Just off the coast of Brighton, tucked away beneath the waves we have a huge variety of marine habitats including hidden chalk cliffs and reefs – with their rich and colourful diversity of life, they are as good as any tropical reef! Sussex’s skies are filled with an array of coastal birds – not just gulls, and our rockpools are teeming with weird and wonderful life. In this section, The Booth Museum and partners including Brighton Dolphin Project, Sussex Wildlife Trust and the RSPB aim to show you some of our favourites.
The Harbour porpoise is one of seven species of porpoise. As its name implies, it stays close to coastal areas or river estuaries. This porpoise often ventures up rivers and has been seen hundreds of miles from the sea. It is one of the smallest marine mammals. Adults grow to 1.4 to 1.9 m (4.6 to 6.2 ft)
Did you know?
The name “porpoise” comes from the Latin for pig (porch). Harbour porpoises are therefore sometimes called “puffing pigs”, due to the sound they make as they breathe. Interestingly, when surfacing for air, these porpoises do not splash; instead they roll from their beak to their fluke and arch their back.
The Common Dolphin is the most abundant cetacean in the world, with a global population of about six million. Adults range between 1.9 and 2.5 m (6.2 and 8.2 ft) long, and can weigh between 80–235 kg (176–518 lb).
Did you know?
Common Dolphins are one of the only tricolour dolphins – grey, white and yellow in a distinctive hourglass pattern.
Bottlenose dolphins inhabit warm and temperate seas worldwide, being found everywhere except for the Arctic and Antarctic Circle regions. Their name derives from the Latin tursio (dolphin) and truncatus for their characteristic truncated teeth. Adults weigh an average of 300 kg (660 pounds) and can reach a length of just over 4 meters (13 feet).
Did you know?
Bottlenose dolphins can reach speeds over 30km per hour and dive as deep as 250m below the surface.
The Sussex Coastline is home to an abundance of marine wildlife including six species of marine mammals! The team at Brighton Dolphin Project gives us top tips on the mammals we should keep an eye out for.
In Sussex, we are lucky enough to have not one not two, but three species of Dolphin that are regularly spotted in our waters!Bottlenose Dolphins that are here year round and regular visitors in the form of Common Dolphins and White-beaked Dolphins.
The world’s smallest marine mammal
Our coastline is also home to one of the smallest marine mammals, the Harbour Porpoise. We also have two seal species; the grey seal and the Harbour (or Common) Seal. Click on each species to find out more.
The grey seal is found on both shores of the North Atlantic Ocean. It is a large seal of the ... Read More
Brighton Dolphin Project research and study these Marine mammals. Part of our work is based on recording sightings, where we ask people to report any sightings and tell us about their experience. Here are a few of the most recent and exciting sightings! Find out how far we come with our project and how you can get involved here.
Just off the coast of Brighton, tucked away beneath the waves we have a huge variety of marine habitats including hidden chalk cliffs and reefs – with their rich and colourful diversity of life, they are as good as any tropical reef! When the tide is low, Rockpooling gives us a glimpse into this underwater world, and you don’t have to go far from Brighton to explore some of the best ones.
The Undercliff Walk
The closest pools to Brighton city centre are near Brighton Marina along the Undercliff walk. These pools are within the Beachy Head West Marine Conservation Zone (MCZ). Beachy Head West was one of the first MCZs to be established in the country. The chalk reef is among the best examples of marine chalk habitats in the south east, which supports so many species and when revealed, the Rockpools are full of hidden gems.
So…let’s get started!
First things first, check the tide times! Sometimes you only have a small window of time to search the Rockpools, so checking this is key. There have been a couple of times where I’ve made my friends come with me, only to find the tide is in and the rockpools are covered. Don’t make my mistake! Good sites to use are magic seaweed or tidetimes.
Equipment and footwear
Footwear with a good grip is essential – the rocks can get really slippery; wellies or waterproof trail shoes work well, but beach shoes are the best. Don’t forget sunscreen, a hat and take plenty of water to drink – you will be really exposed to the sun on the rocks. The Wildlife Trust’s top tips for rockpooling shows you the basic equipment you need to take with you to safely observe the animals.
The far end of the beach towards the sea is the best place to start your search as the deeper pools are here. You can then make your way back towards the beach to search the shallower pools. Animals like to keep cool and damp, so searching under rocks and overhangs will give you a better chance of spotting them. Turn rocks and seaweed over slowly and gently, the longer you look, the more chance you will see things. Listen out for the sounds of fish splashing and crabs clicking too.
The animals in rockpools are quite vulnerable so ensure you turn rocks over and put them back as slowly as possible. Check constantly to see if anything has moved under where you are going to put the rock back. If you collect anything in a bucket don’t keep it in there for long as it will get stressed by the temperature. Return everything you find to the pools as close to where you found it as possible.
Always something new!
The best thing about rockpooling is you always spot something new each time you go. Here are some animals I have spotted during my time rockpooling this summer on the Undercliff pools.
Spiny spider crab
Reporting your finds
Reporting rare finds to wildlife charities can be really important as it helps be build up a more detailed picture of the wildlife that lives in specific habitats. If rare species are found their is a higher likelihood that the areas will be protected in the future. Find out how data reports helped towards creating Marine Conservation Zones here.
Our friends at Sussex Wildlife Trust have provided us with beautiful videos which explore what lives beneath the waters off the coast of Sussex.
What lives under the sea in Brighton & Hove?
There is a vast array of colourful and interesting wildlife and habitats living along the shores and off the coast of Brighton & Hove. Take an undersea journey to discover what lies beneath!
Film by BHEE, Brighton & Hove Environmental Education
Many organisms that live today have barely changed their body shape in millions of years and look extremely similar to their ancestors. With the help of Sussex Wildlife Trust we have compared some of our Sussex chalk fossils, which are around 100 million years old, with modern animals that live in UK seas today.
Fossil Sea Urchin, Stereocidaris sceptrifera
Like many modern types living on the seabed, these sea urchins had spines as protection against hungry fish. This fossil is lacking it’s spines but you can still see where they would have been held.
Fossil of Stereocidaris sceptrifera, an ancient species of sea-urchin (or Echinoid). Photo by Bob Foreman
Common sea urchin, Echinus esculentus
Also known as the edible sea urchin. A large, round sea-urchin up to 15cm across with short, strong spines. Usually brick-orange in colour, with white bumps which the orange spines are attached to. Lives amongst seaweed and rocks, where it grazes on algae and small shellfish
Found on rocky shores, particularly around the north and west.
An edible species, eaten particularly in Spain and Portugal.
Fossil fish,Ctenothrissa radians sp.
Fossil fish, Ctenothrissa radians sp., this is a rare complete example of this beautiful scaly fish which was found by Charles Potter in the late 19th Century.
Black seabream, Spondyliosoma cantharus
The black sea bream, also known as a Porgy, is an omnivorous fish, eating seaweeds and small invertebrates.
Black sea bream breed in the Kingmere Marine Conservation Zone in Sussex between April and May. The males excavate a small shallow in the seabed, moving the gravel or sand around the edge to create a sort of crater into which the female lays her eggs. The male then protects the eggs until they hatch. He will fan them with his tail to keep them clear of sand or debris and wards off hungry predators, including smaller bream, wrasse and even whelks!
How to identify:
A large silvery fish, with an oval shape. Shaded bands running along the length of the upper flanks. It has a long single dorsal and anal fin and a small mouth. The tail is large and forked displaying a black band on it, most obviously noticeable on juveniles.
Juveniles usually have numerous broken yellow stripes running along the body. Spawning males are nearly completely black in colour, except for vertical white bars.
Found off south west Britain the Irish Sea and the English Channel.
All black sea breams are born female! They change to males when they reach 30cm. All fish over 40cm are male.
This rare fossil lobster was found in the Lower Chalk, Clayton, East Sussex and is from the Upper Cretaceous era. It has been preserved in wonderful detail. First drawings of this fossil appeared in scientific journals in 1850. Collected by Henry Willet.
Common Lobster, Homarus gammarus
A large crustacean, that grows up to 1 metre long, although more typically to about 50cm in lenght. Lobsters are a deep purplish-blue colour, with red antennae. They live in crevices and caves amongst rocks from the low tide mark and deeper. Their first pair of legs have massive grabbing pincers.
With the help of Sussex Wildlife Trust we compared some of our fossil animal teeth from 85 million years ago to jaws of animals that live in UK seas today.
Shark fossil teeth, Ptychodus sp.
Originally this ray-like shark would have used a battery of such teeth for crushing molluscs and crustaceans.
These teeth look quite similar to a tropical species of ray’s teeth – the Cow nosed ray, however these live in tropical shallow seas. The UK species of ray that we have chosen as an equivalent is the Thornback ray.
Thornback Ray, Raja clavate
Thornback rays are regularly seen by divers. They have flattened bodies covered in blotches of colour to help them camouflage into the sand or mud or gravel. They have a long thorned tail. The males are smaller than the females.
How to identify:
Flat bodies with yellow and brown patches on their backs. Long thorny tail and protruding eye sockets.
Found all around the UK coast.
Females can lay up to 150 egg cases every year. When the babies hatch, these cases are often washed up onto the beach.
Pipe fish jaw
These teeth would have belonged to a long-snouted slender fish, one of many similar bony fish that lived in the Chalk Seas of NW Europe.
Greater Pipefish, Syngnathus acus
The pipefish has a long, segmented body, about 45 cm long. It lives in seaweed and seagrass and feeds on small prawns and mysid shrimp.
How to identify:
Thin segmented body with a long snout and a hump just behind the eyes
Commonly seen around the southwest coast and welsh coastlines.
Just like seahorses, the males (not the females) look after the eggs in a brood pouch until they are ready to hatch.
…and finally we couldn’t resist adding our favourite sea creature which is protected in our Sussex Marine Conservation Zones…
Short-snouted seahorse, Hippocampus hippocampus
Seahorses prefer to live in seagrass and shallow estuaries.
How to identify:
Distinctive horse like head with snout and a curling tail which is uses for holding onto things
Has been recorded along the south and southwest coasts of the UK.
Seahorses usually mate for life and perform a courtship dance with their partner every morning. The male seahorses get pregnant and give birth to the young.
View more Monster Jaws from the Booth Museum’s in our Monster Jaw gallery
Written by Lynn Beun, Leader, RSPB Brighton & District Local Group
Living in this area we are very lucky, and can walk along the seashore, so I like to look at birds as I get some exercise and enjoy the seafront. You never quite know what you are going to see so keep looking carefully. The Undercliff walk near Brighton Marina is a good place to go, as is Shoreham.
A colourful bird that catches the eye with its black and white plumage and orange- red bill is the Oystercatcher, which I see near Brighton Marina and at Shoreham. You often see them fly off, with their piping cry as people or dogs draw near.
The oystercatcher is really misnamed as as it actually eats cockles! It also eats marine worms and other shellfish, prising them from rocks and seaweed with its long beak.
If you watch this film and are sharp eyed you will notice that there is a puffin in this film, which was made in a different part of the UK. Sadly, there are no puffins in the Brighton area and you would have to travel to specific island locations like the Alderney in the Farne Islands in the north of England, Scotland and South Stack in Wales to see these birds. Puffins nest in burrows.
A bird that is common and which I enjoy seeing is the Cormorant. This large diving bird can be seen sitting close to boats near Brighton Marina, at Seaford Head and in Shoreham. After fishing and eating it spreads it’s wings out. Scientists have debated the reasons for why it spreads it’s wings out. The most common reason given is that it spreads its wings to dry them. However, some believe it may be to help them swallow and digest the fish it catches. I believe it might be a bit of both, after watching a cormorant swallowing what appeared to be an impossibly large fish!
The juvenile cormorants have cream coloured fronts which, I always think makes them look a bit like penguins! But that is just my fancy.
Unless you look closely you may miss one little bird which is called the turnstone. This busy little bird has chestnut brown wings and a white front with orange-red legs. It blends in well with the pebbly beach itself and can be seen scurrying along the water’s edge along the undercliff near Brighton Marina, near Hove lagoon and in Shoreham when the tide is low. They avoid the most heavily disturbed beaches. .It is very aptly named, as it turns the stones over looking for tasty insects to eat. Watch them doing just that in the video below.
When walking along and watching gulls whirl around you need to remember – there is no such thing as a seagull! (Unless you are a football supporter of course!) Why do I say this? That is because there are many different types of gulls and herring gulls are the ones we see most frequently in this area.
They are very large and have a yellow beak with a red spot on it. These are the ones we tend to think of as “seagulls”. Some love them and some loathe them! Herring gulls used to go out to sea but in urban seaside areas now stay around the town because they have learned that there is a good food supply from humans and adapted their behaviour accordingly. I noticed during the lockdown when people did not have food for them to snatch, they had reverted to their natural behaviour. They were dropping shells to crack them open. I also had a crab claw drop on my head whilst out walking only to look down at a herring gull that landed and was waiting his snack!
But, there is a rather special gull called the Fulmar which is related to the albatross that nests on small ledges on the cliffs along the coast between the undercliff. This gull feeds in flocks out at sea following the fishing fleets and will not steal your chips! They fly differently to herring gulls – they do not flap their wings but have what is sometimes described as a “stiff winged” flight. They fly with their wings flat. Brighton’s version of an albatross. You can see them close to Brighton all year round. People should not get too close to them though because Fulmars possess an unusual gland on their beak which secretes a foul-smelling oil. If the bird is disturbed on the nest it will squirt this at an intruder. You will notice in this picture the oil gland which gives the beak an unusual shape.
A bird less frequently seen in this area is the delightful Common Tern. These delightful silvery-grey and white birds have long tails which have earned them the nickname of “sea swallow”. They have a graceful flight and frequently hover over water before plunging down for a fish. This tern may be seen most frequently inland, in places like reservoirs as it nests in shingle and on specially made “tern rafts” where it is protected from predators. They nest at Ardingly and Arlington reservoirs in Sussex. However, keep a look out as the common tern does pass our area through on its migration routes, and in Sussex can be seen at locations between Rye Harbour and Pagham. Common terns migrate to Africa and winter in locations such as Senegal, Gambia and Ghana, returning in the spring.
And so we end our walk along the seashore and catch the bus home. These are just a small selection of our coastal birds. What will you see today?
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