Beaches aren’t just popular with humans – the rocks, dunes, cliffs and seas of coastal environments are vital habitats for some of our most treasured organisms. It can be easy to miss out on this amid all the swimming, sunbathing and ice cream, so here’s a list of the wildlife to look for at the coast – and what you can do to enjoy yourself without harming it. This article is an adapted extract from July’s Wild Wild Life newsletter – to receive New Scientist‘s free wildlife newsleter in your inbox every month, sign up here.
There’s nothing quite like seeing seals, whales, porpoises or dolphins in the wild. Often the best way to appreciate them is to take a boat trip, but boats can run the risk of stressing out these animals and interfering with their normal behaviour. You can avoid this by checking the credentials of any boat trip provider – ask them what they do to minimise disturbance, whether they work with any conservation societies or if they participate in something like the WiSe Scheme. As a rough rule of thumb, operators that run small-to-medium boats and place an emphasis on science and conservation tend to be better. Outfits that have many outings a day, or very big boats, may be more likely to be disturbing animals.
Outside of boat trips, if you encounter marine animals in the water (for example while kayaking or paddle boarding) or on the beach (in the case of seals), it’s a good idea to keep a distance of around 200 metres, so as not to startle them.
Rock pooling/Tide pooling
Exploring pools of water for marine life is a joy of childhood and has surprises in store for adults, too. However, it undoubtedly also disturbs the animals. On balance, if you keep a few rules in mind, the benefits of learning about these habitats can outweigh the harms of temporarily interfering with them.
When you approach a rock pool, do it quietly and position yourself so that you don’t cast a shadow, which could scare animals away. Before sticking your hands in, take a moment to see what you can observe – seaweed, anemones, shrimp, perhaps a crab. You’ll see more if you turn over a rock to see what’s underneath, but make sure to put it back where it was, and the sooner you can do this the better.
If you’d like a closer look at anything, you can scoop it up in a bucket or other container with some seawater, for a short amount of time. Observe it – count its legs, note its colour, see how it moves – and then put it back. Don’t catch more than one animal in a bucket at a time – some animals will eat the others.
Take care when touching soft organisms, as these are delicate and you could easily injure them. Don’t stick your feet in a pool or remove any seaweed, as this will disturb the ecosystem.
For more on the joys of rock pooling, which is known as tide pooling the US, read Joshua Howgego’s account of taking to the beach with marine biologist and author Helen Scales.
The UK is globally significant as both feeding and breeding grounds for seabirds and waders. While many species overwinter here, a variety come to the UK’s shores in spring and summer to breed or to fuel up as they fly south from Scandinavia and the Arctic. Many species start departing from late July and throughout August, however, so early summer is better to spot them.
To see birds like lapwings, oystercatchers, avocets, little ringed plovers and green sandpipers, seek out a dedicated nature reserve with plenty of wetland habitat – saltmarsh, mudbanks and river estuaries are all ideal wader territory.
For breeding seabirds like puffins, guillemots, razorbills and gannets, you need to find an area of cliff that hosts seabird breeding colonies. Many of these are on islands, so a boat trip is often your best bet, especially if it will enable you to observe these wonderful birds at a respectful distance.
If you enjoy coastal walks with your dog, please look out for local signs and restricted areas, and heed any requests to put your dog on a lead. Many coastal birds nest on the ground and dogs can have a devastating effect on their efforts to raise their young.
2022 is turning out to be a tragic year for seabirds. A deadly strain of bird flu, which originated in farmed poultry, is circulating among wild birds and killing them in large numbers, particularly in the UK, Netherlands, Israel and India. If you see a sick or dead bird, don’t touch it. If you come across around three dead birds (the exact number depends on the kind of bird) in the UK, report them to the government helpline: 03459 33 55 77. Reporting them will lead to them being removed, which can help prevent carcasses spreading the virus to yet more birds.
From sand dunes to chalk cliffs, there is no single coastal ecosystem. Each habitat has its own mix of plant species, and their flowers make a walk particularly memorable.
There are many rare specimens to search out, but it’s not uncommon to hear of people trampling plants in their effort to find one that’s in flower and capture the perfect photo. To avoid this, please stick to paths as much as you can, don’t cross fences or other protective barriers, and recognise that coastal ecosystems can be very fragile.
Before you go…
Binoculars will help you observe wildlife from a distance and a field guide or two will help you identify what you find.
Tides change quickly, rip currents aren’t obvious and cliffs crumble. Look up safety guidelines before you go looking for wildlife and pay attention to signage. Tell someone when and where you’re going in case you get into trouble and don’t have phone signal. Take weather-appropriate clothing, sun cream and water, and minimise your exposure to the sun in the middle of the day (11am to 3pm in the British summer). And on days of extreme heat, just stay home.
Discarded plastic is now a common sight on beaches and family days out can involve a great deal of single-use plastic. Consider bringing your own lunch and refreshments in reusable containers. Save and reuse buckets, spades and other beach toys, including bodyboards – the cheap ones can break easily and thousands are discarded every year.
If you eat seafood, it’s worth looking up which species are sustainable choices in the area you’ll be visiting and looking for sustainable seafood certifications in restaurants and cafes.
Lastly – resist taking a souvenir. It’s illegal to take pebbles from beaches in the UK and removing shells may contribute to degrading the local ecosystem. It’s a cliche, but a photo really is the best way to remember your trip.
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