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Humpback whales, sea slugs, and world’s biggest skate among 2021 marine highlights


Conservation efforts to improve the UK’s coastal habitats by curbing fishing and restoring native habitats are paying off, according to conservationists, with 2021 bringing exciting sightings of whales, orcas, and rare sea slugs around the UK coast.

Repeated sightings of humpback whales, which until a few years ago were incredibly rare in the UK, were one of the highlights of the year for marine experts The Wildlife Trusts.

Strong numbers of humpback whales were spotted around the UK this year, from the Isles of Scilly to the Shetland Islands, in a sign sardine populations are finally recovering from decades of overfishing.

Meanwhile orca whales were spotted off the coast of Cornwall this summer, the most southerly sighting in over 50 years, while white-beaked dolphins were spotted in waters off the coast of Essex for the first time in 20 years.

There were other signs of progress in conservation efforts. The first juvenile flapper skate, the world’s largest skate, was recorded in Northern Ireland, suggesting skates are breeding there thanks to work on shark conservation.

Native oysters have been released and seagrass meadows planted to restore coastal ecosystems. Finally, sharp-eyed walkers spotted a rarely seen Highland Dancer – a type of sea slug – on Walney Island in November.

“It’s been a fantastic year for marine megafauna sightings, particularly in the southwest,” said Lissa Batey, head of marine conservation for The Wildlife Trusts.

Tourists on jet skis disturb a pod of dolphins in Cornwall this summer (Photo: St Mawes Photography)

But it is not all good news. Wildlife Trust volunteers across the country warn this year has seen a spike in human disturbance of marine life, particularly in Cornwall, where there has been a surge in incidents involving jet skis and motorboats.

Meanwhile hundreds of whales, dolphins and seal pups were stranded on beaches across the country, many after being wounded by vessels or tangled in fishing lines.

“It’s clear that our oceans are under immense pressure from fishing, development, pollution, climate change and recreation,” said Ms Batey. “All these issues are having a huge impact on life at sea.”

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