Although the Lone Kayaker is dedicated to bringing you the best of wildlife from the British coast, he occasionally ventures to foreign lands (seas) to check out the marine scene elsewhere…….
Off the Mediterranean coast of Spain, within sight of Gibraltar, I managed to find myself at the epicentre of a feeding frenzy of Common Dolphins. This is the first time I have seen a pod in such a flurry of activity, with a large number of dolphins splashing about all over the place and causing disturbance of a large area of water, and a lot of splashy noise. Fantastic.
When all the commotion had died down and the sea settled back to its more normal sleepy state, a single dolphin arrived on the scene as if it was trying to catch up with the action which had just finished. It had a very strange surfacing action involving a bit of a bellyflop every time it breathed. The video clip shows that in fact there was another dolphin which surfaces a second after the ‘bellyflopper’ takes its first breath.
The second dolphin is breathing normally…..why on earth does the first lurch so far out of the water before flopping back down in what must be a very energy-expensive effort.
I noticed from a couple of still photos that the ribs of this dolphin were very visible, something I have never observed before.
So you wouldn’t have to be a top physician to deduce that this dolphin had a chronic health condition, or maybe was just old. Or perhaps injured by a jetski:
Look at the clip again in slow motion:
It really does seem like the sick dolphin is getting a bit of an assisting shove from below. Is the other dolphin helping it to get to the surface to breathe?
After it surfaces for the second time there is an extra surge of water behind the sick dolphin which could well be the ‘flukeprint’ of the assisting dolphin.
Is this a remarkable example of a dolphin’s superior intelligence and social cooperation or am I being a buffoon and the dolphin is just taking a look around?
Merlin’s Cave is excellent for a multitude of reasons. It’s a catchy name, the whole place is wrapped up in a blurr of mediaeval mythology, and its an awesome place to paddle in a kayak. In fact paddling it in a kayak is definitely the way to appreciate this dramatic place because the approach from land is a bit over-commercialised. Or so I’ve been told, because every one of over thirty visits to this amazing place has been by sea.
Legend states that wannabee monarch baby Arthur was washed up on the sand at the entrance to the cave.* . He was discovered by the wizard Merlin who lurked within** and was nurtured to his place on the throne of the castle on top of the cliffs high above. Surrounded by Sir Lancelot et al.
*lucky it wasn’t high tide or he would have gone right through **hope he had a good set of chest waders
It’s all good stuff, and the knights and their entourage could not have chosen a more spectacular location for their castle. Tintagel island is great hulk of a rocky peninsular which is lashed by wind and battered by a booming swell for most of the year. It’s only on a handful of days during the summer that conditions are anything like suitable for a (relaxed) visit by sea kayak. For exploring the caves and tunnels the open sea swell has really got to be less than two feet….which isn’t very often.
Access by kayak isn’t that straightforward. It’s either a two mile paddle up from Trebarwith which is an exposed surf beach, or a four mile paddle down from the much more sheltered launch site of Boscastle Harbour. This has got to be the best route because it takes you past a couple of superb islands and the sandy beaches at Bossiney.
Merlin’s cave is even more remarkable because it passes through the neck of Tintagel island and for the kayaker bypasses almost a mile of the most savage rocky coastline imaginable around Tintagel island. Vertical black cliffs and a sea which is restless even when everywhere else is flat calm. It’s a hostile place and I’ve had a hairy moment or two here. This is the tip of Tintagel head:
The cave is in such a perfect place for sneaking between Tintagel Haven and West Cove, you can’t help thinking that a bit of wizardry was involved in its creation.
Approaching from the other direction (west) is not only magical from a scenery point of view, but also because the door of the cave seems to suddenly opens before you as you paddle towards blank cliff.
The tunnel is one hundred metres in length which, I’m pretty sure, makes it the longest in SW England. I’ve paddled the whole coast and don’t think I missed a better one.
It is only the realm of the kayaker from two or three hours either side of high tide when the sandy base of the cave is covered. During that time it is heaving with land-based tourists.
After several major offshore paddles recently, to Eddystone, Dodman Point and Tintagel, a downturn in the weather forced The Lone Kayaker to a return to coastal paddling.
Although I find being far out to sea the most exciting environment for paddling, with the possibility of a whale appearing at any second, following the shore is more interesting from a scenery point of view. Also there are more boats and people to look at, if that is your thing. Maybe even 007 himself……
Or watching some poor devil getting a ticket because he was parked slightly on the grass because the carpark was completely full.
Out along the coast there is always something to maintain the attention in the ornithological department. For example, incessantly piping Oystercatchers,
stands of reptilian-looking shags resting on the offshore rocks,
and a handful of very confiding Turnstones creeping about amongst the barnacles. Beautiful little birds, but extraordinarily difficult to spot amongst the acres of rocks exposed at low tide.
As I was watching the Turnstone a seal popped up beside me with a snort. I was pretty sure it was the same individual that had climbed onto my kayak a couple of weeks ago…a smallish Grey Seal with the look and behaviour of a youngster. It wasted no time in checking me out and then starting to sniff the deck of my kayak, probably looking for a snack. You will see from this video that it once again appears to be excited and playful and throws its head about a bit while working out what to do.
(p.s ignore the date stamp….havn’t got to grips with GoPro fully.)
In anticipation of its next move I paddled alongside a rock and hung on tight, and sure enough the seal decided to hop on board. Hardcore science types would say that this action is purely motivated by food, and indeed the seal did do a lot of sniffing about and close inspection of my dry bag on the back deck, which contained nothing more stimulating to the appetite than some moderately stale Custard Creams. However watching the seal’s behaviour closely, I am sure that a bit of horsing about was involved.
It finished off with an inverted swimpast.
It was then joined by a pale-coloured friend and they had a bit of an introductory twirl.
Other larger and maybe wiser members of the group watched from a distance, and I made sure I didn’t approach too close to frighten them into the water, so took a long loop around the reef out to sea when I moved on.
Only the friendly seal came along to accompany me, porpoising along beside the kayak and bumping into the rudder regularly. At one stage a gull flew over about six foot above the seal’s head and the seal playfully snapped at the bird.
It got even more excited when a local tourist boat appeared round the corner and it benefited from a handout in the shape of a mackerel.
As I paddled across the bay the seal eventually disappeared and I reverted to admiring the shore-based wildlife. A juvenile Buzzard on top of the cliff was constantly whining at it’s unseen parents. This is the main soundtrack of the countryside at this time of the year when all other birds have largely fallen silent.
I pulled up on a tiny beach for a coffee break and as I did so a Kingfisher flashed past with a whistle, and a flash of orange and brilliant turquoise. This was the first one I have seen on the open coast this summer, presumably a bit of post-breeding dispersal as they nest in holes along river banks. It was a typical fleeting view, summed up quite nicely by this indistinct photo:
And so back to something resembling civilisation, and the buzz of the beach.
The last nugget of wildlife before I got back to the slipway was a Little Egret hunting little fish as the tide surged in.
From a kayaking perspective the Eddystone has got it all: remoteness, wilderness, isolation, challenge, mysteriousness and the possibility of a sensational wildlife encounter. This is where I met my BIG whale two years ago:
and an ultra-rare Wilson’s Petrel last year:
and the only place I have ever seen any superb White-beaked dolphins.
It’s not just wildlife that grab’s the attention….. on my first trip for 2018 out to Eddystone a few weeks ago I wasn’t aware that Thursday morning is wargames day and the passing frigates don’t seem to be too happy about a little yellow kayak messing up their planned path of attack.
I think I’ll stick to other days of the week from now on.
Interestingly I saw absolutely no cetaceans on this particular day (the first time in fifteen visits to Eddystone by kayak), and I have no doubt it was because of the loud pings of the sonar from the warships which I could hear emanating from the water sounding like a stone bouncing across the ice of a frozen pond. At one stage there were whistles as well….all a bit spooky. I could still hear all this noise pollution going on when the ships were a good five miles away, although I suppose they could have been coming from a submarine lurking only a few feet below me.
I doubt if there were any dolphins or porpoises within twenty miles of that racket.
At least I had a fantastic encounter with a couple of Puffins on this first trip, one of which was extraordinarily tame and paddled right up to the front of my kayak for a bit of a look.
The weather was stunning on my most recent trip a couple of days ago. Sunny and still and warm enough to just be wearing a vest beneath my lifejacket.
As usual virtually every Gannet I passed, and there must have been several hundred, diverted from their flight path and circled around me once before giving up on me as a source of a fishy snack.
Hundreds of Manx Shearwaters flashed past at eye level, some only feet away, and amongst the rafts of resting birds were one or two of the very much more uncommon Balearic Shearwaters, the first I had seen this summer.
It’s a twelve mile paddle out from Plymouth sound to the Eddystone lighthouse, so quite a commitment. I do my homework thoroughly and know precisely what the tidal currents and the weather, particularly the wind, are doing. I will only go if the wind is forecast to be less than seven or eight mph all day. In fact today looked perfect because the wind was going to be light northerly in the morning, so helping me on my way out, before turning southwesterly to aid my paddle back. Perfect.
Today I called in with Rame Head NCI to report my journey plan and did a radio check with them.
I couldn’t see the lighthouse initially because the visibility was only about five miles so I had to keep on course using my GPS, but it soon cleared so I could navigate using eyeballs.
On the way out I saw and heard, a lot of Porpoises. In fact the total for the day was twenty-two, the majority on the outward trip. It’s funny how all wildlife seems to be more active in the morning and goes a bit quiet after lunch, when everything seems to go a bit sleepy .
A sturdy fishing boat from Penzance passed close in front of me as I approached the lighthouse.
As usual the last couple of miles were interminable and I kept having to check the speedometer on my GPS to make sure I was still actually moving.
But after four and a half hours of paddling I was beneath the enigmatic lighthouse:
I didn’t stop for a rest because there were a lot of recreational fishing boats around, but aimed to get back to less cluttered waters in the middle of nowhere to stop for lunch. I wonder how many people would consider the Eddystone lighthouse with half-a-dozen boats nearby to be a bit claustrophobic.
As I settled in to chew my way through a couple of dried out ham sandwiches, I saw a fin sweeping at the surface only a few yards away. Two or three feet in front of the moving fin was another cut the surface which was presumably a dorsal fin.
OK it wasn’t that big and wasn’t that dramatic but this was clearly a small shark (about five foot long), and a close look at the caudal fin shows that it is clearly blue, so I’m pretty sure that this is a Blue Shark.
Nearby was another, about the same size. I’ve seen this sort of thing way offshore before but never got a definite diagnosis on the species before. This is the first Blue Shark I have seen from my kayak.
The (very) long paddle back was quite quiet although my interest was just about maintained by a lot of Compass Jellyfish just below the surface. The most attractive of the UK jellyfish.
After my spectacular failure to see a single cetacean during last year’s National Whale and Dolphin Week, I was keen to make amends. It’s a great event, an intensive effort to record as many whales and dolphins (and porpoises) as possible from right around the UK, between 29 July and 5 August. It raises awareness of the superb marine life on our doorstep and gets people’s enthusiasm going because everybody absolutely loves this stuff. Especially me.
Ultra close scrutiny of the weather forecast suggested the wind was going to be lightest in South Cornwall to the east of Falmouth. A smooth sea surface means maximum chance of seeing that fin…..even the slightest ripple reducing the chances significantly. So that’s where I went.
As usual I got out of bed TOO early (4.30am) and was ready to paddle out from Carne Beach FAR too early. It was misty and quite cool and there was a bit of a breeze making the sea look grey and unwelcoming. Having looked at the forecast my upper half was clad only in a vest (and lifejacket), and the suncream seemed a bit unnecessary at this stage. I got a bit cold and felt morale starting to dip. (This over early thing is quite normal for me)
There was nobody about but a few really hardcore dog-walkers.
As I paddled out around Nare Head there were a few whitecaps sloshing the side of the kayak and I was not happy. I was hoping it was just the early morning offshore wind that you sometimes get in the summer. So I persisted with the original plan and headed offshore towards Dodman Point, just about within my comfort zone. I rang up Portscatho NCI (coastwatch) to inform them of my plans. Actually I tried three times because they hadn’t opened up shop on the first two attempts.
Yippee! I glimpsed a fin away to my right and paddled over to investigate…..it was a pod of about five Common Dolphins but they sped away before I was anywhere near close.
A couple of miles off Dodman Point the wind suddenly dropped and the sun came out. And dead ahead I saw a LOAD of fins break the surface:
I could hear a load of puffing and sound of surging water as a tightly packed pod of about fifty Common Dolphins surfaced repeatedly. Wow. I took a big loop around the pod to get up-sun and then just sat and watched at a good distance to avoid any possible disturbance. And the whole lot came straight towards me:
Just in case I hadn’t appreciated the show they then swam past again, only even closer:
The sort of wildlife experience I have only ever dreamed about.
There were several interesting things about this pod. One is that there were a few calves in amongst the throng. There was such a mass of action it was impossible to see how many, but I think was was a maternal group of dolphins and the reason it was so compact and slow moving was to nurse the calves along (yes, this might be complete rubbish).
Secondly one adult dolphin had a severely damaged fin, almost certainly an injury caused by a boat propeller.
After sitting amongst the action for twenty minutes I looped back for the ten mile paddle back to Carne Beach, but it was so lovely and warm and relaxing I wasn’t in any hurry. However I did crank up the speed when I was suddenly joined by another small group of dolphins, who wanted to get a ride on my pathetically inadequate bow wave.
I stayed several miles offshore because that is where the sea seemed most busy with wildlife. I could hear the dolphins splashing in the distance long after I lost sight of them, and several small groups of porpoises popped up as I was paddling past.
In fact it was one of those special days where rarely a minute went by without the sound of a dolphin splashing or a porpoise breathing or the ‘thoomph’ of a Gannet hitting the water at speed.
There was a constant trickle of Manx Shearwaters zipping past and I had a coffee break in the company of a resting raft of Shearwaters. I was also thrilled to see a couple of tiny Storm Petrels twisting their way past low over the surface….this sighting alone would have made my day a success.
Beneath the surface there was a supporting cast of jellyfish….mainly Compass jellyfish but also Moon and Blue.
Back into Gerrans Bay I ran into yet more dolphins. A group sped past at distance and then a pod of about fifteen approached. These looked very big and at first I thought they were Bottlenose, but as they passed I could see the characteristic yellow sides of Common Dolphins. But they certainly were all hefty and I think this was a pod of male dolphins (once again, this could be tosh).
My last dolphin of the day was unusual. I heard a clear, short, explosive puff which I was sure sounded like a porpoise, but when a fin surfaced at its next breath it looked tall and sharp, more like a Common Dolphin. I doubted this because it was all alone (very undolphin-like) so set off in pursuit. I thought maybe it was a rare species of dolphin but eventually caught a glimpse of its yellow side….so just a ‘Common’ after all.
As I made my way back inshore some very large lines of Gannets cruised lazily past, one line consisting of upwards of fifty birds.
Nare Head looked rather more attractive in the afternoon sunshine, compared to the cold grey of dawn.
So my cetacean tally for the day was approx eighty Common Dolphins (50+15+5+5+4+1) and sixteen porpoises in small groups. Maybe a Minke Whale next time……..
The perfect paddling day was in prospect: clear blue sky and hardly any wind, with a bonus of soaring temperatures and a small swell making the remote coast of Boscastle in North Cornwall irresistible.
As I was fiddling about by the water’s edge folding the kayak trolley away in the front hatch, I was hailed by a guy in an inflatable (with hefty outboard) asking if he could get a replacement aerial in the area. I pulled a bit of a long face because Boscastle is big on teashops and witchcraft museums, not chandlery stores. It turned out he was motoring right round the UK in his small craft, having set off from Southampton…..fab. Here he is, Alex Swarbrick.
Another inspirational character I have me on the water recently. On my last visit to Boscastle a few weeks ago.I passed someone who was attempting to SWIM round the UK.
Paddling out of Boscastle harbour always takes my breath away because you are thrust immediately into staggering coastal scenery. As was the case today you are unlikely to pass another craft or see anyone else apart from in the extreme distance on a clifftop.
I called in to the coastwatch tower on the radio to let them know my plans for the day and then, because the surface was about as flat as it gets at Boscastle, I headed straight out to sea. I must have passed tens of thousands of jellyfish, becoming even more concentrated along the tidal interfaces. Mostly Moon jellyfish with a couple of Compass and Purple jellyfish thrown in.
As I was looking down at the jellyfish I was startled by a large fish looming past ten feet beneath me; the first Sunfish I have ever spotted underwater!
I was confident I would see cetaceans because the sea was so smooth, and when I caught a glimpse of a flash of white as a Gannet twisted and dived a mile or two further out, I engaged top gear (economy, not sport…didn’t want to burn myself out too early in the day), and surged out towards them.
The mini feeding frenzy of a dozen or so Gannets had fizzled out when I at last arrived on the scene, and the birds were sitting about on the surface with a sort of ‘too late, mate’ look. One which I am getting used to.
However by great good fortune I heard the puff of a number of porpoises nearby and was very pleased when a large scattered pod of about a dozen cruised past me. As usual they were aloof and not interested in me or my craft (unlike most offshore creatures) and went on their way. And as usual with porpoises, when I followed them at a respectful distance, they then pop up behind me exactly where I had been a few minutes ago. So I haul the kayak around and head off in the opposite direction, and they surface somewhere completely different. Part of the fun of wildlife observation from a kayak, although it might be called frustration. That is probably why nobody else (with any sense) does it.
I noticed that one porpoise had a unnatural looking pale patch on its side:
The porpoises moved off and I sauntered down the coast, with tidal assistance, towards the forboding headland of Tintagel island. This is usually a very nasty place and the scene of a bit of a bungle I made in terms of weather and swell planning a few years ago, when I could taste disaster. It is a prominent headland with vertical cliffs slabbing into the water, and they are pitch black to make them look even more fearful. As usual, headlands like this amplify wind, swell and tidal currents and even on a benign day conditions around the tip of the headland can be very hairy.
Fortunately today it was as threatening as the boating lake in Hyde Park (if there is one) and the hot sun and blue skies made everything as relaxed as it could be.
Another circling and plunging flock of gannets was a bit closer so I was hopeful I might get there before the ‘bus had left’ on this second occasion. Sport mode this time, forget about early burn out, I didn’t want those Gannets smirking at me again . As I sped towards the action I could see dark bodies splashing at the surface and when a couple of cetaceans breached completely I felt certain this was a pod of dolphins.
But I was just a minute too late, close enough to hear the last diving Gannet ‘thoomph’ into the water with an impressive splash. As I rolled up glistening with sweat and trying not to look flustered the Gannets were once again sat around silently just looking, and judging . Exactly the same individuals as before, I think.
And to my amazement it was the pod of porpoises that were leaping about splashing. One of the features of porpoises is that they just roll quietly at the surface and it is the hyperactive Common Dolphin that does all the splashing, but I suppose if they are on the hunt and have herded a shoal of fish to the surface they are entitled to get a bit fired up about the feast.
The whole lot of porpoises then paraded past, still with a sense of urgency. You can really hear the characteristic porpoise ‘puff’ clearly in this video.
By this time I was a couple of miles directly off Tintagel Head so turned towards land and paddled slowly in. I couldn’t believe my luck when the sharp fins of a pod of about eight Common Dolphins appeared directly in front of me. I sheared away to avoid startling them but piled on the power ( intelligent eco sport) in the hope that they might come over and bow ride. Unfortunately they didn’t and headed further offshore. I could hear them breathing and splashing long after they were lost to sight.
AS usual Tintagel island was crawling with loads of tourists that looked like ants (from long range) and I was glad I wasn’t on land. I called in to one of the sandy beaches at Bossiney for lunch, backed by water about as clear and as turquoise as it is possible to get in the UK.
Another sunfish was waving its fin about off Short island and I thought this would be my first chance to film one with the GoPro. But to my surprise it disappeared long before I got close. So I took a selfie instead.
Back at Boscastle Alex was just setting off for the stretch up the coast around Hartland Point to Ilfracombe, still minus his aerial. Good luck to him on the rest of his adventure.
I trolleyed back to the carpark past the Museum of Witchcraft and Magic.
This seal is just larking about. I’m fairly certain of this because I had been watching it closely for the previous half-an-hour. Or more accurately, it had been watching me.
As usual my very early start had paid off and I had the opportunity to observe the scattered group of Grey Seals without the disturbance of any other craft.
First chance to use the GoPro:
This particular, very pale seal, swam around the kayak for several minutes and then lost interest and cleared off.
As I paddled on another seal took up the batten and started to shadow me. I stopped to watch and it just cavorted about in a patch of bootlace seaweed, snorting, splashing and twisting round in the weed. When it surfaced, only a few feet from my kayak, it had the cheeky look of a puppy wanting someone to throw its ball. It kept eyeing me up sideways and then hurling itself into the water.
It was like a dog whose owner has just come back having been shut up all day.
There was no way that it wasn’t extremely excited, possibly because I was the first boat of the day on its patch with which it could interact.
This next clip which is not that easy to see shows the seal rolling itself in bootlace weed. I can’t think of any other reason to do this apart from just horsing around in excitement.
It then tucked in behind me as I paddled along, every so often bumping the bottom of my kayak or grabbing the rudder. Half of the time it was upside down and apparently just loving life.
Or maybe it was overexcited about the stunt which it was about to pull.
I stopped to watch the show as I have never been bumped about so much by any sea creature. In fact the only thing that has impacted my kayak before was a huge Basking Shark about eight years ago.
This seal is not only fun-loving, it would seem to be very clever. Look into its eyes and you can see a bit of friendly mischief, and the shove of its flipper is absolutely perfectly aimed to soak as much of me as possible:
I have cut out the expletive from the end of the video as the splash completely drenched my moderately expensive and completely unwaterproof camera.
As I was frantically trying to dry the camera with a pathetic little bit of soggy tissue I found in the bottom of my camera bag, the seal swam round to the front of my kayak for its Grand Finale.
To my total amazement it hauled itself out on the front of my boat with absolutely no sign of fear or hesitation. As it pumped with its tail to get further out of the water my kayak wobbled but my number one aim was to take a pic or two, although after a while I did try to reason with it that it was in danger of tipping me out.
Falling in would not be a problem because I use a sit-on-top kayak and can just climb back on, but I would not be happy about dunking my camera in the sea. I would then need a bit more than a soggy piece of kitchen towel to resurrect it.
The seal just would not leave me alone so I engaged top gear for the paddle back to the shore. This seemed to spur it on even more, but at last it gave up as I approached the town.
So it’s not just dolphins that seem to enjoy themselves so much.