The Jewels in the Ocean Crown

The ocean around the UK attracts a multitude of weird and wonderful sea creatures that would look more at home in the tropics. From sparkling sea slugs to colourful corals, our ocean is home to a wealth of far more exotic creatures than anyone might imagine!

A new documentary series, Our Planet, narrated by Sir David Attenborough, is exploring the fascinating hidden lives of coastal sea creatures. The spectacular series invites viewers to share our planet's natural beauty, while highlighting how climate change impacts all living creatures.

bottlenose dolphin

© Tory Kallman / Shutterstock.com

The ambitious documentary provides a timely reminder that we all need to adopt a more eco-friendly lifestyle to assure our planet's future. Read on to find out more about the magnificent marine life you might spot around Britain's coastal regions.

 

Harbour porpoise

The harbour porpoise is the smallest member of the cetacean group of marine creatures that also includes dolphins and whales. Measuring only 1.5 metres long, it is nicknamed the "puffing pig" because of the odd sound it makes when surfacing to breathe.

There are around 170,000 harbour porpoises in UK coastal waters, including off the Isle of Man. Although not critically endangered in UK waters, this shy creature often falls victim to fishing nets, where, sadly, they suffocate and die, according to the World Wildlife Fund.

 

Nudibranchs

Nudibranchs are sea slugs - which of course are nothing like the common garden slugs you see every day! Pronounced "nudi-branks", this sea-dwelling species is colourful because it gets its bright hues from the food it eats. If they devour prey that contains poison, nudibranchs can reuse it to defend themselves against predators!

Their lungs are on the outside of their body - in fact, their name translates to "naked gills", as they sport frilled gills on their back that they use to breathe.

Scientists in Japan have found one species of nudibranch that can pop off its head and regrow its entire body in only two weeks!

Not currently an endangered species, they live in coral reefs; so, if the reefs decline, so will the sea slugs.

 

Bottlenose dolphin

Bottlenose dolphins are sociable, intelligent and beautiful animals. Like humans and apes, they are one of the few species who can recognise themselves in a mirror. They can sleep with one eye open, and one half of their brain awake; so, they can make sure their group sticks together, while looking out for predators 24/7!

There are several resident pods of bottlenose dolphins around UK shores including in Cornwall, Cardigan Bay in Wales and in Scotland's Moray Firth. Surfers at Sennen beach in west Cornwall had a surprise when they came face-to-face with a pod of bottlenose dolphins. One even photo-bombed the surfers by leaping out of the water behind them!

Small groups of dolphins may be seen almost anywhere in UK coastal waters.

 

Basking shark

In May 2016, surfers at Porthcurno beach, off the Cornish coast, had a shock when they saw the tell-tale fin of a shark pop up in the ocean, only feet away. The real-life scene wasn't as terrifying as the movie Jaws, however, as it was a harmless basking shark, who had come to investigate what was going on.

The 22ft shark swam behind two surfing lifeguards. Luckily, basking sharks pose no threat to humans at all and are merely curious. There were five basking sharks in total, including one who was feeding just feet away from visitors to the beach.

Basking sharks can be found off the Cornish coast, around the Isle of Man and the Hebrides. Seasonal visitors, they can be seen from May to October each year.

 

Pink sea fan

The pretty pink sea fan is a species of soft coral that grows very slowly and can live up to 50 years. It has stinging tentacles that are used to catch its prey: microscopic, tiny creatures that you can't see with the naked eye.

Sadly, the pink sea fan is sensitive to climate change, as it is causing fluctuations in the water temperatures. Cold-water corals in the UK are just as important to the ocean's ecosystem as the species in the tropics, as other marine life depends on them.

 

Sunfish

The sunfish produces the most eggs of any vertebrate and is also the world's heaviest bony fish. A summer visitor to the UK's coasts, it is attracted by its main food source, jellyfish.

It gets its name from its pastime of basking in the sun, on its side, at the surface of the water. Surfers who have come face-to-face with a sunfish have fondly described it as a "big floating blob" - an apt name since they can grow up to 10 ft long.

Sadly, marine litter is a major threat to sunfish. The species often mistakes plastic bags for food. This can leave harmful plastics in its stomach, or cause choking. Although the International Union for Conservation of Nature has listed the sunfish as "vulnerable", it is not yet classed as endangered.

 

Looking after our beaches

In order to help preserve our oceans and their fascinating inhabitants, everyone must do their bit.

On a personal level, never leave litter on the beach, especially plastic food wrappers and bags. If there isn't a bin about when you're outdoors, no matter where you are, take your litter home with you.

If you can't do anything practical in person to help clean up our beaches, you can support charities such as Surfers Against Sewage. Formed in 1990, by Cornish surfers from Porthtowan and St Agnes, their aim is to combat the rising tide of plastic that is killing and injuring our marine life.