Pembrokeshire's beautiful coastline is a paradise for marine wildlife, with a mix of year-round and seasonal creatures flocking to its shores. Seals, dolphins and porpoises are regularly spotted off the coast, but there might be some other visitors that you might not have expected, like sharks and whales.
The Unique Pembrokeshire Coastline
Located on the edge of the "Celtic Deep", Pembrokeshire's coastline is filled with nutrient-rich waters from the Atlantic ocean, creating a diverse ecosystem ideal for feeding and breeding where marine wildlife thrives. Designated a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) the waters have been relatively untouched by the impact of human life such as urbanisation and family, and as the only coastal National Park in the UK, are protected to ensure marine life continues to flourish. It means Pembrokeshire is in a unique position that species have disappeared from other coastal areas. They're not alone though and share their coastal home with seasonal visitors from across the world, who flock to Pembrokeshire’s shores year after year and it's one of the only places in the UK where you can reliably
The Atlantic Grey Seal
Pembrokeshire has a strong kinship with the Atlantic grey seal, who can be spotted playing and swimming in the waters around the coast throughout the year. There’s an estimated 5,000 living within Pembrokeshire’s waters, so it’s safe to say they're happy and can be seen close to the mainland and even in the estuary.
Where to spot grey seals
The seals come ashore at different times of the year including in spring and winter to moult, and in autumn to have their pups so there’s always a chance to see them from the coast path.
Breeding season is between late August and November and you can often see the fluffy white pups dotted along coves, bays and beaches, from the coast path. Pembrokeshire’s offshore island nature reserves are also popular with the seals, with large populations on both Skomer and Ramsey. It’s believed on Ramsey Island alone, between 500 and 700 pups are born each year making it one of the largest breeding sites in the British Isles.
While it's an amazing experience to spot seals along the coast, especially the fluffy white pups, it's always important to remember the breeding season is one of the most important times for the seal, and not to disturb them.
Find out more with our dedicated guide to seal spotting in Pembrokeshire and how you can safely enjoy these magical animals.
These highly intelligent and exuberant creatures put on amazing displays around the coast of Pembrokeshire and it’s a special sight to see them frolic in the waters off the mainland. The majority of dolphins you’ll see are of the bottlenose variety though common dolphins have also been spotted around the coast of Pembrokeshire and Ceredigion, but in fewer numbers. They prefer the waters of the Irish Sea and coastline and are more likely to be spotted in boats heading out into the channel, where they enjoy bow-riding ahead of the vessels.
The bottlenose dolphins are dark grey, with a lighter stomach and measures between 10 and 14ft long and weighing up to 1,100-lb. They can travel at up to 18mph and remain submerged for up to 20 minutes, although they normally surface for breath two or three times a minute and can breach up to a height of 16ft above the surface. Usually found in large family groups, they are incredibly social animals and don’t mind showing off.
Where to spot dolphins
While dolphins love the limelight, the sea is a vast landscape for them to get lost in and they’re not always easy to find by yourself. For the best chance of seeing these wonderful creatures, opt for one of the sea safaris tours, who know their feeding grounds and can easily track a pod down. Once you do come across the dolphins there can be hundreds together, who aren't shy about getting close to the boats.
If you want to stay on land, the best areas to spot them from the coast is between Strumble Head and Cardigan Bay, especially between Poppit Sands and Fishguard, where they sometimes come into the harbour.
Some of the best providers are Celtic Wildcat Sea Life Adventures, Saundersfoot Safaris, Falcon Boats, Voyages of Discovery, and Thousand Islands Expedition.
The harbour porpoise is one of the smallest marine mammals and is noticeably shyer than the sociable dolphins. As the name suggests, it likes to stay close to the coast and will pop up in harbours and even on the estuary. They often get mistaken for dolphins, but are noticeably smaller with a leaner body and have longer snouts, bigger mouths, and a more curved dorsal fin.
Where to spot harbour porpoises
Due to their tendency to stick close to land, it's not necessary to take a boat to see harbour porpoises, and can be spotted frequenting the long stretch of coast between Strumble Head and St Davids Head in large numbers.
The viewing hide on Strumble Head is an ideal place to watch porpoises. Just offshore are deep depressions all along the coast which cause upwellings, bringing the porpoise’s favourite food of small schooling fish such as herring, capelin, squid and sprat nearer to the surface.
Occasional sightings of fin whales have been reported off the Pembrokeshire coast in recent years, and those who see them are fortunate as they are an endangered species. Also known as the finback, razorback or common rorqual, they are the second-longest animal in the world and the second-largest rorqual after the blue whale, often reaching 89ft and weighing nearly 74 tonnes. At around 24mph, with bursts of 29mph, it is capable of outstripping the fastest ocean steamship and has been said to have the slender, hydrodynamic shape of a racing yacht.
This has given it the nickname “Greyhound of the Sea”.
The Minke whale has often been spotted in the waters off the Pembrokeshire coast in recent years and is the most common whale glimpsed in the Irish Sea. The northern Minke measures an average of 24ft long, although maximum lengths vary between 30 and 35ft. They weigh between 4.4 and 5.5 short tonnes, although an 11-tonne example has been recorded. They are black, grey, or purple in colour with white undersides, and the northern species is distinguished by a white band on each flipper.
They can live for between 30 and 50 years, although 60 years have been recorded. Minkes are identifiable from other whales by their size and the fact that when they dive, they do not allow their flukes to break the surface. They are more often to be seen than other whales because they are quite inquisitive and will approach a passing boat.
The sei whale is the third largest of its species group, behind only the blue and fin whale, and can be found in most oceans and sea, though rarely polar or tropical waters and prefer deep offshore waters. One of all aqua mammals, it can reach speeds up to 31mph over short distances.
Whale spotting in Pembrokeshire
The minke, sei and fin are the most commonly spotted close to Pembrokeshire, but they're not the only species to have been seen in the Irish Sea including humpbacks and orcas. You won't be able to spot any whales from the coast unless you're very lucky. For the chance to watch these incredible creatures, you will need to head out into the Irish Sea on one of the sea safaris. Though much rarer than dolphins and porpoises, it's a real treat if you do manage to glimpse one of these majestic animals. Whale watching is available between May and September, with June the best month.
The world’s largest sea turtle, the leatherback turtle on average measures around 2.9 meters in length and weighs a mighty 144 stone. The leatherback is distinctive from other sea turtle species by its lack of a bony shell, instead, it’s covered by oily flesh and leather-like skin, which inspired the name.
Though usually found in open oceans, they have been visiting the waters around Pembrokeshire and Ceredigion for millions of years, attracted by the abundance of jellyfish, their favourite food, who they follow into the coastal waters.
Where to spot the leatherback turtle?
It’s rare to spot the leatherback turtle in Pembrokeshire both because there are so few and because it’s difficult to notice them when they are there. While very large creatures, when in the water their entire body is submerged with only the head visible, which can be easily mistaken for a piece of driftwood. Despite this sightings of the animals have increased in recent years, believed to be due to increasing awareness of its presence around the coast. The best chance to see them is by taking a sea safari tour out into the waters and keep those fingers crossed!