Could I spot a minke whale?

A NEW Sea Watch Centre which is the first of its kind on the east coast, opened at Dunwich Heath yesterday during national Whale and Dolphin Watch Week.

By Tracey Sparling

A NEW Sea Watch Centre which is the first of its kind on the east coast, opened at Dunwich Heath yesterday during national Whale and Dolphin Watch Week. Features editor TRACEY SPARLING set off to see what she could see.

GAZING out at a grey sea, under an equally grey sky, I clung to the hope that I'd see leaping dolphins, or a minke whale.

Despite my doubts, it was a strange feeling to know that such vibrant species are out there in the cold depths beneath the breaking waves. We just don't stop and look enough, to spot them that often.

Now high tech telescopes and binoculars trained on the waves, from the vantage point of a new Sea Watch Centre at Dunwich Heath, will heighten the chances of you and I seeing the wildlife wonders of the marine world. Our sightings of marine life will start to create a previously-unknown picture of what lives off the Suffolk shores.

Reserve warden David Sutton mentioned that a harbour porpoise had been spotted earlier in the morning, feeding quite close to the water's edge. Such a treat is nothing unusual, apparently. Porpoises breed in Sole Bay and sometimes from Dunwich you can see a small group of three or even four feeding. The tide had come in since then, bringing the potential for another sighting closer.

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That's not to mention the many birds, both local and migratory which regularly drop by…in fact the list posted on the wall of the Sea Watch Centre was growing by the hour.

I spun a dial to bring the telescope in to focus, to scan wave after wave for a dark shape, or an interruption in the rhythm. The two telescopes focus on objects up to three miles away, depending on the size of the object. The technology certainly eases any discomfort from squinting out to sea with the naked eye for long periods of time.

As the minutes ticked by, I suspected that staring out to sea for hours could get boring, but then I remembered the buzz you would spark if you did see something, and refocused my efforts. How amazing would it be to spot a minke whale breaking the surface?

There was no silent air of seriousness about wildlife watching. People chatted and laughed as they looked, glancing away to study the information boards, then looking again. They respectfully took turns with the telescopes. Children played on the benches, and pestered to go to what they called the other 'whale watching hut.'

David told me the wind was blowing from the south west, leaving a relatively calm sea in the bay. As I scoured the 180degree view, I spotted a bobbing round shape…it couldn't possibly be a seal? But of course it was just a buoy, concluded a couple of the volunteers with knowing smiles.

The Sea Watch Centre is comprised of the old World War Two lookout in the Coastguard Cottages, perched above where a big gun used to sit, and a wartime generator shed at the site. Both buildings have been transformed and now house interpretation boards on coastal processes and issues like erosion, and guides to help people identify the surrounding sea and offshore species.

With few other fixed viewing points on the East Anglian coast, the Sea Watch Centre gives a fantastic opportunity to view some of the 28 species of whales and dolphins which have been recorded off the British coast, plus porpoises and seals and a wide variety of sea birds. The site is one of Suffolk's most important conservation areas.

Grant Lohoar , property manager at the heath, said: “The centre will be open every day the site is open, so people will be able to come up here and use the facility. People can bring their own binoculars or try the equipment here, and volunteers will be on hand if they have any questions.

“Any marine life which is spotted will be recorded, and those sightings will be relayed to the Sea Watch Foundation, which is a partner in the project, and also the Suffolk Biological Records Centre.

“We usually focus our attention inland, but half of Suffolk's frontage is shoreline and the aim of this project is to give us the best understanding of what is happening out at sea. People know our coast and public awareness about issues like erosion is improving, but we are all going to learn, and hopefully be surprised by how much there actually is, living out there.”

David said a buzz ripples round the viewing area when a mammal or even a bird is sited.

“The longer you watch, the more likely you are to pick up things,” he mused.

“You have to spend several hours at a time to have the best chance of spotting cetaceans. Minke whales have been seen on the east coast, but nobody's ever spent enough time looking to see one here, so I can't say for sure if they are out there. There's always the possibility, but time will tell.

“We saw a red throated diver, shearwaters, grebes - there are always things happening. But even if you don't see anything it's worth coming to learn what's happening along our coast.”

The centre was funded by various organisations, including the Suffolk Coast and Heaths Sustainable Development Fund, The Crown Estate's Marine Stewardship Fund, the Suffolk Development Agency, the East of England Development Agency, the Suffolk Development Agency and the National Trust's own Neptune Coastal Campaign Fund.

The trust is also looking for more volunteers to help run the Sea Watch Centre and record sightings.

At the end of my watch, I hadn't spotted any marine life, but you might have better luck!


Read more news about the Suffolk coast at

Dunwich Heath was purchased by the National Trust in 1968, using funding from the food manfacturer Heinz. It is sited on sandlings which used to stretch from Ipswich to Waveney.

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SOPHY McCully might not look like a sterotypical wildlife volunteer - but she does carry binoculars and she spends literally hours staring out to sea looking for cetaceans.

This 24-year-old blonde organises 'watches' at points along the coast from Suffolk to Essex, in her role as Suffolk's regional coordinator for The Sea Watch Foundation.

By day she is a fishery scientist, plus lifeboat woman, so fitting in the watches, and collating sightings of marine life for the foundation, keep her busy.

She said: “I've always been interested in marine life, ever since I was a little girl, so I did a degree in marine biology, wanting to specialise in cetaceans, then a masters degree in marine mammal science.”

During her student years she found out about the foundation. When she missed out on a rare job opportunity with the organisation, it didn't deter her from becoming a volunteer.

So what inspires a busy young woman to sit and watch for hours? “I won't deny it can be boring!” she admitted with a laugh.

“It's such a great facility here at Dunwich, and I was at Southwold this week on a six-hour watch - that was quite a long one - but I think it's really good to be raising awareness of what's out there.”

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