Eelgrass safari! Adventures in Ystad’s Strandskog

Stuck for things to do on a hot day on the south coast? Why not strap goggles and fins on the kids and set them loose to explore an underwater jungle!

Beyond the waterline in and around the town of Ystad, the long, bright green blades of eelgrass grow in huge meadows like grasslands below the surface of the seas, providing a home to a rich selection of aquatic life.

Eelgrass eco-engineers measure the season’s new growth at Ystad | Fachon, Evie, CC BY 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The shallow water it prefers—between one and three meters depth—makes it easy to see the eelgrass (and its fishy denizens) within easy snorkeling range of the surface. Dive down into the eelgrass beds and feel the slender blades grazing your skin as you search for flounder, cod, crabs and shellfish hiding out among the ribbon-like leaves. No wonder eelgrass meadows are sometimes called the rainforests of the sea!

The flourishing fauna aren’t the whole story, of course: just like rainforests, eelgrass meadows are doing lots of other stuff that’s not so obvious to the casual explorer. The unique habitat increases biodiversity, provides clearer water by stabilizing the bottom, absorbs excess nutrients, and stores greenhouse gases in the sediment layer below, which further reduces eutrophication. Eelgrass beds also prevent coastal erosion by binding sand with its roots, thus diminishing the impact of the wind and waves.

Indeed, it was mostly for those more pragmatic latter reasons that Ystad elected to restore its eelgrass beds. There as elsewhere in Sweden, eelgrass was in rapid decline from the 1980s onward due to ecosystemic damage to the Baltic and the Öresund: eutrophication, overfishing and coastal exploitation from tourism and construction activities. Many historic habitats were lost, until the problem of erosion became so obvious in the early 2020s that no one could just wave it away any more, and a large restoration program was rolled out to save Skåne’s beautiful sand beaches from disappearing out into the ocean.

However, the restoration proved to be costly, time consuming and risky: just like farming on land, it’s not just a matter of “fire and forget”. Ystad municipality really stuck with it, however, giving freedom and support to a collective of activist divers who planted eelgrass on a voluntary basis; meanwhile Malmö’s Västra hamnen eelgrass project got its start during the last gasp of the development boom at the start of the 2020s, with the result that the canals around the former shipyard sites are teeming with life, their waters clearer than they’ve been in nearly a century

A ticket for Ystad’s eelgrass safari is money well spent, as it goes directly to the ongoing restoration of eelgrass beds elsewhere, as well as the maintenance of the local meadows; the best time to go is during late summer, when everything’s in full fecundity, but there’s things to see in winter too, and the Baltic is a lot less chilly than you might expect! If you don’t want to swim yourself, you can always learn more about the underwater jungle in the labs and small museum established by the diving collective.

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