Epic Fail Whale

There has been a Humpback Whale close in to the coast of South Devon for the last three weeks. It has entertained huge numbers of super-enthusiastic whale-watchers by cruising up and down the sheltered beach of Slapton Sands so close you could throw a stone at it. it’s absolutely amazing that it has come in so close and stayed around for so long. I’m pretty sure this is unprecedented in this part of the world.

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The Humpback (taken from the shore)

It got even better for the growing group of Humpback lovers when it moved a short distance along the coast to Torbay. Here it dramatically upped its game ,which so far had involved a blow followed by a leisurely roll at the surface and a shallow dive which occasionally showed its flukes. In Torbay it hurled itself about, breaching  and generally putting on an impressive Humpback-style display. Best of all was for the watchers on Berry Head on a sunny Monday lunchtime, when it appeared directly below them in clear turquoise water, before slowly moving away breaching an incredible thirteen times successively.

I was thrilled to see it at unbelievably close range at Slapton. From the shore.But it would have been a lot better to see it from my kayak. That particularly day was too windy and hostile for kayaking so I returned a couple of days later and of course the whale didn’t show. Actually it did, but an hour after I had left.

I then  went to Berry head and paddled twenty miles around in a flat calm sea expecting the whale to burst out of the water at any minute. My heart was in my throat for the whole six hours I was on the water.Son Henry joined the throng of expectant watchers on the cliff top at Berry head and watched me cruise past on the silky smooth water. Fast heading south with the tide, very slow north against it.No whale, it had gone back to Slapton. Groan.

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Whale watchers at Berry Head
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Offshore paddling at Berry head

So the next day I went back to Slapton and paddled around around for a further twelve miles, and the whale was at the mouth of the River Dart and then turned up at Slapton a couple of hours after I had left.

Maybe it’s justice, as you are not supposed to chase around after any whales, or any other sea creature, in any craft, and there has been much publicity to this effect relating to this particular whale. With the threat of prosecution.

But paddling along at three mph in complete silence in a kayak is hardly going to make a whale jump out of its skin.The whale is more likely to snigger at your insignificance. It would be a lot worse if I was on a Jetski.

kayak and jetski 2However rules are rules and I wouldn’t deliberately approach any such creature closer than the recommended two hundred metres.

Anyway, in a kayak you really don’t need to, as the sea creature will often come to you to see what you are all about. This certainly applies to seals, Bottlenose Dolphins, and rather surprisingly (and worryingly) Basking Sharks.

I launched four specific trips in my kayak to where the whale was supposed to be, paddled fifty miles,  and I didn’t see it.

So thank goodness for all the porpoises. I have never seen so many so early in the year before. They seem to be resident year round at major headlands such as Hartland Point and Berry Head, but in other areas numbers only build up as the sea gets warmer. Maybe I am wrong about that, and it’s just that I tend not to venture too far offshore in my kayak during the colder months, and the porpoises are always there.

I have seen over forty porpoises over the last couple of weeks while looking for the whale. They are not attracted to kayaks but just keep doing their stuff and seem indifferent to my presence. Having said that , if they get too close they will just disappear. One feature of porpoises is their constant changes of direction, first surfacing that way ,then next breath pointing in another direction. Dolphins tend to progress with a definite purpose but porpoises roll as if they are attached to the top of a wheel.

The water was so calm off the end of Berry Head I could see  ten porpoises at once and was thrilled to hear them ‘piffing’ all around. Hearing the blow of porpoises and dolphins is special to kayaks as most other craft make too much noise to hear the animals, and  sailing boats on days calm enough to hear the breaths have an engine running.

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Berry Head Porpoises

I noticed a couple of porpoises  lie horizontally at the surface for a period of several seconds with their fins showing. I’m not sure whether they were looking above the surface, or briefly resting.

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Resting harbour Porpoise

Some of my best and closest porpoise encounters yet.

They may be the UK’s commonest cetacean, and the world’s smallest (and certainly a lot smaller than the one I was hoping to meet) , but they are always a thrill to encounter, and I love their alternative title of ‘Puffing Pig’.

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Harbour porpoise, Slapton
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