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As we leave lockdown behind this follow-up series to Lockdown Nature will consider how we can continue to appreciate the nature around us. 

Perhaps you have resolved to stay local more going forward, perhaps you are just more attuned to nature from time on your hands whilst furloughed.  We are starting with the sea mammals of Blackpool – seals, porpoises and dolphins.

We are on the cusp of the peak season for cetacean (whale and dolphin) sightings in the seas off the Fylde, for two reasons.  Firstly quite simply the species that occur all year round, Grey Seals and Harbour Porpoises, are generally easier to spot because on the whole the winds are lighter and the sea is calm.  Secondly in the north west of England Bottlenose Dolphins are summer visitors, as they generally only appear when warm seas bring mackerel close to shore.

The Grey Seal is increasingly numerous locally, with the population at Walney Island on the opposite lip of Morecambe Bay now several hundred strong.   As a result of this there are generally several on show along the length of the Fylde coast on calm days.  It may seem counter-intuitive but they are most easily seen when they are doing nothing – they have a sleeping / resting behaviour termed ‘bottling’ where the snout protrudes above the sea’s surface as the animal is vertical in the water.  Although only a small proportion of the animal is on view they can be easy to spot if it’s calm.

Harbour Porpoises are regular off the Fylde coast all year round.  If you aren’t familiar with what a porpoise is then think ‘mini dolphin’.  There is a lot to be found out about porpoises but they are thought to be declining nationally, and presumably locally.  If you are reasonably persistent in good viewing conditions with some optics you should however see them breaking the surface at regular intervals.  The mini dolphin analogy holds as you would see a fin and the upper body break the surface as the animal, or usually two or three, come up to breathe.

Bottlenose dolphin behaviour off Blackpool is variable, I would argue that the unpredictability of when they visit and what they will do is part of the excitement.  They may engage in transit swimming not dissimilar to porpoises, in which case the clue is the larger fin size and the back is on view longer because the animal is larger.  If feeding at a baitball of fish more energetic activity will be observable, with some breaching of the water and the sea much more disturbed.  If there is a baitball Gannets, large white seabirds with yellow heads and black wingtips, are often also present plunging into the sea from a great height and this can be a big clue to dolphin presence.  Finally and best of all sometimes dolphins offshore will engage in ‘acrobatics’ where they throw themselves high into the air, when they are doing this they can be seen at quite long range as they are relatively large animals.

The gently shelving beach which is why we have a resort in Blackpool is great for many things but it does mean that dolphins and porpoises are not seen close inshore as it is too shallow for them to feed effectively.  If you have a pair of binoculars these can therefore be very helpful when searching for sea mammals off our shores.  Whilst most people don’t have a terrestrial telescope (not the astronomy ones that aren’t suitable) if you do or a family member has one you can borrow this is really helpful for cetacean spotting.  Every year there are event put on in Blackpool for National Whale and Dolphin Week where experienced observers are available who have telescopes you can look through.

If you get a taste for observing these special animals locally you can do regular watches from the same point and submit the results of your observations to Sea Watch, they welcome new constant effort contributions.  Although the situation is still to be resolved following the pandemic Marinelife do surveys in the Irish Sea that depart Heysham.   I am involved in these having signed up when there were still ferries leaving Fleetwood, so if you need any more information get in touch with me via Blackpool Social Club.  If you would like up to date information on when dolphins are showing off the Prom probably your best bet is to join the Facebook group Blackpool Sea Watchers.

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