Risso’s and Jelly

Risso’s and Jelly

Charlie and Jelly

Where on earth do Barrel Jellyfish think they are going? And where on earth have they come from? And why on earth do they like to congregate off headlands where their unbelievably weak and slow swimming action is even less effective at getting them where they want to go because headlands are always the places where tidal currents are strongest. They will end up going with the flow whether they like it or not.

Barrel Jelly

But however casual and frilly their approach to life, they seem to have hit upon a winning formula as this Spring they are around the coast in vast numbers.Maybe they do know what they are doing despite apparent frailty and vulnerability. They are big (3ft long) and a bit ghostly and very weird. And great to see as you cruise silently above in your kayak.

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And how excellent is it that the most successful creature around at the minute does not even have a brain. It confirms that life is sustainable without an i-phone (and having a casual and frilly approach to life is not necessarily a bad thing).

In Mount’s Bay the other day just beyond St. Michael’s Mount there was a swarm of Barrel Jellyfish.Many hundreds of them. Taking random photos underwater from the edge of my kayak would show up to five jellies on screen at any one time. Amazing. I wonder if it means that the sea creatures that feast on jellyfish, Sunfish and Leatherback turtles, will also put in a big appearance this year.Hopefully.

Jelly Trio

May’s weather has, as usual, been a bit catchy especially, as usual, down here in the South west with strong winds making the sea out of bounds to kayaks for much of the time.

But being forced to head inland for a bit of kayaking action is not necessarily a bad thing. The Tamar estuary upstream of Calstock is always a favourite.

Kayaking the Tamar near Gunnislake

And a two -day trip to the Upper Thames provides an unexpected ribbon of wilderness within a shout of Swindon. Trilling Curlews, cuckoos , screaming swifts and bushes full of a variety of singing warblers. And  as many ducklings, goslings and cygnets as you would care to see.P1080015

P1080032Locks and lockkeepers cottages remained unchanged for centuries.P1080004

The canoe pass at Radcot lock is inspirational. More please.

Radcot lock canoe pass

Only one thing split the sound of nature, and it kept going round and round as it practised landing at RAF Fairford.About as unfeasible as a Barrel Jellyfish.

Globemaster transport

Nice camp spot with a decent view along the river:

Tent window with a view

I have ventured out for one brief fishing session off the south coast during a window of quieter weather. My first mackerel of the season was followed by half a dozen pollack, a couple of whiting and a grey gurnard. All caught on a string of silver foil feathers. All small. All put back. While in fishing mode I took a spin round Newlyn harbour to see how the ‘big boys’ do it.

Grey Gurnard

Busy Newlyn Harbour

My most recent visit to Penzance provided BIG excitement. Not just for the vast numbers of jellyfish and the scenic backdrop of St. Michael’s Mount jutting out into the middle of the bay.

St.Michael's Mount

Launching from Marazion I ventured out offshore in the hope of encountering some sea creatures. I soon saw a big fin at the surface, but too sickle-shaped for a shark and too big for a common dolphin. In fact too big for a bottle-nose dolphin as well, I thought. I got my camera ready and of course did not see it again. For a while anyway.

Ten minutes later a different big fin surfaced quite close beside me and I floundered to get my camera poised in the choppy conditions. It surfaced briefly four times then once again was gone. I was pretty sure this was a Risso’s dolphin considering the size and shape of the fin but was keen to get a better view.

Risso's dolphin

Over the next few hours I saw the big fins about ten more times. Usually a single, big, dolphin but also one or two small groups. And in the far distance beyond St. Michaels’s mount a wild splashing that must have been of dolphin origin. I paddled over to have a look, saw nothing, paddled a mile back to the middle of the bay, and glanced back to see the exact splashing again where I had just been. So I paddled back,waited around for half an hour, nothing appeared, so I paddled back to the middle of the bay again, and unbelievably the splashing once again appeared in the far distance, in the same place. Maybe they just didn’t like me.

As I pondered over a ham sandwich (with lettuce and coleslaw), another big fin sliced the water in front of me, this one looking very bleached..surely a Risso’s. As I was waiting for it to resurface a school of very active but not particularly friendly common dolphins appeared and surged all around. Very much smaller than the Risso’s and much more dashing. Impossible to photograph. I suspect the wildlife watchers on Shearwater II had a better and more stable view than I had.

Wildlife watchers on shearwater II

Before I headed for home I caught two very brief glimpses of Risso’s dolphins breaching. One had a lot of white on it and the other was greyer but showed the characteristic blunt head. I didn’t get to see the ‘classic’ scarring marks that Risso’s are supposed to have on their bodies. They didn’t seem to be inquisitive like bottle-nose dolphins and were intent on feeding, apparently on cuttlefish.

The local gulls were very pleased to clear up the pieces. This Greater Black-back puffed himself (herself) up to look even bigger and even more threatening than normal.

Greedy Gull

So very pleased with a new dolphin species seen from kayak. Just got to see that whale now!

Another Risso's fin

Loch Shiel Circuit

Loch Shiel Route Map

Boy were we lucky with the weather. I’ve been having a bit of a winge about the incessant wind in south west England messing up plans for some open sea kayaking, but 500 miles further north in Scotland it’s been a whole lot worse. You might expect that to be the norm as you get closer to the North Pole, but often it isn’t. Good thing I did my mega trip up the Scottish west coast last year. If it was this ‘summer’ I would have spent an awful lot of time staring at the inside of my tent.

Our expedition was planned for early June (so this report is a bit out of date). As usual I was glued to the weather forecasts in the preceeding few days, and by sheer good fortune it seemed that the latest deep Atlantic depression was going to pull away from Scotland as we drove up the M6, to be followed by a period of slack winds.

Not worried about rain or temperature, the wind strength and direction was key to the trip as Calum and George would be piloting a Canadian canoe, and they were (justifiably) a bit anxious about the exposed section of open coast from Moidart to the entrance of Loch Ailort.

Calum and George

Brother James and I rolled into Glenfinnan after a trifling 600 mile drive from Devon, and soon found a good launch spot beside the loch. A few red deer browsed unconcernedly nearby.

With Calum and George’s Canadian loaded up with provisions we were soon on the water and looking for a place to camp, as there was nowhere suitable in Glenfinnan itself.

And before we had de-fuddled our heads from the long drive, we were straight into an encounter with a superb Scottish speciality wildlife nugget, a Black-throated Diver. While James and I (as southerners) were fumbling for binoculars and cooing over the beauty of the extraordinarily intricately marked extreme bird of the Highlands, Calum and George paddled on chatting merrily and the diver had soon submerged, not to be seen again.

camp 1 at Eilean Dubh

As I had hoped, the little beach at Eilean Dubh provided the perfect place to camp with a good view down the loch. The stiff headwind (which had apparently been blowing for many days), had been easing as we paddled…..by sheer luck our trip seemed to have been timed to the nearest minute with regard to weather. A couple of short, sharp showers during the night were the last rain we would see for the whole trip.

Day 2 was Scottish freshwater loch paddling at its best. Light winds (OK not that warm and not that sunny), big mountains all around, natural deciduous woodland alive with the song of willow and wood warblers , and the occasional cuckoo. Not a lot of sign of human existence. Fantastic.

Upper Loch Shiel

We were pretty keen to eyeball a golden eagle so during lunch on a sandy beach binoculars were trained on the hillside opposite. We did indeed spot our bird but it was at extreme range and I don’t think came close enough to be seen with the naked eye.

James Eagle hunting

After Polloch inlet on the south side of the Loch,the shape of the loch  suddenly becomes more interesting. The way forward is apparently barred by the extraordinary little island of Eilean Fhianain, where we landed for a bit of a nose around the spooky burial ground consisting of graves dating back many hundreds of years ,dotted about randomly.

Eilean Fhianain

We opted to camp beside one of the last sandy beaches just after the island before the long stretch of flat bogland which I knew from my adventure last year offered poor camping opportunities.

As we connected tent poles and pushed in tent pegs our eyes were drawn to the source of a weird wailing cry. It came from the vast silhouette of a sea eagle hanging in the wind, yelling to its mate a bit further away. Not a very regal call from such a majestic beast.

White-tailed Eagle dwarfing a pair of Hooded crows

I was awoken in the middle of the night, which never really gets dark at this time of year this far north, by the piping song of Greenshank and the bubbling call of Curlew. These ground-nesting waders are in serious decline further south, but there’s not a lot to disturb them up here in these vast tracts of undeveloped land. Long may it continue.

Our immediate aim at the start of our third day was to get a good view of the Sea Eagles. They are so massive they didn’t take a lot of tracking down. We could see one perched in the top of a tree on the other side of the loch from a mile away. Not quite such a challenge to spot as the Golden Eagles that favour distant remote crags.

James Eagle watching (again)

It lumbered off and sat in a withered tree which somehow didn’t enhance its status as admiral of the air.

The few miles approaching the end of the loch are bleak, as I discovered last year when I was paddling here in a storm. Potentially Scotland at its worst with  flat boggy shore and no shelter from the wind.

However today we were lucky…..little wind and the start of a favourable current to suck us into the mouth of the River Shiel for our journey down to the sea. A quick stop in Acharacle for milk.

This short river is really excellent. Completely different to the previous 20 miles and there is an unexpected treat with a mini-gorge and ancient bridge before it opens out a bit into sweeping bends.

River Shiel

Our planning was perfect. Nearly. We knew there was quite a drop into the sea at Loch Moidart creating a challenging short section of rapids, but at high tide this is ‘washed out’ and covered by high water. It probably would have been if it had been a Spring tide, but as it was Neaps the rapid was still very evident. And the recent heavy rain meant a powerful flow.

I pulled every zip on my drysuit as tight as it would go before tackling the shoot and only just avoided a dunking with a nasty surge from the left which nearly flipped me.

A couple of Canadian canoeists were not so fortunate.

Canadian catastrophe

And so out onto the extraordinary Loch Moidart, with its steep heavily wooded banks, many islands, and nucleus of the crumbling Castle Tioram. We had a leisurely paddle of the Loch before sauntering down the south channel to the bottom left-hand corner of Eilean Shona and its sandy beach for a place to camp. Perfect, with a view over the open sea out to the west, and the Isle of Eigg with its Sgurr.

Castle Tioram

And even better for the serious birdwatcher, good views of Twites, another West coast of Scotland speciality. Barely distinguishable from a sparrow to the casual observer (in fact maybe even duller), so not surprisingly beaten to the front pages of tourists brochures by the more dramatic White-tailed Eagle and more charismatic Black-throated Diver.

Day 4 was crunch day. Three miles of exposed west-facing coast before the haven of Loch Ailort. Phew. The wind was light and it looked good enough. Just.

I sneaked ahead for an early morning otter-spot and nearly knocked into one which was eating something on a rock and got almost as much of a surprise as I did.

George’s recollection of seeing someone tip over in a Canadian canoe and only just make it to shore last time he visited Eilean Shona didn’t help. There was a noticeable quiet about our group, and it was indeed a bit lumpy past the rockier sections with a bit of wave bounceback from the sheer cliffy bits.

In front of the Sgurr of Eigg

Things looked up as we were lured to the lovely sandy (but surprisingly busy) beach at Smirisary escorted by a posse of seals. James followed a smart breeding-plumage Great-Northern Diver around the bay for a closer look.

Stoked up by (yet another) cup of tea from the Jetboil, and a noticeable decrease in the wind, the second section of exposure was looking like a doddle. And it was, just an excellent paddle with the backdrop of the small isles including the lofty peaks of Rum.

We were soon ashore again stretching our legs on Samalaman island and feeling so smug with ourselves that we even decided to bypass the trough-stop of Glenuig Inn, which had been the main carrot for doing the ‘exposed bit’ in the first place.P1010271

Instead we found a perfect sandy beach lunch-spot on Eilean na Gualain, at the head of Loch Ailort. And the sun came out and the sea turned from battleship grey to a Bermudan green and all was well.

Lunch beckons

It got even better as we crossed over to the remote Ardnish peninsular and pulled up on the wide sandy beach at Peanmeanach for our final camp. A huge area of flat short-cropped grass perfect for camping. The well maintained bothy was not an option (although would have been if it had been raining and/or windy).

Camp at Peanmeanach

With the tents set up I took a solo paddle to the end of the Ardnish peninsular and spent a long time peering at a pile of boulders on the shore from which emanated a chattering scolding noise. I suspect pine martens but saw nothing.

James opted for minimalist camping and opted for his bivvi bag. Maybe it was time I changed my socks.P1080284

The final day for the easy paddle up the length of Loch Ailort was about as relaxing as it could have been. Glass calm surface. Silence apart from the clamour of an assortment of seabirds, mainly terns.

Glassy Loch Ailort

Finish. A ten mile shuttle to pick up Calum’s car. Mini adventure over.

This near complete circuit has to be the most interesting in terms of variety of scenery and variety of paddling (freshwater loch, river, wooded sea loch, open sea, sea loch) in the whole of Scotland. And all packed into a mere 50 miles. Fab.

But beware the ticks. I was scratching for days.

Paddle Therapy

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Following a total knee replacement at the beginning of the year, and all the inactivity and slobbing about thereafter, it was imperative I got back onto the water as soon as possible. Paddling a kayak is the perfect antidote to chocolate hobnobs and daytime TV. And if you get a move on you can be back in time for ‘Pointless’ anyway.

It probably isn’t the best from of exercise to bulk up the leg muscles following knee surgery, in fact huge amounts of time sitting in a boat with ‘vestigial’ legs (as my chum described them) probably contributed to the problem in the first place.

But what the heck. It’s good for the soul.

Roadford lake

 

I started off with flat water. Bude canal and Roadford Lake. Superb. As the Spring got going the surrounding bushes and trees were a cacophony of birdsong.

Roadford Lake

 

I certainly wasn’t expecting to encounter a Roe Deer swimming a mile across the middle if the lake.P1120401P1120407

As the sea settled down after winter we cherry-picked sheltered sections of the Southwest coast to explore during daytrips.

Charmouth, Lyme Regis and the Jurassic coast.P1110473

The only problem with the south coast is the easy access and flat water which encourages the scum of the seas.  To which  of these blubber -laden sea creatures do you think I refer?…

Blubber A

Blubber B

 

Dave and I spent a tremendous sunny day around Gerrans and Veryan Bay in South Cornwall, featuring my first cetacean encounter of the year…..a very small porpoise, and a fantastic aerobatic display by a cornish Chough including a gravity defying g-force loop, with its legs on the OUTSIDE of the circle. Reminiscent of the Eurofighter at Dawlish air display.

Superb Chough

 

six-star porpoiseAnd when eventually the swell abated on the ragged North Cornwall coast, making it accessible for kayaking for about the first time in six months, we wasted no time in a tour along the Hartland Heritage Coast.

The reefs here must be respected as highlighted in the cheerful proverb/shanty/sonnet:

“From Hartland Quay to Padstow Light,

‘Tis a watery grave by day or night”

Plenty of evidence of this at low tide:

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As the sea began to warm up and the sandy bays echoed to the grating calls of migrating Sandwich terns, I thought it was time to concentrate on a bit of dolphin spotting.

My paddling fitness had returned which made me a bit more confident about doing some offshore paddling.

However this was not necessary for my first dolphin encounter of the year….a pod of Risso’s dolphins which I picked up right outside the entrance to Newlyn harbour and followed for a mile to Penlee point. Like Bottlenose Dolphins they cruise along at 5mph so take a bit of keeping up with. A superb encounter, my best views yet of Risso’s dolphins. They showed their typical colour variation: one almost white, one almost black and one pale grey with a characteristics pattern of scars on its dorsal fin that would allow individual identification (which I am following up).

Risso's

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The scarred dolphin did a respectful little jump right beneath the slipway of the old Penlee lifeboat, used for the last time in December 1981 when the lifeboat, and the entire crew, were lost while carrying out a rescue.P1120342

My second dolphin encounter of the season was a distant view of a fast moving pod of Bottlenose dolphins at Pentewan beach, Mevagissey. No photos, too far away. The only other notable ingot of wildlife on that day was a Great-Northern Diver dressed up in its spectacular breeding plumage. Most have departed for the far north by the time they have changed into their smart clothes, but this year for some reason many have been slow to depart. In fact I saw one still lingering on 18 June.

Breeding plumage Loon

 

To complete my dolphin species hat-trick I had to make a bit  more of an effort. Common dolphins usually keep further offshore so I thought a jaunt out to the Eddystone Lighthouse, ten miles beyond Plymouth breakwater, should do the job. I wasn’t disappointed. On the way back I found myself amonst a group of about a dozen Common dolphins which surged all around for a couple of minutes.

Common dolphins

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Throw a few porpoises, a Sunfish and a dozen Puffins into the mix and it was worth the strain.

Eddystone Puffin

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With the reported sightings of several Minke whales in the west of Cornwall, plus a handful of Humpbacks and the amazing record of a Bowhead whale loafing about only just off the beach at Penzance, a whale encounter from my kayak has got to be my next big wildlife goal. In the UK of course. OK it’s not going to happen. But it just might.

Till then I’ll just have to be happy with the local foxcubs (viewed from the kayak, of course).P1120912

And if all else fails, find a deserted ‘kayak only’ beach and just enjoy the scenery.P1110473P1120958

This particular wordpress blog has now run out of space to download photos. And as I seem to have ‘gone off ‘ the fishing side of things for the time being, in favour of touring and wildlife encounters, I will write future Blogs on my other site ukseakayakingandwildlifeencounters.wordpress.com. Follow my adventures there.

The Taw Estuary

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Taw Estuary

The ten miles from Bideford Bay up the Taw estuary to the old bridge in Barnstaple is pretty tedious. Arguably the most unappealing paddle in the whole of southwest England. It is flanked by flat land on either side and punctuated by Yelland oil terminal, Ashford sewage works, and Chivenor air base. It is exposed to any wind and there is a strong tidal current.

However, such is the magic of water that on very rare days it can look absolutely stunning. When it is glass calm. October 10th was just such a day. Normally I would take the opportunity of a windless slot to head out into the open sea but on this particular day I just couldn’t be bothered.

And it’s a great place for birds. The Taw estuary is a favourite haunt for wintering waterbirds with its huge area of mud and sand exposed at low tide. And a couple of reserves to give them a chance of disturbance -free rest.

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Appledore

I set off from the slipway in Appledore and started off with a short jaunt out towards the sea against the incoming tide. It was a bit of a surprise to encounter a couple of Eider ducks that are not common around here, but there’s plenty of mussels for them to gorge on.

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Eider Duck

I then turned about and was swung past Crow point with the current and off up towards Barnstaple. It was dead still and the air was full of the trill of Curlews and piping of Redshank and the occasional triple-pipe of a Greenshank.

A very busy tight pack of about a hundred Sanderling were probing a sandbank just before it got swamped by the tide. I drifted pretty close allowing excellent views. They have always been one of my favourite waders.

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Pack of Sanderlings
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Sanderlings

I stopped for a cup of coffee on a sandbank in mid stream.

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Taw Coffee Spot

The Taw Bridge in Barnstaple is not something that would immediately strike you as a a good subject for a photograph but it was looking at its best today.

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Taw Bridge

I loafed around in mid river with the old shopping trolleys in the centre of Barnsaple waiting for the tide to ebb. A few kingfishers about. Then headed back.

The wind had started to pick up and the glassy magic had gone. At least both the breeze and current were in my favour. And still the waterbirds to provide a bit of interest fot the two hour paddle back to Appledore. Like this Bar-tailed Godwit with its unfeasibly long beak that surely makes having a scratch a bit of a logistics problem.

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Bar-tailed Godwit

And superb Grey Plovers waiting on the kelp for the mud to expose a bit of lunch.

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Grey Plover