The Atlantic Ocean stretches out from the coast of Cornwall, covering almost a fifth of the earth’s surface and providing a home for thousands of species. But you don’t have to travel far to catch glimpses of some its most fascinating – and playful – inhabitants…
Few people know the waters off the north Cornwall coast as well as Chris Lowe. After cutting his teeth in ocean navigation delivering yachts, and a spell in commercial fishing, Chris started a diving company exploring the artefacts of Cornwall’s rich maritime history lying on the sea floor. And when we spoke to him on Monday morning for this piece, he was out line fishing in the Atlantic for pollack with his son Ben.
“When we set up the diving company we were seeing sharks, basking sharks and sunfish almost every day, so we started running sea-safari trips and it really took off,” he says. “Now our focus is both the conservation of the ocean and wildlife watching. We work very closely with ecologists at Exeter and Plymouth universities, as well as conservation organisations. And we take the public out to see the extraordinary marine mega fauna that we have here. People get hooked straight away.”
While pretty good for dinner when freshly landed, the pollack – typically 1ft long in UK waters – that Chris was fishing when we chatted pale in comparison with the sea life he’s searching for from his Newquay Sea Safari and Fishing boat.
“We have amazing wildlife in the waters not far from Watergate Bay,” he says. “You can find up to five types of dolphins. And we also see sunfish – the largest bony fish on earth – which travel up from the Mediterranean to feed on jellyfish, blue sharks, porbeagle sharks and thresher sharks.”
We have an amazing collection of wildlife in the waters not far from Watergate Bay. You can find up to five types of dolphins… with super pods of 200-300 dolphins that can be spotted from time to time.
The dolphin pods you’re most likely to see – either from the Newquay Sea Safari catamaran-style boat, or quite likely from the beach or clifftops – are the aptly named common dolphin. They’re normally in pods of between six and 15 dolphins, although super pods of 200-300 dolphins can also be spotted from time to time.
“There are also around 28 resident bottlenose dolphins, up to 4m long, roaming around the South West, from Bude to Dorset,” says Chris. “And we’ll occasionally see Risso’s dolphins, another large species, that have a blunt head and look similar to a Beluga whale.”
When the boat travels further offshore, approximately 20-25 miles out, offshore bottlenose dolphins can emerge – sometimes in spectacular pods of as many as 500 animals. These offshore bottlenose dolphins are bigger, faster and more agile, seemingly more excited to see people sailing by, he explains.
In this deeper water, they’ve also seen minke whales, fin whales and leatherback turtles. The turtles come to feed on the jellyfish who in turn have travelled the ocean in search of plankton – just some of the many layers in this rich aquatic ecosystem.
Abby Crosby, Marine Conservation Officer at Cornwall Wildlife Trust (CWT), says the “awesome” marine environment around Cornwall is represented by the number of designated areas there are: “We have a suite of different types of marine protected areas all the way around the coastline, which cover everything from estuaries to offshore reefs.”
Deepening our understanding of this ecosystem is central to Chris’s work and the activity of the local marine conservation network.
When it’s not cutting through the waves on wildlife watching trips, the Newquay Sea Safari boat is taking students out on field trips or gathering environmental data for research. The team works with the Cornwall Seal Group Research Trust, CWT and Cornwall College.
Basking sharks were once a common sight off the north coast in late May and early June, but these massive, docile creatures haven’t been seen here for the last few years. Chris is working with Exeter University to explore how changes in the behaviour of plankton have affected basking shark movements:
“Basking sharks feed on a very specific form of plankton which is susceptible to temperature change. We think they are coming through off the north coast of Cornwall during May and June – on their way to Scotland where there are high plankton concentrations – but in deeper water because that’s where the plankton is; we only see basking sharks when the plankton is on the surface.”
As well as this project, Chris has carried out seal pup counts for the CSGRT and other cetacean surveys of dolphin and seal numbers. He’s also a member of the British Divers Marine Life Rescue team; previous missions for the team include the rescue of a humpback whale.
As well as complying with the wildlife observation guidelines set out by the Shark Trust, CWT, wildlife-safe training scheme WiSe and CSGRT, the team has helped write guidelines which ensure animals are not disturbed. This is especially important for seals hauled out on land, which should be observed from a safe distance Chris says, but also for dolphins – which should not be approached any closer than 50 metres and always at a minimum wake speed.
The Cornwall Marine and Coastal Code provides lots of information on what to do if you are lucky enough to encounter marine life.
Cornwall has some of the cleanest and richest waters in the UK, but human activities have had an impact on the species living in this part of the Atlantic. “The huge influx of visitors each year does increase pressure on our marine and coastal wildlife,” Abby says. “It’s one of the most significant issues facing iconic species – that’s why the Cornwall Marine and Coastal Code is so important. Pollution, economic development along the coast and climate change are all impacting the sea life around Cornwall.”
But the co-ordinated and passionate network working to protect wildlife in this area gives hope. “We have an active and powerful network of non-governmental organisations, government agencies, charities and universities, that are a really strong voice on marine conservation,” Abby says.
The number of projects that are live – including coastal wildlife monitoring – bring in “great data to help us understand the environment and inform our campaigns to better manage and protect it”.
This month the government published a review of Highly Protected Marine Areas (HPMAs), which would allow all damaging activities in Marine Conservation Zones (there are approximately 20 around Cornwall) to be banned. The review recommends that HPMAs be introduced around the UK and the Wildlife Trusts support this because it would allow marine environments to recover enough to support the larger number of species that were once found in local waters.
“They absolutely need to happen,” says Abby. “It’s something we have been highlighting for over 10 years now and is essential to help protect these environments.”
Nine times out of ten, dolphins will find us before we spot them on the surface. They are very playful and love to interact with the boat.
During the summer months – and hopefully later this year, as Covid-19 restrictions ease – students from Cornwall College will act as wildlife guides on the Newquay Sea Safari boat.
“If it’s a student’s first time seeing a dolphin, it just blows them away,” Chris says. “It’s pretty special. Nine times out of ten, dolphins will find us before we spot them on the surface. They are very playful and love to interact with the boat.”
Hydrophones on the boat give an even greater insight into the life of a dolphin, revealing the clicking noise they make to locate food. “Dolphins use echolocation to find fish; they fire out a sound beam from their forehead that reflects sound back from objects in the sea. It’s very accurate; they pulse signals out quickly that bounce back and they can pick up where the fish is located.”
The resident group of inshore bottlenose dolphins found in Cornwall and around the South West are among the most important iconic species in the waters here, Abby adds. “This pod is really unique. There are only two other residential pods in the UK, one in South Wales and one in Scotland, in the Moray Firth. They’re a small population – something to be celebrated, monitored and considered in everything we do around our coastline because they are so precious.”
“The ocean just a few miles from Watergate Bay is a very good place to spot bottlenose dolphins as they travel along the coast,” says Chris. “They often come into the area, and really, we’re very lucky, because the whole of the bay is a great place to see these amazing animals.”
Cornwall Marine and Coastal Code – https://cornwallmarinelifecode.org.uk/
Newquay Sea Safari and Fishing – www.newquayseasafarisandfishing.co.uk
Campaign for Highly Protected Marine Areas – https://action.wildlifetrusts.org/page/61642/data/1?mode=DEMO
Cornwall Good Seafood Guide – https://www.cornwallgoodseafoodguide.org.uk/