Ben Burville - The Amble GP making big waves as an undersea photographer

PUBLISHED: 12:26 06 January 2012 | UPDATED: 20:52 20 February 2013

Ben Burville - The Amble GP making big waves as an undersea photographer

Ben Burville - The Amble GP making big waves as an undersea photographer

Northumberland GP Ben Burville is becoming as well known for his hobby as a diver as he is among the patients of his surgery in Amble. Andrew Smith talks to him about his life-long love of the sea

It was probably inevitable that a boy born in Plymouth would grow up to have a close affinity with the sea. But Ben Burvilles calling wasnt to sail the oceans but to go beneath the waves.

Today Ben, who lives with his wife Kirsty and one-year-old daughter Freya in Morpeth, is a family doctor in Amble. But he is also gaining national recognition for his marine research and videography and his captured some remarkable footage of the seals around the Farne Islands.

Diving allows Ben to indulge in a passion for submarine study that began at the age of 16, when, then living in Yorkshire, he went along to his local swimming baths and began learning to dive with the British Sub-Aqua Club.

I used to love the Jacques Cousteau television programmes, which took you into a totally different world, Ben said. When I started diving, you had to complete a six month training period in a pool before you were allowed to dive in open water and, even today, diving is something that constantly needs refining.

Not surprisingly, Ben chose to study marine biology and oceanography
at Southampton University, gaining a BSc while continuing to develop his diving skills and experience and building on his qualifications, eventually becoming a diving instructor registered with the British Sub-Aqua Club.

On leaving university he worked in the chemical industry and for a time was a reservist with the Army, serving two tours in Bosnia during the conflict in the Balkans.

It was only at the age of 28 that Ben decided to pursue a career in medicine and he enrolled for five years training as a doctor at medical school in Sheffield, where he met his Scottish-born wife Kirsty, who is a teacher at a primary school in Blyth.

Having already become a great fan of diving for pleasure around the Farne Islands, Ben opted to join a GP training scheme in Northumberland when leaving medical school and worked in health centres and hospitals around the county before becoming a partner with the Coquet Medical Group a year and a half ago.

The close proximity to the Farnes was the draw for me establishing my career in Northumberland, said Ben. I have often said they are the Galapagos of the North because of the volume and variety of wildlife they attract and, while I have dived in the Red Sea and at other warm locations, I would always choose to dive in the North Sea, and preferably off the Farne Islands.

The range of birdlife, mammals and fish in the sea off the Northumberland coastline is amazing. Weve seen bottlenose dolphins, humpback and minke whales, basking sharks and white beaked dolphins, not to mention the thousands of grey seals for which the Farnes boast one of the UKs major colonies.

Bens fabulous footage of seals being playful and completely at ease with the diver has been used by television programmes including Countryfile, Coast, Springwatch, The One Show, Inside Out and Country Tracks.
My wife, who also dives, decided to buy a digital camera with an underwater housing, said Ben. She took some pictures of the seals then suggested I tried the video function and I was addicted.

The BBC initially approached me to dive with a presenter for an episode of Coast. Following that I was very fortunate that the BBC loaned me a broadcast video camera in an underwater housing. Ive since invested in my own equipment which produces great quality high definition video at a cost far less than may SLR cameras my video camera and housing cost in total about 1,500.

Ben admits to spending every spare moment in his busy life as a doctor, husband and father diving off the Farnes. He always uses boats operated from Seahouses by William Shiel to get to his dive locations.

I have great trust in William after diving with him for many years, he says. He knows the locations and is very aware of the sea conditions. There are some strong currents around the islands but I have complete confidence in William and his team.

You need a way to unwind and diving complements work pretty well. It has a positive effect on your health. Im also very lucky that my wife is so supportive and understanding. Shes enjoys diving too and knows what it means to me.

Sea into the future

Ben Burville combines his hobby of diving off the Northumberland coastl with research into the wellbeing and behaviour of the marine life around the Farne Islands.

He is involved in the 2020Vision project to record all aspects of wildlife and encourage conservation and restoration of the habitats of the UK, and last summer recorded rare underwater footage of the puffin and guillemot colonies of the Farnes.

The sea quality is not bad but the North Sea is a complicated environment in terms of conservation, he said. The seals get blamed for low fish stocks but, in fact, they take less than one per cent of the total fish biomass of the North Sea. The real cause of dwindling fish stock is to do with commercial over fishing.

Factory trawlers from Denmark, Britain and other countries are responsible for horrendous overfishing of sand eels, which account for the highest tonnage of any single fish species taken from the North Sea. It goes to make animal feed, fish meal for fish farms, fish oil for the health food industry and even biofuels.

Among their catch are often many immature fish such as cod and whiting too. Sand eel are the staple diet of the puffins, kittiwakes and the seals. So when the seals take a salmon from the net, or cod, they do so because their own preferred choice of food, the sand eel, is in short supply. We need to put the long-term welfare of the seas above the greed of man.

The fishermen of Northumberland have seen that the income from tourism brought in by the wildlife of the Farne Islands makes live seals and seabirds worth far more than dead ones.
I want to see Marine Conservation Zones extended and Natural England is considering this. A surprising benefit of such zones is that local fishermen generally find their catches are increased in the areas adjacent to such protected zones and the ecosystem is offered some protection.

Its our choice; the decision is in our hands. If we want our kids to see the wildlife we enjoy, then we have to act.

The print version of this article appeared in the January 2012 issue of North East Life

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