With miles upon miles of unspoilt coastline and a range of diverse habitats, Cornwall is one of the best places in the British Isles to see marine mammals, sharks and seabirds from the land and sea. Thanks to the Gulf Stream which brings a warm current flowing from the south, the county's coastal waters support a rich variety of oceanic wildlife including large populations of seals, and it is not uncommon to see porpoises, whales and turtles.
But with dozens of places around Cornwall’s coast where you can spot wildlife in action, where are the best locations to get up close and personal with the giants from the deep, or the best time of year to go birdwatching or seal spotting?
We’ve put together a guide to some of our favourite wildlife hotspots in Cornwall, where you can experience the splendour of their natural coastal habitats - starting with the ideal location to spot dolphins…
Best place in Cornwall to see dolphins
Every year, particularly in the warm summer months, dolphins are clearly visible from cliff tops, beaches, harbours and boats all around the spectacular South West peninsula as they take full advantage of the burgeoning fish stocks. Travelling in ‘pods’, they are often seen breaching, bow-riding and thrashing their tails as they feed, and passengers on dolphin spotting tours frequently report these enchanting sea creatures coming close to the boat to socialise.
The common dolphin is one of the easiest to spot with their distinctive yellow and grey hourglass pattern along their sides. Travelling in pods of between 50 and 100, these inquisitive and playful characters dramatically jump out of the water as they swim. You’re also likely to see the bottlenose dolphin which is dark grey in colour with paler lower sides and belly. Both species are regularly noted at Padstow, Hella Point, Porthgwarra beach, Gwennap Head, Lizard Point and Penzance.
There are also less frequent sightings of rarer species such as Risso's dolphins which grow to around 4 metres in length and can sometimes be glimpsed off Penlee Point and Mounts Bay, and harbour porpoise which are easily identified by their small triangular dorsal fin around Cornwall's Pentire Point.
Top tip: Although it might seem tempting to get as close to these beautiful mammals as possible, swimming with dolphins isn’t recommended as it can cause disturbance and possible distress. The best way to get up-close and enjoy a memorable encounter is through one of the many available wildlife watching boat tours along the Cornish coast.
Best place in Cornwall to see seals
Cornwall's rocky, isolated caves and coves are home to numerous colonies of grey seals, one of the rarest species of seal in the world and the biggest land-breeding mammal in the UK. Although these charismatic creatures can be seen basking on the shoreline all year-round, autumn hails the start of the pupping season which begins from as early as mid-September and lasts through to January. This is the perfect time to observe the mothers with their pups, whose curious nature and cuddly appearance make them bewitching to watch.
The best place to see seals is Mutton Cove at Godrevy Point in West Cornwall. At low tide, a resident colony of grey seals can be viewed in this protected sheltered bay from the cliff tops. During January it’s not uncommon to see around 100 seals hauled out on the sand and rocky outcrops below.
Another great place for seal spotting in Cornwall is at Falmouth on the south coast. Small colonies often lounge on the weed-strewn rocks at low tide around Black Rock near Pendennis Point. To get a closer view, there are wildlife boat safaris which run from Falmouth Harbour or you may even find yourself swimming within a few feet of one at Gyllyngvase beach.
If you want guaranteed close-up sightings, then you can always visit the Cornish Seal Sanctuary at Gweek, where they rescue injured and abandoned seal pups from around Cornwall before releasing them back into the sea when they have recovered.
Top tip: Seals are easily scared - especially by dogs - so please remember to keep a safe distance when they come ashore. If you want to get a close-up view and study them individually, take a pair of binoculars or a camera with a telephoto lens.
Best place in Cornwall to see sharks
Cornwall has been named as the best place to see sharks in the UK with at least 20 species found off the coast. During the summer months, the most common sighting is of the impressive yet gentle basking shark, although there have also been recordings of predatory sharks including the blue shark, porbeagle shark, thresher shark and the more notorious mako shark (Maori for man-eating) which can reach speeds of 45 mph. There has yet to be a confirmed sighting of the great white shark.
With adults measuring over 30 feet long, basking sharks are the second largest species of shark found in the world (after the whale shark) and are a common visitor to Cornish waters. Unlike their smaller relative the great white shark, they are harmless peaceful plankton feeders. Not long after the plankton bloom around May/early June, these gentle giants start appearing, particularly around Mount’s Bay. The best places to look for basking sharks are from headlands and cliff tops on the South West Coast Path, where if you’re lucky, you will spot their fins and nose breaking the surface of the water as they swim with their vast mouths open to feed.
Top tip: Basking sharks are a protected species and should be observed from a distance, if you decide to enter the water you must follow the code of conduct.
Best place in Cornwall to see whales
Whale watching can often be found at the top of many nature lovers’ bucket lists given how impressive these marine mammals are. Observing these enormous creatures breaching, or bow-riding is simply breathtaking. Although sightings of whales in Cornwall are rare, minke and fin whales have been known to come close to shore, particularly in deeper water areas, and long-finned pilot whales can sometimes be seen travelling alongside pods of dolphins.
Recordings are most common between April and November, most notably in the coastal waters around Penzance. It is thought that they like subtropical and temperate waters during the winter when they breed, before travelling north to colder waters, such as those in Cornwall in the summer to feed. Humpback whales, known for their spectacular breaching, lobtailing and flipper-slapping, have also been admired in St Ives Bay, Falmouth Bay and around the Scilly Isles.
Top tip: Patience and perseverance are key to spotting whales. There’s no sure-fire way of determining whether whales are going to be visible on any given day or time and it may take hours before they surface.
Best place in Cornwall to see tropical turtles
The most commonly spotted tropical turtle in Cornwall is the leatherback turtle which grows to over two metres in length. Usually found in the warm waters of the Central Pacific, these solitary animals are the fastest swimmers and deepest divers of all the species of marine animals. They travel thousands of miles from their tropical breeding areas to feed on the abundance of jellyfish supported by the cooler temperatures of the Cornish sea and sightings are usually recorded between August and October.
In 2016, a turtle measuring 6ft in length was rescued after becoming tangled in a buoy between Penzance and Land’s End. Occasionally you might also spot the odd loggerhead or Kemp’s ridley turtle, though these are an even rarer sight. The best chance of witnessing one is from the South West Coast Path on a warm, calm day.
Top tip: Turtles are critically endangered, so it is vital that they aren’t disturbed. The Cornwall Wildlife Trust has prepared a Cornish Turtle Code, for users and watchers of the sea, which gives more detailed advice.
Other wildlife to look out for in Cornwall
The thornback ray is the most abundant member of the skate family found in Cornish waters, usually observed on soft substrates such as sand and mud. They are distinguished by the extensive thorns or spines which can cover the dorsal surface, and which give the species its name.
Giant ocean sunfish
The spectacular-looking giant ocean sunfish might be spotted around the headlands of Cornwall on a sunny day, especially along the North Coast. Silvery grey in colour, flat and circular, with no noticeable tail and two very large fins, one on each side, this peculiar fish is the heaviest in the sea - sometimes reaching up to 1.5 tonnes and measuring up to 11 feet! It is often seen basking in the sunshine on the surface of the water on its side during June to August.
Cornish sucker fish
A classic rockpool find, the Cornish sucker fish hides under stones at low tide and uses its ‘sucker’ to attach to them. Small and flat in appearance, it has two distinctive blue spots at the top of its back, behind the eyes.
Though rare in most parts of the UK, the little egret has made its home around the coast of West Cornwall. This small white heron eats fish and tends to be more commonly sighted during autumn. You could see them on Marazion Marsh, Polwheveral Creek and on the Helford River.
Choughs have been recorded as part of Cornish history since at least the 13th century and are unmistakable with their glossy black plumage, curved crimson-red bill and red legs. This legendary bird can be spotted wheeling and diving along the cliffs at Lizard Point in West Cornwall.
Easily recognised by their mix of black and white feathers, large brightly coloured bill, red and black eye markings and bright orange legs, puffins can be seen nesting on cliffs and islands scattered around the Cornish coast between March and August. The best places to see them are The Mouls off Pentire Point, The Brisons off St Just, Long Island near Boscastle and on The Rumps near Padstow.
Map of wildlife watching locations in Cornwall
Cornwall is one of the best places in the UK for wildlife watching and exploring the wonders of the ocean. If you’re feeling inspired to reconnect with nature, our cottages, hotels, holiday parks and B&Bs are never too far away from one of Cornwall’s top wildlife watching destinations.
For more great inspiration for days out in Cornwall, why not have a read of our essential Cornwall beach guide, which includes some secret little spots that you might not have heard about! If you're bringing your canine companion on holiday with you, be sure to check out the best dog-friendly beaches in Cornwall and if you're worried about jellyfish, check out our guide on how to stay safe.