After my amazing hour spent watching the Bottlenose Dolphins I thought that the wildlife excitement was over for the day. I couldn’t have been more wrong.
The sea was so unusually smooth, with virtually no swell coming in from the Atlantic. I kept well offshore in the hope of seeing some Common Dolphins. One and-a-half miles from the coast. It was absolutely silent apart from the sporadic cackle of scattered groups of auks, and the ‘piff’ of a pod of four porpoises. It was so still that although the sound of their blows was quite loud they were so far away I could only just see their fins breaking the surface.
Half way between Mousehole and Lamorna Cove there was a loud ripping sound coming from somewhere overhead, as though the sky was being torn. A small dark shape hurtled down towards the sea and suddenly twisted and turned. At the same time I heard a faint whistle which sounded like a sandpiper, although it was the sandpiper equivalent of a desperate shriek.
I saw a brief splash as something hit the water, and the pursuing peregrine circled around for a second attempt to catch its victim. I rapidly dug out my camera and started snapping. The peregrine dropped to sea level and to my astonishment dipped its feet into the water to try to retrieve the sandpiper which had at this stage disappeared from the surface. It must have dived to avoid the peregrine.
The peregrine circled around again and again hovered briefly over the spot where the sandpiper floundered. No success so it circled around another couple of times. I could see the sandpiper’s head poking above the surface, which is just visible in one of the photos with the peregrine marauding above.
After four or five circuits the peregrine, which looked like a tiercel, gave up and made for the coast. I immediately paddled over to rescue the sandpiper which I thought must be in some kind of trouble. Even if it wasn’t , sandpipers are not designed to go swimming in the open sea (although funnily enough I saw a Grey phalarope swimming in almost exactly this place last September) so it probably needed some kind of help.
As I approached it understandably started swimming away, but I wasn’t expecting it to take flight when I was about six foot away. It seemed absolutely fine, alternating flapping with a brief glide on bowed wings in classic Common Sandpiper fashion. And was gone.
I was still trying to process what I had just witnessed. It’s always like that after a peregrine attack. The action is so unexpected and so fast and so exciting it’s a bit tricky for a doughbrain to process.
I still can’t quite believe that two of the most spectacular wildlife sightings I have had in over 17,000 miles paddled in my kayak occurred within an hour of each other.
This was forecast to be the last day of the cam weather in SW England before the high pressure moved away. In fact today was a bonus day because the winds were originally supposed to pick up overnight.
Despite spending virtually all day on the water yesterday I thought I’d better make the effort to go somewhere special and maybe do a bit of offshore paddling. Mount’s Bay should fit the bill nicely, with hopefully some cetacean sightings.
I arrived at Sandy Bay beside Newlyn harbour a bit later than I had intended. Although it’s not at all sandy it’s got a great view across the bay so I was going to have breakfast in a relaxed manner (muesli) before paddling off, while looking for marine wildlife through my binoculars.
No chance of relaxation. Within five seconds of lifting the binoculars to my eyes and focusing on the sea a mile away off Penlee point, I was watching a large pod of Bottlenose Dolphins moving steadily across the bay towards St. Michael’s Mount. Aaargh, if only I had arrived ten minutes earlier I would have been beside them.
I got all my kayaking stuff together in a record time (including packing muesli and milk) and went tearing off across the completely smooth water at Olympic pace. But the dolphins were gone so I throttled back and made a bee-line for St Michael’s Mount anyway. They might just be hanging around feeding somewhere.
I stopped for (late) breakfast in the middle of the bay and then cruised on. The briefest flash of sun reflected off the surface, which shouldn’t have happened because there were no waves. Just maybe it was a dolphin’s fin. There it was again, and this time it was followed by a splash. Yes!
I cranked the speed back up to over 5 mph, and soon started to see quite a few fins appearing, together with puffs of spray. I could hear the blows. The dolphins were now heading back towards me, so I drifted to a halt and waited. As they approached I could hear the engine of the Marine Discovery catamaran coming up behind me from Penzance harbour.
They put on a superb show right in front of us, surging about all over the place and occasionally hurling themselves right out of the water or just splashing on their sides. It was totally enthralling as there were quite a lot of them ( 15-20) and they are quite big creatures. In a kayak there is a feeling of uncertainty when they come really close.
After a brief chat with the Marine Discovery folk, and hearing the dolphins clicking on their hydrophone, they (Marine Dicovery) continued on their way, but I stayed to see more. This is the sort of excitement that fuels my paddling muscles. (as well as the muesli)
I spent over an hour watching them. Just me and the dolphins. They worked their way across the bay nearly to Penzance, and then came all the way back again. They accelerated past the end of St. Michael’s Mount and that is where I peeled off.
There were clearly two calves which were not only much smaller but also much paler than the rest. They led the way with the acrobatics and jumped clear of the water on several occasions. They stuck pretty close to Mum and seemed to remain in the middle of the group.
Two big dolphins with tall blackish fins, which I would presume to be males, patrolled around the outside of the pod like security guards.
I kept a good distance so as not to cause any disturbance, although I was expecting a posse to come over to have a look at me as Bottlenose dolphins have done in the past. A group did approach but then suddenly the whole lot disappeared, left a load of fluke prints all around my kayak, and then popped up a long way away. Maybe they saw me as some sort of threat and were protecting the calves.
I took loads of photos, most with the unexciting backdrop of Penzance industrial estate behind, but then the two bouncers appeared in front of the church (slightly better) before the whole lot passed in front of St. Michael’s Mount (a lot better).
After the dolphin encounter, I paddled across the bay past Mousehole keeping a mile offshore , saw a summer plumaged Great Northern Diver, heard a group of four porpoises puffing before I saw them, then popped in for a nose around Mousehole harbour before heading back around the corner to Sandy Bay.
Maybe the best thing about Bottlenose Dolphins is their permanent smile.
At last! Yippee. The sea promised to be quiet enough on the north coast of Cornwall to allow terror-free exploration of the many caves of Boscastle. Hardly any wind and one foot of swell. Perfect. Days like this are rarer than an unpleasant McFlurry.
The Magnificent (motley) Six paddlers convened in the main car park of Boscastle and trolleyed down the High Street to the harbour. This is all part of the build up. It’s a lot easier, but less fun, to offload on the quayside and drive back to the carpark. And if you do that you don’t get to see the Museum of Witchcraft.
It was ultra low tide so we also had to trolley down the weed laden river which wasn’t quite so entertaining.
We were off! Beep, Mark, Luke, Paul, Kevin and yours truly. Slicing in complete silence (apart from the chit-chat) through crystal clear turquoise water under a cloudless blue sky.
Within minutes we had stopped to admire a couple of Barrel Jellyfish below us, ghostly-white and almost luminescent. Absolutely extraordinary creatures but I can never work out quite what they think they are doing or where they think they are going. The answer is probably along the lines of ‘not alot’ and ‘nowhere in particular’.
Before we reached Pentargon Strand we were lured into a gigantic cave, a good hundred yards long. I bravely followed Luke and Paul (who had decent torches) into the blackness. I wasn’t at all happy about the roar of waves trapped in a sucky bit which sounded like a dragon.
Incredibly there was a sandy beach at the end of the cave which needed a bit of exploring, but the best bit for me was getting back out into the sunshine.
We passed under an archway, paddled across Pentargon Bay, checked out several smaller caves, and then found a real whopper. Plus a few seals in there for company. We went in around the corner and then into total blackness. Luke went further into the narrowing gap but I was a bit wary in case that unexpected large wave came that squashed us against the ceiling. I paid the penalty for my pathetic overcaution when the only unexpected large wave of the entire day came when we were back out into the sunshine and broke on a reef just as I was crossing it. Typical. Fortunately my damp patch was rapidly forgotten when we saw a couple of Purple Sandpipers poking about on the rocks.
Round past Fire Beacon point there were seals spread around all over the Beeny Sisters rocks, providing some superb viewing in millpond-like conditions. Then more seals, like giant maggots, on the beaches at Beeny which we did our best not to disturb.
One particular adolescent seal was extremely curious and came very close as we shovelled in some food. I think it was my chocolate Hobnobs that drew its attention although it could have been Kevin’s eyecatching, and capacious, spray-skirt.
We cut directly back across the bay to the mouth of Boscastle harbour and couldn’t resist exploring the coast further south. There might not be another kayak-friendly day here for many months.
Despite loafing about off Short Island for a tea break we failed to spot any of its Puffins. A loop around the never-ceasing-to-amaze, eroded and craggy and precipitous Long Island brought us into Bossiney Bay. The sandy beaches were covered by the high tide so getting out for a leg stretch wasn’t easy.
We turned north for the two miles back to Boscastle and investigated every nook and cranny and gulch and, of course, every cave. Every time a black hole appeared in the cliff Luke wasted no time in darting in followed rapidly by Paul. And the caves just kept on coming. Just one huge long cave would be absolutely remarkable, but we must have ventured into a dozen in this six mile length of coast. Some just narrowed down to nothing but others opened out to great big chambers, one with quite an impressive stalagmite (ot was it ____tite?). I got completely wedged trying to turn my kayak around in the cold inky depths of one chasm. The only possible explanation was that my kayak was longer than anyone else’s, it couldn’t possibly have been anything to do with bungling incompetence.
Even the enormous ‘zawn’ just outside the harbour mouth at Boscastle was impressive today. It’s usually too lumpy to enter.
That was it. An easy exit straight onto the slipway thanks to the high tide, and a hike back up the High Street to the carpark.
Yet another TOP trip. Although I know why I am a kayaker and lover of wide open spaces, and not a caver.
The five miles of coast between Mullion Cove and Kynance Cove is nothing short of awesome. As cliffy and intimidating as any other stretch of Cornwall.
If you were just dropped in here you would swear it was the North coast because there is always a restless sort of underlying swell, even on the calm days. It is because this southern section of the lizard peninsular sticks out beyond the protection of the Land’s End peninsular and so receives the full force of whatever is going on in the Atlantic.
It is only on the days when the swell is minimal that it is any fun to do this bit in a kayak (which is not very often). There are large sections of vertical cliff which reflect any waves and so would make it very lumpy in a larger swell, or onshore wind.
I chose a recent day with a small swell and moderate easterly wind. Even this swirled around the headlands and, as usual, seemed to spend much more time blowing in my face than from behind.
At least it was blue sky and the lack of rain over the previous few weeks made the water as clear as I think I have ever seen it.
I set off from Poldhu Cove, a perfect sandy beach a mile or so north of Mullion. Every headland around here seems to have a hotel perched right on top.
Although I have paddled this section twice before, I wasn’t quite expecting the fantastic location of Mullion Cove, squeezed into a gap in the cliffs surrounded by huge buttresses. It seemed to be bigger and better than the last occasions….probably enhanced by the sun.
I bypassed Mullion island with a view to ‘doing’ it on the way back, and ventured round the corner to start the very committing and potentially hostile cliffy bit.
However I was soon completely absorbed in the excitement of it all (as usual) but my excitementometer suddenly lurched off the scale when I saw a fin break the water a hundred metres further out. I changed direction to observe and was thrilled to see the grey backs of a couple of Bottlenose Dolphins appear. The first ones I had seen in the UK for three years. They looked big, not surprising as they are up to five times the weight of a Common Dolphin.
I was rather hoping they would come over to ‘play’ but they didn’t, they just cruised on past at a speed that I wouldn’t be able to match.
Craggy headlands alternated with wide bays backed by tall cliffs. Ogo-dour Cove, Pot Cornick, Gew graze and Pigeon Ogo. None of these names really bring out the friendliness and softer side of the area.
I nearly leapt out of my skin when an unseen seal snorted and simultaneously splashed just a few feet behind me.
After rounding ‘the Horse’ a sliver of golden sand of Kynance Cove a mile further on provided the promise of a safe haven and a target for a leg stretch. As I approached the water became progressively more turquoise and when hauling my kayak onto the sand I could well see why Kynance has the reputation of the most beautiful beach in Britain. It was high water but only a neap tide so there was still a strip of dry sand. And I had it all to myself because the state of the tide made it inaccessible to walkers. Absolutely superb. I loafed about and slurped coffee from my Thermos and munched a couple of Cookies and felt very Caribbean (apart from the drysuit and thermal underwear side of things).
A minute or two after starting the return leg I encountered a very confiding Razorbill (still in its winter outfit) that was dipping its head underwater to look for fish even when I was only a few feet away.
Before I took a circuit around Mullion island, and its pungent odour of guano, I pulled up onto another excellent strip of sand just exposed by the receding tide.
Back at Poldhu the beach was a bit different to the zero number of people on it when I set off this morning at 8 am. It echoed to chatter and laughter and the sea floated surfers, paddleboarders and the odd swimmer. Pretty remarkable for mid April. And the sea is still only eleven degrees! (so the swimmers weren’t in long)
Just before I started my ‘final approach’ a seabird with a white belly sat up in the water for a quick wing flap. A Great Northern Diver in full breeding plumage! What a stunner. All the Diver species look a bit ‘plain’ in their winter dress but morph into the most fantastic designs in the summer.
Unfortunately in the only photo that was in focus the bulk of the bird’s body was hidden behind a wavelet.
Another cracking day enhanced by the continuing Spring sunshine.
After my encounter with the suspected Fin whale near the Eddystone rocks last August, and a couple of brief sightings of Minkes, I thought that would put a pause on adventures with large cetaceans, at least until late summer.
It is still completely pretty amazing that a Humpback would appear in South Devon at all, and beyond belief that it would spend over six weeks cruising about the sheltered waters of Start Bay, wowing the crowd of assembled whale watchers with some unbelievably close passes to the beach at Slapton. The very fact that the carparks at Slapton Sands are so convenient and close to the steep shelving shingle beach (and therefore in close proximity to deep water), and usually swell-free because it is east facing, is a remarkable coincidence. Its about as perfect a place for whale-watching as you are going to get.
If you were to put a pin in the map for the best pace for a whale to turn up for the maximum number if people to enjoy viewing it, you would choose Slapton sands. Even the bus stop is only yards away.
Needless to say I wanted to see the whale from my kayak. My first view from my Gumotex Inflatable was when the whale was trapped in a lobster pot rope. Hardly very memorable.
Ten days ago the sea at Slapton was just about flat calm and there was no ‘dumpy’ waves on the beach which can make launching here interesting/embarrassing/entertaining for the crowd. Apparently the whale was still around.
In my Scupper Pro kayak, which I had brought because it drags over the shingle well, I paddled a mile or two offshore. Lots of small parties of Guillemots whose guttural call could be heard for amazing distances over the millpond sea, a few Gannets and a pair of porpoises.
But no whale…yet.
I hadn’t really expected to see it because yet another remarkable feature of this remarkable whale is its habit of coming close inshore late in the day. Many seem to think this is tide-related but it can’t be because in the space of two weeks the tide has gone through its complete cycle, yet the whale still turns up at roughly the same time.
I slid my kayak into the water and sat around fifty metres from the shore, on a surface so calm I could have been in a lake.
To my toe tingling astonishment I heard the whale blowing half a mile away towards Torcross, and saw the bushy cloud of spray slowly disperse. Good grief, it seemed to be heading straight towards me. I fumbled for my camera but already my hands were trembling with excitement.
It surfaced and dived once more. I then saw patches of smooth water appearing in a line like giant footprints coming towards me at the surface as the whale approached….fluke prints caused by the whale swimming along just below the surface! Amazing!
It surfaced and blew only twenty yards away and I got a very unsatisfactory photo. Like a complete idiot I thought the action had finished when the bulk of its body disappeared and I lowered my camera, but then the tail flukes came up in perfect humpback-style as it deep dived. Moron…would have been a pic to remember.
However it was an absolutely extraordinary encounter. Who would have believed you could see a whale like this within a stone’s throw from the shore in South Devon. I had spent a fair amount of time during the winter researching where in the world you could see Humpback’s from a kayak, as it has been number one on my kayaking wishlist for some time. Hawaii or British Columbia were on the shortlist.
Wherever it was going to be, I hadn’t expected it would only require about ten strokes of the paddle to get far enough from the shore to achieve the ideal position for viewing! Thinking about it, there probably isn’t anywhere else in the entire world when you can be loafing about eating a Bakewell tart on the beach one minute, and having a Humpback swim more or less dirctly underneath your kayak less than five minutes later.
Four days ago a wildlife viewing boat (AK Wildlife Cruises) had absolutely incredible views of a Humpback breaching in the middle of Falmouth Bay right beside their boat. Crystal clear pictures and video, you couldn’t hope for better.
So a couple of days later I set off in my Cobra Expedition Kayak for a twenty-five mile paddle around Falmouth Bay, cutting right across the middle to the Manacles rocks, and then following the coast back. Tremendously exciting, calm waters, huge expectation, but no whale.
I had a reasonable consolation prize. About three miles offshore I sped towards a mini feeding frenzy of gulls which had attracted a handful of Gannets which appeared from nowhere and wasted no time in plunging in. As I approached I could see fins of dolphins slashing at speed across the surface, and the pale patch behind the fin to show they were Common Dolphons. Superb. They appeared a couple of times more but were only momentarily visible in a burst of spray. And suddenly they were gone, the gannets drifted off, and the gulls settled on the water. The lone Manx Shearwater also winged away. Feeding frenzy over.
This is not the first time this has happened. It is quite difficult to get to a feeding frenzy before it finishes. One of my objectives for this year is to see a big frenzy. The only time I have ever achieved this was off Bude over ten years ago, when I threw out some mackerel for the gannets and they dived in beside my kayak to catch them.
Other wildlife highlights were five Sandwich Terns, four Great Northern Divers, a Whimbrel, six Purple Sandpipers on the Manacles and several swallows coming in off the sea.
And an excellent Barrel Jellyfish in the clear waters off Swanpool beach.
Nipped in for nice lunch at Porthallow and met up with former work colleague Andrew who is training for Lands End- John o’ Groats ! (by bike, not kayak)
Looking closely at photographs of the Slapton and Falmouth Humpbacks, it would seem they are different whales. This seems even more likely because the Slapton whale has been seen in its usual area since the Falmouth whale has been sighted, and it is unlikely the whale would backtrack sixty or seventy miles when it is supposed to be on migration.
So, probably two Humpbacks. Even more amazing. And on my ‘local’ patch. Thank goodness I hadn’t booked a whale watching by kayak trip somewhere on the other side of the world, which would never have been so much fun. (actually it might have been, but I’m a huge fan of wildlife in the UK, so it would have had to have been exceptional).
I really enjoy exploring the extreme upper tidal limit of rivers on a big Spring tide. You can investigate all sorts of places you wouldn’t have a hope of getting to in anything but a kayak. They are also more or less immune to bad weather as they tend to be in sheltered wooded valleys.
In South West England the big Spring tide always occur at about 6am and 6pm (high tides in the middle of the day are always neap). this suits me just fine because I love paddling at first light because there is never anyone else around, you don’t have trouble finding a place in the carpark, and you might just be lucky enough to see some special wildlife that is essentially nocturnal and hasn’t quite gone to bed yet.
That is precisely what happened when I set off up the River Camel from Wadebridge recently just as it was getting light and on a massive tide. In my Gumotex Safari Inflatable. There was a pretty decent current flowing upstream through the town but this was soon balanced by the river flowing in the opposite direction.
I hadn’t been up here for several years but was soon enjoying it immensely as the river twisted and turned through thick woodland, every so often brushing up against the old railway track which is the Camel trail cycle path.
I could sense otters so I paddled slowly in almost complete silence , and was thrilled to see the back of a dog otter as it dived in mid river just as I came round the corner. I slunk off to the bank and watched it fishing for a few more minutes before it disappeared under the overhanging bank. Superb.
Only half-a-mile further on I encountered a smaller otter, probably his mate, fishing in exactly the same manner in the clear waters of the freshwater river. I just managed to creep past without frightening it when it went to the shore. Not easy as the river was only about ten metres wide but I was pretty determined not to spook it.
The Truro river at the head of the Carrick Roads complex of rias is a bit different. Very different in fact because you end up paddling through the middle of a city , but still a lot of fun especially as this was another bit of water I hadn’t paddled for many years.
I paddled upstream with the tide from Loe Beach near Restronguet and thought I would have an easy ride past King Harry Ferry and the junction with the Fal River. But no, there was a stiff northerly wind blowing and this far outweighed any tidal benefit. Pulling the paddle through the water was more like dragging it through treacle.
Past the line of very smart riverside properties at Malpas, Truro cathedral swings into view a couple of miles away to lure you in. The approach to the impressive edifice is very much smeared by an enormous pile of scrap metal on the quayside , and banging and crashing and metallic scrunching noises emanating from the vehicles shovelling it around.
The enjoyment of this particular trip is that you can paddle up into Truro past Tesco and a loads of offices, under the A39 and then up a culvert right into the bowels of the Cathedral. I’m not sure why it appeals to me, as there is not a lot of hope of seeing any otters. Maybe its just that it is a jaunt exclusive to kayaks. Any other craft would have got snagged on the semi-submerged shopping trolleys long before they got to the Cathedral.
If you have a penchant for big country estate houses then you will not be disappointed on the way back (or the way up, for that matter) as you can admire the sweeping green lawns of Tresillian House overlooking the length of Carrick Roads, or the more elusive Tregothnan Estate peeping over the top of the trees, and redundant ships, at the Fal/Truro junction.
The sheltered creeks of the Carrick road complex provide fantastic paddling which is usually protected from wind and is essentally flat water. There are a host of side creeks to keep you entertained all day, or maybe two or three.
There is no swell apart from where the Fal River opens out into the broad waters of the Roads itself, and here conditions can get a bit lumpy when there is a southerly wind as it is exposed to a five mile fetch of pretty open water to Falmouth.
For me the most exciting part about kayaking up these sort of secret hidden places is the wildlife. It provides the opportunity to encounter freshwater species which you don’t see much during the summer because the rivers are no-go with the fishing season. Kingfishers, Dippers, Grey wagtails, not to mention the explosion of spring flowers….bluebells and wild garlic (THE smell of mid Spring) to name but a couple.
The ten mile stretch of open coast between Porthpean, St. Austell and Dodman Point is undoubtedly one of the best paddles in Cornwall.
It’s got everything. Sandy beaches, coves only accessible by kayak, cliffs, headlands, rocky areas to dodge in and out, and two super quaint coastal villages.
Even better for the paddler that relishes knifing across calm water (like me), it is east facing so immune to much of the wind and swell from the west. So it is often one of the only stretches of paddleable sea during the winter.
Paul and I picked a beautiful early April day for a fifteen mile jaunt from Porthpean to Gorran Haven and back.
Mevagissey bay looked very calm and inviting when we rounded Black Head so we cut directly across to the offshore rocks on the other side called The Gwinges (excellent name). There are nearly always seals hanging about here but today there were none.
A mile further south we had a leg stretch and a bite at Gorran Haven which is about as perfect a sheltered Cornish harbour as you could ever hope to find, and it was looking particularly appealing in the Spring sunshine. Families sat around, dogs yipped, children shrieked with excitement, frisbees flew.
With the deliberate aim to make it as much of a circular paddle as possible, we ‘coast-hugged’ on the way back, after staying offshore on the outward leg.
Of course we couldn’t resist investigating Mevagissey with its outer and inner harbour. It was heaving with visitors sauntering along at a holiday pace.
Mevagissey is almost too quaint to be real. I have visited by kayak on dozens of occasions but only once by car when I collided with a wall. I intend to visit again by kayak and never to go near the place again in a vehicle.
The final few miles past the long sandy beach of Pentewan and around Black head were uneventful but enjoyable. A pair of Peregrines sat motionless at the back of their usual cove, and we were stalked by a couple of seals when we were nearly back at Porthpean. One was an absolute whopper and I don’t think I have ever seen a bull seal with a more prominent nose.
This is a fantastic bit of coast and justifiably popular with the sit-on-top brigade, especially the very sheltered bay containing Porthpean and Charlestown , and its many inviting beaches.