It was late afternoon, last summer. The sun was setting and I was gently bobbing up and down on a lifeboat of all places. My uncle is on one of the local lifeboats and I was lucky enough to tag along on one of their training exercises. We’d been speeding up and down the coast, putting the boat through its paces. While having a rest I looked out across the water. Tiny waves crested and the brown murky expanse stretched far away into the distance. A movement caught my eye and I grew excited as a small curved fin cut through the water. The slate-grey rounded fin was so small, it could only belong to one thing. The little porpoise drew closer to the boat and I watched incredulous as it continued to glide nearer still. It still makes me smile remembering this shy little relative of the mighty ocean-going whales coming up to us, investigating the visitors to its marine abode. It disappeared back into the depths and that was it. But it got me thinking.
It’s easy to look at the sea off our Norfolk coast and see only a brown lifeless void. Some people know that there are numerous species of dazzling fish and interesting invertebrates but how many of us really appreciate just how beautiful our local marine habitats are? They are so productive in fact that they sustain some of the largest animals on the planet. As a biologist, when an animal hits ‘supersized’ category, we refer to it as being megafauna, and our Norfolk coastline has its fair share of marine megafauna. My little porpoise does not qualify for this heavy weight status; for that, we need to look at its larger cousins.
With healthy fish stocks and beautifully-complex food webs, you might be lucky enough to encounter huge filter-feeding whales in the summer months. There have been many welcome sightings of humpbacks back in the area after many years away. These boisterous and playful whales chase shoals of small fish and are known not only for their huge lumpy-looking flippers but also their aqua acrobatics, leaping into the air and making the world’s largest belly flop, aided by their 40-tonne bodies.
As part of my work, I sometimes attend wildlife dissections. It is scientifically invaluable but is always very emotional. Sadly with whales, it is sometimes the best way to see which species we have and to learn more about them. I attended the sperm whales strandings in north Norfolk a couple of years back and they were tragic. These deep-diving predators are not equipped for our turbid shallow waters and although their strandings are well-documented historically, we still do not know why they end up in the North Sea whale trap. It’s the surface-loving filter feeders that do well here.
I also attended a very different but very sad whale stranding last year. A baby fin whale had washed up on a long flat Norfolk beach in winter. I say baby but it was more than 30 feet long and weighed as much as a bus. A thorough investigation was made to rule out infections, diseases and boat strikes but it appears thing young giant had a deformed skeleton and sadly, nature harvests the weak.
Even in May this year, a Risso’s dolphin was sadly found stranded on the beach at Great Yarmouth. These small, dome-headed dolphins are found around the UK usually in deeper waters and are not often seen in our southern part of the North Sea. Although we don’t know yet what it was doing here or what led to its stranding, this just shows again how much more there is to learn about our elusive marine megafauna.
With humpbacks coming back like faithful summer tourists and baby baleen whales being found there are welcome signs that our seas are recovering. Marine wildlife faces huge problems from plastics and other pollutants to by-catch, over-fishing, and an increasing noisy marine environment in areas like the North Sea busy with shipping. Marine Conservation Zones, such as Norfolk’s chalk reef, are helping and signs that the public recognize the huge problem posed by plastics for marine wildlife are encouraging. However there is more to do if our marine megafauna is to return and thrive. Now we have to do our bit to make sure they stay here. Reducing the amounts of plastics we use at home, recycling what we throw away and getting involved with local beach cleans will all help our huge oceanic neighbours remain. Let’s do all we can to help more baby ocean giants call our local seas home.
Dr Ben Garrod, NWT Ambassador