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Wildlife above and below our waves

Patrick Lindley

Welcome to a magical marine world!

With around 2,750 kilometres (1,700 miles) of coastline around Wales, our seas provide the perfect home for marine wildlife such as seals, dolphins, porpoises, sharks and jellyfish.

The variety of landscapes in Wales is mirrored underwater from steep rocky reefs on the open coast to eelgrass beds found in shallow sheltered bays.

Above the shores, our cliffs and offshore islands are home to internationally important colonies of seabirds, including manx shearwaters, puffins and gannets.

2018 is Wales’ Year of the Sea and we are showcasing a different marine species every week during this special year.

Jewel anemone

Jewel anemones can reproduce in an interesting way.

They can divide themselves into two, leading to densely packed areas of tiny anemones forming on the rocks.

They are amazingly colourful animals too.

They can be pink, purple, green, orange or brown, and they have a small ball on the end of their tentacles giving the impression of a glistening jewel.

Cuckoo wrasse

Cuckoo wrasse are one of our most colourful fish, with striking orange and blue markings that wouldn’t look out of place in tropical waters.

But they have another remarkable feature too.

Cuckoo wrasse are one of the few fish that can change their gender (they are ‘protogymous hermaphrodites’).

They are all born female, but can become male if the dominant male disappears. 


Crawfish are also known as crayfish and spiny lobsters. 

The name ‘spiny lobster’ comes from the sharp spines that cover their heavy, orange-brown shells. 

They have two long antennae, used for fighting and defence, and two smaller antennules, which are sensory organs that detect chemicals and movement in the water.

Crawfish were common on our rocky reefs but since the 1980's have become scarce.

They are listed a species of principal importance in the Environment (Wales) Act 2016, but still do not have any legal protection other than minimum landing size.

Always ask where the fish on your restaurant menu has come from and whether it is from a sustainable source.

Find out more about Crawfish

Common limpet

Don’t be underwhelmed by the common limpet, found all along our rocky shores.

Did you know it has a clever way of protecting itself from the elements?

A limpet always comes back to the same spot after feeding – this is called the ‘home scar.’

Its pyramid-shaped shell matches the contour of the ‘home scar’ rock perfectly, allowing it to clamp down with its muscular foot and make a tight seal against the battering waves and drying air.

When the tide goes out, the limpet moves about to feed, scraping films of seaweed off rock surfaces with its ‘radula’ – a ribbon like tongue with rows of teeth. 

Then it goes home to survive another battering!

Star sea squirt

Ever wondered how the star sea squirt got its name?

Each star sea squirt is actually a colony of many small, colourful individuals called zooids, which come together to form circular, oval or star-shaped clusters within a clear, fleshy matrix.

These clusters can look like colourful stars growing on rocks and seaweeds.

But what about the ‘squirt’?

The water that each zooid pumps through its body while filtering out food particles is discharged into a common space within the matrix, where it leaves - or is squirted - out of the colony.

Bottlenose dolphin

Talking helps bottlenose dolphins catch their prey.

They hunt in small groups, calling to each other to coordinate their movements.

They feed on locally abundant fish and can eat around 5% of their body weight daily.

The shape of their teeth is especially good at holding slippery fish, with interlocking rows of conical pegs.

You can often spot pods of dolphins from the Welsh coast, especially in Cardigan Bay Special Area of Conservation.

Grey seal

Grey seals are Britain’s largest predator.

The bulls (males) can weigh 230 kg - half the weight of a grand piano! - consuming 5 kg of fish a day.

Although they usually feed in shallow waters they can go down to an incredible 70 metres, being able to stay underwater for six minutes at a time.

You can spot grey seals along the Welsh coast all year, but especially in the autumn when they come ashore to give birth to their pups on the remote beaches around the Skomer Marine Conservation Zone.

Forest kelp

Did you know we have underwater forests in Wales?

Dense forests of large brown kelp plants grow all around our shallow coastline.

Below the forest canopy, a wealth of life thrives, with over 250 species recorded living there.

Anchored firmly to the rocks, the kelp forests create a network of nooks and crannies ideal for fish, crabs, starfish and urchins to make their home in.

The ‘tree trunks’ (called stipes) are colonised by sponges, sea firs and sea mats.

Pink sea fan

Does coral grow in Wales? Yes, it does!

Pink sea fans are a branching soft coral that can be found in the Skomer Marine Conservation Zone (MCZ).

This is their northern most stronghold - they can also be found in Africa and the Mediterranean.

Pink sea fans (also known as octocorals) have a tree-like structure that is attached firmly to a rock with a holdfast.

Their branches are covered in tiny anemone-like polyps which catch food in the water.

They grow very slowly this far north, and many in the Skomer MCZ are 50-100 years old.

Sea urchin

Why are sea urchins like rabbits? They are both grazers.

Sea urchins are known as the rabbits of the marine world because they are the most important grazers of underwater rock surfaces.

Sea urchins are vital to maintaining biodiversity.

By efficiently vacuuming rock surfaces bare while feeding on seaweed and encrusting animals, they make space for larvae of different species to settle on the rock and, as a result, encourage species diversity.

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