Meet the UK's seafaring superheroes
It’s World Oceans Day on June 8 – time fire up the sea shanties and celebrate the big, blue, beautiful world. Our oceans cover 70% of the world’s surface and are where you’ll find around half of all life on the planet. This bounty beneath the waves also supports our seabirds - with seven million in the UK plunging into the depths below to find food. To mark this special day, we’ve done a deep dive to fish out five of the wildlife stars of the seas around the UK, putting together a raft of facts to show why we think they are so special.
The wandering hobbit
The Manx shearwater, is a little bird with a big story to tell. These summer visitors are found on islands of the west coast of the UK, where their harrowing calls in the dead of night were once mistaken for trolls or witches by passing sailors. Like hobbits, they live underground in burrows where they raise one fluffy chick a year. They only come out under the cover of darkness to avoid revealing where their nest is and conflict with bigger seabirds.
Once they have raised their chick, they set off back to the coast of Brazil, where they spend the winter months. Some rack up hundreds of thousands of air miles in a lifetime, as they are the UK’s longest living bird. The oldest recorded was 50 years, 11 months and 21 days old!
The UK is home to 80% of the breeding population of this brilliant bird, making our islands off the coast of Wales and Scotland a vital hot spot we need to protect.
The dapper diver
Around ten percent of the world’s puffins call our coasts home. And, just like our hedgerows this springtime, our puffins have come into bloom. Any puffin looking for a mate needs to impress, so these Romeos bring out their glad rags. They ditch their muted winter look, and their colour-changing bills burst into vibrant red and orange.
Their haphazard take-offs, coupled with their unique looks, have earned puffins the nickname of ‘clowns of the sea’. But there’s no clowning around below the waves. Propelled by their webbed feet, which act as their rudders, these compact birds can dive up to 60m underwater in search of their favourite snacks. Their large beaks mean they can carry around ten fish at a time.
In spring, puffins move into underground hideaways, rather than nests. They can laboriously carve homes with their sharp claws and beaks, but many save a little time, pinching a ready-made burrow from an unsuspecting rabbit or Manx shearwater instead.
These colourful characters have dramatically declined in recent years and face numerous threats including climate change and overfishing. Find out more.
The winged torpedo
Otherwise known as the northern gannet, this bird is a master of speed and accuracy. Plunging into the water at speeds of up to 60mph means that a miscalculated entry could end in a broken neck. But as expert divers, these birds come prepared for their bullet-like descent. Hidden in their face are air sacs, which cushion them as they plunge up to five metres into the blue.
If their prey evades them, the gannets have a few tricks under their wings. Once their air sacs have served their first purpose, the leftover air enters their lungs and means they can chase their underwater prey for around half a minute. Using a flying motion, they can swim down a further 15 metres.
Our British Isles are home to a whopping 68 percent of the world’s population of gannets, and you’ll find their colonies on some of our most rugged and exposed coastlines. On cold evenings, their choice of home means that their precious eggs run the risk of losing heat. Fortunately, these doting parents have the power to pump blood to their feet to keep their egg cosy despite icy winds.
Deep diving sea turtles
That got your attention didn’t it? But yep, if you’re very lucky you can see the largest turtle in the world swimming in southern and western coast waters in the UK during the summer months. Leatherback turtles are ocean loners who can grow up to 2m long. They have leathery hard skin on their backs rather than a shell – hence the name. Unusually for turtles, they don’t mind the cold and can dive up to 1,200m into the abyss to find their favourite food – jellyfish. They don’t breed here though, they prefer the warm tropical beaches to lay their eggs – which sounds a good spot to us.
These wandering giants are critically endangered globally, with coastal development reducing good nest sites. Many also die when caught accidentally by fishing fleets or by eating plastic bags which they mistake for jellyfish.
We couldn’t resist mentioning some of the other UK ocean giants...
The leatherback turtle isn’t the only colossal creature in UK seas. The second largest fish in the world, the basking shark, patrol waters around the UK in summer, most commonly in the south and west. As does the largest jellyfish in the world, the lion’s mane jellyfish, which gets its name from its impressive orange and red tentacles used to catch fish and other jellyfish.
Bigger still, a pack of orca hunt off the west coast of the UK, but you would be very lucky to get a glimpse. Likewise, you would have to be in the right place at the right time to spot the other orca which frequent northern Scotland, or the even bigger giants such as fin and sperm whales which rarely swim off our coasts. You never know though, keep your eyes peeled... and let us know!
Together we need to protect their home
We think we’re pretty lucky to have these wildlife stars living in and over the seas around the UK. They are joined by a diverse cast of thousands, each dependent on us to make sure we protect the places they live. They face many risks such as pollution, climate change and overfishing. By supporting us, together we can work to combat these threats and give our wonderful marine wildlife a brighter future.
For more information on the threats our marine life are facing and how you can help, head here.