Where to spot wildlife on the Great British coast

Coastal, Nature, The Great British Outdoors

Posted by Ruth on 27th June 2023

Coastal wildlife

The Great British coast is a unique and diverse habitat that’s home to around 1,200 different plants and marine animals. While some coastal wildlife is what you would expect to see, including seagulls, fish and crabs, others are more surprising, such as turtles, whales and even sharks.

You don’t need to travel too far to go on a wildlife-spotting holiday; some of the world’s most awe-inspiring marine creatures can be found just off the coast of Great Britain – you just have to know where to look. 

Here’s our guide to the more surprising residents of the Great British coast, where you can try to see them for yourself and how to behave responsibly around these wild coastal animals, as well as the best times of year to see them. And if you're thinking that a trip to the coast is definitely in order, take a look at our fantastic collection of coastal cottages by clicking the button below.

Coastal cottages in the UK

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Watch wildlife responsibly

Coastal wildlife welfare

While it's a real treat to see incredible Great British wildlife up close, it's extremely important to respect the fact that you are entering their habitat and behave responsibly around these wild animals.

We are very lucky to share our home with these coastal creatures, and we want to keep it that way - so we all have a responsibility to avoid disturbing these marine animals so they can continue to thrive. 

The Seal Alliance's guidance for spotting seals in the wild encourages us to follow six simple steps to avoid disturbing these creatures, but it's advice that can be applied to spotting any wild animal on the Great British coast:

  • Keep well away - use your camera or binoculars
  • Keep quiet so seals can't hear you
  • Keep downwind so seals can't smell you
  • Keep out of sight so seals can't see you
  • Keep dogs under control on leads
  • Keep your litter with you to take home

Dolphins map

Where you can see dolphins on the UK coast

It’s not just tropical islands where you can see dolphins; there are many pods of these beautiful marine mammals living off the Great British coast too. In fact, there are at least seven species of dolphins that can be found in our waters and sighting a group of them out at sea is a truly magical experience.

One of the most popular places to see dolphins in Great Britain is Chanonry Point between Fortrose and Rosemarkie in northern Scotland. Here, the best time to see dolphins is on a rising tide when they chase the fish up the Moray Firth; due to the narrowness of the firth, they appear a matter of metres away from the shore - although it's important to keep your distance. 

There is also a large pod of dolphins – believed to be the UK’s biggest – living off the coast of Wales at Cardigan Bay. The area has been deemed the best place in Europe to spot dolphins, and you can see this pod of bottlenose dolphins up close on a responsibly chartered boat trip.

Other great places to see dolphins on the Great British coast include the Farne Islands in Northumberland, Labrador Bay in Devon and Porthgwarra in Cornwall.

Seals map

Where to find seals on the UK coast

Seals are some of the cutest creatures you can spot along the Great British coast, and there are plenty of places you can see them up close. Both grey seals and common seals are found on Great British shores, and summer and autumn are when they come to shore and seek out a peaceful, quiet beach to raise their pups. 

Quite possibly the best place to see seals in Great Britain is Blakeney National Nature Reserve in Norfolk. Over 2,000 seal pups are born on the long stretch of sand here each year and you can see them for yourself at a safe distance on a boat trip, where they’re often basking in the sun. If you're looking for where to find seals in Norfolk, Blakeney is the best seal beach around. 

The Farne Islands, off the coast of Northumberland, is also a brilliant place to see seals, being home to the largest grey seal colony on the east coast. This is another place where you can catch a boat trip to see the colony, and you might be greeted by a little seal or two popping up to say hello in the water!

Heading further north, the Orkney Islands are home to around 25,000 grey seals and 7,000 common seals, so you have a high chance of spotting these marine mammals here too.

Wherever you choose to visit, make sure you keep your distance from seals and their pups, do everything possible to avoid disturbing them, and keep your dogs on leads so as not to scare them.

Whales map

Where to see whales on the UK coast

Believe it or not, the Great British coast has a few great places where you can see the majestic sight of whales swimming in the wild ocean. The most common species of whale you’ll see is the minke whale which, at around 8 metres long, makes quite a splash when it breaches the water and dives back down, its large, distinctive tail following behind.

One of the best places to see whales is the Minch – a stretch of water between the mainland of Scotland and the islands of Tiree, Coll and Mull. You can take boat trips out through the Minch to see these incredible creatures cruising through these sheltered waters at a safe distance. 

Another great place to go whale spotting is the very north of the country off the coast of the Shetland Isles, where huge humpback whales pass through the waters as they migrate from warmer African seas to the cooler waters in the north. This only happens in the summer months though, so plan your visit well!

Or, you could visit the Isles of Scilly where, in 2015, a bowhead whale was spotted off the coast – the first of its kind in the UK. The warmer waters around Scilly and the south of Cornwall are popular places for spying a range of whales as they feed in the cool summer waters.

Great British Coast

Sharks map

Where to find sharks on the UK coast

You might not think that sharks live in our coastal waters, but in fact, there are around 40 species that can be found in the Great British coast, and 21 of them live here all year round. You needn’t think twice before getting in the sea though – there have been no unprovoked shark attacks in British waters since records began, and these species are totally uninterested in humans. In fact, humans pose far more danger to these sharks than they do to us. 

Whether or not you fear them, seeing a shark in the wild is an experience that’s sure to get your heart racing! If you're searching for where to see basking sharks, one of the best places is off the tip of Cornwall, around Penzance, where you can see these sharks from the comfort of a boat, or even go snorkelling in waters where these giant coastal creatures swim – but remember to keep a safe and respectful distance. 

The waters around the Inner Hebrides are also a great place to see basking sharks in Great Britain; the summer months are the best time to see sharks as this is when they feed in the warmer waters. There are boat trips running from Oban, and you can also swim, snorkel and kayak with these gentle beasts along with a responsible guide. 

Other great places to spot sharks include Cardigan Bay in Wales, Lyme Bay in Dorset and the Isle of Man.

Puffins map

Where to see puffins on the UK coast

While perhaps not as impressive as sharks and whales, puffins are a delightful sight on the Great British coast, with their bright parrot-like faces contrasting with their black and white bodies. Puffins are a common sea bird, however, they are deemed ‘vulnerable’ in terms of conservation, so seeing one is a rare treat and makes it all the more important that we behave responsibly around them. 

One of the best puffin locations on the Great British coast is the Farne Islands, where there are around 40,000 nesting pairs in the colony. The best time to visit is in the summer months when they return to the islands to breed – a boat trip from Seahouses will take you to the islands and keep you a safe distance away to avoid disturbing these beautiful birds. 

Lundy Island, off the coast of North Devon, is named after the old Norse for ‘puffin island’ and as such is a brilliant place to visit if you want to catch a glimpse of these distinctive sea birds. The best months to visit are between April and August, and you might also spot some seals off the coast of the 5-mile-long island while you’re there too.

Skomer Island in Pembrokeshire also has a large puffin population too, which returns to nest in April until August. However, the best time of year to see puffins here is mid-June to mid-July when you can see entire cliff faces peppered with these endearing coastal birds.

Turtles map

Where to see turtles on the UK coast

Great Britain is probably not the first place that comes to mind when you think of where you can spot sea turtles, however, out of the seven species of marine turtles that exist, you can see five of them in our coastal waters. The most common is the leatherback turtle which can reach up to 2.5 metres in length!

They are a rare sight in UK waters, but you have the best chance of spotting these impressive marine animals in August and September when they come to spend time in the temperate waters of our coast and munch on swarms of jellyfish.

If you're wondering where to find turtles in the wild, the south coast of Cornwall is one of the best places to chance a rare glimpse of leatherback turtles; a 6-foot-long turtle was seen off the Penzance coast in 2016. Other places to try include the Shetland Islands, St Agnes in Cornwall, and the Humberside area near Hull.

Stay by the UK coast

As well as offering the chance to spot rare marine wildlife, the Great British coast is a brilliant place to visit whether you want to get your adrenaline pumping with some high-octane water sports or are seeking a relaxing break soaking up the tranquil views. Our coastal cottages allow you to base yourself close to the country’s most spectacular marine landscapes, for an unforgettable holiday by the sea.  

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Disclaimer: Whilst every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of the information at the time of writing, please ensure you check carefully before making any decisions based on the contents within this article.