By Dr. Sarah Perkins. Sarah is a scientist at Cardiff University. Her research specialises in animal conservation and wildlife diseases
Pics: Sue Sayer, Amanda Leonard, Stephen Marsh, Emily Cunningham, Luke Ridsdill Smith, Sarah Perkins, Kirsty Burns, Helena Mutton, Jeff Chard, Jon Hawkins and Simon Hunt
SUP has many disciplines; race, touring, surf, whitewater, but if we stop to take in our surroundings for a moment, there’s another one – wildlife watching. Whether you’re an inland waterways explorer or strictly marine-based, the UK offers some exciting wildlife opportunities that can quite literally turn up on your board. Here are my top tips for wildlife watching from a SUP, and some great sightings shared via the ‘SUP Sisterhood’ Facebook page.
The marine environment
With over 30,000 km of coastline, it’s no surprise that the UK serves as a playground for humans and animals. The UK has some of the largest seabird colonies globally, is home to nearly half the world’s grey seals, and resident populations of bottlenose dolphins.
Paddling alongside sea cliffs, you’ll likely encounter seabirds. Over 50% of the world’s Manx Shearwaters and two-thirds of the world’s gannets nest along our coast, making the UK of global conservation importance for these species. While you won’t spot many of our seabirds in the winter; they are far out to sea, come the spring you’ll start to see them returning to the coast to nest, and you might be lucky enough to encounter a raft of puffins fishing for sand eels. When paddling near sea cliffs be mindful to keep your distance from any seabird colonies. If guillemots are suddenly flushed from ledges, they can take their egg (on their feet) with them – wiping out their breeding season. A nasty surprise awaits if you get too close to a fulmar (a cousin of the albatross); its anti-predator defence is to regurgitate its last oily, fishy meal all over you and your SUP!
A regular spot from our SUPS is the puppy dogs of the sea: seals. We have two species in the UK, the common and the grey seal. The head is a good characteristic to decipher which one you’re looking at, or more likely is peering at you from the water! The grey seal has a long ‘roman’ nose; it’s scientific name, Halichoerus grypus, translates literally as hooked-nose sea pig, while the common seal has a smaller, more round-faced head. Some individuals, likely curious young seals, have become famous in recent years by hitching a ride on a passing SUP. A fantastic close-up experience, for sure, but be very careful not to touch or encourage wildlife close to your SUP. Spooked seals are capable of taking an impressive chunk out of your kit, or you!
You may come across a seal bobbing about in the water, but do not approach them, they may be sleeping. Seals also ‘haul-out’, where they pull themselves onto their favourite place on land to rest, digest food, and from August to December (for grey seals) and June and July (for common seals) give birth to their young. Disturbing seals while they are on land can lead to injury and occasionally can be fatal for unborn pups and their mums.
As tempting as it is to get closer, keep your distance from haul-out sites. How close is too close? Sue Sayer, seal expert from Cornwall Seal Group Research Trust, states says, “To get the best views, seals need to be oblivious of your presence, or they will spook and disappear. If a seal is looking at you, then you’re too close and need to back off out of sight.” Learn more about grey seals here: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCuzvSLkxvtdgbnccHqibILQ/videos
In these COVID times, it may be a surprise to know that it’s not just humans that suffer through epidemics. In the UK in 1988 and again in 2002, tens of thousands of seals died due to an outbreak of a virus, which was the seal equivalent of measles. There’s speculation that the virus may have jumped species from domestic dogs, which tells you all you need to know about keeping a respectful distance. The population has bounced back in many places, but they still need all the help they can get. Entanglement in marine debris, overfishing, pollution and human disturbance pose significant threats today.
Cetaceans, also known as whales and dolphins, are abundant around the UK and minke whales can be seen quite close inshore. Many of us have been lucky enough to have been joined by dolphins on our SUPs and, as ever, be sure to let them come to you rather than you approaching them. Cardigan Bay has the UK’s largest resident population of (bottlenose) dolphins with summer being the easiest time to spot them, but you can be lucky year-round.
Coming face to face with the UK’s biggest fish, the basking shark is a possibility. These huge animals migrate along the west coast from Cornwall to northern Scotland during the summer months. Every year they make a splash in the tabloids, with a photo over-excitedly claiming ‘proof’ of great white sharks in our waters! While basking sharks are a formidable size, you can hum the ‘JAWS’ theme all you like, these gentle giants are filter-feeders, and the only thing on their menu is plankton. If you go looking for basking sharks have a read of the Shark Trusts’ basking shark code of conduct’ and if you are lucky enough to see one be sure to let them know .
You never know what might turn up in the big blue – this summer, Alison Snell (SUP Sisterhood paddler) made the national news when a bluefin tuna buzzed her and fellow paddlers; “It was so fast and definitely seemed to be trying to corral us… an evening I will never forget.” See the footage here: https://youtu.be/TCvTwCFBfNo
Don’t just limit your wildlife spotting to sea and shore; there are lots to explore under the waves. Pop on a mask and snorkel to see what’s under your board. I sometimes take a small anchor with me (be careful on iSUPs), or stick my head over the side of my board. Be warned with the latter – I’ve had people on the beach ask if I am OK, so be sure to stick your head up now and then let everyone know you are not face down in the water for another reason!
Summer months bring some impressive jellyfish blooms with the barrel jellyfish reaching almost a metre in size and weighing up to 35kg. If you’ve got the luck of the SUP Gods, you might see a leatherback turtle, a summer visitor that chases jellyfish blooms and the barrel jellyfish is one of its favourites. Another species that many people don’t realise exists in the UK is the seahorse. We have two species, and I’ve spent many hours looking for them in seagrass beds around Dorset. No luck so far!
Beautifully patterned wrasse (fish) are common on rocky reefs; they’re so bright that they almost look tropical. But my personal favourite spot is the spider crab. They’re the UK’s largest crab and as sea temperatures warm up towards the summer these crabs march from the deep in their thousands to shed their carapace (shell) in shallow water, to grow even bigger. The largest gathering in the UK where a count was made was an estimated 50,000 individuals, and it all happened just metres off the shore. If you see the carapace washed up on the beach, there are spider crabs nearby, so it’s worth paddling out for a look.
The freshwater environment
With their bright blue plumage, kingfishers are possibly the most distinctive birds found in the UK. Keep an eye out for them on rivers and estuaries. Look out for dense, overgrown corners, especially where branches overhang the water. The kingfisher has competition for our attention from a recently returned old friend to our waterways. After a 500-year absence, we now have the chance to see beavers. The Eurasian beaver was once common across the UK but was hunted to extinction for its fur, meat and ‘castoreum’, a secretion used in perfumes, food and medicine.
After successful re-introductions in Argyle (Scotland) and the River Otter in Devon (the most recent re-introduction was ‘Sigourney Beaver’, released in August 2020 in Cornwall), we’ll hopefully start to see them recolonise across the UK. At the moment these large rodents still make for a rare sighting, but they leave a tell-tale sign on riverbanks; distinctively felled trees. Indeed, finding field signs of some of our difficult-to-see animals can be just as exciting as the real deal.
The presence of one of our most elusive mammals, the otter, is often only confirmed from its incontrovertible calling card; they scent mark with faeces, leaving a pile high on prominent features such as rocks or ledges under bridges. If you are brave enough to take a sniff, you’ll find it smells quite pleasant, like Jasmine tea! The otter population nose-dived in the 1970s and was on the brink of extinction due to pollution in the food chain, but thanks to a ban on the most harmful pesticides they are now found nationwide. For the best chance of spotting an otter, head to Scotland’s coast, with Mull being a hotspot. With patience and luck, you can now spot one on many UK rivers.
How can we watch wildlife responsibly?
As water-based recreational activities increase, so does human pressure on wildlife. SUP has exploded as a sport, and we all have to be mindful to protect the very environment we love. In the marine environment, we have the ‘WiSe’ scheme – https://www.wisescheme.org/, which offers guidance on watching wildlife while keeping disturbance to a minimum. As with all wildlife, the take-home message is it to give them space, and it is important not to approach them. Let animals approach you and enjoy a safe, respectful encounter. Use the main wildlife bodies advice and guidance, referring to local experts at your paddling venue, and do research on what you might encounter.
Sometimes there is a clear steer of where not to paddle. Nature reserves, protected habitats and sensitive wildlife sites are obvious no-paddle zones. Even in unprotected areas, remember that many animals are busy making more animals from March to July! In these months be especially careful not to disturb the animals and their young. Many species are protected in the UK by the Wildlife and Countryside Act (1981). You risk breaking the law (even if by accident) if you – ‘Intentionally or recklessly disturb any wild bird listed on Schedule 1 while it is nest building, or at a nest containing eggs or young, or disturb the dependent young of such a bird’.
It is also a criminal offence to disturb a seal off a Site of Special Scientific Interest. When out on your SUP keep a constant assessment of the wildlife you’re observing. If you see they’re disturbed, it’s time to move on. Choose a clear course to give wildlife space and help them predict your movements. It can be very easy to push wildlife along a narrow channel, with some disturbing stories emerging of swans being pushed up-river into a neighbouring bird’s territory, resulting in aggressive interactions, sometimes even death.
One of our sport’s thrills is the access it gives to unspoilt and rugged waterways; it’s a beautiful, privileged playground that wildlife helps make a special place. If we observe our wildlife in a respectful, considered fashion, we keep that environment diverse and healthy, for ourselves, aquatic life and the SUP enthusiasts to come.
To Sue Sayer of Cornwall Seal Group Research Trust www.cornwallsealgroup.co.uk and the SUP Sisterhood for sharing your knowledge, stories and images.
To learn more about the impacts of disturbance on our marine life