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Cardigan Bay marine wildlife

​​​​Cardigan Bay is a wildlife haven. It is home to Europe's largest pod of bottlenose dolphins as well as porpoises, seals, seabirds and other marine amimals. The Ceredigion coast is a designated Special Area of Conservation. The Ceredigion coast is a great place to enjoy a wildlife spotting walk or boat trip.

Image of Seals

Ceredigion's coast -a special area for Cardigan Bay marine wildlife

Ceredigion's coast has not one, but two Special Areas of Conservation. Home to the biggest population in Europe of bottlenose dolphins, the Cardigan Bay Special Area of Conservation (SAC)​ extends along almost 20 kilometres of coast and protects wildlife in 1000 square kilometres of the Irish Sea. The northern coast of Ceredigion is protected under the Pen Llyn and Sarnau SAC, and is also part of the Dyfi Biosphere area.

Atlantic Grey Seals like Ceredigion's secluded coves and sea caves, especially when the female 'cows' need peace to give birth and rear their young pups in autumn. Seals can often be seen from the coast path, especially around Mwnt, Cwmtydu and Bird Rock near New Quay.

Look out for gannets, the UK’s largest seabirds. With a six foot wing span, they make a spectacular sight as they dive for fish. The sea cliffs are also the haunt of Britain's fastest bird -peregrine falcons can reach speeds of 200mph. The cliffs at Mwnt, Bird Rock, and south of Borth are important sites for the rare red-legged crow, the chough.

​How to spot dolphins along Ceredigion's Cardigan Bay coast

Patience is the key! There is no specific time or state of the tide when it is guaranteed to see marine mammals but calm sea with the sun behind you makes it easier to spot anything that is there. Look out for seabirds, particularly gannets, circling or diving into a patch of water. They are looking for fish, and often dolphins or porposises can be seen joining in the hunt. With the naked eye, scan the sea slowly looking for the dark blips of a dorsal fin, sun glinting off a surfacing wet body, or the splash of white water as behaviour becomes boisterous. if you spot one of these telltale signs, train your binoculars in that area so you are ready when the animal surfaces to breathe again.

There are several great places along the Ceredigion coast to spot dolphins, especially around headlands, such as between Cardigan Island and Mwnt, Aberporth, Ynys Lochtyn near Llangrannog, Bird Rock near New Quay and Aberystwyth harbour. Dolphins even come within metres of the harbour wall at New Quay. Look out too for Harbour Porpoises.

Wildlife Centres to visit along Ceredigion's coast

Visit the Cardigan Bay Boat Place to learn more about the Cardigan Bay Special Area of Conservation. Meet the team, and join them for a range of activities, including dolphin surveying and seashore safaris from May to September. The Wildlife Trust for South and West Wales has a base at the Cardigan Bay Marine Wildlife Centre​ in New Quay, with a programme of events and children's activities.

The Wildlife Trust for South and West Wales'sTeifi Wildlife Centre is a great place to spot waders and other estuarine wildlife throughout the year.

The RSPB ​has a reserve at Ynyshir on the Dyfi estuary, where you can spot woodland birds as well as migrating birds and estuarine waders.

Nearby is the Dyfi Osprey observatory where you can watch the nest and the comings and goings of the spectacular 'sea eagle'.

Please remember that these birds and animals are wild, and that their habitat is protected. For guidance on how to enjoy the wildlife without disturbing them or damaging their habitat, check out the Ceredigion Marine Code​ or if you see animal that has been stranded, please follow these guidelines

Ceredigion's wildlife rich sea cliffs

Ceredigion's coastal cliffs provide a home and resting place for an array of wildlife, colourful plants and lichens, perfectly adapted to their habitat. But the cliffs and rocks themselves deserve a closer look too, as the contorted folds and faults have been eroded and sculpted by the wind and sea to create sea caves and distinctive rock features such as Carreg Bica at Llangrannog.

Aptly named Bird's Rock, on the Ceredigion coast path just south of New Quay, is one of the best places to see Ceredigion's marine wildlife, including grey seals and bottlenose dolphins as well as the colonies of guillemots crowding onto the rocky ledges. Other birds include razorbills, kittiwake, fulmar, shag and the chough, with its distinctive red beak and legs. The world's fastest bird, the peregrine falcon is also spotted on Ceredigion's coastal cliffs.

Flowering plants include blackthorn (prunus spinosa, or sloe), yellow gorse, (ulaeus europaeus) pink or purple hued thrift (armeria) and white sea campion (silene maritima). At Ynys Lochtyn, just to the north of Llangrannog, the bluebell-like spring squilla (scilla verna) can be seen in the short grass of the cliff edge.

At Penderi Cliffs, along Ceredigion's coastal path to the north of Llanrhystud, a distinctive feature is the sturdy sessile oak trees which have been stunted by salt carried on the sea breeze from the waves.

Softer, lower, boulder clay and pebble cliffs can be seen from the foreshore between Aberaeron, Aberarth and Llanrhystud. Look out for sandmartin nesting holes in the sandy clay.​

Rock pools, sea caves and waterfalls

The Ceredigion coast is noted for some amazing rock formations, and features created by the combined forces of seismic movements, ice and water. Different coloured, layered and folded mudstone are often seen with white splashes of quartz through them. Foel y Mwnt is a distinctive conical outcrop of shale and folded mudstone. Due to the high calcium levels in the shale, colourful lichens thrive in the pure air.

Join a guided walk, or take time to explore the rockpools at Aberporth, Tresaith, Llangrannog, Cwmtydu, Llanon, Llanrhystud and Aberystwyth and discover the range of species from seaweeds and shellfish such as limpets, whelks, periwinkes and mussels, to starfish, crabs, prawns and small fish.

There are several waterfalls along the Ceredigion coast, the most distinctive of which is probably at Tresaith where a waterfall cascades over the cliff to the beach as a result of a glacier diverting the course of the river Saith 10,000 years ago. Another 150ft waterfall appears after heavy rain at Craig Ddu near Cei Bach, to the north of New Quay, whilst another waterfall accessible along the Ceredigion coastal path tumbles over rocks to the sea at Wallog.

Llangrannog and Cwmtydu have striking contorted folded rock fromations where caves have been carved out by the sea. These were once used by smugglers to hide and store their contraband goods.

The caves, some of which are underwater, are also a favourite site with Atlantic Grey Seals for sheltering their new-born pups.

Many caves and waterfalls are best and safely viewed from a boat - regular trips are available from New Quay and Cardigan.

Sand dunes and beaches

Ceredigion's coast has several sheltered coves and small bays with sandy beaches from Mwnt near Cardigan to Clararch, north of Aberystwyth. Some beaches are divided by small rocky headlands, such as Aberporth, Llangrannog and New Quay. Penbryn beach is a mile of golden sand, but the longest sandy beach is at Borth, stretching three miles north to the dunes at Ynyslas.

At Gwbert, at the mouth of the river Teifi, the sand dunes, known as Towyn Burrows lie on an ancient bed of glacial till, blown from the Irish Sea by strong onshore winds, whilst the beaches at Llanrhystud and Borth lie against shingle ridges.

The wind and tide can still dramatically change the sand at the mouth of the Teifi between Gwbert on the north shore and and Poppit Sands on the southern side of the estuary. At Borth, the wind creates perfect conditions for surfing, flying kites, and even kite-surfing.

The dunes at Ynyslas are the largest in Ceredigion and are continuously moulded by sea breezes and currents. As well as marram grass and sea bindweed, the dunes are well known for orchids and marsh helleborine and pyramid and bee orchids in the drier areas. The dunes are also home to rare liverworts and fungi, insects and reptiles. Skylark, linnet and stonechat nest in the dunes whilst ringed plovers make their nests on pebbly parts of the beach. The large wooden sculpture of a banded snail is a great place to get a good view of the site.

At low tide, the sea retreats from the sands between Borth and Ynyslas to reveal the remains of an ancient petrified forest, which, along with the rampart-like pebble ridges of the 'sarnau', gave rise to the legend of the lost land of Cantre'r Gwaelod.​

Reefs and Sarnau

The Cardigan Bay Area of Special Conservation (SAC) has both rocky and 'biogenic' reefs, and along with the extensive sandbanks provide a rich habitat for wildlife. The rocky reefs extend north from Cardigan Island almost unbroken to Ynys Lochtyn, just north of Llangrannog, whilst another section extends north as far as Aberarth. The reefs provide a home to a variety of species including the rare mantis shrimp and other crustaceans, molluscs and colourful algae. Biogenic reefs are created by the animals themselves, such as the honeycomb reef worm sabellaria alveolata.

Another feature of Ceredigion coast are shingle ridges,'causeways' or 'sarnau'. The river Ystwyth has been diverted north by the shingle beach at Tanybwlch, while the village of Borth is built just above the tide line along the brow of a shingle ridge. Sarn Ddewi and Sarn Cadgwan are hidden under the waters of southern Cardigan Bay, but Sarn Cynfelin, which is protected as part of the Pen Llyn a'r Sarnau Special Area of Conservation, is visible at low tide and extends out to sea for almost 11km from Wallog, between Clarach and Borth. These 'sarnau' are moraines formed by receding ice sheets at the end of the last ice age, and their built causeway like appearance may be the foundation of the legend of the lost land of 'Cantre'r Gwaelod'.​

River estuaries

The Teifi and the Dyfi - the two great rivers that form Ceredigion's natural boundaries to the south and the north-have wide estuaries and are natural havens for wildlife.

The whole length of the Teifi river and its tributaries have been designated as a Special Area of Conservation. The Teifi marshes on the river's estuary are a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) and has one of the largest expanses of common reed which can be easily explored along a boardwalk. The nature reserve is managed by the Wildlife Trust of South and West Wales, and has a purpose built centre where you can learn more about the reserve and its population of kingfisher, herons, otters and even a herd of water buffalo, which are used to keep pools free of vegetation so that amphibians and insects can also thrive.

The largest area of saltmarsh in Ceredigion lies along the Dyfi estuary at Ynyslas and Ynyshir. 'Ynys'means'island',here coupled with the words 'glas' meaning green or fertile, and 'hir' meaning long. The names clearly indicate that some of the land is often covered by water - both salty and fresh.

The saltmarshes are awash with sea pink in spring, whilst marsh samphire and sea aster can also be seen in summer. The wet grasslands are a great place for spotting lapwings, redshank and other waders. The RSPB reserve at Ynyshir is host to migrant flocks of Manx Shearwaters in late summer, and in winter, Greenland white fronted geese - the only site in England and Wales they visit. There are trails and a boardwalk across the reserve leading to seven hides. Nearby is the Dyfi Osprey project, where you can watch these magnificent ' sea-eagles' through a webcam.​