More Offshore Paddling

Still fizzing after my encounter with the whale, I watched the weather charts closely waiting for a forecast slackening of the wind. It’s been a tricky year with very few (if any) prolonged periods of settled weather dominated by high pressure. Just the odd day or two here and there.

As I have already mentioned, the North Cornwall coast has been very poor for sea kayaking in a relaxed manner as is pummelled by wind or swell. The south coast has been the best place by far and fortunately has come up with the goods in terms of wildlife.

Cruise liner entering Plymouth Sound

I had one more recent paddle out around the Eddystone Lighthouse starting at Cawsand. The Eddystone lies twelve miles beyond Plymouth breakwater and ten miles from Penlee Point which is the last bit of land you pass on the way (the western edge of Plymouth Sound). Although it was pretty calm there were no more whales and surprisingly no dolphins either. Only the ever-reliable porpoises which were exposing more of their bodies than they usually do as they were in a bit of a feeding frenzy.

Harbour Porpoise
Porpoise and Eddystone

Nine Balearic Shearwaters and fleeting views of a couple of Storm Petrels. And a couple of ‘marauding ‘ Bonxies that both flew a low circuit over my kayak and checked me out for fleshy morsels. As is usual with Bonxies, no shyness was evident.Totally XXY. The bird world’s Donald Trump.

Prowling Bonxie

Paddling about in the sea miles offshore doesn’t lend itself to landscape photography unless you have an albatross-style love of expansive sea views.

So a trip along the coast from Looe to Polperro was a bit of a scenic change. Paddling through the middle of Looe is always good fun as it is always busy.


And then there’s the ever reliable Fowey with its steep ,sheltered shores providing superb protection from elements of weather that are trying to spoil your day.We had a great day out first visiting Lantic Bay, then back up the estuary (is it called an estuary if it’s a ria?) to the super quaint village of Lerryn up a side creek. With my brother, sister-in-law and paddling prodigy, Jed.

Foggy Fowey
Hardcore Fowey Paddling Team

Another half-day of vaguely calm conditions presented itself so I nipped off down to Penzance for a bit of dolphin hunting. I could see dolphins jumping about in the far distance when I pulled up in the car park in Newlyn, probably half-an-hours paddling time away from where I was watching. They were out beyond Penlee point.(the other Penlee Point!).


I got my stuff together in superquick time and cracked my head on the top of the boot as usual (but a bit harder than usual).

And tore off. No time to warm up those ageing paddling muscles. I was going to be very disappointed if I didn’t catch up with those dolphins. However my experience told me that they don’t hang around in any one place for very long because they are pretty efficient at hoovering up the fish they had found.. And there was only a couple of gannets circling half-heartedly over them so it was hardly a feeding frenzy.

I ‘scorched’ out into the open sea past Mousehole at approx 5 mph. Can’t keep that up for too long.Even though I was in my Cobra Expedition which is relatively quick. Puffing Pig, my inflatable kayak, has a max speed of only 4 mph. Good thing I wasn’t in that (although it’s good for chasing jellyfish).

By sheer luck I just glimpsed the disappearing back of a dolphin heading west parallel to the coast, and adjusted course to follow. Unfortunately cruising dolphins tend to travel at about 5 mph also, so I had to crank it up even more so I just had about half a mile-an-hour on them. There are definite rules about how close you are allowed to approach sea creatures without disturbing them, which I applaud, but in a kayak you generally don’t need to get too close , because they come over to check you out first!dolphin-off-mousehole

And this pair were no exception.My paddling efforts were rewarded when the pair of Common Dolphins swerved over towards me and actually did a very brief bit of bow-riding a few feet in front of my kayak, the first time this has ever happened. They soon decided it wasn’t much help so carried on by themselves, and I stopped for a rest.

I continued directly offshore and had brief encounters with two small parties of three Common Dolphins, before running into a larger school about three miles south of St. Michael’s Mount. I would probably have missed them if I hadn’t seen one jump. Unless the surface is absolutely smooth, which hardly ever happens, dorsal fins easily get lost amongst the wavelets.common-dolphins-off-st-michaels-mount

An excellent prolonged encounter. I followed them at moderate speed for fifteen minutes.A couple of small calves with them and one with a very small fin.When it surfaced beside me I saw it had extensive white scarring on its back behind the fin area.dolphin-with-mangled-fin

Speedboat injury or Great White attack?

St. Michael’s Mount
St Michael’ Mount artistic pic

Stopped for a cup of tea in the cafe at St. Michael’s mount. Very nice, but enjoyed using the superb new Dyson Airblades in the Gents more.

Highland Heat

Everyone knows that the west  of Scotland is wet and windy.  But not always. A southeasterly wind can dump all the cloud and  rain in the eastern highlands and then the west can be quite sunny, and even hot.

This seems to happen most often in May and June, which is the best time of year in the Highlands as the wildlife is exploding into life. Cuckoos everywhere, waders piping around the loch shores and the guttural croak of pairs of Red-throated divers as they fly down from their breeding lochs to the sea for a spot of lunch.

This year it was particularly hot for a spell in May. It rather caught me out because I only had loads of thermal type clothing and beach shorts were still bundled at the back of my sock drawer.

My attempt to paddle to Sandwood Bay near Cape Wrath were thwarted by a hefty swell which made the exposed sections of coast north of Handa island just a bit too hairy for my liking. So I had to settle for a day on the stunning little beaches of Handa island in the company of one of my favourite seabirds, the Great Skua (aka Bonxie). Their remarkably drab plumage means that they never get noticed by non-birders (unlike puffins for example), but their behaviour never ceases to exasperate. I have seen them take down and drown an adult herring gull, and come across another chewing its way through an adult Guillemot which I suspect it had brought down just before I came round the corner.

Deceptively relaxed looking pair of Bonxie

P1120476.JPGSuperb remote camping as always.

camp on loch Stack

Although sunny and astonishingly warm (21 degrees at 9am!), the SE wind was a bit too strong for comfortable sea paddling and would have been a bit tricky round some headlands. So I resorted to a circuit of Loch Maree, and my idiotically early start payed dividends with a fleeting view of a pine marten hunting along the shore of the Loch.

fast moving Pine marten
fast moving Pine marten

A fourteen mile flog up the north shore into the wind was a bit of a challenge but I managed to find a sheltered beach for lunch and a cooling swim. A red deer had the same idea.

Loch Maree
Loch Maree
Loch Maree Lunch stop
Loch Maree Lunch stop

Further south the wind eased off enough for me to venture into the heart of the Cuillins of Skye at the foot of Loch Coruisk, surely one of the most spectacular locations in Scotland. And even better at 27 degrees (although not so good in my thermal underwear).

Loch Coruisk
Loch Coruisk

Despite bright morning sunshine, which they usually shun, an otter was noisily munching its way through a crab as I silently approached.


Joined by Hezzer and Sharpy we camped at amazing Fidden Farm on the Ross of Mull for a few days. It continued basically warm and sunny , so I inflated ‘ Puffing Pig 2’ for the two of them to accompany me on a paddle round the island of Erraid. The mist made the mysterious place even more misterious.

Sharpy and Hezzer
Sharpy and Hezzer

And as always while paddling along quietly there is always some nugget of wildlife to keep everybody entertained. This time it was a very obliging Harbour Seal.

Harbour seal (on the right)
Harbour seal (on the right)

The one poor day which remained foggy and surprisingly cool , because the wind was off the sea instead of blowing off the land, was the one day which we really needed it to be good as we had booked a boat trip to the Treshnish isles to see the puffins. As a result it was a bit of a disappointment, although  I never get that much pleasure in being taken to see wildlife in an organised trip. I have always preferred discovering it by myself in a kayak even if that means probably not seeing ‘it’ in the first place.

Having said that seeing Puffins is always a thrill.

Puffin on Lunga
Puffin on Lunga

And Hezzer was pleased with his massive lens although had to keep backing away from the fearless Puffins as they were too close for him to focus!

Hezzer and Puffin
Hezzer and Puffin

One day was flat and windless enough for me to circumnavigate the amazingly historic island of Iona, in ‘Puffing Pig 1’, my single inflatable Gumotex safari kayak.

Iona Abbey was smouldering in mist.

Iona Abbey
Iona Abbey

Superb white sand beaches for a coffee break at the north end of the island, complete with super floaty Arctic Terns.

Iona beach
Iona beach
Arctic Tern
Arctic Tern

A bit lumpy around the cliffs of the southern end of the island. Although inflatable kayaks can be more seaworthy than is generally thought, the reaction of the rescue services should you get into trouble would undoubtedly be more harsh than if you were plucked out of the sea in a conventional kayak.

Baby oystercatchers running about on the shore.

Baby oystercatcher
Baby oystercatcher

Absolutely no chance of sneaking up on baby unnoticed. Adult Oystercatchers are about as noisy as it is possible to be with a three inch bright orange beak.


On the Trail of a Whale. My Holy Grail.

I’ve been making a real effort to paddle offshore as often as possible this summer. It actually isn’t possible very often because it is rarely calm enough.

I go specifically to see the amazing marine wildlife around the coast of SW England which seems to explode into life in July and August. The surface has really got to be almost smooth to spot fins surfacing, even small ripples make it very much more difficult. And if it’s calm you can hear the ‘piff’ of porpoises and dolphins carrying a long way over the water.


My rule is that I don’t go if there are whitecaps. Not just because spotting cetaceans is more tricky but it’s less enjoyable in terms of effort paddling into wind and swell and, of course, potential danger should something go wrong.

My planning of these offshore jaunts is meticulous in terms of tide, wind and swell and I carry a barrage of emergency equipment: GPS, phone, radio, PLB (personal locator beacon) and flares.

Paddling from Plymouth sound to the Eddystone Lighthouse is perfect for this kind of jaunt. The Eddystone lighthouse has a fascinating history and is a bit of an iconic sight and could just be my current favourite place to visit. You will soon see why.

Eddystone Lighthouse

It’s a perfect distance offshore (about 11 miles from Plymouth breakwater) to give a good long day on the water to make the effort of getting there worthwhile. It provides an excellent target and sense of satisfaction in getting there. It wouldn’t be so good if I just paddled 11 miles offshore to a random point I had programmed into my GPS.

You are not allowed to get out onto the lighthouse but I usually loaf about a bit (in the kayak) round the back of the lighthouse, have a word with a few fishermen in their boats, have a cup of coffee and head for home.

And it comes up with the goods in the wildlife department.

So I was pretty excited about the completely smooth water in Plymouth sound and the forecast of hot sunshine and clear blue sky all day. Paddling in a vest, superb (with PFD of course). This was my sixth jaunt out to Eddystone this summer and I had already racked up some fantastic sightings including porpoises, common dolphins, storm petrels, a pomarine skua and sunfish.

The usual steady stream of gannets cruised overhead, they always come over just to check me out as I might just mean fish. Manx Shearwaters whipped past my ears. I was suddenly in amongst a busy school of feeding porpoises criss-crossing about all over the place. I looked down and saw a large number of the fish they were hunting hiding directly beneath my kayak.

Harbour porpoise
Harbour porpoise

Then a couple of passing schools of common dolphins but they were distant and not hanging around so not great views.

Compass Jellyfish

A lot of Compass jellyfish doing their thing (whatever it is they do, which seems to be to be not a lot), and a couple of glimpses of storm petrels carving about low over the surface, brought me to the lighthouse.

Storm Petrel
Storm Petrel

Stoked up with caffeine I struck back for Plymouth. My PFD (lifejacket) rubbed agaainst my kayak seat with every paddle stroke making a faint scuffing noise, but I heard a couple of scuffs that were out of sequence with my stroke. I stopped, nothing. Apart from regular ‘piffs’ from porpoises and dolphins often too far away to see. and the ‘thoomph’ of gannets impacting the water. The sea was alive with activity today.It was as if the stage was set for something really remarkable.

Eddystone 2

Then that scuffy noise again. Very faint. I stopped paddling again and this time I realised it was a faint prolonged breathy noise coming from way out to the west.I dug out my binoculars and followed the noise. I rarely use binoculars form the kayak as any sort of rocking movement is amplified making them useless, but today was so still I was able to see an intense circling troop of gannets plunging into the water in the far distance, and there was a dark back appearing at the surface beneath them. Just a bit slow and big-looking to be a dolphin.

Mmmmm. A quandry. I was already faced with a four hour paddle back. Did I want to paddle a further couple of miles in the other direction. Of course you can you lightweight! This could just be the whale that you have been hunting for many years and many thousands of miles of paddling.

I didn’t hang around and tore towards the gannets. Needless to say they had dispersed long before I was half way there but the large back surfaced a bit closer and my heart missed a beat. It was a whale for certain!

Closer still during its next sequence of breaths and blimey it looked enormous. I snapped away with my camera on rapid fire.

it's a whopper
Whopping Whale

It had passed way to the east next time it came up (ironically exactly where I had been half-an-hour ago) and I was tempted to head back, although on its final breath it just seemed to have turned back towards me…..

One more effort I thought, so paddled towards it again, and then waited silently just when I thought it was due to show.

The atmosphere suddenly seemed to electrify. There was complete silence apart from the slight rustly squeak of the wings of a load of gannets that had appeared from nowhere and were circling directly above my head, looking very expectant. No piffing from any small cetacean. I could sense something rather dramatic was about to happen and felt a long way from land (actually 8.5 miles) and a bit small sitting on top of my eighteen foot sliver of yellow plastic, less than two foot wide. I hoped I didn’t smell like a pilchard (although I probably did as it was very hot and I had done a lot of paddling).

Small fish exploded from the surface only twenty metres away and this was followed by a n explosion of water over a large area as (I realised afterwards) the whale lunged at the fish just below the surface. A second later it surfaced for a huge intake of breath and powered away at astonishing (terrifying) speed. Blinking heck, what a thrill. And it was absolutely enormous.Diving

.I sat about for more and by great good fortune found myself in the best ringside seat because, although it disappeared off to breathe almost as far away as I could see, it came back right beside me on several more occasions. I sat completely and utterly absorbed for over an hour.

At one stage it powered towards me with Plymouth in the distance directly behind and I thought for a minute it was a submarine. It’s speed was staggering.coming straight towards meapproaching

Even more incredibly I was temporarily distracted by the blowing of a school of four stout-looking dolphins that were heading straight towards me and which passed a few feet away. I saw they had rather attractive grey spray-paint like markings on their sides and photographs revealed later they were White-beaked dolphins. Another new cetacean species from my kayak! And as I watched them the whale surfaced in the background. A memorable image.

White-beaked dolphins
White-beaked dolphins

For it’s grand finale the whale put on quite a display of lunge-fishing with a decent amount of splashing. I couldn’t help but get the impression it was for my benefit, as it was once again right in front of me but I rather suspect it was to get a bellyfull of fish instead.lunge feeding

And then it moved off. So did I. But the cetacean action carried on. Two schools of friendly and active common dolphins to break up the long paddle back.Common Dolphins

jumping dolphin
Common Dolphin

Wow. Nine hours on the water. One whale, 4 white-beaked dolphins, 5 schools of common dolphins, two schools of porpoises (plus many many more heard bur not seen), 4 Storm Petrels, 4 Balearic Shearwaters, and a sunfish. Plus the common stuff!

Of course I assumed it was a Minke Whale as they are the most frequently seen, and I never thought I would see anything else. But it rapidly dawned on me that it was far too big for the thirty foot max of a Minke. I have paddled with twenty-five foot long basking shark and this was at least twice the size of that, infact I would guess it was three times the length of my kayak.

I posted my many photos to Hannah Jones at Marine Discovery in Penzance and she was immediately very interested and helpfully forwarded them to her Rorqual expert acquaintance. She rapidly gave a detailed analysis of the photos and explained that in her opinion it was definitely not a Minke Whale, could possibly have been a Sei Whale but was probably a juvenile Fin Whale! Wow!

There is currently ongoing debate about its precise identity. I even wonder whether there were two whales, one with a very long back putting in a brief appearance further out, but I can’t be sure and never saw them surface together.

Maybe I’m pleased that I have failed to spot a whale during kayak trips to Scotland and even Greenland. There’s something very satisfying about seeing one on ‘your own patch’, close to home. And against all the odds (because it was in Devon…just). And under your own steam. And in a kayak.

I have deliberately resisted the temptation to go on a dedicated whale-watching-from-kayak-trip in America or wherever specifically so I could see one under these circumstances. Although I didn’t honestly think I would. And anyway not this big a whale and not this good a view.

Could it have been the largest sea creature ever seen by a kayaker in the UK?Fin whale

latest update: seawatch southwest are pretty confident that this is in fact a Sei Whale. Slightly smaller than a Fin but a lot rarer!