Humpback whales are becoming an increasingly common sight off the coast of Britain, according to a 2021 sea survey, but dumped fishing tackle is causing an increasing number of stranded seals and dolphins.
Walruses, pufferfish and furrowed crabs were among the sea creatures from distant places that visited Britain and Ireland this year due to the climate crisis, according to Wildlife Trusts, while sea parrots returned to the Isle of Man for the first time in 30 years after a rat extinction program.
White-billed dolphins were spotted off Essex for the first time in more than two decades, and native oyster populations have been re-established in Yorkshire, Essex and Northern Ireland after years of overfishing, pollution and disease. The sand lizard has been successfully reintroduced into the dunes of Lancashire.
Conservationists said 2021 had been a positive year for marine ecosystems around the British Isles, with schemes put in place to restore salt marshes and huge seaweed forests that provide shelter for wildlife, including two species of seahorses. But an increase in stranding of whales signaled problems at sea. In Cornwall, more than 170 whales, dolphins and guinea pigs were stranded this year along with 247 seals, many injured due to fishing activity.
Lissa Batey, head of marine conservation for Wildlife Trusts, said: “It has been a fantastic year for marine megafauna sightings, especially in the southwest, but it is clear that our oceans are under enormous pressure from fishing, development, pollution, climate change and recreation. All these problems have a huge impact on life at sea. “
In Cornwall, a humpback whale was found stranded off Looe Island after being caught in fishing lines while seven gray seals washed up on Mousehole beach within two days, associated with the spider crab.
Despite the strandings, a significant number of humpback whales were seen around the coast, once an extremely rare sight. More than 75 sightings have been recorded since 2019, a sign that populations are recovering from a ban on commercial whaling, according to conservationists. The Isles of Scilly Wildlife Trust saw humpback whales feeding around the islands with an individual named Pi who stayed for more than two months. Several were seen in the Firth of Forth and off Shetland.
Matt Slater, marine conservation officer for the Cornwall Wildlife Trusts, said: “Only a few years ago it would have been extremely rare to see a humpback whale around the UK. But it seems they are hunting large shoals of sardines that are now present around our shores. It is magnificent to see these creatures up close. “
In 2021, an Arctic walrus nicknamed Wally was seen around the coast of Britain, often seen lying on boats, perhaps driven by melting sea ice in the polar north. Another walrus was seen off Northumberland and around Shetland. In October, a ballfish washed up in Cornwall for the first time in 20 years, a species rarely found so far north.
Wildlife Trusts also warned that there had been an increase in human disturbance of marine animals, with three times as many incidents since 2014. An increase in jet skis and motorboats is a leading cause for concern. This year, the Wildlife Trust of South and West Wales witnessed a seal pup being abandoned by its mother after people were seen taking selfies with the puppy.
Dr. Emily Baxter, senior marine conservation officer at North West Wildlife Trusts, said: “We have fantastic sea life in the UK and we’ve had some fantastic sightings this year, from a kind of dancing sea snails in Cumbria to puffins coming back. It’s important to remind people that they do not actually have to travel to distant places to see amazing sea life. “