Watching marine life

Getting up close and personal; but perhaps not this close. Guidance on how to manoeuvre safely around wildlife.

Last week a Southern Right whale leapt out of the water off Cape Town and landed on a yacht. Quite why this whale breached so close to the yacht is unclear. 

We spoke with the Whale and Dolphin Society, who have been studying film of the incident and they explained that "its not the eyesight of whales that limits their ability to see, but rather the visibility in the water. However, their primary sense is hearing.

"Based on the imagery, there are no indications that the animal appeared sick, or in a weakened condition (skin coloration was good, animal was not emaciated, no unusual cyamid growth). 

"As the sailors, themselves, acknowledged, the animal had been engaged in repeated surface display behaviors prior to the incident.  It is clear from the video that the animal was breaching in a linear direction. 

"Putting yourself in the path of a surface active whale is always risky.  When whale watching from a sailing vessel, we recommend dropping the sails and using an auxiliary engine which will

  1. allow for more finite control maneuvering in proximity to a whale, and
  2. provide some acoustic signal to the whale as to your presence. 

"One should always maintain a safe distance from an animal and never cut off a whale’s path." 

We have an abundance of marine wildlife around the UK shores that we need to keep a watchful eye out for. The video, produced by The Green Blue,* gives some handy advice on how to manoeuvre around marine wildlife in order to ensure that you protect them, and your boat, from harm.

Wildlife around the British Isles

British waters play host to a plethora of whales, dolphins and porpoises (collectively known as cetaceans), sharks and turtles. Of the cetaceans some, such as the Minke Whale, Harbour Porpoise, and Bottlenose Dolphin, are easily viewed from land or dedicated whale watching boats.

Others, including the Long-finned Pilot Whale, White-beaked Dolphin, and Killer Whale, are present in certain locations at specific times. Finally, there are those species such as the Humpback Whale, Fin Whale and Sperm Whale that are capable of turning up almost anywhere.

The really exciting thing about whale and dolphin watching in Britain is that, if you know where to look, it is possible to encounter cetaceans anywhere from south east England to north west Scotland.

Basking sharks

Basking sharks are seen mainly around the UK during the spring and summer months. They are the world’s second largest fish, up to 11m in length and weighing a whopping 7 tonnes and eat the tiny zooplankton which are abundant in our rich and productive inshore waters in the warmer months.


         Basking Shark off Arran
  Photo by Douglas Locke, July 2010

Leatherback turtles

Leatherback turtles, one of four types of turtle we have around out coast, migrate each summer from tropical nesting beaches to UK waters where they feed on jellyfish. Litter is a huge problem for turtles, especially plastic items, as they mistake them for jellyfish. They can’t digest the items which then go on to block their guts and they effectively starve to death.

Getting up close

The South African story is not of course the first of close contact between whales and boats; back in 2008 yachting journalist Elaine Bunting totted up nine collisions between racing yachts, and whales going back to 1968 as well as a similar incident to this recent one with a cruising yacht.

We recently received an email from an RYA member wishing to report an unusual sighting of three whales off the Corsican coast in June, and a colleague, who on a sailing holiday this summer was about to plunge into the water for a cooling swim when he spotted a 10 metre shark swimming by and decided to have a cold drink instead.

*The Green Blue is the environmental awareness initiative developed by the RYA and British Marine Federation (BMF)