Seaside wildlife spectacles

A dolphin jumping from the water

Bottlenose dolphin (c) John MacPherson 2020VISION

As an island nation, we’re blessed with an incredible wealth of wildlife, not least around our coast. Here are just some of the summer highlights to look for. By Tom Hibbert, The Wildlife Trusts.

Think of a country where you can watch whales gliding gracefully beside a boat or see pods of dolphins leaping from the water; where you can snorkel above rippling meadows of seagrass, forage for fossils on a stony shore, or spy the fin of the second largest fish in the world. Did the UK come to mind? It certainly should!

As an island nation, we’re blessed with an incredible wealth of coastal and oceangoing wildlife, from basking sharks to bottlenose dolphins, crabs to cuttlefish. Our rockpools are an endless treasure trove of fascinating and beautiful creatures, but I’d like to turn your attention toward some of the larger animals that make the UK’s seaside so special.

Many birds along a rock face

Guillemots (c) Tom Hibbert

Seabird haven

Perhaps our most unmissable seaside spectacles are the vast colonies of seabirds, which come to shore to nest each summer. Our cliffs offer premium real estate, with those most suitable for successful breeding crowded with guillemots, dark-backed and penguin-like, but unlike their Antarctic counterparts still able to fly. They huddle on ledges, each nursing a single egg against the bare rock. Beaches can be covered by colonies of terns, elegant and energetic birds that ferry back and forth from their nest to the sea, carrying fish for their calling chicks.

There are five species of tern that breed here, from the hefty Sandwich tern, whose call brings to mind a squeaky bicycle tyre, to the globe-spanning Arctic tern, who makes the longest annual migration on the planet.

Offshore you might catch the gleaming white sight of a gannet, folding its six-foot wingspan to plunge into the water in pursuit of prey. A squadron of such birds, all diving at will, is a sign that a substantial school of fish is hidden beneath the waves. Feeding frenzies may form, as spectacular as anything seen on the BBC’s Blue Planet, with gulls, terns and other seabirds joining the fray.

Cetacean surprise

Scan the surface carefully and you may find the fin of a porpoise or dolphin arcing through the water. Our most widespread (and smallest) cetacean is the harbour porpoise, affectionately known as the puffing pig for the sound they make as they come up to breathe. Shy and unobtrusive, they’re usually sighted singularly or in small groups, barely breaking the surface as they reveal their short, triangular fin. Bottlenose dolphins, on the other hand, are far less subtle, often riding the bow-waves of boats and occasionally leaping clear of the water. Their tall, curving dorsal fin is a common sight in the seas of northeast England and Scotland, west Wales, and southwest England.

Basking shark

Basking shark (c) Alexander Mustard 2020VISION

Whale of a time

If you’re really lucky, a larger shape might catch your eye as a minke whale rolls into view, a relatively small, curved fin set far back along its dark grey body. They might be the smallest baleen whales in European waters, but at around eight metres long they’re impressive animals. Hotspots for minke whale sightings include western Scotland, southwest England and, increasingly, East Yorkshire. Other cetaceans to spot include common dolphins, white-beaked dolphins and even humpback whales.

Curious fish

It’s not only marine mammals that you might spy beneath the sea’s surface; there are some fascinating fish to be found around the UK, too. At up to 12 metres long, the basking shark is the second largest fish in the world (after the whale shark). These gentle giants drift through the sea with their massive mouth agape, filtering tiny plankton from the water. Look out for their huge, triangular dorsal fin breaking the surface, particularly in southwest England, the Irish Sea and western Scotland.

In summer, our seas also welcome the world’s second largest bony fish (a category from which sharks are exempt, due to their cartilaginous skeleton). Sometimes described as a swimming head, the ocean sunfish is a bit of an oddity. They’re huge, flat and circular, with no noticeable tail and a tall fin on the top and bottom of their body. They feed on jellyfish and can sometimes be seen basking at the surface.

Further information

The Wildlife Trusts have produced a guide to seeing seashore wildlife.

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