Whales and pufferfish among ‘amazing marine life’ to visit Britain in 2021

The Guardian
The Guardian
Since 2019 there have been more than 75 sightings of humpback whales off the coast of Britain.

Humpback whales are becoming an increasingly common sight off the coast of Britain, according to a marine review of 2021, but dumped fishing gear is causing a rising number of stranded seals and dolphins.

Walruses, pufferfish and furrowed crabs were among the marine creatures from far-flung places that visited the UK and Ireland this year due to the climate crisis, according to the Wildlife Trusts, while puffins returned to the Isle of Man for the first time in 30 years after a rat eradication programme.

White-beaked dolphins were seen off Essex for the first time in more than two decades and native oyster populations have been re-established in Yorkshire, Essex and Northern Ireland after years of overfishing, pollution and disease. Sand lizards have been successfully reintroduced to Lancashire’s dunes.

Conservationists said that 2021 had been a positive year for marine ecosystems around the British Isles, with schemes launched to restore seagrass meadows and huge kelp forests, which provide shelter for wildlife, including two species of seahorse. But a rise in cetacean strandings signalled trouble at sea. In Cornwall, more than 170 whales, dolphins and porpoises were stranded this year along with 247 seals, many injured due to fishing activity.
There were a number of schemes launched to restore seagrass meadows and kelp forests, which provide shelter and food for seahorses. Photograph: Andrew Pearson

Lissa Batey, head of marine conservation for the Wildlife Trusts, said: “It’s been a fantastic year for marine megafauna sightings, particularly in the south-west, but it’s clear that our oceans are under immense pressure from fishing, development, pollution, climate change and recreation. All these issues are having a huge impact on life at sea.”

In Cornwall, a humpback whale was found stranded off Looe Island after being caught in fishing lines, while seven grey seals washed up on Mousehole beach within two days, linked with spider crab netting.

Despite the strandings, significant numbers of humpback whales were spotted around the coast, once an extremely rare sight. More than 75 sightings have been recorded since 2019, a sign that populations are recovering after bans on commercial whaling, according to conservationists. The Isles of Scilly Wildlife Trust saw humpbacks feeding around the islands with one individual, named Pi, staying for more than two months. More were seen in the Firth of Forth and off Shetland.

Matt Slater, marine conservation officer for Cornwall Wildlife Trusts, said: “Only a few years ago, it would have been extremely rare to see a humpback whale around the UK. But it looks like they are chasing big shoals of sardines that are now present around our shores. It is magnificent to see these creatures up close.”

In 2021, an Arctic walrus nicknamed Wally was seen around the coast of the UK, often spotted lying on boats, perhaps driven by melting sea ice in the polar north. A second walrus was seen off Northumberland and around Shetland. In October, a pufferfish washed up in Cornwall for the first time in 20 years, a species rarely found this far north.
Wally the arctic walrus lounges on a speedboat at Crookhaven in County Cork, Ireland. The walrus was first spotted in County Kerry in March and was also seen off Pembrokeshire in Wales, and Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly in England. Photograph: Niall Carson/PA

The Wildlife Trusts also warned there had been a rise in human disturbances of marine animals, with three times as many incidents since 2014. An increase in jet skis and motorboats is a leading cause for concern. This year, the Wildlife Trust of South and West Wales witnessed a seal pup being abandoned by its mother after people were seen taking selfies with the pup.

Dr Emily Baxter, senior marine conservation officer at North West Wildlife Trusts, said: “We’ve got amazing marine life in the UK and we’ve had some fantastic sightings this year, from sort of dancing sea slugs in Cumbria to puffins coming back. It’s important to remind people that actually, they don’t necessarily need to travel to far-flung places to see amazing marine life.”

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