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.
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.