The Brixham Dolphins

Common Dolphins are usually quite a challenge to watch from a kayak because they spend most of their time a long way offshore. I have clocked up nearly 500 miles this year paddling more than a mile offshore in the hope of running into a school or two, and some of their pelagic partners.

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Brixham Harbour

So it was a bit of a surprise when, on the shortest day of the year, I saw a host of fins breaking the surface within five minutes of paddling out from the slipway at the root of Brixham breakwater. I followed the school of about twenty-five Common Dolphins as they cruised and splashed their way towards Berry head, with several coming over to bowride my rather weak pressure wave.P1010794

They teamed up with another group of a dozen or so for a bit of a cavort about a mile off the headland. I had to paddle just about flat out to keep up with the pace, and several times gave up as they disappeared off, but then was ‘pursuaded’ to have one more sprint when they slowed down a bit. P1010792

P1010879P1010663Absolutely fantastic. I had the best ringside seat you could wish for and watched the dolphins for almost an hour. There were several juveniles and calves amongst the group and as usual these stuck to their mother’s side like glue.P1010615

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Common Dolphin calf

The scattered group disappeared off out to sea to the south and I continued offshore on a very calm sea to Sharkham Point. Beneath a couple of plunging Gannets rolled a handful of Harbour Porpoises. In contrast to the habitually boisterous and splashy nature of the dolphins, porpoises roll at the surface with hardly any disturbance to the water as if they are attached to an underwater wheel. I have seen them breach on occasion when they get really fired up about a shoal of fish, but this is rare (and even rarer on a flat calm day).

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Harbour Porpoise (rather more sedate than dolphins)

I turned back at Mansands where a Peregrine watched from above. En route back to Berry Head I passed Guillemots, Fulmars and Kittiwakes dotted about on the surface, and a few more porpoises quite close in off the headland.

As I was having a brief word with a fisherman who was casting out from a tiny cove right at the tip of the headland I glanced out to sea and observed quite a splash. My initial thought was jumping dolphin but a second later another spray of water was accompanied by the silvery flash and spiky fins of a Giant Tuna! Only about 100m off the headland (if that). Blooming heck!

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Berry Head and Brixham Breakwater
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Hezzer awaits the action

Two days later I returned for (hopefully) more dolphin action, with son Henry who positioned himself on the end of Brixham breakwater with his camera and huge lens on a tripod. It was a bit windier and was quite choppy as I ventured off the end of Berry Head. I had brief views of a couple of porpoises before I saw the more active fins of some dolphins further out.

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Family Smerdon

I arrived on the scene at the same time as a small boat containing father, son and daughter of the Smerdon family. As usual the dolphins found the larger craft rather more interesting than my own and I didn’t get a great view, although did observe one dolphin who had the curious habit of surfacing with a bit of a belly flop every time it came up for breath.

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Belly flopping Dolphin

I battled back to the headland through the wind chop and got a call from Hezzer (Henry) that there was another pod of dolphins off the breakwater. I eventually arrived on the scene and the dolphins came over to greet me. I absolutely piled on the steam to try to get them to bow ride, and a handful obliged providing some thrilling views through the clear water as they swam directly beneath me before bursting out of the water inches in front of my kayak.4I2A8650

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It’s behind you

roops dolphin

Once again they deserted me in favour of a passing vessel, this time a yacht, and my attempted humorous comment shouted across the water of “you’ve nicked my dolphins!” was partly lost on the wind and, judging by the unsmiling expression on the crew’s faces, didn’t convey in as friendly or humorous manner as it was intended.

The dolphin with the funny belly flop breathing action appeared in the bay with its group and I had one more good view before it was time for lunch and time to go home.

One distressing observation today. As I munched a sandwich discussing the day’s excitement with Hezzer while sitting in my kayak at the tip of Brixham breakwater, a Turnstone was close by on the shore pecking frantically at its foot. We could see something was wrapped around it, probably fishing line, and during the time it took me to eat two sandwiches, it hadn’t made any progress in freeing it up. Poor thing.

Apart from that,  not a bad way to spend the shortest day of the year.

Final open sea fling of the year was a sunny post Christmas afternoon at Teignmouth with Simon and Jake. Low sun, superb colours, and a big flock of Common Scoters providing a bit of wildlife interest.

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Simon and Jake, Teignmouth
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Jake, Teignmouth
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Common Scoters

 

 

Offshore Bottlenose Dolphins

The silence, stealth and unobtrusiveness of a kayak, combined with ability to churn out the miles when required, and a seat at water level which allows you to look directly into the eyes of your favourite wild creatures, have resulted in (yet more) memorable encounters recently.

Actually kayaks act as a bit of a wildlife magnet, as I found when I was messing about on the Thames at Oxford.P1000765

A pair of Muntjac deer were having a Christmas social with a couple of Roe deer and I drifted to within ten yards of them as they browsed. I got the impression that they just assumed nobody would be daft enough to be paddling on the Cherwell with the temperature only a degree above freezing so had turned their intruder proximity alarm off.

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Muntjac
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Muntjac and Roe Deer

Deer have got noticeably less wary of people over the last few decades as they get shot at less and less, and the same undoubtedly applies to seals. Some of the Grey Seals around the Devon coast are positively tame, and none more so than the gang that hang around in the Teignmouth area. I have said before that I am very cautious about approaching resting seals that are hauled out on the rocks in a kayak, because it can cause them to ‘stampede’ into the sea which at best upsets the seals and at worst can cause injury, especially if there are pups around. This certainly applies to the larger ‘rookeries’ further west in the remoter parts of Cornwall which are less habituated to recreational kayakers invading their patch of water.

However the Teignmouth seals do not just not bat an eyelid as you approach quietly in a kayak, they seem actually to quite enjoy it. Its not very often you get into the position of looking UP at the heaviest mammal to go on land in the UK……..

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Paul works his charm

 

Paul seemed to get on so well with this particular seal it gave him a brief burst of ‘song’.

It had been joined by a couple of chums on the way back, and as we departed all three remained firmly hauled out and unspooked.P1010207

The coast near Teignmouth provides some of the best sheltered open sea kayaking in SW England, with  its east facing beaches protected from prevailing wind and swell. There are some cracking little coves to stop for a cup of tea.

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Teignmouth cove

The following day was forecast to be extraordinarily wind free so I made the significant effort to drive to Penzance for a paddle round Mount’s Bay. This is a very special and exciting place and offers some great wildlife sightings. Migrating sea creatures rounding Land’s End could well come within range of a kayak putting in at Penzance……and so it was to prove!

I really didn’t expect to see much because it was only a couple of days from the shortest day and I had the impression that the visiting pelagic sea creatures such as whales, dolphins and tuna, which reach a peak in numbers in late summer and autumn, had thinned out.

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Mount’s Bay sunrise

However the sea was so remarkably smooth that if there was anything on the surface within half a mile of me, I was going to see it. I was so full of anticipation I had completed the 80+ mile drive and got onto the water before the sun had come up. As I paddled out of the harbour, fully protected in thermal gear and drysuit top and bottom as the temperature was about three degrees, I was horrified to pass a chap paddling a sit-on-top kayak wearing just a pair of swimming trunks. He explained, as if it was obvious, that he was ‘just trying to chill himself down’ before his swim!

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St. Michael’s Mount

I heard my first pair of porpoises ‘piffing’ within half a mile of setting off and passed several Loons on the water. A big fishing boat heading into Newlyn was surrounded by so many gulls it looked like smoke, and I wondered if it had lured in some rarer seabirds such as skuas as well. A couple of ‘Bonxie’ Great Skuas passed at distance so clearly it had.

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Typically elusive Porpoise

I couldn’t resist a bit of an offshore jaunt as it was so calm and the sea looked very benign under the cloudless skies. I skirted past Mousehole about two miles offshore and kept at that range as I followed the coast west. Hundreds of passing Guillemots.

I have found that the sea really livens up half way between Mousehole and Lamorna. There’s a bit more swirl and I suspect it gets significantly deeper here. In exactly this spot  a year ago a Minke Whale surfaced with a blast just metres behind me as I was watching a Gey Phalarope.

So I stopped for a cup of tea just in case. To my amazement I again heard quite a splash just behind me, and lumbered my kayak around (which is quite slow) to see  the silvery flashes of a load of Giant Bluefin Tuna surging and splashing in quite a frenzy. Long thin fins all over the place, and one jumped right out. I reckon I saw about ten in all. Only twenty metres away, so I was exactly in the right spot. Unfortunately it was all over in about thirty seconds, just when I had got my camera ready. Typical.

After this I thought it would be a bit greedy to hope for dolphins as well, so I could hardly believe my eyes when I saw a double splash and what looked like something jumping, maybe a mile away further out. I paddled hard towards it but after five minutes with no more signs of life I throttled back.

Suddenly, directly in front,  about fifteen huge-looking dolphins exploded from the water in perfect synchrony, heading straight for me. Followed by a load more, absolutely rocketing through the water a top speed and jumping and splashing all over the place. An astoundingly large area of sea was suddenly a confusion of white water.And it was all heading my way! My excitementometer blew a fuse and I fumbled to get my camera ready. The lead dolphins leapt past a few feet away and sped off, followed by two more waves. I could see that they were too big for Common Dolphins and initially thought they were Risso’s, but a few passing close showed the classic Bottlenose profile. Alas my camera chose that moment to not work properly in burst mode so I missed the dramatic synchronous leaping of dozens of dolphins. P1010239P1010235

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Bottlenose Dolphins, Mount’s Bay

Absolutely incredible. They went passed so fast in such a flurry I had difficulty assessing the number. It was at least thirty, it could well have been fifty, or more.

Even more remarkable was their behaviour. Although I have seen individual Bottlenose Dolphins doing spectacular jumps, they are usually surprisingly unobtrusive and quiet for such a large creature (two or three times the size of a Common Dolphin). Most groups I have encountered close inshore but once came across some ten miles offshore near Eddystone. But these were not very fast and splashy, and were very inquisitive. Today’s were not interested in me one little bit.

Today’s group seemed to be on a mission to travel as fast as possible with as much white water as possible, behaviour more typical of Common Dolphins.

That is why I think these were ‘transient’ or possibly ‘offshore’ dolphins that are not resident locally and are migrating past. It was a significantly larger group than is usual for Bottlenose Dolphins around the UK, and seemingly different behaviour, although it may have been just because they were in a hurry.

Interestingly I was reading that there are only 300 Bottlenose Dolphins resident around the UK, and I might have just seen fifty! I’m pretty sure that to see this sort of number around the UK is very rare (especially from a kayak).

They headed directly towards the coast and then turned to run parallel to it towards Land’s End keeping at least a mile offshore.

Wow! and Wow! again.

I even saw a festive jellyfish, a translucent cylinder with edges glittering with an array of shifting multicoloured lights, better than anything you will see hanging from a Christmas tree.

Surely no more excitement. Wrong. A chunky looking skua that flew directly over my head was an immature Pomarine, only the second ever from my kayak.

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Pomarine Skua

And just another fourteen porpoises (groups of 4, 4, 3, 3) and many more heard ‘piffing’ but not seen. And another dozen Loons.

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Penzance Loons

And just to finish off, Eddie the Eider at Penzance Harbour.

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Eddie the Eider

If someone said to me that they had seen all these incredible wildlife sightings in the sea in a single six hour, sixteen mile kayak trip in mid December, I would struggle to believe them.

 

 

Chums of the Year

thelonekayaker I may be, but it’s always more fun with family and friends. Here’s a gallery of my fellow paddlers for the year. Most, like me, love every minute of it. Only one said “that’s the most frightening thing I have ever done!”

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Dave, Yours Truly, and Paul
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Kevin at Hartland Quay
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Dave telling Paul a fisherman’s tale
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Jane and Jeremy shred the Tamar
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Mark and Beep, Boscastle
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Cushing, Fowey
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James, Julia and Tom (Henry dropping in)
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Krysia and Becky
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Tabby, Morwellham
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Daisy, Buttercup and Ermintrude (not sure who the paddlers are)
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Charlie, Daniel, Sam, Thomas
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Dave and Simon, Fowey
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Hydes, Morwellham
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Dan, Estepona
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Hezzer, Estepona
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Luke and Paul, Boscastle
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Sue and Kim
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Scum of the earth. Definitely NOT a friend

Chum of the year award must go to Mike Scheu who is used to the more predictable, and almost always sunny, weather conditions of his hometown of Flagstaff, Arizona. Yet he still claimed to enjoy the two or three hours we spent battling rain and winds on one mid September afternoon.

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Mike and Myself, Calstock
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Mike enjoying the best the UK summer could offer
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Kevin tackles the turmoil

When no Homo Sapiens are available to join me for a paddle, I have to settle on this sort of thing for company…….IMG_0363

Tough.

Christmas Bonus. Dolphins, Porpoises and Seals.

Still a few weeks to go to Christmas I know, but I just couldn’t resist the title.

The winter storms, which bludgeon me into submission and send me cowering up a creek, have been kept at bay for a further couple of days by a nose of high pressure. Not only light winds but also very little groundswell which is unusual at this time of the year, making offshore paddling irresistible.

Fowey was my destination on Day 1. Fowey is not only an exceptionally beautiful place, paddling always seems to be more relaxing here as the tidal currents seem to be less than around the corner past Dodman Point. Even the slightest current working against the wind chops up the surface significantly.

And following my recent encounters with the Giant Tuna and dolphins and porpoises here, I was full of expectation.

I called in my ‘passage plan’ on the radio with Charlestown NCI because there was nobody at home in Polruan NCI probably because I was a bit early, as usual.

I got the impression that there was not a lot going on in the sea in terms of wildlife but was kept interested by the little parties of Guillemots I passed. First photo with my new camera!

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Guillemot (in winter outfit)

I watched the handful of passing Gannets closely as they filed past. All they have to do is circle round once and show an interest in a particular patch of sea, and my eyeballs are locked on to the surface, because the fish that attracts a Gannet will also lure in other sea creatures. I’ve often located porpoises in this way, but for every one I have seen there will be twenty that I have missed, not only because porpoises are so small and unobtrusive, but because by the time I have arrived at the scene the action, if there has been any, has finished. Chasing down feeding ‘events’ in a kayak is a slow process. It’s a lot easier with a 200 horsepower outboard. Even two hp would be quicker than me.

Encouraged by a light tailwind I wandered about three miles offshore, and suddenly found myself on the edge of a group of twenty circling Gannets which seemed to have appeared out of nowhere. Sure enough, there were fins below. Three Common Dolphins. Fab. As I quietly approached, five more dolphins joined the gang and they all came over to  say hello. Just for fun I piled on the speed (can’t go more than 6-7mph flat out) and the dolphins responded with a load of splashing and surging in my excuse for a pressure wave.

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Dolphin and the Dodman

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Common Dolphin, Fowey

The dolphins hung around for five minutes then moved off. It all went a bit quiet after that so I paddled in for a leg stretch at superb Lantic Bay. As I was approaching the beach I heard the haunting querulous call of a Loon and observed a family of three fishing in the bay. Great Northern Divers (aka Common Loon across the pond) often go around in threes and I’m pretty sure these are Mum, Dad and this year’s offspring. Just by the way they act, and look, and communicate to each other in a family sort of way. Amazing that they can stick together on their migration from the arctic.

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Lantic Bay Loon

My enjoyable day was soured a bit as I arrived back in Fowey. A Dory which I had seen leaving the estuary at the same time as me six hours earlier overtook me on the way in and it was full up to the gunwhales, and beyond, with Sea Urchins. I had a chat with the three crew and they said they had picked up over six hundred (!) urchins by shallow diving along the local coast, and were going to sell them on to souvenir and craft shops. Blimey. They must have had nearly the lot.

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Sea Urchin (one that got away)

Day 2  involved a fifteen mile circuit of one of my favourite sheltered bays in South Cornwall, initially heading three miles offshore and then coming back along the coast.

I set off just as it was getting light and my systems (e.g eyes and ears) were far from fully operational when a small duck, which I initially presumed to be a Guillemot, pitched onto the surface with quite a splash in front of me.  Because it was half dark I was only ten yards away when I realised it was a Long-tailed Duck. I scrambled my new camera out of its dry bag and just managed a few shots before the duck paddled off into the gloom. My fourth L-T Duck of the autumn….pleased with that.

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Long-tailed Duck

Incidentally, no long tail because it’s a female.

My offshore jaunt was rather dull and was rescued by the appearance of a couple of porpoises which surfaced only a few yards away. In typical aloof porpoise style they popped up, piffed, and then completely disappeared.

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Harbour Porpoises

From a couple of miles offshore I could hear the weird wailing ‘song’ of a seal drifting out from a sheltered cove. At one stage it droned on for about a minute without a breath. A bit like Leonard Cohen, but more tuneful.

After coffee ‘at sea’ I cautiously paddled towards the seals who were hauled out on the rocks. I am acutely aware that seals can feel very vulnerable when out of the water and kayakers can, and do, cause real disturbance to colonies, so I kept my distance and was subjected only to a disapproving stare.

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Six-eyed Stare
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Large and Little

One seal, which had a nasty-looking fresh injury on its back, was mottled like a granite-style kitchen surface. A Harbour (or Common) Seal. Not Common at all in SW England, only the second I have seen in Cornwall. Maybe it’s because they get beaten up by the Grey Seals, as seemed to have happened to this one.

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Common (Harbour) seal

The Spring tide was just about low as I came round the headland to Portscatho. The local gulls were very busy and very noisy as they hunted through the exposed kelp for their favourite delicacy. Flicking over the fronds with their beaks and shallow-diving from the surface. If one caught a starfish it was immediately hounded by half-a-dozen friends who were keen to have an ‘arm’ or two. Dramas like this that are played out as you paddle along unobtrusively and silently are what I like most about kayaking (as well as all the other stuff).

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Gull plus seafood lunch. Rick Stein would approve.

I consumed my cheese and pickle sandwiches on the foreshore at Portscatho. The weather wasn’t bad for December 5th…..it was completely windless and warm enough for me not to have cold feet, even though I was wearing two pairs of socks. My photos would have looked better if the sun was shining, however. A turquoise sea is always better than one which is battleship grey.

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Portscatho

My ornithologically outstanding day was nicely rounded off with a close encounter with two Purple Sandpipers, distant views of a couple of Slavonian Grebes and a Red-necked Grebe, and another dozen Loons.

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Purple Sandpiper with purfect camouflage.
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Great Northern Diver (Loon)

It’s not just the marine environment that provides the best wildlife encounters from a kayak. It’s nice to get close views of some of the commoner, but no less attractive, species that seem only to be tame enough for close approach in city parks. Like this Moorhen with its incongruously large, and green, feet.

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Oxford Moorhen

I snapped this squirrel in the middle of Oxford (from my kayak of course). I’m not entirely sure that the tree to which it was clinging wasn’t some sort of creature from Middle Earth. Those look like faces in its bark.

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Secret Squirrel
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That’s got to be an Ent from Fangorn, surely