Joining the competent crew training

Posted on July 28, 2014 by The Black Fish

A personal experience by Andrew – “If you can learn to sail in The Solent then you can sail anywhere in the world”, claimed Jason our sailing instructor as we tucked into chips and veggie burgers overlooking the busy Portsmouth harbour. Too tired and exhilarated after our first day aboard sailboat Karic, owned by vegan sailing cooperative The Sailboat Project, to want to cook in the galley we had left her moored at Gosport marina and headed out to find some food and a beer to discuss the day’s events.

What he was trying to explain to his four crew members starting The Black Fish competent crew member course was that the waterways we had just sailed through on the south coast of England were one of the busiest and complicated tidal stretches of sea to sail on in Europe.

By the end of our training week we were able to steer the boat, handle the sails and ropes, tie nautical knots, understand the important rules of the road, deal with a man overboard situation, and generally become competent and comfortable with life and general duties onboard. It was a steep learning curve as we lived and sailed on the yacht in all conditions but one that will stand us in good stead for any future hands on marine action we may be involved in.

The small crew were composed of trainees from Spain, Latvia and the UK – citizens from different nations, backgrounds, and ages, all united in the common goal of marine protection and conservation. After a workshop and talk by The Black Fish onboard Karic we left Chichester Harbour; an ecologically important natural harbour and sailed past oystercatchers, dunlin and little egrets.

The small crew were composed of trainees from Spain, Latvia and the UK – citizens from different nations, backgrounds, and ages, all united in the common goal of marine protection and conservation. After a workshop and talk by The Black Fish onboard Karic we left Chichester Harbour; an ecologically important natural harbour and sailed past oystercatchers, dunlin and little egrets.

Over the next 5 days we negotiated tidal waters, cruise ships, ferries and sailing regattas, and visited the world renowned yachting destination of Cowes on the Isle of Wight. We berthed in and negotiated marinas, anchored overnight in sheltered waters and took early morning swims from our anchorage.

We stopped for provisions at small historically important maritime villages such as Emsworth where the huge nineteenth century oyster fishing industry was decimated and collapsed as a result of sewage pollution in 1902 – an early warning of the future damage that the seas would face from our extreme exploitation of them in the twentieth century and today.

We plotted a night passage through the busy Solent and learnt about different marker buoys and night lights. In the evenings we cooked and ate great vegan dishes and sat in the light of the cabin discussing marine and environmental issues, reviewed what we’d learnt through the day, and even sang sea shanties one night as our laughter carried across the still dark waters.

The camaraderie of our instructor and fellow crew members was special and I came away with a Royal Yachting Association certificate and a greater knowledge of the seas and how to operate within them. I was honoured to be selected for the course by The Black Fish and it was an invaluable week that gave me skills that I will undoubtedly use in my future work as a small part of the massive ongoing struggle to save our oceans.

A Wild Walk to Tavy Cleave, Dartmoor

Upland Dartmoor has always been one of my ‘happy places’; somewhere that closets me from the outside, a seemingly ‘out of this world’ landscape steeped in history and folklore. Some refer to it as England’s last great wilderness. But whilst it can certainly be wild, calling it a wilderness often feels a little disingenuous considering the long history of human habitation and our ongoing role in shaping the moorland landscape. Nevertheless, the feel of the rugged, granite crusted land creates a feeling of separation from everyday life for me. It is a land that I grew to love, having spent much of my middle childhood, adolescent, and early adult years living on the moor. And the river Tavy itself (one of the great rivers of Dartmoor) has played a large part in my own sense of identity.

This relatively gentle walk takes us to the upper reaches of the river, where it spills out from the moor and cascades down towards the habitations of Mary Tavy, Peter Tavy and Tavistock. In doing so the river valley passes through a dramatic steep gorge. The esteemed Dartmoor chronicler, William Crossing, was full of praise for it when at the beginning of the last century, he wrote, “this defile is known as Tavy Cleave, and for wild grandeur is unsurpassed throughout the moorland region.” Needless to say, the ancient Cleave has lost none of its “grandeur” over the last 100 years and is an impressive sight more than worthy of the exertion required to reach it.


Photo: Firing range noticeboard, Lane End, Dartmoor

The walk is approximately four miles long and if you give yourself three hours that should allow you to slow down and appreciate its beauty. Parking is at Lane End on the western flank of Dartmoor, not far from the hamlet of Horndon, a few country lane miles from Mary Tavy. Grid reference: SX 53754 82359. The walk takes in the edge of the Ministry of Defence Willsworthy Firing Range and there are certain days throughout the year, when the red flag in the car park is flying, and access is not possible. Check online before travelling, click here.


Photo: Nat Tor from Lane End, Dartmoor

Whilst the walk is spectacular at any time of the year, spring and summer are best for spotting wildlife, particularly as the numbers of birds will have increased due to the arrival of migrants. But house sparrows are easy to find flitting around the car park and look to be nesting in the stone walls of the cottage and barn adjacent to it. If you are here during the right months listen out for cuckoos which I often hear from this spot. Directly infront of the car park an area of gorse, bracken and small trees either side of the leat is a good spot for finding willow warblers in the summer and there are always plenty of stonechats around.


Photo: Willow warbler on gorse

Head north east out of the carpark up the well defined path towards Ger Tor. The hike up to the tor is the most strenuous part of the walk. Many choose to approach the Cleave via the low ground by walking east past Nattor farm and up the river basin. I choose to take the other more direct ‘up and over’ route because I think one’s first view of the gorge is most dramatic from above and I also like to get the hardest part of the walk out of the way early on, if at all possible.


Photo: Stonechat on gorse

Soon after leaving the car park you will cross Mine Leat, spend a moment here to see if there are any small fish in the water. Dartmoor is crisscrossed with leats. These granite lined open watercourses were built to deliver water for industrial, agricultural and domestic needs. I always look at them as natural engineering marvels as those who built them cunningly used gravity and the lie of the terrain to ensure a constant flow of water. As you ascend Nattor Down en route to Ger Tor, look and listen for meadow pipits during the warmer months. You might even see them doing their crazy parachuting display flight. It isn’t any wonder that you find cuckoos as well as large numbers of meadow pipits in the area. As most people know, cuckoos are brood parasites, which means that they lay their eggs in the nests of other birds and, in the UK, meadow pipits are their most common hosts. There are also plenty of common buzzards in the area so keep looking skyward for these relatively large raptors as they spread their wings and wedge shaped tails to soar on thermals.


Photo: Ger Tor and Nattor Down, Dartmoor

Once you reach the top of Ger Tor and clamber around the huge granite boulders you really will start to fully feel the presence and solitude of the moor. It commands stunning views to the south western edges of the moor and beyond. To the north and east lie high Dartmoor proper but it is directly below the tor to the south east that you will find your first view of the river Tavy and begin to understand the beauty of the Cleave. Eric Hemery, another Dartmoor obsessive and famous moorland guide and author perfectly described Ger Tor as “The Sentinel of the Cleave”.


Photo: The Sentinel of the Cleave, Dartmoor.

A number of times I have sat on my perch at the tor and watched a pair of kestrels hunting, sometimes even finding them hovering at eye height. Historically the people of the moor colloquially referred to them as ‘windhovers’. The next onward stretch is a gentle ramble east across a sheep and pony peppered down to Tavy Cleave Tor itself. The path takes the walker right past the remains of a bronze age stone hut with its entrance facing towards the river. Whenever I come across these huts, which are not unusual on Dartmoor, I feel the need to enter and sit a while trying to find a tiny porthole into the past.

For some strange reason Tavy Cleave Tor isn’t warranted a mention on the map. Trust me, it should be. You don’t so much climb the tor as search for the obvious window between the rocky outcrops. Gingerly scramble into it and carefully peer over the edge and you will be rewarded by a most dramatic scene as the tor becomes a sheer cliff face and the land drops away to the river far below. This is the highest point directly above the river valley and by far the most impressive.


Photo: Tavy Cleave, Dartmoor.

Far below, the pools of the river are popular with wild bathers during the summer months. In winter you may have the landscape completely to yourself. I like to spend some time sat on the cliff taking it all in. For those who don’t suffer from vertigo there are a couple of nice thrones from which to survey your personal fiefdom from but do be careful as the drops are very real.


Photo: Looking down Tavy Cleave, Dartmoor.

During breeding season there are a handful of pairs of ring ouzels that nest around the Cleave and Ger Tor. These plucky upland birds are not a common sight in the lowlands of the UK and migrate here from the Atlas mountains of north Africa. Similar to a black bird but with a prominent white band across the chest it is a real treat to spot one.

The return journey has two options. You can trace your footsteps back across the high ground or from Tavy Cleave Tor head down the edge of the ravine until you reach the boulder strewn path beside the river. You can follow the beautiful Tavy and subsequently the leat around the bottom of Nat Tor and then walk along the field enclosure until you find the track from Nattor Farm which brings you back to the car park at Lane End.

If you are so inclined then you can’t do worse than an end of walk drink, a mile or so down the road, at the wonderfully cozy and intriguing Elephants Nest pub at Horndon. Alternatively a drive into the ancient moorland stannary town of Tavistock and a wander through The Meadows park to experience the Tavy in all its glory as it swells in size on its journey towards the River Tamar and the sea would also be a fitting end to the day.

A Wild Wander around Robberg Nature Reserve, Plettenburg Bay, South Africa

This fabulous gem spot, a few kilometres south of the town of Plettenburg Bay on South Africa’s Eastern Cape, is situated on a headland jutting out into the Indian Ocean with the calm, sheltered waters of the bay on one side and a rolling oceanic swell on the other. Most visitors to ‘Plett’, as the town is affectionately referred to by South Africans, are likely to visit the reserve but the main attraction seems to be to stomp one of the three hiking trails and take selfies within its spectacular and unrivalled coastal landscape. I have a feeling that many of the reserve’s natural treasures are sometimes overlooked during the onward march to complete the trails. None of the trails require a mad rush and I would encourage anyone who visits to treat it as a wander through nature rather than a route march. Walk slowly and quietly, stop and observe, sit a while – I guarantee that you will see and experience so much more and wonder at the minutiae of the natural world.

The reserve opens at 7am and if you arrive then you will have the place to yourself and, in summertime, escape the worst of the day’s heat. When I pitched up at 15 minutes past, there were a couple of fishermen on the rocks below the trail but I didn’t see another soul until nearly 8am. Unless you have a SAN Parks Wild Card then entry to the reserve will cost you R50.

There are three circular hiking trails; 2 km, 5km and 11km. The 5km circular route is more than enough to spend a few hours enjoying all that Robberg has to offer. But the 11km route allows you to reach the end of what 15th Century Portuguese navigator Bartholomue Dias dubbed “Cabo Talhado” – “the Sharp Cape” and perhaps more time to sit and search for cetaceans and seabirds. Neither walks are particularly strenuous and an average level of fitness will suffice, although be prepared for a very small amount of scrambling and boulder negotiating at times. As it is a coastal path there are a few ascents and descents to deal with but the rewards really are out of this world. Just make sure that you carry adequate water with you, wear sensible walking shoes, and follow the white seal motif signs that mark the paths.


Photo: Seal motif trail marker, Robberg Nature Reserve.

All walks start from the same car park and are well signposted. The vegetation that you will walk through is called Fynbos. Pay attention to it – it is a fabulously diverse environment that deserves our attention. Fynbos is the belt of coastal scrub and heathland found only in the Cape, wind sculpted by the oceanic climate. It is a botanists dream due to the immense levels of biodiversity and the number of endemic species – only found here. It thrives in nutrient deficient soils and has a fascinating and complex relationship with wildfire which many of the plants require in order to propagate. The evergreen flora of fynbos range from larger rutaceae and protea species to smaller heathers and irises. The variety of species and the climate means that there will be some plants in flower at most times of the year. As you walk amongst the flora keep your eyes peeled for the tiny blue duiker darting between shrubs. It is very timid and the smallest of the antelope in South Africa so regard yourself as blessed if you are lucky enough to get a glimpse of one.


Photo: Fynbos flowering shrub, Robberg Nature Reserve.

The reserve is a World Heritage Site and the landscape that you walk through is an ancient one. The geology dates back to the break up of Gondwanaland 130 million years ago. There is evidence of middle and stone age life in the reserve and there is an important archaeological site complete with interpretative information at Nelson’s Cave. The cave isn’t actually on any of the trails but is situated back between the car park and the reserve entrance necessitating a specific visit. But there are plenty of caves and overhangs as you walk the trail where you can sit, ponder, and imagine stone age people peering out from and sheltering in.

The bird life is certainly worth bringing your binoculars for but even if you don’t own any there is still plenty to see. Sunbirds, fiscals, southern boubous, mousebirds, robin chats and cape white-eyes flit about the foliage. Rock kestrels hunt over the sand dunes and white necked ravens hold the high ground on the rocky crags and in the air. Ravens may seem like everyday birds but do make some time to watch these fascinating corvids and their interactions between themselves and other bird species.


Photo: White necked ravens

Down on the beaches at the shoreline you should find stunning African black oystercatchers and hadeda ibis. There is also a kelp gull nesting colony on the peninsula. In the right conditions, particularly from the more sheltered eastern trail you can look down from your high vantage point into the translucent waters and watch cormorants fishing underwater.


Photo: African black oystercatcher

After at least half an hour walk from the start of the trail, past The Gap, you will come across the Cape Fur Seal haul out where you can sit and watch, sometimes hundreds of seals, on the rocks and in the water below. Just like with the cormorants your height will give you a unique view of the seals’ behaviour under the water. Sharks can also sometimes seen from the reserve.

Cape fur seal photo to be added

From the headland at the tip of the peninsula by the lighthouse you could pick up oceanic birds from the albatross and petrel families during the winter months. Cape gannets can be seen plunge diving into the ocean after bait balls of fish at any time of year. The winter months, between May and September are also the best time to keep an eye out for whale blows when the large humpback and southern right whales frequent the region. Indo-pacific bottlenose dolphins and the rarer Indian Ocean humpback dolphins are also often spotted from Robberg so keep your eyes open for splashes and fins!


Photo: Wild seas, Robberg Nature Reserve.

The western side of the reserve, which hikers normally experience on their return walk, is open to the power of the ocean with breakers crashing into the cliffs and this is also where the accessible beaches are. This is best accessed by a slide down the sand dunes at Witsand half way along the reserve. But do stick to the trail when on the dunes as they are particularly sensitive ecosystems.


Photo: Witsand dunes, Robberg.

As you come down the dunes you will find Die Elland (The Island) at the end of a sandy spit.


Photo: Die Elland/The Island, Robberg Nature Reserve.

To your left you will see the Fountain Shack: the only accommodation in the reserve which you can rent overnight and have the peninsula truly to yourself. The beaches are out of this world and aesthetically rival any across the globe. There are plenty of rock pools to explore if the tides and your time allow. Slowly meander along the beach watching the shore birds and searching for driftwood. When I was there the sand was peppered with stranded bluebottles, otherwise known as Portuguese or Pacific Men of War. These fascinating creatures are not actually jelly fish but rather siphonophores – a colony of individual organisms each with its own function but dependant upon each other to survive. Don’t handle or step on them as they can produce a painful sting.


Photo: Bluebottle siphonophore on South African beach


Photo: Bleached driftwood on a South African beach

Back on the trail up amongst the sandstone boulders you could see rock hyraxes, referred to in South Africa as Dassies. These medium size rodents are most active during the early and latter parts of the day. Butterflies will flit across the paths and you might find yourself having to step over green milkweed locusts. Check these extra-terrestrial looking insects out if you come across them, they really are from another world!


Photo: A pair of milkweed locusts mating

As well as skinks there are also plenty of Southern rock agamas to be spotted on and beside the trails. The male reptile has a colourful blue head. They are relatively easy with human presence and if you are quiet and still you can observe them for some time. Amazingly, when alarmed, the male can reduce the blue breeding colouration on its head to the more natural rock coloured camouflage that it uses to blend into its surroundings


Photo: A male southern rock agama

All of these wonderful creatures and more can be found in this nature reserve. Robberg itself is spectacular in its dramatic landscape but the presence of the so many diverse and smaller organisms that inhabit it really does make it the jewel in the crown of South Africa’s Garden Route. All we have to do to experience them is slow down and look.

If you’ve walked on a beach during the summer or stood on a pier looking into the ocean, the chances are that you will have seen them....

As an ORCA Wildlife Officer I used to use them as a tool to get children interested before a ship had even left the harbour. They float mysteriously below the side of the ferry in a plethoraof shapes and colours: an exotic and magical creature hinting at the strange and wonderful world that exists beneath the waves. They are jellyfish. And in recent years we have seen huge numbers of these incredible invertebrates in our waters. Every summer, a different sensational round of news stories emerges about them; whether it is an invasion of them on our beaches, or the dangers of being stung by jellyfish. Last year itwas the gigantic size of a barrel jellyfish that UK television wildlife presenter Lizzie Daly was photographed scuba diving next to in Cornwall. The jelly was so large that it dwarfed her and her fellow diver!


Photo: Moon jelly fish, Iceland

Actually these creatures are nothing new and have populated our oceans for millions of years. Although interestingly, because they are gelatinous and have no bony structure, they are not common in the fossil records. A seemingly basic but really rather complex life form, some propel themselves through the water by their umbrella shaped bells. Some, like the lions mane jellyfish which we regularly see in UK waters have long stinging tentacles that are used to disarm their prey. Others like the moon jelly simply look like pulsating disks floating in the water column. They are part of the plankton biomass. Plankton derives from the Greek word planktos, meaning wandering or drifting. Most jellies are immobile and reliant on wind and currents, a few species have limited propulsion. As a result they can be prone to swarming in large blooms and stranding on our beaches in their thousands. The next couple of months are the time of the year when we are likely to experience jellyfish swarms on our coasts here in the UK.


Photo: Barrel jellyfish, Hebrides

The moon jellyfish is one of the most common species around the UK. It has a fascinating lifecycle and the jelly form is just one part (the medusa stage) of it’s cycle. In it’s juvenile form it is sessile; an immobile polyp attached to a substrate on the seafloor where it grows into its medusa stage before drifting off into the top of the water column where we tend to encounter it.


Children are always intrigued to learn that jellyfish don’t have bones, heart or brain, and that their mouth and anus are one and the same and that they can’t actually see. They are, however, particularly efficient feeders and take advantage of some of the many problems that our ocean ecosystems face. Many jelly species seem able to cope with the rising temperatures that global warming brings and can exist in less oxygenated and more acidic waters caused by carbon emissions, agricultural run off and human waste. Overfishing of small fish such as sandeels and anchovies results in less competition for the zooplankton which they both feed on. Conversely the removal of the numbers of their predators higher up the trophic scale, such as turtles and tuna, has also probably contributed to jellyfish proliferation.

It is the link to these predators that also excites me during the summer months. Two particular species return to our waters to feast on our productive plankton resources. Both ocean sunfish and leatherback turtles are large and impressive marine megafauna. Both species, but particularly leatherbacks, are very partial to jellies! I shall be keeping my eyes out for them!

(This article was adapted from a blog written for the conservation charity ORCA whilst I was working for them in the Hebrides.)

Blowing Away Those Lockdown Blues

Sea air, salt in your face, soaring seabirds – damn I’ve missed this during lockdown! As the rib headed out from the historical south Devon harbour of Teignmouth into Lyme Bay, I gulped deep lung fulls of ocean breeze, and settled in for the ride. Immediately I felt more settled, my mind is never calmer than when out on the water.

It was 17th March when I was last on the ocean, disembarking a Hurtigruten expedition cruise ship at Portsmouth. Under a week later on 23rd March the UK went into Covid lockdown. Subsequently my spring and summer working at sea off the coasts of Iceland and then Alaska was cancelled. Thus far my experience with Coronavirus has been relatively mild compared to so many unfortunate families around the world and for that I am hugely grateful. But to say that over three months confined to land had left me craving the sea would be a gross understatement. So as restrictions have just eased somewhat I headed out today, not as a guide but as a punter, with Devon Sea Safaris.


Photo: Guillemots and razorbills at the Orestone rock

Searching for marine mammals as we sailed, our first stop was the Orestone, a Middle Devonian limestone rock off the coast of Labrador Bay. Despite coming to the end of breeding season for many seabirds, there were still plenty of razorbills, guillemots and shags around. This will be the first time in many seasons when I haven’t been able to make it to some of the UK’s numerous seabird colonies. This year must have felt like some sort of parallel universe for them as they carried on their eternal cycle of life whilst humankind essentially stopped and temporarily disappeared from their lives.

As we circled the rock a stunning peregrine falcon showed off some of it’s natural acrobatics above us.


Photo: Peregrine falcon

We were hoping to find some dolphins in the bay but they didn’t materialise. However, Berry Head provided us with good views of three or four harbour porpoise surfacing as they fed all around us.


Photo: A harbour porpoise off Berry Head, Devon, UK


Photo: Northern fulmar, English Channel

Cruising back along the coast from Babbacombe to Shaldon, past cliffs of deep Red Permian Breccia (essentially desert 250 million years ago) we stopped to photograph half a dozen Atlantic grey seals hauled out on the rocks.


Photo: Red Permian breccia cliffs, South Devon


Photo: Grey seal, hauled out near Teignmouth, Devon.

A lot of people have been looking forward to the lifting of restrictions, especially the opening of pubs and restaurants. Apparently the pubs open up again tomorrow. But all I longed for was to get back out on the water and check out what our marine wildlife was up to. Needless to say, it turns out they were still there doing their thing, getting on with life, perfectly happy without us. We might have missed them but I suspect that they won’t have missed us at all.


Photo: A pair of grey seals share haul out space on a rock in South Devon.

Show Some Love for the Humble Harbour Porpoise

My weary eyes strain from the search as they scan the blue-green shimmer of the surface for any sign of life. Life that has more place below the waves than above. I raise my binoculars from my chest to my eyes and peer towards the horizon, the edge of my world, seeking that glint of sunlight off the dark back of a mammal at the surface or the tell-tale snow white willow-the-wisp splash from a distant dolphin. Nothing. No feeding seabirds, no sharks basking, not even the distant silhouette of a passing freighter. Empty. As if we were thousands of miles offshore in the middle of one of the vast ocean voids.

We only left harbour a few hours ago. We are still above the continental shelf in less than a hundred metres of water. Some days this is just the way the ocean is. Sometimes seemingly vacant and lonely, at other times teeming with life like an African savannah. Feelings of melancholy wash over me. I know that the ecological conditions below us can change rapidly but it has been a long afternoon without as much of a sniff of even a seal. It isn’t as if the state of the sea is against us. To call it mirror calm would be erroneous, but a soft swell and very little wind gives the sea a gentle demeanour without even a hint of a white cap.

Whale watching is all about patience. Put the time in out on the ocean or from a headland and eventually you will be rewarded. There is no limit as to how long it will take but it will happen. Your reward could come gift wrapped in an all singing all dancing close encounter with one of the great whales. Typically, it will simply be a fleeting glimpse of a far off dolphin fin barely breaking the surface. The virtue of your patience should be enhanced by the beauty of the seascape. If you can appreciate the ever changing colours and hues of the ocean and the clouds above, work out the moods of the sea, and be attentive to the many other creatures that share the watery world of the whales, the time will pass quicker and the longing can be assuaged.


Photo: Harbour Porpoise, Small Isles, Scotland

I knew these lessons well and was a long way from giving up when my own reward duly arrived. From the top deck a couple of hundred yards off the starboard bow of the ship I watched a smudge appear on the water - a small surface print of shiny calm water, like an oily eddy. We call this a flukeprint and it is made when the tail fluke of a cetacean vertically beats under water during propulsion and is close enough to leave it’s tell-tale sign on the surface above. My heart lifted. The size of the print and the stealth of it’s appearance could only mean one species. True to form a small curved dark brown back appeared a short distance ahead followed by the distinctive triangular fin of a harbour porpoise. A split second and it disappeared. Then another rolled a few metres from the first - no head or tail on show just a tiny, unobtrusive back and fin. There were two of them! I watched them surface a few times and then they were gone. Like old friends they had popped up and saved my day. They had provided no more than a moment or two of excitement and exhilaration, but it was enough, and I adored them for it.

I don’t quite know why porpoise excite me so much but they do. If I had to choose a favourite cetacean species then harbour porpoise would be right up there. For whale watchers as well as fishermen and other inshore seafarers in the north Atlantic they are often constant companions. There are an estimated 700,000 minimum worldwide. Over 400,000 of those reside in the North Sea and around the British Isles. In these areas they are a reliable sighting if the sea conditions allow. They aren’t strikingly marked like common dolphins or known for their showy acrobatics and playfulness in the way that bottlenose dolphins are. In fact their slight size (never more than 1.9 meters in length and no more than 75 kilograms in weight, with a small body to surface ratio) means that with their high metabolic rate they need to constantly feed in order to gain enough energy to survive in cool, temperate waters. Perhaps they simply don’t have enough time on their hands to play in the way that their larger dolphin cousins do. They are often referred to as living on a metabolic knife edge. Maybe “as preoccupied as a porpoise” should be their idiom, in a similar vein to “as busy as a bee”.

Harbour porpoise can easily be spotted from land. They are sometimes seen in harbours, estuaries and sea lochs. Two were even spotted merrily swimming up the River Parrett in Somerset, as much as fifteen miles inland, during the UK’s 2020 Covid pandemic lockdown. Their accessibility undoubtedly contributes to my fondness for them. Historically, pre-industrial fishermen off Newfoundland lived side by side with them and also held them in high regard, dubbing them “puffing pigs” due to the puff like exhalation of air that can be heard when they surface close to a silent boat. I have also seen reference to the similar name of “little puffers ” (Puthag in Gaelic) being used in some Scottish West Coast communities. The common Gaelic word for porpoise is simply Peileag – a term which interestingly has a subsidiary meaning relating to a short, fat individual.


Photo: Harbour Porpoise, Isle of the Arran

They are without doubt an underdog and as such I am naturally drawn to them. Their seemingly shy nature lends itself to my inevitable anthropomorphising but the struggles that they face are more than real. In recent years they have been recorded as victims of attacks by dolphin species, particularly the much larger common bottlenose dolphin. There are images from West Cornwall to Scotland of them being tossed into the air like ragdolls and the Scottish Marine Animal Strandings Scheme say that their necropsies show that between 40-60% of Scottish harbour porpoise strandings have injuries consistent with dolphin attacks. Whilst the likelihood is that these attacks are the result of territorial and resource competition rather than predation, the same can’t be said of the interaction between porpoises and grey seals. In the last decade grey seal predation off the coast of the Netherlands has been identified as one of the major causes of death for harbour porpoise locally. There are also records of similar occurrences in Pembrokeshire in Wales.

Harbour porpoise are also susceptible to incidental bycatch, particularly via entanglement in set gill nets within inshore fisheries. This is an ongoing issue for the population and can lead to localised impacts on populations in some areas. Monofilament gill netting is so fine that it can be almost invisible to fish and often targets similar species to the porpoises’ target prey. It is also a welfare issue for the individual animal. To be caught in one of these nets means an almost certain slow death from drowning. There is ongoing work to mitigate for incidental bycatch, particularly through the use of “pingers” attached to the nets in order to deter the porpoises.

Despite all their tribulations these little creatures continue to determinedly go about their business with almost distain for our presence. We must not forget that they are an extremely successful species in their own right, and as our smallest cetacean in North Atlantic waters that achievement has to be acknowledged. The UK is lucky enough to be situated in prime harbour porpoise territory and we have a duty to conserve the habitat that they rely on.

Despite unfair stereotypes, harbour porpoises are far from dull, they are in fact, a complex and exciting species that certainly give me great pleasure to watch. Perhaps next time that you are close to the ocean, and it is a millpond flat day (the best for porpoise observation) scan the water and keep an eye out for a tiny dark fin to break the surface as it’s back quietly rolls through the water and maybe you too might fall in love with this lovely wee animal.