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Wildlife in the British Isles

The landscapes, coasts and seas of the British Isles are host to a multitude of wildlife – both large and small – which are sure to surprise and delight.

4 mins read

A rich natural history

The complex geology of the British Isles coupled with glacial action during the Ice Ages has created a network of inlets, estuaries and oceanic shelves that permit an impressive variety of life to flourish, unusual for this latitude. These are, after all, the lands which inspired such great, world-renowned naturalists as Charles Darwin and Sir David Attenborough.

In fact, the greatest concentration of life in the British Isles can be found around its shorelines, which is ideal for visitors like you on an expedition cruise. From cliffs that are home to a huge variety of birdlife, to rockpools filled with crustaceans and other aquatic species, there’s a wealth of nature just waiting to be discovered.

Cities of seabirds

There are around 4,400 islands in the British Isles, yet only 210 of them are inhabited by people. Many of the others are home to colonies of seabirds who live undisturbed lives far away from human intervention. Our expedition ships take you to some of the wildest archipelagos and remote skerries, and birders will be amazed at the sheer variety and quantity of avian life on display.

Some of these colonies are so huge they are like avian cities, with many islands hosting thousands of breeding pairs of gannets, puffins and fulmars, to name but a few. Just by way of example, the tiny Scottish island of St Kilda is home to 17 different bird species and the largest Northern Gannet colony in the world. Similarly, the Shiant Isles – also in Scotland – are an important ecosystem for Common Guillemots, Razorbills, Northern Fulmars, Black-legged Kittiwakes and Great Skuas.

A bright beak

The Atlantic Puffin is adored the world over for their small wings, soulful eyes and colourful, oversized beaks. In winter, the colourful parts of their bill fall off leaving behind a grey beak which ‘blooms’ orange again in the spring. It is thought that the brighter the colour the more chance a puffin has of finding a mate. They also skilfully use their beaks for holding fish in neat stacks, securing the fish with their tongues.

Magnificent marine life

As we cruise around the islands and coasts of the British Isles, there are some 16 different species of cetacean to be found, from the biggest – humpback whales – to the smallest – harbour porpoises.

Song of the seas

The humpback is the most common species of whale to be found in British waters. These gentle giants are known for their acrobatic behaviour and their complex and magical songs, which can last 30 minutes at a time and travel vast distances. Sounding like a long series of clicks, deep bass noises and whines, it’s only the males that make these melodies. Scientists have spent years trying to understand what they are saying, and yet it still remains a mystery.

The risso’s dolphin, found in the Irish Sea, has a distinctive blunt head and slender grey body. Over time, their grey skin becomes covered with white scars that look like chalk marks, incurred from hunting their favourite food, squid, and from social interactions with other risso’s dolphins.

There are also twenty-one species of shark, including the giant basking shark which is often spotted in the seas around Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly. But don’t worry, these fascinating and yet shy creatures are harmless to humans, and no shark bite from any species has ever been recorded around the British Isles since records began in 1847!

As you explore the Cornish coast and venture up to the Scottish isles, you might come across common and grey seals lounging on the beaches or shoreline rocks. Grey seals actually start life as fluffy white pups, tripling in size and growing darker as they age. Dark blotches and spots on their skin form unique patterns which help to identify individuals.

A tale of a tail

The common European otter has made something of a comeback across the British Isles in recent years. Closely related to badgers and ferrets, the otter has a powerful tail which enables it to swim fast and it sometimes uses it for fighting off rivals. What’s more, otters occasionally use their tails as a third leg when standing upright, as well as a rudder when they float on their back. Look out for them at river mouths and in lochs.

Penguins perched on the ice of Cuverville Island, Antarctica. Credit: Espen Mills / HX Hurtigruten Expeditions

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