Chasing Tuna

It’s not easy looking for Tuna in the ‘Big Blue’. Sir David Attenborough said so last night on Blue Planet II.

It took his team three weeks.They had a sizeable ship bulging with technology and knowledgeable scientists and were looking in the tropical Pacific, where Tuna live. Oh, and a helicopter. I had a plastic kayak less than two foot wide laden only with a small camera and some out-of-date rolls for lunch (reduced for quick sale, three days ago), and was looking for Tuna near Fowey in South Cornwall, which is really not where they are supposed to live.

So, as usual, the odds were heavily stacked in favour of spectacular failure, but having glimpsed a breaching tuna here a couple of days previously, I was absolutely set on making the effort to get one on camera, while the calm conditions lasted. Definitely not easy because after a single jump they are gone until another one pops up for a fraction of a second somewhere else , and so on. I was just hoping for a more sustained feeding ‘event’ within camera shot of the kayak which might involve a succession of leaps.

Companions today were Jeremy and Jane, better than any eyes in the sky ( and also scientists, sort of). They were paddling their well-seasoned Ocean Kayak Malibu 2, and although it looks like the sort of craft that was designed for a Sunday afternoon saunter on the Serpentine, they pushed it along at a speed that I had difficulty matching in my much narrower and theoretically faster Cobra Expedition.

IMG_2451
Out past Fowey

We were assisted by an outgoing tide as we sped between Fowey and Polruan. and turned east once out onto the open coast. Thrilling as always, and even better today under cloudless skies. The only slight problem was that there was a steady easterly wind which would make offshore paddling a bit unrelaxing, but I was hopeful that it would drop.

For the time being we hugged the coast and dropped in to the stunning, sandy Lantic Bay for a quick leg stretch.

IMG_2461
Lantic Bay

By this time Jane’s wildlife spotting eyes had been finely tuned and she clocked up the first three interesting observations of the day. A lard-laden seal hauled out on a rock, a Garfish skipping across the surface, and a surging shoal of baitfish. Jeremy spotted a Red Admiral butterfly (not bad for late November) when we stopped next at Lantivet, while I was yet to get my eyeballs off the mark.

IMG_2467
Jeremy and Jane, Pencarrow Head

It was time to head out to sea and swing back to Fowey in a big arc which would take us a couple of miles offshore and hopefully……

Not long after we passed Udder Rock Buoy, which was clanging mournfully, Jane did very well to spot the slight splash of a fin just breaking the surface. Not easy in the slightly choppy conditions. We followed and observed three dolphins, one clearly a youngster, which were in no mood to hang around and be sociable and rapidly sped off. I’m not even sure what species they were. Fantastic nonetheless.

As we ‘took luncheon’ and I forced down my rolls which by now were even harder, the wind dropped further and the stage was set.

IMG_2478
A distant splash of something the size of a dolphin

The splashes started shortly afterwards. Dotted about all over the place and not particularly close to us, but Jeremy was looking in exactly the right direction when a Tuna the size of a dolphin jumped clean out of the water.  The intensity of activity seemed to build, along with our excitement.

My camera was poised and I took an awful lot of shots of empty sea where a splash had just occurred.

We powered towards a more sustained burst of activity at the surface with great big fish partly showing themselves , and I snapped away. Then all would go quiet and we would hear a great swoosh behind us and turn round to see a patch of smooth water where some huge creature had just broken the surface.

We continued to zigzag around and charge towards where we thought the action would take place. A gang of gulls came to our observational aid and circled over the school of Tuna to mark the spot. When they suddenly dipped down to the surface I rattled away with my camera and the Giant Tuna burst out, but I really wasn’t sure if the camera was pointing in the right direction, or zoomed in too far, or images blurred with the rocking of the kayak.IMG_2502

IMG_2525IMG_2508IMG_2509

IMG_2510

IMG_2514
That’s the image I was after!

Jeremy and Jane had the thrill of seeing a load of baitfish, which they reckoned were Mackerel, bursting from the surface with the Tuna exploding out in pursuit. Wow.

After in excess of fifty big splashes and seeing a score of Giant Tuna, Jeremy and Jane headed for home but I just could not drag myself away. I had no idea whether I had got my photo of a Tuna, or a bit of one, because I didn’t want to waste time reviewing my pics.

But after they departed it all went quiet. However the remarkable day was rounded off in a perfect manner, in the bright sunshine and blue sea, by a cameo appearance of one of my favourite seabirds, a Great Skua aka ‘Bonxie’.

The group of gulls which had settled on the surface to digest their tuna-meal leftovers suddenly spooked as the skua scythed into their post-prandial get-together. The skua chased one gull with typical aggression and surprising agility and then dropped down to settle on the sea.

IMG_2667
Bonxie harrying Gull

I sneaked up to it, making sure the sun was behind me. To my amazement I drifted to within a few feet of it with it apparently unconcerned (if anything it looked like it was eyeing me up for a meal). I have done this before at the Bonxie’s breeding grounds in Scotland but never seen one closer than hundreds of yards from my kayak in south-west England.IMG_2717

IMG_2704
Great Skua, Fowey

I had a clear view right down its larynx as it yawned before continuing on its way on migration.IMG_2702_01

What an incredible day. Unbelievable. Even better when reviewing my pics revealed a single frame of a Giant Bluefin Tuna clean out of the water.

IMG_2514
Giant Bluefin Tuna, Fowey, Cornwall

Not in the tropical Pacific, but in the English Channel. Not from a multimillion pound state-of-the-art research vessel, but from a couple of little plastic kayaks. Not using a helicopter to spot the fish, but Jane and Jeremy. And fuelled not by fossil fuel, but by a couple of stale rolls from Tesco.

 

 

Advertisements

Dolphins, Porpoises and GIANT TUNA!

Just when I thought the offshore paddling season was coming to a close and I was going to be forced back into more sheltered waters by the autumnal weather, up pops a completely still day.

My destination had to be Fowey.  Although heading further west to Falmouth or Mounts Bay would increase the chances of a big cetacean encounter, I really couldn’t be bothered to drive that far having clocked up seven hundred miles over the weekend.

IMG_2440
Fowey

Fowey ticks all the right boxes for the perfect day’s sea kayaking. A superb and busy launch site at the slipway in the Caffa Mill carpark, a great super-sheltered paddle out past the town with the tide running in your direction (hopefully) to get your muscles warmed up, and then out into the wide open sea. A vista bounded by Dodman Point to the southwest and Rame head to the east, although it was so clear today I could just see the South Hams as well.

The only drawback is the savage carpark charges which always grind with me.

I hadn’t really made up my mind where I was going so turned southeast once I was out of the harbour and paddled directly into the bright low sun,  heading offshore. A single gull which was circling ‘with intent’ attracted my attention and I could hardly believe my eyeballs when I saw a load of fins appear beneath it. I was less than half-a-mile from the shore and was yet to get ‘in the zone’.

I diverted towards the group of dolphins and moved up a couple of gears but had a bit of a struggle closing the gap as they were cruising along at 4-5 mph. I was careful not to go too close because I could see at least one juvenile in the group but as usual they came over to me for a bit of a look. Not quite as interested as my previous few encounters but a thrill nonetheless, enhanced by the flat calm water and blue sea under cloudless sky.

The biggest dolphin slapped the water with its tail every time it surfaced. I’m not sure whether this was a ‘warning’ thing because I was there, or whether it was just a sort of habit. It certainly acted, and looked like, group leader.

IMG_2168
Dolphin doing tail-slappy thing

Being Common Dolphins they were extremely active and did an awful lot of splashing and I was very keen to get that much sought after image, which I have yet to achieve, of one completely out of the water. As usual I failed, but only just. Somehow my camera wasn’t pointing in quite the right place! Aaargh.

IMG_2276
Very nearly a fab photo

To complicate matters my memory card became full up and the dolphins sped away as I was fiddling with my camera trying to decide what to delete. How often have I moaned at people staring at a screen while missing the wonders of the real world, and now I was prime offender number one.IMG_2393

IMG_2266

IMG_2365
Common Dolphin

Fired up by this encounter and the sea state which seemed to have become even more smooth, I paddled further out. It was a very rare day where there was so lttle movement of the kayak that binoculars could be used, and through them I could see a lot more diffuse gull activity another mile or so ahead. I piled on the steam and glimpsed something the size of a dolphin jump clear off the water directly ahead, but then nothing more. Mmmm, I would have expected to see a dolphin surfacing for a breath.

A little further one I came upon a sedately cruising group of about eight Porpoises which were rolling at the surface in their unobtrusive and quiet manner, drawing attention to themselves with their surprisingly loud ‘piff’. In contrast to Common Dolphins they don’t very often splash, although I have seen them get fired up on occasion.

IMG_2399
Harbour Porpoise

Excellent, the day had already way exceeded my expectations.

I munched lunch ( endured one jam and one peanut butter sandwich so I could luxuriate in a heavenly slab of coffee cake) about five miles offshore, sporadically entertained by Guillemots, Gannets and a couple of compact flocks of Common Scoter flying past. Also one Dunlin which I would have probably thought was something more rare had it not uttered its characteristic ‘dzeep’ call.

IMG_2405
Lunch break in a marine wilderness, five miles from shore.

Shortly after I swung back towards Fowey for the return leg I saw a big splash several hundred yards ahead directly in front of me. Moments later two dolphin-sized creatures leapt out of the water and re-entered the water in a great splash. But hang on…they  weren’t dolphins. I sped towards the scene but saw absolutely nothing more. No fins and nothing coming up for a breath. It was so flat calm I would have seen or heard any dolphin if it came up within half-a-mile.

It was only a split second view but I’m virtually certain these were Giant Tuna. I am aware that they are now regularly seen in the Autumn around Falmouth Bay, and am pretty sure I saw some there last year, but once again it was a frustratingly brief glimpse.

I also think that this is what I had seen jumping an hour previously.

I hung around waiting for a repeat performance but had no joy.

However as a consolation I was treated to yet another Common Dolphin encounter on the way back in. This group of about eight were a bit more sociable than the earlier pod and surged all around me and went for a bit of bow-riding when I paddled  flat out.

IMG_2428
Common Dolphin Escort

The biggest problem of today, apart from the car park charge, was thermoregulation. As I set off it was only a couple of degrees above freezing so was layered up inside full drysuit gear. However the absolute lack of wind combined with bright sunshine and several cetacean-watching sprints tested my thermostat to the limit. Lightly poached would be an understatement.

 

 

Would you believe it?…Even More Dolphins

IMG_1034Having clocked up twenty miles the day before, and fifteen the day before that, I was contemplating an easy day. Fowey seemed to fit the bill for a bit of laid-back paddling , and I could stick my nose out into the open sea in case I case I fancied a bit of an offshore jaunt.

Fowey is always great. Whichever way you decide to go at the mouth of the ria, you’ve had an excellent ‘warm up’ paddle through the harbour, dodging the Polruan ferry and all the other boat traffic.

IMG_1036
Fowey

I spontaneously decided to turn left and head east once out into open water, because that was where the wind was coming from, and I always paddle into the wind to start off with because it makes coming back easier. My planned coffee break on the sand at beautiful Lantic Bay didn’t happen because the waves were a bit ‘dumpy’ and getting out wouldn’t have been that easy.. So I carried on round to Lantivet beach which was a bit more sheltered, but not before I severely scrunched the bottom of my kayak over a savagely coarse barnacle-encrusted rock when I cut a corner a bit fine just before a wave was about to break . What an idiot, why didn’t i just paddle a few yards further out? Lucky my boat is plastic and not fibreglass.

I disturbed a Peregrine having its breakfast on a grassy knoll as I paddled past, and downed all three segments of a Bounty Trio while being scrutinised hard by a young family on Lantivet beach. By the way they were staring I got the impression that the image that their eyeballs was transferring to their cerebral cortex was not one that had been relayed before. It might have been the Bounty Trio that drew their gaze, but I think it was just me generally . Such was their unswerving eye contact I opted to have the rest of my coffee break far out to sea and took to the water again.

Considering what happened next they had unwittingly done me a huge favour. Just for the hell of it I paddled half a mile out around the excellently named ‘Udder Rock’ buoy and was going to take a slingshot around it and head back. However another half a mile further out was a scattered group of Kittiwakes feeding at the surface. I was lured out to investigate and was pleased to encounter a singleton porpoise who ‘piffed’ past a few feet from me.

IMG_1038
Udder Rock buoy

I was just about to crack open my thermos when, about as far out as I could see with my naked eye, my attention was drawn by a more compact and more vigorously feeding group of gulls. Out came the binoculars and I looked hard at the surface for several minutes. Just as I was about to give up, there was the splash of a dolphin. I instantly engaged warp drive and paddled flat out for twenty minutes or so towards the action.

I thought I was too late but was suddenly accompanied by four or five Common Dolphins who came in to ride my bow wave. Absolutely thrilling. Waves from dolphins surging beside me sloshed over the deck. For half an hour they played and puffed and looked and splashed all around. About a dozen in total with, I think, just a single juvenile.

IMG_1246
There she (he) blows
IMG_1174
Common Dolphin
IMG_1178
Dolphin sloshing water over the deck
IMG_1128
Being eyeballed by a dolphin
IMG_1260
that was close!

One adult dolphin had a significant injury on its back behind the dorsal fin which looked as though it was healing and certainly didn’t compromise its ability. Another also seemed to have some sort of old scar on its flank. Are these injuries from being caught in nets, or maybe boat injuries? My money would be on the net thing. At least  I don’t think it’s Great Whites.

IMG_1280
Dolphin with injury
IMG_1327
Dolphin with injury
IMG_1264
Dolphin with vertical scar on flank

Although the action took place two and-a-half miles off Pencarrow Head ,the wind had dropped completely, the sea was smooth, there was no tidal current an it was all so relaxing and enjoyable I supped my cup of coffee while being entertained by the dolphin troup.

IMG_1374
Coffee break with entertainment

They finally lost interest in me and headed off, and I lazily paddled back towards Fowey, passing about ten Portugese Men-of -War on the way.

IMG_1406
Portugese Man-of -War

The sun came out and it was all very warm and pleasant as I paddled back up the ‘urban’ section of water to Caffa Mill Car Park. There were lots of other sit-on-top kayaks about, not all piloted by homo sapiens.IMG_1433

IMG_1409
Fowey

More Fantastic Common Dolphins

IMG_0258A single day with light winds was forecast . It was a gap between ex-hurricane Ophelia and approaching Storm Brian (I’m sure weather never used to be like this!). I was tempted offshore in an effort to see cetaceans. Although I have had a couple of really excellent prolonged encounters with inquisitive and friendly dolphins this year, it doesn’t look as though I will match last year’s tally of seven cetacean species (two whale, four dolphin and porpoise).

It must be one of the windiest years on record and the opportunities for offshore kayaking have been very limited. I’m sure I have said before that I prefer the sea to have no whitecaps which means I have worry-free paddling and makes spotting fins easier. Any sort of chop means you are much less likely to see a fin, and unlikely to be able to hold a camera steady enough to take a photo. Even if the sea is smooth any sort of groundswell can hide the horizon for a significant proportion of time because your eyeballs are only three foot above the surface.

Veryan bay in South Cornwall seemed to fit the bill. A lovely launch at sandy Carne Beach (with the bonus of FREE parking…gasp), direct access to the open sea, and not too strong a tidal current.

IMG_0813
Veryan Bay

It was lucky I was wearing my drysuit top when paddling out from the beach because the only sizeable wave of the entire morning broke across my chest as I got the timing through the surf completely wrong, as usual. That was the last wave I saw the entire day and in fact the sea surface was unusually smooth…..absolutely perfect for gliding along in complete silence and getting completely absorbed (lost) in the marine wilderness.

It was so still I could hear the slight rustle of Gannet’s wings as they came over to inspect me as usual, and the noise of boat engines carrying so far I could only just see the source.

IMG_0416
Nosy sub-adult Gannet

I skirted Nare Head and Gull Rock and headed out into the open sea. It’s rare to be able to use binoculars from a kayak on the sea but today was different because it was so flat. I watched my first Great-Northern Diver (Common Loon) of the season fly past in front of me, and noticed a large circling gang of gulls busy feeding about about a mile ahead.

Mmmm. I would be surprised if they were not accompanied by some other sea creatures, so upped the pace and closed in on the action. I hadn’t gone far when I saw some fins converging on the same spot. A school of Common Dolphins! They were travelling at exactly the same pace as me (4-5 mph) and I didn’t want to disturb them so kept well away. I thought they would move off but as I neared the feeding frenzy of gulls noticed a couple more dolphins feeding and jumping about. When they met up they all stopped for a bit of a feed and a bit of a splash, and then the whole lot came over to check me out.

IMG_0258_01
Common Dolphin

There followed an absolutely incredible ten minutes. I could see the dolphins approaching just under the surface, and some swam along beside me just inches away. They popped up in front of me then sped off, did some jumping, and then all came back over to inspect me further, or maybe to check out what score I gave their performance.IMG_0370

IMG_0317There were a couple of youngsters in the group who didn’t want to miss out on all the excitement.IMG_0273

IMG_0274_01
Junior Dolphin

Eventually they lost interest in me and moved off. I couldn’t resist paddling further out and passed another eight or so dolphins. I eventually ended up at Dodman A buoy, about six miles south of Dodman Point, and decided that was far enough.

IMG_0418
Dodman A buoy

There were quite a few small parties of Guillemots and Razorbills dotted about, often in threes. I suspect these were mother, father and this year’s offspring.

IMG_0405
Family Guillemot

The nine-mile paddle back to the beach was a bit of a haul as paddling back often is. However virtually every time I stopped for a break I could hear the ‘piff’ of a porpoise. The sea was so very flat and the air so still the sound was carrying probably a mile over the surface, so I  only saw a few of them. This is maybe not surprising as they represent a very small eyeball target because they are the world’s smallest cetacean (four to five foot long) and their fin is less than six inches tall.

IMG_0898
Harbour Porpoise

 

 

 

The Portugese Armada

I like jellyfish  and feel we have something in common. Not so much that they are exotic and mysterious, but because they have no brain.

Up till now I have come across six different species:

Common, or Moon jellyfish.

P1060459
Common Jelly

Blue Jellyfish.

P1060461
Blue jelly

Lion’s Mane Jellyfish

P1040773
lion’s Mane Jelly

Compass Jellyfish.

P1010891
Compass Jellyfish

Barrel Jellyfish. These are the first ones to appear in April and are up to the size of a dustbin!

P1070519
Barrel Jellyfish

Crystal Jellyfish. These are supposed to be very rare, or have been up till very recently, and are like something out of Avatar.

P1010826
Crystal Jelly

This autumn I have heard about some Cornish beaches being closed  because Portugese Men of War jellyfish had been washed up, but  I wasn’t expecting to see one while out paddling because typically only a handful turn up each year.

IMG_0597
Mount’s Bay

I was hopeful for an encounter when I did a circuit of Mount’s Bay starting at Marazion. It was a bit choppy but I still went straight across to Mousehole. I had a brief view of a couple of porpoises and was very lucky to see a handful of Common Dolphins which passed just in front of me and stayed alongside for a couple of minutes. There were a couple of silvery-coloured youngsters in the group. Photography was very difficult and this is the only half-decent shot I  managed:

IMG_0479
Juvenile Common Dolphin (I think)

Spotting cetaceans in choppy conditions, let alone photographing them, is quite a challenge.

As I was watching the dolphins I drifted towards a floating translucent bladder with a mauve tinge….a Portugese Man of War jelly. I was actually a bit disappointed because it struggles to live up to it’s very dramatic name and I thought at first it was a discarded plastic bag. However I treated it with respect as I knew the dangling blue tentacles can pack a nasty sting, and recoiled in horror as it seemed to suddenly come towards me although it had probably just been caught by a gust of wind.

IMG_0437
Portugese Man of War Jellyfish

Over the next six hours I came across fifteen Men of War, up to about ten inches long and some without ‘tentacles’.

IMG_0520
Portugese Man of War

And my encounters with ‘Floating Terrors’ (another of it’s superb names) didn’t stop there. A couple of days later while kayaking between Looe and Polperro, Dave, Paul and myself  passed another twenty or so of the much-feared siphonophore (technically the Portugese Man of War is not a jellyfish but a siphonophore consisting of three types of medusoid and four types of polypoid grouped into cormidia beneath the pneumatophore. Jelly would be so much easier).

To be honest some looked more like a shortcrust top-crimped Cornish pasty.

IMG_0740
Portugese Man of War in Full Sail

The sea was quite lumpy again but it didn’t interfere with our jellyfish spotting and, as usual, a good time was had by all.

IMG_0675
Paul, Dave and lumpy sea

The ultra-sheltered narrow harbour of Polperro provided a bit of a break before the paddle back to Looe.

IMG_0724
Polperro
IMG_0800
Looe Harbour

Incidentally, the unluckiest jellyfish I have ever seen is this one that was in the wrong place at the wrong time and was accidentally inhaled by a Basking Shark who usually prefer a diet of plankton. Maybe it was having the jelly for afters.

P1010439_01
Basking Shark and the unluckiest jellyfish in Cornwall

This strange, windblown visitor from the subtropics is probably the most dangerous sea creature I have yet encountered. I have had a few tussles with quite large fish with impressive teeth while doing a spot of fishing, but I think the Man of War just about takes the biscuit in terms of health hazard.

P1010894
shark…piece of cake
IMG_0765
Portugese Man of War…takes the biscuit

 

Purbeck – a Paddler’s Paradise

IMG_0216
Durdle Door bay

I had forgotten just how good the Purbeck coast of Dorset is for sea kayaking. It manages to squeeze in just about every type of scenery, from white-chalk cliffs to sludge-filled creeks, in a coastline ofnot much more than forty miles.

The clear placid water of Studland Bay was the venue for my first ever venture out onto the brine in a kayak many decades ago. One of those awful uncomfortable fibreglass craft that used to go round in circles no matter what you did with the paddles.

It was also here I landed my first ever kayak-caught fish, a mackerel, from the same meandering  kayak, using a cotton reel and line with a single hook and silver-paper lure. Forty years ago probably.

This time I started off with a nice downwind paddle from Swanage to Shell Bay, with the superb white cliffs and stacks of Ballard Down and Old Harry as the major highlight. Chalk cliffs always look sensational when the sun is shining on them.

IMG_9949
Swanage’s superb chalk stacks
IMG_0007
Old Harry Rocks

My entire body recoiled in a sort of primitive terror reflex as a Hercules roared over the clifftop above my head with absolutely no prior warning (although, I accept, I wouldn’t really have expected any), and then swung round over Studland Bay with its cargo door open. A heavy object attached to a parachute was thrown out (looked like a dishwasher on a pallet, but probably wasn’t) and was retrieved by a couple of very high speed splashy craft in a suitably professional manner.

IMG_0038
Hercules doing its stuff

There were a lot of Mediterranean Gulls feeding along the shore in Studland Bay, a species which was completely absent from this area (and the UK, I think), until recently.

IMG_0022
Mediterranean Gull

I paddled over Studland Bay’s areas of eel grass which provide a home to a variety of seahorse, amazingly. I lifted my rudder so as not to mess it up because the tide was very low.

Possibly more remarkable still was the nudist sitting all alone on the sand on what wasn’t really a sort of day for sitting around on a beach, with or without any clothes.

I just managed to dodge in front of the Sandbanks ferry before it landed. Paddling around it would have meant battling into the stiff tidal flow coming out of Poole Harbour, which is avoidable by sneaking along the shore only a few feet out.

On Day two I circuited Brownsea island which sits in the middle of Poole Harbour. Usually a nice sheltered paddle but on this occasion there was a stiff NW wind and the very big Spring tides made for some fairly dramatic (drastic) ferry glides across the channels. There is plenty to look at but mainly relating to humans e.g. hundreds of moored yachts and the most expensive real estate in the world on Sandbanks peninsula. It might actually be the second most expensive after somewhere like Malibu, I can’t remember exactly.

IMG_0081
Sandbanks
P1080424
Sandanks real estate

The armed forces were using a Chinook to entertain the hoardes of dog-walkers along Studland beach this time. It was carrying around a speedboat which seemed more appropriate to the needs of frontline troops than the Hercules’ Hotpoint.

IMG_0069
Chinook takes the strain

Day 3 was the best. Clear blue sky and fantastic visibility. Perfect for the classic paddle from Lulworth Cove to Durdle Door, one of the most photographed coastal features in the UK. You can’t really claim to be a sea kayaker until you have paddled through the Door.

IMG_0202
Durdle Door

I had a bit of a chat with the guide from Jurassic Tours who was leading a posse of sit-on-toppers through the arch of the ‘Door’.

P1080459
Jurassic Tours

I couldn’t resist paddling all the way along the Bay and then punching  right through the buttress at the other end using the conveniently positioned doorway of Bat Hole. I then paddled back to Durdle Door along the line of four rocky islets with the excellent names of The Calf, The Cow, The Blind Cow and The Bull. I spent quite a long time trying to work out exactly what feature made the second cow blind, but eventually gave up none the wiser.

IMG_0124
Bat Head and Bat Hole (and little me)

Becky and my sister Juliet had walked along the cast path from Lulworth taking a few photos, wisely turning back  before the alarmingly named valley of Scratchy Bottom. I joined them on the cliff for a quick pic.

IMG_0209
Me ‘n my sis

The water in Man O’ War cove was satisfactorily turquoise and would not have been out of place on a June day in the Maldives, let alone early October in England.

IMG_0238
Man O’ War Cove (with me in the middle)

I paddled back to Lulworth Cove and had to dodge surprisingly large numbers of milling burger-eaters/ ice-cream slurpers while trolleying my kayak back up to the carpark.IMG_0155

Three Days on the Thames

IMG_9332I’m not sure why I like the Thames so much, when my favourite sort of paddling is the open sea. It’s probably because I spent quite a lot of time messing about on the river at Sonning in craft ranging from canvas canoes to tippy marathon racers, in days when I had hair and used to go trainspotting.

Paddling the Thames is about as relaxed as you are going to get in a kayak. The water is flat and the flow is barely perceptible.The only slightly turbulent water is when you are sitting in the locks. Everyone is very friendly because life on the water is a great leveller. And there’s loads of Kingfishers.

IMG_9497
Typical Thames

I was dropped off at Donnington Bridge in Oxford and had soon inflated Puffing Pig II, my Gumotex Seawave kayak, which was to be my transport for the sixty-five miles down to Cookham. The Seawave is a pretty large craft but I wanted to take all my provisions with me as I have found before that there are not as many convenience shops along the river as you might think. This is actually seems to be true for most of the places I go kayaking.

So I was laden with food, and although I love camping I’m not that hard-core so take along a good thick self-inflating mattress, which also takes up a lot of space. Plus a load of spare clothes in case of disaster. And a fat book….Lord of the Rings (again) in fact, so you can see why I needed a big boat.

IMG_9288
Thames River Cruiser

Up until Iffley Lock the river was chaos with a rowing race, but below the lock it was pretty much deserted. Just a handful of hire boats (with everyone on board, without exception, clutching a bottle), and a few big River Cruisers which announced their approach with the thump of a bassline from an eighties disco classic long before they came into view. Party goers lurched about on their deck (also clutching bottles). They were pretty pleased when I twirled my paddled in time with ‘Tragedy’ but I nearly dislocated my wrist when the blade snagged the water. Fortunately it happened at exactly at the same moment as Barry Gibb was doing his warbly bit when the whole song grinds to a halt before before the final triumphant (tragic) chorus, and I just about managed to make it look like it was all part of the routine.

Mid September is about as late as I enjoy wild camping in the UK as it is starting to get cold and it is pretty dark by seven. It is also frequently wet and my first day was no exception. I found a decent place to camp before Culham cut but as I was setting up my tent, while simultaneously trying to shoo away a herd of Aberdeen Angus bullocks which were slavering over my bag of pegs, the heavens opened. I dived into the tent and was pretty soon in my sleeping bag as there was really nothing else to do. Except have supper. I unwrapped my  (limited edition) Ginsters Beef and Tribute Ale pasty but was horrified to find it was still frozen even though I had taken it out of the freezer at home twelve hours previously.

Was I going to extract myself from my cosy bag and venture out across the stair-rod rain to get a packet of biscuits instead? No way. So I ate the frozen pasty. I just imagined I was eating some type of novelty pastry and meat ice cream and sort of enjoyed it. Actually I didn’t, it was disgusting. Luckily I found a Double Decker tucked away in my lifejacket to have for afters.

I had the Jetboil on for a cup of tea the next morning at the first whiff of light at six, and was on the water long before anyone else, having to operate the first couple of locks myself before the lockkeepers came on duty. The rest of Day 2 was uneventful and very pleasant and peaceful, if a bit cool and cloudy. I had a good view of a Muntjac deer which was grazing beneath the bushes close to the bank. Nice to see because we don’t get them as far down as West Devon.

IMG_9311
Muntjac Deer

I camped at my ‘favourite’ spot beside a little sandy beach just beyond Goring lock. At midnight I was awoken by a lot of splashing and chattering noises with quite a few high pitched squeaks. Otters! I shone my pathetic torch out across the river but the snivelling beam never illuminated them, although the noises continued for an hour. I think there were at least two cubs because the squeaks came from two places fifty yards apart. A perfect location for otters with several islands covered in a tangle of bushes and trees. In the morning I found ottery footprints on the beach yards from my tent. Although it was a pity I didn’t see them it is absolutely excellent to know otters are thriving on the Thames.

On Day 3 I paddled through Reading and through a familiar Sonning, although everything looked a lot smaller than when I was ten. I took a prolonged diversion off the main river down the St Patrick’s Stream, which bypasses Shiplake lock, and then the Hennerton Backwater.

IMG_9487
Henley

Henley was fairly busy with rowing sculls as usual, and drunken fools in zigzagging hire boats, but my attention was suddenly captured by a tussle between a Great-crested Grebe and a whopping fish. The fish was so large that initially it wasn’t entirely clear who was trying to eat who.

The drama which then unfolded over the next ten minutes is  the sort of extraordinary wildlife encounter that makes me pick up my paddle time and time (and time and time) again. It was absolutely gripping stuff, and all the more remarkable that it was played out within a stone’s throw from Henley bridge, with nobody else in any of the boats or the buzzing Angel’s Arms having the vaguest notion of what was going on. They were far too busy looking at screens and discussing Bake Off.

The Grebe held a twelve inch Pike in its beak. I would have thought it would have been a bit risky to mess with a Pike half that size, but to tangle with a top predator of that proportion is surely asking for trouble.

The bird kept changing its grasp on the fish and then tried to line it up to get the pike’s head in its mouth. This was initially unsuccessful and I assumed there was no way that the fish would fit down that neck. Wrong. Many minutes later all that was sticking out of the grebe’s beak was the tip of a tail fin, and soon that too disappeared. Absolutely amazing.IMG_9399

IMG_9364IMG_9434IMG_9435.JPGIMG_9459IMG_9469

Even the local Cormorants were impressed.

IMG_9553
Impressed Cormorant

I camped at the end of the regatta course and didn’t put up my tent till it started to get dark to avoid detection. Alas, as I was in my sleeping bag, reading about Bilbo’s eleventy- first birthday party, an official-looking launch pulled up and told me I couldn’t camp there. When I groaned in dismay he conceded to let me camp but pay the £10 mooring fee. I’m not sure that this was a good deal but it would have been a drag to move.

Next morning was stunning. No wind and a mist hanging over the water. The rowers were out early and I was scorned by a sculler in a GB team t-shirt who muttered that I was paddling on the wrong side of the river. As I switched sides I was nearly bisected by a coxless four who suddenly appeared out of the mist.

IMG_9489
Misty Henley

IMG_9516IMG_9521I had a relaxed run through Marlow and was approaching my destination at Cookham when I saw a small lithe black beast scampering along a pontoon.  A mink, in the middle of Bourne End! It had a fish in its mouth and scurried into a bush. I stopped and waited and it soon reappeared and stared me out, with those beady black eyes. I have been scrutinised by quite a few mink before and they have such evil intent that it makes you feel a bit uneasy and want to cover up your jugulars.

IMG_9590
Mink

In wildlife terms they are public enemy number one and it is mink that have exterminated the endearing little Water Vole that used to be so common along the Thames when I was growing up. The characteristic ‘plop’ of a vole jumping into the water was a familiar sound. On this trip I didn’t see a single vole.

I watched the mink for fifteen minutes as it scurried about, eventually emerging out of the bushes with the tattered fish in its mouth. I got the impression it (the Mink) was a youngster as it acted in a sort of teenagery manner.

IMG_9637
Mink with Lunch

I hadn’t been expecting that much wildlife action in the tail end of the year, so the grebe and the Mink were an unexpected surprise.

After four days on the water, the sight of a Red Kite floaing over the river hardly made me look up. There were absolutely loads of them and the rather weedy mewing call from this years offspring could be heard more or less continuously during my trip down the river.. I still can’t believe they can all find enough to eat. A major success story as a few decades ago there were none in this area.

IMG_9531
Red Kite

Thames trip over.

IMG_9558
Marlow

p.s.   A couple of my Grebe-eating-the-pike pics were printed in The Sunday People newspaper, with a suitably over-the-top headline:

IMG_9723
Grebe pic in The Sunday People