Paul and I were very excited about today. The winds in Torbay were forecast to be very light and temperature due to top twenty degrees (not bad for the end of September) so we were planning to paddle offshore to hopefully eyeball a few cetaceans, while sitting on a lovely smooth sea (which doesn’t happen that often).
Brixham harbour was calm and blue……perfection. And the lifeboat looked poised for action, which was reassuring.
Berry Head is a great place to see porpoises and just as I was explaining (droning on) to Paul that they like to hunt the edge of the tidal currents, one surfaced with a puff only a few yards directly in front of him. What a way to encounter your first porpoise! A couple more surfaced and put on a bit of a show for us.
Good start…we had only been paddling for twenty minutes. We felt the omens were good so headed directly out to sea from the headland. A handful of Balearic Shearwaters zipped past and we saw, and heard a further scattering of Porpoises, and saw a few of them.
Four miles from Berry Head we stopped to take in the surroundings. For about as far as we could see in all directions were circling and milling gulls and Kittiwakes, clearly intent on catching something at the surface. Every so often they would splash into the water and more often than not come out with a sprat in their beak. There seemed to be no specific concentration of baitfish, it was just spread over a vast area of sea. I also noticed a Garfish leap out of the water a couple of times.
We were rather hopeful this massive food source might lure in some big eaters but unfortunately nothing bigger than porpoises appeared, and the occasional Gannet sploshed in. There was however a reasonably-sized car transporter which we did our best to avoid.
There was so much action going on we were reluctant to head back to the shore because we both felt something dramatic was about to happen. However we were now being sucked along the coast towards Dartmouth on the big ebbing Spring tide so if we didn’t strike for the shore now it would be a very long haul back to Brixham.
While still two miles offshore we were distracted by a superb double wildlife encounter. As we ran into a whole load of porpoises which were puffing all around us, I saw a tern sitting on the water. I crept up quietly with camera clicking and was thrilled to see it was a ‘this year’s’ Common Tern. A beautiful little bird, not common at all around here and only the second I have ever seen sat on the water.
We then focused on the porpoises which seemed to have us surrounded. One torpedoed directly towards Paul and he watched it swim just underneath his kayak.
The porpoises, which frequently are too far away to see even though you can hear their ‘puffs/piffs’ seemed to appreciate that Paul was a porpoise rooky and wanted to give a really good demonstration of their aquatic skills. With a splash a sizable fish broke the surface with a pair of porpoise in even more splashy hot pursuit.
They came almost TOO close for a suitable video…..but you can hear their ‘Puffing Pig’ blow very nicely in this clip:
We were so engrossed we didn’t realised we were being conveyed down the coast by the tide at over one knot, so had to engage fast cruise gear and make for the shore, and a four mile coastal paddle back to Brixham. With a deep blue sky, dropping sun behind and very pleasant cliffy scenery, this wasn’t too much of a hardship.
And if you like your boats, there are always plenty to admire along this section of coast.
I wasn’t expecting to be admiring more than a selection of naval hardware and a handful of ferries when I paddled out under the Tamar Bridge from Saltash for a trip down the last section of the tidal Tamar to where it exits into Plymouth sound.
It was sunnier and warmer than I had expected so shed a layer as I made my way past Devonport dockyard and dodged the ferries at Torpoint. The last of the ebbing tide spat me out into the Sound at Devil’s Point, and I made my way towards the sandy beach at Drake’s Island.
I was very pleased to hear the animated ‘kirrick’ calls of Sandwich Terns as I approached the island, and drifted very close to a juvenile tern sitting on a rock. I could tell it was a ‘this year’s’ youngster because of its squeaky call. This call , together with the replies from the parent birds , draws attention to and characterises family groups of Sandwich Terns migrating west through Devon and Cornwall. They don’t nest down here- I think the nearest colony is Brownsea Island in Poole harbour.
The young tern’s parents were fishing in the clear water beside Drake’s Island and every so often dived into the sea with a splosh, emerging with a sandeel or sprat.
There was a whole crowd more out on the mooring buoys just off the island. I have never seen so many here….it must have been fifteen plus (although I only visit a couple of times a year). There was a lot of movement with birds coming and going and being disturbed by gulls, and constant squeaky calls of demanding juveniles. The calls of the youngsters are more or less incessant and I frequently hear it, with the parents replies, as family groups pass along the coast, often miles out to sea. It goes on for months as I have heard it in the Mediterranean in October and November as they migrate through. It must drive the parents bonkers because it sound a bit whiny.
The juveniles have dark markings on the wings and body and lack the yellow-tipped bill of the adults.
At this time of year the adults have already changed into their non-breeding plumage with white foreheads. When they pass through this way in the Spring en route to their breeding grounds they look even smarter with entirely black ‘beret’ hats.
Feeling secure on their little artificial island they didn’t bat an eyelid as a Cruiser slipped past in front of Plymouth Hoe.
Neither was the local seal too phased by the show of military muscle.
Terns are one of my favourite seabirds for a number of reasons. Their arrival in the Spring heralds the start of summer in the same style as the swallows in the barns around the county. Coincidentally Terns are called Sea Swallows because they both share a long forked tail.
They also have a very tough time finding somewhere safe to breed because they make their nests on the ground, frequently a beach. In southern England this really means a nature reserve because there is hardly a patch of sand or shingle that is not stampeded by people or dogs or both (or kayakers). And then there is the issue of hungry gulls and crows with their own broods to feed….
In my simplistic opinion any bird that successfully rears a family from a nest on the ground in the UK deserves a medal. (and in the case of terns, so do the volunteers who help to protect them).
Sandwich Terns are the most frequent members of the tern family that I encounter during my coastal kayak trips. Much less common is the Common Tern.
Arctic Terns are the next most frequent, usually far out to sea, and Little and Black Terns I have only seen a handful of times from my kayak.
After a long drive to Penzance I was thrilled to see Mount’s Bay was much smoother than the wind forecast had predicted. However knowing it was probably just the calm of the early morning I was on the water in double-quick time.
Within a minute of exiting Penzance Harbour the omens for a good day of wildlife-watching were favourable… several dark patches at the surface were shoals of sprats or sandeels, and Eddie the resident Eider duck was half way through a crab-shaped breakfast.
As I paddled quietly passed the rocks by Jubilee Pool a little posse of Dunlin were catching forty on their migration south.
I paddled directly offshore at quite a lick because I knew it was probable that sea conditions would only be favourable for an hour or two. A hat-trick of swans which would probably be more at home on the Thames at Henley looked a bit incongruous in the middle of the bay.
A couple of miles out where the offshore tidal current shears past the more static waters of Mount’s bay the action started to hot up. Flocks of Manx Shearwaters cruised around while some were resting on the surface.
Amongst the throng was a single Balearic Shearwater which at one stage flew directly towards me, zipping past a few feet away.
Had I turned for home these sightings alone would have made my day worthwhile. It was a good thing I didn’t. A couple of miles off St. Michael’s Mount I saw a sparkle as the sun glinted off the fins of a pod of cetaceans. Common Dolphins, which I carefully approached. A lone porpoise popped up once and puffed as I drew close to the dolphins
As usual they came over to investigate and I saw it was a nursery group of about twenty in total with quite a few calves and juveniles sticking close to mum as usual.
Two interesting observations were that one was very pale grey, and one adult had a moderately mangled fin which was probably caused by a boat injury or being caught in a net.
It was superbly relaxed conditions for viewing with smooth sea and hardly any wind so I just watched the action. Every so often the whole lot would speed off and a couple jumped really high but as usual I missed the action with the camera. This is the best I could manage:
As I ate my breakfast (muesli and granola mix) in the company of the dolphins I kept glimpsing what looked like wafting black smoke further out to sea, and then realised it was vast numbers of shearwaters circling about low over the water. More than I had ever seen before in one place.
So I stoked up the boilers and set off out to investigate at high speed, because usually the feeding event has finished by the time I arrive on the scene. I was very flattered when the dolphin pod came over to benefit from my pathetic bow wave. I fumbled the GoPro onto my head as quickly as possible:
Exciting stuff, especially as the calves seemed to be jumping and surging as enthusiastically as their parents. Look at this slomo, are those dolphin twins?
Incredibly, en route to the seabird feeding frenzy I passed another pod of common dolphins consisting of fifteen sturdy looking individuals which I think were a pack of male dolphins. Even more interestingly, several did the bellyflopping breathing action which is maybe just so they can have a bit more of a look around above the surface. As visibility in the water wasn’t great today it certainly would have provided them with a bit more of a view.
I had my first effort at underwater photography of the dolphins but I wouldn’t say it was a raging success.
Phew, excitement overload. But I could sense better was yet to come because the vast numbers of feeding seabirds meant large amounts of baitfish which would also bring in other predators. In fact I thought it was tuna splashing at the surface as I drew near to the action, but it turned out to be the shearwaters shallow diving onto the baitfish from a few feet up.
A couple of miles off Mousehole I passed a stationary yellow boat containing a load of fishermen, and started to converge with Shearwater II, a catamaran yacht owned by Marine Discovery who run wildlife watching trips from Penzance, as it was heading further offshore.
As I was watching the yacht there was a great breathy blast and a fullgrown (it seemed pretty big anyway) Minke Whale surfaced between the two of us. Blinking heck. It surfaced again in the distance towards Penzance and then looked like it had turned to come back.
It duly obliged and surfaced again just behind Shearwater II, scenically passing in front of the circular cave in the background from which the village of Mousehole gets its name.
The it came back again. You can hear its breath in this video clip:
Of course I was hoping for it to surface right beside (ideally not on top of) my kayak but it appeared to have moved on. They cover a lot of distance between breaths and there is absolutely no point in chasing after them in a kayak because they move so fast and are just about out of sight after surfacing a couple of times.
There was plenty of other wildlife to hold my attention. The thousands of Manx Shearwaters intermittently rested on the surface and were conveniently settled in a long line so I could paddle along in front trying to pick out any rarer species, in the manner of an inspection at a military parade.
About one in two hundred were the smoky-brown coloured Balearic Shearwaters. Not that impressive to look at if you are not a ‘birder,’ but if you are you will know it is always fantastic to see one because they are a globally threatened species.
I hit the jackpot when I spotted a larger chocolate-coloured shearwater trying to be inconspicuous amongst its smaller relatives. A Sooty Shearwater! This is a proper offshore species that I had never seen from my kayak till last year, and have never seen sitting on the water around the UK. (the last one I saw like this was off New Zealand):
As I was sat enjoying the seabird flock supping a cup of coffee a couple of miles out to sea, the cloud drifted over and the wind suddenly started to lift. Fortunately I had allowed for this in my action plan, which is precisely why I had come to this particular stretch of coast today. It seems to be about the best place to see deepwater species relatively close to the shore, as well as being relatively protected from wind and swell. I think there is also a good interface between currents about one and a half to two miles from the coast here which provides a good concentration of baitfish.
I had not seen the last of the whale, as it was working its way up and down the current interface. I thought it was still about because the shearwaters kept getting very excited. Interestingly it was only shearwaters and not Gannets because the baitfish involved were very small and Gannets prefer larger individual fish to target.
It then disappeared and I paddled a bit faster towards Mousehole as the wind steadily increased. The whale then appeared in amongst the shearwaters.
and to finish off with surfaced a couple of times relatively close by when the sea was beginning to look a bit less friendly. No boats or anyone else within a mile.
Buzzing with adenaline I scorched back past St. Clement’s Isle and got a sort of resigned look from the resident seals who assumed I was another idiotic kayaker who was going to frighten them in to the sea. Idiotic maybe, but I make an effort to keep well away from resting seals.
On the final stretch back to Penzance harbour the wildlife eased off a bit giving me time to appreciate a bit of scenery. Just the cheerful ‘kirrick’ call of migrating Sandwich terns.
This was my sixth whale seen from kayak in SW England. Four Minkes, one Humpback, one possible Sei. Autumnal weather with gales are now forecast so it’s back to creek paddling for the foreseeable. Hopefully there will be a few more windows of calm weather while the sea is still bursting with baitfish so I can enjoy a bit more of this kind of stuff:
A steady deterioration in the weather threatened to mess up any plans I had for offshore paddling to see extreme sea creatures. Whales and Giant Tuna have appeared around Cornwall and I would like to join in the fun. However the promise of a snippet of a calm few hours in Torbay lured me out of bed appallingly early and on the water by seven.(yes I know Torbay is Devon and not Cornwall, but Cornwall was too windy today
The headlands around Torbay always seem to be very productive for marine wildlife with their lively currents and a small group of circling Gannets alerted me to a scattered group of porpoises. Despite one of the biggest Spring tides of the year, the offshore waters were calm so I headed out to see what was about. Little packs of Manx Shearwaters, which will soon have disappeared on migration, zipped past, as did a handful of smoky brown Balearic Shearwaters. One looked bigger…was that a Sooty Shearwater? With binoculars impossible to use on a kayak (due to movement) and the fact that it was soon gone, I will never know.
As I was ploughing my way through a bowl of muesli I glimpsed a black shape, for an instant, far out to sea. Then more….jumping dolphins! Rest of muesli overboard, I headed out to look and as I cautiously approached the group of about twenty which had now slowed down, they veered over to check me out.
There was one very small calf in the group which leapt out of the water with as much vigour as any of its elders. Some of the group came over for a bit of bow-riding:
I was a bit concerned about the forecast increase in wind so started to paddle back to the headland, but the dolphins were not finished with me and came along.
When they looked as though they were going to stay for a while I set up the GoPro on its headmount and set off again:
At last they seemed to lose interest as my speed dropped when fatigue kicked in. Maybe I shouldn’t have jettisoned those last few mouthfuls of muesli. You really do have to paddle flat out to generate enough of a pressure wave to keep dolphins interested. It’s a lot easier in a boat with a huge outboard motor.
Maybe they were off hunting an unsuspecting shoal of mackerel.
They looped round in front of me providing quite a satisfactory ‘grandstand’ view as a finale. You can see a few youngsters jumping around in the pod.
En route to calmer waters in the shelter of the bay I passed a flock of about 300 Kittiwakes resting on the surface, the largest group I think I have ever seen. As I watched, a passing large gull made them all take off, and upon scrutiny of the photographs later I noticed that two had coloured rings on their legs:
Back in the harbour everyone and everything was getting going. All very interesting, but the dolphins take the biscuit.