Sizzling Summer Part Two: The Sensational Wildlife of Southwest England

 

We’ll start off below the surface and work upwards, culminating in an encounter to match anything you will see in the natural world, anywhere.

High summer means a jellyfish boom in the waters around Devon and Cornwall. The lack of rain and calm conditions has made the water crystal clear, so the jellyfish look even better than usual.

Following record numbers during the spring, there are still plenty of Barrel Jellyfish around, up to about four foot long.

 

 

 

 

Compass jellies are my favourite, because of there intricate colour scheme and the fact that they are ‘proper’ jellies because, unlike Barrel jellies, they have a sting.

 

 

 

 

New kids on the block for July are Moon Jellies. How appropriate for the anniversary of the lunar landings. They occur in huge numbers and concentrate around the current lines.

 

 

 

 

As usual there are plenty of seals dotted along the coast, concentrating in their favourite rocky haulouts. There is no doubt they are increasingly tolerant of humans, it’s dogs they really don’t like. They have very acute hearing and a dog barking half-a-mile away can make them more agitated than a kayaker bobbing about a few feet away.

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They show only a passing interest in waterskiers……..P1340660

and are quite happy to be the stars of the show:P1340663

A big hazard for seals is fast moving craft. This injury is probably caused by an impact with a boat, although it could conceivably be the result of a fight.

 

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I was thrilled to meet up with this Harbour Seal along the south Cornwall coast. Harbour Seals are rare in SW England, the majority are the bigger, and arguably less attractive Grey Seals.

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Harbour Seal

 

 

 

 

Cetacean viewing from my kayak is my favourite occupation, because it is so challenging. Most porpoises, dolphins and whales hunt miles from the shore so just getting out to where they might be is not easy, and when eventually a day comes along which is calm enough for you to make the considerable effort to get out there, they are so widely scattered that you almost certainly won’t see them.

A smooth surface is the key to success and this month I have been lucky enough to see three different species: Harbour Porpoise, Common Dolphin and Risso’s Dolphin. I might even call it three and-a-half because a glimpse of a big back disappearing below the water followed by a big swirl while down at Penzance was almost certainly a Minke Whale. If only I had looked round a quarter of a second earlier…….

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Porpoise in a rush, Portscatho
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Common Dolphin in even more of a rush, Looe
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Risso’s Dolphin taking a look, Sennen

Guillemots and Razorbills have completed their breeding on the sea cliffs and have now headed far out to sea. Just a few stragglers are reluctant to depart.

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Bude Guillemot

Manx Shearwaters are constant companions offshore, zipping past the kayak in compact groups, or resting on the surface.

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Manx Shearwater

I have been very pleased to have seen several Oystercatcher chicks along the coast this year. Like other waders, which are all declining, they are ground-nesting and so disturbance by dogs is a big issue.

This pair chose a little rocky promontory to raise their two youngsters.

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Oystercatcher plus chick

We are going to take a jaunt inland up the rivers now, before returning to the coast for my grand finale.

I am very excited to have seen this next little wildlife gem recently. I was very familiar with Water Voles when I was a teenager in Berkshire, as you can see from my entries in my wildlife diary 1975. In those days I sported a luxuriant (but greasy) mop of hair and my knees were composed of bone, not titanium. You could guarantee a handful of water vole sightings during a short visit to the Thames or one of its tributaries.

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Entry in my wildlife book….from 44 years ago (gulp..that’s nearly half a century)

Then Mink came along and ate nearly all of them.

This is the first Water Vole I have seen for decades. It was beside the very upper reaches of the Thames, so just about (or very nearly) qualifies for SW England. Even if it doesn’t quite qualify it is GREAT to see.

 

 

 

 

I took this next video clip, of a very similar-looking, but very much larger herbivore beside the upper reaches of an estuary which was definitely in Southwest England.

A Beaver enjoying breakfast. 

 

 

 

 

We now float off downstream, back to the open coast.

Peregrine falcons are not uncommon, but to actually see one making a kill is exceptional. If you see one in hunting mode, or just starting a stoop, it will probably be out of sight (either round a headland or disappeared into the distance) by the time it strikes its prey. Even if you see the final moments of the plunge, they frequently miss.

I had only picked Jed up from the station in Exeter a couple of hours previously, so I was very pleased to be able to show him a Peregrine, as a fledgling snickered at its passing parent. I told him to watch that passing pigeon closely, just in case the  falcons had a ‘go’ at it.

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Jed aghast

They certainly did. The adult and young Peregrine stooped in a shallow dive at the pigeon, there was a mid-air scuffle of wings for a split second, and then the struggling pigeon was just about scrambled to the rocks on the shore, secured in the talons of the peregrine that was losing height fast with the weight.

All in a few seconds, and a hundred yards away, and as usual I was hoping for an action replay to work out exactly what just happened. Looking at my pics later helped.

It is a juvenile Peregrine holding the pigeon (streaked breast, not barred). It looks as though the pigeon is a youngster as well (no white flashes on its neck), so was maybe easier to catch.

I’m pretty sure the young Peregrine actually caught the pigeon itself, although I might have expected the adult bird to have made the catch, and then passed it to its offspring as part of its training. I think the young bird had already progressed on to making its own ‘kills’, or perhaps this was its very first, and amazingly successful, effort!

I’m also pretty sure I saw the adult actually herd the pigeon in the direction of the young falcon because it was flying in the opposite direction a few seconds before the stoop.

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Juvenile Peregrine clasping Woodpigeon

Peregrines have a notch in their upper mandible to nip the spinal cord of their avian victims to kill them outright. This young bird didn’t do that (probably hadn’t had that lesson yet) so the unfortunate pigeon was still very much alive, and still flapping, as the Peregrine takes it behind a rock and out of sight to deal with it.

 

 

 

 

Here is the action again slowed down even further.

 

 

 

 

Fantastic. One of the great spectacles of the natural world. In my opinion right up there with things like seeing a Lion taking an antelope. Maybe even better, because it happened right here on our ‘doorstep’ and I suspect fewer people have seen a peregrine make a kill than a lion. All played out as we watched from the comfort of a kayak seat. And a completely random sight that only comes from putting in the hours of paddling. In my case, many thousands of hours. In Jed’s case, an hour and-a-half. Lucky.

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Sizzling Summer part one: The Scenery

For much of July Devon and Cornwall have been under blue skies so the dress code for kayaking is as minimal as possible. Just enough clothes to avoid sunburn, and embarrassment as you stroll up the beach for lunchbreak. For some reason people sitting on beaches always stare at kayakers.

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Lantic Bay

There were a few dodgy and cool days to begin with, but they now seem long ago.

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Simon at Polperro.

I’ve been getting about a bit this month.  From the top of creeks twenty miles ‘inland’ to far, far offshore.

Enjoy the photogallery:

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The curse of the coast
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Early start on Camel Estuary
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Upper Camel
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Mid Camel
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Lower Camel
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Scillonian Penzance
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Dave and St.Mawes
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St. Michael’s Mount
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St. Anthony Head
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Jed and Yours Truly
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Jed, Fowey docks
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Eddystone
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Mark and Paul, Crackington
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Strangles Beach
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Beeny
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Boscastle Cave
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Torridge
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St. Ives
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Dave and Place House, St.Anthony
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Looe island (not Love island)
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Jed and the Lone Kayaker, Looe
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Mark and Boscastle zawn
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Pencarrow Head and Jed
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Teignmouth
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Fowey

 

 

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Strangles Beach
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Padstow Bay Lifeboat station

The cost of parking a car beside the sea is a source of grumblement. So it’s nice when the machines blow a fuse:

 

What better way to keep cool on the hottest day of the year?

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River Torridge

Next blog coming soon:

Sizzling Summer Part 2: The Sensational Wildlife of the Southwest Coast.

featuring dolphins, porpoise, seals, jellyfish, peregrines, beaver, water vole and more.

 

 

 

Off-the-scale Dolphin Encounter at the end of a Superb Day’s Paddle

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St. Ives

8 am departure from St. Ives harbour. Destination Sennen Cove, twenty miles down the coast. Becky and Cush were picking me up at the other end so I didn’t have to work out how to do the shuttle (which would have gone badly wrong). Thanks to them.

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Cush and Becky

The most committing paddle in SW England, with nowhere to land for fifteen miles. But today it was about as calm as it could be with no wind and small swell, so it was completely and utterly relaxing. Loads of seals:

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Big Bull Seal

And some BIG scenery, including England’s only Cape. Cape CornwallP1340039.jpg

I did actually find a tiny beach on which I supped coffee and crunched a custard cream (or two).20170115_042601

The old Tin Mining Engine Houses of Levant mines draw the eye.

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Levant Mines

As do the chimneys:P1330675

There were just a few pairs of Guillemots and Razorbills scattered about on the cliffs, and I passed a couple of Mediterranean Gulls (one of which was ringed) and saw three Choughs fly along the cliffs with their animated calls.

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Razorbill pair
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Mediterranean Gull (ringed HJR4)

Under the surface this Compass Jellyfish was accompanied by a little fish that sought refuge amongst the jelly’s long stinging tentacles.

 

I wasn’t expecting to see dolphins because I was following the coast fairly closely, but as I rounded Cape Cornwall I couldn’t resist the temptation to paddle around the Brison’s rocks half-a-mile offshore, especially as the surface conditions were so benign. I could then stay well out to sea for the remaining three miles to Sennen Cove.

I could not believe my luck when, far ahead, I saw a couple of big fins slowly slicing across the surface. My first thought was basking shark, but as I drew closer they were clearly big dolphins…probably Bottlenose. I was absolutely thrilled to see one was almost completely white….Rissos Dolphins! A pod of about eight.

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Risso’s Dolphins

 

I cautiously approached and was rather surprised at the bulk of these dolphins, roughly four times the weight of the more familiar (to me) Common Dolphins and up to fourteen foot long. Some have very long thin dorsal fins.

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Risso’s Dolphin
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Risso’s Dolphin and the Brisons
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Risso’s Dolphin
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Risso’s Dolphin and Longships

I am usually thrilled to see a pair of Puffins alone. But to have two Puffins and two Risso’s dolphins in the same image is a first for me!

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Sennen Puffin

 

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Risso’s photobombing the Puffin Pair

This was an exceptional encounter on an exceptionally calm day. There are not many times you can loaf about in such a relaxed manner a mile off Land’s End. Over the course of about an hour the Risso’s Dolphins ran through just about their entire repertoire: logging at the surface staring at me, spyhopping, clapping (lying on their backs just under the surface and clapping their pectoral fins together), breaching and lobtailing.

 

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Spyhopping

 

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Breaching Risso’s
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Breaching Risso’s
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Hefty re-entry

 

I felt very sheepish when my phone rang during the lobtailing. It’s as bad as it going off during the cinema. Apologies to the dolphin.

 

One thing I wasn’t expecting was for them to swim over and have a look at me. I know that Risso’s are quite shy and don’t usually approach boats, unlike most other dolphin species. However I was in for a bit of a surprise.

 

Wow, Right up there with my best ever cetacean-from-kayak encounters. If you factor in the beautiful sunshine, windless conditions, azure sea, crystal clear water and beautiful Cornish coast….it probably WAS the best ever.

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Cornish Coast at Sennen

 

 

Eddystone. Dolphins,Porpoises, and a Whole Load of Fish.

My first trip out to the legendary lighthouse of 2019.

As is typical of me I arrived beach too early, and it was far too breezy. I paddled out from Cawsand in a steady force 4 NE wind and started to get very cold feet about heading out to the Eddystone. Fortunately I had sneaked a final look at the wind forecast before I left home and was as confident as I could be that this was just a flow of cool air off the land that would ease off as the sun got to work. Much of the day was supposed to be just about windless.

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Cawsand

Even so, I hugged the coast round to Rame Head and checked in with the NCI lookout on the headland above before gingerly starting on the ten mile crossing to Eddystone.

The Queen Elizabeth was still at anchor in the outer sound:

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Queen Elizabeth

The wind dropped only slowly and the first five miles were quite bouncy. Manx Shearwaters flicked past, and a few sat about on the sea.

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Manx Shearwaters

I started to relax as the sun warmed my back and the surface smoothed off.

There were quite a variety of jellyfish today: a handful of Barrel Jellies, lots of Compass jellies and one or two Moon and Blue.

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Compass jellyfish
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Barrel Jellyfish

Breakfast was taken on board. Not another soul for many miles around.20170111_034117Of course I wanted to see some fins breaking the water and my hopes were raised by the slightly larger number of patrolling Gannets than I had seen offshore recently. As usual they came over and checked me out. Large objects at the surface tend to eat fish so can mean a meal to a Gannet. Unfortunately for them , I don’t . Not for breakfast anyway.

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Patrolling Gannet (2nd or 3rd year)

However by the time I arrived at the Eddystone reef I had seen no large marine creatures. However I was amazed to see huge numbers of silvery-coloured fish over the reef. I thought these were Mullet but close inspection of the pics later showed they were Bass. Probably thousands of them!

 

 

 

 

I don’t think I’ve ever seen a single Bass under the water before (which wasn’t on the end of a hook). Fortunately for them they were managing to outwit the several boatloads of sport fishermen around (who had not observed them below the surface).

Time to head back towards terra firma…after a quick selfie of course;

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Eddystone reef

The four hour paddle back was absolutely superb, and my absolute favourite type of sea kayaking. Cloudless sky, sun behind, ten miles offshore, completely smooth surface and no wind so that if anything appeared broke the surface within half a mile I was going to see it, and if anything splashed or blew within two miles I was going to hear it.

The excitement started steadily. Three porpoises.

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Eddystone Porpoise
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Eddystone porpoise

 

 

This bit of sea a mile or two north of Eddystone seems to be a cetacean hotspot, because four dolphins appeared straight in front of me….two adults and two juveniles. In superb conditions and nicely illuminated by the sun.P1330410

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Common Dolphins

 

 

I dragged myself away and stopped for lunch a few miles further on, and was caught on the horns of a dilemma when I heard splashing far far behind me (where I had paddled half an hour before). Surely dolphins, but should I go back, and add on another three miles to an already hefty trip?

Of course I had to, they might be an ultra rare species. Needless to say they weren’t, it was about ten more Common Dolphins, with a handful of energetic juveniles in amongst the pod.

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Common Dolphin

Added to this was another porpoise and a single speeding dolphin, and then it all went quiet after the half-way reef.

Apart from the odd Guillemot,

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Guillemot

a Common Scoter drake that was trying to conceal itself in amongst a raft of Manx Shearwaters,

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Manx and Common Scoter

and the oil-tanker ‘Emma’ (not the name that would come immediately to mind for an oil tanker)  thundering past on its way out of Plymouth sound.P1330546.jpg

The Queen Elizabeth had left in early afternoon too, with blasts on its horn so loud it made my ribcage vibrate and fillings rattle at a distance of nearly ten miles.

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Armorique vs Queen Elizabeth

 

Dolphins put on a Show

If you want to try to watch dolphins from a kayak my advice would be not to. It is incredibly difficult and you are almost certain to fail. Most of the time they are more than a couple of miles offshore, and just finding a day when the sea is smooth enough to make the trip enjoyable, and calm enough to see fins breaking the surface, is a challenge.

Also dolphins range far and wide so the chances of seeing them at all is always small, especially as using binoculars on a kayak (as would a dolphin-watching boat) is useless due to constant movement.

I hadn’t seen any dolphins since the end of March, since when I have paddled nearly 600 miles, including over one hundred and sixty miles over a mile offshore specifically looking for dolphins. The sea has been extraordinarily quiet, just a few porpoises and hardly a roving Gannet to be seen. All the marine wildlife watching companies around the coast have been saying the same.

Until now.

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Common Dolphins in a rush

I was on the water at 5am because the window of light winds was only forecast to last till midday. It started off grey and choppy but as I headed offshore the wind lightened and the surface glassed off nicely. Manx shearwaters zipped past and a few Razorbills and Guillemots fished from the surface.

Far ahead a single Gannet twisted in the air and dived, and three more circled. That was the only encouragement I needed to engage top gear because I was sure there would be something interesting swimming beneath, and sure enough there were the fins. Dolphins. Phew, I was about to pack in all this stuff due to lack of success!

I could see there were quite a few juveniles, with their smaller dorsal fins, in the pod of about eight individuals. As usual a delegate of adults came over to investigate me as I carefully approached. I presume this is to assess my threat level ( I could be an Orca) and warn the rest of the group accordingly.

 

 

 

 

Fortunately they decided I was completely benign and went off to carry on with hunting as a pack.

 

 

 

 

There ensued an enthralling half hour as the pod remained in essentially the same place, slow swimming, diving, resting, rushing and every so often jumping. Unlike porpoises which roll at the surface with barely a ripple, Common Dolphins are very dynamic and do a lot of splashing.

 

 

 

I silently left the scene and headed further out, looking for even bigger stuff, although the next marine marvel was actually quite small….a Puffin, with the grubby-looking face and smudgy-coloured bill of an immature bird probably hatched last year.

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immature Puffin

I loitered four or five miles offshore, downed coffee and headed back in before the wind picked up. I stopped at an obvious tideline and saw a couple of distant Porpoises slinking about before checking out the underwater action……jellyfish: one Barrel Jelly, several Blue jellies and over fifty Compass jellyfish, the first I have seen this year:

 

 

 

Notice the little pink fish that is tucked in behind the jellyfish’s umbrella. The perfect safe place away from hungry mouths, and made even safer because it is surrounded by a palisade of stinging tentacles. 

 

 

 

As I watched I heard a thumping splash further along the tideline, almost a mile away. I paddled over to investigate and came upon another small pod of dolphins, about half-a-dozen. These were even more dynamic than the first lot:

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Common Dolphins
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Common Dolphins

 

 

 

Sometimes they re-entered the water seamlessly after a jump, sometimes they bellyflopped appallingly with a mighty splash:P1330078

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I was getting a stiff back and numb backside after seven hours in the kayak seat, so was just setting off for the shore when this dolphin put in the best jump of the day. An appropriate finale.

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Common Dolphin

Dolphin drought over.