The Beast of Boscastle

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300kilos of Blubber catching forty

Boscastle again. This time with Paul, Kevin and Dave.

Another sensational day. Each time I come the seals seem to get bigger, the cliffs taller, the islands craggier and the caves deeper, and my sandwiches staler.

Outside the harbour mouth we turned north for the three mile paddle up to the seal colony at Beeny. As I  was the most responsible grown-up of the group, I called up the Boscastle Coastwatch on the radio to let them know our plans. It is just remotely possible that the reason I called up the Coastwatch was because I was the only one with a two-way radio, and absolutely nothing at all to do with me being the most responsible (or  grown-up).

This is a really lively bit of coast and although careful planning of wind, tide and swell is the most important safety factor, it’s very reassuring to know that the Coastwatch volunteers, sitting in their little white tower on the headland, are there if you need them. If you end up swimming you are going to have to be rescued by boat (or chopper) because there really aren’t any accessible beaches….its just cliffs, and caves, and a load of water.

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Boscastle cliffs….they make your jaw drop

Today it was like a lake and nice and warm, and sort of sunny so it was about as relaxing and enjoyable as Boscastle could possibly be.

As we were embraced by the huge black cliffs of Beeny bay, the seals popped up around us. All shapes and sizes and colours, from very tame and inquisitive creamy-coloured youngsters, to a couple of enormous bull seals with big ‘Roman’ noses.

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Junior seal

We made sure none were resting on the beaches before approaching closer. The reason they use these haul-outs is because there is no disturbance from humans (or dogs) and we didn’t want to mess it all up and frighten them. When they are in the water they are totally in command so apparently show very little fear.

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Kevin being eyed (up) by the Beast

This particularly applies to the biggest bull seal of the lot whose is presumably ‘king-pin ‘ of the whole colony. He is really vast and can only have achieved this size, or so we mused, by having three marine MacDonalds  (plus mackerel Mcflurry) every day since we last saw him four months ago. And possibly before.

After he was rudely awaken from his mid-morning nap by Paul, he shadowed us as we toured around his domain. Actually he mostly shadowed Paul, probably because he was a bit miffed about being woken up.

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Paul being followed by ‘The Beast’

There were plenty of his entourage to keep us entertained as we decided to head back south. Kevin prepared his rod and feathers to do a spot of fishing as we paddled a bit further offshore to take a ride on the ebbing tide.

We swept (were swept) back past Boscastle, around the really excellent and unbelievably craggy and eroded Short and Long islands (neither of which is particularly long, or short) and aimed for a leg-stretch at Bossiney.

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Long island

We loafed about on a sandy beach which we had all to ourselves apart from the occasional swimmer who ventured round from Bossiney main beach as the tide went out. Inexplicably, as soon as they saw us, they swam back round the corner again and disappeared.

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Bossiney Beach

The return to Boscastle harbour wasn’t quite so easy as a bit of a northerly breeze had picked up which made it a bit lumpy in places especially where there was a tidal current such as inside the islands.

We couldn’t go as far into the big cave at Willapark as we would have liked because it was low tide, but it always makes a good pic:

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Exiting the Big Cave

The Boscastle seals will not be meeting any more kayakers for many weeks, probably a lot longer, as sea conditions have reverted to normal: wind and  big waves. Maybe it won’t be calm enough until next year.

So they can remain undisturbed. Even though we did our best not to disturb them. The big bull can complete his morning nap, and the mackerel don’t have to worry about Kevin’s attempt to catch them on the end of a hook (spectacularly unsuccessful anyway). They will be much more concerned about becoming Mackerel Mcflurries.IMG_8519.JPG

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Destination: Dolphins

IMG_0953Fired up by my encounter with the ultra rare Wilson’s Petrel, I was dead keen to get offshore again to taste more wildlife action. A week later conditions for the Eddystone were just about OK for another jaunt out to the lighthouse. I make sure that the mean windspeed, and more importantly, the gusts, are forecast to blow at no more than 10mph for the whole eight or nine hours of the trip. Any more than this makes it a bit less relaxing, and the chances of seeing a cetacean’s fin decreases dramatically. Windspeed doesn’t matter so much for seabirds, but taking a photo becomes very much more difficult as the kayak moves around a lot more.

Despite careful planning I was caught out by the strong current at the mouth of Plymouth sound which was throwing up quite a chop. It was caused by the very big Spring tide which was flowing out into a light SW wind. I nearly turned back but every often I could see the patch of calmer water some distance ahead, so battled on across the flow until I reached the quieter area.

Quite a few more Balearic Shearwaters  and a scattering of Storm Petrels further out. A single fin flashed past in front of me with a bit of a puff…it looked like a lone Common Dolphin-far too fast for a porpoise.

As I neared the lighthouse a flurry of splashing in the calm water to my left made me power towards it to investigate. I found myself in amongst a pod of about ten Common Dolphins, and they seemed as though they wanted to play as they all came over to surround me and splash about. As they swum underneath the kayak they turned on their side and looked up. I piled on the speed and they sped alongside-one of the very few times I have had dolphins bowriding my kayak.

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Common Dolphin
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Common Dolphins from kayak
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Common Dolphin

They surged around me very close and splashed me several times. I snapped away with the camera but always seemed to just miss the best action.

I continued on my route to the lighthouse and for five minutes they continued along in a chaotic splashing escort. Absolutely excellent.

Finally they peeled off and very rapidly disappeared.

At one stage as I was stationary taking in the excitement of the dolphins, a Sooty Shearwater flew past close, followed by a Balearic Shearwater and a Storm petrel ,all within a minute of each other.

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Sooty Shearwater

To round off the exceptional wildlife sightings of the day I ran into a juvenile Puffin on the way back, not quite as striking as in their adult breeding plumage!

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Juvenile Puffin

And had to dodge a tanker coming out of Plymouth.IMG_8340

As usual I pushed my luck too far and paddled once more to the Eddystone a few days later and encountered only a pair of porpoises. However they came very close to the kayak and puffed in a very loud manner when they took breath. I’m not surprised one of their local names is ‘Puffing Pig’.

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Harbour Porpoise
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Harbour porpoise off Plymouth

On this particular trip I was very pleased I was able to rescue a sub-adult Gannet that had a long length of rope wrapped around its lower jaw. I was unable to yank it free from distance so ended up grabbing the gannet by the back of the neck and teasing the strands of rope from its beak, while it tried to nip my hand. Quite a risky procedure to carry out nine miles from the nearest land, but it turned out successfully, although the Gannet was a bit fatigued, and dishevelled.

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Rescued Gannet

My next, very brief, dolphin encounter was on a very rare calm day on the North Cornish coast a couple of miles off Bude. A fleeting view of two Common Dolphins.

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Bude Common Dolphins

Then it was down to the far west of Cornwall in an effort to see one of the whales which have been reported down there.

A twelve mile paddle from Pothgwarra back to Marazion, and again I was disappointed with the sparsity of wildlife. Just one Sooty Shearwater and one Balearic although there was a constant stream of Manx Shearwaters zipping past my kayak that stopped me from getting bored.

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Balearic Shearwater

By shear luck, as I was only a mile or so from my destination, I caught a fraction of a second glimpse of a dolphin leaping clear of the water, about a quarter of a mile away. I surged towards it and thought I had missed them but then saw a group of fins moving very quietly at the surface. They disappeared then exploded into action with a good display. There was a very young calf jumping perfectly alongside his Mum.

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Common Dolphins
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Common Dolphins

As I was waiting for a dolphin to surface with camera poised, it popped up only a couple of feet away, too big to fully fit in the picture!IMG_8849

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Trying to find dolphins from a kayak is very difficult. You really can’t use binoculars so you are left with searching with your bare  eyeballs.

Using a telescope or binoculars from a headland foreshortens the distance so you can see everything in an instant that would take up to two hours to paddle across in a kayak!

When I came back from the Eddystone the other day, having failed to see any dolphins during nine hours of paddling, I cast my binoculars out over a glassy flat Whitsand Bay during my drive home, and immediately spotted a pod of twenty dolphins a couple of miles offshore. Almost too easy.

But strangely for me having the odds impossibly stacked up is part of the appeal, and the results are certainly worth the wait.IMG_8147

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Arrival at Marazion

 

Wilson’s Petrel!

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

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

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

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Ocean Sunfish

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

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Dawn over Plymouth Sound

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

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Fog over Plymouth Breakwater

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

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

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Manx and Balearic Shearwater

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

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

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

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Storm Petrel at Eddystone

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

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Yours truly at Eddystone

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

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

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

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Original photo of high-flying Petrel

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

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

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Common Dolphin

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

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Trolleying back through Cawsand

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

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

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

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

At last. Accepted as a Creature of the Sea.

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Friendly seal

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

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

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

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

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Porthpean-busy beach

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

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

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Fine set of teeth

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

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

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

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

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Apprehended by the UK Border Force

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Speeding Frigate

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

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

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

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Border Force Customs Cutter

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

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

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

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The RIB is deployed

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

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

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

Superb Sealife on the Costa del Sol

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Costa del Sol

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

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

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

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

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

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Cory’s Shearwater
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Cory’s Shearwater

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

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Balearic Shearwater
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Balearic Shearwater

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

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Group of Cory’s Shearwaters
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Beautiful Cory’s Shearwater

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

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Unseasonal Mediterranean Bonxie

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

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

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Mother and calf Common Dolphin

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

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Jetski pursuing dolphin
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Common Dolphins, jetski, Becky

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

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

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Mother and calf Common Dolphin

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

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Distant ?Bottlenose Dolphin

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

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

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

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Typical Mediterranean Scene
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Not so typical Mediterranean Scene

Six Days of Summer on Shetland

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Shetland puffin

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

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

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

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

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Hezzer and Sharpy

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

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Orca in the Fog (the only one we saw)

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

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

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Hezzer and his Otter

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

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Hezzer plus Arctic Tern friend

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

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Hezzer and Yours truly at Gardisfauld

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

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Bonxies Displaying

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

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

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

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Early Start (note incorrect date)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Otter on Uyea Island

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

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Black Guillemots

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

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

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Grey Seal (bottling)

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

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

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Red-Throated Divers

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

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Sand Wick, Unst
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Fulmar

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

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

Arctic Tern
Arctic Tern
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Beautiful Arctic Tern

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

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

That was it. Fairwell to Shetland.

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

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

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

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Gannet

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

Oops.

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

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

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