Secrets of the South East

PUBLISHED: 13:32 12 July 2011 | UPDATED: 19:42 20 February 2013

Secrets of the South East

Secrets of the South East

Where to discover marine wildlife, writes Abigail Crosby, Marine Conservation Officer, Cornwall Wildlife Trust...

As a local, I feel justified in saying that Cornwall, with its complex rocky shores, clean sandy beaches and towering cliff faces, supports some of the most diverse and beautiful wildlife that the UK has to offer. Its awe-inspiring wildlife is on our doorstep, and I have outlined some good spots to experience it.

Grey seals in Looe Island Nature Reserve

The grey seal is one of Cornwalls most engaging marine residents. Living off our shores, feeding on fish and crustaceans such as sand eels, mullet and crabs, these seals like to haul out with the lowering tide to allow their food to digest. This is when they are at their best for you to get a good view, as their thick fur coat is exposed, showing its silver-grey pellage with darker markings. Every seal has its own markings, like a fingerprint, and it is these patterns that marine biologists use to identify individual seals.

Looe Island Nature Reserve provides the perfect setting to see grey seals hauled out on the fringing rocky shore. The island is within the Looe Voluntary Marine Conservation Area (VMCA), which Cornwall Wildlife Trust is supporting through our Your Shore project. We co-ordinate a team of volunteers who run monthly grey seal surveys on the island, which tells us about their population and behaviour. You can see these endearing creatures by visiting the island as a day tripper, or on one of our guided walks.

Bottlenose dolphins in St Ives

In Cornwall, we are lucky to support one of three resident bottlenose dolphin populations in the UK. These magnificent marine mammals, that can grow up to 4 metres in length, can be seen crossing our inshore coastal waters searching for food such as herring and mackerel. One particular hotspot for these creatures is St Ives. The Trust runs a project called Seaquest Netsafe, which supports volunteers who carry out land-based surveys in St Ives to monitor and track them. In 2010, volunteers recorded seeing bottlenose dolphins approximately 260 times from the cliffs.

Basking sharks in Lands End

No one can dispute the magnificence of a basking shark. Growing to the length of a double decker bus, they feed on plankton the smallest creatures in our ocean. The sharks collect plankton by swimming through the sea, mouth open wide, swallowing an Olympic-sized swimming pool of water everyday and filtering the tiny creatures out.

Basking sharks can be seen off our coast most often between June and July, when weather systems and plankton blooms pull the sharks to the surface, where their food source can be found. The Cornwall Wildlife Trust Seaquest Basking Shark project is working with volunteers to annually monitor Cornish basking shark populations. Since 2008, volunteers have been watching from June to September, dawn to dusk, at Hella Point, not far from the Minnack Theatre, recording sightings of these awesome creatures. So, if you are in the area this summer, pop along and say hello!

Rockpool life in Polzeath

One of the easiest ways to enjoy the marine environment is by doing a spot of rockpooling. Some of the weirdest and most wonderful creatures can be found on our rocky shores. Polzeaths rocky reefs, stretching out towards Pentire and exposed at the low tide, provide some of the best rockpooling the county has to offer. Among shore crabs, cushion starfish and gobies, you may be lucky to find the tiny Celtic sea slug, which grows no larger that a 5 pence piece and lives on dark, damp overhangs surrounding the rock pools, feeding on algae covering the rocks. Polzeath has one of the countys only volunteer-run community marine centres, which is open from Easter through to October during the school holidays. The Trusts Your Shore project helps to run a programme of events based at this marine centre, including a series of rockpool rambles.

Birds on the Helford River

The Helford, with its fringing ancient woodland and exposed muddy creeks at low tide, provides the perfect habitat for the variety of bird life that lives, nests and feeds here. Two of the Helfords most noticeable birds are the two resident members of the heron family, the grey heron and the little egret. Almost the size of a golden eagle, the grey heron is the most widespread large, predatory bird in the UK, equally at home in the remote highlands and islands, rivers and marshes in the English lowlands, or in many urban parks. On the other hand, since the late 1980s, the little egret has steadily been making its way northwards from the English Channel coast.

Encouragingly, the Helford River has around 0.1% of the total UK population of herons, and since the mid 1980s, all the herons on the Helford have congregated to form a single heronry in the mature oak woodland on the western side of Polwheveral Creek.

Living Seas programme Cornwall is home to some of the richest marine wildlife, from tiny, rare, colourful corals to giant basking sharks, but our seas need protecting. Cornwall Wildlife Trusts Living Seas programme works to protect its waters in three ways: to collect data on marine wildlife, to create awareness of the threats to marine life and to campaign for better protection for our marine species and habitats. Without our 14,000 members we would not be able to carry out wildlife conservation work, so why not join?

For more information contact

01872 273939 or visit

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