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Ten great things to see on Northern Ireland's vibrant shores

The unrivalled beauty leaves us spoilt for choice

By Linda Stewart

1. Malin Head in Co Donegal is renowned for its basking sharks, which migrate huge distances across the oceans in search of plankton, but they can show up anywhere along the north coast. The best vantage point from which to spot them is from a high point on a calm, grey day. Watch out for these gentle giants feeding in the surf with their mouths open and their dorsal fins out of the water.

2. Hermit crabs, snakelock anemones and broad clawed porcelain crabs can be uncovered if you go rockpooling at Rossglass Beach in Co Down. The miniature underwater worlds on view will also yield limpets, lots of spiky common sea urchins and metre-long bootlace worms. It's a good chance for adults and children to dip below the surface and experience the stunning diversity of our waters.

3. We're blessed with a wealth of amazing coastal heritage, from Dunluce and Dunseverick Castles to the old kilns used to burn kelp. But some of the most unusual features can be found at Nendrum Monastery at Mahee Island on Strangford Lough, where one of Europe's oldest tidal mills was uncovered by archaeologists in 1999. The earliest part of the mill dates back to 619AD. As the tide rose, water entered the tidal millpond through a sluice gate, which was closed at high water. At low tide, the water was released to power a waterwheel and milling could begin.

4. Seals can be seen all over Strangford Lough and in other hotspots such as Rathlin Island, but the best places to spot our common and grey seals are where they bask on rocky haul-outs close to the shore, such as Cloghey Rocks on the Ards Peninsula. Both species need to spend time hauled out of the water on rocks, islands and pladdies for rest, warmth, birthing and nursing their pups. Common seal pups are born in June or July and can take to water immediately. Grey seal pups are born white-furred between September and November.

5. The West Lighthouse at Rathlin Island is renowned for its puffin colonies, which form part of the seabird cities of kittwakes, razorbills and guillemots. Puffins spend most of their lives out at sea, but during their breeding season from late March through to late July they come to land to nest. The best time to visit the puffin nest sites is from mid-June to mid-July when the parent birds are busy flying back and forth from the sea to the burrows with food for the chicks.

6. It might look like a bleak, surf-battered stretch of flat rocks, but Northern Ireland's own Jurassic Coast at Waterloo Bay in Larne is one of the most important places in the world for fossil-hunters.The rocks are home to tiny marine fossils dating back 200 million years, ranging from ammonites to a prehistoric oyster known as devil's toenails. Scientists have even found an ichthyosaur, a marine reptile which resembles a huge predatory dolphin and is now on display in the Ulster Museum, and remains of plesiosaurs, another marine reptile with a long mobile neck and four huge flippers.

7. More than 600 species of butterfly and moth have been recorded at Murlough National Nature Reserve, a fragile 6,000-year-old sand dune system which has been managed as Ireland's first nature reserve since 1967. The dune fields at Murlough are the best and most extensive example of dune heath within Ireland and are home to the marsh fritillary butterfly, which is of European importance. There is a network of paths and boardwalks through the dunes, woodland and heath.

8. Harbour porpoises are the smaller, shyer cousins of dolphins and are often seen in bays and harbours, including the mouth of Larne Harbour. But the best place to spot them is at the Skerries off Portrush, which is the UK's only special area of conservation specifically set up to protect the species. It features a rich network of sea caves, sandbanks and reefs. Porpoises can dive to a depth of more than 200 metres, but usually stay near the surface, coming up about every 25 seconds to breathe with a distinctive puffing noise.

9. Manx shearwaters have been ringed at Copeland Bird Observatory at the Copeland Islands since the 1950s and it was one of those birds that was, as of 2003/4, the oldest known living wild bird in the world. Ringed in July 1953, it was retrapped in July 2003, at least 55 years old. The colony numbers more than 2,000 and volunteers trap them at night in July and August for ringing. The islands are also good places to spot storm petrels and in recent puffins have been spotted scoping out nest sites, although they don't breed there yet.

10. Orchids and other fascinating flowers carpet the meadows and sand dunes at Umbra Nature Reserve on the north coast between Benone complex and Downhill Beach. The nature reserve is noted for rare plants, including the bee orchid, pyramidal orchid, fragrant orchid, frog orchid, marsh helleborine, adderstongue, moonwort and early forget-me-not. Interesting butterflies such as Real's wood white, grayling and dark green fritillary are also found here, as well as the rare small eggar moth.

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