Sea watching

When we’re at the coast we often feel drawn to look out to sea, out to the distant horizon. You can still find telescopes on some promenades, promising a better view of a distant boat perhaps, but often quite disappointing in practice.

But because the chalk beds support a variety of marine life, you can see a lot above or in the sea from the shore if you go about it the right way.

Where / how
An elevated viewpoint is best, so somewhere on the cliff-top (but not too close to the edge, of course), or an elevated area of promenade.

A comfortable seat or portable chair is a good start, as it’s worth watching for a while – perhaps an hour or more. Clothing to suit the weather conditions, and allowing for changing weather, will help you stay comfortable.

You can see plenty with the naked eye but a pair of binoculars (nothing fancy, 8 or 10x is fine), and the ability to find, focus on and track a moving object will help a lot.

A telescope (perhaps 25x) will give a better view, but you’ll need a tripod for stability and it’s also harder to find objects in a telescope, so practice is needed.

What you can see

Local fishermen operating over the chalk beds, setting or pulling up pots, vessels servicing the offshore windfarms, passing cargo ships and recreational angling boats may all come and go.

There’s a fascinating range of seabirds and shore birds you may see, depending in some cases on the time of year.

Several species of gull, terns (especially sandwich terns from a large breeding colony on Blakeney Point), cormorants, gannets, guillemots and other auks, skuas (mainly in autumn), fulmars and species of waders (shore birds – especially turnstones, which can be seen hunting for food on the rocks) are just some of the birds to be seen.

If you’re not familiar with sea and shore birds, they can be tricky to identify and a guide book will help. It will also give more information about the birds you’re seeing.

The RSPB’s ‘Identify a bird’ site is also helpful.

Seals are commonly seen over the chalk beds. They’re great characters, often appearing inquisitive. Often you’ll just see their head above the water, or sometimes they’ll float full-length in the water surface. The most likely to be seen is the grey seal, which is larger and has a sloping forehead, whereas the smaller harbour (or common) seal has a more pronounced forehead giving it a dog-like snout.
Identifying grey and common seals

Whales and dolphins (cetaceans)
These wonderful marine mammals can be spotted over the chalk beds, but it’s trickier than spotting birds or seals, and easier when the sea if fairly calm.

The most likely to be seen is the small Harbour Porpoise, usually just a back and a dorsal fin rolling in the surface. They are in small groups so if you think you’ve seen one, keep watching that area carefully.

Dolphins and larger whales (even Sperm Whales and Sei Whales) are also seen occasionally but these are rarer.

The Seawatch Foundation has a good guide to identification.