Day Trip to Lundy

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Lundy Puffin

Wow, what a world-class adventure. Hard to believe it’s only half an hour’s drive from where I live.

Finding a day suitable for a kayak trip to Lundy, twelve miles off the coast of North Devon, is very difficult. It is at the mouth of the Bristol Channel so there are big tides and big, swirly currents. It is also generally windy and is fully exposed to groundswell from the Atlantic.

Planning a one-way trip is challenging enough, but sea conditions suitable for paddling there and back in a day are very rare indeed. If you like a smooth ride, there has got to be virtually no wind, virtually no swell, and tides should be neap. It’s just a handful of days a year.If you like being thrown about a bit, there’s a few more.

It’s a thirty-mile trip but because you have to paddle at an angle across the tide the distance equivalent is quite a lot more.

So all in all it’s a pretty daft thing to do. And therefore irresistible to our motley posse of paddlers, who were not without a bit of experience of the sea. Simon, ex world champion surf kayaker. Jack, current runner-up junior world champion surf kayaker. Austen, seasoned paddler and sailor. Me, good at spotting seabirds.

Austen, Jack and Simon were in sea kayaks. I was in (on) my plastic recreational sit-on-top. Not as fast as a sea kayak but boy, is it comfortable. Very important on a very long trip.

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left to right; Simon, yours truly, Jack, Austen

We were on the water at Hartland Quay at 0630 (as planned!). Clear skies, light wind, not really any other sign of humanity. Apart from Hartland Quay Hotel, there are very few houses along the notoriously savage Hartland Heritage coast. No vapour trails, no boats or ships (not many ships go past here, either). Good, good and good.

We headed out past Hartland Point lighthouse, where there is usually an impressive/ terrifying tide race.

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Passing Hartland Point

We soon had Manx Sheawaters zipping past our kayaks, en route from their breeding islands off the Pembrokeshire coast (and also Lundy now) to feed somewhere off Land’s End, before returning to their nesting burrows at dusk.

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Manx Shearwater

Next on the wildlife list was the puff of a Porpoise, which was, as usual, difficult to spot. It’s quite a small creature in a very big sea.

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Porpoise

Unlike Austen’s and my first (and only other) trip to Lundy thirteen years ago, visibilty was very good. On the previous occasion we became enveloped in thick fog and nearly run down by a ship. We could hear the thud of its engine and the blast of its foghorn, but all we ever saw of it was its bow wave.

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Lundy, the distant target

This sort of offshore paddling is not everyone’s cup of tea, but I absolutely love it. The wilderness experience combined with the anticipation of seeing some extreme wildlife is quite a thrill. Not to mention the benefits of a wee spot of exercise, I suppose.

Several miles out from Lundy we eyeballed our first Puffin. Looking good in bright sun and blue sea.

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Puffin number one.

As we neared the island after three hours of paddling, we had to increase the paddling rate and battle through the Rat island tide race before we reached the flat sheltered water beneath the cliffs.

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Jack and Lundy cliff

A few seals gave us the look. Perhaps they don’t see many kayakers out here. I’ve just noticed that this one has a red tag in its tail, so is probably a rescued seal from Cornwall Seal sanctuary. I’ll find out.

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Lundy seal (with tag)

We hauled up on a shingle beach beside the slipway, and although it was only just after ten, we demolished lunch. I generally will not entertain the idea of lunch before midday, but these were exceptional circumstances. Here’s the spread….

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lunch is served

Sharp-eyed blog readers amongst you may have just noticed, like me, that there are five lunchboxes laid out, but only four paddlers. The feet in the background give the game away. Hobbits need a second breakfast.

We wandered up the hill to the village and rehydrated with a shandy at the Marisco tavern, but it was time for the return leg.

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fish out of water

Despite a solid forecast of virtually zero wind, we were all a bit edgy about the return leg (apart from Jack and Simon). Maybe it’s because we got caught in the Hartland Point tide race last time.

No need to worry, for the whole four-and-a-half hour trip back the surface was about as smooth as this stretch of water has ever been. Incredible.

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Heading back

And we came across Puffins. Fifteen total. How fantastic to see these charismatic little seabirds in such ideal conditions. The reflections are almost as perfect as the original above the surface.

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Lundy Puffin
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Lundy Puffin
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Lundy Puffin

Superlatives all round. The name Lundy is derived from the Norse word ‘Lundi’, meaning Puffin. Unfortunately Puffin numbers had crashed (down to thirteen pairs), until rats were eradicated from the island about fifteen years ago. The number of breeding seabirds, including Puffins, has increased exponentially since then. A fantastic conservation success story.

Smiles, and camera clicks, all round from the kayak team.P1150826

I struggled to drag myself away from Puffinfest and got a bit left behind.

The others plodded on towards the distant Devon coast.

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Hartland Point lighthouse…..seven miles to go!

We briefly stopped for a breather half way back. Land six miles in front, and six miles behind.

There is the potential for boredom on this sort of a trip, but only if you are not in tune with wildlife. The call went up from Austen….’Sunfish!’. Two Sunfish were flicking their way just beneath the surface, with dorsal fins waving about in typical fashion. Strange, strange fish…visitors from warmer waters.

I was starting to get greedy and muttered about how nice it would be to finish off the day with a pod of dolphins. As I spoke I saw Simon, who was away off to the south, looking hard to his right. A dolphin suddenly leapt clear of the water right behind him. Muscle fatigue disappeared instantly as we powered over towards them.

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Common Dolphin

At least a dozen, probably double that number, were scattered over a wide area and we were surrounded by the sound of splashing.

Wow, yet again.

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Common Dolphin
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Common Dolphin and Lundy

Once through the tail end of the Hartland tidal current we had a lake-like paddle back to the slipway at Hartland Quay for the final mile.

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Austen eases achy back/backside
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Stoke church and Simon
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Fatigued, but buzzing. Life in the old geezer yet.

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The end. I’ve exhausted my quota of wow’s.20170628_124346

Up the Creek….the Magic of Spring

20170425_085743This post is somewhat retrospective….it’s a smorgasbord of photographic bits and pieces from the last couple of months since we have been allowed back onto the water.

Duckling Delight

Don’t try to tell me this doesn’t make you coo….

 

 

Seeking Shelter

When the sea along open coast is too lumpy, or you want to eyeball some different scenery and a different spectrum of water-loving creatures from your kayak, there are plenty of sheltered creeks to explore. They penetrate up to twenty miles into the heart of Devon and Cornwall.

My favourite inlets are, because they are relatively close to where I live, the Torridge, the Tamar, Fowey  and the Camel estuary.

The Torridge is closest and offers six miles of tide-assisted paddling above Bideford. Make sure you have read your tide tables or you will be putting in a lot of effort and going nowhere. Like everywhere in the southwest, the biggest Spring tides occur at about 6am (and pm)….perfect if, like me, you like to make an early start.

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Dawn patrol on the Torridge
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Even earlier on the Tamar

Dawn Deer

Dawn is the best time to catch diurnal animals who are just getting started for the day, such as this ( very healthy looking) Roe Deer buck who is still in relaxation mode….P1090026

Early morning is the ideal time for a bit of rumenation…

 

Otterly Unbelievable

It is also the best time to see nocturnal mammals that are staying out late in the search of (the equivalent of) a midnight snack. I have recently been specifically trying to observe Otters in the upper reaches of the creeks, where the brackish water meets the fresh. Paddling along in complete silence, scrutinising every inch of the water near the bank. And I have been incredibly unlucky, because I keep hearing reports, from other early morning wildlife enthusiasts, that the local family of otters were ‘just up around the corner a few minutes ago’ or ‘put on a good show yesterday’.

This is the closest I have got to seeing one, and  shows just how hard it is to see an Otter, and how closely I was looking.

5am. I had been paddling for over an hour and I felt that an Otter was going to appear (mind you, I am always thinking that). My camera was on my lap (dangerous because it is not waterproof) and set up ready for action…correct shutterspeed and aperture etc.

A trail of bubbles started out from the right hand bank in front of me, it HAD to be an otter. I started filming and the kayak drifted to a halt. I was absolutely certain the Otter would surface just in front of me, but had that nagging doubt that it was just a bit TOO close. Otters have poor eyesight but all their other senses are superlative and it just might have detected the very slight movement of my kayak (or rattling heart).

However they generally don’t spend that long underwater and I felt it would need a breath when it had crossed the river. Incredibly (incredibly frustratingly!), when it got close to the bank the trail of bubbles hesitated in front of me, as if wondering what to do next. After a little bit of dithering, they sped back across the river from whence they had come, and that was it! Gone. Not a glimpse of as much as a whisker.

I have looked at this clip very closely to see if a pair of nostrils break the surface, but there is nothing. It must have detected my presence, and when an Otter wants to disappear, they disappear.

See if you can see anything sneak a quick breath in this sequence….

 

I still can hardly believe it…..

Reed or Sedge?

Birds have always been my main thing, and having spent a lifetime looking and listening, I can usually attach a feathery face to the songs and calls. But I have always struggled with distinguishing the songs of the the two dwellers of the swamps, the Reed and Sedge Warbler. They are both much more often heard than seen, as they creep around the dense and swaying masses of reeds beside the water.

But I think I have cracked it at last! The clincher is not so much the content of the song, but the delivery…….The Reed Warbler is confident and measured, whereas the warble of the Sedge is more frantic and rushed.

See what you think:

 

 

These little sub-Saharan migrants, with their cheerful and chattering song, brighten up the drabbest of days as I slip silently along the local estuaries.

Cygnets, Ducklings, Goslings

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Incubating Swan

I have been watching the local Mute Swans closely during their long incubation (thirty-five days), and anticipate the appearance of the cygnets almost as much as their proud parents.

Although they have all successfully produced offspring, numbers are small. Two on the Torridge, three (now down to one) on the Upper Tamar, and three on the Lower Fowey.

It isn’t a problem as far as this cygnet is concerned, it has mum all to itself. Happy as Larry.

 

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Pay close attention to this next clip, because it encapsulates everything that I find special about the Spring. The Housemartins (and their cheerful ‘dreep’) busily collecting mud and weed for their nests under the eaves (and having a bit of a domestic), and the Swan family coming ashore for a bit of a spruce-up. Plus a humorous bit as the cygnet which had been taking the free lift on mum’s back gets unceremoniously dumped on the mud.

All good stuff.

 

Shelduck raise broods up most of the wooded estuaries around the southwest, but need a bit of space because they are quite wary and prone to disturbance by boaters (and kayakers, and paddleboarders). Here’s a family on the Fowey River:

 

Mallard are hugely variable in how tame they are (I suspect it has something to do with how recently someone has levelled a twelve-bore at them).

The ones in the park at Lostwithiel are very confiding, as long as there aren’t any dogs around.

 

There are Canada Goose Goslings everywhere. I don’t get quite so excited about these, because they are not genuinely wild geese, but the the newly hatch young have appeal.

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Canada Goose Gosling

The Lower Estuaries

The profile of birds changes down towards the sea. Beady-eyed herring Gulls feast on the starfish which venture into shallow water at low tide.

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Herring Gull and Starfish

This Spider Crab probably thought it was safe because it was too big and crunchy to end up as lunch for any winged predator found in the UK. Oops….wrong, it had forgotten about the big, bold and beefy Greater Black-backed Gull.

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GBB finishing off Spider Crab

Oystercatchers are around, Some breed. They might try to be low profile, but they fail.

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Oystercatcher

Sanderling on the Camel

I have always liked these charming little waders because they have almost as much an affinity for sandy beaches as I do. This one had chosen just about the most scenic backdrop in the whole of North Cornwall to refuel en route to the Arctic ….the mouth of the Camel Estuary.

Its moult into  russet summer plumage is nearly complete….although it needs to tuck  those loose feathers in to really impress.

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Sanderling

 

 

Sensational Spring Scenes

Yikes…so wrapped up in the wildlife I nearly forgot all about the scenery, again…..

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Fowey looking (very) good. As usual.
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Middle Tamar (and Hillebrandt)
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Camel Estuary

 

Sunny Spring days up the creeks. Hard to beat.

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Hezzer and Kim

June, Beneath the Surface

If you are a fan of jellyfish, June is your month, in terms of both variety and quantity.

Viewing from the seat of a kayak, a smooth surface and clear water are what you need for a jelly bonanza. By good fortune, because conditions like that are actually quite unusual in the windy southwest, we had a few perfect days recently.

Duringn our trip along the Exmoor coast I had the pleasure of eyeballing six different species of jellyfish, in very large numbers. Most numerous were Moon (or Common) jellyfish.

Dotted in amongst them were a scattering of Blue jellyfish. This one puts on a particularly graceful performance.

No, this is not a sequence from Avatar, this is an impossibly delicate Crystal Jellyfish.

 

Representing the more glamorous, and more robust jellyfish, this is a Compass jelly. Probably my favourite because they are quite beautifully marked.

 

The Big Daddy of the commoner jellyfish found around Devon and Cornwall is this, The Barrel Jellyfish (also known as the Dustbin-lid Jellyfish). They can be very large, and this year seem to be around in ‘normal’ numbers after a huge influx of them last year.

Just to make the local jellyfish picture complete, here’s a few more I have encountered. This is the Mauve Stinger, which I saw off Penzance in the autumn a year or two back.

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And these Lion’s Mane Jellyfish can not only be really huge but also pack quite a nasty sting. I actually photographed this one in Scotland…..I havn’t seen one in Devon or Cornwall recently, if at all, come to think of it.

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Nasty, nasty sting…..the legendary, and innocuous looking, Portugese Man O’War. Rare, but can appear in large numbers following an autumn storm with strong winds from the south.

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I’ve watched a few Spider Crabs rustling about below me in the last few weeks…

And finally, here’s another look at the deeply snoozing seal off the Exmoor coast, which seemed to prove quite popular with readers of thelonekayaker.

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Just in case you missed it first time around.

The Rumps

20170601_090620Great Name. Spectacular location.

The Rumps is another north Cornwall headland that hardly ever opens its doors to the casual kayaker who likes flat water and lots of loafing about taking photos (and supping coffee) . It catches every little bit of swell, current and wind that is around and mixes and magnifies them all up into a confusion of clapotis (technical term meaning confused sea bouncing back off a cliff, that likes to cause havoc amongst small boats).

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Portquin

The big carrot for me, as I paddled out of the absurdly sheltered harbour at Portquin was the little colony of Puffins that I hope to observe in less bouncy conditions than I did last time, a couple of weeks ago.

I was thrilled to see them again, and the busy crowds of Guillemots and Razorbills, but the tidal current working against the wind made surface conditions tricky for photography again, especially when zoomed in. No complaints…that’s all part of the challenge, and fun, of taking pics from a kayak (and probably why very few other people do it).

Just like the seabird colony in full swing on the Exmoor coast, this seemed to be a very successful breeding season. Lots of adults flying past with fish, and several large baitballs of sandeels just below the surface.

It may just be an impression, because if a seabird colony is going to be busy at any time, it is now when the youngsters demand for food is greatest.

Here’s the gallery of seabird pics from the day:

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Bridled Guillemot
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Razorbill
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Puffin and Guillemot with fish
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flypast Puffin
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Puffin

I continued down the ‘alley’ between Rumps point and Pentire Head and Newlands island.

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Pentire Head

A flopping fin of a Sunfish was on the surface in front of me, but disappeared long before I could get my camera out. Then another, equally shy. And then one breaching just in front of me. In fact over the next hour or so, I saw five or six more random splashes which I’m pretty sure were all sunfish. They like areas of tidal movement like this, and hopefully this heralds a good season of sightings….I only saw one last year.

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The Mouls and the Rumps
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Newlands, The Mouls, The Rumps, Pentire Head (in that order)

For a final fling I was lured a mile (or more) further offshore by a mini Gannet feeding frenzy. Usually where there are diving Gannets, there are cetaceans. But on this occasion there were no fins visible at the surface.

It was great to see the Gannets hurling themselves into the water, with a splosh that can be heard from far away. They often cannot contain themselves and utter a cackle of excitement as they twist prior to their plunge.

That’s it for the north Cornwall coast for a few days. There’s wind and a swell on the way.

So the Puffins won’t have to worry about being pestered by kayakers for a while.

Epic Exmoor

Wow.

I’ve said that a lot recently. But this time it wasn’t just the superb calm weather. How often is the sea this flat three miles off the coast of Exmoor?

It was the gobsmacking scenery as well.

I’ve paddled this bit of coast three or four times before, but always as a fallback when the swell on the west facing coast is too big. I didn’t realise that big swell further west means that close investigation of this fascinating bit of coast, with all the caves and gullies, is not possible due to the waves. Also in winter more or less the whole of the Bristol Channel, as an extension of the Severn estuary, is brown.

Today was completely different to my previous experiences. The sea was flat and the water was clear.

So I couldn’t resist heading straight offshore to see if I could find some of the Porpoises that frequent this bit of the North Devon coast. I think they are resident here.

If it hadn’t been glass calm I would have missed the first one. Just a glisten off a fin a half-mile ahead, and when I arrived upon the scene a single porpoise puffed past, surfacing four or five times, and was gone on its way.

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Harbour Porpoise

The next two hours were quiet, apart from Guillemots and Razorbills zipping past, many with fish poking out of their beaks, brunch for expectant offspring on the cliffs ahead.

I stopped for a coffee break before I headed in. And as is often the case when I stop for a slurp, I heard a porpoise puff. Clearly although kayaking is silent, the slight splashing of the paddle can mask a distant puff. A thousand times better than a boat with an engine, however.

For the next half-hour I was completely absorbed in watching mother and calf porpoise doing their stuff. They would surface together, then Mum might speed off to look for some fish; junior would get left behind and race to catch up. Or Mum might do a deep dive and the youngster would have to surface for some extra breaths before the adult resurfaced.

Here’s the best of the show. The clips show all the characteristics of the porpoise nicely. The triangular fin, the roll at the surface without a splash, the loud puff, and sudden change of direction (which can catch out the unwary lensman…..I was clearly ‘on it’ today).

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Mother and calf Porpoise

I paddled inshore and soaked up the sensurround experience of the next natural wonder, the extensive seabird colony on the cliffs. Cackling Guillemots and Razorbills, a whirr of wings overhead as parents commute back and forth, and most excitingly, the laugh of Kittiwakes. The name describes the call perfectly.

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Kittiwakes

Kittiwakes are the neatest-looking of the resident UK ‘gulls’, but are loyal to the sea (and sea coast), and the few colonies around the coast of Southwest England seem to be in decline.

Listen to the call, the name ‘Kittiwake describes it perfectly.

However today the whole colony seemed to be bursting with life and the impression that was created was that all was well. Large numbers of small fish were being delivered to the unseen chicks on the ledges, and everyone (?!) seemed happy.

This Razorbill has a couple of what look like Herring in its beak. I don’t think they are sandeels, which is their staple diet.

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Razorbill plus babyfood

One more clip for you, it is a sight to be savoured. Masses of seabirds in a spectacular location.

I was so full of excitement about this trip, I came back the next day with Dave and Simon.

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Simon
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Simon and Dave beneath the highest cliff on mainland Britain (approx 1,000ft)

The Oystercatchers were doubly unhappy about the intrusion than the day before, they will have a chick nearby, without doubt.

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Oystercatcher

There were loads of caves and gulches which required close investigation.

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neverending gulch

Then we literally stumbled upon a seal (as much as you can ‘stumble’ in a kayak), which was just in front of me as I was drifting along taking photos of jellyfish.. It was lying absolutely motionless at the surface. Fast asleep, small stream of bubbles coming from her nose.

There were more seals hauled out, which we passed at a socially acceptable distance so they were not disturbed.Grey seal

Lunch was taken at Heddon’s Mouth.

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Lunch stop. Heddon’s Mouth

There was just the little issue of a seven mile paddle back. And the threat of a drop of rain.

More Mighty scenes….

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Dave and the mighty Exmoor coast

Plenty more wildlife above the water….

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Razorbills

And plenty of wildlife below the water…. (I’ll do a jellyfish ‘special’ blog soon)

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Compass jelly

Yet another top trip. This is getting boring.

 

 

 

 

Family of Stoats put on quite a Performance

This is why I love paddling the estuaries at this time of year. You can be serenaded by the bird world’s best songster (because the melody has so much SOUL), downloaded free directly to your eardrum.No need for earphones and no need to spend your entire time with your head down prodding at a screen.

And there is always a busy little family with parent duck bursting with care and pride.

But today I very nearly couldn’t be bothered to go. The endless blue skies and warmth of the last couple of months had been shattered by a drop in temperature, an increase in wind, and the threat of rain. The only carrot was that after  a lot of offshore stuff recently I was looking forward to a nice sheltered paddle up the Fowey estuary. So I went.

Good call.

This is what caught my eye…..

Wow, a stoat doing, or practising for, a dance of death.  Like all the best wildlife sightings, it came completely out of the blue. Totally unexpected.

But just hold your horses, you have seen a stoat doing this dance once before.

In EXACTLY the same place beside this very same estuary. Here is the video clip, taken on October 18th, 2018. And the prospective feathered-covered lunch who it is hoping to mesmerise with its crazy tail-lashing dance, is being drawn in closer, like something out of a zombie movie.

It was unsuccessful however, on this (that) occasion.

I think this makes today’s sighting even more remarkable, because I have never seen a stoat ‘dance’ in any other place, in fact rarely seen anything more than a flash of brown dash across the road, in a lifetime of watching animals. Maybe the stoats that live here have become specialist at hunting ducks. There are always plenty of Mallard loafing about.

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loafing Mallard

I drifted silently closer and the performance continued.

A very effective routine, with plenty of lashing of the shaving-brush black lure on the end of its tail, but only a single very half-interested duck ten yards away. But I was certainly gripped!

I got the impression this was a youngster cavorting about. It either didn’t care, or didn’t notice me drifting even closer. It was totally focused on tomfoolery. You will see (only just, because the camera wasn’t pointing in the right direction…idiot!), it fall off a branch onto its back as it larks about.

Just in case you didn’t catch that, here it is in slomo…

Absolutely excellent, a sort of sight that few have seen (even though stoats are not rare), and certainly not from the kayak seat.

So excellent in fact, that I couldn’t resist paddling up the estuary again the next day for another look. I wasn’t really expecting them (it) to be on the shore again, but there it was! In fact this time there were two…….or was it even three…

OK,  these had to be cubs, they just had youth written all over them. So was yesterday’s leaping ermine one of these two? Time for a bit of photographic investigation work.

Look at these pics closely, and you will see that there are three separate individuals.

The first is unusually marked, with little white patches either side of its nose and a couple of specs above.P1130498

The second has a small black fleck on its jowl,

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and the third is clean cut without any particular markings (but looks very cub-like).

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I am tempted to suggest they are, in fact, all cubs.

As usual, while I was sitting silently close to the shore waiting for the stoats to appear, a Robin came to investigate. I don’t think I have ever sat down in a wood or stopped in a layby without a Robin coming to see what is going on…they just can’t help themselves….

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Inquisitive (nosy) Robin

Anyway, my final sight of our furry friends was one of them scurrying along the beach towards me….

An exceptional wildlife encounter, with the over-the-top dance performance being very much the cherry on the cake.

 

 

Torbay Delivers the Fins!

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Tortuous track…..whatever could be the reason?

For those who go seeking wildlife from the seat of the kayak (like you know who), there is nothing more exciting than seeing a fin slice through the surface of a flat calm sea on a sunny summer’s day.

Today’s trip, with Dave and Paul, was full of the usual banter about ‘seeing dolphins’ as we paddled out from Brixham harbour. This has been going on for many years, and although both have seen porpoises, neither have had the pleasure of witnessing the splashiness of dolphins.

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Brixham harbour

It was going to be a good paddle anyway, because the sun was shining and wind was light.

My cunning plan was to keep well offshore to the north of Berry Head, to hopefully see some porpoises which would be hunting along the shearline between the static water of Torbay and the incoming (north flowing) tidal current after it had passed the headland.

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Brixham breakwater

Sure enough some porpoises, which are as predictable here as anywhere in SW England, appeared exactly on cue, puffing away merrily. Such a great sound, when there hasn’t seemed to be a lot of action in the open sea recently. Not many Gannets around, and Gannets are not stupid. Not many Gannets means not many fish at the surface, so probably not many cetaceans.

It was excellent watching the porpoises puff past under such calm conditions, after only half an hour of paddling. Cup of coffee in hand…superb.

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Porpoise pair

Then I caught a glimpse of a the sun glinting off something a mile further out. Intense scrutiny…..yes….I could just make out a cluster of fins….dolphins. Yippee. We headed out to investigate, but soon throttled back because the pod of about fifteen dolphins were heading straight towards us.

They passed by right in front….

Paul was pretty thrilled with all this, and as if to enhance his excitement further a breakaway group swam within a few feet of him and Dave.

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Paul and friend
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Dave waits for THE pic

There were another couple of pods further out, so I paddled out to investigate. I was very flattered that my pressure wave, while maintaining my top speed of about six mph, had anough ooomph for the dolphins to do a bit of bowriding.

We were treated quite a show, four or five groups totally forty to fifty individuals (that’s nearly a superpod!). In totally relaxing conditions only a mile off Berry Head.

Another breakaway minipod swam right beneath Dave and Paul, including a real big ‘un. I wonder if it was the dominant male (could equally have been female) of the pod.

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Big (and small) dolphin
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Big dolphin

I was ready with camera poised when a trawler cam surging past. No way could the dolphins resist riding THAT pressure wave.

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About an hour of dolphin action, with five or so porpoises as a side show. They are really not as dynamic as the dolphins, but as Dave said ‘they’ve got a really great puff’.

A Chinook that came whop-whopping around the coast couldn’t steal the show from the cetaceans. But as usual jaws dropped,  because they are the opposite of what you might consider to be aerodynamic (or airworthy).

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Chinook and Berry head

We finished up with a tour around the bay behind Berry Head (keeping well away from the Guillemot colony), and stopped for lunch to pass an opinion on today’s paddle.

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Berry Head

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The day of the dolphin.

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In Search of the (elusive) Cornish Puffin

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Extremely elusive Puffin

A hundred years ago there were many thousands of Puffins breeding around the Cornish coast, and prior to that even more. In the fourteenth and fifteenth century some of the islands of the Isles of Scilly paid their rent in Puffins, and there were a hundred thousand birds on the island of Annet (where they still breed) in the early 1900s.

Nowadays there are probably no more than a few dozen Puffins nesting around the edge of Cornwall (although there are now a lot more just over the border into Devon, on Lundy, following eradication of the rats).  In late Spring and early Summer there are more scattered around the coast generally, probably non-breeding birds or last year’s chicks. I usually come across a few, well offshore, in May and June. The youngsters aren’t quite as smart looking as the adults without the brightly coloured beak and they have grubby dark markings on their face (like they’ve had their head in a bin).

I came across this one near Eddystone last week.

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Immature Puffin

Apart from Scilly, all the colonies are on islands off the North Cornish coast. So they are not only fully exposed to wind and tide, they also catch the full force of the groundswell. And, because they are off headlands, the effects of all of the above are exaggerated, making a visit by kayak quite a challenge.

The islands are also pretty remote, and are two or three miles paddle from the nearest ‘safe haven’ and launch point. It all adds to the excitement.

Suitable calm conditions, as I have said on many occasions before, are rare at Boscastle. If you want to really enjoy this bit of coast the wind has got to be light and from the south or south-east, and the swell has got to be small (less than one foot). Any bigger and you will not feel happy to go in those amazing caves and ‘zawns’ (steep-sided clefts).

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Boscastle cave
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Boscastle zawn

The north Cornish coast has a relentless swell which rarely eases:

However one day, as close to perfect as it could be, came along on Saturday. Boscastle at its best. Deep blue sky, light winds, toasty temperature. Moon jellyfish below,

and my first Barrel Jellyfish of the year (compared to many hundreds by this time last year)

and plenty of Razorbills and Guillemots above.

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Guillemot
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Razorbill

I looked hard for the Puffins that nest on Short island, and just caught a glimpse of a pair scorch past on their way out to sea. At least it means that the tiny ‘colony’ here is still hanging on.

Boscastle has more than its fair share of gobsmacking scenery, that is of course best appreciated by kayak. The only possible downside is that the scenery is so BIG, it makes you feel very small.

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Long Island
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Paul and Tintagel island….steeped in legend (Tintagel, not Paul)

We carried on down the coast for a paddle right through the neck of Tintagel island…the legendary Merlin’s Cave. Listen for Dave’s seal impression. Very realistic.

On the way back we stopped to watch the auk action at Lye Rock, which long ago was home to Cornwall’s biggest Puffin colony. No Puffins here now (that we saw) but I managed to catch an underwater clip of Razorbills ‘flying’ underwater. You would be forgiven if you thought they were penguins.

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Lye Rock

This ultra-brief glimpse of the Puffin pair made me extra keen to head a bit further down the coast, just past Port Isaac, the next day. I had seen Puffins on one of the islands off Rumps Point, Polzeath, on the few occasions I had paddled there before.

There was only one problem….the easterly wind had picked up, and the tides were now Springs so the currents would be more swirly than usual.

Fortunately another deep blue sky day made the sea look as benign as possible, and a perfect little sandy beach for a coffee break was a very acceptable start.

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Coffee-break beach (Puffin Island in background)

I was mobbed so enthusiastically by an Oystercatcher that I looked hard on the rocks for any sign of movement of a chick, not easy as my kayak was bouncing around all over the place in the chop. However, there was a tiny little fluffball, a chick a few days old.

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Oystercatcher and chick

I made the short crossing from the headland to the island with waves sloshing over the bow as tidal current fought against windchop, but my efforts paid off straightaway with a couple of adult Puffins bobbing about close to the island shore. Fab. I fired off loads of pics but it was at the limits of practicality as the image was lurching about all over the place, especially when zoomed in. No chance to check to see whether any pics were in focus.

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Puffin

I was lured round the back of the island by a gull feeding frenzy in the shearline between tide race and static water, with a couple of opportunist Gannets hanging overhead. I was hoping for a fin to break the surface but no luck.

I sped back to coffee break beach, had a look at the pics and, hey presto, the wind had dropped a notch. So I went paddled back to the Puffins, and a whole load more had appeared…a dozen in total including a pack of five. I rattled off vast numbers of pics, and attempted some sort of video. You can see how bouncy the conditions were in this clip…

Here’s a gallery of the best of the stills, starting off with a particularly camera shy individual:P1120134

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Polzeath Puffin pair

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Puffin Quartet

The very few days a year when it is possible to venture out to these Puffin breeding colonies in a kayak, in anything approaching relaxing conditions, makes the challenge of going to see them even more fulfilling and enjoyable.

I’m glad I went when I did because, looking at the forecast for the next week and beyond, the Puffins will be safe from disturbance by kayak. The open coast will be far too lumpy.

While we are talking about Puffins, I can’t resist giving this pic another airing…taken off Sennen Cove last July. Two iconic Cornish species in the same frame: Risso’s Dolphins and Puffins.

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Risso’s and Puffins, Sennen

Everybody’s favourite seabird. Right here in Cornwall. Photographed from my kayak. Hard to beat.

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Cornish Puffin

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Eddy and St.Michael

Wow, what a way to shake off the shackles of lockdown. My two favourite iconic landmarks of the south Cornish coast, on consecutive days of unbroken sunshine, paddling under deep blue skies.

The trip out to the Eddystone lighthouse, which lies ten miles southwest of the mouth of Plymouth sound, is my favourite big offshore paddle. It’s a minimum of twenty-four miles there and back (launching from Cawsand), but more when you have chased around after a few sea creatures.

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Yours truly at Eddystone.

This was my nineteenth expedition out to the lighthouse, eleven years after my first. I was a little bit nervous that I still had the power and endurance in the bag, given that I have recently tiptoed across the threshold into my seventh decade.

It lures me back because of its sense of adventure, and the lure of the fantastic wildlife that one might expect to bump into en route. I’ve seen a couple of Minke Whales, Common, Bottlenose and even White-beaked dolphins, Porpoise, Basking Shark, Blue Shark, Sunfish, Seals, and one of only two Wilson’s Petrels ever recorded in Devon.

So, as usual, I was full of expectation.

The forecast was flat calm until ten o’clock, then a light southerly. Perfect , a bit of assistance on the way back. I was too early to get on the water (nothing new there) and there was a cool breeze flowing like a river out of the mouth of the Tamar. This combined  with an incoming Spring tide created more of a chop than I had expected. Nothing hairy, just a bumpy ride, which wasn’t great for wildlife watching. It was compounded by a small groundswell, and the constant wash from fishing boats en route from Plymouth to the Eddystone reef.

However I did manage to spot a small pod of Common Dolphins thanks to one youngster repeatedly breaching directly in front of me. Although I engaged top gear and sped after them I failed to close the gap enough to take a photo.

It took in excess of four hours to reach the Eddystone, as the tide was about as unhelpful as it could have been. I knew this to be the case, but the only other option was not to go, which clearly wasn’t an option.

I nearly leapt out of my skin when a multiple booming blast made my entire kayak vibrate. It came from the Queen Elizabeth aircraft carrier ten miles away, that had decided it was time to cruise on. What a cacophony.

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Queen Elizabeth

It was too lumpy around the back of the lighthouse for a relaxing break so I just headed straight back. It’s not often not lumpy here.

I nearly ran straight into a pair of Porpoises soon after leaving the light, and then a Puffin popped up right in front of me. Photography was not at all easy because the kayak was bouncing about but I couldn’t resist risking a few shots of this immature (probably last year’s fledgling) Puffin.

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Immature Puffin

Suddenly the wind dropped (and I think the flow changed direction….not always easy to predict here) and the last five miles back to the mainland were like a lake.

I dropped in to the lovely sandy beach in the armpit of Rame Head for a leg stretch (after over eight hours in the kayak seat) but it was heaving with Bank Holiday boaters so I ditched that idea and carried on. My pleasant wilderness bubble was further dented, if not burst, by the roar of jetskis coming out of the sound.

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Dreaded jetskis

It was suddenly time to get home. 25.9 miles, nine and a quarter hours total.

St. Michael’s Mount is rather more relaxing because it is less than half a mile offshore. What it lacks in remoteness and starkness, it makes up with eyecatching beauty and drama. You just can’t help looking up at those little windows on the sheer wall above the craggy cliff.

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what a great place
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scenic overload (and Dave)

I bumped into a couple of paddling chums as I left Penzance harbour, and we formed a loose convoy, with approved sort of distancing, for a circuit around the Mount.

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Simon

The sea, as forecast, was flat enough for the three and-a-half mile crossing to Mousehole, and of course I scoured the surface for fins. Was that a distant puff I heard? Yes, a couple of Porpoises popped up right beside Dave as he devoured a Twix. They were very camera shy (the porpoises, not Dave and confectionery) but I just managed to capture this fleeting fin.

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fleeting Porpoise

A few Guillemots were dotted about, and a flypast Razorbill.

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Guillemots

Mousehole was echoing to the sound of laughing and chattering of splashing children, perhaps appropriate for the picture-perfect little coastal village that time seems to have  forgotten about, and hopefully so has Covid 19.

Back at Penzance I was surprised to see three Purple Sandpipers hanging on, still loathe to move north. Perhaps they have a taste for bright sunshine. They were not keen to perform for the lens however (initially at least).

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lens-shy Purple Sandpiper
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Purple Sandpiper (that’s better)

It’s a funny time of year for oceanic sealife, because offshore it often goes very quiet in May and June. There are hardly any Gannets around, which generally means not much cetacean activity. Gannets have superb eyesight and will spot fins at the surface from a huge distance. I havn’t seen one circling, which means action below, for a while. Apart from over me, that is. In fact judging by the way they sprint over to check me out as if I am the only interesting feature on the surface for miles around, the sea everywhere else must be quite quiet at the moment.

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Gannet on the prowl

So not may cetaceans, but fortunately for wildlife-watching kayakers there are the birds, the coastal scenery looking at its best, and the wall -to- wall deep blue sky to enjoy.

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a more leisurely scene at St.Michael’s Mount

 

Unlocked.Unleashed.

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Covid-free zone

Phew, lockdown has eased just in time get out and enjoy the REALLY sunny weather. My chum Paul always says that the third week in May is the best week of the year and I think he’s just about spot-on…..wildflowers in full bloom and birds as busy as they can possibly be with raising their families.

The Guillemots on Gull Rock are lined up like ten-pins on their tiny ledges and jostling for position. I love their primeval cackle….

They are looking at their very best at the moment, all chocolately brown and white, and I spotted a rare bridled version (a plumage variation, not a separate species) amongst the throng.

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Bridled Guillemot

I didn’t get too close to the breeding ledges…..making them  ‘stampede’ is completely unacceptable and can cause eggs, which are just placed on the narrow ledges with no nest to hold them in place, to fall off.

I opted for admiring them on the water instead.

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Gang of Guillemots

Also nesting on Gull Rock (apart from Gulls, of course) are Razorbills, but in much fewer numbers than the Guillemots. I think they look even better than their auk cousins, decked out in velvety-black with a perfectly positioned white designer streak in front of the eye.

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Razorbill

Here’s one trying to ensure it’s impeccable image is maintained….

I was a bit surprised to come across this little posse resting on a tiny islet half a mile offshore.

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Sanderling snoozing (plus Dunlin, top left)

A group of Sanderling and Dunlin, moulting into their breeding plumage, no doubt en route to their breeding grounds in the arctic. Sanderlings, perhaps not surprisingly, are most at home on a sandy beach, running in and out with the waves.

Other arctic breeders that winter around the coast of Cornwall are also still around. This pair of Great Northern Divers in Gerrans Bay are reluctant to cast off their winter dress,

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Great Northern Diver

whereas this one in Penzance is in full breeding plumage. Bad pic I know, but it shows off the ‘necklace’ well.

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Great Northern Diver breeding plumage.

Purple Sandpipers, which specifically like to winter on wave battered barnacle-encrusted rocks in exposed locations, also have not all departed for the north.

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Purple Sandpiper

Fin-tastic

OK, let’s ramp up the post-lockdown kayaking excitement a notch or two.

Seeing a fin slicing through the clear waters of the open sea is one of the greatest wildlife sightings you can have from a kayak, in my opinion. Not least because it is quite an achievement in terms of planning, and physical effort, to get out to where they might be….usually far offshore.

The last one I saw was attached to the back of a porpoise off Dodman Point on 16 March. Because I am a bit of a fin addict, I was pretty keen to find a few more, and as soon as the wind forecast for Mounts Bay, Penzance , was suitable, I was off down the A30 for my dose of extended, and legal, exercise.

Launching from Penzance harbour at low tide is currently rather tricky because there is a ship parked in the channel, the Scillonian III.

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Penzance Harbour

Heading offshore I was lucky enough to hear a couple of Porpoises puffing before I had stopped for breakfast. Excellent. I didn’t watch them for long because I had moved on to the next ‘thing’…..what else might be about? I had to keep paddling out before the wind picked up (it wasn’t forecast to increase, and didn’t, but I always maintain a sense of urgency in case it does. Quite exhausting, really).

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Porpoise, Penzance

Good call, another fin ahead, and this one was slightly bigger and accompanied by a little splash…..Dolphin!

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Common Dolphin

It got better……the dolphin’s calf then popped up beside it.common dolphins

I settled in (as much as you can in a kayak on the open sea), ate my breakfast, had a cup of coffee, and enjoyed the show.

And then I paddled on. I saw very little for the next few hours, although paddled over to investigate a small group of Kittiwakes dipping down to the surface snatching small fish. Far out to sea small fish at the surface is good news for Kittiwakes, good news for me, but bad news for small fish.

They are there because predators from below have herded them into a baitball and pinned them up against the surface to make them easier to catch. Last autumn, in exactly this place, baitballs of sprats and sandeels were being engulfed by dolphins, porpoises, giant tuna, a Minke Whale and a Humpback whale.

Today wasn’t quite so dramatic, but it was the first time I had seen this particular predator doing the herding. Sea Bass. The first one I glimpsed just below me was so big it gave me a bit of a start. Big for a Bass anyway…must have been 5lbs plus (danger of exaggeration here…it’s a fishy story).

On the way back, amazingly, I bumped into the dolphin pair again, three miles away from our first encounter. Like finding the needle in the haystack, twice.

I took lunch at Mousehole. Looking good, as always (Mousehole, not me).

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Mousehole

And as usual a few seals were lounging about on the island. Including this rather glistening youngster….last year’s pup?

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The Beadiest of Eyes

Although I would describe the cheese sandwiches I had hastily constructed at 4.30am as forgettable, they didn’t go unnoticed by the local gulls, some of whom might tend towards a scavenging sort of approach to life. They came close enough to allow unusually close scrutiny of their features.

How amazing is this eye? The iris looks more like a map of the moon than a map of the moon.

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Eyeball that eyeball

It belongs to the local avian bully-boy and public enemy number one, a Great Black-backed Gull. Gulls in seaside towns have an appalling public image, but I personally like them very much, not least because their eyes are filled with character. The call of a Herring Gull is the sound of the seaside.

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Great Black-back

Although, having said that, the sound of a Great Black-back is a rather intimidating ‘gulp’.

 

And finally…back to the (semi-lockdown) garden

To further uplift the spirits, here’s a couple of recent specials to round things off.

The first snake I have ever seen in the garden (in 25 years).

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Grass Snake

And a Willow Warbler doing it’s best to maintain the tail end of the dawn chorus, despite being audio-bombed by a wren during its second verse.