Surfing presents the perfect opportunity to enjoy the freedom of the waves, oodles of excitement, the fresh air AND the wonderful wildlife that can be encountered along the UK coast. Turning an already awesome experience into something you'll remember for the rest of your life, it's even possible to interact with some of the mammals you encounter along the way.
© Guillem Lopez Borras / Shutterstock.com
Although surfers understand the need to let the wildlife exist in peace in its own environment, sometimes, it's the marine creature who takes the initiative to approach the surfer - such as the sea lion who gave a surfer a friendly push with its flipper to help him catch a wave!
What wildlife can surfers see?
The different wildlife around the British coast alone makes surfing a fascinating experience. If you're surfing around Scotland, you might come face-to-face with Minke whales around the Small Isles – Rum, Eigg, Muck and Canna – on the west coast.
Your best chance of seeing them is between May and September when the sea is temperate. They are a regular sighting and local boat-owners organise trips to spot Minke whales, so if you're in the water, there's a good chance you’ll be able to get up close and personal with these beautiful creatures.
Bottlenose dolphins are a familiar sight in the waters around Cardigan Bay in Wales (home to the largest pod of dolphins in the UK), Land's End in Cornwall and Moray Firth in Scotland. Between June and October, the mild weather and abundance of food attract dolphins to the shoreline, as they fish for food during the summer and early autumn.
Atlantic grey seals are a familiar sight at New Quay in Wales over the summer months. They can also be found around the Farne Islands, off the coast of Northumberland (home to a 5,500-strong grey seal colony) and at Blakeney Point on the north coast of Norfolk.
You'll also be likely to see puffins around the Farnes between April until late July. Their peak breeding season is in May and June, so this is the best time to surf at this beauty spot, where the waves are generally moderate and suited to surfers of differing abilities. Puffins are also found around Skomer Island, Wales.
If you're surfing around the Isle of Man, you'll see basking sharks - the second-largest fish in the world. Prevalent between May and August, they can be seen around 1km away from the shore. Passive creatures, basking sharks are not considered a danger to people, favouring plankton!
In the remote waters around the Outer Hebridean island of St Kilda, you will see one of the world's largest Northern Gannet populations. They spend three months on St Kilda, in a flock of up to 60,000 breeding pairs. After living on the island between August and October, the gannets migrate to Africa to avoid the harsh Hebridean winter.
Air and water temperature affect the wildlife around UK shores, with the majority of species appearing in large numbers during the summer and early autumn.
What famous wildlife encounters have surfers had?
Some animals are particularly curious when it comes to surfers, leading to some close encounters. In June 2020, Nick Thake, a photographer from Perth, Australia, captured a unique moment when a surfer was given a helping hand by a friendly sea lion.
Nick, who is also a marine scientist, had visited North Beach to take photos of the surf, when he spotted a mischievous sea lion popping up out of the water and pushing the oblivious surfer's board from behind with its flipper as he prepared to catch a wave! Nick, couldn't believe his luck when he captured the hilarious moment on film.
Another well-publicised encounter occurred in early April this year, when a friendly wild walrus, affectionately nicknamed Wally the Walrus in the media, began approaching surfers and paddleboarders off the coast of Pembrokeshire.
The mammal was believed to have arrived on an ice floe from the Arctic and was first seen off County Kerry before arriving on the Welsh coast. He spent a few days on the RNLI slipway at Tenby, where the lifeboat crews advised people to leave him in peace to relax after his long journey.
Wally is a protected species under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 and people who disturb him may be committing a criminal offence. However, the walrus had other ideas and overturned a rowing boat and then a fishing boat moored in the harbour as he tried to get on board.
Surfers are advised to stay away from wild animals and marine life in general, although if a creature appears to be injured or in distress, report it to the RSPCA. This includes whales, seals, dolphins, seabirds and other sea animals who appear to be sick or tangled up in plastic waste.
What marine life will surfers see across the world?
If you plan a surfing trip abroad when travel restrictions are lifted, you will probably see some more exotic marine life on your travels. Surfers in California will encounter the Gorgona Guitarfish - a flatfish that resembles its dangerous counterpart, the stingray, but without the sting.
Also look out for the leopard shark in Southern California, as it breeds close to the shore. Although it looks ferocious and can grow up to 5ft long, it has no interest in humans and will usually try to stay out of your way.
Surfing in Hawaii, you'll have a good chance to do some whale-watching. More than 10,000 humpback whales arrive at the Hawaiian Islands, after crossing the Pacific, each year during mating season in December. They give birth in the shallow coastal waters. They can jump up to 50ft out of the water - an impressive sight if you're on the shore, but not so good if you're catching the waves!
Wherever you go, seeing the local wildlife is an integral part of your surfing experience, but stay away when possible - admire it from afar!