I was looking forward to a nice relaxed paddle around the sheltered waters of Poole Harbour as I hadn’t ‘done’ the islands for many years.
Even better the wind was forecast very light, but by the time I got on the water my fingers had been nipped by the breeze straight out of the north, so the gloves went on.
The sun arose hopefully behind the Sandbanks ferry but then disappeared behind a sheet of cloud.
I crossed the channel to the south side of Brownsea island which was supper-sheltered from the wind.
I looked hard for a Red Squirrel (which I have seen once as I paddled past here, long ago), but the movement that caught my eye turned out to be a herd of five Sika Deer, who seemed so surprised to see me slipping past in the early morning mid-January half-light, they couldn’t resist coming a bit closer for a good snoop.
Lovely to see them so close. Like seals, it doesn’t seem to have taken them many years to lose their fear of people when they don’t appear in the sights of a rifle as often as they used to. (seals are now completely protected, deer are culled in a specific season).
I did a figure of eight loop around Fursey Island and Green Island, with the top of a big spring tide allowing to get in good and close. At low tide there is an awful lot of mud exposed. I could hardly believe the industrial hum coming from the middle of the pine trees on Fursey Island was an oil well. It was staggeringly well concealed.
Then I crossed over to paddle round the back of Round Island and Long Island via the Wych Channel. A drake Red-Breasted Merganser was fishing here.
I kept well out from the mouth of Arne bay beacause I knew it would be stuffed full of resting birds (because it is an RSPB reserve), but was surprised to see a splurge
of white was a roosting flock of about thirty Spoonbills. These birds were an extreme rarity until very recently.
As I crossed the mile and-a-half of open water back to Brownsea the surface glassed of completely.
A piping posse of Oystercatchers performed a close fly-past.
I looped right around the eastern end of Brownsea island but instead of crossing back to my start point couldn’t resist another paddle up the flat calm water of the island’s southern shore.
This time I had a close encounter with a pair of Brent Geese, winter visitors from the arctic Tundra. Their chattering contact call is the soundtrack of the winter around here.
So it was worth the extra effort, but was then it was DEFINITELY time for lunch (and my toes were starting to freeze).
The deer could carry on doing their thing without worrying about what on earth the idiot in the little yellow boat was up to. They had that look in their eye.
When I started all this watching-wildlife-from-a-kayak lark I never thought in a million years I would have an encounter like I did today. Certainly not in the UK, and in early January.
I very nearly DIDN’T have the encounter because I had difficulty dredging myself out of bed at 6am, with every unoccupied cavity and crevice in my head full of mucus following my man-cold.
However the wind forecast for Mount’s Bay, Penzance, was too much of a lure. Light wind all day and total glass off between 9 and midday. As an added bonus there was hardly any swell diffracting round the corner from Land’s End, and the predicted ‘light cloud’ didn’t materialise, so I set off from Penzance harbour under completely blue skies.
I headed directly out to sea, towards a tanker moored three miles out in the bay. Not a great start in terms of wildlife….I passed a couple of loons and the odd Guillemot on the water, and one or two kittiwake and Gannet roaming about aimlessly.
However I was full of expectation as the surface was so smooth, and atmosphere so still, that if anything surfaced within a mile of me I would either see or hear it. A lone porpoise swam past far off, but that was it for an hour or so.
Closer in to the shore near Mousehole I could see a flurry of gulls which I initially thought were following a little fishing boat. As I angled towards the coast did I see the distant fin in amongst the blur of wings? I cranked up the speed to investigate and a distant dolphin leapt clear of the water. Excellent.
The next two hours were simply extraordinary. I sat and watched a pod of 20-25 Common Dolphins cruising about and herding and attacking a baitball of herring. I hardly had to paddle a single stroke during the whole time, because the fish kept trying to take refuge underneath my kayak.
Initially two others boats were enjoying the spectacle….the small fishing boat I had seen earlier, and Mermaid II out of Penzance.
Every so often a dolphin would lunge at the fish and herring would spray from the surface, something I have only ever seen before on the telly (or maybe not even there, come to think of it).
If you like dolphins you will absolutely love all these video clips, if you don’t you might find them a bit long and boring (and need to get a life):
The two boats departed so it was just me and the dolphins (and several thousand fish), and an awful lot of flat calm sea. Tough.
I always bring my GoPro, just in case, but never imagined being able to use it for underwater shots during the winter. Not only is the sea usually too choppy ( to be able to use it from a kayak), but the water is usually too murky because there has usually been recent storms and/or rain.
However I could see the dolphins zipping about beneath me (video):
so tried my luck at some underwater shots.
It was great to see a mother and calf come past so close. The youngsters stick like glue to mum’s side most of the time, but occasional shoot off to worry the fish, or hurl themselves out of the water.
As usually capturing that magical shot of a dolphin clean out of the water managed to elude me, but I did manage to picture what was undoubtedly the highest flying herring in Cornwall.
And the sensational action, in perfect light, and perfect conditions, just went on and on:
It was very interesting that this little ‘feeding’ group were essentially harassing the same baitball for over two hours. I have written many times before that most dolphin frenzies I have previously seen have dispersed by the time I roll in up my kayak, say twenty minutes to half an hour after I have sighted it. But this one was still going strong after at least two hours.
I think these dolphins were ‘playing’ with these fish as I’m sure they could have demolished the baitball in a few minutes if they were really hungry. Or more likely they were using the baitball to teach the youngsters of the group how to hunt. There were three or four calves in the pod and they were often the ones who would slash through the fish as they burst from the surface.
It was time to leave. As had been precisely forecast, a NW wind was just about to pick up, because I could see a dark line approaching across Mount’s Bay from Penzance. Only a gentle breeze but enough to make it feel a lot colder, especially with the building cloud. I kept warm with a steady pace for the five miles back to the harbour, enjoying the little posse of Purple Sandpipers that are seasonal visitors to Penzance during the winter.
Fantastic, and I am a real champion of the little creatures, but today was all about the dolphins.
You might think it’s no big deal to photograph the same Harbour Porpoise in more or less the same place three times in a month. Unlike dolphins which are highly mobile and could be dozens of miles away the next day, porpoises seem to be regular at certain sites around southwest England, particular headlands, and nowhere I have paddled holds a more reliable pod of porpoises than Berry Head.
It is certainly the best spot to see a porpoise from a kayak because of its proximity to an excellent launch spot at Brixham and its relatively sheltered location which results in a smooth sea surface (essential for porpoise-spotting) more often than headlands further west. Further west generally means a more disturbed sea state with more wind, swell, and tidal flow.
Berry Head also has a very well-defined tideline along which the porpoises, if they are around, love to forage.
So why am I so excited about Notchy?
For a start Notchy is the first identifiable (because of the notch at the base of his/her dorsal fin) cetacean I have seen on more than one occasion. Apart from Horace the Humpback whale that is (which was rather more easy to spot).
Secondly it is a window into the population dynamics of Harbour Porpoises. Is the same group here all the time? Or is there a hard core with a mobile population that comes and goes? Is there a seasonal pattern or is availability of fish more of an influence?
The possible answers to all of these questions are tremendously blurred by the difficulty of observing porpoises in anything apart from calm conditions. As soon as there are any breaking whitecaps the chances of seeing a fin reduce considerably. This is certainly the case from kayak and I would only consider venturing offshore in absolutely calm conditions. It is maybe not quite so critical if watching from a telescope from Berry Head.
The overall impression I get from observing porpoises from my kayak all round SW England is that there is a peak of numbers in August which falls away till early in the year, then very few about in April to June before numbers rapidly build. This is skewed by the sea conditions which are smoother in summer which encourage me to go out to where the porpoises hang out more, but it is interesting that I usually see numbers into double figures (max 24 this year) in August and September, but only ones and twos in May.
I think that availability of their favourite food has a lot to do with this apparent seasonality, with the appearance of mackerel accounting for the late summer surge, with herring and pilchard appearing in early winter, and a noticeable gap in these tasty fish in the Spring.
Socialisation might have something to do with it, with the main ‘rutting’ season for porpoises known to be in late summer, maybe contributing to increased group size (like a sort of porpoise Magaluf).
My son Henry had to good fortune to snap this pic of an ultra-rare white porpoise off the North coast of Cornwall, and to the best of my knowledge it hasn’t been seen since, but it would be quite easy for a five foot long porpoise to get lost in the swells of the north coast as there aren’t many observers or boats about up there (and I’m not very well ‘connected’). But this would suggest that porpoises do travel.
Coming back to the Berry Head porpoise pod, I would guess that there is a nucleus which is added to, and thins out, according to seasonality of their baitfish.
If you like hunting along a tideline you will not find one more pronounced than Berry Head. It must be like being permanently camped in the carpark of MacDonalds, if you are partial to a Big Mac.
So back to ‘Notchy’. here he/she is on three dates in December. Characteristic notch at the back of the fin clearly visible in each pic.
Photographing porpoises is incredibly difficult, and doubly so from a kayak. After you see them surface for the first time you must predict where they will next appear. This is easy for a dolphin because they usually progress in a straight line, but porpoises will zigzag about all over the place underwater and could pop up anywhere. Add in the small size of the fin and the movement of the kayak, and that the porpoise could surface directly behind you or disappear completely, and it can get a tad frustrating.
I don’t have any idea of whether I have got any photos in focus, let alone any distinguishing features, until I get back to the stability of the shore.
So to picture the same one three times is a bit of a surprise.
Porpoises hardly ever breach but during my last visit there was one which was extremely pumped up and leapt clear of the water on a couple of occasions. Unfortunately I was a split second too late with the shutter.
I also observed one resting at the surface, a behaviour I have only rarely seen before, and only when the sea is completely smooth (although I suppose I wouldn’t see it if was choppy anyway). Video:
Far out to sea I caught a split second glimpse of a jumping beast so paddled out to investigate, and was pleased to see a couple of Common Dolphins cruising along at a speed which I could only match by paddling flat out.
With a bit of luck 2019 will be equally as enthralling, and maybe Notchy will still be around.
Having not seen a single otter along the River Torridge last year, I was quite keen to try my luck now the water level had dropped after a week of dry weather. There was plenty of evidence of the recent heavy rain, however, with all the driftwood dammed up against the bridges.
Otters are incredibly difficult to observe because they are extremely elusive and shy, not to mention being mainly nocturnal. So I made an extra effort to get out onto the water at first light. By the time I paddled off my fingers, despite wearing gloves, were already numb. Maybe not a surprise as it was minus 3 degrees. What an idiot. I certainly didn’t anticipate encountering any other kayakers.
I wasn’t at all prepared to see the first otter which was just around a corner only five minutes into my trip. I was fiddling about with my camera and the otter sensed my presence and vanished. I have learned from experience that if you get too close they just disappear and you will not see them again, no matter how long you wait.
The Torridge is fun to paddle, whether you see any otters or not.
Today’s eighteen mile, five hour paddle was as absorbing as ever and I soon found myself in the ‘zone’, paddling along in absolute silence and looking out for the slightest movement on the water or along the bank. The only noise I made was the occasional slurp of a warming draught of coffee. And crunch of an Orange Club.
Seventeen kingfishers, twenty-seven Dippers, five Goosanders, a Woodcock and a possible glimpse of a Mink, and of course I was hoping for another otter.
I looked at all the little patches of sand along the banks as I drifted past, and to my surprise nearly all of them had footprints and little scuffs that I’m pretty sure were otter prints. The owner of the footprints often seemed to have come from out of the water, and some of the tracks in soft sand were clearly webbed, so some were otters for sure. There was hardly a patch of sand without any tracks, so it looks like there’s plenty of them about.
After a couple of hours, along a straight bit of river, there was a big otter swimming in the middle of the river directly towards me. I paddled as fast and as silently as I could to the bank and hung onto a branch with one hand while I prepared my camera with the other. Excellent, it hadn’t seen (or smelled) me.
It worked its way up the river catching a small crunchy snack at every dive. At the end of this next clip I think it can sense my presence so it submerges with hardlyt a splash, and is gone.
I waited for it to reappear but soon gave up because I was getting cold, and I more or less knew it wouldn’t show again anyway.
To my astonishment, half-a-mile downstream was another otter also fishing in the middle of the river. This one put on a good demonstration of the technique of porpoising.
I knew it couldn’t resist climbing out on one of the mini islands to ‘mark’ it, as it drifted downstream away from me, so was ready with camera raised when it did so.
This otter was spooked by the whine of a slurry tanker in a field half a mile away, instantly disappearing as soon as the pump started.
Absolutely fantastic, two of my best otter sightings away from the coast of Scotland, and within a couple of minutes of each other.
It’s not very often the first day of the year is so conducive to a paddle along the open coast. I didn’t start off in a particularly relaxed fashion however, because the mile or so from Brixham to Berry Head was a bit lumpy in the NW wind, and the cloud cover made the sea look grey and unfriendly.
However around the headland we were sheltered from the wind and the surface smoothed off nicely. I was hopeful for a view of the porpoises so we drifted out with the current along the tideline along which the porpoises hunt. We were pretty pleased when a trio of porpoises puffed and surfaced for a few minutes right in amongst our motley group of four kayaks, especially as this was a kayaking ‘first’ for Suzanne.
As we drifted south on the tide the sun came out and instantly transformed the monochrome grey sea into a vibrant blue. With the warmth of the sun the temperature would have done justice to a day in March, not the first day of January.
We angled in towards a ‘kayak only’ beach for an early lunch, passing little groups of fishing Guillemots and Razorbills.
We tucked in to the coast for a very warm paddle back toward Berry Head.
I was surprised to see some Guillemots already lined up along their nesting ledges and already in their smart breeding plumage, apparently enjoying the spring-like conditions as much as we were.
Strangely, as we rounded Berry Head and knuckled down to flog into the wind and chop, the cloud came over again and the summery colours reverted to wintery gloom.
However our spirits were not to be quashed by the whims of the weather, and we finished off the first trip of 2019 with the sight of a dozen Grey Seals hauled out on the pontoon, which Paul had smelled (!) as we had paddled past.
My search for the calmest waters to paddle usually leads to the shelter of one of the estuaries at this time of year, with the open sea usually battered by windchop or groundswell, or both.
A recent jaunt to the Fowey River from Golant is more typical of this time of year, but demonstrates how paddling along in absolute silence (apart from a bit of merry banter) always seem to deliver some exceptional wildlife sightings. On this occasion it was one of only a handful of Harbour Seals in SW England.
The weather gods were in a considerate mood when we were planning a bit of a post-Christmas, calorie-burning, fustiness-removing paddle.
Light winds meant a coastal trip was on the cards so Brixham seemed like a good bet. This of course means a quick snoop at the superbly action-packed (in terms of wildlife) waters off Berry Head, so Jake and I cornered the end of the breakwater and made straight for the end of the headland.
There were a lot of Gannets cruising about, including a large extended fishing flock in the heart of Torbay. The last of the incoming tide was flowing north past the headland and the tideline between the offshore current and the static water of the bay formed a focus for a handful of circling Gannets and, I hoped, some cetaceans.
We nudged out towards the birds and sure enough a couple of porpoises surfaced nearby with a puff. These were the first cetaceans Jake had seen in the UK so we hung around hoping for a better view. Although porpoises are not attracted to boats and tend to be a bit haphazard in their movements, there were enough around (approximately ten) to make the chance of one surfacing nearby quite high.
One did indeed surface with a loud puff only a few metres away from Jake’s kayak. Perfect. This porpoise had a distinctive notch at the back of its dorsal fin, and looks like the same one I photographed a few weeks ago.
I think I photographed the same porpoise in the same place on 4 Dec.You might think that this is not that remarkable because porpoises seem to be resident at Berry Head, but they are difficult to spot because they are so small and inconspicuous, and very difficult to photograph, and of all the porpoises around Berry Head (approx 15-20?) I was unlikely to snap the same one twice in two visits.
This is the first cetacean that I have ever re-photographed, as far as I am aware.
After half an hour watching porpoises, and chasing after distant unexplained splashes which appeared to be jumping porpoises although could have been tuna or dolphins (porpoises only jump when they are really fired up and chasing fish, and these splashes seemed a bit ‘big’ for that), we headed back into Torbay.
The gannets were thumping in all over the place and put on a great show as we passed the centre of Torbay. There were a few Loons dotted about as we neared the shore. I don’t know why I find these birds so charismatic as their plumage is not particularly remarkable, but they are big and robust and knowledge of how far they have come to spend the winter here, and how they transform into one of the most beautifully marked of all seabirds in the Spring, no doubt adds to their appeal.
We followed the coast back to Brixham and were spotted by some of the rest of the family (and chums, and pets) who were on the end of the breakwater.
The Torbay lifeboat looked impressive in the winter sun as it sped back to its base, and was appallingly photobombed by a jetski.
Fortunately I had time for an uncluttered pic before it eased off on the throttle.
It was a bit of a surprise to hear Brixham harbour echoing to the bawl of seals , who turned out to be resting on a pontoon on the edge of the marina, all ten of them!
We finished with a tour of the inner harbour.
We calculated the ten miles paddled was the calorie equivalent of about a third of a mince pie. Looks like we’ll just have to go out more often to burn off the rest of the packet (and half a tin of Quality Street). Tough.
My day of kayaking started off like any other….absolutely fantastic. Cunning scrutiny of the weather forecast led me to the picture-perfect Percuil creek near St.Mawes, where, as I had planned, the wind fell light and the sun came out just as I arrived at 8am.(more like sheer luck, in reality)
Slicing across a sheet of glass-smooth water in absolute silence in this sort of place is kayaking at its best. Nothing to hear but the piping of Oystercatchers, Green- and Redshanks, the kraark of Herons, the whistle of a speeding Kingfisher and cackling chatter of Shelduck. Even the seven-note call of an unseasonal Whimbrel.
This Greenshank seemed to be as thrilled as I was with a bit of December sun.
Paddling back down the creek towards St.Mawes was directly into the sun but very scenic in a monochrome sort of a way.
Just before I came round the final bend in the river I heard a snort and saw a disturbance on the smooth surface. I assumed it was a seal but to my incredulity a couple of dolphins surfaced. In over 21,000 miles of paddling I have never seen dolphins this far up a creek.
I sat tight in an effort not to disturb them, and watched.
I was even more surprised to see the yellow patch on the side which showed that these were Common Dolphins, and not Bottlenose as I had initially thought. Bottlenose Dolphins are at home in shallow water as they sometimes like to eat shellfish and crabs, whereas Common Dolphins are creatures of the open sea, and probably not wired-up for navigation along a narrow creek which was rapidly getting narrower as the tide went out.
However they seemed to be quite happy and swimming strongly, although when |I left them they were heading upstream which was not a good plan.
To make my trip complete I intended to paddle out around Black Rock in the middle of Carrick Roads where it opens up into the sea, and although there was quite a swell running, and the tide was going out, the wind remained light and the sun was still out so the sea looked pretty benign.
Of course I was hoping to see some ‘open sea’ wildlife, and was rewarded with a couple of Loons out near Black Rock.
I looped around Black Rock and let the current suck me out towards the lighthouse at St.Anthony Head before heading back up the shoreline.
All the time I was looking out for the pair of dolphins, hoping that they were making their way back out to open waters. I stopped for lunch overlooking Falmouth as a Merlin helicopter was being very noisy:
I wound my way back up the Percuil river between all the mooring buoys, and as I passed the entrance to Porth creek saw the fins of the dolphins zigzagging about like a couple of sharks. Not a good idea to be in such a shallow creek as low water was approaching. This is the domain of egrets, not dolphins.
I watched them from a safe distance for a good half-an-hour, and then things started to go wrong.
They moved close to the northern bank of the creek and the smaller dolphin halted, apparently grounded on a mud bank, but still submerged apart from fin and blowhole. The larger dolphin swam a hundred yards further up the creek and deliberately started to beach itself on the mud.
I paddled towards the scene as I saw members of the British Divers Marine Life Rescue (BDMLR) (who had obviously been tipped off by an astute observer and had been watching from the shore), moving down to the water’s edge to help.
One heroic medic waded into the muddy water to try to divert the dolphin back into the channel:
This was temporarily successful but the dolphin swam round in a big loop and started to run aground again. I offered my assistance and attempted to steer the dolphin away from the shallow water.
Unfortunately my efforts too were only briefly successful and the dolphin ran itself aground.
This initiated a full rescue operation by the four BDMLR volunteers present, and for the next three plus hours they worked tirelessly to maintain the dolphins during the critical time they were out of the water.
Under the instruction of BDMLR vet Natalie, the dolphins were covered in sheets and/or seaweed and had seawater poured over them constantly to stop their skin from drying out. Natalie assessed their health and decided to move the dolphins together. Definitely a good idea but moving 100kg of struggling dolphin about on a plastic sheet over slippery seaweed is not a straightforward procedure. Fortunately another two BDMLR members arrived to ease the lumbago.
The initial plan was to put the dolphins onto a boat and take them a couple of miles out into the deeper water of Carrick Roads although failing light would have made this very challenging, so it was relief all round when the incoming tide came to the rescue and refloated the dolphins.
Unfortunately I had departed at this stage because it was nearly dark, but I hear that both dolphins were seen swimming strongly out into deeper water and hopefully made it safely back into their more familiar oceanic environment.
Their is a lot of mystery surrounding cetacean strandings but it seems likely that these pair had made a navigational error. Common Dolphins spend most of their time well offshore and range widely , and these may have ventured into the (exceptionally) deep water of the outer part of Carrick Roads, and accidentally headed into the mouth of the Percuil River when they meant to head east in the open sea. Maybe they were lured in by the easy feast of lots of Grey Mullet which I saw as I was paddling and which they seemed to be chasing.
And once into the very shallow water of Porth Creek it would be very easy to become disorientated and confused, especially with a dropping tide……but who knows???
Whatever, today was a triumph for the BDMLR volunteers. They responded quickly enough to be on hand when the dolphins beached and had all the expertise, experience and equipment (and muscle power) to deal with the situation and care for the dolphins and get them back into deep water. Good job!