Ride the waves for a coastal wildlife close-up

A puffin coming in to land. Photo: Martin Batt.
A puffin coming in to land. Photo: Martin Batt.
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The steep, chalk cliff face is a bustling, noisy and rather smelly high-rise community where every nook and cranny is occupied.

A wide variety of seabirds live side by side, jostling for space and rearing their young on precarious ledges high above the North Sea. Amid the chaos, an opportunist herring gull has snatched an unattended kittiwake chick and is mercilessly pecking it to death on a rock. It’s a gory sight that causes my fellow passengers to wince as we weave our way up and down the East Coast aboard the fishing vessel Prosperity.

I’m on one of the Yorkshire Wildlife Trust’s Sea Safaris, which take place during the summer months and as we set sail from Flamborough’s North Landing, the skies are clear, the sun is blazing and the North Sea is looking surprisingly blue and inviting.

I was aboard Prosperity with two families from North Yorkshire and we didn’t have to venture far from the North Landing before our guide, Kat Sanders, pointed out puffins, razorbills and guillemots bobbing on the waves.

Kat tells us that there are around 300 caves in the area and there’s a collective ‘wow’ from the group when our Skipper Richard Emmerson sails the boat right inside one of the larger ones – Smugglers Cave.

Richard’s cousin, Russ Conlon, tells me that Prosperity is one of only two commercial fishing boats still operating from Flamborough. Due to the decline of the North Sea’s cod fishing industry, the pair have diversified by offering fishing trips - linking up with the Yorkshire Wildlife Trust to run sea safaris.

Russ said: “We used to fish for cod by hand line but for the last few years we’ve been fishing for shellfish due to the decline in cod. Shellfish is very sustainable and there’s a market for it both in the UK and abroad.”

As we head down towards Thornwick Bay, Kat explained that the chalk cliffs create a unique and important habitat: “We’re sailing over a huge reef, it’s estimated that it extends around six kilometres out to sea. The kelp forest provides shelter and food for all sorts of species, including seals, wrasse, limpets and sea urchins. It’s also a natural wind break and coastal defence.”

The surrounding waters are a rich source of food, which is why thousands of sea birds choose to nest here each year. Kat continued: “There’s a natural phenomenon that occurs annually during the summer months, which is known as the ‘Flamborough front’. It’s a convergence of cooler waters from the north and warmer waters from the south, and when they meet they form an upwelling that brings lots of nutrients. There’s a wealth of sand eel, sprats, and, in July, vast shoals of mackerel that trigger a feeding frenzy among the seabirds and marine mammals.”

Flamborough’s chalk cliffs attract guillemots, puffins, razorbills and kittiwakes to name just a few, and we also spot countless gannets soaring overhead. Puffins seem to be a real favourite with everyone on the boat. They nest in the softer material at the top of the cliffs and their chicks are rather endearingly known as pufflings.

Kat explained: “Puffins spend a lot of time at sea and only come to land to breed, so they’re very susceptible to pollution. In 1967, an oil spill wiped out 90 per cent of the population in France. The UK has 10 per cent of all the puffins in the world.”

As Prosperity followed the coast towards Flamborough Head we marvelled at the sheer number of birds around us. The diversity of species was astounding. Shags standing shoulder to shoulder with kittiwakes, razorbills and guillemots on crowded cliff ledges. Rather than making a nest, some of the birds lay their eggs onto the bare rock. Their unusual shape prevents them from rolling off.

Although we weren’t lucky enough to spot any marine mammals on our excursion, harbour porpoises and grey seals are regularly seen on the safaris. The array of species sighted along the coast since April is astonishing and includes humpback whale, minke whale, long fin pilot whale, bottlenose dolphin and white beak dolphins, This is a coastline of international importance for wildlife.