On Sherkin's rocky shore


Sherkin Island is just 10 minutes by ferry from Baltimore Harbour, but it could be 10 miles away, so peaceful is it and so removed from the mainland loop of traffic and signposts pointing to cities. Sherkin doesn't have the rugged aspect of some other offshore islands; it's a gentle and very pretty place, with idyllic sandy beaches, and an atmosphere of calm.

Matt Murphy and his late wife, Eileen, liked Sherkin so much that they moved here permanently from the mainland 30 years ago. In 1975, they set up the Sherkin Island Marine Station, which now extends for some 16 acres. Sadly, Eileen Murphy died of cancer not long after, but Matt Murphy, helped by their seven children, continued with the work they had begun together, and the station celebrated its 25th anniversary last year.

So where is this marine station? Well, it's not easy to find, for a start. I wandered round the general north-west area of the island for about an hour, looking for a sign of some kind but there was none to be found - and nobody around to ask for directions. A likely-looking track ended at a beach. Marine station yes, but surely it wasn't in the sea itself?

Finally, a woman appeared and told me it was through the next gate. It wasn't: the next gate led to thousands of thistles and lots of stones, but no 16-acre Marine Station. I found it in the end by accident, clambering over a ditch and a wall onto a track that led to a distant house.

"We're not open to the public any more," explained Murphy briskly, "so we don't bother with signs." The lack of a sign is consistent with the general modus operandi of the marine station, which has always stated that it operates independently and under its own conditions. It is well-known for example, that it does not receive or seek State aid. In its Silver Jubilee brochure produced last year, Murphy wrote: "The marine station has survived without State funding for our research, which has meant I have had to hustle the highways and byways for funding. The real plus side was, and still is, that no one can interfere with our research programmes."

Developed over the years, the station now has five laboratories, an aquarium, a museum, an extensive library and accommodation for some 16 post-graduate students who come here every year to carry out research between April and November. When the Murphys first came here, they were originally involved in adventure-sports holidays for children and some of those buildings were adapted for use for the marine station.

One of these is the huge gymnasium-type building, which is now a cavernous library to some 100,000 natural-history books and journals. The shelves hold titles such as The Antarctic Journal of the United States, The Wilderness Society, Geophysics and The Biochemical Journal, and these are used both by the resident volunteers and outsiders, who come to some independent financial agreement with Murphy.

The core work of the station is, and has always been, its annual surveys. The Rocky Shore and the Phytoplankton surveys monitoring programme have been running annually since 1975 and 1978 respectively. One of the primary aims of the station is to establish baseline data on the marine life of the surrounding coastline and to record the annual changes in plant and animal life.

The Rocky Shore project has collected data from 69 sites since the late 1970s and the programme was extended to 146 sites in the mid-1990s. The material is collected by placing a quadrant - a rectangular lattice-type device - on a site area, and then examining and recording everything within that rectangle.

The data, Murphy explains, is a unique record. Over the years, he has had various approaches from parties interested in buying access to this data, but he has so far always preferred to keep control over it.

Murphy does not have an academic background and is open about the fact many academic institutions have been "horrified" over the years by his marine station. "It's never worried me," he declares. "Staying independent has been my strength. All you need is common sense. I'm not interested in hooking up with anyone."

Key to the success of the marine station are the volunteers who come every year to work on the project. This year, there are 16 post-graduate students, all with marine biology or environmental backgrounds - three men and 13 women. They have come from New Zealand, England, Spain, the Netherlands, Finland, Ireland and Germany. Every year, Murphy advertises in New Scientist for volunteers. He got some 400 responses this year. Those who come get basic bed-and-board and an allowance of £l0 a week for the duration of their April-November stay. What is the attraction?

"To gain experience," is the general chorus in one of the laboratories, where the volunteers are analysing some of the samples collected earlier. "It's rare you get the chance to get this type of experience, and everyone wants experience on their CV when they look for a job. It's a really good chance to do lots of field work," explains Claire Brown, from Wiltshire, England.

"It's one of the few long-term studies that has gone on as long as this," says Talei Jackson from New Zealand.

"Research is the basis of everything in science," observes Aoife Flynn sagely, the only Irish person on the current programme.

None of them is fazed by the fact that the marine station is not attached to some academic institution. "It's so well-known and well-established now, it has made its own name," says Kate Falcous from Lancashire, England. .

The volunteers work long hours six days a week to keep up with the cycles of collecting material, and they work in different teams. The Phytoplankton Survey team go out every 10 days in boats to their 12 stations around the island to collect water samples. They collect 80 samples per trip, sampling at depths between five and 50 metres.

Brown and Jackson are part of the Rocky Shore team. There is a prescribed method of working from year to year, and they all write reports on their findings at the end of their time. Depending on the tides, they can be out at any hour, and then must try to analyse and organise all the samples before the next major change in the tide.

Dr Gillian Bishop, who was one of the original volunteers, is currently working on some of the material gathered by the Rocky Shore survey over the years. Her book, The Ecology of the Rocky Shores of Sherkin 1980-2000, is due out later this year.

Murphy is particularly proud of the books which have been published by the marine station. A Beginner's Guide to Ireland's Seashore, first published in 1999, is still a bestseller. Other titles include The Wild Plants of Sherkin, Cape Clear and adjacent Islands of West Cork and Ireland's Bird Life, A World of Beauty.

Since 1989, the station has published Sherkin Comment, a tabloid-shaped quarterly environmental journal edited by Murphy. It has a print run of some 32,000 copies and is mostly distributed by mail. Articles in recent issues include: a profile of botanist Tony O'Mahony, a piece on monster conger eels in Irish waters, a report on a new Irish sea-bed survey, a piece on the Aran Islands and a contribution to the ongoing debate on fish farming.

Murphy is now in his 60s and is understandably concerned about the future of the marine station, which he admits he will be unable to continue to work full-time. He has not made any decisions yet, but he appears to be anxious to keep it in the family, several of whom have settled on the island.

One thing seems certain, however: Murphy seems unlikely to be settling into a retirement which involves no work at all.

To subscribe to Sherkin Comment, go to www.homepage.tinet.ie/~sherkinmarine/ station.htm