Marine Discovery Penzance - wildlife and dolphin watching boat trips

Wildlife - seals, cetaceans, fish and seabirds

Below is a guide to marine animals that can be spotted in these waters. It is generally true to say that the further west in Cornwall you are, the better the wildlife sightings particularly with regard to some of the cetaceans and certainly basking sharks. It's important to remember though that wildlife is wildlife and you cannot expect to see certain animals just because you desperately want them to be there! The variety and quantity of wildilfe sightings depends on so many things - the amount of prey around, time of year, temperature, wind and tide conditions as well as, of course, a bit of plain good luck! Our Sightings page gives you an accurate impression of what we see and how frequently.

Cetacean Species
Seabirds Commonly Seen
Seabirds Less Commonly Seen
Waders and Other Birds Seen

Girls watching basking sharks


Atlantic Grey Seal (Halichoerus grypus)

Found along the west and north coasts of Britain round as far as the Farne Islands. The British Isles is home to 1/2 to 2/3 of the world’s population. They are the largest seal to be found in British waters, and males can weigh over 300kg. We see them hauled out on the rocks at low tide or swimming and “bottling”. A real crowd-pleaser!

Cetacean Species: the following species are the most commonly encountered, though remember we do not see cetaceans (porpoises, dolphins and whales) on every trip.

Harbour Porpoise (Phocoena phocoena)

Harbour Porpoise (Phocoena phocoena)

Our smallest cetacean, its typical length being only 1.3-1.8 metres. This is the most frequently seen cetacean on our trips, but even so it is shy and wary of boats. It is recognised by its rolling motion as it swims and its small triangular dorsal fin. Adult females will often be accompanied by calves. Very vulnerable to by-catch in fishing nets like gill and trammel nets.

Short-Beaked Common Dolphin (Delphinus delphis)

Short-Beaked Common Dolphin (Delphinus delphis)

These are often found in large groups as we get further offshore especially in late summer/early autumn, though they do sometimes come closer in. A medium-sized, streamlined dolphin with beautiful hourglass patterning on its flanks. Often very exuberant and playful and sometimes groups will bowride the boat.

Common Bottlenose Dolphin (Tursiops truncatus)

Common Bottlenose Dolphin (Tursiops truncatus)

Seen as two distinct types described as inshore and offshore pods (most sightings are of the inshore type). A large cetacean up to 4 metres though more frequently about 3 metres in length. Generally quite sociable and easy to spot/watch. Can be very playful! There is speculation that the ones we see in Cornwall are a breakaway group from the resident Cardigan Bay common bottlenose dolphins.

Risso's Dolphin (Grampus griseus)

Risso’s Dolphin (Grampus griseus)

A medium sized dolphin with distinctive pale colouring and scratched appearance as they age. Between 2.6-4 metres in length. Often spy hop but seldom bowrides - however in the summer of 2007 when we saw these often, the youngsters did often interact and socialise with the boat. Recognisable from their tall centrally placed dorsal fin. A real treat to see!

Northern Minke Whale (Balaenoptera acutorostrata)

Northern Minke Whale (Balaenoptera acutorostrata)

The smallest and most abundant of the rorqual family (relatives of blue, fin, sei and humpback whales). A baleen whale between 7-10 metres in length. Sightings are mostly of the whale diving although sometimes they can be curious about boats and will circle round the investigating for a while and even spyhop. Spectacular views can be seen of them lunge feeding at the surface.


Basking Shark (Cetorhinus maximus)

Basking Shark (Cetorhinus maximus)

Basking Sharks visit our coastal waters in large numbers in the spring and early summer, although they can be sighted year round. There can sometimes be gatherings of 100's of sharks and fins as far as the eye can see. They are the second largest fish in the sea and it is believed they can grow up to 11 metres. Despite their size they are harmless plankton feeders using gill rakers to feed.

Ocean Sunfish (Mola mola)

Ocean Sunfish (Mola mola)

Bizarre looking circular summer visitors usually found in our waters from July to October, though in 2006 they were recorded in every month of the year. This is the world’s largest species of bony fish (sharks have cartilage skeletons) - it’s generally recognised at a distance by its fin waving as it basks on the water’s surface. Can grow enormously large, though the ones we see are usually a maximum of 1½ metres in diameter.


Seabirds Commonly Seen

Gannet pic Marijke De Boer

Gannet (Morus Bassanus)

Our largest seabird. Lives mainly on offshore islands like Grassholm in groups of thousands. Dazzling white plumage, black wingtips and a golden yellow head. Plunge dives from great heights onto groups of fish, often in large numbers. Groups of them will often lead us into areas where cetaceans or sharks are feeding.

Fulmar pic Marijke De boer

Fulmar (Fulmarus Glacialis)

Superficially gull-like, but with a much stockier neck and body. Glides like an albatross on stiff, straight wings, and has dark eyes with a smudge of dark feathers behind. Often sits on the water in small groups, cackling to each other! Spits a foul-smelling oil when threatened. These birds mate for life.

Cormorant (Phalacrocorax Carbo)

Lives inland and by the sea. A black, powerful birds the size of a large goose. Frequently stands with wings outstretched after diving and fishing to great depths. Can eat its own weight in fish every day!

Shag pic Marijke De Boer

Shag (Phalacrocorax Aristotelis)

Similar to the cormorant, only 2/3 the size with a smaller, more spindly beak. Is found round rocky coastlines rather than inland. During breeding season, plumage is glossy and greenish and they can a noticeable crest on their forehead. Juveniles are brown.

Herring Gill pic Marijke De Boer

Herring Gull (Larus Argentatus)

Probably the least popular bird in Cornwall! Numerous, noisy, greedy and resourceful, herring gulls are the world’s commonest gull. Large and aggressive looking with white and grey plumage, yellow beak and eyes and pink feet. Will scavenge round ports and harbours and frequently steal food right out of your hand. Juveniles up until four years old have progressively paler mottled brown plumage. Its voice is a mournful mew or noisy, excita

Greater Black Backed Gull pic Marijke De Boer

Greater Black Backed Gull (Larus Marinus)

The largest gull in the world, this is quite a scary bird. One third bigger than the herring gull, bulky and powerful-looking, with very dark brown feathers on back and wings. Hooked yellow beak with splash of red on the end. Will scavenge, eat fish, small mammals like rabbits, young birds, eggs and even adult puffins and guillemots.

Lesser Black Backed Gull pic Marijke De Boer

Lesser Black Backed Gull (Larus Fuscus)

Much rarer round here than the greater black back. About the same size as the herring gull, but with dark brown plumage on its wings and back rather than grey.

Kittiwake pic Marijke De Boer

Kittiwake (Rissa Tridactyla)

An elegant, gentle-looking gull with a small greenish-yellow bill, black feet and eyes and wingtips which look as though they have been dipped in black ink. Generally only stay round the coasts, nesting in large colonies between February and the end of the summer; however some are staying resident all year round in West Cornwall.

Black Headed Gull (Larus Ridibundus)

The smallest of the abundant gulls in the British Isles. Has slim, pointed wings with a dark stripe along the front. During late winter and spring, it has a dark brown cap on its head, which for the rest of the year is just a dark spot behind the eye. Dark red legs and harsh squawk for a call.

sandwich tern pic Marijke De boer

Sandwich Tern (Sterna Sandvicensis)

We see these in the spring as they move eastwards to breed, frequently standing together on the Runnel Stone marker buoy. The largest of the terns which breed in this country. Has a yellow tip to its beak and a scruffy cap of black feathers on its head.

Common Tern (Sterna Hirundo)

A distinctive floaty flight, with silver/grey wings (white when seen underneath), black cap, red beak and a forked tail. Often seen being chased by bigger birds like gulls and skuas. Has a rasping, scratchy call.

Arctic Terns pic Marijke De Boer

Arctic Tern (Sterna Paradisaea)

Easily confused with the Common Tern it has narrower wings and longer tail streamers on it's forked tail. Black cap, deep red beak and legs a . Migrates farther then any other bird spending the summer in the Arctic and then the southern hemisphere summer in the Antarctic. Seen in the UK as they travel past and stop to nest usually May time.

guillemot pic Marijke De Boer

Guillemot (Urea Aalge)

Member of the auk family. Chocolate brown and white plumage, sometimes mottled in appearance. Like the razorbill, is seen in great numbers in the early spring. Has a pointed, spear-like bill with which it defends its nest. Much better at swimming underwater than in the air. Like the razorbill, this bird is very vulnerable to oil pollution.

Razorbills Pic Hannah Jones

Razorbill (Alca Torda)

A member of the auk family. Slightly smaller than the guillemot but stockier. Flaps past with fast, whirring wingbeats like a wind-up clockwork toy. Seen in large numbers round here in the early spring. Later in the summer, adult birds will often be seen followed by their chick learning to swim, cheeping piteously!

puffin pic Hannah Jones

Puffin (Frateracula Arctica)

Seen much less often round here than the razorbill and guillemot - most of the Cornish puffins breed in the Scillies. Probably the nation’s best loved and most recognised seabird. Black and white plumage with a startlingly colourful, parrot-like bill. Diet primarily consists of sand-eels, so is very vulnerable to over-fishing and migrations of fish due to temperature change.


Storm Petrel (Hydrobates Pelagicus)

Often seen inshore after high winds out at sea. A tiny, sparrow-sized seabird which flits above the sea in a very bat-like fashion, scooping up plankton. Dusky black plumage, with white markings on tail, and spends most of its life out in the open ocean being buffeted by high winds.

manx-shearwaters pic Marijke De Boer

Manx Shearwater (Puffinus Pufiinus)

The British Isles are home to almost all of the world’s Manx Shearwaters. Smaller than the herring gull, it has straight slim wings, on which it glides over the waves tilting from side to side after some rapid, stiff wingbeats. Seen in our waters in large numbers in the spring.


Seabirds Less Commonly Seen

Common Gull pic Marijke de Boer

Common Gull (Larus canus)

This smaller gull is not so Common in the England as most the UK's population are found in Scotland. It is much better at diving and swimming than other gulls but is still a scavenger like most gulls. A social bird that will work with other common gulls to deal with predators.

Icelandic gull pic Marijke de Boer

Iceland Gull (Larus glaucoides )

This gull has a more free graceful flight than other larger gulls and is sometimes called white winged gulls for obvious reasons. This gull is most likely to be seen in winter time.

Cory’s Shearwater (Colonectris Diomedea)

Larger and more heavily-built than the Manx shearwater. The upperparts are brown and the underparts are very white with a neat rim of brown.

Sooty Shearwater (Puffinus Griseus)

Again, larger than the Manx shearwater, with very dark upperparts and a silvery sheen underneath.

Arctic Skua pic Marijke De Boer

Arctic Skua (Stercorarius Parasiticus)

A small skua with a fast, falcon-like flight. Has double tail streamers. Chases and harasses other seabirds until they drop their prey.

Pomarine Skua pic Hannah Jones

Pomarine Skua (Stercorarius Pomarinus)

Nearly as big as a herring gull. Adults have long, spoon-shaped tail streamers, and a yellow band around its neck. Will chase other birds until they drop their food and even sometimes force their victims into the sea to drown them.

great-skua pic Marijke De Boer

Great Skua (Catharacta Skua)

Our largest skua, bulkier and heavier-looking than a herring gull. Shorter tail than other skuas and no streamers. This is the terrifying pirate of the seabirds - very aggressive and will chase birds as large as gannets, and even attack humans if they stray near to nesting sites. Kills birds such as puffins and sometimes species as large as geese.


Great Skua attacking a Gannet pic Marijke De Boer


Waders and Other Birds Seen

Review us, follow us, like us, stay up to date

tel: 07749 277110 email:

Marine Discovery Penzance, Shed 5, Albert Pier, Penzance, Cornwall, TR18 2LL

Oyster catchers pic Marijke De Boer

Oyster Catcher (Haematopus Ostralegus)

A stocky, black and white wader with a large bright orange bill, which it uses to dig in mud and also to prise open shellfish, so is very adaptable. Easily recognisable from its marked plumage and the excitable, piping racket it makes.

Turnstones pic Marijke De Boer

Turnstone (Arenaria Interpres)

Appears on west Cornish coasts in the late summer and stay around for several months - some take up residence in Penzance harbour. A stocky little wader with colourful mottled plumage (browns, oranges, whites and blacks). Busily searches for food by turning over rocks, in tame little groups. Very cute!

Curlew (Numenius Arquata)

A large brownish-mottled wader with a very long downwards-curving beak, by which it is easy to identify. The other very distinctive characteristic is its bubbling evocative call. Found round coasts near estuaries and marshes round here.

Whimbrel (Numeneus Phaoepus)

About a third the size of the curlew with a shorter, straighter bill, but with very similar markings. Has a similar bubbling call.

Little egret pic Marijke De Boer

Little Egret (Egretta Garzetta)

A recent immigrant to the British Isles. A graceful, pure white heron with a slender black beak, and long black legs. Mostly seen wading on its own or flying with its legs trailing behind. Sometimes comes into our area from nearby marshes and estuaries.

Grey Phalaropes pic Hannah Jones

Grey Phalarope (Phalaropus Fulicarius)

A small sized wader is usually seen in late summer and autumn off the Cornich coast. Sightings often follow stormy conditions. When we see them they are often feeding on plankton and they maybe in the vicinity of feeding basking sharks.

great northern diver pic Marijke De Boer

Great Northern Diver (Gavia Immer)

Large, heavy looking diver with a dagger like bill and a thick, dark neck around which there is a black and white striped ring. Sometimes seen in Mounts Bay.

Sanderling (Caldris Minuta)

A small, plump energetic little wader that likes sandy beaches and estuaries. The birds we see are migrants passing through although some birds will stay in the UK all summer (picture below).

Sanderlings pic Marijke De Boer

Mute Swan (Cygnus Olor)

The British Isles’ year-round and most familiar swan, and one of our largest birds. Adults are white with an orange and black beak. Usually choose a lifelong partner. Often seen in and around the harbours at Penzance and Newlyn.

peregrine falcon pic Marijke De Boer

Peregrine Falcon (Falco Peregrinus)

The fastest creature in the world on land, sea or in the air. A large and powerful falcon with pointed wings and yellow talons. Numbers are increasing after years of persecution. Seeing one catch a pigeon is a memorable experience.

Chough pic Marijke De Boer

Chough (Pyrrhocorax pyrrhocorax)

The chough is making a slow, but successful comeback in Cornwall after being wiped out. A beautiful glossy-black member of the crow family with a bright orange bill and legs and prominent “finger-like” primary feathers. Its call is a raucous, recognisable “cheeooww!” noise.

Ravens pic Marijke De Boer

Raven (Corvus corax)

The largest member of the crow family and a quite magnificent bird. Recognisable from its sheer size (bigger than a buzzard), its broad wings with the primary feathers easily visible, and its deep, croaking call. Tumbles acrobatically round the sky.

Buzzard pic Marijke De Boer

Buzzard (Buteo Buteo)

One of our most common birds of prey. Often seen in twos and threes floating above clifftops, catching thermals on their broad rounded wings, which are brown and white viewed from underneath. Often the first sign of them will be the plaintive mew that seems to float down from the sky.