Scotland 2018 part 3: The Scenery

P1110435Whilst scouring the coastline and surface of the sea with my eyeballs looking for those magical sea creatures, it is very easy to overlook what most kayakers are there to see: the sensational scenery.

I never do take it for granted, because when paddling alone there is plenty of time to take in the surroundings as well as sharpen up your eyes and ears for those nuggets of natural history. There is actually more chance of missing out if you are in company, because you may be engrossed in discussing who said what to who and why. Here’s a good example:

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Yakking on the Yaks (and not noticeing the Eider)

After five or six days in the wilderness I do find that all the senses are sharpened. This is great with regard to eyes and ears, but not so good, after five warm and sweaty days of paddling, when it comes to smell.

From a mile away I can hear the constant yelling of Oystercatchers, Wrens and the occasional Yellowhammer singing form the hillside, song flights of the Rock pipits  the call of Cuckoos carrying even further. The only human-made sound is the far distant chuffing of the Jacobite steam train as it climbs out of Arisaig, and the odd Dreamliner six miles overhead.

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Oystercatcher at full volume

Finely-tuned long vision isn’t necessarily all good. On my final day I was paddling towards my car on the lochside a good mile away. I could see a figure walking along the road beside the water with two large dogs racing about, one of which halted beside my car and I could tell by its aura, even at that range, precisely what it was doing. The owner assumed a sheepish and guilty sort of body language and glanced up and down the road to make sure nobody was in sight to observe what his canine companion was depositing. He then looked directly at me but quickly decided I was far too far away to have noticed what his dog was up to.

By the time I arrived by the quay he, and his enlightened dogs, were long gone, but I had to be very careful where I stood.

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Loch Sunart dawn

I had an early start on a twenty mile day trip around Lochs Sunart and Teacuis, so I had to take breakfast on board.

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Muesli and Moo Milk

I stopped for a coffee break on a pink carpet of Thrift beside loch Teacuis.

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Carpet of Sea Pink

Next day I paddled Loch Moidart. I got to know it well because I had to backtrack a couple of miles when I discovered that the ‘North Channel’ around Eilean Shona island dried out at low tide. I should have known this because this is the access route to the handful of houses on the island. It was worth the diversion however, because I briefly saw another otter.

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Loch Moidart

So I exited into the sea using the South Channel and had a brief chat with kayak guide Ali Mcghee and his group from Ocean Alba. Out into the open sea a Loon was in the process of swallowing a small flatfish:

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Loon with lunch

with a fine backdrop of the hills of Moidart.P1110421

By great good fortune it was exactly lunchtime when I arrived at the unbelievably stunning white sands of Smirisary, backed by an area of short turf perfect for a bit of a lounge about and a cup of tea. (video)

 

Not surprisingly, the Ocean Alba group thought the same and soon arrived as well.

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Fellow Paddlers

I spent three days paddling around the Arisaig and Ardnish peninsulars, finding a couple of decent places to camp above sandy beaches.

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Camp 1
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Camp 3 (Peanmeanach)

There was a tremendous all-round scene because out to sea were the Small Isles providing an impressive distant backdrop.

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Rum (background). Eigg (middle)

And the vista inland wasn’t to be sniffed at either.P1110012

Progress was slow as there is no way I was going to paddle past a beach like this without a bit of investigation on foot.P1110106

It wasn’t just the views that were Caribbean. The weather was largely sunny with temperature up to the low twenties. And not a drop of rain for the whole week. Not bad for Western Scotland.

 

 

 

 

Scotland 2018 part 2: The Supporting Cast

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Otter plus crab lunch

Although the otter catching and eating the crab was by far my best wildlife encounter during my five days in the Arisaig area of Western Scotland, there was plenty else going on in the natural history section.

Not least the five trillion midges that came over to pester me one still and warm evening. What sort of a creature is it that deliberately flies into your eyeball and voluntarily gets blinked to death? In their thousands. Their friends in the itch depatment are ticks several of which, despite my best efforts to avoid them, managed to find their way into various cracks and crevices about my person.

More of a threat to wildlife was the two Mink I briefly saw. Despite being very fluffy and floating high on the water they are adept swimmers and seem to dive as well as an otter.

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Mink

I would have been disappointed not to see an Eagle and ended up with two. Sea Eagles are so incredibly huge that if one is around you really have to be pretty daft not to see it (or eyes down on your phone…..again). One was being pestered by Gulls on the south side of the Arisaig peninsular, the second sat in a tree at loch Moidart.

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White-tailed (Sea) Eagle

The half dozen or so Great Northern Divers I saw were all nearly in full summer plumage. I’m not sure whether these are non-breeding birds that spend the summer here or that they are winter visitors that still havn’t headed north. I suspect most will soon depart.

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Great Northern Diver

A pair of Red-throated Divers were fishing in the sea in front of my tent at Peanmeanach beach and flew back to their loch in the hills calling in classic, honking, ‘Rain Goose’ (their Shetland name) style. There was no rain in the forecast however, and I suspect they got this name in Shetland because it rains much of the time and there are a lot of breeding Red-throats there.

Trying hard to compete with the divers for snappiness of plumage were the Black Guillemots. I really like these busy little birds (although their movements verge on frantic) and unlike their southern cousins they have an extraordinary high-pitched whistle as a call note. A good sound for carrying distance on a windy day. In the video the second bird hasn’t quite finished moulting out of its winter plumage. (video)

 

The islands in Loch na Ceal near Arisaig hosted a lot of birds and the still and sunny weather enhanced the atmosphere. The main soundtrack came from the Oystercatchers. If they didn’t have such charisma I might be tempted to say what an appalling din. (video)

 

 

A pair of Common Terns looked like they were checking out somewhere to nest,

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Common Tern

and a rather smart looking Common Gull was busy incubating her eggs beside a bouquet of Sea Pink. (could be a ‘he’ I suppose). Incidentally ‘Common Gull’ is a very bad name for what is NOT the most Common gull and is in fact an extremely neat and attractive bird.

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Common Gull

I know it’s ‘only’ a seagull but I had to insert this video because I love the way the Gull settles back down to incubate its eggs so proudly and cosily with a contented shuffle and waggle of its tail. (video)

 

 

A pair of Ringed Plovers were a bit agitated as I passed so I guess they were nesting as well. They got a lot more stressed when a Great Black-backed Gull turned up with bird’s eggs on the menu for lunch.

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Ringed plover

Arisaig’s most prominent residents are the Harbour Seals. There are a lot of them and they drape themselves about on low flat islets and their bawls and grunts carry far over the water. They enjoy nothing more than following kayakers in large numbers and diving with a splash. They are rather more photogenic than Cornwall’s Grey Seals, and have a more dished cat-like face. (video)

 

 

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Heap of Harbour Seals
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Posse of Harbour Seals

I saw one Grey Seal in amongst a colony at the mouth of Loch Moidart. It had a whitish blaze across its head.

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Grey Seal

A trip to Scotland would not be complete without a Red Deer and I would have been surprised not to see one…..

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but I certainly wasn’t expecting to see quite so many (tens of thousands)  Moon jellyfish wafting about in the clear waters of Loch Sunart. Accompanied by a few Lion’s mane and small white jellies with very long tentacles.

The other wildlife highlight of my early morning paddle on the smooth waters of Lochs Sunart and Teacuis was the sound of birds with the songs of Blackcaps, Willow and Wood Warblers drifting down from the deciduous woods on the bank. Plus the occasional Tree Pipit and ‘zip, zip’ of a Spotted Flycatcher. Didn’t see any of them . Plus the odd Cuckoo, which I did see. I could hear one calling from over a mile away.

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Moon Jellyfish
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Moon Jellyfish

The rarest bird I saw was not the most glamorous and a bit specialist to the ornithologist. This iceland Gull was hanging around the fish farm on Sunart.

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Iceland Gull

It was so still most of the time that I could here the ‘coos’ of these Eiders long before I could see them.

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Line of Drake Eiders.

It was time to head for home, a mere 650 miles away.

The seals waved me off:

Harbour Seal

 

 

 

 

 

 

Bude Puffin.

The first time I have EVER seen an adult Puffin off Bude. Technically it wasn’t off Bude itself, it was about three miles offshore from Widemouth Bay (which is a couple of miles south of Bude).

Very early morning, flat calm sea, very little about. A couple of Manx Shearwaters, one or two Guillemots and Razorbills and then this particular Puffin whirred past and pitched onto the water just behind my kayak. Perfect for a photo with the early morning sun behind.

I guess it is a foraging bird from the expanding Lundy population.

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Bude Puffin

Below the surface a few jellyfish. Blue Jellies, Comb Jellies and a single three foot long Barrel Jelly.

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Barrel Jelly

As usual, dredging myself out of bed predawn was worth it.

Scotland 2018 part 1: Otter vs Giant Crab

I could not resist the continuing fine weather for kayaking in the west of Scotland so set off armed with tent and provisions for several days of wild camping, but first I had to do battle with the roadworks on the M6.

My number one wildlife aim was to get a decent photograph of an otter. Most in southwest England are active in poor light at either end of the day and so difficult to photograph , whereas in Scotland I have seen them along the coast in full sunshine.

After two days of paddling I had glimpsed a single otter surface once and then disappear, and had a marginally longer view of a couple of Mink.

Back amongst the islands of Arisaig I had given up hope of meeting up with an Otter because it was midday, sunny and hot, and there were loads of seals around. Then I saw this: (this is a video)

 

 

 

Otters can look like a small seal at a distance but the tail whipping up when it dives can mean it’s nothing else!

When it came up I could hardly believe my luck…it had caught an enormous crab and I knew it would be heading to the nearest rock to consume it.

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I sneaked after it as quietly as I could and sure enough it hopped out on a rock, had a good shake, and prepared the crab for demolition, but the crab had other plans and kept trying to scuttle off:

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It then stared hard at me because I was at the absolute limit of frightening it, about twenty yards. Otters have pretty poor eyesight and fortunately the light wind was in my face. If it was blowing the other way the otter would still be on the way to the Isle of Skye as fast as it could swim (I hadn’t showered for a day or two). It had winkled off the carapace of the crab in one piece and still had it in its mouth as it stared.

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Otter eating crab

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Luckily I was blown back out out of its worry range and it got stuck in to crunching the crab’s legs. It made more noise than Rick Stein tucking in to a lobster.

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It really wolfed its way through its seafood lunch and made sure there was nothing left before exiting the scene with a perfect splashless racing dive.

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Absolutely excellent. This was exactly what I had hoped to witness on my paddle trip to Scotland but hadn’t expected quite such a perfect show.

Incidentally, this is the same species of otter that is found all over the UK. It is often thought, quite understandably, that these are Sea Otters because around Scotland they do most of their hunting in the sea. Sea Otters are a quite distinct species that live in the Pacific off North America.

Compared to rivers and lakes the sea is absolutely bursting with all the otter’s favourite foods. It’s chock full of crabs, anenomes and butterfish, so it’s no wonder that’s where these European River Otters like to hunt. Looking for food in the sea must be like walking into a well-stocked delicatessen, whereas trying to find food in a river or lake is very more challenging and like trying to locate the buffet car on a train.

Unlike Sea Otters, European Otters need a source of fresh water nearby in which to clean up, and always take larger prey items on to solid ground to devour them.

 

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Otter with crab

 

 

 

Puffins!

Thick mist with visibility of about a hundred yards looked like it was going to mess up my day of wildlife viewing around Veryan  Bay in South Cornwall. However I wasn’t going to be put off, so set off anyway,keeping close to the coast. The dog walkers on the beach gave me that ‘we think you’re barmy’ look. More worryingly, so did the dogs. But to my surprise, and relief, after a couple of hours the visibility slowly started to improve.

A peregrine was perched motionless at the top of the cliff, its mate nearby still on eggs probably.

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Peregrine Falcon

Closer to the shore an Oystercatcher was hunkered down. It too probably had a partner on a nest a bit further up the cliff.

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Oystercatcher

As if by magic the mist thinned out further and the wind dropped completely, making a bit of offshore paddling for the return trip irresistible. It was definitely worth the effort.

My first encounter was a Great Northern Diver (Great Northern Loon, Common Loon) which was still in winter plumage. Probably a youngster from last years brood. Even so a very imposing bird and I wouldn’t fancy being a fish within fifty metres of that dagger of a beak.

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Great Northern Diver

Out beyond the loon a couple of Manx Shearwaters were splashing about at the surface, shallow diving for sprats or sandeels.

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Manx Shearwaters

I passed multiple small groups of Guillemots which were cackling to each other, and the odd Razorbill, and then to my astonishment found myself paddling straight towards a group of a dozen Puffins.

I have never seen so many away from their breeding sites (the nearest of which, I think, is Scilly over sixty miles away). I have come across the odd immature bird out at sea at this time of year but this was quite a crowd. To make the scene even better the sun came out to brighten up the Puffin’s bills even further, and transform the sea from slate grey to vivid blue.

Craggy Gull island provided a suitably dramatic backdrop.

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Immature Puffins
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Adult and immature Puffins
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Adult Puffin
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Puffins in front of Gull island

Absolutely excellent…..so far the wildlife, and weather, this May has far exceeded my expectations.

To top off another top trip, a Sea Urchin exposed by the low tide on the way back to the beach. The (prickly) cherry on top of the cake.P1100781.JPG

 

Lovely Looe Island

The most perfect late May day imaginable. Zero wind, sunny and temperature in the mid twenties. myself and Becky and friends Krysia and Stefan were keen to do some wildlife watching from kayaks and I hoped Looe island would deliver. Krysia and Stefan didn’t realise just how close up and personal the (very large) wildlife would come……

Seeting off from Millpool slipway gives an excellent opportunity to see the Little Egrets that appear to be nesting in the wood opposite the carpark.

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Little Egret

 

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Little Egret

We sped through the middle of Looe on the outgoing tide.

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Looe

We slid across the super smooth open sea to Looe island…….

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Looe island

and were soon admiring the seals that were draped about on the Ranneys reef enjoying a bit of sun.P1100362

 

We looped around the island and headed for the beach at Portnadler for lunch. Several other bank holiday revellers had the same idea but we managed to find a private mini beach all to ourselves.

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en route to lunch
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Portnadler side beach

It was such a cracking afternoon that we decided to loop back around the island for a second seal experience. The Cormorants in the colony on the island were panting hard, but the heat didn’t seem to moderate the appetite of the nestlings.

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Panting cormorants
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Cormorant nestlings eager for lunch

A couple of small waders resting on the reef turned out to be Sanderlings, on their way to nesting grounds way up north. Superb little birds, usually seen rushing in and out with the waves on a sandy beach during the winter.

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Sanderling

There were also  a handful of Dunlin that were hunkered down amongst the barnacles on the reef, taking a breather.

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Dunlin

We had an extraordinary prolonged encounter with a bull grey seal. He followed and examined both our kayaks and seemed to be formulating some kind of action plan.

 

 

 

After submerging we assumed he was going to do a bit of fishing, but to our amazement we could see him lying on the bottom amongst the weed beneath us, apparently asleep (as we could see his eyes were closed!)P1030516

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Snoozing seal

Then came the unexpected moment.

 

 

 

The message was obviously “clear off, you’re on my patch”, so we did. It was easy to understand his frustration. There were a lot of kayaks and paddleboards around today because the sea looked so inviting and he was just a bit tired of all the attention. You might argue that we were too close and causing disturbance, but even when you are some distance away in a kayak seals will come over and seek you out and follow, seemingly just for curiosity’s sake (or maybe just the fun of it).

Back to the car at Millpool creek and finish the day off with a swim.P1100573

It was such a lovely day that everything looked impressive and grand, even the commoner birds such as Greater Black-backed Gulls.

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Greater Black-backed Gulls

 

Land’s End. Eyeballed by a Sunfish.

I havn’t paddled Land’s End for several years so have been looking for some suitable conditions. The sea there is always lively as it is a focal point of currents and swell and everything that conspires to make the surface lumpy.

Today the weather was no problem as it was clear blue sky. The wind was light and I had done my tidal planning…..not straightforward as at Land’s End it flows north for nine hours and south for only three. The only potential glitch was the forecast four foot of Atlantic groundswell.

My departure point at Porthgwarra could not have been more picture perfect with the cliffs carpeted in the pink of Thrift and yellow of Kidney Vetch. I trolleyed through the tunnel onto the beach.

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Porthgwarra

The sea here was smooth so I couldn’t resist paddling offshore to the Runnelstone buoy. This is a wildlife hotspot and Gannets and gangs of Manx Shearwaters loped past.

All very placid and sunny and warm, but the Runnelstone buoy gives me the creeps. The sea here is very restless in a tethered rhinoceros sort of a way, but worse by far is the appalling moan of the buoy when there is a bit of a swell running. More sinister than the theme from jaws….just listen to this:

 

 

I decided to keep well offshore in the hope of meeting up with some oceanic wildlife and with the tide in my favour I got a bit of a slingshot around Gwennap Head. However, with the mournful moan of the buoy still droning behind me, I started to run into the full Atlantic swell and felt a bit small in a big sea.

I suddenly found myself looking UP at a pair of porpoises as they emerged out of the top of a rolling swell. They swam right past me and one left a fluke ‘print’ swirling right beside the kayak.

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Porpoises in rolling Lands End swell
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Approaching porpoise with Lands End behind

Seconds after I lost sight of the porpoises I saw a bit of random splashing on the surface and paddled over to investigate. It was my first UK Ocean Sunfish of the year (although I saw one in the Med a couple of months ago). I quietly crept upsun to get some decent pics and drifted to within a few feet of it.

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Classic Sunfish fin

It didn’t disappoint and performed precisely as I had hoped. Even better actually because as it floated at the surface its eye was completely out of the water and appeared to be as interested in me as I was it (although it probably wasn’t).

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Ocean Sunfish

 

 

A great encounter with a really extraordinary creature in a really dramatic place.

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Fired up by all this I stayed well offshore and headed directly towards Longships Lighthouse. A circling group of Gannets plunged as the tide drew me closer to a much more confused patch of water around Longships Reef. I was on the edge of my comfort zone and was pleased that I had called in to Gwennap Head NCI (coastwatch station) on the radio to tell them of my plans….just in case.

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Longships Reef

Of course I had to paddle around the lighthouse having come this far, but then cranked up the speed and made for the shelter and cosiness of Sennen Cove a couple of miles away. I had a bit of a fright when there was the unexpected noise of a large breaking wave really quite close……

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Wave breaking on Shark’s fin reef

which turned out to be another bit of the Longships Reef.

Sennen Cove was, in contrast, idiotically warm and sunny and sheltered and smelled of suncream as tourists wandered around licking ice creams and taking snaps.

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Sennen Cove

I had a brief chat with a couple who were just about to launch their inflatable kayaks and advised them to stay within the shelter of Sennen (Whitesand) bay.

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Fellow Kayakers

I was a bit apprehensive about the paddle back but still decided to keep close to the cliffs to make the whole trip a bit of a circuit.

It was indeed lumpy but I never actually felt in danger. The waves broke against the cliffs with quite an impressive impact, however.

 

I stopped to check out a small Guillemot colony at the island called the Armed Knight, while being scrutinised by a load of people milling about on the cliff top beside the Lands End Theme Park. Thank goodness I was down here and not up there.

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Guillemots
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The Armed Knight and Lands End

As the coast bent round to the south the tidal current eased and the swell subsided a bit, but the cliffs all the way back to Porthgwarra, past Gwennap Head which is the most southwesterly point of mainland Britain, can only be described as ‘unforgiving’.

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Lands End cliffs
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Gwennap Head

There is the most remarkable instant transformation from exposed cliffs with a tide race, to sheltered sun-drenched cove, when you come round the corner into Porthgwarra.

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Porthgwarra

And as icing on the cake of a memorable paddle, a German tourist gave me a hand with my kayak back up through the ‘tunnel’.