Porpoise Watching with Sea Watch Foundation

Published: Wednesday 5th Sep 2018

Written by: Katie Bessant

The most common of UK cetaceans, (whales, dolphins and porpoises), harbour porpoises are regularly seen all year round from Capstone Point in Ilfracombe. During the summer months sightings increase as they come closer inshore, sometimes within metres of the Point, to feed on the shoals of mackerel.

Porpoises are small compared with dolphins, (which are rarely seen from Capstone), at less than 2m in length. With their dark back, small triangular dorsal fin and a slow rolling dive they can be difficult to spot in all but a calm sea. However, whilst feeding on mackerel they will surface rapidly with splashing and will occasionally breach completely clear of the water. They are commonly seen alone or in small groups, but will congregate to feed. Best observed through binoculars, they are still fairly easy to spot with the naked eye from Capstone and during the summer months particularly when the sea is crystal clear, you can look down on them as they swim below you.

A good indicator of cetacean presence is seabird activity. During the winter months, herring gulls and great black back gulls will often circle porpoises, especially when they’re feeding. During the summer months, gannets, (large, pure white seabirds with black wingtips), can be seen regularly from Capstone, circling and diving amongst feeding porpoises. Also to be seen are grey seals and ocean sunfish.

Porpoises can be seen from all the headlands on the North Devon coast from the west at Hartland Point coming east through Baggy, Morte and Bull Points, then Ilfracombe and further up towards the Exmoor coast where there is a porpoise hotspot around Watermouth. The further west you go, the more likely you are to see common dolphins. A day trip to Lundy Island on MS Oldenburg or a 4 hour Sea Safari RIB ride from Ilfracombe to the island also gives you the chance of seeing common dolphins bow riding, sunfish and grey seals. With luck you may even see a minke whale, basking sharks or bottlenose dolphins. Wildlife boat trips both east and west out of Ilfracombe provide an opportunity to see the stunning wildlife and coastline.

It should be noted that most of the coastline is rugged and the North Devon coast, as well as having the two highest sea cliffs in the UK, also has the second highest tide range in the world, so it’s very important that care is taken with regard to tides, weather and awareness of steep cliffs. However, for those less adventurous, Capstone Point is easily accessible, even if you have reduced mobility, there are shelters and benches and it’s within 100m of the seafront offering chip shops, ice creams and toilets!

Details of cetacean identification, latest sightings and how to Adopt a Dolphin can be found on the Sea Watch Foundation website, where you can also find out how to become a Sea Watcher yourself. 

Katie Bessant



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