It’s Seawatch National Whale and Dolphin Watch this week, and I was keen to match, or improve upon, my last year’s total of 96 (80 Common Dolphins and 16 Porpoises).
Two days of windless conditions were forecast so I was well fired-up for a couple of big offshore trips. Early starts, of course, early is always better.
On the first day I paddled 22 miles round Veryan and Gerrans bay to the east of the Roseland peninsular. Normally I would have been thrilled with the forty porpoises I saw, with a lot more heard puffing but not seen, but when I practically leapt out of my kayak seat as a whale surfaced and breathed behind me, but I never actually saw it, I was a little deflated.
At least I had the consolation of my first Ocean Sunfish of the year…..
and a reluctant to be photographed Red-necked Grebe in breeding plumage.
I was absolutely focused on trying to see a whale on Day 2. I haven’t yet seen one for certain this year despite two close encounters. My plan was a trip to the Eddystone but when I checked the wind forecast before I left the house (at 4.30am) Mount’s Bay looked the best bet…more or less smooth all day. So off I went to Penzance.
I was on the water just after sunrise and the sea was like a pond. No wind, no chop, no swell. Absolutely perfect. Any fin or disturbance at the surface for up to half-a-mile away I was going to see. Although the best guide were the Gannets. They only have to circle round once to make me paddle over to check for porpoises, or even better, dolphins.
First up were a couple of porpoises, a mother and a calf. Always great to see as they go about their business in an unobtrusive manner, and a speciality to see from a kayak because their loud puff can be heard from quite a distance as you slide along in complete silence. Any sort of engine noise would drown them out (so to speak).
Fantastic….. there were slightly bigger fins ahead. A little pod of Common Dolphins, including a couple of youngsters. Then a couple more small groups of about half-a-dozen.My Seawatch survey was gathering pace.
I kept two to three miles offshore after Mousehole as I was hoping for the big stuff, and sea conditions were exceptionally relaxing. It was still and sunny and I was beginning to regret wearing wetsuit trousers….humidity overload!
Just after Lamorna the sea was suddenly boiling with life. The surface was stippled with shoals of little fish which covered areas the size of tennis courts, all over the place. I found myself in the middle of several compact shoals and I could see through the crystal clear water that they looked like sandeels.
Manx Shearwaters hunted the eels by diving from the surface, and some little posses loafed about at the surface doing a bit of preening.
Just listening was extraordinary. There was the puff of porpoises everywhere, the thoomph of diving Gannets, and the splash of shearwaters. Then an almighty, powerful slashing, splash right in front of me that can only have been a Giant Tuna, although I never saw the fish. It must have been way bigger than a Common Dolphin. Blooming heck.
I was drifting past Tater Du lighthouse, two miles offshore. I knew that it was a very big Spring tide today and the current was up to two miles per hour dragging down towards Land’s End. I already had an eight mile paddle back to Penzance, and with my cruising speed of three miles per hour, it could be a long paddle back. Especially after yesterday’s twenty plus miles.
Any sort of wind would have chopped the surface up significantly and I would have turned back, and I would have missed what was coming next. It was however completely still….the perfect un-storm.
Then I heard what sounded like an extended breath, but far far away. Could have been a prolonged tuna splash, but I hoped it was a whales breath. I sat and had a cup of coffee and a think about what to do, and listened. There it was again. Then nothing more. I turned to head back to Penzance but just couldn’t drag myself away. I was just about to start paddling when I heard the breathy noise again, and then another in a different place. So can’t have been a whale…..unless there were two!
Total excitement overload, I couldn’t resist it. I was off in pursuit.
Half-a-mile ahead a great grey bulk emerged from the water and disappeared in a huge splash. What?!? Must have been a lunge-feeding Minke Whale…wow.
I powered on and I saw a whale’s blow! So no Minke because they don’t show a blow, so even more amazing.
By coincidence Duncan and Hannah Jones from Marine Discovery had just arrived in Shearwater II to watch the action, having also seen the whale’s splashes from afar.
I stopped and waited and the whale came a bit closer. This is my first decent sight and it is heading directly towards me. You can hear my shaky excitement breath…must get my heart checked out some time.
It was a blinking Humpback!
Then the REAL excitement started. It lunged at a patch of sandeels close by and I started the video. As I waited for it to surface a dark patch of sandeels came steadily closer , which was a bit (in retrospect, VERY) worrying. I could clearly see two large patches of sandeels at the surface, and I was sitting right in the middle of one of them.I knew the whale was about to engulf one of the shoals so when the sandeels started to leap out of the water all around me I peered down into the water to see if the whale was on the way up! You can see in the video I hang a leg over the side o the kayak to provide a bit more stability in case of a tidal wave, (and hear me catch my breath). Unfortunately the whale chose the other shoal.
How can this be happening just off the coast of Cornwall? I would have pinched myself if there had been a gap in the action.
Next up it lunged directly towards me.
Unbelievably a Minke Whale then appeared on the scene, right beside Shearwater II. My closest and best ever view of a Minke, and what I was really hoping to see today, but it was a sideshow compared to the Humpback. At one stage they both surfaced together in the same eyeball-bite.
It was then time for a bit of fin-slapping. Yes, that white thing is the Humpback’s pectoral fin.
Next a pod of about ten Common Dolphins appeared on the scene and shadowed the whale in search of an easy bite. The whale played up to the crowd.
The last time I saw a Humpback (a couple of years ago in South Devon) I was a bit disappointed not to capture the classic image of the tail flukes coming up when the whale does a deep dive. That was corrected today…big time:
and how convenient, it dived with legendary St. Michael’s Mount as a backdrop.
I was getting a bit twitchy as I had now drifted as far as Porthcurno, and the current was only going to get stronger in the build-up to Gwennap Head. Four hour paddle back, hope they havn’t run out of Raspberry Flake McFlurries at MacDonalds.
So the humpback put on its final display, Common Dolphins as a support act.
Lots of superlatives today. Not least that I saw four species of cetacean within half an hour (Humpback, Minke, Common Dolphin, Porpoise). Last year it was only three species. And a Giant Bluefin Tuna leapt clean out of the water right in front of me as I was just starting to paddle back.
And today’s total was 1 Humpback, 1 Minke, 36 Common Dolphins, 25 porpoise bringing my week’s total and contribution to National whale and dolphin watch to 105 individual cetaceans.
Phew. Wow, Blinking Heck.
Oh, I forgot about the other stuff like scenery……