Watching the Waves in British Waters

Great white sharks in South Africa, migrating humpback whales in Australia, and playful sea lions in California; the world is peppered with wonderful wildlife experiences. But did you know there are some pretty amazing animals on your doorstep?

In 2013, I found myself bouncing around on board an inflatable Rib boat heading across Loch Gairloch, in search of minke whales with Hebridean Whale Cruises. Each year there are hundreds of sightings, and having previously encountered the beautiful bottlenose dolphins of the Moray Firth in the past, I was keen to spot another species in British waters. The whales didn’t disappoint. After a little time drifting along with the waves searching for tell-tale puffs of air and watching little puffins clumsily running across the surface, a huge black back surfaced just in front of the boat. Scrambling forward for a better look, I came face to face with a curious juvenile minke whale, who proceeded to spend the next half an hour spy hopping right next to us! It was such an incredible experience, especially when combined with the bow-riding common dolphins and friendly seal we met on the way back to harbour. There’s so much marine life along our coastlines, we just need to open our eyes, and I’m so glad I did!

Over the past few months, reports having been flooding in of whales, dolphins and sharks being spotted around the UK. Just a few weeks ago, a pod of Icelandic killer whales were sighted in Scotland by Sea Watch volunteers gathering data during ‘Orca Watch’. Not too long ago, a rare bowhead whale was also seen off the coast of Cornwall, near Penzance; only the second UK sighting of the species and I’m sure an incredible sight to behold. Thought to be around seven metres long, the whale was thought to be a juvenile with the adults of the species reaching 20 metres in length. A previous sighting of a “mysterious whale” off Brittany, France was confirmed from photos to be a bowhead, and probably the same individual – only the third ever sighting in Europe. The opportunity to observe such a magnificent and rare cetacean must have been awe-inspiring, but it wasn’t the only marine species hitting the headlines. The day before the bowhead whale was seen, a 12ft basking shark was spotted in Dorset feeding on plankton, and on May 24th, five of these sharks were sighted just off a Cornish beach. There continue to be countless sightings of dolphins all over the country from Cardigan Bay, right up to the top of Scotland. There is no doubt about it, our British marine life is diverse, and there are plenty of opportunities to see it for yourself, but what exactly are we looking for?

A total of 29 cetacean species have been recorded in British waters from the gigantic 25 metre blue whale, right down to the tiny 1.4 metre harbour porpoise. Recent sightings recorded by Sea Watch Foundation reveal that in March alone, there were 145 sightings in total around the UK, including 60 bottlenose dolphins in Anglesey, 22 killer whales off Fair Isle, Shetland a humpback whale in Cornwall, and two Risso’s dolphins off Barra. Likewise, the Shark Trust reports that there could be more than 30 shark species living in our waters including blue sharks, basking sharks, angel sharks and even very rare visitors like the smooth hammerhead shark. Not forgetting the other numerous and mesmerising species – the huge dustbin lid-like ocean sunfish is a summer visitor to our coastline and can often be seen lounging around the surface and diving beneath the waves. You could also come face-to-face with the brightly coloured cuckoo wrasse lurking in rocky outcrops. I find it completely fascinating to think that we, a country some people may consider to be somewhat lacking in “interesting” wildlife compared to countries like Australia, can be home to such wonderful animals, and I for one, am keen to spot more. So how should we go about it?

Between 23rd to 31st July this year, members of the public are invited to take part in the National Whale and Dolphin Watch 2016. By taking part in surveys all across the country, we are able to contribute to the research that goes into protecting these wonderful species and it also gives us the chance to have a go at identifying them for ourselves. If you’ve had experience in whale and dolphin watching before, then by all means go ahead and set up your own watch by selecting a site near you. If you haven’t but are interested in getting involved then why not contact Sea Watch to find out more? During the 2015 event, 632 sightings were reported over the week – I know I want to be a part of this year’s watch!

There are countless whale and dolphin watching boat operators scattered around the UK, many of them with amazing records of cetacean, shark, seal and even turtle sightings. On many of these, you will be given information about what you are supposed to be looking and listening out for, like the blow of a whale as it comes to the surface or the flurry of seabirds signalling that there may be something exciting just below. Alternatively, you could invest in a guide book and have a go at watching from land. Places such as Chanonry Point in the Moray Firth, Scotland or New Quay, West Wales have fabulous opportunities to observe bottlenose dolphin activity from the shore, sometimes with better views than the passing tour boats!

If you are considering taking a boat out yourself then please remember to follow the marine code of conduct. Whilst it is always a breathtaking experience witnessing a whale breaching or a bow-riding dolphin, it’s also important to remember not to disturb or harass them as this causes stress, injury and sometimes even death. In August last year, Cornwall Wildlife Trust received over ten reports regarding marine harassment, including dolphin pods being chased. Whilst it could be said that in the majority of cases, the dolphins approach the boats themselves, there is no doubt that in certain cases harassment clearly takes place. In 2013, just two years before, up to 25 boats followed a pod up an estuary after which a young dolphin was tragically found dead. Whilst it was established that the skippers acted more out of ignorance than out of the desire to cause harm, by following a few simple rules you can be sure that both you and the wildlife are enjoying the experience.

These involve:

• Maintaining a steady speed – no faster than 10 knots if you have observed cetaceans at a distance.

• Let the animals approach you instead of the other way around, and do not chase or circle them.

• If there are other vessels close by, limit your watch to 20 minutes to avoid disturbance.

• Ensure that the cetaceans have an escape route and are not trapped between vessels.

• Avoid approaching animals with young as the young are particularly vulnerable to boat strikes.

For more information about the marine code of conduct as well as how to identify different species, please visit the Sea Watch Foundation website.

Our marine wildlife is beautiful and we don’t want to harm it.

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