The waters around the UK are brimming with life. Penny Bunting experiences some of the country’s most remarkable marine wildlife.
Above: Orcas off west coast of Scotland © Nienke Van Geel / Hebridean Whale & Dolphin Trust
For Europeans, whale watching is an activity that tends to be associated with far-flung destinations such as Alaska, New Zealand or South Africa. But you don’t have to travel thousands of miles – or spend thousands of pounds – to encounter these remarkable creatures.
In fact there is a world-class marine environment right on our doorstep – and, with the UK whale-watching season just beginning, now is the ideal time to get out on a boat and enjoy all that our seas have to offer.
One of the best places to see marine wildlife is the Hebrides, where an astonishing range of different marine species can been seen, including minke whales, humpback whales, bottlenose dolphins and harbour porpoises. So far, 24 species of cetaceans – the collective name for whales, dolphins and porpoises – have been recorded in the region. Hebridean seas are also home to what is thought to be the UK’s only resident group of orcas, and are a feeding and breeding hotspot for basking sharks.
The waters of western Scotland attract all this activity because of the long and complex coastline, interaction of currents and wide variety of habitats – all combining to provide a rich and diverse environment for marine wildlife.
Last year the Hebridean Whale and Dolphin Trust, based in Tobermory on the Isle of Mull, celebrated its 20th anniversary. The conservation charity works to ensure the long-term survival of western Scotland’s cetaceans and basking sharks, which are facing increasing stress from human activities including climate change, habitat degradation and pollution.
World Oceans Day is held every June 8 and is a a global celebration of the planet’s oceans. This year’s theme is Healthy Oceans, Healthy Planet – with a focus on the prevention of plastic pollution.
There’s no better time to celebrate our sea life and encounter some amazing sea creatures – and here are five top spots in the UK.
Tobermory, Isle of Mull
Mull is one of the best places in the world to spot marine wildlife. You’re likely to encounter harbour porpoises before you even get off the ferry – look out for basking sharks on the crossing, too.
Sea Life Surveys offers a range of cruises, from a 30 minute Wildlife Taster to the full-day Whalewatch Explorer, with wet weather gear and refreshments provided. You’re unlikely to forget the experience of coming face-to-face with a basking shark – the second largest fish in the world, after the whale shark. They can grow up to 12 metres long, weigh over six tons, and have a metre-wide mouth.
Basking sharks travel huge distances each year, and have even been known to cross the Atlantic. They visit UK waters in spring and summer, appearing first in Cornwall and arriving in Scotland around mid-May. The seas around Mull are particularly rich in plankton, so make an ideal feeding ground.
If you have more than a day to spare and want to learn about sea life alongside marine scientists – as well as visit some of the most remote and wild parts of the British Isles – you could spend a week onboard Hebridean Whale and Dolphin Trust’s research yacht Silurian. The charity welcomes paying volunteers to participate in cetacean surveys, helping to gather comprehensive data about the area’s marine life. www.whaledolphintrust.co.uk
Top left: volunteers onboard Silurian © G.Leaper / Hebridean Whale & Dolphin Trust
Above left: common dolphin © Dr Conor Ryan / Hebridean Whale & Dolphin Trust; above right: dolphin © Marine Discovery
Black Isle, Scottish Highlands
The Moray Firth supports the only known resident population of bottlenose dolphins in the North Sea. There are believed to be around 200 dolphins in the area, making it one of the best places in the UK to see them.
The most thrilling way to view the dolphins is to take a trip with EcoVentures. Leaving Cromarty harbour at the tip of the peninsula you’ll speed out to sea on a 12-seater RIB. Bottlenose dolphins are notoriously playful, and if you’re lucky you may get to see them breaching or riding the bow wave of the boat. You may also spot minke whales, seals or puffins.
For a more sedate experience, try Dolphin Trips Avoch and enjoy an hour-long leisurely cruise on the Moray Firth. Expert skipper Gwyn Tanner, with help from his dog Spud, has run dolphin trips from Avoch Harbour for 17 years and can answer all your dolphin questions.
Both EcoVentures and Dolphin Trips Avoch are members of the Dolphin Space Programme, a voluntary initiative set up by a number of local organisations to safeguard the welfare of the cetaceans in the Moray Firth.
Landlubbers can also head to Chanonry Point, just outside Fortrose, reckoned to be one of the best places in the UK for land-based dolphin spotting.
Blakeney Point, Norfolk
Around 500 common and grey seals live here – and as common seals have their young between June and August, now is a great time to go on a seal-spotting trip.
Beans Boat Trips set off daily from Morston or Blakeney Quay and last for an hour or two, with an optional landing at the National Trust-owned Blakeney Point. Seals are naturally inquisitive, and will often swim around the boat – you’ll also be able to spot dozens of seals basking on the beach. Birds abound in this area, too – look out for little and Arctic terns, oystercatchers and ringed plovers.
The waters of western Cornwall are teeming with life, and part of the joy of taking a boat trip in the region is that you’re never sure what you might encounter.
Marine Discovery runs trips ranging from one and a half to four hours, onboard sailing catamaran Shearwater II. The boat ride itself is wonderful – an exhilarating journey with stunning views of the magnificent Cornish coastline.
There’s a chance you will see all kinds of wildlife: dolphins, minke whales, basking sharks and porpoises are often sighted. Look out, too, for the fascinating ocean sunfish – a curious, circular summer visitor, which is the world’s largest species of bony fish. They are well over a metre wide and are often seen basking on the surface of the water.
Cardigan Bay, Wales
Bottlenose dolphins are frequently seen in Cardigan Bay – there are around 250 dolphins in the area. Dolphin Survey Boat Trips, New Quay, runs dolphin-spotting trips of varying lengths. You’ll probably see grey seals too, and in previous years sightings have included minke whale and thresher shark.
Dolphin Survey Boat Trips have also teamed up with the Cardigan Bay Marine Wildlife Centre to offer full-day cetacean surveys on various dates throughout the summer. You’ll have an opportunity to join a team of researchers to collect vital information about the marine species in the waters of Cardigan Bay.
At the southern end of Cardigan Bay lies Strumble Head, a rugged headland within the Pembrokeshire Coast National Park – and one of the best places in the UK for spotting dolphins, porpoises and seals without climbing on board a boat. Strumble Head is also renowned as a top sea-bird watching site, with hundreds of birds streaming past the headland during migration from the end of July through to mid-November.
Above left: Marine Discovery catamaran; above right: gannet; both images © Marine Discovery
Above: seal © Marine Discovery
Green Adventures June 2015