Winning tip: Farne Islands, Northumberland
This May, my boyfriend and I took a boat trip to the Farne Islands, off the coast of Northumberland. We were hoping to see some sea birds and I was expecting to see a puffin or two, if we were lucky. But we saw guillemots, Arctic terns, fulmars, shags, razorbills, kittiwakes and hundreds of puffins. We also spotted grey seals lounging on the rocks. My expectations were already blown out of the water, but then on the return journey we came across a pod of bottlenose dolphins. The captain did a handbrake turn and they jumped alongside the boat. As a child I adored dolphins but had never seen them in the wild– it was such a magical moment and so unexpected.
• Farne island boat trips at National Trust website
Humpback whales, Madagascar
With two friends I was on the last lap of an adventure in Madagascar, spending a few days relaxing on Nosy Boraha (also called Île Sainte-Marie). We took a canoe out to the sea to get closer to migrating humpback whales, and noticed a mother and calf in the distance breaching from the water. After a few minutes they disappeared, leaving the three of us scanning the horizon for signs of movement. Suddenly, a few feet from our canoe, the huge eye of the mother appeared, deep, black, and staring straight at us. She was giving us the once-over and, deciding we were not a threat, she rolled over to reveal her calf, nestled against her belly. We sat for a while, gazing, and then they dived, turning into hazy smudges as they disappeared.
“Orcas!” shouted Dave, a Stromness resident, our friend and host. Having been notified on his Orkney cetacean alert app, he was glued to his telescope, viewing a pod of six orcas in Stromness harbour. “Looks like they are moving towards the coast, get in the car!” Slinging on our warmest waterproofs, we raced down to the Point of Ness via the campsite and arrived as the pod rounded the headland. The two adults guided their four young on their breakfast fishing spree along the coast at Guardhouse Park. As they headed off up the coast out of sight, we headed back for our own breakfasts, elated.
Great white sharks, Cape Town
A couple of years ago I was in Cape Town for a wedding. The city is one of the best places in the world for spotting great white sharks, and we hopped on a conservation boat with some PhD students studying great whites’ behaviour in Hout Bay. The boat took us to Seal Island, about 20 minutes out. Around 30,000 seals were crammed on to what was essentially a very large rock. Deafened by the noise of the seals, we watched as great whites started circling the island, picking off young seals one by one. The sheer power of the sharks was intense. To top the trip off, we were followed by a pod of around 20 dolphins on the way back to shore and spotted a Bryde’s whale descending. Incredible experience.
In Barbados it is not uncommon to see hawksbill, green and leatherback sea turtles, but you are normally surrounded by dozens of other tourists, especially if you are on any kind of organised trip. For an altogether more relaxing swim with the likelihood of encountering these magnificent creatures, I often head to Carlisle Bay early in the morning. At that time of the day everyone is at the far ends of the beach and the tourist boats are nowhere to be seen. We have spent many a peaceful hour snorkelling around the shipwreck and coral, almost always in the company of a handful of sea turtles and huge shoals of reef fish.
Is there anything more captivating than a rock pool? Discovering these miniature ecosystems on a holiday in Corralejo, Fuerteventura, took me straight back to my childhood. Aged five, crouching on a Cornish beach, prodding anemones and scooping more sand than sea life into a bucket, life couldn’t have been more glorious. Now older, I’ve recaptured that pleasure, spotting tiny hermit crabs, suckerfish and curious little beautifully coloured blennies. Transparent shrimp tickled my feet as they investigated me, and crabs emerged from their rocky shelters to graze on algae. I could have spent hours watching all these fascinating little creatures.
Otter, Isle of Skye
There was a hissing sound like an angry cat and I looked up to see my first British otter in the wild – the culmination of many years of unsuccessful otter walks from the River Otter in Devon to the Isle of Mull. Otters are claimed on many rivers and much of our coastline but they have been avoiding me for years! My wife caught up with me just as the otter disappeared into Broadford Bay. We headed back down the coast savouring the late afternoon light and suddenly the otter re-emerged from the sea and climbed out on to a rock with a newly caught crab. It was too engrossed to notice us this time, and we enjoyed a superb and extended view of this beautiful and elusive creature.
Puffins, Staffa, Inner Hebrides
A 50-minute boat ride from Fionnphort, Mull, off the west coast of Scotland, is the Isle of Staffa. Landing on the island, you walk up a steep set of stairs and along a ridge before stopping at the cliff edge to watch puffins dive for fish. The puffins seemed unafraid of people: when we sat down to recover from the walk a puffin landed next to us to watch for fish. Its bright beak against a grey north Atlantic sky was beautiful, and watching the playful nature of the puffins’ dives was so absorbing we nearly missed the boat home. The three-hour trip costs £35pp with Staffa Tours from Mull or Iona.
Whales in the winter, Norway
The polar night, minus 20C, just above the Arctic circle in Skjervøy (four hours’ drive north-east of Tromsø) and I’m surrounded by pods of humpback whales and orcas. This is the only place in the world where the two animals share their skills to hunt herring. (This is a subject of scientific enquiry, so visitors and tours should follow guidelines at visittromso.no.) To be on a still boat, encircled by the curious animals, hearing only the sound of their powerful breath in a magical setting is nothing short of mesmerising. Most trips take place between November and January, according to the whale and herring migration. Whales, aurora borealis and frozen fjords – there’s a lot to love about this trip.
• From £130 for 3½-hour trip, wildseas.no, also from Lyngen and Tromsø, (see visittromso.no for more trips).
Kayaking and whales, California
If your best whale sighting has been a glimpse from a crowded whale-watching boat, you need to go kayaking at Moss Landing in Monterey Bay. Dave, our guide, told us we’d see half a dozen whales, plus some seals and otters. That was an understatement. We quickly lost count of the whales, and couldn’t even begin to count the otters. Not only that, but seeing them at eye level, without a boat rail separating you, really brings home their true scale and majesty. Dave warned us it might not be the safest thing we would ever do, but it was undoubtedly one of the best.
• Humpback whales/sea otters tour $75, April-October, santacruzkayak.com
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