The marine giants found in Dorset waters
PUBLISHED: 09:39 23 August 2016 | UPDATED: 09:39 23 August 2016
Whales, dolphins, seals, sharks and even turtles can all be found in our coastal waters during the spring and summer months, as Hester Lacey discovers
Many of us are familiar with the smaller creatures we share our beaches with: childhood friends we discovered in rockpool rambles such as crabs, sea anemones, mussels, blennies, barnacles, winkles and whelks. But at the opposite end of the scale, there are some much larger creatures to be seen in the coastal waters off Dorset – if you are lucky. The “marine giants” are right at the top of the food chain, says Julie Hatcher, Marine Awareness Officer at Dorset Wildlife Trust (DWT), and they include whales, dolphins, seals and sharks, and the rare leatherback turtle.
Bottlenose dolphins are probably our most regular visitor, says Julie. “There’s an inshore group with a home range between here and Cornwall. You can see bottlenose dolphins all year round, and sometimes common dolphins as well, though they tend to be further offshore – though one year a couple swam into Weymouth Harbour.”
Grey seals, and sometimes harbour seals, can be spotted in Portland, Kimmeridge, Swanage and Poole Harbour. “We also see basking sharks, especially in Lyme Bay, and occasionally further east,” says Julie. “And the ocean sunfish, the heaviest bony fish in the world, is regularly sighted in summer. The ones we see off Dorset’s coast are relatively small – maybe the size of a dustbin lid – but in the ocean they can grow to immense proportions. A Swanage fisherman told me he’d seen one that was eight feet across!”
Once marine giants are fully grown, they have few predators, but, while most are now protected, their populations have suffered due to widespread hunting in the past. “Their size means they reproduce slowly,” explains Julie. “They’re long-lived and they only produce a few young compared to smaller marine creatures, so when they are affected by hunting and fishing it takes a long time for their populations to recover. And if their prey species have been over-fished, they’re in trouble.”
One of the key things that we can do to help these gentle giants thrive is to protect their environment. “While we can’t protect the whole of their range, we can protect key areas: feeding areas, places where they mate, give birth, or use as nursery areas. You might also look at directing boat traffic away from areas where they bring up their young, for example – or make boat owners aware,” says Julie. If you are lucky enough to encounter a marine giant whilst in a boat, maintain a steady pace and course so the animal can predict your movements.
Litter can also be lethal as Julie explains. “Animals can get tangled in old fishing gear, so helping with beach cleans and getting this deadly stuff out of the marine environment is very important.” We should also consider cutting down on our plastic consumption – DWT is currently campaigning for wider use of reusable drinks bottles. “The Marine Conservation Society does an annual survey of beach litter and in 2015 there was a 43% increase in plastic bottles,” Julie reveals.
Sightings of these marine giants locally are also extremely useful for DWT and the other organisations it collaborates with over recording species. “We want to know where the animals were when you spotted them, how many and what where they doing: just swimming along, or breaching – rising up out of the water? Were there birds overhead, which might indicate feeding?” says Julie. “A photo is brilliant if possible: send it to our Facebook page or email it to us. The more information we have, the more we can do to protect these magnificent creatures and their special places off Dorset’s coastline.”
Share your sightings
• Native reptile species that call Dorset home - Dorset is home to all six native reptile species and at this time of year you can spot them basking on our heathland, as Hester Lacey discovers
• Reversing the decline of wildflowers in Dorset - Wildflowers connect us to the heritage of our local landscape, which is why we must reverse the decline of our traditional wildflower meadows, writes Sally Welbourn of Dorset Wildlife Trust