The summer months see marine life – whales, dolphins, seals, seabirds, and more – flocking to the UK’s shores. Here are 9 incredible wild beasts you can get to know this summer...
The smallest of the Baleen family of whales, minke whales are a fairly regular sighting off the west coast of Scotland. For the greatest chance of catching a glimpse, head to the Small Isles – Eigg, Rum, Muck, Canna – when the sea is temperate, between May and September.
You will almost certainly see some of these on a whale watching trip, but if you can’t join one, sometimes you can spot minke whales from the headlands or on ferries between the isles. You’ll need a sharp eye, as they don’t often breach the water, rising instead to the surface for air with just the arch of their backs and a small fin showing.
These playful creatures are great fun to see off the coast of the UK. There are a few places around the shores to find them, including Moray Firth in Scotland and Land’s End in Cornwall earlier in the year, but Cardigan Bay in Wales is home to the UK’s biggest pod of bottlenoses and is usually a safe bet in summer.
Head to New Quay in Wales, where there are sightings on a daily basis from June to October. It’s usually food that brings them here, so they’ll be zipping around catching the wealth of fish that populates the waters. There are also harbour porpoises and Atlantic grey seals here.
The humpback whale is a gentle giant that is perhaps one of the most exciting to witness as they are rarer than other whale sightings in Scotland. They're tare, but not impossible to see. There is evidence that the North Atlantic population of humpbacks has increased since the 1980s, and they pass by the Hebrides on their journey from Africa to the colder northern waters each year.
Humpbacks are commonly spotted off the Shetland, both as individuals and in pods, not far from the south shores between May and September. You’ll need some good binoculars to spot them from high ground on land, or hop on a wildlife watching boat tour with a guide on-hand to help.
Harbour porpoises can be seen frequently off British shores. Sightings usually occur 10km from land. They are regulars in shallow bays and estuaries in various places all the way down the west coast of the UK, but Anglesey’s Menai Strait is one of the very best spots.
With their curved backs and triangular dorsal fins popping up out of the water, the harbour porpoise can often be mistaken for a dolphin, but on any marine life boat tour in Anglesey your guide will help you differentiate the two. Additionally, porpoises are far more common than dolphins here. It’s almost guaranteed you’ll see one.
The UK’s far north is hot territory for orca sighting; 90% of the country’s sightings of these beautiful creatures are around Orkney and Shetland. Pods of up to 150 orcas have been seen off these shores. While they are here all year round, the best time to witness them for yourself is between May and September.
Getting out on a boat is the best way to encounter an orca around Orkney, but if you happen to be on the western islands, specifically at Cantick Head or near the Old Man of Hoy, keep your eyes trained to the waters as you might see them from land here.
Seals are among the easiest marine animals to spot in the UK, with half of the grey seal population calling British shores home. While they can be found at almost all of the locations mentioned on this list, seals are a surefire hit in east England.
To get up-close, head to Blakeney National Nature Reserve in Norfolk, where you’ll also find common seals, or visit the estimated 5,500-strong grey seal colony on the Farne Islands in Northumberland. Don’t forget that as well as spotting in summer, pup season starts in mid-September, so autumn is also a great time to go and see the cute, fluffy young ones.
Summer on the Isle of Man sees an influx of basking sharks, the largest fish in British waters and second largest in the world. Once hunted for their liver oil, meat and fins, the mid-1990s saw an end to basking shark fishing and it is now a protected species.
The 40km stretch along the south and south-west sides of the Isle of Man is a basking shark hotspot between May and August, and most are spotted within 1km of land. They congregate anywhere where there’s a high concentration of plankton – Niarbyl Bay and around are some of the best known places to see them, from the cliffs or out on the water.
The UK is abundant with seabirds, but among the most magnificent to witness in large groups is the puffin. With its black body, white face, and bright beak (which is only coloured this way in spring and summer), it’s certainly one of the most intriguing to look at on cliffs across Britain.
The island of Skomer in Pembrokeshire is one of Britain’s best puffin-watching sites, where roughly 6,000 breeding pairs arrive between April and mid-August. The RSPB also have reserves that are good for puffin-watching at Bempton Cliffs in North Yorkshire and South Stack in Anglesey.
Flung more than 40 miles west of the next closest Outer Hebridean island, St Kilda is one of the most remote parts of Britain. Nature thrives here among the dramatic sea stacks, particularly in the case of seabirds.
St Kilda is home to one of the largest Northern Gannet populations in the world, where around 60,000 breeding pairs have been reported to live.
They don’t stay here all year, however. Between August and October the gannets migrate to Africa, so it’s best to come as early in the summer as you can. Boat trips are available from other islands in the Hebrides, including Harris and Skye. At St Kilda, you’ll also see large colonies of Leach’s Storm Petrel, Atlantic puffins, and northern fulmars.