Mike Dilger’s wildlife watch­ing

In his se­ries of great places to watch wildlife in the UK, the star of BBC1’s The One Show this month takes us on a tour of Bri­tain’s coastal wa­ters, with tips on the best lo­ca­tions for see­ing cetaceans and sharks by boat.

BBC Wildlife Magazine - - Contents -

Tips for see­ing sharks & cetaceans

Aserendip­i­tous com­bi­na­tion of our ge­o­graph­i­cal lo­ca­tion, var­ied ma­rine habi­tats and rich wildlife­watch­ing her­itage makes is­land Bri­tain one of the finest places in north­ern Europe to catch up with whales, dol­phins and bask­ing sharks.

In fact, an as­ton­ish­ing 29 species of whales, dol­phins and por­poises, or a third of the world’s species, have been recorded in­hab­it­ing any­where from shal­low coastal wa­ters to the deeper wa­ters ei­ther be­yond the con­ti­nen­tal shelf or in var­i­ous chan­nels or trenches.

While, in the­ory, ma­rine mam­mals and bask­ing sharks could be spot­ted at any point along our 31,368km of con­vo­luted coast­line, in prac­tice few lo­ca­tions will de­liver reg­u­lar sight­ings dur­ing the April to Oc­to­ber spot­ting sea­son. The penin­su­las, points, heads, bays and is­lands, which are con­sid­ered ma­rine wildlife hotspots, do tend to be well-known among the wildlife­watch­ing fra­ter­nity and can eas­ily be searched on­line by any­one keen on plan­ning a Septem­ber trip.

While land-based watch­ing is ca­pa­ble of de­liv­er­ing some im­pres­sive sight­ings, surely noth­ing can beat get­ting out onto the wa­ter. Tai­lor-made trips – tak­ing out pay­ing cus­tomers to watch sharks and cetaceans – have re­cently be­come some­thing of a UK boom in­dus­try, with a num­ber of com­mer­cial boat op­er­a­tors now work­ing in the best ar­eas. When choos­ing who will re­ceive your busi­ness it is im­por­tant to try and se­lect only from those com­pa­nies that have signed up to the all-im­por­tant ma­rine code for watch­ing sharks and cetaceans safely and re­spon­si­bly. Here, the Sea Watch Foun­da­tion web­site (sea­watch­foun­da­tion. org.uk) can help, with an

on­line data­base list­ing com­pa­nies that put an­i­mal wel­fare first and fore­most.

Once your lo­ca­tion and op­er­a­tor have been cho­sen, it is im­por­tant to try and se­lect a calm day with a rel­a­tively flat sea state. Windy days with ‘white horse’ waves make it in­fin­itely more dif­fi­cult to spot fins break­ing the sur­face, or the tell-tale blow of a sur­fac­ing cetacean. It’s also worth bear­ing in mind that ma­rine wildlife can of­ten be highly ag­gre­gated, due to the shoal­ing na­ture of their prey, which means that pa­tience and per­sis­tence are cru­cial as you search for the nee­dles in this most enor­mous of haystacks.

Scan­ning for clues

Al­though not pos­si­ble on some ves­sels, the higher above sea level you can po­si­tion your­self, the fur­ther you can look and the more you are able to spot. The best tech­nique is to scan the wa­ter back and forth, which you can do ei­ther with or with­out binoc­u­lars, while con­stantly search­ing for a flash of move­ment, or a colour dif­fer­ing from the sur­round­ing wa­ter. If you think you have seen some­thing, do keep look­ing in that area, as whales, dol­phins and bask­ing sharks are ca­pa­ble of div­ing for long pe­ri­ods.

Fi­nally, let the other wildlife help you in your search. Gan­nets, gulls and ful­mars will of­ten cir­cle above where whales or dol­phins have lo­cated fish. This can then re­sult in a feed­ing frenzy, as both birds and cetaceans help them­selves to lunch from both above and be­low the wa­ter.

“Gan­nets, gulls and ful­mars will cir­cle above where whales and dol­phins have lo­cated fish.”

Short-beaked com­mon dol­phins break the sun­lit sur­face near the Pem­brokeshire coast in Wales.

Bask­ing sharks are spot­ted from a boat near the Isle of Skye.

Pas­sen­gers on MV Sula Beag watch a bot­tlenose dol­phin in the Sound of Mull.

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