Norfolk Wildlife Trust ambassador Dr Ben Garrod says we all need to do our bit to protect the magical marine megafauna living off our coastline
Norfolk Wildlife Trust with Dr Ben Garrod
It was late afternoon, last summer. The sun was setting and I was gently bobbing up and down on a lifeboat, tagging along on one of their training exercises. We’d been speeding up and down the coast, putting the boat through its paces. While having a rest I looked out across the water. Tiny waves crested and the brown murky expanse stretched far away into the distance.
A movement caught my eye and I grew excited ass a small curved fin cut through the water. The slate-grey rounded fin was so small, it could only belong to one thing. The little porpoise drew closer to the boat and I watched incredulous as it continued to glide nearer. It still makes me smile remembering this shy little relative of the mighty ocean- going whales coming up to us, investigating the visitors to its marine abode. It disappeared back into the depths and that was it. But it got me thinking.
It’s easy to look at the sea off our Norfolk coast and see only a brown lifeless void. But how many of us really appreciate just how beautiful our local marine habitats are? They are so productive, in fact, that they sustain some of the largest animals on the planet. As a biologist, when an animal hits ‘supersized’ category, we refer to it as being megafauna, and our Norfolk coastline has its fair share of these amazing marine creatures. My little porpoise doesn’t quite qualify for this heavy weight status; for that, we need to look at its larger cousins.
With healthy fish stocks and beautifully-complex food webs, you might be lucky enough to encounter huge filter-feeding whales in the summer months. There have been many welcome sightings of humpbacks in the area after many years away. These boisterous and playful whales chase shoals of small fish and are known not only for their huge lumpy-looking flippers but also their aqua acrobatics, leaping into the air and making the world’s largest belly flop.
As part of my work, I sometimes attend wildlife dissections. It is scientifically invaluable but is always very emotional. Sadly with whales, it is sometimes the best way to see which species we have and to learn more about them. I attended the sperm whales
‘These boisterous and playful whales chase shoals of small fish and are known not only for their huge lumpy-looking flippers but also their aqua acrobatics’
strandings in north Norfolk a couple of years back. These deepdiving predators are not equipped for our turbid shallow waters and although such strandings are well-documented, we still do not know why they end up in the North Sea whale trap. It’s the surface-loving filter feeders that do well here.
Last year, a baby fin whale also washed up here in winter. I say baby but it was more than 30 feet long and weighed as much as a bus. A thorough investigation ruled out infections, diseases and boat strikes and it appears this young giant had a deformed skeleton and, sadly, nature harvests the weak.
Even in May this year, a Risso’s dolphin was found stranded on the beach at Great Yarmouth. These small, dome-headed dolphins are found around the UK usually in deeper waters and are not often seen in our southern part of the North Sea. Although we don’t know yet what it was doing here or what led to its stranding, this just shows again how much more there is to learn about our elusive marine megafauna.
With humpbacks coming back like faithful summer tourists and baby baleen whales being discovered, there are welcome signs that our seas are recovering. Marine wildlife faces huge challenges, from plastics and other pollutants to by-catch, overfishing and increasingly noisy marine environments.
Marine Conservation Zones, such as Norfolk’s chalk reef, are helping and signs that the public are recognising the impact of plastics on marine life are encouraging. However there is more to do if our marine megafauna is to return and thrive here. Reducing the amounts of plastics we use, recycling what we throw away and getting involved with local beach cleans will help more baby ocean giants call our local seas home.
A whale stranding at Hunstanton