The waters around the Pembrokeshire coast are teeming with coastal creatures, with flocks of beautiful birds overhead. From sharks and dolphins, to whales and porpoises, during a stay at Bluestone you might be lucky enough to witness these magnificent animals in their natural habitat. So on a trip to the coast, watch the waves and keep an eye out for these stunning sea creatures.
Basking sharks are not sharks at all in the ‘Jaws’ sense, so there is no need for panic when the huge form of this gentle browser of the coastal waters is seen beneath the surface just off the Pembrokeshire coast.
The sight of a basking shark is one of the bonuses of a boat trip to the bird sanctuary island of Skomer, and, if you can get close enough to appreciate the bulk of this marine creature - the second largest ‘fish’ in the sea - it might be possible to make out the huge gape of its mouth as it feeds on its staple diet of plankton.
These huge creatures measure an average of 20-26ft and weigh around six tonnes, although a giant caught in a herring net in the Bay of Fundy, Canada, in 1851 measured 40ft and weighed 21 tonnes. They are typically shark-shaped and have been mistaken for great whites but, unlike the great white’s dagger-like teeth, the basking shark’s teeth are tiny. Another distinction is the huge gape of the metre-wide mouth and the gill slits which almost encircle the head.
These highly intelligent and exuberant creatures put on amazing displays in all corners of Cardigan Bay and around the coast of Pembrokeshire, which attracts hundreds of visitors to the area each year. Increasing numbers of tourists are taking boat trips out into the bay and round the coast of Pembrokeshire to watch these spectacular exhibitions of swimming skill and agility, performed by marine mammals with which man has established a unique relationship down the centuries.
If you are lucky, you’ll be among the passengers aboard the ferryboats between Fishguard and Rosslare and also those from Pembroke Dock who will catch a glimpse of dolphins keeping pace with the ship or romping and leaping (known as breaching) nearby.
They can even breach up to a height of 16ft above the surface. 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.
They communicate with their own complex language of squeaks, whistles and clicks and can detect prey or enemies by echolocation, which man has copied in his sonar devices.
The Common Dolphin is not so well-known off the Welsh coast as the larger, though lesser spotted, Bottlenose Dolphin, which has a healthy and flourishing population in Cardigan Bay. The Common Dolphin is between 6.2 and 8.2ft long and weighs between 180 and 518-lb, as opposed to the bottlenose at between 10 and 14ft long and weighing up to 1,100-lb.
It is sometimes confused with the porpoise, although the porpoise never leaps out of the water. Common dolphins are frequently seen in the Irish Sea and around the Irish coast and they seem to love bow-riding ahead of boats, often in large numbers. Passengers on ferries and cruise ships often see them around their boat for long periods, happily riding the waves.
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”.
It is not necessary to take a boat to see harbour porpoises, they usually stay close inshore, entering harbours - as their name suggests - and 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. Porpoises are the smallest of the marine mammals, measuring about six feet long and weighing just under 12-stone.
At close quarters, their small eyes and blunt noses are visible and their intakes of breath - like loud sighs - are audible.
Once hunted almost to the brink of extinction, humpback whales are a species of baleen whale, one of the larger rorqual species ranging in size from 39 to 52ft long and weighing up to 79,000-lb. Humpbacks are sometimes spotted off the Pembrokeshire coast during their 16,000-mile annual migratory journeys from polar waters to tropical or sub-tropical regions.
The town of Milford Haven owes its very existence to the whaling industry as it was founded just over 200 years ago to accommodate loyalist Quaker whaling families from Nantucket Island, who were anxious to escape the aftermath of the American War of Independence.
There are now an estimated 80,000 humpbacks worldwide, and these huge creatures feed only in summertime in polar waters, migrating south in winter when they fast, living on their fat reserves, until they reach tropical and subtropical waters to breed.
Killer Whales, or Orcas, are the ocean's top predators. In fact, they are called ‘apex predators’ because they have no predators above them to treat them as prey. However, these big and powerful toothed whales are so tame and seemingly friendly when they are trained to perform at marine theme parks, that it is difficult to think of them as ruthless and savage ocean killers.
The Orca will hunt in packs when it attacks its prey of seals, sea lions and walruses and even the occasional whale, and will use its keen intelligence and its echolocation skills to hunt down and catch its food.
They are the largest members of the dolphin family, males reaching 20 to 26ft long and weighing in excess of six tonnes, the largest on record being 32ft long and weighing 11 tonnes. Females are smaller, the largest on record being 28ft long and 8.3 tonnes in weight.
The Minke whale has often been spotted in the waters off the Pembrokeshire coast in recent years. Indeed, only 50 miles across St George’s Channel, whale-watching expeditions set sail from County Cork to spot Minkes and several other cetaceans in the waters of the Western Approaches.
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 has 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.