time to get to Cornwall,

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which is why there's often the view that it's isolated and remote.

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But that depends on your point of view.

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We're on our way to Falmouth,

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whose association with the sea

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made it more cosmopolitan than London in the 18th century.

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Falmouth has been a major commercial and military port since the 1700s.

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But it wasn't just a trade hub.

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With 25 foreign consulates

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and nationalities from around the globe arriving daily,

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it was an international communication centre.

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This is where the unbearable news of Nelson's death reached England.

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They heard it here first.

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200 years ago, Falmouth was THE place to be.

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But why Falmouth?

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By 1690, years of war with France had made getting news and supplies in and out of Britain difficult.

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Falmouth, unlike Dover and Harwich,

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was far enough from the French coast

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to make it safe from their interference.

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But ships were still vulnerable out at sea.

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The solution was the packet ship.

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Lightly-armed brigs designed by the Royal Mail,

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they were small but they were fast.

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Crucially, they could outrun the notorious French privateers.

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For 150 years, government mail, bullion,

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and VIPs from every corner of the globe

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were picked up from and dropped off in Falmouth.

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The shape of the port may not have changed much,

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but at the time it was a melting-pot of shipping agents, adventurers,

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merchants and refugees. It was THE main link to the Empire.

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It wasn't unheard-of for news to hit the local paper here

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before it was rushed up the road, what's now the A30, to London.

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The headline might not be absolutely genuine,

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but the paper really is The Falmouth Packet.

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It was the sea that brought prosperity to Falmouth.

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Fish for the table, exotic imports from abroad,

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but this came at a price.

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The coastline is littered with thousands of wrecks.

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The Manacles, just off The Lizard, with its submerged rocks,

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has caught out even the saltiest sea dogs.

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You might not spot it at first glance,

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but on the horizon there's a marker,

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a spire that has come to the rescue of many a sailor.

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Miranda Krestovnikoff takes a closer look.

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BIRDS CAW

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There's been a church here for hundreds of years,

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an important landmark for sailors trying to navigate a course

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through those notorious rocks down there.

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In fact, the church has given its name to the infamous rocks below.

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The Manacles Reef gets its name from the Cornish, Maen Eglos,

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meaning "church stones".

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-BELL TOLLS

-Unfortunately, even this divine landmark

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couldn't keep every passing boat safe.

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This graveyard alone houses over 300 victims of shipwrecks.

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Many of the lost souls buried here

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come from just a single tragedy,

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the sinking of a large passenger and cargo ship that was on her way to America in 1898.

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It was called The Mohegan.

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This memorial stone marks the spot

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where many victims of the Mohegan wreck were put to rest in one mass grave.

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A wreck is a human tragedy and Nature shows no mercy,

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but what she takes with one hand she gives with another.

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The lost ship is slowly transformed into a new piece of the Cornish coast.

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Paul Naylor, marine biologist and underwater photographer,

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has been exploring the remains of boats like The Mohegan for over 15 years.

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Now, the site that we're diving is a really popular site in the UK.

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What makes the wreck of The Mohegan so special?

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The Manacles are special anyway, cos the currents bring in all the food

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for a wealth of animals,

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and The Mohegan wreck gives even more habitat for the animals to live in and live on and attach to,

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so it's just fantastic life.

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The vast amounts of plankton here form the basis of the food chain,

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sustaining many species and giving the water its distinctive green colour.

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Over the last 100 years, the combination of passing time and strong currents

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has stripped the boat bare.

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All that remains are the large rusting metal plates which formed the basic structure.

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There's so much wreckage lying around!

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It's a big wreck. Look at those huge boilers.

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The ship is now covered with dead men's fingers,

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a rather morbid name for an eerie reminder of the boat's fate.

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Hundreds of little individual polyps make up the colony of the dead men's fingers,

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and they have this sort of gelatinous skeleton instead of the hard, stony skeleton of reef corals.

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They're really pretty with all their tentacles out. They look really feathery.

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Soft corals like these

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are amongst the first long-term settlers on a wreck.

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All these little nooks and crannies,

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every one has got something living in it.

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It's like the posh coffee-shop effect. Once the sponges, soft corals and anenomes move in,

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you know the neighbourhood is being gentrified.

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The initial pioneers, like keelworms, who pave the way for these more colourful inhabitants,

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are soon lost in the forest of fast-growing algae,

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and all that's needed for the underwater city to start growing

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is a little rust or a scratched surface for the different colonisers to attach themselves to.

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Oh, look! Sea fans!

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They're beautiful.

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The pink sea fan is a protected species.

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It grows at right angles to the current,

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so that each individual polyp that makes up the colony

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has the maximum potential to catch food.

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These huge sea fans on The Mohegan show the wreck's age.

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These corals can only grow a centimetre a year,

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so some of these colonies are over 50 years old.

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As we move away from the wreck, other species start making an appearance.

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The rocks are like the old historic heart of a town.

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This is where you find residents that have lived here forever.

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Jewel anenomes produce dozens of little clones of themselves,

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creating distinct blocks of colour.

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I've found a crab! You can see its mouth parts going.

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I remember my first dive. Somebody put one of those on my head. I was a bit scared.

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Divers in The Manacles attach great mystique to the wrecks here.

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It's easy to understand why. Nature has adopted and then adapted them

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to become an integral part of the underwater landscape.

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It's Cornwall at its natural best.

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E-mail [email protected]

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Neil Oliver takes the team to Cornwall, England's most coastal county. He discovers more about the fishing industry in the area and about the relationship between Cornwall and the rest of England. Miranda Krestovnikoff discovers how nature can turn a shipwreck into a sanctuary for a remarkable variety of wildlife.


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