How to spot wildlife on the beach – and how not to disturb or harm it

If you are lucky you can see harbor seals (Phoca vitulina) but it is kind to keep your distance

James Warwick/Getty Images

Beaches aren’t just popular with people – the rocks, dunes, cliffs and seas of coastal environments are vital habitats for some of our most precious organisms. It can be easy to miss this amid all the swimming, sunbathing and ice cream, so here’s a list of the wildlife to look for on the coast – and what you can do to enjoy it without harming it . This article is an adapted excerpt from the July Wild Wild Life Newsletter – To Receive new scientist‘s free nature newsletter in your inbox every month, sign up here.

marine mammals

There is nothing 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 risk stressing these animals and disrupting their normal behavior. You can avoid this by checking the references of each boat tour provider – ask them what they do to minimize nuisance, if they work with conservation organizations or if they participate in something like the WiSe program. As a rule of thumb, operators who operate small to medium-sized boats with an emphasis on science and conservation are generally better. Outfits with many trips a day, or very large boats, are more likely to disturb the animals.

Outside of boat trips, if you encounter sea creatures in the water (e.g. when kayaking or paddle boarding) or on the beach (in the case of seals), it’s a good idea to keep a distance of about 200 meters so that there are none to startle them.

Rock Pooling/Tide Pooling

Exploring waterholes for marine life is a childhood fun and has surprises in store for adults too. But it undoubtedly also disturbs the animals. On balance, if you keep a few rules in mind, the benefits of learning about these habitats may outweigh the drawbacks of temporarily disturbing them.

When approaching a rock pool, take it easy and position yourself so that you don’t cast a shadow that could scare off animals. Before you put your hands in it, take a moment to see what you can see: seaweed, anemones, shrimp, maybe a crab. You’ll see more if you flip a rock to see what’s underneath, but make sure you put it back where it was, and the sooner you can do this the better.

If you want to take a closer look, you can scoop it up in a bucket or other container with some seawater for a short time. Observe him – count his paws, note his color, watch him move – then put him back. Don’t catch more than one animal at a time in a bucket – some animals will eat the others.

Be careful when touching soft organisms, they are fragile and can be easily injured. Do not put your feet in a pool or remove seaweed, as this will disrupt the ecosystem.

To learn more about the joys of rock pooling, which is known as tide pooling in the US, read Joshua Howgego’s report on going to the beach with marine biologist and author Helen Scales.

Bird watching

The UK is important worldwide as a feeding and breeding area for seabirds and waders. While many species overwinter here, a number of species come to the British coasts in the spring and summer to breed or to refuel as they fly south from Scandinavia and the Arctic. However, many species leave from the end of July and during August, so early summer is better to spot them.

To see birds such as lapwings, oystercatchers, avocets, little plovers and green sandpipers, look for a special wildlife sanctuary with plenty of wetland habitats – salt marsh, mudbanks and estuaries are all ideal wading areas.

For the breeding of seabirds such as puffins, guillemots, razorbills and gannets, you need to find a cliff area where seabird breeding colonies live. Many of these are located on islands, so a boat trip is often the best choice, especially if you can observe these beautiful birds from a respectful distance.

If you enjoy walking your dog along the coast, pay attention to local signs and no-go areas, and listen to any requests to keep your dog on a leash. Many shorebirds nest on the ground and dogs can have a devastating effect on their efforts to raise their young.

2022 is proving to be a tragic year for seabirds. A deadly form of bird flu, originating in farmed poultry, is circulating among wild birds and killing them in large numbers, especially in the UK, the Netherlands, Israel and India. If you see a sick or dead bird, do not touch it. If you come across about three dead birds (the exact number will depend on the bird species) in the UK, please report them to the Government Helpline: 03459 33 55 77. Reporting them will remove them which can help prevent that carcasses are spreading the virus to even more birds.

Wildflowers

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 look up, but it’s not uncommon to hear people trampling plants in their efforts to find one that’s in bloom and capture the perfect shot. To avoid this, stay on trails as much as possible, avoid crossing fences or other protective barriers, and be aware that coastal ecosystems can be very fragile.

Before you go…

Binoculars allow you to observe wildlife from a distance and a few field guides help you identify what you find.

Tides change quickly, rip currents are not clear and cliffs crumble. Look up safety guidelines before looking for wildlife and pay attention to the signage. Tell someone where and when you’re going in case you run into trouble and don’t have a phone signal. Bring suitable clothing, sunscreen and water and limit your sun exposure in the middle of the day (11am to 3pm in the UK summer). And on days with extreme heat, just stay home.

Waste plastic is now a common sight on beaches and family outings can involve a lot of single-use plastic. Consider bringing your own lunch and drinks in reusable containers. Store and reuse buckets, shovels, and other beach toys, including body boards — the cheap ones break easily and thousands are thrown away every year.

If you eat seafood, it’s worth looking up what kinds of sustainable choices are in the area you’ll be visiting and looking for sustainable seafood certifications in restaurants and cafes.

Memories

Finally – resist taking a souvenir. It is illegal to pick up pebbles from beaches in the UK and removing shells can contribute to the deterioration of the local ecosystem. It’s a cliché, but a photo is really the best way to remember your trip.

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