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The sea creatures living off of Kent's coast


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Ever wondered what lurks just beneath the depths of Kent's waters?

To find out, we spoke to a marine rescue diver and some fishermen to show off some of the most spectacular sealife in the county - and how best to interact with some of them.

Thornbacks ray caught by Marcus Kinloch
Thornbacks ray caught by Marcus Kinloch

Seals

With 12,000 grey seals living in the waters of the UK it's no surprise so many are spotted around Kent.

A large number of grey and harbour seals are often found in Ramsgate, Margate and Herne Bay and a number have also been spotted along the River Medway.

The British Divers Marine Life Rescue's (BDMLR) bread-and-butter is saving stranded or hurt seals and the team is far from short of work in Kent - rescuing around 100 pups since November.

Despite caring for and working with seals on a regular basis, Mark Stevens, from Rainham and director at the rescue, doesn't have a glowing opinion of the animal.

A content seal after being rescued. Picture: Mark Stevens
A content seal after being rescued. Picture: Mark Stevens

He said: "They're vicious and smelly. People think seals are really cute - they're not and I've got the scars to prove it.

"They bite with teeth shaped like a cat but they can bite harder than an Alsatian - and this is a pup. An adult seal is capable of removing someone's hand. They are Britain's biggest carnivore."

This incredible bite is used to feed on fish, crabs, lobster and even sometimes marine birds.

But such powerful creatures still need help sometimes. In April, Bradley the seal was rescued in Maidstone after he became trapped on the River Medway.

Mark added: "It's been a remarkably busy year this year. We've never had numbers like that.

Mark Stevens talks about his experience with different animals and what people can do to protect them

"I think part of it was due to lockdown, because the animals reclaimed the beaches.

"Of course now people are going back to the beaches, there's interaction between the seal and humans, a bit like those goats that came down into the town in Wales.

"It's almost like throwing the clock back hundreds of years when the seals would have been on the beach at Margate."

Mr Stevens warns against throwing thick, fluffy white coated pups into the sea, as many well meaning passers-by do.

The fluffy fur on pups isn't waterproof so they cannot swim, which can lead to them drowning if thrown into the sea.

Photographer Jessica Swadling captured Bradley the seal chilling on the side of the River Medway. Picture: @JessicaSwadlingPhotography
Photographer Jessica Swadling captured Bradley the seal chilling on the side of the River Medway. Picture: @JessicaSwadlingPhotography

This fur sheds later in life, after which they are finally ocean ready and not reliant on their family for food.

He tells the public not to approach them or let dogs approach them.

He added: "Seals will defend themselves and they have a tremendous bite on them. So enjoy them, respect them. But if you think the animal is in trouble, give us a ring."

If you see the seal you should call BDMLR on 01825 765546.

A seal pup venturing off after being rescued. Picture: Mark Stevens
A seal pup venturing off after being rescued. Picture: Mark Stevens

Whales, dolphins and porpoise

Aside from seals, a number of elusive marine animals find themselves in Kent waters.

Some of the more common ones include bottlenose dolphins, common dolphin, white beaked dolphin, risso's dolphin, harbour porpoise, orca, minke whale and humpback whale.

Porpoise are some of the most common on the Kent coast, often seen swimming along the Dungeness coastline.

Reports of dolphins being spotted along the Folkestone coast are also fairly common, with them being spotted on the new-look Harbour Arm and further out to sea.

Mark says these marine mammals can be some of the most sociable he's met and rescued on the seas.

Dolphins spotted in Folkestone in 2017

He added: "When you rescue them and successfully refloat them, I've never done that and not had the animal come back. Almost as if they are saying, 'thanks a lot.'

"If you're in a boat and you're lucky enough to have a dolphin suddenly start riding along in your bow wave, the secret is not to slow down and not to speed up - maintain a straight cut on the course you're on and just keep going.

"If you try and vary too much they will just leave you to carry on where they're going. You can't lead a dolphin.

"Jet skis and personal watercraft are a big problem for our marine mammals. The noise they make is right up in the high frequency that can affect their hearing and really upset them.

"Then if you get people decide to try and chase them down, that's when animals are going to be hit, you have a bit of damage your boat, or could lead to you being thrown out the boat. It's a lose-lose situation."

Beautiful smooth hound pup caught by Chris Kennard in Dover
Beautiful smooth hound pup caught by Chris Kennard in Dover

Smooth hound sharks

Many fishermen across the Kent coast consider their most impressive catch to be the local smooth hound sharks.

The population of these sharks in Kent is likely to increase as smooth hounds are moving north with the rising sea temperatures due to climate change.

They usually inhabit waters between 5m to 50m deep, keeping to deep waters while hunting for crustaceans, cephalopods and small bony fish.

A 23lb spurdog was caught on a taxi boat in Ramsgate by Vince Knight
A 23lb spurdog was caught on a taxi boat in Ramsgate by Vince Knight

As their diet consists of mostly crustaceans, smooth hound sharks don't have sharp teeth but instead crushing plates.

And they can populate the waters rather fast, as smooth hounds can have up to 15 young per litter.

These are born at around 30cm in length and grow to just over a metre long but can reach up to 1.6 metres.

Alex Brown, from Dover, said: "If you fish for them on light tackle they are phenomenally powerful. Over a couple of days earlier this week I had over 30 of them along with other fish and I was knackered. They are very tough fish that fight to the end and swim off strongly when they are released."

A hound shark caught in North Kent by Michael Whibley
A hound shark caught in North Kent by Michael Whibley
A hound shark caught by Michael Luxon
A hound shark caught by Michael Luxon

Bill East, from West Kingsdown, said: "They are an excellent sporting fish as they have low value on the fish market and they have been thriving in the estuary’s of Kent and Essex.

"Catches by anglers can be as many as 50 a day with the better ones up to 20lb. Most of these fish get returned as very few are kept to eat.

"Anglers love to catch these hounds as they are very powerful and fight all the way to the net, after unhooking and a quick photo they are quickly returned - especially this time of year as the females have their young inside which are born alive and kicking."

Bill East, from West Kingsdown, holding a smooth hound shark he caught on the Kent coast
Bill East, from West Kingsdown, holding a smooth hound shark he caught on the Kent coast

Thornback stingrays

A very highly prized catch for local fishermen is also the thornback stingray - also known as roker or skate.

This is because they often swim 100ft below the surface only to reach shallower levels in the summer.

It also takes a little more skill to catch these deeper ocean creatures, with one method being to cast out a weight to settle on the seabed with a large hook.

A thornback ray caught in North Kent by Michael Whibley
A thornback ray caught in North Kent by Michael Whibley

However, despite possibly having stabilised in some areas such as the north of the UK and Ireland, The International Union for Conservation of Nature states that the thornback ray is 'near threatened'.

Sting rays are actually very closely related to sharks and can grow up to 4ft from wing-tip to wing-tip and are often found on clear sandy, muddy and shingle seabeds.

Of them, marine rescue diver Mark said: "They're quite fun to find underwater. You can stroke them and they're rough one way and smooth the other.

"But if you do pick one up they wrap their tail around you bit like a snake and often you find them laying on the bottom."

A thornback ray caught by Harley D'Monte
A thornback ray caught by Harley D'Monte

Eels

Conger are usually found around the West coast of England, but sightings here around the south eastern coast are not uncommon, especially within ship wrecks.

Like rays, eels are a highly prized catch. However, this is more down to their aggression being a challenge after they're yanked from the water.

Christopher Young caught a 30lb conger eel on Admiralty Pier in 1987
Christopher Young caught a 30lb conger eel on Admiralty Pier in 1987

Divers who see these snake like creatures in the wild report them to be relatively docile, according to British Sea Fishing, avoiding any sea life too big for them to handle.

They will often hide within their dens during the day, ambushing unsuspecting fish which swim by, and come out to hunt during the dimmer hours.

Eels will eat anything they can find, hunting for unassuming fish while also not being fussy enough to pass up dead, rotting meat.

An eel caught by Ben Morris
An eel caught by Ben Morris

Gurnard fish

Gurnard are small predatory fish which live closer to the sea bed which usually come in a beautiful array of colours - from bright red to blue.

As well as their striking colours, they also have a unique set of features, including little feelers beneath their large head which they use to 'walk' along the sea bed and sense food as well as the protective spines on their large heads to shield from predators.

A gurnard fish caught by Harley D'Monte
A gurnard fish caught by Harley D'Monte

The large fins that they use to 'fly' through the sea has earned them the nickname 'sea robins' as the way they swim is quite similar to a bird's flight.

This unique fish, found right across Britain, also has an internal muscle which can drum to make a croaking or grunting noise - a sound often heard after they have been caught.

To read more of our in-depth features click here.

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