Boxing Day Blast at Brixham

The weather gods were in a considerate mood when we were planning a bit of a post-Christmas, calorie-burning, fustiness-removing paddle.

Light winds meant a coastal trip was on the cards so Brixham seemed like a good bet. This of course means a quick snoop at the superbly action-packed (in terms of wildlife) waters off Berry Head, so Jake and I cornered the end of the breakwater and  made straight for the end of the headland.

There were a lot of Gannets cruising about, including a large extended fishing flock in the heart of Torbay. The last of the incoming tide was flowing north past the headland and the tideline between the offshore current and the static water of the bay formed a focus for a handful of circling Gannets and, I hoped, some cetaceans.

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Gannet

We nudged out towards the birds and sure enough a couple of porpoises surfaced nearby with a puff. These were the first cetaceans Jake had seen in the UK so we hung around hoping for a better view. Although porpoises are not attracted to boats and tend to be a bit haphazard in their movements, there were enough around (approximately ten) to make the chance of one surfacing nearby quite high.

One did indeed surface with a loud puff only a few metres away from Jake’s kayak. Perfect. This porpoise had a distinctive notch at the back of its dorsal fin, and looks like the same one I photographed a few weeks ago.

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Harbour Porpoise (Notchy seems like a good name)

I think I photographed the same porpoise in the same place on 4 Dec.You might think that this is not that remarkable because porpoises seem to be resident at Berry Head, but they are difficult to spot because they are so small and inconspicuous, and very difficult to photograph, and of all the porpoises around Berry Head (approx 15-20?) I was unlikely to snap the same one twice in two visits.

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Porpoise photographed on 4 Dec

This is the first cetacean that I have ever re-photographed, as far as I am aware.

After half an hour watching porpoises, and chasing after distant unexplained splashes which appeared to be jumping porpoises although could have been tuna or dolphins (porpoises only jump when they are really fired up and chasing fish, and these splashes seemed a bit ‘big’ for that), we headed back into Torbay.

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Jake in Torbay

The gannets were thumping in all over the place and put on a great show as we passed the centre of Torbay. There were a few Loons dotted about as we neared the shore. I don’t know why I find these birds so charismatic as their plumage is not particularly remarkable, but they are big and robust and knowledge of how far they have come to spend the winter here, and how they transform into one of the most beautifully marked of all seabirds in the Spring, no doubt adds to their appeal.

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Torbay Loon (Great Northern Diver)

We followed the coast back to Brixham and were spotted by some of the rest of the family (and chums, and pets) who were on the end of the breakwater.P1210551

The Torbay lifeboat looked impressive in the winter sun as it sped back to its base, and was appallingly photobombed by a jetski.

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Jetski photobomb

Fortunately I had time for an uncluttered pic before it eased off on the throttle.

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Torbay Lifeboat

It was a bit of a surprise to hear Brixham harbour echoing to the bawl of seals , who turned out to be resting on a pontoon on the edge of the marina, all ten of them!

We finished with a tour of the inner harbour.

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Brixham

We calculated the ten miles paddled was the calorie equivalent of about a third of a mince pie. Looks like we’ll just have to go out more often to burn off the rest of the packet  (and half a tin of Quality Street). Tough.

Dolphin Rescue at Percuil

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Percuil Perfection

My day of kayaking started off like any other….absolutely fantastic. Cunning scrutiny of the weather forecast led me to the picture-perfect Percuil creek near St.Mawes, where, as I had planned, the wind fell light and the sun came out just as I arrived at 8am.(more like sheer luck, in reality)

 

 

 

 

 

Slicing across a sheet of glass-smooth water in absolute silence in this sort of place is kayaking at its best. Nothing to hear but the piping of Oystercatchers, Green- and Redshanks, the kraark of Herons, the whistle of a speeding Kingfisher and cackling chatter of Shelduck. Even the seven-note call of an unseasonal Whimbrel.

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Greenshank

This Greenshank seemed to be as thrilled as I was with a bit of December sun.

 

 

 

 

 

Paddling back down the creek towards St.Mawes was directly into the sun but very scenic in a monochrome sort of a way.

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Percuil River

Just before I came round the final bend in the river I heard a snort and saw a disturbance on the smooth surface. I assumed it was a seal but to my incredulity a couple of dolphins surfaced. In over 21,000 miles of paddling I have never seen dolphins this far up a creek.

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Common Dolphin

I sat tight in an effort not to disturb them, and watched.

 

 

 

 

 

I was even more surprised to see the yellow patch on the side which showed that these were Common Dolphins, and not Bottlenose as I had initially thought. Bottlenose Dolphins are at home in shallow water as they sometimes like to eat shellfish and crabs, whereas Common Dolphins are creatures of the open sea, and probably not wired-up for navigation along a narrow creek which was rapidly getting narrower as the tide went out.

However they seemed to be quite happy and swimming strongly, although when |I left them they were heading upstream which was not a good plan.

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Dolphin, St.Mawes

To make my trip complete I intended to paddle out around Black Rock in the middle of Carrick Roads where it opens up into the sea, and although there was quite a swell running, and the tide was going out, the wind remained light and the sun was still out so the sea looked pretty benign.

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Out past St.Mawes
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December sun over Falmouth Bay

Of course I was hoping to see some ‘open sea’ wildlife, and was rewarded with a couple of Loons out near Black Rock.

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Carrick Road Loons

I looped around Black Rock and let the current suck me out towards the lighthouse at St.Anthony Head before heading back up the shoreline.

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Black Rock
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St. Anthony Head

All the time I was looking out for the pair of dolphins, hoping that they were making their way back out to open waters. I stopped for lunch overlooking Falmouth as a Merlin helicopter was being very noisy:

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Merlin over Falmouth

I wound my way back up the Percuil river between all the mooring buoys, and as I passed the entrance to Porth creek saw the fins of the dolphins zigzagging about like a couple of sharks. Not a good idea to be in such a shallow creek as low water was approaching. This is the domain of egrets, not dolphins.

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Little Egret

 

 

 

 

I watched them from a safe distance for a good half-an-hour, and then things started to go wrong.

They moved close to the northern bank of the creek and the smaller dolphin halted, apparently  grounded on a mud bank, but still submerged apart from fin and blowhole. The larger dolphin swam a hundred yards further up the creek and deliberately started to beach itself on the mud.

I paddled towards the scene as I saw members of the British Divers Marine Life Rescue  (BDMLR) (who had obviously been tipped off by an astute observer and had been watching from the shore), moving down to the water’s edge to help.

One heroic medic waded into the muddy water to try to divert the dolphin back into the channel:

 

 

 

 

This was temporarily successful but the dolphin swam round in a big loop and started to run aground again. I offered my assistance and attempted to steer the dolphin away from the shallow water.

 

 

 

 

Unfortunately my efforts too were only briefly successful and the dolphin ran itself aground.

This initiated a full rescue operation by the four BDMLR volunteers present, and for the next three plus hours they worked tirelessly to maintain the dolphins during the critical time they were out of the water.

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BDMLR volunteers caring for a stranded Common Dolphin

Under the instruction of BDMLR vet Natalie, the dolphins were covered in sheets and/or seaweed and had seawater poured over them constantly to stop their skin from drying out. Natalie assessed their health and decided to move the dolphins together. Definitely a good idea but moving 100kg of struggling dolphin about on a plastic sheet over slippery seaweed is not a straightforward procedure. Fortunately another two BDMLR members arrived to ease the lumbago.

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BDMLR vet assesses the smaller dolphin

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The dolphins are reunited, and recorded

The initial plan was to put the dolphins onto a boat and take them a couple of miles out into the deeper water of Carrick Roads although failing light would have made this very challenging, so it was relief all round when the incoming tide came to the rescue and refloated the dolphins.

Unfortunately I had departed at this stage because it was nearly dark, but I hear that both dolphins were seen swimming strongly out into deeper water and hopefully made it safely back into their more familiar oceanic environment.

Their is a lot of mystery surrounding cetacean strandings but it seems likely that these pair had made a navigational error. Common Dolphins spend most of their time well offshore and range widely , and these may have ventured into the (exceptionally) deep water of the outer part of Carrick Roads, and accidentally headed into the mouth of the Percuil River when they meant to head east in the open sea. Maybe they were lured in by the easy feast of lots of Grey Mullet which I saw as I was paddling and which they seemed to be chasing.

And once into the very shallow water of Porth Creek it would be very easy to become disorientated and confused, especially with a dropping tide……but who knows???

Whatever, today was a triumph for the BDMLR volunteers. They responded quickly enough to be on hand when the dolphins beached and had all the expertise, experience and equipment (and muscle power) to deal with the situation and care for the dolphins and get them back into deep water. Good job!20170225_181432_Moment_Moment

 

 

Loons, Lifeboat and a Load of Dead Fish

A very brief lull in the winds followed on from days of wind and rain. The residual ten foot swell from the west sent me looking for shelter on an east facing bit of coast and Mevagissey Bay seemed to fit the bill nicely. It’s very scenic and varied and the sandy shore at Porthpean, just outside St.Austell, is one of the most protected of all open coast beaches in Cornwall when the weather and waves are coming from the west.

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Porthpean beach

The ‘Cornish Riviera’ (as this bit of coast is known) rarely fails to deliver some interesting marine wildlife, and within five minutes of paddling out from the beach I came upon that most charismatic of all the diving birds to visit the UK, a Great Northern Diver.

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Great Northern Diver.

I think I prefer the more characterful American name of Common Loon, although the ‘common’ bit doesn’t do this magnificent bird justice. It is the biggest diving ‘duck’ (although strictly speaking it’s not a duck, it’s a Diver), has a colossal spear of a beak, and spends longer underwater when it dives than any other UK species.

They are winter visitors to the UK and this bird probably could well come from Iceland or Greenland. Their winter plumage is a bit drab (certainly in comparison to their summer plumage). Compare and contrast today’s bird with a pic I took in May this year :

 

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Loon in Breeding Plumage

The call of the Loon is the sound of the wild and you are a heathen if this doesn’t send a shiver up your spine. Listen carefully:

 

As I rounded Black Head on the way to Mevagissey I could see a huge milling mass of Gulls a mile or to ahead, about a mile offshore. When I saw that they were not associated with a fishing boat I was very excited because I thought they were probably over feeding dolphins.

I engaged top gear which today wasn’t very fast as I was using my inflatable (Gumotex Safari) kayak. About four mph max. The Gulls were still active as I arrived amongst them, and I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many in one feeding group…every gull in eastern Cornwall must have been there.

 

I still hadn’t worked out what they were feeding on and was surprised I hadn’t seen a single fin at the surface. Then a Lesser Black-back flew past with a small fish…

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Lesser Black-backed Gull

I paddled further into the thick of the action and was staggered to see that what I had initially thought were patches of foam on the surface, were actually thousands of dead fish. Probably tens of thousands.

 

These were pilchards. I’m sure they had just been dumped (either deliberately or accidentally)by a netting trawler, as they all looked fresh , and I could see a couple of big trawlers on the horizon. If you are a pilchard it was incredibly unfortunate for your well being that you were rebranded as a Cornish Sardine several years ago, but very good for the Cornish fishing industry.

Today’s pilchard carnage seemed a terrible waste as these fish would have been a meal or two (or ten) for a pod of dolphins or a Minke whale, or fed a load of loons for a year.

I sat around hoping for some larger sea creature to be attracted to the easy feast, but none appeared. I guess they prefer live fish. It was a consolation however to see all seven of the more common species of UK gull represented in the milling throng, including the neatly-plumaged Kittiwake,

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Kittiwake

and a single Mediterranean Gull. These used to be rare in the UK but are fast increasing.

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Mediterranean Gull

I paddled over to Mevagissey for a quick tour around the harbour and then headed out to the gull frenzy again, just in case.

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Mevagissey

As I ate my cheese ‘n pickle sandwiches watching the gulls I noticed a police helicopter moving slowly along the coast, and both the inshore and offshore lifeboat from Fowey speeding across the bay. They started to ‘comb’ the coast starting at Black Head.

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Black Head, Fowey Lifeboat

I suspected they might come over and see what on earth I was up to, and to check if I was in trouble. It must be quite unusual to see someone sitting in an inflatable kayak a mile out to sea in early December.

They did indeed come over and as I explained I was absolutely fine and was photographing the birds. They said they were looking for a missing person and saw me so came over to see if I was OK. I thanked them very much and looked closely at the crew to try to get an insight into what they REALLY thought of this idiot in his inflatable kayak. But needless to say they were totally professional and totally polite and objective.

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Fowey Lifeboat
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Visit from Fowey lifeboat

A single small Grey Seal and a couple more Loons and a couple of paddleboarders provided a bit of interest on the paddle back to Porthpean.

Puffing and Chuffing

I am always looking to paddle out into the open sea whenever there is a lull in the autumn winds, but this is currently very difficult because the quiet gaps between weather systems only last a couple of hours.

With the forecast of a morning of calm conditions I went scampering off down to Torbay hoping to find a smooth sea, and knowing that this east-facing bit of coast offers good shelter from the hefty swell which was thumping the bits which look out to the west.

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Torbay dawn

I had planned to be on the water as the sun popped up and was quietly smug that it had only just surfaced as I rounded the end of Brixham breakwater, after a 90 minute drive including the traffic chaos of the Torbay hinterland (we don’t really ‘do’ traffic chaos in Holsworthy).

As I approached Berry Head I could see circling Gannets and the odd splash at the surface and glimpse of a dark sea creature, but I was too far off to see what was herding the baitball….dolphins, tuna, or porpoises.

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Nice and calm off Berry Head

As usual by the time I arrived on the scene the mini feeding-frenzy was over and the Gannets had completely disappeared. It always amazes me that although they are big birds with a six foot wingspan they can apparently disappear in an instant. They just dip a wing and they speed off.

All that was left of the action was a couple of porpoises rolling lazily at the surface, the first I had seen since the end of October.

Porpoises are small (four to five foot long) and very easy to overlook because they generally make no splash when they surface to breath, and tend to go around alone or very small groups. This is in contrast to dolphins that usually go around in a pod and do a lot of splashing and jumping.

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Harbour porpoise

There were actually a minimum of half-a-dozen porpoises off the headland, as usual hunting along the smooth line on the surface where the offshore tidal current shears against the static waters of Torbay.

I sat around and enjoyed a cup of coffee while watching, and listening to the porpoises. In this video clip it is quite obvious why the Newfoundland whalers used to call porpoises ‘Puffing Pigs’.

 

Today’s sideshow consisted of Fulmars zipping past a few feet away, a handful of flypast Great Northern Divers, a (probable) Red-throated Diver , and a pack of Common Scoter.

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Fulmar

The tide was fairly rapidly sucking me down the coast towards Dartmouth so I tucked in close to the shore and paddled back into Torbay. Annoyingly the predicted ‘glass-off’ when the wind dropped away completely occurred when I was in the depths of Torbay, not out beyond Berry Head as I had planned. It would have made porpoise spotting even easier…and maybe something else.

I was pleased to see a rare Red-necked Grebe just round the corner from Brixham:

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Red-necked Grebe

and a youngish-looking seal was taking time out on a quiet beach. I always steer well away from these resting seals to avoid frightening them into the water, because they may just have been on the go for a very long time and be in much need of a rest.

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Grey seal

Brixham was buzzing with fishing boat activity (although it looks fairly sleepy in this pic).

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Brixham

So if it was the porpoise that was doing the puffing, what was doing the chuffing?…..

 

 

What a Beauty!

There is nothing like a low winter sun to transform the drab browns and greys of a Cornish estuary into a smorgasbord of colours. As a bonus today’s little jaunt started off with super-smooth water as well.

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There was the usual entertaining waterside action as I paddled silently along. A Greater Black-backed Gull worrying a dead conger eel:

And a Herring Gull tackling a lively lunch that very nearly effects a crafty (although apparently unplanned) escape.

 

Every colour of the rainbow was on show today because there was a rainbow.

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Rainbow over Lerryn Creek

The birds were doing their best to join in with the colourfest and shrug off their national reputation of being dull and brown and boring, although this Curlew has got a bit of work to do because it is basically buff.

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Curlew

The legs of the roosting Redshank show a touch of tangerine:

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and Cormorants and Shags, which at long range looking unremarkable (and reptilian), have a bit to boast about when you take a closer look.

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Cormorant sporting ‘Silver Fox’ style
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Shag with Emerald Eye

This Mandarin Duck makes a good effort with a highly varied colour scheme but they don’t really ‘count’ because, although this bird appeared to be quite wild, they are essentially a feral species which have originated from escapees from collections.

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Mandarin

Some of the hardware on show was bright today:

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Red Diving Training ships
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Beautifully turned-out Class 66 hauling the china clay train.

It was appropriately at the most scenic part of today’s paddle that I had the most spectacular view of the UK’s most spectacularly-coloured bird.

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Super scenic Penquite Quay

I had already seen a couple of Kingfishers zipping along the shore, attracting attention with their loud and piercing whistle. Despite being absurdly brightly-coloured they are very difficult to spot when perched, sitting dead still amongst the branches of waterside trees and bushes, and usually flying off long before you get close, because they are quite shy. Typically all you see is a turquoise flash.

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Kingfisher

However I saw this particular bird splosh into the water to catch a little fish and then fly up to consume its snack. The gentle current was moving me towards it so I didn’t twitch a muscle as I drifted closer. By good fortune (or highly skillful anticipation) I had my camera all set up and ready, and the sun was directly behind. The Kingfisher’s irridescence was further enhanced by the shimmer of sunlight reflected from the water. Wow.

Even better, I drifted right past without the bird getting spooked and flying off. Couldn’t have been better.

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Kingfisher

Today’s most drably turned-out creature would have also been the most interesting interaction had it not turned out to be made of plastic.20170213_135843