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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
As we paddled at top speed to see them a gin-palace powerboat also saw them and adjusted course, as did a jetski…groan!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
I tend to take the scenery for granted while straining my eyes for wildlife.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
On this particular trip we saw a couple of Turnstones which were as usual very tame and looking quite smart in their summer plumage.
There is some great ‘rock-hopping’ to have and gaps to be explored between Mevagissey and Pentewan.
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.
When the company is good and the weather is warm everybody loves kayaking.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
What is going on? Yet another sunny day on the North Cornwall coast with no incoming swell. Not good if you are a surfer, but absolutely brilliant if you are a sea kayaker who has a penchant for cetaceans and likes to venture as far offshore as possible.
The sandy Camel estuary between Rock and Padstow was looking stunning in the sunshine of the late April morning. And the water was as clear as I have ever seen, no doubt due to the virtual absence of rain over the last month, and helped by the fact that the sea life hasn’t ‘got going’ yet. The plankton bloom is yet to kick off, resulting in increased cloudiness known as ‘ May Water’ (or so I have been told).
Having said that, the plankton IS already evident on the south Cornwall coast and a couple of Basking Sharks have been sighted in the Falmouth area hoovering it all up.
The two mile paddle to the mouth of the Camel estuary was a treat. It is over a shallow sandy bottom so the sea look positively Caribbean. The shoreline was dotted with early morning dog-walkers and their rampaging pets. Migrating shorebirds such as Whimbrels have a tough time finding a secluded beach on which to gather themselves for their onward journey, as every available patch of sand seems to come with a marauding dog.
This is the Whimbrel time of year. Whimbrels have the tremendous (if a bit unimaginative) old name of ‘Seven Whistler.’ Its characteristic piping call consisting of seven identical notes is one of the sounds of Spring on the open coast. There is a doomladen old saying which relates to the call of Whimbrel migrating overhead in the dark. It describes the ‘six birds of fate’ which fly about at night seeking their lost companion. When all seven are united, according to the story, the world will end.
Why can’t the ending describe them all being thrilled to get together again and going off for an all-night party?
Daymer Bay was absolute glass which made gliding over the turquoise water even more of a thrill.
It was marginally less smooth after I had crossed the Doom Bar and passed into the open sea around Stepper Point. I couldn’t resist a photo of the moon behind the chimney at the point. I made directly for Gulland rock a couple of miles offshore towards Trevose Head.
My intention was to slingshot around the island of Gulland Rock and then paddle north around the back of Newlands Rock and then on around ‘the Mouls’, before returning back past Rumps point and Pentire Head to Polzeath Bay.
I have never done this circuit involving all the three islands of Padstow Bay. Its the usual problem of wind and swell on theNorth Cornish coast not making for favourable paddling conditions on the day I would like to go.
But not so today! It was perfect.
The stench of guano from Gulland Rock assailed my nostrils half-a-mile before I got close, and I started to pass little groups of Razorbills and Guillemots as I rounded the southern tip of the rock.
I was a bit surprised at the very large rafts of auks floating about off the western side of Gulland Rock however; there must have been many hundred, with dozens more cackling from their nest sites on the cliffs. I drifted close enough for some decent photos and then paddled away before I caused a disturbance.
The three mile transit to Newlands was uneventful until I stopped for a coffee break on an exceptionally smooth patch of sea. I heard the piff of a porpoise but had difficulty in observing it because it was a lot further away than I had thought. It moved past to the south followed by a chum shortly after.
A few Manx Shearwaters zipped past and a few Gannets cruised overhead. Around the final island, The Mouls, I looked hard for the Puffins which are supposed to nest here, but didn’t see any. Just a very orange-looking seal basking on a rock. Last year’s pup?
I slid across the tidal current to get up close and personal with the dramatic, cliffy and highly convoluted coast at Rumps point. The flat conditions allowed me to paddle within inches of every nook and cranny. A Peregrine whinnied from its rocky promontory high above.
Round the corner into the relatively busy Polzeath Bay I brushed past a few paddleboarders that were spilling out from the beach where a few surfers bobbed in the disappointing (for them) swell.
I was paddling against the tide coming out of the Camel estuary but with a bit of cunning coast-hugging I managed to avoid most of the current. If there is no swell running so that you can get right in against the shore, I have found that when paddling against a current there are almost as many eddies working in your favour as there are flows of water against you. Another very specific advantage of a kayak!
Rock was absolutely buzzing with humanity when I got back. The queue for the ferry to Padstow was long (no doubt heading for fish ‘n chips at Rick Stein’s) and the car park full.
After my amazing hour spent watching the Bottlenose Dolphins I thought that the wildlife excitement was over for the day. I couldn’t have been more wrong.
The sea was so unusually smooth, with virtually no swell coming in from the Atlantic. I kept well offshore in the hope of seeing some Common Dolphins. One and-a-half miles from the coast. It was absolutely silent apart from the sporadic cackle of scattered groups of auks, and the ‘piff’ of a pod of four porpoises. It was so still that although the sound of their blows was quite loud they were so far away I could only just see their fins breaking the surface.
Half way between Mousehole and Lamorna Cove there was a loud ripping sound coming from somewhere overhead, as though the sky was being torn. A small dark shape hurtled down towards the sea and suddenly twisted and turned. At the same time I heard a faint whistle which sounded like a sandpiper, although it was the sandpiper equivalent of a desperate shriek.
I saw a brief splash as something hit the water, and the pursuing peregrine circled around for a second attempt to catch its victim. I rapidly dug out my camera and started snapping. The peregrine dropped to sea level and to my astonishment dipped its feet into the water to try to retrieve the sandpiper which had at this stage disappeared from the surface. It must have dived to avoid the peregrine.
The peregrine circled around again and again hovered briefly over the spot where the sandpiper floundered. No success so it circled around another couple of times. I could see the sandpiper’s head poking above the surface, which is just visible in one of the photos with the peregrine marauding above.
After four or five circuits the peregrine, which looked like a tiercel, gave up and made for the coast. I immediately paddled over to rescue the sandpiper which I thought must be in some kind of trouble. Even if it wasn’t , sandpipers are not designed to go swimming in the open sea (although funnily enough I saw a Grey phalarope swimming in almost exactly this place last September) so it probably needed some kind of help.
As I approached it understandably started swimming away, but I wasn’t expecting it to take flight when I was about six foot away. It seemed absolutely fine, alternating flapping with a brief glide on bowed wings in classic Common Sandpiper fashion. And was gone.
I was still trying to process what I had just witnessed. It’s always like that after a peregrine attack. The action is so unexpected and so fast and so exciting it’s a bit tricky for a doughbrain to process.
I still can’t quite believe that two of the most spectacular wildlife sightings I have had in over 17,000 miles paddled in my kayak occurred within an hour of each other.
This was forecast to be the last day of the cam weather in SW England before the high pressure moved away. In fact today was a bonus day because the winds were originally supposed to pick up overnight.
Despite spending virtually all day on the water yesterday I thought I’d better make the effort to go somewhere special and maybe do a bit of offshore paddling. Mount’s Bay should fit the bill nicely, with hopefully some cetacean sightings.
I arrived at Sandy Bay beside Newlyn harbour a bit later than I had intended. Although it’s not at all sandy it’s got a great view across the bay so I was going to have breakfast in a relaxed manner (muesli) before paddling off, while looking for marine wildlife through my binoculars.
No chance of relaxation. Within five seconds of lifting the binoculars to my eyes and focusing on the sea a mile away off Penlee point, I was watching a large pod of Bottlenose Dolphins moving steadily across the bay towards St. Michael’s Mount. Aaargh, if only I had arrived ten minutes earlier I would have been beside them.
I got all my kayaking stuff together in a record time (including packing muesli and milk) and went tearing off across the completely smooth water at Olympic pace. But the dolphins were gone so I throttled back and made a bee-line for St Michael’s Mount anyway. They might just be hanging around feeding somewhere.
I stopped for (late) breakfast in the middle of the bay and then cruised on. The briefest flash of sun reflected off the surface, which shouldn’t have happened because there were no waves. Just maybe it was a dolphin’s fin. There it was again, and this time it was followed by a splash. Yes!
I cranked the speed back up to over 5 mph, and soon started to see quite a few fins appearing, together with puffs of spray. I could hear the blows. The dolphins were now heading back towards me, so I drifted to a halt and waited. As they approached I could hear the engine of the Marine Discovery catamaran coming up behind me from Penzance harbour.
They put on a superb show right in front of us, surging about all over the place and occasionally hurling themselves right out of the water or just splashing on their sides. It was totally enthralling as there were quite a lot of them ( 15-20) and they are quite big creatures. In a kayak there is a feeling of uncertainty when they come really close.
After a brief chat with the Marine Discovery folk, and hearing the dolphins clicking on their hydrophone, they (Marine Dicovery) continued on their way, but I stayed to see more. This is the sort of excitement that fuels my paddling muscles. (as well as the muesli)
I spent over an hour watching them. Just me and the dolphins. They worked their way across the bay nearly to Penzance, and then came all the way back again. They accelerated past the end of St. Michael’s Mount and that is where I peeled off.
There were clearly two calves which were not only much smaller but also much paler than the rest. They led the way with the acrobatics and jumped clear of the water on several occasions. They stuck pretty close to Mum and seemed to remain in the middle of the group.
Two big dolphins with tall blackish fins, which I would presume to be males, patrolled around the outside of the pod like security guards.
I kept a good distance so as not to cause any disturbance, although I was expecting a posse to come over to have a look at me as Bottlenose dolphins have done in the past. A group did approach but then suddenly the whole lot disappeared, left a load of fluke prints all around my kayak, and then popped up a long way away. Maybe they saw me as some sort of threat and were protecting the calves.
I took loads of photos, most with the unexciting backdrop of Penzance industrial estate behind, but then the two bouncers appeared in front of the church (slightly better) before the whole lot passed in front of St. Michael’s Mount (a lot better).
After the dolphin encounter, I paddled across the bay past Mousehole keeping a mile offshore , saw a summer plumaged Great Northern Diver, heard a group of four porpoises puffing before I saw them, then popped in for a nose around Mousehole harbour before heading back around the corner to Sandy Bay.
Maybe the best thing about Bottlenose Dolphins is their permanent smile.