That’s Stoatally Amazing!

The Fowey Estuary is good. It has clear water (unlike the Torridge and Tamar estuaries) and is packed full of scenic interest, and usually good wildlife.

On a cool, grey day in October it offers a very pleasant half-day paddle from Fowey to Lostwithiel and back. Flat water, well-sheltered from the wind and a bit of assistance from the current if you have bothered to look at the tide tables. About twelve miles in all.

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Penquite Quay, Fowey

If you like wading birds, it’s particularly good for ‘shanks’. The loud, piping calls of both Red and Greenshanks resound around the wooded valleys. Superb sensurround sound, better than any IMAX cinema.

Listen to the evocative ‘teu,teu,teu’ of these Greenshank. Rubbish video, I know, but it’s worth it for the calls.

 

 

Just a month or so ago these birds were probably nesting in some bogland far away from civilisation in the far north of Scotland.

At high tide the waders loaf about on dead branches waiting for a bit of mud containing their lunch to be exposed.

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Resting Redshank

Today there was enough water in the river Fowey to enable me to paddle right through Lostwithiel and beyond , battling through a couple of sets of small rapids.

I then drifted back down, cup of coffee in hand, as Dippers and Kingfishers zipped past.

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Upper Fowey River
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Autumnal tints in Lostwithiel

On the way back downstream I was surprised to see a couple of Mandarin ducks, the first I have observed here.

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Mandarin duck

Then I saw a little posse of Mallard ducks close to the shore, acting very strangely. They kept swimming towards the bank and then suddenly turned away. My eyes came out on stalks when I saw a Stoat jumping about on the mud just beyond them. It was leaping about all over the place and lashing its tail around like a lure, and clearly trying to mesmerise the ducks in the same way it would for a rabbit, so it could nip into the shallows and grab one.

Its dance certainly seemed to be working because the ducks were enticed to within a couple of feet of the crafty carnivore. It is so wrapped up in the performance that at the end it even grabs a leaf in its mouth and rushes off with it. You can see that (just) in this video:

Now give yourself a bit of a slap to ensure you have not slipped into the Stoat’s hypnotic trance. Then look at this bit again in slomo. It’s a window into something that goes on all the time but that we hardly ever see (pity I didn’t have time to set the camera up to allow for the dark conditions. Good lesson….always be prepared).

 

 

Clever little devil!

It then took the branches of a tree. Another first for me, I didn’t know Stoat’s climbed trees.

 

 

For its finale it apparently just went berserk along the bank. I’m not entirely sure for whose benefit this was because there weren’t any ducks around that area. Maybe it was trying to catch something by surprise or perhaps it had just eaten an orange Smartie.

 

 

Action over…..a serene paddle/drift back to Fowey with wind and tide in my favour.

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St. Winnow, Fowey Estuary

Fifty Years of Trainspotting

My friend Alan Hornall from platform 4 at Reading Station used to say ” Once a trainspotter always a trainspotter” and although I dislike these kind of snappy convenience phrases, I think he might have been right. You just can’t shake it off.

Whenever I glimpse a thundering locomotive it causes my head to turn whether I want it to or not, and yes, I always see if I can get the number. Extraordinary I know, but having spent thousands of hours watching trains and recording their identification when I was a little lad , it’s ingrained in my DNA.

I’m not quite sure why being a trainspotter is supposed to be so embarrassing. Our black plastic shoes we used to wear were cutting edge at the time because plastic had only just been developed, and I’m pretty sure we invented the lunch box. There was no better sight than parkas and ankle-swingers flapping and billowing in the draught created by a passing train…..they were like sails in an autumn breeze. There was no greater camaraderie than a cluster of eager spotters huddled at the end of a platform, straining eyes to be the first to spot the rare loco appear through the heat haze, and diesel fumes, when it first came into view around the corner past the gasworks.

Just to prove my credentials, here’s my Loco Log Books ( and a trainspotting platform ticket) dating back to 1967:P1190151

Even though I used to be more of a diesel locomotive enthusiast, the Flying Scotsman coming to Devon and Cornwall was a temptation I could not resist. Of course I had to observe it from the comfort of a kayak seat and established that the sheltered waters of the Teign estuary would suit the bill nicely in terms of a steady platform for photography and nice long view.

As usual I arrived far too early but while twiddling my thumbs waiting on the water  I was treated to a couple of diesel locos, one of which was probably as old as I was. It was just like old times. Amazing, as I thought that this type had been scrapped ages ago. I’m sure they struggle to pass emissions tests.

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Ancient Class 37 loco
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Marginally less ancient Class 47 loco

A couple of minutes before the ‘Scotsman’ appeared, one of its (relatively) modern counterparts, the (iconic) 125, swept past.

 

The shore  was dotted with very excited ‘Scotsman’ watchers. A photographer within talking distance of me had driven all the way down from Yorkshire to see it. He was thrilled when the sun emerged from behind a cloud just before the train was due as the light would have been absolutely perfect, but unfortunately the sunlight had disappeared again when the smoke of the engines appeared above the distant houses of Teignmouth.

There was a prolonged, and much louder than I had expected, cheer from the scattered throng as the two steam engines appeared beside the water….The Flying Scotsman backed up by a ‘Black Five’ locomotive. Wow! What a sight!

 

A couple of days later the Scotsman ventured across the Royal Albert Bridge into Cornwall for the first time EVER.

On the Cornish shore Mr Brunel seemed to be standing  (despite being cast of bronze) very tall and proud  in anticipation of this legendary locomotive about to cross his 159 year old bridge  for the very first time. And the number of people who had turned out to watch would have given him goose bumps.

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The Best of British: Isambard Kingdom Brunel

Unfortunately for those observing from kayaks (er….it was actually only me) it was an appallingly cold day with savage northerly wind and rain and the only way I could get a steady platform for photography was by reversing my kayak up onto a mud bank.

Despite this, the Scotsman announced its arrival into Cornwall with gusto.

 

The steam engines are now gone so it’s back to a bit of wildlife watching in the wilderness, at least until the China Clay train rumbles into the docks at Fowey when I happen to be passing:

 

 

Mousehole Magic

WHALE,DOLPHINS,PORPOISES AND EDDIE

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Penzance Harbour

A couple of recent trips to Mount’s Bay have been sensational. They both got off to a good start with views of Eddie the Eider who seems to have made Penzance Harbour his home. He has just completed his autumn moult. When I saw him on 24 Sept he still had blotches of brown transitional plumage and looked a bit scruffy, but by 7 Oct he was looking very smart and ready to impress for the winter:

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Dowdy Eddie 24 Sept
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Immaculate Eddie 7 Oct

Mount’s bay is a very exciting place and I am always full of expectation as I head out into the open sea beyond St.Michael’s Mount.

Gannets appear after a mile or so where the offshore current shears past the still waters of the bay.

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Sub adult Gannet

On my September trip a large flock of Kittiwake that had been resting on the surface all took off in a panic as a couple of Great Skuas (Bonxies) piled in to the group to cause a bit of trouble, which is what Bonxies do best.

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Bonxie

On both these trips I have seen a Minke Whale, but only fleeting views when the whale’s exhalation draws my attention. They travel so fast that they can be almost out of sight when they surface again, especially if the surface is a bit choppy. No photos, unfortunately.

I saw a handful of porpoises on the second trip because the surface went so flat for an hour or so I could hear them puffing from a long distance away.

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Porpoise in front of Praa

On my second trip I got very excited because I could see a wheeling group of about a hundred Gannets a mile or two ahead of me and every so often a they peel off and plunge into the sea. This could be my first close encounter with a major Gannet feeding frenzy although I knew from previous (dismal) experience that during the twenty minutes it was going to take to get there the action might be over. However, the bigger the frenzy, the longer it will last…..

As I approached I could see big creatures jumping out of the water beneath the Gannets. I was too far off to see whether these were Bluefin Tuna or dolphins, but I suspect they were probably both. And….groan….I couldn’t believe my bad luck when the Gannets suddenly wheeled away just as I was drawing close enough to get a pic….blooming typical. I suspect the bigger fish had been hoovered up, there were just sprats left. However there was a nice school of Common Dolphins remaining to provide a bit of a spectacle. They were busy milling about feeding so for an hour I just sat about and watched.

 

 

 

 

 

I was joined by the Marine Discovery yacht from Penzance who had presumably, like me, seen the feeding frenzy from afar.

 

 

Every so often some dolphins would speed off and put in some fantastic leaps. This one would have ended up amongst the enthralled guests aboard Shearwater II if it had put in one more jump.

 

 

After coffee break I paddled slowly off along the coast, but kept a mile or so from the shore, which is where the action seems to happen. Another pod of about twenty dolphins crossed my path and one really started to leap about. By enormous good fortune it jumped right in front of the circular hole in the cliff which gives the coastal village of Mousehole its name. The perfect image.

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Mousehole dolphin

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Then, just in case I had missed its first performance, it did a slightly less energetic leap with Mousehole itself as the backdrop.P1190049

The dolphins then dispersed and I was left to admire the supporting cast of characters and views. However every so often I would see a sizeable splash which was not followed by a show of dolphin’s fins. Tuna for certain, but I never actually saw the fish.

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Reluctant Razorbill
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Mighty Tanker
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Another mighty tanker
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View down the coast to Logan rock

Yet another astonishing day, with every second filled with excitement or anticipation. No more offshore paddling for the foreseeable because the wind is on the up (BIG time).P1190021

 

 

Nudger

A long-arranged day’s kayaking with Jeremy and Jane was looking good with very light wind and decent temperature for early October, so the open sea coast was our destination.

We started off at Looe.

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Looe Harbour

Out into the open sea we headed directly offshore, stopping to take in the glass smooth surface and clear water…….and up popped Nudger the seal between our two kayaks.

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Nudger

We didn’t go to him. he came to us. So for a little while, we enjoyed the extraordinary encounter.

 

He worked his way round all four of us kayakers, clearly hoping for a fishy handout. nudger 8

 

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It was smiles all round (although maybe not from Nudger who failed to get any seal-type  snacks) but we eventually dragged ourselves away and paddled off at top speed. However Nudger had not finished with us and followed in our slipstream, tugging at the skeg on Becky’s and my kayak and pulling at the toggle on Jeremy and Jane’s.

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Nudger pulling at the toggle.

 

It was only when we came into the territory of a big bull seal that Nudger suddenly disappeared.

Wow, a good start to our wildlife watching trip.

We paddled out to sea in a big arc with Polperro our destination for lunch. A single Balearic Shearwater was an unexpected bonus although you probably have to be a bit of a birder to fully appreciate them, as to the non-birder they are disappointingly smudgy brown, and usually distant, and easy to overlook.

Just before we swung into Polperro, about a mile and-a-half offshore, there were a handful of Gannets circling and occasionally plunging. I was certain there would be a porpoise around and one duly appeared with a very satisfactory ‘piff’. It put on a fantastic show as we just sat and watched surfacing so close we could hear it inhaling as well as the main exhalation blast. A kayaking first for Becky and Jane.

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Polperro Porpoise

We scorched into Polperro as all the wildlife excitement had seriously delayed our lunch. As fast as you can go in an inflatable double kayak (with a bit of a leak) anyway.polperro lunch.jpg

 

Lunch was taken on the wall of the super-quaint village of Polperro.

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Polperro-lunch on the wall

The day of wildlife was nicely rounded off with a distant peregrine scorching across the horzon, and a couple of Kingfishers fishing up the hidden creeks of the Looe estuary.

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Looe Kingfisher

(yet to get a good Kingfisher pic from kayak).

Today belonged to Nudger:

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Brilliant Boscastle

There can’t be a more scenic coastal paddle around SW England. You might even be pushed to find a better one in the whole of the UK.

I have said before that, for Boscastle to be enjoyable, the wind must be light and swell less than two foot. On the exposed North Cornwall coast this doesn’t happen very often so it is very special when it does, and even better when the sky is as cloudless and deep blue as it was today.

My plan for today was to paddle up the coast to the north, head offshore and catch a ride on the ebbing tide down to Tintagel, and then coast-hop back to Boscastle Harbour.

The wildlife watching got off to a good start with my first Purple Sandpiper of the autumn resting on the rocks, looking very plump. Excellent little birds…their niche is wave-pounded, barnacle-encrusted, coastal rocks.

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Purple Sandpiper

I couldn’t resist investigation a few of the many caves, but felt very nervous as I was by myself and I am not at all comfortable in the dripping, dank, darkness. I have never been hot on speliology. Even so, it would have been unacceptable to pass by the enormous cavern of Seal’ Hole Cave.

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Seal’s Hole Cave (aka the Cathedral)

Much more my style was the escort of seals that accompanied me for the next mile or so. I was careful not to disturb the seals hauled out on the small beaches, which included a few fat, white pups which resembled monster maggots, as well as one which looked newborn. (Photos taken with 10x lens at over 200 yards).

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Seal pups. These could be twins.
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Newborn pup.

Diverting well offshore I was, as usual, hopeful of a dolphin/porpoise encounter but the open sea was completely quiet today. Virtually nothing. Just this Guillemot.

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Guillemot (in winter outfit)

A couple of seals, however, were intent on ensuring I didn’t get bored. They followed me for the best part of an hour. I  glimpsed a tag on the flipper of one which means it had been rescued by Gweek seal sanctuary further down in Cornwall.

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Shadowing seal
Bull Grey Seal
Shadowing seal number 2 (a sizeable bull)

In every direction here the scenery is BIG.

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View south: Tintagel Head and Gull Rock
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View North: High Cliff (the highest in Cornwall), Short Island, Long Island.

I stopped for lunch at a rocky beach in Bossiney Bay. My kind of place….not a hint of human existence (apart from the caravans you can just make out on the top of the hill on the right).

After rounding Long island, which was looking more precipitous and craggy than ever, I ran into the only other group of kayakers I have ever met along this section of coast, apart from my own paddling companions.

I was also surprised to catch a glimpse of a ghostly white Barrel Jellyfish floating past beneath me, the first I have seen for several months. They are mainly a Spring species.

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Long Island
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Passing Sea Kayakers

Just before re-entering the haven of Boscastle Harbour I enjoyed watching a young Herring Gull whose persistence at hunting the low water mark had paid off in the shape of a starfish (even though it looked a bit knobbly, and chewy).

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Gull with Starfish platter.

And appropriately, to finish of a day with a lot of seals, this slumbering pup did not so much as open an eye as I slipped silently past. It was the picture of relaxation.

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Snoozing seal pup

 

Red-throated Diver. What a Beauty.

Looe Harbour is not the sort of place I would expect to come across a Red-throated Diver, or any Diver at all for that matter. They are birds of the open sea and usually quite shy so the narrow confines of Looe Harbour with all its human-related activity is not really their scene.

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Looe

So my eyes did a double-take when I approached what looked like a Diver close to the harbour wall just past the fish quay. As I got ‘up sun’ I was amazed to sea it was a Red-Throat and even more amazed, and thrilled, to see it was still in its stunning breeding plumage.

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Red-throated Diver

More remarkable was that it was busy diving and fishing along the foot of the harbour wall with people chatting and walking about a few feet above it. As I drifted carefully closer it was unconcerned and remained intent on feeding, speeding about underwater and often emerging with a small fish in its beak.

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Red-throated Diver

At on stage it emerged from a dive just a couple of feet away from my kayak….absolutely extraordinary.

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Red-throated Diver

It worked its way out past the end of the breakwater and then drifted out into the open sea off Looe’s main beach and started to have a bit of a brush up. Eric the resident Eider drifted past fast asleep a little bit further out……two birds which should be more at home in the far north, relaxing just off the beach in sunny southern Cornwall.

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Eric the Eider takes a kip

 

I joined in with the downtime and supped a coffee and munched an orange club as the Diver busily preened twenty yards away.

It suddenly finished its makeover and set off back to the harbour entrance to hunt some more fry.

I departed and set off west along the coast. Half-a-mile before Polperro I met a diver called Dave who had just emerged from the water having spent forty-five minutes on the bottom of the sea looking for the wreck of the ‘Albemarle’, an East Indiaman that went down during a storm in 1708. Dave is hoping to find its lost treasure and has so far been looking for a year, and certainly spent a bob or two on his project . Fantastic, what an exciting enthusiasm to have…good luck Dave. Here he is:

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Dave, Treasure Divers UK

Polperro was as quaint as ever and lots of tourists were milling about and walking very slowly. One had unfortunately taken a tumble and was being attended by paramedics.

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Polperro

I looped round Looe island on the way back to have a chat with ‘Nudger’ the very inquisitive young seal that climbed onto my kayak a couple of months ago. Unfortunately no ‘Nudger’ but lots of his compatriates were draped about on the rocks.

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Looe Lump
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Looe Seals

Upon arrival back at Looe I was staggered to see the Red-throated Diver still busily chasing fish around in the shallows. I had expected it to have moved on to the open sea which is the more typical hunting ground for Red-throats.

They have always been one of my favourite UK birds since I saw my first one, at very long range, beside a Loch in Scotland having spent hours trying to locate the source of the weird wailing call floating over the water. Their American name is Red-throated Loon, and their calls are suitably loon-like.

 

Some spend the winter along the Cornish coast but today’s sighting is exceptional because most overwintering birds are in their rather drab winter plumage, and most are far out to sea. Also they are more common along the North coast and not very numerous at all along the south. To see one in full summer plumage at a range of only a few yards is remarkable wherever the location. I wonder if this is one of those birds that comes from such a remote location somewhere around the arctic circle that it has never come across anything resembling a human before, and so has no fear. The Little Auk that climbed aboard my kayak a few years ago would fall into the same category.

I was certainly in the right place at the right time today.

 

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Berry Head Porpoisefest

Paul and I were very excited about today. The winds in Torbay were forecast to be very light  and temperature due to top twenty degrees (not bad for the end of September) so we were planning to paddle offshore to hopefully eyeball a few cetaceans, while sitting on a lovely smooth sea (which doesn’t happen that often).

Brixham harbour was calm and blue……perfection. And the lifeboat looked poised for action, which was reassuring.

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Brixham Harbour

Berry Head is a great place to see porpoises and just as I was explaining (droning on) to Paul that they like to hunt the edge of the tidal currents, one surfaced with a puff only a few yards directly in front of him. What a way to encounter your first porpoise! A couple more surfaced and put on a bit of a show for us.

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Berry Head Porpoise

Good start…we had only been paddling for twenty minutes. We felt the omens were good so headed directly out to sea from the headland. A handful of Balearic Shearwaters zipped past and we saw, and heard a further scattering of Porpoises, and saw a few of them.

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leaving the ‘bustle’ behind

Four miles from Berry Head we stopped to take in the surroundings. For about as far as we could see in all directions were circling and milling gulls and Kittiwakes, clearly intent on catching something at the surface. Every so often they would splash into the water and more often than not come out with a sprat in their beak. There seemed to be no specific concentration of baitfish, it was just spread over a vast area of sea. I also noticed a Garfish leap out of the water a couple of times.

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Paul in hunting mode (Berry head in background)

We were rather hopeful this massive food source might lure in some big eaters but unfortunately nothing bigger than porpoises appeared, and the occasional Gannet sploshed in. There was however a reasonably-sized car transporter which we did our best to avoid.P1170896

There was so much action going on we were reluctant to head back to the shore because we both felt something dramatic was about to happen. However we were now being sucked along the coast towards Dartmouth on the big ebbing Spring tide so if we didn’t strike for the shore now it would be a very long haul back to Brixham.

While still two miles offshore we were distracted by a superb double wildlife encounter. As we ran into a whole load of porpoises which were puffing all around us, I saw a tern sitting on the water. I crept up quietly with camera clicking and was thrilled to see it was a ‘this year’s’ Common Tern. A beautiful little bird, not common at all around here and only the second I have ever seen sat on the water.

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Common Tern (first winter)
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Common Tern

We then focused on the porpoises which seemed to have us surrounded. One torpedoed directly towards Paul and he watched it swim just underneath his kayak.

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Harbour Porpoise
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Paul and Friend

The porpoises, which frequently are too far away to see even though you can hear their ‘puffs/piffs’ seemed to appreciate that Paul was a porpoise rooky and wanted to give a really good demonstration of their aquatic skills. With a splash a sizable fish broke the surface with a pair of porpoise in even more splashy hot pursuit.

They came almost TOO close for a suitable video…..but you can hear their ‘Puffing Pig’ blow very nicely in this clip:

We were so engrossed we didn’t realised we were being conveyed down the coast by the tide at over one knot, so had to engage fast cruise gear and make for the shore, and a four mile coastal paddle back to Brixham. With a deep blue sky, dropping sun behind and very pleasant cliffy scenery, this wasn’t too much of a hardship.

And if you like your boats, there are always plenty to admire along this section of coast.

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Bloat boat
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Brixham trawler
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photogenic Sailboat

I think I’m more of a scenery person.

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note jetskier. Unfortunately they avoided colliding with the rock.