Sea giants:

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

EDP Norfolk - - Inside - WORDS: Dr Ben Gar­rod

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

Hump­back tail

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