What sort of sailing wildlife can be seen around the British Isles and where can it best be seen? We ask experts to pick their top wildlife cruising spots
One of the great pleasures of cruising the waters of the British Isles are sailing wildlife encounters. The diversity of species around the coastline means there is a plethora of flora and fauna to see.
As sailors, we are in the lucky position to be able to cruise to secluded spots, often denied to those on land, where wildlife flourishes. Encounters can vary from sailing alongside whales and dolphins off the Irish coast to anchoring in a Scottish loch to witness otters teaching their cubs to hunt.
Depending on where your boat is based, each of these destinations could be a long weekend cruise or the focus of a longer voyage. Whatever species you plan to watch, remember to keep your distance, leave no trace of your presence and don’t interfere with the animal’s natural behaviour.
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Shetland Islands, Scotland
Recommended by: Jonty Pearce
The British Isles harbour a superlative range of wildlife, but few venues can rival its northernmost outpost — wild Shetland.
Fringed with vertiginous cliffs home to over a million seabirds, ringed with beaches providing sanctuary for otters and seals, and dotted with folds of hillside pasture sheltering Shetland ponies, cattle, and sheep, nutrient-rich seas race through this archipelago’s numerous sounds attracting aquatic life; it is easy to see why so many naturalists visit Shetland.
Along with its nature reserves, highlights include wheeling gannets over Muckle Flugga, secretive red-necked phalaropes on Fetlar, busy seabird colonies of Sumburgh Head, the storm petrels of Mousa Broch, and a circling resident orca pod.
Wherever you turn, those with knowledgeable eyes can relish the wildlife wonders thronging the area. Other unmissable treats include sightings of puffins, dolphins, minke whales, great skuas (‘bonxies’), fulmars, guillemots, kittiwakes, razorbills, golden plover, whimbrel, sandpipers, eider ducks, and arctic terns.
Wild and remote Shetland has it all.
Visiting this stunning 100-island archipelago requires effort, be it by sea or air. Lying over 100 miles off the north coast of Scotland, long sailing passages over challenging waters are inevitable, though enticing stopovers in Orkney and Fair Isle can be enjoyed en route.
Picking the right conditions and timings are key to comfortable sailing; names such as Pentland Firth, The Hole, and Sumburgh Roost may have a worrying reputation, but careful planning beforehand can make the journey a memorable pleasure.
Once there, harbours and havens abound; Lerwick and Scalloway are the main yacht bases, and secure anchorages are myriad.
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St Kilda, Outer Hebrides
Recommended by: Miranda Delmar-Morgan
St Kilda, a World Heritage Site, is bursting with life. The skies teem with gannets from two huge gannetries on Stac an Armin and Stac Lee from April to October.
It is also home to the largest fulmar colony in Europe. Puffins, between April and August, and guillemots can all be seen in numbers. Skuas terrorise anything they view with dislike.
The island’s very own St Kilda wren, and the St Kilda mouse share the grasslands with the extraordinary little brown figures roaming the cliffs, the Soay and Boreray sheep, snipe and golden plover are also visitors.
Offshore you may see minke, orca whales and basking sharks.
Leaving from Leverburgh, in the sound of Harris, you can head north of west up the Leverburgh Channel. It is about 8 miles to just north of Shillay, at which point St Kilda will lie 42 miles to the west.
The shortest distance (35 miles) would be from the Monach Islands.
Hirta’s Village Bay has good holding in sand but is open to the east. If the forecast has any hint of easterly or cyclonic winds be prepared to clear out.
The waters off the Outer Hebrides have a Deep Water Route used by shipping bound for Norway and Russia.
Arisaig, West Scotland
Recommended by: Sarah Brown
The waters surrounding Arisaig on the west coast of Scotland are probably my favourite in the world.
You cannot fail to be impressed by the vista that greets you as you approach the harbour itself. The Small Isles of Rum, Eigg and Muck are flanked by the Ardnamurchan Peninsula to the south and the Cuillins of Skye to the north.
For me, the most notable wildlife here are not the eagles or seabirds, although there are plenty, it is the cetaceans.
The local current flows over an undulating seabed making a nutrient rich soup which attracts minke whales, porpoises and dolphins who often approach yachts and small craft. You can choose to keep to your own boat for these encounters and may be lucky enough to see a basking shark or two, or sit back and relax and let local knowledge guide you aboard wildlife tour boat Shearwater, tickets available from Arisaig Marine.
Rounding Ardnamurchan Point can be ‘jolly’ in the wrong conditions so avoid wind over tide conditions; it may mean pushing the south going tide into a northerly to give a smoother ride.
Remember also that you are changing not only weather forecasting sea areas but also swapping from one set of cruising directions to another.
Coming down from Skye, the Sound of Sleat opens to the south west with no tidal gates after Kyle Rhea and multiple options for stopping.
Arisaig Marine provides excellent shelter in all but the worst conditions and has plenty of visitor moorings bookable in advance.
Loch Sunart & Loch Aline, Morvern Peninsula
Recommended by: Kieran Flatt
The west coast of Scotland has one of the largest otter populations in Europe and there are few more satisfying ways to study them than from a boat.
They are shy and elusive on inland waterways, where they range over long distances and tend to hunt at night, but in saltwater lochs and on island shores they are out and about in daylight and, with a greater abundance of available food, they rarely stray far from their holt.
The best time to see them is around low tide, when the seaweed beds where their prey resides are within easy reach. To see cubs, the best month is August when they’re learning to hunt.
One of the best places to spot them from a yacht is on the Skye side of the Kylerhea narrows, so it’s worth training your binoculars along the shoreline when passing through, but it’s not a recommended place to anchor. For that, go into the lochs north and south of the Morvern Peninsula.
In Loch Sunart, head for the bight behind Garbh Eilean. Sound in, drop the hook and wait. If you don’t see otters from the cockpit, take a dinghy ashore to the car park and stroll through the nearby oak woods to the wildlife hide.
In Loch Aline, anchor up near the head of the loch after skirting the shallow patch east of Sgerean nan Ron, and settle down quietly in the cockpit. With any luck, your patience will be rewarded.
West Cork & Kerry, Ireland
Recommended by: Norman Kean
The south-west coast of Ireland is frequented by fin, minke and humpback whales, bottlenose and common dolphins, harbour porpoises, grey and common seals, and otters.
Many individual whales have been identified again and again. The hot spots for the (very acrobatic) humpbacks are between the Old Head of Kinsale and Cape Clear and up to 15 miles offshore, and north and south of the Blasket Islands.
The whales dive under a shoal of fish and swim in circles, blowing bubbles to corral the fish before erupting with jaws wide to capture the shoal, while dolphins and gannets circle to pick up the leftovers.
In a typical two-week cruise, dolphins will be met almost daily. Further offshore and near to the edge of the Continental Shelf, sperm whales are sometimes seen (www.iwdg.ie for more information).
Great Blasket has a colony of 300 grey seals, but they are also widespread, while common seals are commonest at Glengarriff and Sneem.
West Cork is 140 to 160 miles from Land’s End, the Isles of Scilly or Milford Haven, normally an overnight but straightforward crossing.
The coast of west Cork and Kerry is Ireland’s most popular cruising ground, and there are marinas at Kinsale, Bere Island, Bantry, Valentia and Dingle.
The distance from Kinsale to Dingle and the Blaskets is 106 miles, but with its long inlets, sheltered bays, and islands, the coast is almost 10 times that length.
With a huge choice of anchorages it is a perfect destination for a fortnight’s cruise. Bareboat charter is available in Kinsale, www.sovereignsailing.ie.
Ramsey Island, South Wales
Recommended by: Kieran Flatt
Most people who visit Ramsey come to watch seabirds and seal pups. It’s an RSPB reserve with choughs, falcons, shearwaters, puffins and more — and also the biggest breeding colony of Atlantic grey seals in the southern half of Britain.
But its most surprising residents, given the location, are a herd of red deer that you’ll probably see from various vantage points on the 3½-mile walk around the island.
The deer didn’t get here on their own initiative but were flown across the fearsome tide race of Ramsey Sound in a net suspended perilously from an RAF helicopter in the 1970s and they have thrived ever since.
If you visit in autumn there’s a good chance of seeing the 9ft stags lock horns as they warm up for their annual rut, though they won’t start fighting in earnest before the onset of winter.
Careful planning is crucial for a smooth, safe passage along the tide-swept Pembrokeshire coast, with precise timing to go through Ramsey and Jack Sounds at slack water.
Coming from Milford Haven, it’s possible to transit both sounds in one tide but it is much more pleasant to stop en route at North Haven on Skomer.
It’s more straightforward from Fishguard or the north, but either way, it’s best to follow the detailed advice in a pilot book.
Ramsey’s anchorage is just 2ca (400m) north-west of the snaggle-toothed Bitches reef, sheltered in all winds except N or NE. Don’t drop anchor in the seagrass; instead look around for a lighter-coloured patch of sand. Land at the jetty and report to the visitors’ centre.
Isles of Scilly
Recommended by: Miranda Delmar-Morgan
Designated an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty the islands have a temperate oceanic climate. This attracts thousands of migrating aerial and aquatic visitors.
There are terneries and puffin colonies. Some of the rarest birds in Europe visit and it is a haven for birdwatchers. Cormorants, gannets, shags and gulls join kittiwakes, storm petrels, fulmars and guillemots in the air and sea.
The surrounding waters have many shipwrecks which have become unique marine eco systems and support numerous varieties of fish.
Marine visitors such as leatherback turtles and ocean sunfish pass through, and humpback whales have even been seen in St Mary’s Sound.
Large kelp forests provide a playground for seals and jewel anemones such as corynactis viridis collectively colour reefs and captivate divers.
Ashore you can find some of the most diverse flora in the UK including adder’s-tongue ferns, and the dwarf pansies and orange birdsfoot are unique to the islands. So too are the Scilly bee, the Scilly shrew and the red barbed ant (best not sat upon!).
There are several approaches depending on where you have come from and most involve crossing one of the three circulation TSS schemes to some degree.
From the east St Mary’s Sound is 35 miles from Newlyn to the Outer Head and considered the easiest entry.
Wolf Rock Lighthouse is a useful landmark, beware the bottom of the Seven Stones TSS. Pick up transit 307° on North Carn and Great Mincarlo to pass between Spanish Ledges EC buoy and Peninnis Head.
There are two port hand markers for a historic wreck on Bartholomew Ledges. Beware Woodcock Ledge to starboard on approaches to St Mary’s Pool.
Brownsea Island, Poole
Recommended by: Jane Russell
Brownsea Island, owned by the National Trust, is an absolute gem, right in the middle of Poole Harbour.
An SSSI, the island has a diverse range of habitats within a small area, wrapping its arms around a lagoon that is separately managed by the Dorset Wildlife Trust.
Thousands of birds find a home there, but Brownsea Island is also a rare stronghold for around 200 endangered red squirrel. These lovely natives are most active in spring and autumn, and they sprout their winter ear tufts in September, so this is a good time to visit, preferably early or late in the day.
A woodland circuit might take you about an hour, but if you really want to see squirrels you can wander for longer, or you could book to adventure camp overnight at the site of the early Scouts’ gatherings.
No dogs are allowed on Brownsea Island.
A restricted number of visitor tickets must now be booked online by 1500 the day before, www.nationaltrust.org.uk/brownsea-island, and include a ferry ride from Poole Town Quay.
For berths closest to Town Quay, try the Poole Quay Boat Haven (VHF 80). Alternatively, you could take the Wych Channel westwards from PHB No.18 and anchor clear of the moorings, north of Pottery Pier — in past years, landing by canoe/dinghy was permitted in some places, payment via an honesty box, and Pottery Pier was a popular landing spot. Check for the latest regulations.
Alderney, Channel Islands
Recommended by: Jane Cumberlidge
Alderney lies just eight miles from France and has the feel of a welcoming village. Taking a saunter round its lanes and cliff paths you might meet some of its rare inhabitants.
The island wildlife includes Glanville fritillary, holly blue and painted lady butterflies, and plants such as the rare spotted rock rose and Alderney sea lavender.
On a mild summer evening stroll you may be surprised to come across a blonde hedgehog. About half of the island’s hedgehog population are leucistic, they are not albino as they have dark eyes. You will often see them snuffling about in the gloaming or even foraging on beaches.
You may also see and hear pipistrelle bats. In Clonque Bay look for squat lobsters and sea lemons in rock pools or green ormers in the intertidal zone.
The Alderney Wildlife Trust organises wildlife watching boat trips to view the seals on the rocks off Burhou.
Braye Harbour is a pleasant day sail from Weymouth, Poole or the Needles and 25 miles from Cherbourg.
Approaching the harbour, keep clear of the submerged old breakwater to starboard and follow the leading marks, two orange triangles in transit on 215°T.
From the north-west, to clear the rocks off the north of Burhou, keep Fort Albert open to the east of the breakwater head, bearing more than 115°T.
Lindisfarne & Old Law Sand, Northumberland
Recommended by: Miranda Delmar-Morgan
Lindisfarne is an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty and encompasses a National Nature Reserve.
The mudflats, salt marshes and intertidal areas feed bar-tailed godwits, knots and redshanks particularly in the spring and autumn. They also attract all manner of over wintering birds and waders.
Half of the world’s population of rare light bellied Brent geese come from Svalbard in September and pink footed geese, thousands of wigeon, and grey plovers ply the shorelines. Whooper swans, red breasted mergansers, curlews and peregrines all find what they need in this natural paradise.
Colonies of grey seals sprawl on the Old Law Sands among the marram grass and dunes.
There are 11 species of orchid and the Lindisfarne helleborine is unique to this area. An abundance of flowering plants in the rich grasslands feed moths and butterflies such as the dark green fritillary and ringlet butterflies between June and August.
Thrushes and warblers appear at migration times, mainly in autumn.
It is 17 miles from Amble to the Farne Islands where you can anchor for lunch in The Kettle before continuing another 5 miles to Lindisfarne. From Berwick it is 9.5 miles.
Honour the WC inside Plough Rock then make for the EC Ridge Buoy. From just S of the Ridge buoy cross the Nob Bar on a transit of 260° on the beacons on Old Law Sands.
St Mary’s belfry and a lit transit beacon is on 310° for entry in deepest water. Anchor off The Heugh well inshore to escape strong tide. Trip line advised. Exposed to W/SW winds, avoid Spring tides. Allow for adequate rise of tide over the bar.
Pick up a copy of Sail the British Isles book from Yachting Monthly
From the makers of Yachting Monthly comes this essential guide to sailing around the UK and Ireland. Every iconic location in the British Isles is covered here, from peaceful ports like Dartmouth to sailing hotspots such as the Isle Of Wight. Perfect for planning a long weekend getaway or an ambitious break on the waves, Sail The British Isles is perfect for any boating enthusiast who is itching to discover their next adventure.