The sea was flat calm, but the wildlife for the first two hours of paddling out into Mount’s Bay was almost non-existent. A single Balearic Shearwater banked past in a disinterested sort of way, and the handful of Gannets, which I scrutinised closely as they flew from horizon to horizon, did not deflect from their cruise path. Nothing to attract their attention, which means no cetaceans at the surface. One did, however, come and take a look at me. Very flattering.
Then suddenly I was into a bit of action. A small pod of porpoises, which I could hear puffing before I could see. As I sat and watched in complete silence, I heard a whale blow. A long and loud breath, unlike the porpoises’ explosive little snort. When it surfaced again I thought I caught a glimpse of a fin, but it was a long way away. Instead of charging off in the direction of the sound, which I usually do, I just sat tight and hoped the whale’s wanderings while it was feeding might bring it a bit closer. Coffee and brunch bar.
After three or four breaths at intervals of ten to fifteen seconds it arched its back and dived. It then submerged for five minutes or more, reappearing with a very loud blast. It was only because the sea surface was so exceptionally calm I could hear it breathe at long distance. Any sort of wind and chop I wouldn’t have seen, or heard it.
It surfaced a few metres behind me with a great whoosh, and then disappeared. Eventually it did a nice sequence which didn’t involve me cranking my creaky neck around:
Fantastic. I will never tire of the whale-from-kayak experience. It is the culmination of a lot of meticulous planning, mainly relating to the weather. And the picnic.
As the whale continued to zigzag back and forth my attention was grabbed by a scattered pod of dolphins that appeared on the scene in a characteristically splashy way.
The juveniles were the most acrobatic as usual but this adult, recognisable by the black ‘beard’ line between its flipper and chin, did not want to be outdone by the nippers and reached for the sky. Good effort!
The next posse to come past put on a real show. They were in a mad hurry to get somewhere. Hasty, hasty, hasty.
I had hardly paddled a stroke since I had first seen the porpoises a couple of hours earlier. A couple of hours of non-stop action with three species of cetacean.
Happy with that. The long paddle back was quiet, although livened up right at the end by a quiet little family pod of dolphins, which I gave a wide berth. They looked like they didn’t want to be disturbed.
This post is about yesterday’s sightings.
Please enjoy a bonus video of today’s encounter with these charming little porpoises off the coast at Fowey. They are habitually shy. It’s not very often they come close enough to see them swimming underwater!
A great twenty-plus mile adventure with surprise encounters involving a bank of fog and one of the most mysterious of the UK’s cetaceans. Bank of fog, a bit worrying. Risso’s Dolphin, a bit thrilling.
The surface conditions weren’t quite as flat as I had hoped as I paddled out of Portquin on Cornwall’s north coast a few miles from the Camel Estuary. The very high Spring tides were generating quite a tidal current that was causing a bit of chop, even though the wind was light.
The forecast was exceptionally good, however, so I headed offshore and was planning to slingshot with the flow around the islands off Rumps Point, and then catch a ride back on the incoming tide later.
As usual the early start paid off in terms of wildlife. Two pairs of Sandwich Terns mewed over, a handful of Balearic Shearwaters zipped across the surface and best of all a silky black dark-phase Arctic Skua wafted past.
My neurones were still warming up when I glimpsed a very large pale fin break the surface ahead. Wow, probably a Risso’s dolphin, but it just could be a Bottlenose. By the time I had fumbled my camera out of its dry bag, it had disappeared. So I sat still and waited. For a good ten minutes. Nothing.
I paddled on and by sheer luck saw a bit of a spray far ahead as the dolphin surfaced again. I powered on and got to within a hundred yards when it surfaced again. It made quite a satisfactory whale-like blow, both in terms of spray and sound.
It was impossible to track because it dived for ten to fifteen minutes and might come up out of sight. A boat with an engine might be appropriate here.
Anyway, despite the fleeting and poor view I was pretty pleased with this encounter. My first Risso’s sighting for over two years (they have been a bit of a bogey species as they keep giving me the slip!), and a very unusual sighting this far north along the Cornwall coast.
The sea was now smoothing off quite nicely so I took a big swing round the back of Newlands rock, maybe a mile further out.
My dolphin spotting faculty was now fully functional and I glimpsed a flash of white half-a-mile ahead. Surely not another Risso’s?
Full steam ahead again, and after ten minutes two large pale fins appeared, with a third nearby. Risso’s for sure! They were cruising at 4-5 mph, the same speed as a pod of Common Dolphins and the same speed as I can paddle when nearly flat out. Always quite frustrating because I can never keep pace, but it’s good for burning off the pies.
I just had time to angle across to where I expected them to pass, and sat quietly and waited. They all surfaced pretty close. Surprisingly big and powerful, and with that really great blow. Take a listen.
First clip real-time, second clip slomo:
They really are a big dolphin. About four times the weight of a Common Dolphin and ten to fourteen foot long. They have just a blunt snout (no beak) and are remarkably white. The largest of this little pod had an almost pure white front end.
I left the three of them to head north, and maybe join up with their chum. I rode the current due south towards Gulland Rock, the third of the Polzeath islands, three miles away.
I was just a teeny bit edgy because I was a long way offshore and the surface was quite lumpy. I glance over my shoulder and became very much more edgy indeed. The headlands and islands behind me had just been enveloped in a blanket of dense fog which was rolling ominously towards me.
I sprinted towards Gulland Island, nipped round the back and, with only seconds to go, just had time to get a bearing on Stepper point before I was consumed in white-out.
I didn’t delay to enjoy the bawling seals on the island. I dug in with a fast but steady paddling pace, and worked out I would get to the mainland in about forty-five minutes.
Visibility was about a hundred yards, and although I completely trusted my GPS and my basic navigational skills, helped by the position of the sun I could see through the mist above me, it was a nervous three-quarters of an hour.
A cliff face appeared in front of me, and by sheer luck I had arrived at a break in rock face in front of me called Butter Hole, and there was an inviting little sandy beach exposed by the low tide. Amazingly the beach was in sun, but just out to see the fog was dense.
For the paddle back I opted for the security of the coast, crossing the mouth of the Camel estuary and rounding the rocky headlands of Pentire Head and the Rumps.
As I rounded the final corner with Portquin an easy three mile paddle away, the fog dispersed and the sea smoothed off completely. It was so inviting I couldn’t resist a final offshore arc…there must be some Common Dolphins or Porpoises around, surely.
There were only a few Gannets around, but they all wandered over to take a close look at me. Never a good sign, because it usually means there are no feeding cetaceans nearby.
As usual I ended up paddling much further out than intended. Because I heard a repeated thumping way, way out, which could only have been a large creature breaching, or tail-lobbing.
I paddled towards the noise and eventually saw some large splashes in the distance, with a hint of a white flash. It must have been that same Risso’s I saw six hours ago!
I never got that close because it was moving away and only appeared every five minutes, but it is still a remarkable sight to see and almost completely white dolphin breaching off the coast of North Cornwall!
Look closely and you will see it’s got a smile on its face.
p.s the following day (Tuesday 6 Sep) was an absolute stunner. Hot and light wind (initially) I paddled with Mark up the coast from Portquin to Trebarwith Strand.
Stunning beaches, watched Max and Maisy tombstoning at Port Gaverne, and even saw Doc Martin’s house. What could be better?
My night under canvas was made very pleasant by the calls of migrating waders during the early hours. Redshank, Greenshank, Curlew, Ringed Plover. Unfortunately they had a bit of competition from the sonorous snores from the gentleman in the adjacent tent.
After yesterday’s twenty plus miles, I initially opted for a relaxed coastal tour around the islands at the mouth of Loch na Ceall. My early start paid off, as it always does if you want to see wildlife. An adult White-tailed (Sea) Eagle lumbered low over the water ahead of me, pursued by a very irritated Hooded Crow.
The Eagle gave a resting seal a bit of a shock, although judging by the bulge of its crop, it had only just had its breakfast.
The rest of the seal troop didn’t seem to be too phased by the flyover of the giant Eagle. They just sat and watched and relaxed, and seemed to be enjoying the scenery.
All good stuff, but then I gave myself a gigantic kick up the pants. The open sea was millpond-calm and I really should be out there looking for the mega-creatures. That is precisely why I endured the interminable drive up the M6.
Yes, I had a bit of fatigue from yesterday, but I didn’t need to paddle all the way over to Eigg again. Going half way should give me a flavour of what was going down.
It was already getting hot, so I nosed into a sheltered creek to strip of my waterproof top. As I did so a movement on the rock only a few feet away caught my eye. A Knot. On migration south from its nesting ground in the far north, no doubt. Absurdly tame, and a bit of a charmer. Very possibly it has never encountered humankind before. It seemed a bit puzzled by me.
So I headed out into the open sea again. The surroundings seemed even more compelling than yesterday. The great slab of Eigg was straight a head with the hefty mountains of Rum looking over its shoulder. To the North was the craggy ridge of the Cuillin Mountains on Skye, and in the gap between I could see the Isle of Barra, in the Outer Hebrides, in the far distance.
About three miles out I ran into a lot of action. Diving Gannets, milling shearwaters, floating kittiwakes, chattering terns. And there were the porpoises again, puffing away. Lots of them, scattered about all over the place.
In the far distance I saw the sun glinting off a whole load of fins…dolphins! They were a mile away, but angling over towards me, so I cranked up the speed and paddled to hopefully intercept.
They weren’t hanging around and eventually passed close in front of me.
Several youngsters were flinging themselves about in their typical carefree and acrobatic style. Top speed maintained all the while.
When the splashing of the dolphins subsided, I heard the blow of a whale directly behind me. When I swung the kayak round to face the noise, another blew, directly behind me again!
So I gave up manoeuvring and just sat and watched. For the next hour three or four Minke Whales surfaced repeatedly nearby. Sometimes close enough to hear the intake of breath after the blast of exhalation, sometimes so far away I couldn’t see them. But it was just the warm-up act.
Away to the south I hear a great prolonged roar of water, which must have been a whale either breeching or lunge-fishing. Too far off to see anything, so I sped off towards it. I stopped after half-an-hour. Nothing. Then another great roar and I could see a splash followed by a hint of a fin. Onwards again and it all went quiet again, apart from ‘just’ the sound of the blows of the scattered whales.
I could see what was attracting all the whales as I sliced through the glass. Schools of sandeels and small (joey) mackerel swam about beneath me.
I kept looking further to the south, and then saw a couple of visible blows as clear mushrooms of spray in the distance. I’m really not sure whether I saw any whale in the water beneath. Pity, because these were almost certainly not Minke Whales, which have an invisible blow.
Once again I sped towards the scene but saw no more sign of these mystery whales.
I couldn’t drag myself away, and my persistence was rewarded with a great lunge by a Minke Whale quite close by. Even though I had my camera pointing in esssentially the right direction, I missed the start of the action. It is just so quick and unexpected.
However, I could see the jaws of the whale open wide as it emerged from the surface, and you can see from the video, and still pic, that it was completely upside down. The white underside and throat-grooves are clearly visible.
I knew that Fin Whales lunge at the surface on their side, but didn’t know Minkes lunge upside down!
I waited for more monumental moments but it settled back to the whales rolling at the surface like a giant porpoise. I reckoned that there were six scattered about within sight, but it was probably more than that.
After three hours, about four miles offshore, I headed in although in retrospect I should have stayed out longer. Full days with zero wind and zero swell really don’t come along very often.
Just one more nugget on the way back. I was checked out by a prowling ‘Bonxie’ Great Skua. I saw several of these at a distance harassing kittiwakes, but this one was hoping I might be a fishing boat with tasty scraps. Tasty scraps, yes. But not fish. Crunch Creams.
So that was about it. Seven Minke Whales, two pods of Common Dolphins, at least thirty Porpoises, Otter, Sea Eagle, Golden Eagle, Loads of Common Seals, a few Grey Seals, Bonxies and Red-throated Loons…in just two days.
Tell me where else in the world you can see that amount of stuff on a kayak. Paddling out from the shore on a self-guided trip.
The mystery of the two whales with the visible blow became a bit less murky while chatting to some fellow kayakers back at the campsite. En route back from Eigg they too had seen a whale with a visible blow, and described it as having a flat face. Sounds a bit like a Pilot Whale, or maybe even a Northern Bottlenose Whale! Tantalising.
The wonder of Western Scotland will remain long in the memory.
The unbelievably good weather forecast for Western Scotland, with completely calm conditions predicted, was hard to resist. So I drove 630 miles to Lochaber last weekend. Nice to see the Harry Potter Express chuffing past in dramatic surroundings as I neared my destination.
An appropriate start to a magical couple of days.
Next morning, after getting installed in the campsite at Arisaig, I set out for the Isle of Eigg, a ten mile open-sea crossing. And as promised by Thomasz Schafenacker it was super flat-calm, so I was even more full of excitement and anticipation than usual. First up in the wildlife department was this charming little Arctic Tern:
When I was about a mile from the shore I did a big double-take when I saw that a seal several hundred yards ahead was in fact an otter. I was too slow on the camera shutter, and the lens was misted up with early morning fug. But a good enough pic to see it was a burly-looking dog Otter.
At a distance they are easy to mistake for a small Harbour Seal, until you see that tail flick up when they dive!
The view all around was compelling. Scotland at it’s very best. Could the wildlife sightings of the day match the world-class scenery….
Below the surface dozens of the extraordinarily beautiful and mysterious Lion’s Mane Jellyfish wafted about.
They were joined by a host of Moon Jellies, and a couple of Barrel Jellies, my first of the year.
Continuing offshore the sensurround action just did not stop. It was not just a treat for the eyes, but a feast for the ears. The constant wingeing demands of young terns, and incessantly squealing juvenile Guillemots and Razorbills, and most extraordinary of all, the incredibly loud and haunting calls of a pair of Red-throated Divers.
They were so far away I couldn’t even see them. Just take a listen to this. What an amazing racket!
About three miles offshore the Gannets were circling with a bit more intent, and I ran into the first little group of porpoises. Doing what porpoises usually do: appearing with a loud puff and rolling quietly at the surface without a splash. I saw one small calf stuck close to mum’s side, and a couple of times one sat ‘logging’ at he surface for a minute or two, basking in the sun.
I was very wary about getting caught up in strong currents associated with the very high Spring tides, which flow down the east side of Eigg, so was constantly checking my GPS to assess my drift speed. Fortunately they seemed pretty slack, but when I came across an area of stippled water that marked a current line, my ears and eyes were alert for my holy grail, a whale. Minkes do like to focus in on a bit of swirly water. Swirly water means more bait fish.
And there, about a mile ahead, was a long black back rolling slowly at the surface. Fab. I churned off in the direction of the whale but never really got close. It surfaced again away to the north a few times, just close enough to hear the blow, and then disappeared.
An exceptional sighting, in an exceptional amphitheatre.
No sooner had I got my breath back than I ran into a pack of Manx Shearwaters resting off the northern tip of Eigg. They were having a real social with a lot of cooing going on. This is a rarely heard sound at sea, and one of the benefits of being completely silent in a kayak.
After four hours of paddling I arrived at a little sandy beach near the north of Eigg. Superb…sunny, warm and dead still. Nobody else in sight, but I felt I was being watched.
I looked hard along the top of the escarpment a thousand feet above my head, and there was a hefty looking bird sitting on a prominent rock. By shear luck a Buzzard happened to wander past at that very moment, and the large bird couldn’t resist a bit of a chase…a Golden Eagle!
Wow, I really hadn’t expected to see one because raptors don’t like flying on hot, still days because it’s just too much effort. They need a bit of wind under their wings.
I consumed a tasteless and sweaty lunch consisting mainly of pizza I had cooked before I had left home a couple of days before. Yeuch.
The long paddle back to Arisaig was not quite so action-packed, but I enjoyed the cackling auks, chattering terns, diving Gannets and the odd porpoise.
I took a tour round the islands in the bay before finishing off. The water could not have been any clearer.
The seals were all hauled out for their low-tide rest, so I kept well away to avoid disturbing their slumber. Mainly harbour seals, but a few larger (and less attractive) Grey Seals in amongst the throng.
One of my best kayaking days ever. It couldn’t get any better tomorrow, could it?
(hint…yes it could…Day 2 coming soon to thelonekayaker.wordpress.com. Get ready to fasten your seatbelts. You’ll spend so long on the edge of your seat you will be in danger of falling off.)
I have heard the occasional story of inquisitive Minke Whales hanging round boats at sea, and have always hoped that that might happen to me. But I never thought it would, because my fourteen foot little sliver of plastic upon which I sit can’t be that interesting to a twenty-five foot long, five-ton mega-creature. It’s the equivalent of me being interested in a wheelie-bin.
But yesterday that is precisely what happened.
Over the past five years I have seen nineteen Minke Whales from my kayak. All are absolutely thrilling encounters, but most are fleeting glimpses. My only view so far this year was a long back (plus fin) I saw out of the corner of my eye off Portscatho. A fraction of a second glimpse, and then nothing more.
They are elusive because unlike most whales they have no visible blow, and can cover very large distances between breaths.
It’s even more challenging watching these whales from a kayak because there is not a remote hope of keeping up with them (it’s difficult enough with dolphins!), so all you can do is sit tight and hope they surface nearby.
However a kayak has one significant advantage over a boat. It is completely silent so on a calm day you can hear the sound of the blow from a mile away…
And yesterday was very calm indeed, so I was on the water paddling out of Penzance Harbour before seven.
A good start: small groups of dolphins and porpoises were scattered about all over the place. The porpoises puffed and the dolphins splashed.
It was so incredibly flat that I headed way offshore, lured onwards by the Gannets that were milling around overhead, and the shearwaters that were wheeling and feeding low over the water.
I stopped to enjoy a more active pod of Common Dolphins, but was having a bit of a ‘mare behind the lens…couldn’t get anything in focus.
So I was sitting about three miles offshore, when I heard that incredible sound…the prolonged blast of a breathing whale. It was so distant I knew I would not be able to see the owner of the sound (even though it was quite large, and viewing conditions were perfect), so I engaged top gear and set off towards the noise. Nothing for twenty minutes, then I saw a long back roll slowly at the surface far ahead. Fantastic, a Minke whale.
I selected biceps sport mode and ploughed on even faster, but the whale was not being cooperative. Usually they surface three or four times in relatively quick succession, so you can predict roughly where it will appear. This one surfaced only once or twice, then would disappear for five minutes, and come up half-a-mile away. Even more elusive than usual!
At least I managed to get a ‘record’ shot:
Then it just vanished.
I paddled on for a few more miles, never out of earshot of a splash or a puff of dolphins or porpoises, and then headed back. I had originally planned to follow the coast back in, but couldn’t resist the promise of another whale so kept well offshore.
Duncan and Hannah plus passengers on board Shearwater II came along to enjoy the most sociable pod of dolphins of the day…good timing, and smiles all round!
Once again I heard the whale (or possibly another individual) far away, and once again I tracked it down after a long paddle. It passed by a little way off initially:
I then just sat tight and enjoyed the scenery, and tucked into my marmite sandwiches, hoping the whale might surface nearby. It most certainly did.
As I munched I noticed a swirl at the surface ten yards away, and then another much closer. OMG, it must be fluke prints from the whale which was hanging around under my kayak.
Then it appeared right out of the middle of one of the swirls! Yikes!
How completely and utterly excellent is that! Not only can you appreciate the blast of exhalation, you can hear the air going IN down a huge pipe as well! Incredible.
The whoosh of a breathing whale is one of the greatest sounds in the animal kingdom. It’s even better when it’s right here in Cornwall, and from a kayak. No background engine noises to clutter it up.
I assumed that the whale had lost interest and disappeared, but far from it. It came straight back at me:
And it just hung around, surfacing several times directly behind my kayak and challenging the flexibility of my neck vertebrae.
Unbelievably, this continued for the best part of an hour, by which time we were firm friends.
The whale saved the best till last. It had spent a long time underwater and the swirls had stopped, but I waited with camera poised because I knew it wouldn’t leave without saying goodbye. I just wasn’t expecting it to be QUITE so close.
Although the whale looks (and sounds) very large because of the low viewing angle afforded by the kayak, I suspect this is a juvenile animal. It is always the youngsters of all the large sea creatures that are the most inquisitive, and ‘playful’. Young seals often throw their heads around in the manner of a puppy when a kayak shows up and it’s always the juvenile dolphins that bow-ride with the most vigour and splash and jump the highest.
In Antarctica last year Becky and I were closely scrutinised by a juvenile Humpback (which was almost as big as his Mum!) which repeatedly swam underneath our kayak, often upside down, and surfaced a few yards away in exactly the same manner as this Minke. His mother stuck faithfully to his side and tried to be discourage him from getting too close, but he completely ignored her.
Yesterday’s whale has certainly changed my opinion that Minkes are aloof. It was about as friendly as a whale can ever be. I wonder if our paths will cross again?
I’m fairly sure I saw a pair of twin porpoise calves today.
Maybe I’ve got twins on the brain, as their have been a pair of Roe Deer kids rushing about on the (carefully mown, or not mown) wildlife lawn recently.
It was the last day of Seawatch Whale and Dolphin watch week today, so I was on the water at Fowey, in acceptably smooth conditions, at 6am. I headed directly offshore, and was initially a little disappointed at the lack of wildlife activity.
Fortunately it hotted up as I passed the three mile mark, with a group of five Balearic Shearwaters and an adult Pomarine Skua.
And then, at last, a sharp fin broke the surface. It was a Common Dolphin, one of three. However they were in no mood to hang around and just disappeared off into the distance. With hardly a splash, more like a porpoise.
In fact it was total roll-reversal today, because the usually splashy dolphins weren’t splashy at all, and the usually non-splashy porpoises were quite animated and threw the spray around.
I heard the porpoises puffing when the wind eased off. I paddled towards the noise and found a pod of about eight individuals. I followed them around for about half-an-hour, with the usual frustrations of trying to shadow a pack of porpoises. Just when I anticipated they would surface in front of me, they had double-backed and popped up way behind.
However I saw them surface often enough to get a grip of the dynamic in the group. They seemed to be an extended family. A couple of fairly stocky adults, one mum with a small calf, and another adult with two youngsters stuck beside it like glue.
I wondered whether the second calf was a ‘friend’ from an adjacent mother, but each time the adult surface the two calves were there at the same time. So I think it must have been a set of twins.
I have seen many single calf porpoises swimming beside their mums. I gather that little is known about the precise breeding biology of porpoises. I am not surprised, because they are difficult enough to see in the first place, let alone follow. They are notoriously aloof and not attracted to boats, so are difficult to study. Maybe watching from a kayak is the best place!
Anyway, I saw the pair surface with their mother on several occasions, never more than a few inches from her side.
I paddled five miles offshore, then headed slowly back in. Five more porpoises were highlighted by a single circling Gannet. In fact if it hadn’t been for the Gannet I wouldn’t have seen them.
I watched a small cruise ship round Dodman Point in the far distance, work it’s way past me, and then disappear into the mouth of the estuary at Fowey. I thought it looked familiar. It was the Hebridean Princess, which I last encountered when it was moored in Loch Sunart in Scotland, during my 800 mile expedition around the Western Isles in 2014.
A great sight moored up in the spectacular setting of Fowey.
Incidentally, I think I came across of twin Common Dolphin calves in Sept 2018 at Penzance. Like Porpoises, Common Dolphins usually have a single calf.
Here’s that image:
A modestly acceptable day of fins: 14 Harbour Porpoises and 3 Common Dolphins…at least I had something to send in to the Seawatch Whale and Dolphin watch week.
I’m getting in a bit of a panic. It’s Seawatch Foundation’s National Whale and Dolphin Watch this week and I am always keen to contribute with some sightings, as seen from the kayak. For the last two years I have managed to see a whale (both Humpback and Minke) plus a load of dolphins and porpoises.
But this year the weather looks decidedly dodgy and not really suitable for the sort of offshore paddling required for observing cetaceans from a tiny little boat like mine.
So when I awoke at 4.30 this morning I decided to nip down to Bude, my nearest beach, and make the most of the last few hours of smooth sea.
I was soon enjoying the fulmars and shearwaters zipping past my ears, and agape at the vast swarms of Moon Jellyfish down below.
A couple of miles offshore at last I saw a fin breaking the surface. Instantly recognisable as a Sunfish, as it was tall and thin and corkscrewing the fish along at quite a speed. It was quite a big fin, about a foot long, so I scrambled my camera gear and set off in hot pursuit, giving it a wide berth as sometimes these creatures are very spooky.
I positioned myself directly in front of its line of travel and waited. Sunfish are often seen lying flat at the surface waving their fins around as if about to breathe their last. This one was quite the opposite and was moving about as fast as I have ever seen one move.
It submerged as it got a bit close for comfort (for it, not me)…
I then overtook it again, which wasn’t easy as it was licking along at about four mph, and took another clip. This one’s in slomo…
An excellent encounter with the most bizarre-looking fish in Cornish waters, if not the world. This was one of the larger individuals I have seen, nearly a metre across.
‘Tis a long haul out to that little stick on the horizon. Twenty-four miles return trip from Cawsand minimum. Further if you have to deviate off line to investigate a flock of seabirds, which I always do.
It’s even more of a challenge if you are paddling a recreational sit-on-top kayak, and are not a spring chicken.
However a couple of days ago the forecast was as good as it could possibly be for a top day out Eddystone-style. Sunny, no wind, no swell, and baking hot.
A mile out from the coast I heard the familiar puff of porpoises. About five of them, but I only saw three. The sound carried so far the others were out of sight. A promising start.
My next encounter was on a different scale. A giant navy vessel slid past in front of me, really quite close. I heard every word of it’s tannoy which was about a crew member testing positive for Covid. Aaargh, it’s impossible to get away from the dreaded virus, even three miles offshore.
Fortunately I was soon completely immersed back in nature as I paddled over to investigate a feeding frenzy involving gulls, shearwaters and Gannets. As usual the activity had subsided by the time I rocked up but it was excellent gliding silently through the resting birds, which show absolutely no fear of my kayak (or me). In amongst the Manx Shearwaters were two rare Balearic Shearwaters, my first of the year. Nice.
As I supped a cup of coffee in amongst the throng, an immature Gannet cruised over directly towards me and twisted and dived with a splosh only a few metres away. I thought for a minute it was after my custard creams.
Surprisingly the wildlife above the surface went a bit quiet for the approach to the lighthouse, although I saw a pod of dolphins racing away from me in the far distance.
There was a lot going on below however. More Compass Jellyfish than I have ever seen on one trip before. They are beautifully marked and probably my favourite jellyfish. Enjoy this little video…it’s like one of those mindfulness moments in Springwatch.
More interesting still were the vast shoals of Bass around the reef beside the lighthouse.
I sat around beside the lighthouse for a while before heading back. It is a very iconic destination for a kayaker, and does justice to the concept of ‘remote’. My kind of place.
The paddle back was slow against the tide. It was also very devoid of wildlife. Just a handful of porpoises but no other blows despite me listening hard across glass smooth waters.
The surprising highlight was a visit from the fastest and coolest-looking motor ‘yacht’ in the UK, called Maryslim. I couldn’t resist a photo of its wave-piercing design and sleek lines as it sped past in front of me. It then slowed to a crawl and the pilot enquired if I was OK, as I was ‘rather a long way offshore’. I thanked him for his concern and replied I was happy as Larry, was looking for dolphins, and that I liked his boat.
Maryslim then sped off and was a dot on the horizon next time I glanced in that direction. a couple of minutes later.
I arrived back at Cawsand over nine hours after I had set off. My average speed of less than three mph would not impress any serious sea kayaker. But as far as I’m concerned the longer it takes the more time I have to enjoy the adventure. What’s the rush?
The entire coastline is developed and the sea is packed full of boats of just about every description. It is the main breeding ground of jetskis in SW England.
And currently it looks even less like nature had intended because there are half-a-dozen cruise ships mothballed in the bay. They make the multitude of hotels on the waterfront look like beach-huts.
So not the sort of place that a kayaker in search of wilderness might hang out. Wrong actually. Because it is always choc full of wildlife.
An encounter with cetaceans is almost guaranteed as their is a resident pod of Harbour Porpoises. They hunt along the (fairly obvious) current interface at the mouth of the bay, and their precise location is usually highlighted by a circling Gannet or two.
On my last visit to the English Riviera, I spent an hour or so watching the Porpoises while I was waiting for Simon to arrive. They were foraging off the end of the headland where the tidal current is most swirly, which means more fish for the porpoises to eat. Unfortunately the end of the headland is also the focal point for every boat entering Torbay from the south. Trawlers and other fishing boats from Brixham, sailing boats, Gin Palaces, Tourist boats and of course jetskis.
The odd kayak is definitely bottom of the peck order and in terms of eco-footprint is more of a problem as a large chunk of plastic pollution than a disturbance to marine life.
The Porpoises seemed remarkably tolerant of the relentless passage of boats and surfaced quite close to some heavily-engined craft. Of course this is only an impression, because they might just have been having a really awful time, and needed to be in that location to find their next meal. It would have been easy, however, to clear off somewhere else not very far away where boat traffic would have been very much less.
When Simon turned up we did a bit more Porpoise-watching, with one popping up with a blast only a few feet behind me. In fact they were nearly always just behind me, which is fairly typical and why I so often have a sore neck.
I was pleased to get a photo of one which just about shows the eye. Quite a rarity as porpoises are not very ‘showy’.
The (fairly) regular pod of Common Dolphins were not on show today. They can range over a huge area and so are difficult to track down, especially from a kayak. That’s part of the fun.
I have yet to see a whale in the Torbay area. My son, Henry, saw one off the headland during a recent visit, his first for a year. A Minke Whale gradually worked its way closer in until he could here it blow! Fab!
Simon and I explored the cliffs to the south. Remarkably the Guillemot colony was deserted. I knew that the half-grown chicks, the ‘Jumplings,’ hurl themselves off the ledges into the water when they are less than three weeks old and only half grown. But I had forgotten it was THIS early in the season.
Another feathery sign that the breeding season was over was this rather smart-looking adult Mediterranean Gull. These are becoming steadily more common having ‘invaded’ from the near continent. Probably a result of climate change.
An early-morning Otter-spotting paddle up the Tamar estuary was unsuccessful (they usually are), but I had a charming close encounter with a family of swans who seemed thrilled to finish up my bowlful of breakfast muesli.
I love the way the ‘Pen’ (the mother swan), carefully presents the muesli in the water for the cygnets to pick up, and then mutters with a caring sort of pony-like whinny.
Her table manners leave something to be desired, however.
Mixed bag of weather, mixed bag of kayak trips, mixed bag of wildlife.
It’s been a fairly typical English summer, and choice of paddling venue has, as always, been determined by the wind. A sheltered patch of water is an absolute necessity if you want a relaxed day with some paddling companions. There is nothing like battling into a headwind to extinguish light-hearted kayaking banter.
Fortunately there are some superb sheltered creeks dotted along the south coast. The upper tidal limit of the River Tamar is twenty miles from the open sea, and provided an excellent afternoon’s adventure in the company with Jeremy and Jane, and Ginny in the back seat!
This is a normally very quiet section of water, but today it sounded more like a railway station from the Victorian era. A dozen steamboats were chuffing up the river, the smell of coal hung in the air, and all the occupants were enjoying themselves enormously ( I noticed the odd wine glass, well-filled, glinting in the sun).
Hot in pursuit were a posse of paddleboarders.
On the south Cornish coast Tim and Jess had a close encounter with an inquisitive seal. It is interesting to observe that, when in the water, the look in this seal’s eye is 90% curiosity, 10% wariness. Rather different to the otters I was watching a few weeks ago in the Hebrides, which are 90% wary, 10% inquisitive.
We were careful to keep well away from a handful of seals resting on the rocks. When out of the water they feel very much more vulnerable and it is totally unacceptable to disturb them, whether in a kayak, on a paddleboard, or in a boat.
When we enjoyed a family paddle trip around the clear green water of the Salcombe estuary, the air was filled with the purr of very expensive speedboats, and flap of sails.
Yes they may be slow and yes, they may be tiny, but I will always prefer a kayak because of the complete view and the complete silence. This provides by far the best experience of the surroundings. No droning engine and no instrument panel to worry about. All this stuff was very evident as we drifted down the river. Nobody else noticed the diving Gannet, or the kestrel hanging in the air, stock still, just above the coast path. Aside from the wildlife, it’s great to be able to hear the whoops and shrieks of enjoyment of children on the beach carrying across the water from a mile away.
I was full of excitement when a day of light winds and sunshine was forecast because it opened the door for an offshore trip. Much as I enjoy estuary and coastal paddling, the wildlife of the open sea is what really floats my boat.
But unfortunately I made a major bungle. I drove straight past Penzance Harbour, my usual launch point for a trip round Mount’s Bay and put in at Lamorna Cove which was closer to deep water and the usual wildlife hotspot of the area. So I missed the large pod of Risso’s Dolphins that were lounging about half a mile from the shore. Grrr! By the time I rocked up they were gone.
Never mind, I enjoyed sitting in amongst a huge raft of about a thousand Manx Shearwaters. Being ‘out with the Manx’ in a kayak is a very special experience, because they never come very close to the shore.
I made up for my mega dolphin miss with a good cetacean-filled morning in Torbay . The fertile waters of Torbay, driven by the dynamo of the Berry Head tidal current, are the most reliable site in South Devon if, like me, you a bit obsessed with ‘fins’.
On a calm day it would be a surprise if you didn’t hear the personality-filled puff of a porpoise. Like this one:
Torbay is also about the most reliable location in South Devon for a chance of seeing Common Dolphins. The pod I encountered on this particular day were initially totally uninterested in me or my kayak, but I managed to encourage a couple of inquisitive and playful juveniles to come over for a spot of bow-riding when I stoked up the boilers and piled on the speed.
As usual being out with the dolphins in a kayak was a complete thrill. The last ones I saw were from a large ferry en route to the Hebrides a couple of months ago. Every one on the deck cheered each time one leaped in the stern wave, but it’s about a hundred times better watching them from sea level, looking directly into their eye as they surge along side. The experience is enhanced by being able to hear every splash, puff, squeak and often a wheeze as they jostle for position to get a better look at the weirdo in his little blue kayak.
June is Jellyfish season but it never really happened this year. There is a scattering of Moon, Compass and Blue jellyfish about, but I have yet to see one of the hefty Barrel Jellyfish. It’s all part of the annual variation and fluctuation of the ocean, One year might be a jellyfish boom, the next a jellyfish desert.