Loonatic

In the last couple of weeks I have done more groaning in dismay than usual. Age, Covid 19 and the garbage on radio and TV all play a part.

So there is even more reason than usual to get immersed in nature, which is immune to gloom. How fantastic to hear that Humpy the Humpback whale was doing its stuff off the coast of Northumberland and Freddie the Harbour Seal was entertaining the crowds beside the Thames in the middle of London.

A couple of really good, healthy stories to brighten up the news on a national level. Smiles all round.

Until Humpie got tangled up in a lobster pot rope and washed up on Blythe beach, and Freddie was mauled by a dog and had to be put to sleep. Just a few days apart.

Double Mega Groaaannnn.

So the sight of a magnificent Great Northern Diver sitting on the sea in front of my kayak in the middle of Plymouth Sound was a welcome return to normal levels of excitement, enjoying the positivity of nature. Great Northern Divers are the Loons of North America, and their haunting wail drifting across a misty lake in the Canadian wilderness is one of the great sounds of the wilderness.

They also appear on the Canadian Dollar coin which is dubbed the ‘loonie’.

This particular bird was probably born in Iceland or Greenland, and has flown over a thousand miles to spend the winter in the fish-filled and sheltered waters of South Devon.

It is always a thrill to see one so I took a photo and then had a quick check of the image to see that it was in focus. And then groaned even louder than all the previous groans put together. Punctuated by a few choice expletives. There was fishing line wrapped around its beak and probably around the base of its wing as well. Poor blooming bird. It has flown all this way to enjoy the protection of our coast and it is greeted with a mouthful of fishing line which has probably got a hook on the end of it.

Loonatic looking like he is doomed

A far as I was concerned there was going to be a hat-trick of catastrophe…this bird was heading the same way as Humpy and Freddie.

I sent my photo to environmentalist Claire (in a despairing sort of way) who lives on the edge of the Sound, and she circulated it via Rame Wildlife Rescue Network. She said that a lot of pairs of eyes would be looking out for the stricken bird, but I really didn’t have any hope that it would be picked up. Divers rarely come ashore away from their breeding areas.

So I nearly fell of my seat when Claire contacted me a few days later to say the Loon had been found on a slipway beside a marina in the middle of Plymouth and taken into care by a local rescue centre, Athena Wildlife and Bird of Prey Rehab. They removed the tangle of line which was thankfully not attached to a hook and fed the bird sardines for a couple of days. When it appeared to be as healthy as it was going to get they released it back onto the water and it swam away strongly, dipping its head underwater searching for its next snack!

Here’s some pics from Athena Facebook page (thanks for allowing me to use them):

Loonatic
Fishing Line down the throat
Looking for someone to peck

Absolutely amazing! It must be the most fortunate Loon on the planet.

According to Lianne from Athena, who I spoke to on the phone, it was also the most feisty. It spent so much of its time in care trying to stab people with its dagger of a beak, they christened it ‘Loonatic’. This fighting spirit will hopefully ensure its full recovery and allow it a successful return trip to the far north. Maybe I will even bump into it again next winter.

This is not the first time I have seen a Great Northern Diver tangled in fishing line. Here is a very similar image from a remote loch in the north of Scotland a few years ago. This bird unfortunately will not have benefitted from a team such as Claire and Lianne, so almost certainly did not survive.

Scottish Loon entangled in fishing line

The rescue of Loonatic is an incredibly heartening story. Thanks to the fantastic work by Lianne and her team from Athena, and Claire and Rame Wildlife Rescue Network, a hat-trick of gloom and despondency has been avoided.

Humpie fell foul of fishing gear and Freddie died as a result of a thoughtless dog owner. But Loonatic, against all odds, was saved by the dedication and diligence of a group of wildlife volunteers.

Good job!

Sights and Sounds of Torbay

A rarity for the end of March…hardly a breath of wind for the whole day. Calm sea means the door is open for offshore paddling, so that’s what we did. Mark and I set off from Brixham, took a close look at Berry Head and then crossed the mouth of Torbay to Hope’s Nose. Then we paddled back.

I had only just poured my first cup of coffee and we had barely got into our long-distance paddling rhythm when a small fleet of fins broke the surface in front of us. Excellent: five Common Dolphins.

Common Dolphins

As usual a couple came over to check us out and surged beneath our kayaks, but the group were not in a particularly sociable mood and steadily made their way towards Berry head. Common Dolphin pods cruise at about four miles per hour so it takes a bit of ooomph to keep up with them over long distance (in our fairly slow sit-on-top kayaks).

The jetskis were already out and about and I was wishing we had been on the water earlier to avoid the engine noise. I watched the behaviour of the dolphins closely as we followed the little pod at a respectful distance, with jetskis buzzing about all around. It was heartening to see that the ski drivers who noticed the dolphins steered away or throttled back, and as far as I could tell the dolphins were not directly disturbed by any of the multitude of passing craft which included fishing boats, speedboats and yachts. I don’t suppose this is always the case.

Common Dolphins and Jetski

The largest dolphin had a multicoloured dorsal fin and landed with a bit of a belly flop and splash every time it surfaced to breathe.

Common Dolphin, Torbay

The dolphins accompanied Mark and I past the focal point of boat activity off the end of Berry Head, and headed on out to sea. We swung north and aimed for the Ore Stone, four miles away across the mouth of Torbay. It was only just visible through the mist.

En route we passed a multitude of Razorbills and Guillemots that were in the process of changing into breeding plumage and saw a couple of small flocks of Manx Shearwaters heading south. We heard the puff of the porpoise but failed to eyeball the creature.

Moulting Guillemot

The Ore Stone was a flurry of activity with hundreds of auks sitting on their nesting ledges, doing a lot of cackling.

We looped around Thatcher rock where there was a handful of hauled-out seals. My first couple of Sandwich Tern of the season called out as they flew north.

After an early lunch on a shingly beach we couldn’t resist an inspection of the sleeping Eurodam, a cruise liner moored in the middle of Torbay.

That’s me !!
The

We then pointed back to Berry Head to see if any new ‘fins’ were visible. We bumped into Simon on the way, and had a lengthy chat while bobbing about a mile offshore.

Simon and Mark relaxing

As the three of us rounded Berry Head a ferociously fast and ferocious-looking black RIB sped past and spun to a halt in front of us… the ‘Raptor’ from Torquay. It was powered by a staggering 900 HP….that’s more than sixteen Vauxhall Chevettes! I’m not quite sure what the residents porpoises will think of this addition to the line-up of craft that they have to listen to, and dodge, but the captain seemed tuned-in to the local cetaceans and they are accredited wildlife-friendly operators.

The Raptor

We finished off with a slingshot around the little island of Cod Rock, where I was exceptionally pleased to see half-a-dozen Purple Sandpipers poking about amongst the weed, dodging the splash of the swells. They are my favourite coastal wading bird and are a speciality of the kayak because they favour remote rocky locations which are not visible from the land, such as islands.

Purple Sandpiper, Cod Rock

Six-and-a-half hours in total (inc. leisurely lunch), sixteen miles.

Glass-off

Paddling across a glass-calm surface is kayaking heaven for me. There is something all a bit magical about it. The sensation of flying, the effortlessness and the complete silence (apart from the squeak of thermos lids being unscrewed, and the rustle of the Jelly Babies packet).

We have been able to enjoy a few of these sort of days recently, thanks to Covid local launch rules.

Roadford Lake is the closest piece of water, and provides a decent seven-mile tour around its perimeter.

Mark at Roadford

A recent wildlife highlight at the lake was a flyover by a Red Kite. Kites do not yet breed down in Devon so this is a wandering bird.

Roadford Red Kite

When conditions are misty and still, the local estuaries are even better, especially in the very early morning.

The Fowey estuary is a superb winter paddle because the steep sides of the valley provides protection from the wind, and there is always some interesting wildlife to eyeball. On a really calm day it is more usual to hear the animals before you see them.

The piping of Redshank and Greenshank…

Greenshank, Redshank, Greenshank, Redshank

the creak of wings of a passing squadron of swans….

Mute Swans

or even the splash of Serena Lowen the resident Harbour Seal.

Serena the Seal
Serena relaxing

Here’s a couple more glassy water pics. No commentary required.

I managed a couple more otter sightings just before lockdown came into operation. They were, as usual, right at the top of one of my local estuaries.

This individual puts in quite an impressive racing dive, with a splashless and smooth entry.

You can see by the way the branch rebounds that the otter is quite a sizeable creature. A dog otter is in fact heavier than a fox.





One more smooth water pic and that’s this blog done! Apologies if it’s been a bit short, and a bit bitty. Such is the nature of lockdown life.

More adventures coming soon when we get the nod to explore a bit further. Hopefully.

Dave creasing velvet

Yippee! First Dolphins of the Year

Covid lockdown has limited my wanderings in search of golden nuggets of nature as seen from my kayak. This didn’t matter too much during the stormy weather but the settled conditions of the last few days have made me get a bit twitchy.

So when the forecast of a morning with no wind at all came along, I was determined to make the most of one of my local launch points and hopefully be able to nose offshore. Once again my enthusiasm got the better of me and I set off too early, shivering in subzero temperatures as I paddled out from the coast just after dawn. Fortunately the sun soon got to work, beaming down from an unbroken blue sky. Lovely.

It was a good wildlife start to the day, with a couple of drake Eider ducks close in to the shore. One in smart black-and-white adult plumage, one an immature bird.

Immature Drake Eider

Next up were the seals. I kept well away from their haul-out area, especially because their multiple yawns suggested they needed more of a rest.

Yawning Seal

I was closely investigated by a couple of youngsters, as usual.

And then it was decision time. Did I paddle along the coast and enjoy hearing the the piping of an Oystercatcher, the ‘cronk’ of a Raven and maybe catch a glimpse of a scorching Peregrine, or did I head offshore onto the limitless blue velvet expanse?

Of course I chose option B, and was expecting to see very little. There were the usual seabirds scattered about: Guillemots and Razorbills in various stages of moult, a few Kittiwakes and just one or two roving Gannets. My hope of a bit more action was raised by the large number of gulls which were circling around, and every so often one dipped down to the surface and shallow-dived onto a shoal of pilchards. Although their efforts were clumsy, they were surprisingly successful.

The complete silence sharpened my senses and I stared at the horizon hoping to see a fin. At the absolute limit of my vision, looking directly towards the sun (wearing shades which I had luckily found at the bottom of my dry bag), I saw a glint at the surface. Just for a second. Probably a mile further out.

The sea was so exceptionally smooth there was no sparkling from the tops of wavelets, so I started to paddle out to investigate. After fifteen minutes I started to throttle back and nearly gave up, and then saw the glinting again. I was still to far away to see anything appear at the surface, but I powered on nevertheless.

I was in my inflatable kayak which is significantly slower than my usual craft, so it took nearly half-an-hour before I saw a dark back break the surface. Followed by half-a-dozen more….dolphins!

Juvenile Common Dolphin

They were milling about in one area feeding, so I sat and watched from a good distance. It was a pod of about eight Common Dolphins, and they all appeared to be fairly small and about the same size, so I think it was a group of adolescents.

Common Dolphins

They suddenly broke off from their feeding and surged over to check me out, so I tried to provide a bit of entertainment for them by piling on the power, but I don’t think they were very impressed by the pathetic pressure wave I was able to generate despite a lot of huffing and puffing, and splashing.

Even so, their curiosity was maintained for several minutes as they circled around and had a very good look. Then they suddenly took off and were gone.

I was now nearly three miles offshore, so decided to ease back towards the coast although was constantly distracted by a resting seabird that needed to be identified. I’m forever hopeful a distant Razorbill might turn out to be a Puffin.

Remarkable I bumped into the little dolphin pod an hour later, when I was still two and-a-half miles out. They didn’t show any interest in me at all this time….quite a snub!

On the way back in I was surprised to see a flock of five Manx Shearwaters zip past…..my earliest sighting of this migratory species ever. Spring has sprung!

Manx Shearwaters

It was so still I could hear the Oystercatchers piping on the island while I was still well over a mile out to sea.

Oystercatcher looking good

This was my first cetacean sighting since I bumped into six porpoises at the mouth of Plymouth Sound on 2nd January. Hopefully the first of many dolphins sightings this year. And with a bit of luck something a lot bigger.

Common Dolphin

Looking Back on 2020

Despite a few lockdowns and time off with a health issue, 2020 has been my best year yet for cetaceans in terms of numbers.

In Cornwall and Devon: 936 in total, compared to 836 in 2019, and 764 in 2018.

This 936 consisted of 688 Common Dolphins which I saw on 26 days, 239 Harbour porpoises which I saw on 39 days, and nine Minke Whales on six days.

I didn’t see any Bottlenose Dolphins, Risso’s Dolphins or Humpbacks in SW England, but if you are a fan of any of these don’t log off because I have some new pics and vids of these charismatic creatures at the end of this blog, taken from the kayak seat of course, but overseas.

You can’t read too much into these statistics, because on one day in early August I saw a superpod of over one hundred dolphins, so I only need to come across a couple of them a year, and dolphin numbers would look very healthy. However it did seem to be a good year for Common Dolphins, probably because the very sunny and settled Spring favoured the survival of schools of shoaling fish. I noticed this little boom of fish all around the coast in mid-June.

Fish Fry

I had some really memorable eye to eye encounters with some inquisitive dolphins, including some small calves, and even managed to see the same dolphin in two separate locations, twenty-five miles apart. This might not surprise you too much, but if you have ever tried to photograph a common dolphin from a kayak, and then sift through five hundred images from each of the two occasions, and then some little bell rings in the back of your head that you might have seen that dolphin before (when they all look more or less the same), it’s no mean feat.

eyeball to eyeball with Common Dolphin
Common Dolphin and calf

My Harbour Porpoise records are maybe a little bit more worrying. 239 individuals on 39 days in 2020, compared to 257 on 34 days in 2019, and 327 on 44 days in 2018. This apparent decline is probably not significant, but the coastal waters during August, when their numbers peak, was a cacophonous din of motor boats and jetskis. More than usual due to staycations. If I was a shy and unobtrusive little creature like a porpoise I might just clear off somewhere else. If boat engines are loud above the water, they’re deafening below.

The Minke Whale sightings were, as usual, excitement off the scale for me in my little craft, far far out to sea, all by myself. I know I go on about it a lot, but the blow of a whale is just the best sound in the animal world. And a kayak is the best platform to experience them, because it so silent you can hear the whales blowing when they are still too far away to see.

The Minke action was focused around the Eddystone reef off Plymouth, with two or three there on 22 July, another on 29 July, and three or four on 11 Aug.

I also saw single Minke Whales at Penzance and Looe but my best view was in completely glassy conditions five miles off Fowey on 10 September. This whale looked quite big, but the shape of the fin and the fact that it had no visible blow, makes me almost certain it is a Minke.

Minke Whale Fowey

That brings my whale total, since I started going to look for them in earnest in 2014, to twenty one. Sixteen Minkes, three Humpbacks, one possible Sei. I look forward to adding Pilot, Fin…..and hopefully Orca to the list soon!

My most extraordinary, and unexpected sighting last year was the enormous number of Giant Bluefin Tuna that were shredding the sea off Plymouth. They were ripping up patches the size of a tennis court as far as the eye could see. The first feeding frenzy kicked off so quickly and with such an explosive roar, I cricked my neck when I turned round to see what was going on. Just for a second I thought it was a surfacing submarine.

I saw about a hundred fish break the surface, but there must have been many, many more below. Amazing. It was definitely a good year for tuna, and by far my best ever. I saw them on thirteen occasions from late July to early December, all along the south coast from Land’s End to Torbay. Mostly over a mile offshore.

Bluefin Tuna

Seals are always a welcome sight, and are very inquisitive and interactive when they are in the water. Even though they seem to be increasingly tolerant of human activity, especially the ones that inhabit the sheltered water with more recreational craft further east, I steer well clear of seals hauled out on land. It’s unfair to disturb them when they are resting. Their nervousness out of the water matches their confidence when they are in it.

So I was very careful to stay well out to sea and use my camera on maximum zoom when I came across a couple of white fluffy seal pups on a shingly beach. It was great to see Mum patting and smoothing her little baby with her huge flipper with incredibly dexterity and gentleness.

Up at head of the creeks near the high tide mark I had my four best ever Otter sightings in Devon and Cornwall all in a ten day period in late November. Two, one of a dog otter that stared so hard at me that it ended up on tiptoe, and the other of a mother and chirping cub, were on the same day an hour apart.

Chirping Otter Pup

I saw the same cub, still calling his mum, but even louder this time, a few days later, And just when I thought that I wouldn’t ever get a better view of an otter, I came across a family of three on the River Torridge.

I could hear a pup chirping over the loud roar of a weir. In fact it was amazing that the sound of the rushing water drowned out all other sounds except the chirp of the otter. No doubt that is why the call is set at that pitch.

Torridge otter family

Anyway, I had plenty of advanced warning and tucked in close to the bank to watch. A great, prolonged performance by an exuberant couple of cubs, plus mum trying to keep their over excitement in check. All on the Torridge, legendary home of otters.

Best birds of the year were undoubtedly the pair of Roseate Terns that were resting on a headland near Mevagissey, trying to summon up the enthusiasm for the long migration to west Africa. Absolute stunners, they were still in full breeding plumage, and I think you can even see the pink flush on the Persil white of their tum!

Roseate Tern

I wouldn’t have known they were Roseates unless they were perched….in flight they are very similar to Common and Arctic terns, to an amateur birder like me anyway.

It’s important not to forget the attraction of the local birds. Some are more often heard than seen. The skulking but beautiful Water Rail spends much of its time wailing like a tortured cat from a patch of reeds, only occasionally creeping out into the open beside the canal.

Water Rail

It was lovely to see this Snipe before it saw me first and scarpered, which is what usually happens 99.9% of the time. What a beak is that!

Snipe

Finally in the bird department, I have learnt a new call this year. The ‘pik’ warning cry of an adult Oystercatcher to tell its offspring to go and hide. As a result, I have found a lot more Oystercatcher families around the coast than were previously known. Good stuff.

Oystercatcher family

To finish off, lets go back to the cetaceans. I will never forget the multitude of Humpbacks we saw in the Antarctic at the end of January. Loads from our mothership, the Greg Mortimer, and a dozen from the kayaks. They are just bursting with personality and gentle curiosity. The juvenile which repeatedly swam under our kayak could have flattened Becky and I with a twitch of its flukes or flippers, but was very careful not even to cause the slightest swirl to disturb our kayak.

Humpie and Greg Mortimer expedition ship

A week in Spain during the lockdown ‘gap’ in late summer allowed me to venture out into the Med, within sight of Gibraltar. The Mediterranean doesn’t have a great reputation with regard to pollution and overfishing, so I was very pleased to come across some big pods of Common Dolphins, which appeared nearly all to be juveniles, a couple of Bottlenose dolphins close to the shore, and a pair of really big Rissos dolphins well offshore. The latter were blowing as loud as whales, and one had a gnarled-looking dorsal fin with a white tip, looking like a snow-capped mountain.

I was going to include only one of the dolphin videos, but because its still lockdown so you havn’t got any pressing need to be anywhere else, here’s the whole lot for you to enjoy. Just listen to those splashes, puffs and blows! The magic of watching from the kayak.

Common Dolphins
Bottlenose Dolphins
Risso’s Dolphins
Common Dolphins
Common Dolphins
Common Dolphins
Bottlenose Dolphins
Risso’s Dolphins

2021 has already got a bit of catching up to do. I managed to see six porpoises at the mouth of Plymouth sound on 2nd Jan, and that’s it so far. I’m looking forward to being allowed out again soon. I don’t suppose the animals mind.

Humpback Match!

Humpback, 2 Aug 2019

This is just the best story.

It embraces everything that I have always liked about wildlife, and the people who are enthusiastic about wildlife. And you will not find a more enthusiastic person on the planet than those who are fans of the Humpback whale.

‘Once seen, never forgotten’ doesn’t quite do justice to the experience of an encounter with a Humpback. It is complete sensory and excitement overload.

(watch Becky’s double take in this video, as she sees the fin just underneath the kayak!)

Becky and the inquisitive Humpback calf, Antarctica 2020

There are several groups of whale enthusiasts around the UK and Ireland who have set up photo ID catalogues of Humpback Whales. The markings on the underside of the tail fluke of a Humpback give each whale a very individual signature which gives the opportunity of making a match between sightings. The biggest challenge is getting that photograph.

You need a whale for a start. This isn’t a problem in the Humpback hotspots around the world such as Antarctica and California, but it is an issue here in Southwest England, because there are so few about. Just a handful seen around the coast of Cornwall each year before 2020.

I still can’t believe I was lucky enough to stumble across this Humpback lungeing about engulfing huge mouthfuls of sandeels and sprats off the coast of West Cornwall last year. The chances of me being in exactly the right place at exactly the right time, three miles offshore in my little kayak, to watch the whale which was only in the area only for a couple of hours, are miniscule.

Penzance Humpback, 2 Aug 2019

I managed to get a half decent pic of the underside of its tail, which I sent in to Emer at ORCAIreland at to see if they might have a match to any of the Irish-seen whales in their catalogue. No, this was a new whale so I gave it the nickname Cream Tea, given it’s Cornish location and colour of its flukes.

Fast forward to last week, and I was contacted by Lyndsay Mcneill from Scottish Humpback ID to tell me that Cream Tea had been photographed again! Just before Christmas in the Isles of Scilly by Martin Goodey. Here’s one of his pics:

Matin Goodey’s pic, Xmas 2020

This is the first EVER match of a Humpback whale in southwest England. On the face of it you might not think that is a surprise for a whale to be seen twice in areas which are only forty miles apart. But if you throw into the mix that these records were sixteen months apart, and getting a decent fluke shot is virtually impossible because there are hardly any whales around and when they do raise their flukes the chances of it being at the right angle for you to snap it is small, this is astonishing.. Not to mention the challenges of photography from a moving boat……or tippy kayak!

Martin, incidentally, named the Humpback ‘Pi’ because of the markings on the base of the fluke that resemble the mathematical symbol. Nice one, rather more carefully thought out than my ‘Cream Tea’….

So what has Pi/Cream Tea been doing in the sixteen months between sightings? You might be tempted to think he/she has been hanging about in the fertile and fish-filled waters of SW England, gorging on the seasonal abundance of various shoaling fish. If that is the case you might have expected more sightings, because Humpbacks quite like to fish close to the shore, unlike most other whales.

And they are a migratory species. The North Atlantic population breed in the tropics during the northern winter, and then swim north to feed up towards the Arctic for the northern summer.

Scottish Humpback ID have matches between Scotland and arctic feeding grounds such as Norway, Iceland and Svalbard, as well as between Scotland and the breeding areas of Cape Verde and the Azores. One whale has even been seen in Shetland and Guadeloupe in the Caribbean.

Migration map of North Atlantic Humpbacks

It is likely that this Humpback was born in the Cape Verdes, so may well have wandered back down there during the time between sightings. Either to breed if it is an adult, or just to socialise if is a youngster. Or maybe, if it is an adolescent, it has in fact hung around the shores of the UK, as some whales are seen unexpectedly out of season. Who knows?

And then….just after Christmas I was contacted by Humpback expert Michael Amos who told me another match had been made.

The Irish Whale and Dolphin Group had photographs taken by Nick Massett off the coast of Dingle, Co Kerry, taken in August and October this year that matched Pi/Cream tea! Incredible, because this is the first EVER match made between Ireland and Cornwall.

So TWO match ‘firsts’, both involving the same whale, made within a week or two of each other.

Humpback ‘Cream Tea’ and St.Michael’s Mount

If you are half-interested in marine megafauna the significance of these repeat sightings cannot be understated. They hopefully mean that everybody’s favourite whale, and arguably the world’s most charismatic creature, will now once again be a regular visitor to SW England.

This really DOES seem to be the case because in the last couple of months there have been a couple of Humpbacks regularly seen around the coast of west Cornwall, and up to seven off the Isles of Scilly. Together with several sightings of the giant Fin whales.

So this story is all good, good, and good. A blend of citizen science, dogged detective work and oodles of enthusiasm and excitement from everyone involved.

I have been very pleased to be part of this series of groundbreaking ‘firsts’, and am thrilled that whale-watching from my kayak has progressed from ludicrous (in terms of almost guaranteed failure each time I go out) pastime to having some benefit to science.

Humpback mother and calf. Antarctica Feb 2020 (from the kayak!)

Terrific Torbay: A Dozen Dolphins, Score of Seals, Pair of Porpoises, Loads of Loons

Torbay was a winter wildlife wonderland today. It’s hard to believe you can see this variety of mega sea creatures from your kayak, right here in Devon, on a day which is as close to the darkest depths of winter as it is possible to get. During a five hour, ten mile circuit of the southern half of the bay.

There she blows!…..(sort of)

A small pod of quietly cruising dolphins were well within the bay in the calm water in the shelter of Berry Head. So absolutely perfect for a bit of relaxed observation, although the dolphins did seem to want a bit of sport and came over to bow ride so Mark and I felt obliged to pile on the paddling power from time to time.

These were Mark’s first kayak-seen dolphins, and I think several hundred, possibly thousands, of miles will pass under his OK Prowler before he gets another view as close up as this…….

That one’s almost on your lap, Mark

This was as good a Christmas show as we could have ever expected, and it had all the ingredients of a full-on festive panto:

IT’S BEHIND YOU!

The calm of the early morning was slowly swept away by a steadily increasing offshore breeze, so we didn’t nose our kayaks far out into the more lumpy sea off Berry Head. Just far enough to have a couple of close-up views of a pair of porpoises. I was hoping that Mark would hear the classic porpoise ‘puff’, and told him to sit absolutely still with ears on red alert. Then a porpoise surfaced within a few feet of him and almost blew his beanie off! ( a wee bit of exaggeration, but you get the gist).

The three-mile offshore stretch to the sheltered beaches of Paignton were a bit of a slog as the headwind was increasing and the sky was leaden. However the sea felt very alive and Gannets were circling and Kittiwakes were dipping to the surface. Lots of Guillemots and Razorbills about too. We didn’t see any more fins, but a very acceptable substitute were the number of Loons we passed.

Mostly Great Northern Divers (Common Loons), several of which were in family groups of three. Mum, Dad, and offspring. I’m sure that’s what they are because they talk to each other, using a very quiet little laughing call, like a family. I find it amazing to think that they manage to stay together during migration from their breeding lakes in Iceland, or somewhere like that, to here in Devon.

Great Northern Divers (Common Loons)

More of a surprise were the pair of Red-throated Divers closer to the shore. They prefer the north coast of Devon and Cornwall and are not so frequent down here.

Not that easy to distinguish from the Great-Northerns, but the upturned beak is distinctive.

Red-throated Divers (loons)

We had lunch on a beach in the drizzle. A token tasteless ham sandwich followed by a much more exciting biscuit, chocolate and fudge fest.

Then we followed the coast back to the slipway.

And came across this extremely inquisitive seal pup. I suspect it is one of the pups I saw as a few day-old bundle of white fluff on a beach five miles away.

If Mark starts to think that this sort of close up encounter happens every time he goes out in his kayak, he is on a collision course with disappointment…..

Seal pup
Inquisitive seal
sniggering seal

Family of Otters on the Torridge

River Torridge

Another sensational view of an otter family, this time on the River Torridge. The last couple of encounters have been on the Tamar in the south of the county.

The Torridge has a stronger link to otters than other other UK river, both in legend and in reality. It was the home of Henry Williamson’s ‘Tarka the Otter’, and it was the last stronghold of the species when they were nearly wiped out by organochlorine pesticides (and persecution) during 1950s to 1970s.

So a Torridge otter is even more special than a ‘normal’ otter.

Torridge dawn

And on this particular day last week it was a really exceptional prolonged view, which gave a rare glimpse into ottery family life.

As I approached a weir and was hauling my kayak out of the water for the portage, I could hear an otter chirping above the roar of the water. The call is like a really loud and piercing contact call of a Coot.

So I crept along the bank past the weir, and saw three otters slithering their way upstream close to the far bank. Undoubtedly a mother and two well-grown pups. The pup in the video below can’t resist exploring across to the other side of the river, but isn’t quite brave enough to lose contact with the security of mum. So it chirps the entire time.

otter pup

After its little expedition, the pup sped back across the river to the join up with its sibling, and they worked there way back down the far bank. I’m pretty sure this is Mum on the shore in this clip. Her movements are a bit more measured than the more frantic behaviour of her offspring, and her coat is more sleek than the more unkept appearance of the adolescents.

otter on the shore

I really like this next clip. as mother tries to maintain control of her exuberant pup. The youngster is busy champing over his last snack and is delayed by the distraction of a branch. Mum comes back to chivvy him/her along, but even then it gets held up by something else of interest, with back foot planted on the trunk of a tree.





Here’s the three of them together. Mum is first to climb out onto the tree branch. I think she can sense my presence, twenty-five yards away across the river. A sort of amber alert. A pup barges in beside her and can’t resist boisterously snapping at its passing sibling as it glides past.

And finally. before they disappeared off down river, here’s the busy little family doing what otters do best. Mum in the middle looking alert, pups fooling about behind.

It’s no surprise that the Torridge is such a good place for otters. It is pretty remote country with hardly any disturbance from humans or wandering dogs. And there is loads of cover to make otters feel secure. Heavily wooded banks, loads of fallen trees, tangles of roots.

Typical Torridge bank

They certainly seem to like it.

Otter pup

First Dolphins for Blinking Ages

Queen Mary 2, Torbay

I havn’t had a good encounter with cetaceans for over two months, mainly because sea conditions have not been conducive to paddling offshore. So I’ve been getting a bit twitchy. Especially as my efforts to see the Humpback whales near Land’s End recently were a spectacular failure.

I flogged fifteen miles from Penzance to Tater Du lighthouse and back, and the whales were a few miles further down the coast. And I missed a pod of Bottlenose dolphins which were close to shore……typical! Although as a consolation I did see ten porpoises and a couple of breaching tuna.

Winter paddling is harder work than in the summer. You are wrapped up in thermals and a drysuit which restrict arm movements, and the cold doesn’t enhance muscle function. Not to mention the lack of feelgood factor with the warmth of the sun on the back of your neck. The end result is that the mileage at the end of the day is a bit lower.

Today was forecast to be the last day of lightish winds for a while, so I opted for Torbay. There is always plenty going on to keep a kayaker amused. Brixham is constantly busy.

Brixham Trawler

And the seals around the harbour are always entertaining:

Brixham Seal

I paddled out to Berry Head, expecting a porpoise or two in the more swirly water off the end of the point. However instead I saw a couple of dolphins hurling themselves about in the distance. I ratcheted up the speed and paddled towards them, but after half an-hour I hadn’t really closed the gap. This is part of the frustration/fun of watching dolphins from a kayak. Pods typically cruise along at about 4mph. So no problem if you are in a boat with an engine, but when you are paddling a kayak which only goes at 4mph when you really push it, and 5 (or possibly 6 in smooth conditions) if you give it everything you’ve got, the best view you might get is a load of fins disappearing off into the distance.

(very) distant dolphin

I was a couple of miles off the headland and beginning to lose heart, but fortunately the dolphins suddenly changed direction and charged towards me, apparently to say hello. A couple of youngsters surged about in my insignificant bow wave, and continued to splosh about, apparently out of curiosity, as I did a bit of filming.

juvenile dolphins

Excellent. Great to see them again. Interestingly, two of the adults were launching their noses well out of the water during each breath, and falling back with a splash. I have previously thought this was some kind of abnormal surfacing action, possibly as the result of an injury, but having seen it quite often (including in Spain), I think it is the adults taking a look around above the surface. It is very possible that this is complete rubbish, and it is just the way they sometimes swim. See what you think…..

This pod of about eight then moved on, but I bumped into another little group of five, which appeared to be all adolescents, as I headed back towards Berry Head. Being young and inquisitive, they spent a long time sloshing about around my kayak.

It was a long haul back to the headland, against the tide and wind, which was fortunately still quite light. But it was spiced up with four interesting nuggets of wildlife, three very good, and one very bad.

Here’s the good:

1, A Great Northern Diver flying past:

Great Northern Diver

2. A couple of Porpoises:

Harbour Porpoise

3. A couple of huge silvery fish leaping, accompanied by a mighty splash…..Giant Bluefin Tuna!! Wow! Not a hope of a photo. Far too quick.

Here’s the bad:

A freshly dead Common Dolphin.

dead dolphin

But overall a very enjoyable day:

Have You Ever Heard an Otter Chirp?

Otter Country

Going back to see otters where they were a few days ago usually results in disappointment. They are more than likely somewhere else, or sleeping up, or they spot you before you spot them. In fact I don’t think I’ve ever done it before.

It’s a bit different if you are in a hide on the bank of the river because time is on your side. When you are in a kayak sitting around in one particular place when there is nothing happening, you get a bit twitchy to move on. I do, anyway. There might be something amazing just round the corner.

So I was staggered to see a couple of small otters roll at the surface in just about the same place as three days ago.

Otter pup

The instant I saw them I slunk in amongst the trees on the bank as stealthily as possible, far enough away for them not to detect me. When I saw them again only one was still visible, and it just didn’t stop chirping!

This is undoubtedly a pup and it is presumably chirping to maintain contact with its mother, who was probably the other otter I saw initially. I suppose it could have been a sibling. This is the nature of otter-watching…..piecing together fragments of the briefest of glimpses before they disappear.

However today, like a few days ago, I had a prolonged view of this little otter swimming in the open, and even better I didn’t cause it any concern at all. (it seemed to be concerned enough already!)

I think this next clip is quite unusual. In nearly two hundred sightings I have only heard otters vocalising on a handful of occasions : one ‘shrieking’ in Scotland, and two or three times family groups chirping in the rivers of Devon, but always fleeting sightings of disappearing brown bodies.

Otter pup chirping

It swam around and chirped for at least five minutes. The call seemed almost frantic and I started to think that maybe it had lost its mother, but eventually it disappeared into the reeds and all went quiet. Hopefully a happy family reunion.

Otter pup (still) chirping

So if you had never heard an otter chirp, you have now!