Loons, Lifeboat and a Load of Dead Fish

A very brief lull in the winds followed on from days of wind and rain. The residual ten foot swell from the west sent me looking for shelter on an east facing bit of coast and Mevagissey Bay seemed to fit the bill nicely. It’s very scenic and varied and the sandy shore at Porthpean, just outside St.Austell, is one of the most protected of all open coast beaches in Cornwall when the weather and waves are coming from the west.

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Porthpean beach

The ‘Cornish Riviera’ (as this bit of coast is known) rarely fails to deliver some interesting marine wildlife, and within five minutes of paddling out from the beach I came upon that most charismatic of all the diving birds to visit the UK, a Great Northern Diver.

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Great Northern Diver.

I think I prefer the more characterful American name of Common Loon, although the ‘common’ bit doesn’t do this magnificent bird justice. It is the biggest diving ‘duck’ (although strictly speaking it’s not a duck, it’s a Diver), has a colossal spear of a beak, and spends longer underwater when it dives than any other UK species.

They are winter visitors to the UK and this bird probably could well come from Iceland or Greenland. Their winter plumage is a bit drab (certainly in comparison to their summer plumage). Compare and contrast today’s bird with a pic I took in May this year :

 

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Loon in Breeding Plumage

The call of the Loon is the sound of the wild and you are a heathen if this doesn’t send a shiver up your spine. Listen carefully:

 

As I rounded Black Head on the way to Mevagissey I could see a huge milling mass of Gulls a mile or to ahead, about a mile offshore. When I saw that they were not associated with a fishing boat I was very excited because I thought they were probably over feeding dolphins.

I engaged top gear which today wasn’t very fast as I was using my inflatable (Gumotex Safari) kayak. About four mph max. The Gulls were still active as I arrived amongst them, and I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many in one feeding group…every gull in eastern Cornwall must have been there.

 

I still hadn’t worked out what they were feeding on and was surprised I hadn’t seen a single fin at the surface. Then a Lesser Black-back flew past with a small fish…

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Lesser Black-backed Gull

I paddled further into the thick of the action and was staggered to see that what I had initially thought were patches of foam on the surface, were actually thousands of dead fish. Probably tens of thousands, maybe millions.

 

These were pilchards. I’m sure they had just been dumped (either deliberately or accidentally)by a netting trawler, as they all looked fresh , and I could see a couple of big trawlers on the horizon. If you are a pilchard it was incredibly unfortunate for your well being that you were rebranded as a Cornish Sardine several years ago, but very good for the Cornish fishing industry.

Today’s pilchard carnage seemed a terrible waste as these fish would have been a meal or two (or ten) for a pod of dolphins or a Minke whale.

I sat around hoping for some larger sea creature to be attracted to the easy feast, but none appeared. I guess they prefer live fish. It was a consolation however to see all seven of the more common species of UK gull represented in the milling throng, including the neatly-plumaged Kittiwake,

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Kittiwake

and a single Mediterranean Gull. These used to be rare in the UK but are fast increasing.

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Mediterranean Gull

I paddled over to Mevagissey for a quick tour around the harbour and then headed out to the gull frenzy again, just in case.

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Mevagissey

As I ate my cheese ‘n pickle sandwiches watching the gulls I noticed a police helicopter moving slowly along the coast, and both the inshore and offshore lifeboat from Fowey speeding across the bay. They started to ‘comb’ the coast starting at Black Head.

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Black Head, Fowey Lifeboat

I suspected they might come over and see what on earth I was up to, and to check if I was in trouble. It must be quite unusual to see someone sitting in an inflatable kayak a mile out to sea in early December.

They did indeed come over and as I explained I was absolutely fine and was photographing the birds. They said they were looking for a missing person and saw me so came over to see if I was OK. I thanked them very much and looked closely at the crew to try to get an insight into what they REALLY thought of this idiot in his inflatable kayak. But needless to say they were totally professional and totally polite and objective.

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Fowey Lifeboat
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Visit from Fowey lifeboat

A single small Grey Seal and a couple more Loons and a couple of paddleboarders provided a bit of interest on the paddle back to Porthpean.

Puffing and Chuffing

I am always looking to paddle out into the open sea whenever there is a lull in the autumn winds, but this is currently very difficult because the quiet gaps between weather systems only last a couple of hours.

With the forecast of a morning of calm conditions I went scampering off down to Torbay hoping to find a smooth sea, and knowing that this east-facing bit of coast offers good shelter from the hefty swell which was thumping the bits which look out to the west.

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Torbay dawn

I had planned to be on the water as the sun popped up and was quietly smug that it had only just surfaced as I rounded the end of Brixham breakwater, after a 90 minute drive including the traffic chaos of the Torbay hinterland (we don’t really ‘do’ traffic chaos in Holsworthy).

As I approached Berry Head I could see circling Gannets and the odd splash at the surface and glimpse of a dark sea creature, but I was too far off to see what was herding the baitball….dolphins, tuna, or porpoises.

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Nice and calm off Berry Head

As usual by the time I arrived on the scene the mini feeding-frenzy was over and the Gannets had completely disappeared. It always amazes me that although they are big birds with a six foot wingspan they can apparently disappear in an instant. They just dip a wing and they speed off.

All that was left of the action was a couple of porpoises rolling lazily at the surface, the first I had seen since the end of October.

Porpoises are small (four to five foot long) and very easy to overlook because they generally make no splash when they surface to breath, and tend to go around alone or very small groups. This is in contrast to dolphins that usually go around in a pod and do a lot of splashing and jumping.

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Harbour porpoise

There were actually a minimum of half-a-dozen porpoises off the headland, as usual hunting along the smooth line on the surface where the offshore tidal current shears against the static waters of Torbay.

I sat around and enjoyed a cup of coffee while watching, and listening to the porpoises. In this video clip it is quite obvious why the Newfoundland whalers used to call porpoises ‘Puffing Pigs’.

 

Today’s sideshow consisted of Fulmars zipping past a few feet away, a handful of flypast Great Northern Divers, a (probable) Red-throated Diver , and a pack of Common Scoter.

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Fulmar

The tide was fairly rapidly sucking me down the coast towards Dartmouth so I tucked in close to the shore and paddled back into Torbay. Annoyingly the predicted ‘glass-off’ when the wind dropped away completely occurred when I was in the depths of Torbay, not out beyond Berry Head as I had planned. It would have made porpoise spotting even easier…and maybe something else.

I was pleased to see a rare Red-necked Grebe just round the corner from Brixham:

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Red-necked Grebe

and a youngish-looking seal was taking time out on a quiet beach. I always steer well away from these resting seals to avoid frightening them into the water, because they may just have been on the go for a very long time and be in much need of a rest.

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Grey seal

Brixham was buzzing with fishing boat activity (although it looks fairly sleepy in this pic).

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Brixham

So if it was the porpoise that was doing the puffing, what was doing the chuffing?…..

 

 

What a Beauty!

There is nothing like a low winter sun to transform the drab browns and greys of a Cornish estuary into a smorgasbord of colours. As a bonus today’s little jaunt started off with super-smooth water as well.

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There was the usual entertaining waterside action as I paddled silently along. A Greater Black-backed Gull worrying a dead conger eel:

And a Herring Gull tackling a lively lunch that very nearly effects a crafty (although apparently unplanned) escape.

 

Every colour of the rainbow was on show today because there was a rainbow.

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Rainbow over Lerryn Creek

The birds were doing their best to join in with the colourfest and shrug off their national reputation of being dull and brown and boring, although this Curlew has got a bit of work to do because it is basically buff.

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Curlew

The legs of the roosting Redshank show a touch of tangerine:

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and Cormorants and Shags, which at long range looking unremarkable (and reptilian), have a bit to boast about when you take a closer look.

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Cormorant sporting ‘Silver Fox’ style
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Shag with Emerald Eye

This Mandarin Duck makes a good effort with a highly varied colour scheme but they don’t really ‘count’ because, although this bird appeared to be quite wild, they are essentially a feral species which have originated from escapees from collections.

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Mandarin

Some of the hardware on show was bright today:

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Red Diving Training ships
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Beautifully turned-out Class 66 hauling the china clay train.

It was appropriately at the most scenic part of today’s paddle that I had the most spectacular view of the UK’s most spectacularly-coloured bird.

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Super scenic Penquite Quay

I had already seen a couple of Kingfishers zipping along the shore, attracting attention with their loud and piercing whistle. Despite being absurdly brightly-coloured they are very difficult to spot when perched, sitting dead still amongst the branches of waterside trees and bushes, and usually flying off long before you get close, because they are quite shy. Typically all you see is a turquoise flash.

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Kingfisher

However I saw this particular bird splosh into the water to catch a little fish and then fly up to consume its snack. The gentle current was moving me towards it so I didn’t twitch a muscle as I drifted closer. By good fortune (or highly skillful anticipation) I had my camera all set up and ready, and the sun was directly behind. The Kingfisher’s irridescence was further enhanced by the shimmer of sunlight reflected from the water. Wow.

Even better, I drifted right past without the bird getting spooked and flying off. Couldn’t have been better.

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Kingfisher

Today’s most drably turned-out creature would have also been the most interesting interaction had it not turned out to be made of plastic.20170213_135843

 

Seal catches hefty Salmon

It’s really important not to have your plans for a pleasant morning’s paddle messed up by a pumped-up storm called Diana, with its promise of sixty mph winds and an inch of rain.

However down by the Tamar it certainly was weather for ducks. I wasn’t expecting to see anything resembling another human.

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Calstock and its ducks

And oh yes did it rain:

But at least it was warm, and down in the bottom of the valley it wasn’t as blowy as I had expected.

The incoming tide wasn’t a match for the outgoing flow of the swollen river Tamar so it was quite a challenge to sneak up close to the banks and creep about amongst the branches to avoid the adverse current. One of the advantages of being in ‘Puffing Pig’ my inflatable kayak is that it is extremely manoeuvrable compared to my sea kayak that has the turning circle of a supertanker.

As usual a drab day was enlivened by the wildlife. It was great to see a couple of tiny Little Grebes (aka Dabchicks) in the river… they are regular winter visitors to the Devon coast but I can’t recall the last time I saw one here.

A Dipper zipped over my head before I got to Morwellham, no doubt in search of one of the clear rushing streams flowing down the hillsides because the main river was completely brown. Dippers love clear water and rocky streams and are not at all happy with mud.

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Morwellham looking drab

I just managed to stick my nose around the corner at Morwell rocks before my forward speed exactly matched the current moving the other way. So turned about and drifted down the river in complete silence, supping a cup of coffee, at three mph.

I nearly leapt out of my drysuit when there was a loud snort about two foot behind me. I cranked (and cricked) my neck around to see that I was being eyeballed by a  medium-sized seal.

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Inquisitive seal

It shadowed me for a mile as I drifted on down, and when it popped up in front of me after a long dive I saw the flash of a fish in its mouth.

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seal with salmon

It wasn’t a piffling little fish…it was a decent-sized salmon (distinguishable from a sea trout by its slightly forked, not square-ended, tail).

Somehow the seal managed to peel off the skin like taking off a glove, in about a minute. Slicker than any fishmonger.seal plus salmon 1

And then it really enjoyed the tasty-looking pink flesh that made my breakfast of muesli mixed with Jordan’s country crisp (with dried raspberries) look a bit amateurish.

The next surprising encounter was with one of the police launches that protect the naval ships at Devonport (15 miles) downstream. ‘Which way to Plymouth?’ , one of the officers joked.

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Police Launch

Absolutely superb, I hadn’t expected to see anything today apart from wind and rain.

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Calstock viaduct

 

 

 

 

River Torridge: Hatherleigh to Torrington

I like everything  about the River Torridge. It’s a great name, it’s my local big river (although I actually live just over the hill in the Tamar catchment), and it conjures up images of wild places with its link to Tarka the Otter, the novel written by Henry Williamson in 1927. No, I didn’t know the date off the top of my head, I’ve just Googled it.

The seventeen mile section between Hatherleigh and Torrington has so many twists and turns that you have got absolutely no idea of the direction in which you are pointing, and to add to the sense of  adventure some of the tangled woods through which you pass are so dense that they could easily act as cover for a pack of hunting Orcs.

My paddling companion today was Mark and we set off from just below the bridge at Hatherleigh.

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Let’s go!

The water was quite low so there were lots of little gravelly beaches to lure us in for the odd coffee break.

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River Torridge

After Beaford bridge until the outskirts of Torrington (11 miles) there is really very little sign of the existence of humans, apart from the occasional fishing hut several of which look like something out of Hansel and Gretel.

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Beaford Bridge

 

 

 

 

We found a good beach for lunch but we were getting slowly but surely colder so didn’t dither about too long. I got a sandwich blockage in my gullet from eating too quickly but succssfully shifted it with an orange club and swig of coffee.

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Speedy sandwich eating

 

 

 

The wildest part of the entire trip is Long Wood and it important to have a complete noise ban here because there is always the chance of seeing an otter.

 

 

On today’s paddle we didn’t see any otters at all, although to compensate we saw a load of birds: 25 Dippers, 15 Kingfishers, Goosanders and Mandarin ducks and Mark saw what was probably a Mink running along the bank (black and furry!).

Here’s a pic and video clip of previous otter sightings on the Torridge:

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Otter duo

This cub looked like it was thinking about jumping  into my kayak (it was a classic otter day..they seem to love the rain):

 

 

The first weir to negotiate is a couple of miles above Torrington: Lady Palmer weir. We didn’t fancy getting wet so portaged down the face.

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Lady Palmer weir

The second weir is outside the old milk factory in Torrington and is easily shootable using the salmon ladder on the right hand side. Mark makes it look effortless:

 

 

Exit is at Rothern Bridge beside the old railway station at Torrington.

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Exit at Torrington

 

River Taw: Kayak down, Train back.

It was another cold and windy day so a river trip was really the only possibility for kayaking. I hadn’t paddled the Taw for a year or two because it is not quite as scenic as the Rivers Torridge and Tamar, and it’s a bit further away.

However the incredible convenience of being able to get back to your starting point by catching a Tarka Line train is a huge plus point for paddling the River Taw. Leaving a car at either end is much more of a logistics nightmare than you would ever imagine and it’s amazing how often essential items such as roofrack straps and car keys end up in the wrong place. I seem to remember long ago that we once arrived at our destination and all our cars were at the other end.

It’s even more convenient if you are using an inflatable kayak which can fold up into a rucksack and be carried on your back. The only downside is the suspicious and sometimes disapproving looks from fellow train passengers if you are still dripping.

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Gumotex Safari Inflatable

My  Gumotex Safari inflatable kayak was soon inflated and ready to go beside the River Taw at Eggesford, just as the sun was peeping up. It was only just above freezing and the water level was worryingly low so I was prepared for a bit of a bumpy trip. The river here is really quite small but what it lacked in depth it made up for in the clarity of the water. It’s never quite so much fun paddling muddy brown rivers after rain.

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River Taw near Eggesford

Paddling off I was immediately absorbed in the mini-wilderness of the river and its wooded banks, with the berry bushes being picked clean by all five species of British Thrush….the resident Blackbirds, Song and Mistle Thrushes, and their cousins visiting from Scandinavia…Redwings (with their characteristic high-pitched whistle) and Fieldfares (with their trademark chatter).

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My tracking fin constantly bumped over the rocks but I only had to get out to drag the kayak once. About a mile below Eggesford is a small weir which I could easily have ‘shot’ but because it was cold and I didn’t want to get my kit (especially camera) wet, so I opted for a portage.

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First weir below Eggesford

The Little Dart River converges from the right and helps the flow a bit, but not a lot. Weir number two is not shootable and quite a tricky one to portage, but the flow was light enough for me to carry the kayak over the face of the weir.

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Weir number two. Artistic, but no good for kayaking.

After a couple of hours and about six miles below Eggesford is the confluence with the (even clearer)  River Mole, which today had more water flowing in it than the Taw itself.

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River Mole (left), River Taw confluence

From now on it’s a relaxing paddle as you don’t have to spend so much time picking a line through the riffles to avoid bottoming out. So there is more time to admire the excellent wildlife, and a speciality of the River Taw is the superb Dipper, because there seem to be more of this busy little waterbird along its banks than any other river I have paddled. Dippers are always on the move, either bobbing on a branch on the bank or stone in midstream, flying past with their ‘jink’ call-note, or singing an astonishingly tuneful (and loud) song to a nearby mate. Even on a cold November day like today I heard this song three or four times. It surprises me it never ‘rates’ in the best of British Bird song.

Dippers are moderately shy so very difficult to photograph from a kayak, but here’s my best effort of the day.

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Dipper

On several occasions today I saw a Dipper swimming out in midstream like a miniature duck, diving down to hunt for caddisfly larvae (or whatever) with the adeptness of a grebe. Take a look at this (pretty rubbish)video:

I ate lunch while drifting along because I can never find a place on the bank as comfortable as the seat of my Gumotex Safari. This is, incidentally, another huge advantage of an inflatable. The days of struggling between rest stops to ease an aching (or numb) backside are, as far as I am concerned, over.

For my after-lunch calorie boost I was thrilled to have rediscovered Raisin and Biscuit Yorkies in my local Co-op. I thought they had been discontinued and gone the way of Aztec bars and Frys Five Centres. Even better, they come as duos. Best lunch break ever!20170205_160711

The Taw excecutes a scenic sweep beneath a pinewood before the run in to Umberleigh:

The bridge at Umberleigh is 13.6 miles from Eggesford. As with all river paddles where to get out is a problem. There are an awful lot of ‘private, no entry’ signs around, and piles of discarded brushwood placed apparently to discourage kayakers. I can sort of see the point from a private landowners point of view…they don’t want lorry loads of kayakers tramping across their land and they might be liable if their was an injury.

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Exit at Umberleigh

Anyway, I succeeded in getting out and avoided any ‘scenes’. Next stop…the station only a few hundred yards away. Good planning!

It’s good to see Umberleigh station car park making full use of its large acreage with a bit of diversification:20170205_120037.jpg

I hopped on the Exeter bound clicketty-clack train,20170205_121028

and a short while later (and £4.20 less well off) , hopped off at Eggesford.

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Eggesford station

Four and-a-half hours down by kayak, sixteen minutes by train back up. Fab, as always.

 

The Sensational South-West Coast (part 2)

My second series of assorted images taken from the kayak seat from all around Devon and Cornwall.

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Gig boat race at Fowey
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Starfish, Fowey
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Autumnal Calstock on Tamar estuary

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Am I getting paranoid or did this Newlyn trawler really pile on the power as it approached me to throw up as big a wash as possible for me to negotiate? It certainly throttled right back after it had gone past:

 

 

A few offshore seabirds for the serious ornithologists:

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Manx (top) and Balearic Shearwater
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Sooty (top) and Manx Shearwater
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Dipper

….listen to the electrifying call of the fastest creature on the planet, the Peregrine Falcon.

 

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Kingfisher
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Oystercatcher
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Flying Scotsman, Teignmouth
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Common Dolphins and St.Michael’s Mount
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Common Dolphin calf
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Minke Whale, Mount’s Bay

 

Autumn is definitely upon us, so offshore paddling is replaced by exploration of the rivers. Tough.

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River Tamar
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River Tamar