Dorset coast sunset © Tom Brereton

Lyme Bay Pelagic

By Professor Tom Brereton
Tour Leader
February 2024

2023 marked the 15th year of Naturetrek pelagics departing from Brixham in search of cetaceans and seabirds, and it was arguably the best year yet for memorable wildlife encounters. The marine environment off the south-west coast of England is changing rapidly in light of climate change-related sea temperature rises, and the positive aspects of this in terms of new and exciting wildlife encounters were readily apparent on the boat trips.

Our lengthy day trips on the Spot On II, expertly skippered by Ross Parham, typically involve travelling eastwards out into the middle of Lyme Bay past Berry Head, then changing course south-westwards towards Start Point and finally back northwards towards port, tracking the beautiful South Hams coastline of south Devon.

Soon after leaving Brixham, we are around Berry Head which acts as a magnet for marine wildlife, with large concentrations of globally and critically endangered Balearic Shearwaters often present and thousands of Kittiwakes, which in turn attract regular scavenging Great, Pomarine and Arctic Skuas, with the occasional Long-tailed Skua to boot. These waters are home to feeding Harbour Porpoises and Common Dolphins, which are seen pretty much every trip, the latter in quantity, regularly giving spectacular views as they leap out of the water or come to swim alongside the boat riding the bow wave.

We venture further out into the middle of Lyme Bay in search of White-beaked Dolphins which have sadly declined in recent years, probably due to warming sea temperatures and the depletion of white fish stocks caused by overfishing. However, they continue to be seen and there were several sightings last year in their usual favoured feeding spots and closer inshore off Berry Head. There are plenty of other noteworthy species to look out for, though. Amongst the rafts of Guillemots and Manx Shearwaters, we may encounter Puffin, Razorbill, Sooty Shearwater and more Balearic Shearwaters. We are likely to see a range of terns including a chance of Black and Arctic, whilst Storm-petrels may be feeding in and around trawlers or plankton blooms. These waters have yielded some fabulous wildlife encounters with larger marine animals over the years, including several Minke Whales, breaching Thresher Shark, Basking Shark and Ocean Sunfish.


Thresher Shark © Tom Brereton


Balearic & Manx Shearwaters © Tom Brereton


Common Dolphin © Tom Brereton


White-beaked Dolphins © Tom Brereton

Out in the warmer and deeper waters off Start Point, it was simply sensational last year. Some huge shoals of Bluefin Tuna were around, which were feeding voraciously creating a 'boiling sea' effect, as they hunted in packs and tore through vast shoals of sardines and other bait fish at speeds of over 40 miles per hour. Thereafter, the sea glittered with a myriad of fish, representing all that remained of the bait fish from these feeding frenzies. The sardine, garfish and joey mackerel shoals also attracted thousands of Great and Cory’s Shearwaters and other seabirds, with the long list including substantial numbers of Sooty Shearwaters and Gannets, representing a world-class wildlife-watching spectacle. The number of large shearwaters present was completely unprecedented and it was quite unbelievable to witness such scenes in British waters, with it being more akin to a pelagic in the southern Bay of Biscay than off the English Riviera! These spectacular encounters could well be the new normal, given how Blue-fin Tuna have been consistently turning up in large numbers in the Western Channel over the last five years.

The return to Brixham last year yielded sightings of a large pod of Risso’s Dolphins which gave stunning views, numerous groups of Common Dolphins and many of the seabird species already described, plus Caspian and Yellow-legged Gulls. One further highlight was a migrating Nathusius' pipistrelle seen well from the boat, illustrating that almost anything can turn up.

One bonus from these trips is that seabird- and cetacean-sighting data is collected for the charity Marinelife, which feeds directly into conservation efforts of the local environment, so by going on them you are helping to protect the animals you see.  

These trips proved unmissable in 2023 and we await with great excitement the trips in 2024. Click here for upcoming dates and more information.


Ocean Sunfish © Tom Brereton