Calls for better protection of Kilkee’s Pollock Holes network 320 million years ‘in the making’

The local restaurateur, fisherman, auctioneer and founder of the local marine rescue service says Pollock Holes are eighth wonder of the world

Diver Manuel Di Lucia (centre with cap) teaching snorkelling at the Pollock Holes in Kilkee, Co Clare. Photograph: Joe McCloskey

Diver Manuel Di Lucia (centre with cap) teaching snorkelling at the Pollock Holes in Kilkee, Co Clare. Photograph: Joe McCloskey

 

Manuel Di Lucia was a teenage beach boy when he discovered what he believes to be the eighth wonder of the world. Not that he knew it at the time. It was more than five decades and many beach duties later that the diver recognised the magic on his own shoreline.

His first proper glimpse of it was over half a century ago, when he was distracted from his lifeguarding at Kilkee, Co Clare, by a group of strangely dressed forms assembling out at Duggerna reef. One of them was Ronnie Hurley who invited him to join in, once he could produce £2 to become a member of his sub-aqua club.

“He took me for my first dive on compressed air, which enabled me to stay underwater without having to come to the surface to breathe,” Di Lucia recalls. Had he been able to speak, he would have been lost for words.

Although he had been an avid snorkeller, now he was fully transported into a three-dimensional world of squat lobsters and sandeels, sprat and shrimp and little pollock darting through a small forest of kelp in several metres of water.

Neighbouring pools on the reef – refreshed twice daily by the Atlantic tide – were similarly rich, replicating what might normally be found in greater depths. Di Lucia called them the Pollock Holes and the name has stuck.

“A unique ecological resource” is how his colleague, geologist Prof Andrew Pulham, has described the network of ponds, saying they were 320 million years in the making.

Back then, muds and sands from a nearby South Greenland continent poured into a Late Carboniferous river delta located on what is now the Kilkee coast. Think of changes over aeons of time – as in volcanic activity, separating land masses and advancing and retreating ice sheets.

Latterly, the force of the Atlantic swell heaved out great slabs of sandstone, allowing deep tidal pools to form where both shallow and deepwater fish, shellfish and plant life established a home.

They are tough, these descendants of those first rockpool residents, as they survive in what Pulham terms a “high energy “ environment, with a turbo-charged twice daily Atlantic ebb and flow. That’s why both he and Di Lucia believes they deserve better protection.

It can take time for marine communities to settle in such extreme conditions, and they can remain in “fragile equilibrium” for centuries.

Di Lucia, Belfast-born of Italian parentage, is best known as a restaurateur, fisherman, auctioneer, three times town mayor and founder of the local marine rescue service. He took this reporter for a recent snorkel to make a case for the shoreline habitat.

On one of those Indian summer mornings defining this year’s unforgettable autumn, he described how the pools vary from 100cm to about 2.5 metres in depth– ideal for the groups of children who learn to snorkel with him when school is out.

Fin-kicking through “liquid time”, as Jacques Cousteau once described his favoured environment, we gazed through our looking glasses at common starfish and sea cucumbers and scores of juvenile fish flashing by.

Hovering just above the calcified rock formed by sea slugs was a large and languid Ballan Wrasse in ruminative mode – perhaps wondering why these large black neoprene forms were invading his space.

With an effortless septuagenarian breath, Di Lucia dived down, scooping up samples of Devon cup coral. He produced a knife and swept up strands of a plant that has invasive tendencies.

Sargassum muticum,” he proclaimed on the surface, explaining that he recently detected a moss woven into it which, he suspects, is a type of fungus that could be arresting the host’s rogue growth.

“It’s a bit of an institution, coming from Limerick to take your first strokes here,” Di Lucia observes, as parents in pools around us teach young children how to float. “What makes it really distinctive is the contrast – the Atlantic waves thundering on to the rocks just a hundred yards beyond the tranquil series of pools, protected by the reef and so very calm,” he says.

The National Parks and Wildlife Service has confirmed that the Pollock Holes are already within the special area of conservation (SAC) designation for the Kilkee reefs.

However, Di Lucia says there is no sign or other information to state this, and “nothing within the SAC regulations to ensure that shellfish in the reef are not taken for commercial purposes”.

“Removal of sea urchins is banned, but, apart from the vigilance of the proprietor of the Diamond cafe just above the reef, there is little practical protection of this unique habitat. No one wants a ring of steel, but we have to be much more mindful of what we have.”

Di Lucia has encountered much beauty on diving expeditions around the world, but nothing quite compares, he believes, to the miniature marine park on his west Clare coast.