Seychellois Wildlife

Well the last few weeks have been fairly busy – sorry to have been away for so long! I’ve been working down in Bristol for a month on some wildlife filming projects. While there I went to the Wildlife Photographer of the Year exhibition which was fantastic (well worth a visit if you can) and met some of the lovely BBC Wildlife Magazine team!

I’ve also been off on a wildlife trip in the Seychelles – a great adventure snorkelling and diving with white tip reef sharks and both hawksbill and green turtles, along with visits to the surrounding islands to see the giant tortoises, fruit bats and endemic birds.

Amongst this charismatic wildlife I came across a few animals completely new to me – such as a tenrec! A small mammal that looks like a cross between an opossum and a hedgehog. This individual was loudly snuffling through the leaf litter  in the undergrowth when I explored the Vallée de Mai UNESCO World Heritage Site on Praslin Island.


A Tenrec, Seychelles (non-native)


A fruit bat showing off its 1.7 metre wingspan


A giant tortoise outside of my lodge on Bird Island

And of course there was the great marine life. I took this photo during a morning snorkel off bird island. After a shoal of fish suddenly darted past me I stopped and waited to see what had scared them. Out of the blue (literally) this whitetip reef shark cruised past me. I struggled to keep up with it as it swam so quickly and effortlessly through the water, but I managed to get a shot before it swam off after the fish.


A whitetip reef shark

As a wildlife guide I’m a huge advocate of responsible eco tourism (read my guest blog “Get Me Back To The Wild“). Sadly my first experience of seeing a critically endangered hawksbill turtle was to see one being restrained by a local man so tourists could touch it. After I repeatedly asked the man to laisser tomber (“let it go!”) he agreed and released it. Thankfully the turtle swam away seemingly unharmed.

Days later, I was over the moon to see (equally endangered) green turtles on Bird Island – blissfully with no one around to disturb them! I came across this one on a fortunate morning snorkel and swam with it (and its 6 friends) for 2 minutes in the tide before waiting back to let it go on its way. Robbie, the resident naturalist on Bird Island is dedicated to monitoring and protecting these turtles as they come up onto the beaches at night to lay their eggs.


Sara with a green turtle

Now I’m back up in the Hebrides for the next couple of weeks and am hoping to see my old friends – the otters. I’m going to be out and about over the next few days looking for them so wish me luck (especially in this awful weather!) After I’ve been away for so long it might take me a while to find them again – but I have a feeling some salmon might tempt them to come and say hello…

Until next time!




End of Summer

Well the summer has certainly come to an end up here on the west coast! The whales have gone, the sun has gone and the basking sharks never showed up anyway *rolls eyes*.

The islands that shone bright emerald in the summer have dimmed to a rusty orange for the autumn (which, by the way, makes spotting red deer almost impossible as they like to blend in with the dead bracken).

Nevertheless, even with the days getting cooler and wetter it’s not putting a dampener on the local wildlife. The eagles (both white tailed and golden) have been very active on clear days. Look at this – 4 eagles in one go! What do we reckon – all golden? Or has a juvenile white tailed snuck in there on the far right?


This stag was enjoying some of the afternoon sunshine (and perhaps enjoying a break from the rut? The stags have been best buds all year apart from now in October when they all try and kill each other).


And the otter have been fairly active – it’s getting really difficult to tell the mum and cubs apart now!8B1C1181 - Version 28B1C1825 - Version 2

I spent a couple of hours out on a rib watching an otter feeding and throwing me the occasional glance to see what I was doing. Hopefully I’ll see more of them as I spend less time at sea and more time on shore in the next few months.

In other news I’ve been at the Wildscreen Film Festival (biggest wildlife film festival in the world!) and have been meeting the top cameramen, presenters and producers in the business such as Doug Allen (Frozen Planet), Miranda Krestovnikoff (The One Show) and Steve Leonard (Operation Wild). However…NOTHING could top spending two hours with my all time hero, Sir David!



Best day ever. Until next time!


Off to the Bay of Biscay!

I stepped out onto open deck wrapped up in my gloves, hat, scarf and so many layers that I resembled the Michelin man. The sea was silently calm and only gently lit with the beginning of the morning sunrise – it was 6 am and I was sailing south across the Bay of Biscay, several miles off the west coast of France.

My local patch for this week has moved from the Inner Hebrides, as I was away with work doing a cetacean survey – and I was eager to get spotting some new wildlife. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t want to be “speciesist”, but after 3 years of working with minke whales, bottlenose dolphins and harbour porpoise I was keen to tick some different species off my wish list. Top of my list were fin whales (second largest, after the blue whale) and pilot whales (members of the blackfish family which also includes orcas).

The sea breeze was surprisingly warm, but I knew after a half an hour in the cooling wind I’d be freezing.


Sunrise at 6am over the Bay of Biscay


The unusual, almost artificial-looking banding on the sun as it rose above the waves.

Only seconds after making it (or waddling) up to the top deck of the 185 metre ship did I see the water erupt with white specks on the horizon. Waves? No – the rest of the sea flat calm…there was only one other thing they could be – and they were charging straight for us at full speed.

“Dolphins!” I called into the muggy sea air, and guests ran to my side with murmurs of excitement – forgetting they were cold, sleepy and hadn’t had breakfast. The black dots of the pod were scattered over a kilometre wide and could be seen from both port and starboard sides of the ship. After waiting for them to come close enough to us, I caught sight of yellow flashes down their sides in the morning sun – common dolphins!

First thing to tick off the list. Despite them being “common” and known for travelling in large groups, I’ve never seen one in the 3 years I’ve been guiding and surveying around the UK – so to see them racing towards me in the early morning light was breathtaking.

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Smaller than the bottlenose dolphins (but with a boisterous personality to match) they stormed towards us simply to ride in the wake of the ship. We counted 274 in total. Not bad before breakfast!

As the day progressed sunfish were spotted basking at the warm surface, along with a distant breaching minke. Descending from the exposed top deck for lunch I nodded to the sunlotion-covered families sunbathing in bikinis. They stared at me, open mouthed, as I shuffled past their cocktails in my 25 layers of clothing.

When I came back up I learned my team had seen two fin whales. Never, ever, again will I stop whale watching to do something as utterly unnecessary as eat lunch.

For the rest of the day I stubbornly glued my eyes to the ocean, deeming food and water to be for wimps. Throughout the afternoon the howling wind made it extremely difficult to hold binoculars straight – but, nonetheless, fins were spotted 800 metres away.

“Bottlenose dolphins!” someone shouted – but I wasn’t convinced – they were too big…their dorsal fins too rounded…could they be?

“PILOT WHALES!” a colleague shouted. Oh YES. Now we can get excited. A pod of 6 pilot whales were making their way north off the starboard side. A couple of young ones breached, sending 4 metre splashes into the air.


My excitement at seeing pilot whales!

Shortly afterwards, bottlenose dolphins appeared, accompanied by a Risso’s Dolphin (another first!) and ANOTHER pod of pilot whales appeared off the port side (so I decided that I like pilot whales more than fin whales. Again, not being speciesist).

And so it went on. Striped dolphins, over 50 leaping tuna, and even a blue shark…then more common dolphins.


Common dolphins off the coast of Brittany

The only problem in watching wildlife which lives below the waves, from 25 metres above the waves, is that it is exceptionally difficult to get photographs! A lot of sightings were several hundred metres away and lasted a matter of heart-stopping seconds – long enough to point them out to guests, but not enough to take photos (but if you’d like to see my extensive library of near-miss photographs that I took on the trip, involving lots of waves and the occasional splash, then please do email me).

All in all, a great wildlife trip. We also saw 24 different bird species – from shearwaters, skuas (Great, Arctic and Long Tailed) to Sabine’s gulls and even a marsh harrier!

Thanks for reading, and I’ll catch up with you again soon!



Where there’s a will there’s a whale!

“Dolphin!” One of my guests shouted.

Phew. I was relieved. We’d been out on the water for 2 hours already and hadn’t seen a thing. It happens of course, wildlife is wild, but as the on board “wildlife guide” there is obviously an expectancy that I find things…and despite my best eagle, otter and porpoise-spotting efforts we hadn’t seen anything.

It’s almost worse when a guest spots something before I do. I was supposed to be the professional! This wasn’t going well at all.

We all kept our eyes fixed on the spot where the guest was pointing…and it surfaced again – that was no dolphin!

“That’s a whale!” I yelled, and losing all decorum I did a little victory dance on the deck. It was swimming towards us so we switched off the engines and waited for it to surface again. Minkes typically surface 4-5 times before doing a deep dive where they can be down for up to 20 minutes – during which time they can swim several kilometres away and be impossible to find again.


One of the minkes which surfaced near the boat. Affectionately known as “Stinky Minkes” (you’ll find out why if you’re ever downwind of one when they blow!)

It resurfaced, closer to the boat, and then for a final time it did a deep dive (signalled by a pronounced arching of the back). But my luck wasn’t out yet. With our engines off we bobbed gently in the waves, an infectious excitement buzzing amongst the passengers. 10 minutes later the whale surfaced near us again, powerfully ploughing through the surface of the water as it took breaths in between feeding on shoals of herring and mackerel at the edges of the tide.

Shoals of fish swarming at the edges of the tide provide great food for minkes

Shoals of fish swarming at the edges of the tide provide great food for minkes


As it submerged near our boat, it reappeared within 2 seconds 500 metres away…surely they can’t swim that quickly?! No – there were two whales!

And so it went on for 45 minutes. I’m not sure if they even knew we were there. If they did, they were far too interested in food to pay us any attention, and that’s just how I like it. Watching animals in the wild doesn’t get much better than this!


Whale watching on open water with the Isle of Mull in the background. It’s not a bad office!

Until next week,


The Skies are Alive

The sun was shining for the first time in days after constant wind and rain had been soaking the islands. Everything now had a fresh feel to it. Perhaps I was just happy to see the sun, but as I sailed between the islands, the trees looked greener, the water calmer and the sky bluer than I’d seen in several weeks.

“This could be a great day for birds of prey” I said over my shoulder to my guests. I scouted the skyline with my binoculars. Birds of prey don’t like flying in the rain much – they prefer to perch on a sheltered branch somewhere and wait it out. So the first clear day after several days of rain is usually the best for bird of prey activity as they’ve grown hungry in the meantime and are soaring over the islands looking for food.

We’d only been out on the water and travelling down Seil sound for 10 minutes, but already a flapping of wings had caught my attention. Silhouetted against the bright sky, a bird slightly larger than a buzzard hovered over the water in the sea loch. I’d only seen this particular flight pattern twice before – different from a buzzard’s (which is quick with rather stiff wing beats), this was strong and powerful. Now it was time to get excited!

With a sailing glide the bird made a turn towards us and I fixed my eyes on it hoping to glance the underside…yes! It was white!

“It’s an osprey!” I shouted, totally elated – only the third time I’d ever seen one. Flying towards the boat and over our heads it perched in a branch of a wooded area by the water’s edge.

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Osprey migrate to Africa at the end of summer, so this one may have been fattening up before starting its journey. It stayed perched on its branch looking over the water as we went on our way.

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The day turned out to be just as good as I’d hoped – not only did I spot the (now huge) sea eagle chick soaring high in the thermals above Jura, but I also saw one of the adults (mum I think?) perched on a cliff top on Lunga. She stared down her beak at me with utter disinterest before spreading her enormous 2.5 metre wings and taking off over the cliffs.

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After she’d left I spotted a male sparrow hawk (my first ever!) which was darting in between the trees (no doubt terrorising small birds), a pair of hen harriers and a pair of peregrine falcons which were grappling talons mid-air.

I was really sorry to be missing the Rutland Birdfair last weekend – but at least I seem to have plenty of my own up here!


Until next time!



A Wildlife Roadtrip – with a l’otter good stuff

“Stooooop!” I yelled from the back of the convertible. As we came to a halt I made a grab for my binoculars and cast a glance back to the water’s edge. I was driving round Mull with some friends, and had been assigned the job of “on board wildlife guide” for the day. I was determined to find them some of the local wildlife (they’d travelled all the way from Holland) but as it was my first time to Mull I wasn’t sure where to look.


The view from Mull as I started searching for wildlife

But I was in luck – there was an otter bobbing in the waves! Constantly diving and surfacing every couple of minutes with catches of crabs or fish. We leapt out of the car and scrambled across near-lethal slippery seaweed down to the shore line.

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Like a game of musical statues, every time the otter surfaced we froze in position while it ate. Each time it dived under we quickly resumed crawling over the barnacle covered rocks to get closer.

The otter, fishing about 50 metres away, seemed totally oblivious as it slurped fish down like spaghetti!otter3

I watched for 45 minutes as it worked its way around the bay of Loch Na Keal. Finally, I saw it surface with a fish almost the same size as itself (a salmon?). It was clearly struggling to subdue the catch – sinking back under the water every couple of seconds as it battled to support the weight of the fighting fish. Deciding the fight would be easier to handle out of the water, the otter headed for the rocks, dragging the unwilling fish with it.IMG_3507

After that I lost sight of it. Despite thoroughly searching the shoreline and waiting for patiently, I think the otter had wisely hidden itself from the view of ravens, hooded crows and buzzards to enjoy its main course in peace.

Our great day of wildlife didn’t stop there – we also saw a female sea eagle (and nest!). Perched atop a tree about 1km away, her cream head feathers stood out against the dark green of the pine forests and enabled me to spot her instantly.


Can you spot the Sea Eagle?


On the way back we sailed over flat calm waters watching thousands of jellyfish beside the ship, and several porpoise gently breaking the surface of the sea in the sunset. And all crammed into 8 hours – not bad!


Scenery of Mull as we departed for the evening


The otter watching didn’t stop there – as soon as I got back to the island I was back watching from near my house until 11pm!

The sea eagle chick I see every week on Jura has now left the nest – after its parents had been starving it for days (weeks?) to make it leave. Last week it finally got the courage to take flight – hopefully I’ll see more of it as it grows up round these islands and raises young of its own in the years to come.

Until next week!


Swarms of Jellies

As I stood out on the deck of the Oban-Mull ferry yesterday (going otter spotting) I couldn’t believe the numbers of moon jellyfish I saw. They were swarming in their thousands! On the 45 minute journey to Mull there was never a time that I couldn’t see these ghostly white blobs floating through the waves – especially in the shallower, warmer waters near the shore.

Although apparently humans don’t feel their sting much, I wouldn’t have fancied swimming in the water and suddenly realising I was surrounded by these.

swarm of moon jellyfish, Mull.

A swarm of moon jellyfish, Mull.

Amongst the moon jellies (AKA common jellyfish) were lions mane jellyfish. You just have to get a glimpse of these sinister looking creatures to know immediately to give them a wide berth! They make a swarm of moon jellies look positively welcoming.

The sinister looking tentacles of the lions mane jellyfish as it approached a swarm of moon jellies

The sinister looking tentacles of the lions mane jellyfish as it approached a swarm of moon jellies

This lions mane jellyfish was swept past me in the wake of the ferry.

This lions mane jellyfish was swept past me by the wake of the ferry.

I snapped away as much as I could from the top deck of the ferry. Only when I looked back at photographs did I realise why the lions mane jellyfish were there. They were feasting on the moon jellies.

With the movement of the moon jellyfish mainly at the mercy of the currents, and the tentacles of the lions mane apparently reaching 60m in length (yikes!), there’s not much of an escape from the largest jellyfish in the Atlantic.

A moon jelly had fallen prey to this lions mane jellyfish, seen in the tentacles on the left.

A moon jelly had fallen prey to this lions mane jellyfish, seen in the tentacles on the left.

It was a rare opportunity for me to see so many of these creatures from an almost aerial view point. The swarms are likely to stay while the warm weather (and plankton blooms) hold out for the summer, so hopefully I’ll see some more of these creatures over the next coming weeks (from a safe distance…)


See Sara’s website here:

Sara’s Crash Course in Marine ID Skills

A common question guests ask me when whale watching is: “What do we need to look for?”

It might sound obvious: “Well, you need to look for a whale, madam.”

However, the cetaceans that patrol the British coasts can be extremely elusive. Countless times have the footprints of porpoise appeared around the boat before quickly melting back into the surf, or splashes on the horizon have given away a pod of dolphins. But to the untrained eye they can look nothing more than waves.


Would you have realised this was the “footprint” of a Minke Whale?

How do you distinguish between a porpoise and a dolphin? How did you know that was a whale? How do you know where they’re going to come up?

Again, the questions I get asked on a daily basis! So, in the spirit of preparation for the Big Watch Weekend I’ve decided to give you all a Marine Mammal ID crash course so that on the 26th-27th July you can ditch sitting in front of the TV and head to your nearest spot of coastline and make the most of summer. Who knows what you’ll see? So – print out this blog, grab a camera and binoculars and head on outdoors.

Good signs for cetaceans:
Birds: I think people are surprised by how excited I get when I see a lot of bird activity. After all, we’re on a whale watching trip. But birds are a great indicators of the underwater activities, which you can’t see so easily. If you know where the birds are – then you’ll have a better idea of where the cetaceans (whales, dolphins and porpoise) are. Gannets are the best ones to look for – if you see these birds circling high above the water and diving, then there’s a high chance there are cetaceans driving the fish underneath them.


Baitball feeding


Gannet ID: Bright white feathers, black wing tips, yellow head and almost a 2 metre wing span!

Calm weather: you can be the best wildlife guide in the world but if the weather isn’t right, you simply won’t be able to see anything. Undoubtedly the best weather for whale watching is flat calm water (i.e. no wind at all!) and slightly over cast so you don’t get bright glare from the sun. Sea State 0-2 is the best, but I’ve still managed to see minke whales in a Sea State 6 (albeit I was clinging on for dear life). Click here to learn about Sea States.

How to identify cetaceans when you’ve found them:
Harbour Porpoise:
These are the most common cetacean in British waters – yet they are the hardest to see! You need very calm waters to see these shy creatures as they gently break the surface. Porpoise can be notoriously difficult to photograph because they are so shy, so you need a lot of patience.
Porpoise ID:
• Triangular dorsal fin (avoid confusion with the curved dorsal fin of a dolphin)
• 1.5-1.9 metres in length
• Very small/little splash
• Shy personality – in contrast to dolphins, porpoise won’t spend time jumping at the surface (other than the necessary for breathing!)
Best place to see them: All around the UK coast but the North Sea (between Newcastle – Hull) and the West Coast of Scotland (Firth of Lorn) are two good places.


I took this photo last week. It’s a good example of how calm the water needs to be to see small and shy porpoise…can you spot it?


Bottlenose dolphins are very confident, energetic and quite frankly totally the opposite of porpoise regarding personality. They often head towards boats to swim with them (bow ride) and investigate what’s going on.
Britain’s most common dolphin – Bottlenose Dolphin ID:
• Look for lots of splashes and acrobatic jumping.
• Curved, gun-metal grey dorsal fins.
• These dolphins can reach up to 3.9 metres in length – they’re big!
Best place to see them: Moray Firth (Scotland) and Cardigan Bay (Wales).


With a bit of practice the splashes of dolphins on a calm day are unmistakable – even at a distance!

White Beaked Dolphin ID:
• Black, curved and pointed dorsal fins.
• White/grey saddle patches on the back.
• Most often seen in groups of 5-10.
• 3 metres in length
Best place to see them: North Sea (Northumberland coastline)


White beaked dolphins from a far – note the white saddle patches on their backs (and the calm weather! Any waves would make this difficult to spot from a distance)

Minke whales:
You can’t confuse a whale with a porpoise – but I suppose from a distance you can confuse it with a dolphin if you don’t get a good look at it.
Minke whale ID:
• They’re BIG! Up to 10 metres in length.
• Their dorsal fins are two thirds of the way along their body (unlike dolphins and porpoise which have them half way).
• Minke whales rarely splash (unless breaching of course).
• Look for a dark shape coming slowly out of the water (which contrasts with the quick, splashing movement of dolphins). They often surface 3-5 times before deep diving (signalled by a pronounced arching of the back). Once they’re down they can be gone for up to 20 minutes – by which time they could have easily travelled several kilometres away.

Best place to see them: West coast of Scotland


Note the dorsal fin of a minke whale is two thirds of the way along its body, unlike the central fins of dolphins and porpoise.

A lot of identifying wildlife obviously comes with experience – we’re all beginners at some point. I once confidently identified an eagle to everybody (which turned out to be a plane) and on another occasion a shark (which turned out to be a log). But you have to start somewhere! I think getting out to your nearest coastline will be a GREAT start.
Take your cameras with you and let me know what you see! If you’re not sure of any wildlife you photograph on your adventures, you can always send them through to me for a look.
Top tip: If you know the cetaceans are there but are having trouble spotting them, keep watching the behaviour of any birds (particularly gannets) and look underneath them! If there is feeding happening, more often than not the birds will lead you to the right spot.


For more about my life as a wildlife guide, watch my film “Wild Islands“!
Happy wildlife watching folks!

See Sara’s website here:


Photos: Sara Frost and David Ainsley

Goodness gracious – baitballs of fire!

It’s always a great sign when you discover you’re floating above a pile of sandeels. Slowing the boat down, my colleague and I glanced to the echosounder and saw a large shoal of fish on the screen, taking shape as a thick cloud of red pixels.

Sandeels shoal in the surface waters or down in the sand on the sea bed, and form the staple diet for countless marine birds and mammals.

Luckily for me, that means that I can hang around with the sandeels until the wildlife comes along for lunch. But today the birds had beaten me to it, squawking loudly as they took advantage of the huge shoal underneath us.

In the heat of the afternoon sun, flaps of wings and flurries of feathers surrounded the boat. Black backed gulls dived head first into the water and surfaced with beaks full of wriggling sandeels. I’d never seen a baitball this big before! It was a calm sunny day, and through the turquoise water I could make out the black shadow of the sandeel shoal as they swarmed, panicked by the birds.

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Bottoms up!!

The guillemots, razorbills and kittiwakes looked almost overwhelmed, not knowing where to put their beaks first – but it didn’t matter. Regardless of where they dived they came back up with beaks teaming full of fish. Some wriggled furiously and managed to drop back into the water, but for most, it was their last glimpse of sunlight before disappearing into a dark gullet.

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Black backed gulls with beak fulls of sandeels

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A lone puffin having a wing stretch

Over the cries of the seabirds I heard a “Pff!” and glanced down to see the footprint of a porpoise splash, slowly fading back into waves.

“Pff!” another surfaced behind me. One after another they jumped around the boat, startling seabirds as they burst out of the water for breaths in between catching sandeels. I counted at least 20 porpoise as their shapes appeared and disappeared through the turquoise waters. What a fantastic day!

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Mrs Sea Eagle near the nest, looking a little bit raggy!

We also visited the sea eagle nest – the chick is now huge and on the verge of fledging – I’m sure it’ll be gone in a few days. I last saw it standing on the edge of the nest, looking to its surroundings and clumsily flapping its wings. I’m keeping my fingers crossed for a safe fledging and hoping to see it take to the skies soon! I’m sure the local ravens will object as usual and try to mob it – but hopefully the youngster will hold its own. I’ll keep you posted.

For now, the activity (both in and out of water) continues to get busier for the summer and I can’t think of anywhere else I’d rather be – happy days!



The Emerald Ghosts

“Oh look he’s caught something!” I said.

“So he has!” said producer Nigel Pope (creator of Springwatch), with whom I had been spending the afternoon. He passed me his binoculars to have a look and, indeed, the otter was swimming victoriously back to shore with a butterfish in its mouth. Shaking itself off it devoured the fish before returning to the water for more.


We were watching from only 15 metres away but it either hadn’t noticed us, or didn’t mind that we were there. We watched for about 20 minutes before he scampered off across the beach and into the trees.

Nigel left, but I decided to sit in the afternoon sun, hoping the otter would come back. While I waited, I dangled myself off a pontoon and looked down into the clear waters for anything of interest. A sparkle of emerald green caught my eye – a transparent blob the size of a grape, floating in the water. Another sparkle appeared further away – this time turquoise. Like ghosts they drifted through the water, appearing and disappearing before me. Wow! What were they?!


It took quite a while to get good photos of these creatures while they were fluorescent without a macro lens – my telephoto lens kept focusing on the surface of the water! But eventually I got a few snaps…


A quick google when I got home told me they were Sea Gooseberries. Flourescent organisms, common around British waters (and indeed worldwide). However, as a first to my eyes they were nothing short of fascinating. I marvelled at these emerald and topaz blobs as they sparkled like jewels. It’s not often that I stop searching for the big wildlife: whales, dolphins, eagles and otters (the “megafauna” if you will) and take time to look at the tiny, but equally beautiful, creatures.


I think sea gooseberries are great – and they’re vicious too – using their tentacles to catch fish eggs, larvae and even other sea gooseberries. Hopefully this summer I’ll have more time to look under the waves, not just what’s on or above the surface!

Until next week,