Wilson’s Petrel!

So far it’s been a fantastic summer for sightings of unusual cetaceans and pelagic seabirds off the coast of southwest England. Quite a lot of whales around and a possibly unprecedented number of the large Shearwater species (Sooty, Great and Cory’s) that are usually further out to sea. And also some much rarer birds such as Wilson’s petrels which have been seen around the coast of Cornwall but still NEVER recorded in Devon. The last one I saw was following in the wake of the RMS St. Helena in the south Atlantic 27 years ago. Surely no chance of ever seeing one from my kayak in the UK.

The birds have been nearer to the coast in part due to the relentlessly windy conditions. So not great if, like me, you like to watch your wildlife from a kayak. There has not been a single day in the last month that has been windless enough for me to do a significant offshore paddle. It’s been the windiest summer for as long as I can remember.

I have sneaked the odd few hours here and there during the early morning lull when winds have often fallen light, to sprint offshore. At Fowey I saw my first Sunfish of the year a mile offshore , and a few minutes later heard the loud, sustained blow of a whale between me and the shore. I heard it twice more at intervals of several minutes, but failed to catch a glimpse of it.

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Ocean Sunfish

So when the 13 August was forecast to be flat with light winds all day I was very excited. Especially as it is reaching the time of year when the sea is most alive with cetaceans.

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Dawn over Plymouth Sound

I set my alarm for 4am and was on the water before six, paddling out through Plymouth Sound as the sun arose over a bank of fog. Beyond the confines of the sound the sea was flat smooth, the sky was cloudless and the Eddystone Lighthouse, my destination, was clearly visible as a little stick on the horizon exactly ten miles away. Perfect, and my expectations were high.

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Fog over Plymouth Breakwater

After a bit of a quiet start , Manx Shearwaters started to increase in number, some flicking past my kayak a few feet away. Some seem to come extra close to investigate as anything that disrupts the featureless surface of the sea could mean a source of food for them (especially if I was a whale or something similar). This never ceases to give me a thrill; these fantastic birds dashing past at eye level. Although maybe not happy to be mistaken for a whale.

I approached a group resting on the surface as sneakily as possible with a single Balearic Shearwater sitting amongst them. Not the most beautifully marked seabird but a ‘goody’ amongst the birding fraternity. I got a decent pic with it beside a Manx to provide a good plumage comparison.

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Manx and Balearic Shearwater

The excitement went up a notch when, four miles from the mouth of Plymouth Sound, a Sooty Shearwater sprinted past. Bigger and faster than the Manx, and all brown. Bad view into the sun, but my first ever ‘big’ shearwater from my kayak in the UK! Fab. I was in the zone.

Gannets passing overhead giving you a bit of a sideways look are great, shearwaters are better, but nothing beats a glimpse of a tiny Storm Petrel twisting its way over the surface like a bat. These are birds of the open sea and to see them from a kayak represents the culmination of an awful lot of planning and effort. They are so small that most sightings are a fleeting glimpse, but some get close enough for a decent view of their white rump. Binoculars are nearly always a waste of time from a kayak on the sea due to the constant movement of the surface. So all your birdwatching is eyeballs only.

Storm petrels are extremely difficult to photograph unless they are feeding group, which I have only ever seen once. But I did just get one zipping past in front of the Lighthouse.

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Storm Petrel at Eddystone

There was the usual cluster of private fishing boats scattered about near the Eddystone reef, and one fisherman took a snap of me with his i-phone. Thanks, Ben.

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Yours truly at Eddystone

After a cup of coffee and a large slab of horribly synthetic Victoria sponge, I took a big loop around the Lighthouse to the east to utilise the last of the incoming tidal current. I could also sense it was a fertile patch of sea as the surface was  swirly.

Quite a few more Storm Petrels and two more singleton Sooty Shearwaters  speeding past.

Then, about an hour after I left the lighthouse, two or three miles north-east of Eddystone, a small petrel approached, far enough away to allow me to scramble my camera out of its drybag. I was just in time to fire off a couple of shots, but really wasn’t sure whether the subject was in the screen. There was nothing to suggest it was anything unusual apart from the fact that it seemed to be flying higher above the surface than the other petrels, despite completely windless conditions.

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Original photo of high-flying Petrel

The paddle back to the sound was assisted by a southerly wind which slowly increased, and excitement was provided by a handful of porpoises, which as usual I heard ‘piffing’ long before I saw them.

I had given up on seeing any dolphins when I got in  amongst the many yachts that were coastal cruising a mile from the shore, but suddenly a group of fins appeared in front of me. I followed for a couple of minutes and then in a flash they disappeared. About eight altogether, and surprisingly difficult to see in the slight chop.

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Common Dolphin

I arrived back at Cawsand after nine hours on the water and twenty-five miles paddled. Not too exhausted because I had deliberately paddled slowly because…what’s the hurry?

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Trolleying back through Cawsand

Back at home I reviewed my photos and as usual most of the Petrel efforts were of an empty sea, with maybe a tiny blurred black dot in the corner, but often with nothing. The ‘high flying’ petrel pics however were better than I had expected when I zoomed in. I immediately noticed that its feet projected significantly past the end of its tail, a feature even more obvious in the second pic. Ferreting about in a flurry of bird books seemed to suggest this is a key feature of a Wilson’s Petrel. Wow. Mega excitement.

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Wilson’s Petrel pic 1
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Wilson’s Petrel pic 2

I submitted my photos to the Devon Birds website and it was quickly confirmed by the editors that this was indeed a Wilson’s Petrel, and the first authentic record EVER in Devon. However as Devon records are only valid to five miles offshore, this sighting was technically too far out (about eight miles) to be officially recognised.

Never mind. Two new ‘kayak seen’ species today. Sooty Shearwater and the super-rare Wilson’s Petrel. I never expected to see one in the UK, let alone from my kayak.IMG_7826

At last. Accepted as a Creature of the Sea.

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Friendly seal

It’s taken a long time. Tens of thousands of miles paddled and thousands of hours on the water. But today I feel I have passed my apprenticeship as a member of the sea beast society. They seem to have taken me as one of their own.

I was  hugging the coast to keep out of the wind (as usual) approaching Pentewan beach in South Cornwall when a seal burst out of the water with a loud snort a couple of feet behind me. As usual it made me jump out of my skin and as usual I cricked my neck while turning round to have a look. It was a buff-coloured adolescent grey seal.

I wasn’t that surprised when it shadowed me, constantly diving and surfacing close nearby, but wasn’t expecting it to keep it up for over a mile.

I presumed it would lose interest as I weaved in and out of the bathers, speedboats, paddleboards, jetskis and kayaks along the beachfront at Pentewan, but was gobsmacked when it ignored all these other distractions and swam along beside my kayak like a puppy on a lead. Even more remarkable was that only a handful of the hundreds of people on the beach noticed it.

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Porthpean-busy beach

It was still there twenty minutes later as I approached Mevagissey, surfacing , splashing and hurling itself about without a care in the world. It was noticed by a boatful of (unsuccessful) fishermen and a couple of kayakers, who took snaps as the two of us sped past.

Why was I selected? Was it an unseen bond between two finely-tuned marine marvels, or was it that my wetsuit trousers were overdue for a rinse?

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Fine set of teeth

The seal kept displaying its fine set of teeth so I threw it a wedge of my Waggonwheel (superb value at £1 for six in Holsworthy Coop, using my new Coop card), but it wasn’t interested. Clearly no appreciation of a good deal.IMG_7473

By the time I had arrived at the entrance to Mevagissey harbour the seal and I were firm friends and I expected the large crowd of onlookers to be staggered by the man meets wild creature sort of thing, but unfortunately it suddenly disappeared and I was left bereft. I didn’t see it again.

So I finished off my Waggonwheel, sat around the harbour for a bit, and paddled back.

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Speedboat…ignored
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Paddleboarders..shunned
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Fellow Kayakers….blanked

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Apprehended by the UK Border Force

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Speeding Frigate

The sea beyond Plymouth Sound is always busy with ships of the Royal Navy. During my kayak trips to the Eddystone Lighthouse eagle-eyed observers ,  or maybe the radar operators, no doubt spot me and wonder what on earth I am doing anything up to ten miles offshore. I often wonder myself.

Frigates have sped past at high speed but always at a respectful distance.

During my most recent jaunt out to the Eddystone reef, on a superb smooth-sea day, I watched a small navy cutter emerge from the sound many miles in front of me and head towards me, passing half a mile to my left. A gun on the front, ‘ BORDER FORCE’ written in large black letters on the hull and the name ‘VIGILANT’ beside a large painted Union Jack on the superstructure. I had plenty of time to study it carefully and could see people moving around in the bridge.

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Border Force Customs Cutter

I felt a bit self-conscious as I just knew I was being scrutinised. Steady paddling and no picking of nose. And I didn’t stare, I looked straight ahead and peered out of the side of my eyes.

The bass throb of the engines started to fade as it went past, but then suddenly dropped to an idle. I cranked my neck around and although it doesn’t twist as far as it used to I could see the ship turn in a broad semicircle behind me. It then powered up again and started to draw level with me on the right-hand side.

I felt eyes all over me and then the engines again fell quiet. After a bit of a pause in the action a black RIB slowly emerged from the rear of the cutter, and then gripped the ‘bone in its teeth’ as it sped directly towards me. As it slowed and came alongside I stopped paddling and smiled an acknowledgement to the three officers, all wearing protective helmets.

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The RIB is deployed

They very politely asked me a few questions regarding what I was doing and took down a few details (in their notebooks, not on i-pads). They pointed out that they had to be very alert for immigrants, and that I was the first kayak they had ever stopped.

They then sped back to their mothership and went on their way towards the south.

This was actually the most exciting encounter during an otherwise fairly uneventful wildlife watching trip to the Eddystone, during which I saw only a couple of Storm Petrels, a handful of terns and a moderate number of Manx Shearwaters.IMG_6174

Superb Sealife on the Costa del Sol

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Costa del Sol

If you were thinking that a flat calm, scorching hot Mediterranean beach heaving with paddleboarders and buzzing with jetskis would be a wildlife desert, you would need to think again.

This sea along this section of coast, six miles east of Estepona and within sight of Gibraltar, seems to be particularly fertile. Although on this occasion Gibraltar, thirty miles away, was hidden in mist for the whole six days of our visit. Apart for about five minutes when just the top was visible.

I think it is because the tide sucks the Atlantic into the neck of the Mediterranean to just about here, and the meeting of the warm and cold waters provide a bit of a plankton bloom.

The sea state was perfect for kayaking. Virtually no wind and hardly any swell for the whole time. Just the occasional patch of fog which prompted me to always carry my GPS while paddling offshore.

On the first day I was thrilled to encounter half-a-dozen Cory’s Shearwaters carving around low over the water with their effortless almost bat-like flight. And a kayak in their path didn’t seem to worry them…they just sliced past a few feet away from me with a very slight ‘whoosh’ of their feathers. Absolutely fantastic. Every so often they would shallow plunge-dive into the sea from only a few feet up.

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Cory’s Shearwater
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Cory’s Shearwater

They  shared the sea with groups of Balearic Shearwaters that were passing with a bit more purpose to get somewhere particular. And was that a Sooty Shearwater? Not easy to establish that it was all-brown because I was looking into the sun; maybe it was just a dark Balearic.

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Balearic Shearwater
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Balearic Shearwater

I came across a resting flock of Cory’s and Balearics  a couple of miles offshore, and the five bigger shearwaters seemed to be quite happy as I drifted within yards of them.

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Group of Cory’s Shearwaters
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Beautiful Cory’s Shearwater

Next morning I was out early and headed way offshore again. More shearwaters and I was very surprised to see a Bonxie getting involved with the action. (it was actually no surprise to see a Bonxie ‘in the thick of it’, because that is what Bonxies do best). I was just amazed to see one in The Mediterranean in early July when they should be up north in Scotland or Iceland. Maybe a youngster that hadn’t bothered to migrate.

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Unseasonal Mediterranean Bonxie

While sitting about on glassy water absorbed by the seabird action  I heard a series of ‘splashes’ approaching. A large number of dolphins scattered over a wide area of sea were heading towards me. They were travelling very fast and spent such a short time at the surface I really couldn’t see any markings and didn’t have a hope of a photograph. But surely Common Dolphins. At least thirty or forty, but probably a lot more.

After lunch I went for a paddle along the coast with Becky and we had soon spotted another group of dolphins, this time a lot slower, and feeding ,judging by the attendant gulls and shearwaters.IMG_6750

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Mother and calf Common Dolphin

As we paddled at top speed to see them a gin-palace powerboat also saw them and adjusted course, as did a jetski…groan!

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Jetski pursuing dolphin
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Common Dolphins, jetski, Becky

The reason they were slow is that there were a lot of calves in the group, and they were sticking like glue beside their mothers. They changed direction and swam right past us. In kayaks we represented very little threat to the dolphins but the jetski was far to keen to get his photos and chased them far too vigorously. Becky managed to scowl at the driver and, credit to him, he did back off.

We watched and had a pretty reasonable view for about fifteen minutes. The pod of about 15 then swam directly offshore, pursued by the jetski at a slightly more respectable distance. Still not good, however, because some of the calves were very small and so understandably slow.

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Mother and calf Common Dolphin

Incredibly, we had another dolphin encounter the next day, no doubt helped by the completely smooth surface which makes seeing fins that much easier. Jake and Christina reported seeing a lone dolphin in the morning, and scanning the sea from the shore with binoculars later I saw a big-looking fin a couple of miles away. I powered towards it in the Tribord Kayak which has a pretty decent top speed (about 5 mph). However it took ages to get within naked eyeball range of the dolphin, and it was heading away from me. I watched it surface a couple of times several hundred yards ahead of me and then gave up. Fatigue.

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Distant ?Bottlenose Dolphin

It was a big dolphin with a prominent dorsal fin. I would think a Bottlenose but I just wondered about a Risso’s, especially as I had seen a couple of gulls finishing off some dead cuttlefish which are Risso’s dolphins favourite snack. It didn’t look grey or pale so Bottlenose looks most likely.

On the last day I glimpsed a large streamlined creature, the size of a dolphin, jumping out of the water once only. Just for a fraction of a second. Then nothing more, and nothing surfaced to breathe. I’m pretty sure it was a giant Tuna. I need to get a photo of one of these soon as this is the second time I have seen one in Spain, in addition to a similarly fleeting view of a group in Falmouth bay last autumn.

All these creatures shared the busy Mediterranean waters with numerous pleasure boats and commercial fishing boats, including large offshore trawlers whose throbbing engines provided the constant sound backdrop to the superb viewing.

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Typical Mediterranean Scene
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Not so typical Mediterranean Scene

Six Days of Summer on Shetland

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Shetland puffin

Getting to the top of the UK from Holsworthy represents seven hundred miles of driving and a twelve hour ferry trip from Aberdeen to Lerwick. Just about worth it provided it was wall-to-wall wildlife action and excitement for the entire time we were there. And ideally some good conditions for kayaking so that I could experience paddling in a new location.

Remarkably Unst, Shetland’s most northerly island, is almost exactly the same latitude as southern Greenland where Hezzer and I went on a sea kayaking expedition last year. Just above 60 degrees North. No icebergs around Shetland though.

Driving up the M6 was the usual tedious and stressful challenge (bear in mind we have no traffic queues and only one set of traffic lights in Holsworthy), possibly made worse by the poor weather forecast for Shetland….strong winds and…groan…FOG.

I picked up Hezzer and Sharpy en route and by 7pm we were on the deck of the ferry scanning for sea creatures. Glimpses of porpoises and the odd Puffin, that’s all.

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Hezzer and Sharpy

First day on Shetland was a bit of a struggle, especially as southern England was basking in 30 degrees and sunshine. It was windy, cold, wet and sometimes misty, sometimes foggy. But I was determined to camp. My amateurish festival-style tent might well collapse or blow away, but we were going to give it a go. We pitched it at a sort of official campsite at the marina at Brae and although it bent and distorted alarmingly it looked like it would just about survive.

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Orca in the Fog (the only one we saw)

We took a stroll to a sandy beach on the adjacent island of Muckle Roe and while hunkered down out of the wind an otter appeared around the headland and started to swim towards us. The wind was in our face so it would not catch our scent (if it was downwind it wouldn’t have come within sight). Hezzer got ready with his camera but before I had time to get mine out of its waterproof bag the otter appeared in the waves breaking on the shore just in front of us. It emerged from the water and without hesitation strode directly towards Hezzer who was settled on the foreshore, with a sort of ‘what are you doing on my patch?’ type attitude (the otter, not Hezzer).

It marched forward, hesitated, then continued its approach, finally stopping when it was only five paces in front of Hezzer. When it clicked what was going on it fairly rapidly, but not panickly, returned to the sea, and carried on fishing. It emerged onto the beach again a bit further on, sniffed about a bit, and then swam back to the point where it had come from.

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Hezzer and his Otter

The next couple of days involved trying not to get battered or crushed by the wind, and working our way north to the island of Unst, the most northerly part of the UK. We witnessed some superb wildlife action between Arctic Skuas and Arctic terns as the former tried to steal the latter’s lunch. Sometimes four skuas to one tern.

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Hezzer plus Arctic Tern friend

We camped wild one night on the west coast of Yell, and in the grounds of Gardisfauld Hostel on Unst for the remaining three. It’s got  a superb view out over the sound where we saw otters, seals and all manner of seabirds. And a rainbow.IMG_5318

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Hezzer and Yours truly at Gardisfauld

Hermaness nature reserve overlooking Muckle Flugga lighthouse is as far north as you can get in the UK. And it is staggering because of its wild west-facing coast with offshore stacks whit-topped with Gannets, as well as vast areas of moorland dotted with numerous pairs of ‘Bonxie’ Great Skuas, which were either cruising about looking for trouble (as Bonxies do) or standing about displaying by throwing their wings back and uttering a primeval gulping call that sends a shiver up your spine (in a horror movie type way).

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Bonxies Displaying

But I do like Bonxies, they are one of my favourite seabirds. Non-birders hardly notice them because they look so scruffy.

At last, after three days, the wind dropped. It was due to stay fairly calm till lunchtime the next day, which just happened to be 21 June, the longest day of the year. I have always made an extra special effort to get up extra early on the longest day so I didn’t need much persuasion to set my alarm clock for 4am, as I was itching to go for a paddle. My Cobra Expedition kayak had travelled the best part of one thousand miles on the roof of the car to get here; it would be a pity to take it back without it getting wet (with sea water).

In fact the alarm clock was surplus to requirements because a Blackbird, which had made one of only about three bushes on the entire island its home, decided to have a bit of a sing-song to welcome in the dawn at 2.30. It did well to spot the difference between night and day because at this latitude there is not a lot of difference and you can still just about read a book in the darkest part of the night.

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Early Start (note incorrect date)

I was all packed up and on the water by 3.40am. My earliest start ever on a kayaking trip. And was very excited because early means otters.

Less than a minute of paddling along the glass calm water in front of Gardisfauld Hostel I heard a cat yowling from the undergrowth and saw an otter hopping about amongst the rocks. Obviously not the cat’s best chum. This was followed a couple of minutes later by another (otter, not cat), also on the shore, which was an unusually pale individual.

I crossed the sound over to the island of Uyea as a couple of Red-throated Divers (Rain Geese as they are called in Shetland) arrived from their freshwater loch for breakfast in the sea, striking the water at speed breast-first with quite a splash. The sound of their honking calls as birds shuttled backwards and forwards to their breeding areas in the hills, was more or less continuous all morning.

There was a lot of honking which apparently means there is going to be a lot of rain. ‘They’ were right.

Another singleton otter as I arrived at the shore of Uyea and then I heard a piercing otter ‘whistle’ followed by a bit of a chatter as an otter on a rock communicated to its mate which was following some distance behind. All a bit too dark for photos as it wasn’t even four o’clock!

As it brightened I had an excellent prolonged view of an otter fishing in front of me. I followed it along at a safe distance and watched as it emerged onto a rock to munch its way through a butterfish in a typical noisy, mouth open, crunchy otter way. And a half decent photograph.

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Otter on Uyea Island

As I emerged out of the shelter of the island around the more exposed east-facing shore of Uyea the otters were replaced by Grey Seals and a few small groups of Black Guillemots which were uttering their high-pitched whistling calls, one of which sounded more like a Great Tit.

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Black Guillemots

As I rounded a headland the golden sandy beach of Sand Wick came into view, but before stretching my legs on the sand, I took a diversion up the narrow inlet of the Ham of Muness. A bottling seal, noisy Arctic tern colony and Fulmars nesting on an old building kept me entertained, but as soon as I saw an otter swimming directly towards me I took evasive action before it detected me and paddled round in a huge circle and tucked in to the shore, hoping it would swim right past. I held on to a flat rock on the shore and got my camera ready. The otter appeared, swimming quite happily, and then dived. The trail of bubbles approached, went under the front of my kayak, and the otter momentarily climbed out of the water onto the flat rock, close enough to touch. In an instant and a splash of water it was gone.

I felt a built guilty about upsetting this otter but I was actually stationary and the otter came to me, I wasn’t chasing it around.

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Grey Seal (bottling)

At the headland I had the briefest view of a porpoise surfacing once, the only cetacean I was to see in Shetland.

I downed a king-sized Bakewell Tart (from Baltasound Bakery) on Sand Wick while a trio of Red-Throated Divers came close into the shallows.

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Red-Throated Divers

After my pit-stop just as I was leaving the beach Hezzer and Sharpy appeared over the horizon so I stopped to have a word with them, watching the terns fishing in the bay.

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Sand Wick, Unst
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Fulmar

Then it was back the way I had come, this time including a circuit of the small island of Half Gruney in the itinerary. I was a bit surprised to pass a lone Sanderling on the exposed rocks; they are usually faithful to beaches.

After an excellent encounter with three incredibly approachabl Arctic Terns on the way back, I arrived back at Gardisfauld at midday after an eight hour 20 plus mile paddle…my first in Shetland. And six otters….five before 5am…..that’s another first!

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Arctic Tern
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Beautiful Arctic Tern

The rain, and wind, arrived later in the day and the tent buckled and tent poles splintered. During the night I frequently got a faceful of canvas but we all kept dry and the tent stayed essentially tent-shaped (thanks to a roll of Gorilla tape).

Our final day was spent with a steady drive back down the island chain to the ferry terminal at Lerwick, and a warm (!) sunny afternoon seawatching at Sumburgh Head, hoping for the Orca pack to appear. Needless to say it didn’t, but we had superb views of Puffins and both species of skua. Hezzer glimpsed a Minke Whale far,far out but I failed to spot it.

That was it. Fairwell to Shetland.

It was such a pleasant evening as the ferry crept across Lerwick harbour, the kayakers and paddleboarders were out in their boardshorts.

Despite the windchill from the speed of the ferry I stayed out on deck for several hours. A big swirl at the surface close by was confirmed to be a Minke whale by the only other few people left on the deck who saw it before it dived. I must have missed seeing the actual creature by less than  a hundredth of a second. Probably the same one Hezzer had seen from the shore, as we were passing Sumburgh Head.

That would have been the icing on what was already a pretty good cake.

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Gannet

One of my personal rules about kayaking is that I spend at least as long on the water as the car journey it took to get there.

Oops.

This is the first time I think I have failed, and failed in a spectacular fashion. Twenty-five to thirty hours in the car for eight hours on the water. Crikey.

Time to get back to Devon and put in some hours on my local patch.

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Typical Shetland Scenery (although it’s not usually sunny)

 

 

Not so Lone

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Krysia and Becky

I can’t think of anything I enjoy more than paddling for dozens, hundreds or thousands of miles in complete silence, letting myself get completely absorbed into the surrounding watery world and fine tuning my ears so I can hear the nautical equivalent of a pin dropping. Such as the ‘puff’ of a distant porpoise on the open sea or the rattling song of a Lesser Whitethroat coming from deep within a riverside bush.

Or maybe I can. If you can do all of the above but accompanied by like-minded paddling chums, family members or (and) old friends then it’s a win/win situation all round. OK the silence thing goes out the window but you can have too much of that. And the chances of seeing ultra-spooky creatures like otters and foxes and deer decreases, but this is offset by the excitement emanating from your fellow paddlers.

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To see roe Deer like this, you’ve really got to be quiet

Extra pairs of eyes increase the chance of wildlife encounters. I always forget that. For every sensational creature I have spotted when by myself, I must have missed two more of the same which were (sniggering) behind me or off to the side.

For example, Paul spotted a seal hauled out on the mud of the Fowey estuary way up near St. Winnow where I would never bother looking for a seal as it’s a long way from the sea. It would have lurched into the water before I had noticed it, but because eagle-eyed Paul spotted it early, I grabbed a pic which showed it was a Harbour Seal with its characteristic ‘friendly’ face and V-shaped nostrils.

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Fowey Harbour Seal

The only Harbour Seal I have ever seen in Cornwall, all the rest have been Grey Seals.

Paul certainly seems to have an affinity for seals:

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Paul plus friend, a Grey Seal pup

Now the weather is a bit warmer I am very keen to ask along fellow adventurers to my favourite paddling haunts. Unless you are a bit weird like me (and a couple of hardcore friends) its potentially pretty miserable when it’s cold. But pick the right day, load the picnic up with cakes and buns, stop off for lots of cups of tea, and EVERYBODY has a great time. There’s some great locations for that well-earned break.

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Picnic at Penquite Quay

Kayaking seems to be a good way to enjoy guilt-free ad-lib chocolate consumption, on the assumption that you burn off the calories by paddling. I’m not sure whether you do, as I think that paddling at moderate speed uses up about the same amount of energy as a moderate walk, judging by how warm you get. But don’t worry about it too much.

Birds carry on doing what they are doing no matter how loud you are (within reason). While padding up the Fowey River at extreme low tide I was watching a Herring Gull flicking over the kelp looking for crabs. It found a really big one and flicked it into the air by grabbing it by a leg. There was then a prolonged stand-off between bird and crustacean, with the crab waving its pincers threateningly in the air and the gull dodging about like a Matador trying to nip at an exposed limb. On this occasion it was victory to the crab…..the gull flew off defeated and deflated.

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Herring Gull vs Crab part 1
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Herring Gull vs crab part 2

And I never tire of watching the little families of Shelducks that are reared in the wooded upper reaches of the many sheltered inlets around the southwest. Its good to know they can find somewhere undisturbed to do so.

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Shelduck family

I tend to take the scenery for granted while straining my eyes for wildlife.

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Up the Fowey River
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St. Winnow Church

The upper Tamar Estuary is my favourite sheltered paddle. An excellent jaunt for experienced and novice paddlers alike. An easy five miles following the tidal river twisting and turning between steep banks clad in natural oakwood, past historic Morwellham Quay, beneath Morwell crags, and finishing beneath the weir which marks the tidal limit at Gunnislake. A good place to stop for a picnic, although I don’t think you’re supposed to.

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Tamar Lunch break

The river water is lovely and clear up here, and Kingfishers and Dippers zip past. The only criticism of the water below Morwellham is that it is estuarine and muddy, so that photographs do not look quite so perfect.

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My last trip up the Tamar was a few days ago, involving a real medley of Sit-on-top kayaks. I paddled my Gumotex Safari inflatable kayak, Becky was in my ageing Ocean Kayak Scupper Pro, Krysia darted along in my Cobra Expedition and Kevin was in his new Tarpon 100. Top entertainment.

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Beneath Morwell Crags

Although the sheltered inlets provide the ultimate in kayaking relaxation therapy, it’s important to get out onto the open sea when conditions allow, not only to give you eyeballs a change of scenery , but to catch some fish! The mackerel are now here and kayaking has got to be the best way to hook one.

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Dave with his first mackerel of the season

A venture from near Bude down the coast to Boscastle was not quite as easy as we had been anticipating because the swell was rather more lumpy than forecast.There was no chance of venturing into the caves but it was quite exhilarating paddling close to the rocks with the waves slurping in and out, and particularly exciting at the tip of the headland of Cambeak which amplified the size of the swell.

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Rounding Cambeak

A recent trip to Mevagissey was rather less hairy because the sea there is exceptionally sheltered and frequently completely flat. It is east-facing so protected from the prevailing wind and swell. It’s always fun doing a circuit of the outer and inner harbour, and it’s always very pleasing to have the freedom and space that is provided by kayaking instead of barging your way through overcrowded narrow streets and queuing at the burger bar or ice cream shop, and generally loafing around like most of the visitors seem to do. I’m one of those people that starts weaving about to take evasive action when an oncoming pedestrian is  twenty yards away, and still bumps into them. I’m thinking I don’t really ‘do’ crowds.

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Mevagissey Inner Harbour

Oystercatchers nest all round the southwest coast and they are particularly noisy at this time of year when they have fluffy youngsters about. They peep an alarm call very loudly when you approach and will even fly out over your head in an effort to see you off. Always fun to see.

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Oystercatcher on full volume

On this particular trip we saw a couple of Turnstones which were as usual very tame and looking quite smart in their summer plumage.

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Turnstone

There is some great ‘rock-hopping’ to have and gaps to be explored between Mevagissey and Pentewan.

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Mevagissey ‘rock-hopping’

One of the most evocative sounds of  the coast is the shrill and piercing call of a Peregrine Falcon which makes the hair on your neck stand up (but not as much as the hair on the neck of passing pigeons, if they hair instead of feathers).  A pair were milling about in a steep sided cove and looked like they had just enjoyed lunch  (pigeon probably). Always a thrill to see the world’s fastest creature.

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Peregrine Falcon

When the company is good and the weather is warm everybody loves kayaking.

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Medley of Scottish Lochs

It had to happen sooner or later. After many years of being incredibly lucky with the weather during my Spring trips to Scotland, mid May 2017 looked as though it was going to let me down. The forecast was stiff winds from the west and intermittent rain. The west coast would have been no fun. I still can’t believe I was so fortunate with my two month expedition round the west coast and islands three years ago when I only lost one or two days to strong winds.

Plan B was to paddle in the relative shelter of various freshwater lochs, and ideally the ones with no roads along the sides to maximise the chance of wildlife encounters.

I drove the 650 miles from Holsworthy to Taynuilt beside Loch Etive near Oban in one very long day, and during the night as I was curled up in my sleeping bag the car was rocked by a gusty wind coming down from the mountains. Loch Etive was definitely no-go for a kayak so I sought the quieter waters of Loch Awe a few miles away.

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Loch Awe

It was windy and quite warm and dry so pretty reasonable. I drifted close enough to a Dipper for a reasonable photograph, always difficult because they are generally not that tame and are usually amongst dark rocks which makes getting the exposure right difficult.

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Dipper

In a sheltered bay on the north bank I was very surprised to come across a Great Northern Diver, still in its winter plumage (although it was 12 May). This looked like a  juvenile from last years brood.

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Great Northern Diver

I was very keen not to frighten it by getting too close but it allowed me to drift to about twenty yards away while it continued to dive. I got what I thought were some great images but noticed that every so often it would ‘gag’ slightly in a unnatural manner.

Upon reviewing the images I fell into an instant gloom when I saw the fishing line wrapped around its bottom mandible and trailing out behind it. Poor blooming thing. It’s flown all the way from Iceland or further to grace the UK with its amazing presence, just to get tangled up in  discarded fishing tackle.

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GND with fishing line wrapped around lower mandible

There wasn’t a hope of being able to help it as it seemed to be swimming and diving quite normally (and probably catching some fish) but I think its long term outlook is pretty hopeless.

I was lured into one of the lochside Bluebell woods for lunch by the dazzling colour.

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Loch Awe Bluebells

Just as I was completing my twenty mile circuit and trying to avoid the many fishing speedboats around a marina on the southern side of the Loch, I had a superb view of a couple of Black-throated Divers, these ones in full breeding plumage. They are exciting enough to see when dressed in their two-tone winter outfit around the bays of SW England, but in their breeding plumage they are arguably the UK’s most beautifully marked bird. This is definitely the case if you are photographing in black-and-white.

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Black-throated Divers

I was very careful not to approach too close to cause them distress, but they seemed relatively happy with several small fishing boats plying past and me floating about in my kayak, and continued to look for fish by dipping their heads underwater.

Black-throated Divers at their nest sites are super-sensitive to disturbance which includes photographers getting too close for that perfect photo.

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Black-throated Divers

I spent the weekend with son Henry who was working in Stirling, and the wildlife action continued, now focused around his enormous telephoto lens rather than my kayak. While sitting in his hide at 6am it was a thrill to hear,simultaneously, a cuckoo calling on a distant hillside, a snipe drumming overhead (sounding more like a mosquito), the bubbling call of a dozen Blackcocks which were ‘lekking’ (displaying) nearby, and the honking call of a pair of divers (Red-throats I think) flying overhead. Tremendous, and well worth the effort of turfing out of bed early. And we saw a Hen Harrier.

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The forecast was wet so when I left Henry on Monday morning I opted for a circuit around Loch Tummel clad in full waterproof gear. Exciting because I was paddling new shores but otherwise grey and damp.

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Loch Tummel

I was determined to set up my tent for at least one night and although I was very aware that the further west I drove the wetter it would get, I had my eye on the southern shore of Loch Arkaig. It’s got no road access for ten miles along its shore so should feel nice and remote. I should have a decent paddle but not too far if things should ‘blow up’ (meteorologically speaking).

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Loch Arkaig

The first day started dry and quite still but gradually deteriorated into sheet rain with a fair old howling headwind. However I was not going to let it beat me so I dug in with the paddle and ploughed on, waves breaking over the deck, cheered up by the tumbling song of Willow Warblers and peep of numerous Common Sandpipers.

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Common Sandpiper taking a nap

A lucky drier interlude allowed me to pitch my tent at the mouth of a small river a couple of miles before the end of the loch, and after a brew I paddled into an even stronger headwind to the sandy beach at the head of the loch. Typical, this camping spot was better as there was a large area of short-cropped flat grass with no-one in sight. Even better, a Greenshank was piping its slightly haunting and slightly mournful song somewhere upwind not very far away. To me it is the ornithological equivalent of bagpipes.

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Camp on Loch Arkaig

No way was I going to paddle back to my tent and bring it here in these conditions, so I enjoyed the downwind run back to my camp and settled in to read my book. I emptied out a tin of catfood I had brought to lure in the local Pine Martens but needless to say it hadn’t been touched by the time I departed in the morning.

And as usual I fell asleep within five minutes of starting to read. Fortunately a Hercules passing overhead about 5 foot (or so it seemed) above my tent woke me up. But then it was time to go to bed anyway.

The next day dawned sunny and I enjoyed the twelve mile paddle back to the car. A Merlin crossed the loch high above my head and I could hear the bubbling croon of Blackcocks coming from the patch of forest more than a mile away over the water.

My next loch was Loch Ness and I had a specific purpose. I had arranged a rendezvous with a friend who was pedalling (not paddling) from Land’s End to John O’Groats at at the pub in Dores at the eastern end of the loch. I had to be there at 1pm so I thought I should set off by 5am to allow for the odd break.

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Loch Ness

Lovely sunny day, light following wind, great paddle, but virtually zero wildlife apart from two floating (and smelling)deer carcases. And limited viewing and scenic surprises as the loch is dead straight. The trees at the end of the loch which were my destination, were over the horizon when I set off.

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Loch Ness Ducklings

However it was great to see my chum Andrew plus cycling companions, and we were joined by my brother Tim who works nearby. Super pub in super location by nice beach.

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The promise of lighter winds the following day lured me down to the sea at the Moray firth, with the hope of an encounter with some of its resident Bottlenose Dolphins.

I paddled out from Ardesier on the southern shore near Fort George in glassy conditions. On approaching Chanonry Point  a distant splashing encouraged me to crank up the pace as it must have been dolphins. Sure enough they soon appeared, and as Bottlenose dolphins always do, they seemed big. This is because they are, and also because the individuals of the Moray Firth pod are reputed to be even bigger than normal as they are one of the furthest north groups in the world and need extra blubber to keep warm.

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Moray Firth Dolphins

Two outliers swam past before a group of five came past satisfactorily slowly and close to allow me a few pics. Interestingly the photographs show a sort of crease below the forehead on some of the bigger dolphins giving them the appearance of a frown, confirming perhaps that they do indeed have more blubber than some of their species that inhabit warmer climes.

I paddled a few miles up the coast of the Black Isle for lunch then back past Rosehearty beach. It was great to hear the constant cheerful call of passing terns.

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Common Tern

The dolphin watchers were out in force as I crossed back over to Ardesier. The dolphins obliged by fishing a few metres off the point for much of the afternoon….I could even see their fins through binoculars from two miles away when I got back to the car.

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Chanonry Point
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Chanonry Point dolphin watchers

My final short paddle adventure was in the rain at Loch Insh, the highlight being a couple of broods of newly hatched Goldeneye, and an Osprey.

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Goldeneye brood

Although I did break the appallingly slow and traffic laden drive back to Devon with a quick ten miles on the River Avon at Tewkesbury. Perfect, warm ,still.

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