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Coastal critters – where to sea marine mammals in the UK

August 14, 2013
by Laura Canning | guides

Bottlenose dolphin with her young, Moray Firth. Pic by Peter Asprey. Coastal critters! We have bucketloads of them in these isles. (Or possibly ‘lorryloads’ – have you ever tried to fit a blue whale into a bucket? Not recommended.) We don’t mean jellyfish flopping to our shores in the heatwave or tasty mussels either – we’re going on about the other coastal critters. Namely, whales, dolphins, porpoises, seals and sharks: over 40 different species around these waters, and all to be spotted from shore and boat in many places around the UK. Here’s where:

Whales and dolphins : We’ve cleverly categorised these together because the most famous type of whale to be seen in British waters, the killer whale, is actually a dolphin . And probably prefers to be called an orca, thanks very much (the term ‘killer’ comes from the fact that the orca has been known to kill whales; more orca facts here . There’s also a new documentary out this month, Blackfish , about the industry of keeping orcas in captivity.)

Head to Scotland for the best sightings of whales of all sizes; you might even see a Shetland pod of orcas up so close you can smell their ‘fishy breath ’:

  • Minke whales in summer around the Orkney Islands , the Western Isles and east of the Shetlands
  • Sperm whales : giant whales spottable from boat trips around the deep waters of the Outer Hebrides
  • Humpback whales : now making a comeback after being hunted virtually to extinction and then becoming protected in the 1960s – around the deeper waters of Shetland

There are two areas in Britain known for their pods of bottlenose dolphins : the Moray Firth – also in Scotland and one of the top sites in the country for spotting dolphins and whales – and Cardigan Bay in Whales, sorry, Wales . You might also be able to spot them around Land's End in Cornwall from January to April.

Risso’s dolphins , with a blunt forehead reminiscent of those blokes wot look at you funny in the pub, can also be spotted around Moray Firth and Cardigan Bay, and have recently been seen around Bardsey Island . The common dolphin is fairly easy to spot around the Hebrides in the summer.


Da-DUM-da-DUM-da-DUM…anyone of a certain age who’s seen Jaws will remember that fin (younger people are spoiled these days by CGI). The shark in Jaws was of course a great white , but basking sharks have impressive dorsal fins too, meaning that you might be able to freak out the uneducated by pointing out a fin lurking ever closer. Basking sharks are big and are relatively spottable in British waters all year round: best sightings are around the south-west of England , the Isle of Man, between the Copeland Islands and Strangford Lough in Northern Ireland and, again, Cardigan Bay and the west coast of Scotland.

An orca porpoising. Pic by Minette Layne. Also look out for: blue sharks , rare but occasionally seen around Cornwall, and smaller species such as angelsharks and smooth hammerhead sharks around the south-west coast; have a look here for spotter details of British shark species .

Seals and porpoises

Honk. How we love seals, even if the ones on Rathlin Island creep up when one’s back is turned. The UK has five per cent of the world’s population of harbour or common seals and half the population of the world’s grey seals (grey seal numbers have doubled here since the 1960s).

Cardigan Bay and Bardsey Island have grey seals galore, but one of the best places to see them is at Northumberland ’s Farne Islands, where there’s a breeding colony of about 6000 and boat/diving seal-spotting trips available all year round (go in autumn to coo at the new pups). Also on the east coast, the Donna Nook wildlife reserve in Lincolnshire has a colony of grey seals, and Blakeney Point in Norfolk has both common and greys.

Around the Farnes and Holy Island is also where you’ll spot harbour porpoises , cute coastal critters known as puffing pigs. They’re a bit shyer than their sealy neighbours, but look out for their white bellies as they roll show-offingly in the water or listen out for their puffing blow then accuse the kids of sneezing.

Where to stay…

…when on a mission to spy coastal critters? Have a whale of a time around these parks:

Sites in Ceredigion and near Cardigan

Teifi Meadows : With a coastal path nearby overlooking Cardigan Bay. Teifi Meadows has a bothy shepherd’s hut from £60 in a private garden setting with complimentary breakfast hamper and kitchen. There are also grass pitches from £13.

Teifi Valley Camping Pods : Dolphin boat trips to book nearby. Camping pods with additional pods for the pooch to have on their very own, priced per stay. Human pods have 27% off until 22 December, from £39.42 a night sleeping up to three people.


Pods at Callanish Camping Ayres Rock Hostel and Camp Site , Orkneys : Seals (and otters) to be seen in the nearby bay, with occasional basking sharks and porpoises spottable from the site. Take your pick from a two-bedroom holiday home with Sky TV from £40, a camping pod from £20 or tent pitches from just £6. All are availablr to book now for seal-spotting trips from 1 May 2014.

Callanish Camping , Isle of Lewis and Rubha Phoil Eco Camping , Isle of Skye, both in the Hebrides : Make a base at either of these sites for marine animal spotting; Callanish has insulated, double-glazed and carpeted camping pods from £35, one of which is dog-friendly; and Rubha Phoil has woodland pitches for tents and motorhomes from £15.

Port Bàn Holiday Park , Argyll : Gorgeous site on the Argyll coast with views over to Jura and Islay, and with cracking facilities including a new and luxury loo/shower block with free hot water, games room and up to date play area, lounge with library, and a coffee bar for drinks, snacks and fish and chips. Electric pitches start from £22.

Sites in the Scottish Highlands

Sites in Scotland

Sites in Wales

Sites in Cornwall

Sites in Norfolk

Sites in Northumberland

Sites in Lincolnshire

Legal issues and codes of conduct

Like red squirrels , UK marine wildlife species can have a fraught time in their native environment. Factors like bycatching [pdf], shrinking habitats, pollution, litter and boat collision can easily shrink populations the basking shark population, for example, has decreased by around 80 per cent since the 1950s.

Cetaceans (whales, porpoises and dolphins) and basking sharks are now protected species, and under Schedule 5 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act (1981), it’s illegal to intentionally kill, injure or recklessly disturb or harass them.

The Shark Trust has put together a Code of Conduct for swimmers, divers, kayakers and boat operators in waters around basking sharks, which has common sense guidelines for all marine wildlife spotting:

  • Don’t try and touch any animal you're near
  • Don’t frighten animals by using flash photography
  • Don’t go into the water in a large group
  • Be careful with boats and kayaks: don’t cross an animal’s path and don’t paddle/steer directly towards it
  • Don’t follow pairs: they could be courting couples and (like you, presumably…) don’t want to be disturbed
  • On boats, stay below six knots and put the engine in neutral when within 100 metres of a protected animal
  • Be especially careful in waters where breeding pairs have been spotted

More info and how to report sightings

Marine Conservation Society

Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society (now WDC)

Basking Shark Project and Shark Sightings Database

Basking Shark Project Codes of Conduct

Hebridean Whale and Dolphin Trust

Sea Watch Foundation – whale, dolphin and porpoise sightings

Marine sightings to local Wildlife Trusts

All credited photos used under Creative Commons Licence.