Posted 6th Nov 2014
Wildlife TV presenter and Strictly Come Dancing contestant, Steve Backshall, is astounded by the wildlife in our seas and wants to see greater protection for dolphins, whales and basking sharks. He shares his incredible marine encounter that inspired him with us
Before I was a slightly embarrassing ballroom dancer, I spent 15 years as a wildlife film-maker, and three years before that travelling the world as a writer. I’ve been to 105 countries around the world, and been lucky enough to see many of the world’s most iconic wildlife spectacles. And yet my most memorable single wildlife day was right here in the UK. It was summer, and with some friends I’d decided to kayak across the open sea between the Scilly Isles and Cornwall. It was supposed to be a physical, logistics and navigation challenge, but ended up being a day that proved British waters have the capacity to astound.
We had been prepared for high seas and winds, yet instead were rewarded with glassy, clear, calm waters, with such clarity that you could look into the eyes of curious grey seals as they swam below. Kelp forests swayed gently beneath us, brimming with colourful marine marvels. The seals came in for a closer look when our backs were turned, then thrashing under, with a whoosh of extravagant splashes, they vanished.
Within a few hours of land, a single fulmar (kind of the British equivalent of an albatross) fell into an easy, tireless pattern around our little flotilla. With one stiff wing tip carving the surface of the water, it stuck with us for at least three hours. There are many theories as to why seabirds do this, but we fancied it merely cherished the company. Porpoise in small loose groups slinked by with little clamour or glamour, but the dolphins are much more attention-seeking. A lone bottlenose is followed by a huge pod of common dolphins, which soar just feet from our kayaks, showing off their skills. My paddling partners whoop, ‘ooh’ and ‘aah’, as if being treated to an aquatic firework display. Then, a massive furrowed helmet shape floats into view. First I assume it’s marine garbage, but then a football-sized head lifts, prehistoric milky eyes blink, and the nine foot-long leatherback turtle takes a big gulp of air. And then it paddles straight into one of my colleague’s boats. This is the only reptile species that can live in our temperate waters, they’ve outlasted the dinosaurs and thrive on jellyfish blooms.
More evidence that jellyfish are abundant in our seas comes in the form of an even more exotic jelly-scoffer. A fin breaks the mirror and again swims straight into my boat. It’s a sunfish, one of the oddest things in the ocean – a gigantic bony fish with huge goggly eyes that stare as if from the socket of a paddling pancake.
The birdlife is a twitcher’s fantasy. Sooty and manx shearwaters are dark silhouettes rocketing by, mere millimetres from the water. Tiny bat-like storm petrels flit about; how does anything that appears so fragile live its life out here in the often explosive open ocean? Skuas, gulls, gannets and cormorants, and then the only great shearwater I’ve seen in our waters. The others are nonplussed at how excited I get over perhaps the most ordinary-looking bird of the day.
After about 10 hours of non-stop kayaking, we approach Cornish shores, and things start to get really special. Perhaps every 10 or 15 minutes, a basking shark will cruise past us. They’re fairly innocuous from a distance, just a lazily-moving dorsal and tail fin languidly moving towards you. But then as they get closer, you see the vast white gaping mouth and billowing gills of the second largest fish on earth. They’re one of the world’s great wonders, and they’re here in their hundreds. But they are not the most leviathan beast of the day. It’s dusk, and through the half-light a sharply curved dorsal fin carves between our boats, and then (unusually for this species) the huge tail flukes, glinting sheen with the last of the light. Then alongside it a smaller fin, the minke whale is a mother with her calf, and though she doesn’t stay long, it leaves us breathless, and gives us the energy we need to push the last few hours to shore.
These ocean giants are just one of 29 species of whales, dolphins, porpoises and basking sharks that are regularly seen around our coast. They are slow to reproduce and acutely vulnerable to pollution, industrial fishing and other human activities. Luckily, there are ways of ensuring they have a better chance of survival by protecting special places where they gather to eat, breed and socialise. That’s why I’m getting behind The Wildlife Trusts’ proposals for protecting 17 ‘megafauna hotspots’. Protecting the nutrient-rich places which they need most will go a long way to helping these amazing animals survive.
To find out more about The Wildlife Trusts’ work to protect UK seas and how you can help, visit www.wildlifetrusts.org
Images courtesy of The Wildlife Trusts: Caroline Weir, Anna Bunney, Janet Baxter, JP Trenque, Cliff Hide