Category Archives: Sea mammals of Britain

Wildlife trips in the Llyn Peninsula

A great choice for wildlife trips in the Llyn Peninsula is offered by Shearwater Coastal Cruises. who run coastal wildlife cruises along the Lyyn Peninsula, visiting seal and seabird colonies. Check out their site for full details and prices.

They have written to me with the following interesting information on the sealife of the area:

“On most of our cruises, we can expect to be joined by the resident bottlenose dolphins. The catamaran hull format of “Shearwater” seems to be particularly attractive to the dolphins that obviously enjoy riding the considerable double bow-wave that is produced. Our cruises take us to both of the two main Grey Seal colonies off the Llyn Peninsula. A group of approximately 150 seals inhabit the islands of St. Tudwals, off Abersoch and a much larger colony is to be found around the shores of Bardsey Island. Small satellite groups occasionally detach themselves from these main populations and may be found in places such as the Gwylan Islands and Cilan Headland with a more notable, semi-permanent group residing on the northern coast of the Llyn Peninsula, near Porth Dinllaen/Nefyn golf course.

The rocky coast and offshore islands of the Llyn Peninsula offer important nesting sites for seabirds. Notables such as Manx Shearwaters, Puffins, Razorbills, Guillemots, Black Guillemots, Shags, Cormorants, Kittiwakes, along with other Gull species are commonly seen. Terrestrial predators such as Ravens, Buzzards and Peregrine Falcons, inhabit the sea cliffs and rocky islands as do the Chough which is a common resident along these shores and, happily, is firmly established and doing well.

This northern part of Cardigan Bay is also blessed with some very unusual and spectacular marine wildlife. Few people realise that these waters provide a home for the Leatherback Turtle, the only warm blooded reptile in existence. These huge creatures, often weighing 1 metric ton and approaching 3 meters in length spend most of their adult life here, feeding on the vast shoals of Barrel Jellyfish (Rhysostoma).

The Harbour Porpoise, that seems to be under threat elsewhere can be seen readily, feeding off the headlands of the Peninsula, particularly within the area of Bardsey Sound. Here also one can sometimes see the enigmatic Rissos Dolphin, that otherwise plies up and down the Irish Sea in pursuit of squid and other prey. These creatures have a blunt nose, are light grey in colour and bear numerous large scratch marks, inflicted during play/mating activity.

Easily the most spectacular creatures we encounter on our wildlife cruises are the Bottlenose Dolphins. The groups we see are part of the Cardigan Bay population that exceeds 360 individuals (although we are finding more each season). Whilst running our wildlife cruises, we have for the last few years undertaken dolphin Photo-ID and monitoring tasks on behalf of the “Seawatch Foundation”, a charitable body responsible for monitoring cetaceans around the coast of the UK.

Our work with “Seawatch” has given us a considerable insight into the behavioural characteristics of the dolphins. We can also, now, readily recognise individuals (from marks, scratches and pieces missing from dorsal fins). “Seawatch” also kindly send us feedback from our inputs and it is interesting to examine the travel itineraries of some of the individual dolphins we see. We have for instance, taken a photograph of a dolphin on a particular afternoon and the same animal has been recorded off New Quay, almost 50 miles away the very next day. We often see the same groups day after day, but occasionally we will encounter a huge pod, numbering up to 50 individuals that have simply come up to our area from the south of Cardigan Bay on what seems a fleeting ’round-the-bay’ tour, describing a large arc and heading back south again.

Having been running the “Shearwater Coastal Cruises” for the last 9 years we do get a feeling for the absence, decline or abundance of wildlife species from season to season.Anecdotally, of course, we notice that the auks, Herring Gull and Kittiwake numbers vary the most from one year to the next. We seem to have a gradual increase in the Chough population and Herons, with their heronry in Pwllheli town, seem to have increased markedly.  Over recent years we have noticed the presence of the odd Red Kite, presumably due to the expansion of the mid-Wales population and Peregrine Falcons seem to have increased.

The Grey Seal population seems to have steadily increased over this period and we see more dolphins now that we did before, but this may be due to our becoming more familiar with the location of their favourite feeding areas and developing a more practiced eye.  We have not noticed any decline in the number of porpoises we see, but we have realized for some time that they will always keep well away from any areas where there are dolphins.  The area does attract a lot of recreational boat traffic at peak holiday times and we notice that dolphins can be reluctant to visit or remain in their favourite feeding areas at these times.  The opportunity is not lost on porpoises that soon take their place once the dolphins are absent.

In summary, the wildlife we see daily seems to be thriving and numbers seem to be at least similar to those we saw when we began 9 years ago, with a number of species increasing markedly.  Furthermore, the Llyn Coastal area is apparently being blessed with the increasing presence of the otter – as if we needed any further encouragement to put to sea every day!

The presence of whales in Britain

Photo by TallGuy

The famous whalebone arch on Whitby’s West Cliff is a symbol of the whaling industry that thrived there and in other English ports like Hull and Yarmouth in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. The 15 ft bones are from a Bowhead whale, killed under license by Alaskan Inuits, and unveiled by Miss Alaska in 2003.  An even larger arch stood on the same spot, made from the 20 ft jaw bones of a Fin whale, presented to the town by Norway in 1963.

During England’s years as a whaling nation, captains returning from Greenland would bring home these huge bones as souvenirs. Ship crews would tie a pair of whale jaw bones to the mast to let anxious families on land know there’d been no casualties.  Some of the bones were used in construction as house ends. Some were set in fields for cattle to rub against. Continue reading The presence of whales in Britain

Whale and dolphin conservation holiday in Scotland

Get involved directly with whale and dolphin research by visiting some of the remotest islands in the Hebrides on this great conservation holiday: witness some of the most breath-taking scenery, gain sailing skills and contribute to the protection the marine environment – all in one trip!

Regular visitors include minke whales, common dolphins, Risso’s dolphins plus the occasional ‘rare species’ while our resident populations of bottlenose dolphins and harbour porpoises are sure to delight. As part of the field team onboard our research vessel, Silurian, you will be helping us to produce the data sets that our science department will use in logistical analysis in the winter months.

All in all, a very exciting and worthwhile way of spending nine days.

More here

Humpback whale found dead in Thames

A humpback whale has been found dead in the Thames near Gravesend, the first ever to be stranded in the river. The young male may have died of starvation. This is an very unusual event: there have only been 12 strandings of humpback whales in the UK in the past 20 years.  BBC

See also analysis of this story by “Although it’s obviously a sad outcome in this instance, the post-mortem examination has given us a rare opportunity to examine a truly extraordinary animal at close quarters. Information gathered through examinations like these will hopefully help further our understanding of such animals and also help contribute to improving their conservation status.”

Watching seal pups in Wales

Grey seals in Wales give birth around September-October. A good place to see the conspicuous white pups is Cardigan Island Coastal Farm Park which has enough attractions to satisfy all members of a nature-loving family. As well as seals, there’s a good chance to spot Bottle-nosed Dolphins, resident in Cardigan Bay. Birdwatchers can observe Peregrine Falcons or Red-billed Choughs. For young visitors (or not so young) there are friendly farm animals, including Dilwyn the Donkey.

Close encounter with Fin whales

Members of Sea Trust had a spectacularly close view of a group of Fin whales who were feeding on mackerel off the Pembrokeshire coast. One swam directly under their boat. The Fin whale is the second largest animal in the world after the Blue whale, weighing around 60-70 tons, but they are relatively fast swimmers, due to their streamlined shape. Sightings in the area are increasing. See the BBC and Wikipedia

Selchies – shape-shifting seals


The Selchie (or Selkie) is a seal that can shed its skin and take the form of a human on land.  These legendary creatures belong to the Hebrides and Shetland and Orkney isles, where seals have been hunted for their pelt, meat and oil.  The large soulful eyes of seals must have disturbed even hardened folk subsisting in these remote Scottish islands, and the tales of the selchies capture this ambivalence.  Feelings of loss and longing are all pervasive. Continue reading Selchies – shape-shifting seals

Grey Seals in Britain

Two surprising things about Grey Seals: their size – males can be up to 3 metres long, making them Britain’s largest land-breeding mammals – and their number – nearly half the world’s Grey Seal population live on British coasts.

A hundred years ago, there were fears about their survival, which led to the Grey Seal Protection Act of 1914, one of the first conservation laws of its kind.  With hunting prohibited in the breeding season, their numbers began to grow from an estimated 1,000 to the current 225,000. Continue reading Grey Seals in Britain

Lighthouse holiday in the Orkneys

In a stark remote landscape, you can stay next to the Cantick Head Lighthouse on the island of Hoy in two self-catering lighthouse keepers’ cottages (All Grade B listed buildings, designed by the Stevenson brothers).  They overlook the Cantick Sound where porpoises, seals and whales are regular visitors.  Cantick head Lighthouse Cottages

Where to watch whales in Britain

The Guardian has put together this list of the best whale watching locations in the UK. It mentions the follwoing sites.

  • Moray Firth: as was shown on Springwatch you can watch the most northerly known population of bottlenose dolphins right from the shore – often only a few feet from the shingle. No binos needed! The best place to view them is Chanonry Point on the Black Isle. Humpback whales can also be spotted in the outer Moray Firth. Visit
  • The best place to watch Killer whales is the Shetland Isles, especially at Esha Ness. They are becoming commoner.
  • Isle of Mull – minke whales. Mull was the first place in Britain to offer dedicated whale-watching More here
  • Cardigan Bay has a population of 130 bottlenose dolphins which can be seen from the shore at New Quay. The pods feed here from April to September.
  • St David’s Head in Pembrokeshire: dolphins and possibility of fin whales in the summer.Here
  • Common dolphins can be seen at Durleston Head in Dorset.
  • Sites in Cornwall: Lizard Point, Gwennap Head and Cape Cornwall for dolphins, pilot, killer and minke whales

Mass dolphin strandings

Last year in June 2008  saw one of the largest strandings of dolphins ever to be recorded in British waters. Some 60-70 animals were involved, and 26 dolphins were stranded and died in Falmouth Harbour. Listen here to this BBC Radio 4 documentary which looks for explanations to the event.

Mass dolphin sighting

A massive group of dolphins has been spotted off the Welsh coast. Researchers found their boat surrounded by a pod of around 1,500 dolphins off the coast of Pembrokeshire, one of the largest groups ever recorded in British waters. The lucky conservationists described a “mile-long wall of dolphins….They just kept on Continue reading Mass dolphin sighting

Whale hunting could hit whale watching in Scotland

According to the World Society for the Protection of Animals, Norway’s annual hunt of minke whales could cost the Scottish economy up to £15m, and threaten the viability of the whale-watching industry there. The last report on whale-watching in Scotland published in 2001 estimated the industry was worth £7.8m a year, but tour operators have doubled since then from 80 to 165.