Christmas Bonus. Torbay Dolphins.

I didn’t need much persuasion to nip across to Torbay for an open sea paddle, given the brief lull in the wind and the desperate need to offset my colossal festive calorie footprint.  There is a danger I might end up with the same BMI as the local seals (no disrespect to them intended).P1010555

It was gloomy and drizzly but my spirits were lifted by a small group off Dolphins only just off the end of the breakwater. They passed by close with a sense of urgency. It was great to see a calf tucked in close beside its mum.

 

 

Another small pod sped past to join up with a larger group of about twenty.

 

 

This larger pod were milling about in one area and attracting quite a large flock of Gannets that were circling expectantly overhead. The dolphins then coordinated into a circle , corralling a baitball of fish in the middle. The baitball can be clearly seen in this video.

 

 

The Gannets wasted no time in joining in with the feast, with the baitball pinned against the surface. I am particularly pleased with these shots because it is the first time I have succeeded in getting a reasonable film of dolphins with a half-decent Gannet feeding frenzy. I have seen plenty from afar, but by the time I roll up the action has long passed.

 

 

 

 

I was very surprised to glimpse a skua causing a bit of trouble amongst a group of gulls some distance away. It is very unusual to see this type of seabird at this time of year. It is an Arctic/Pomarine type…probably a Pomarine because Arctics winter a lot further south in the Atlantic.

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Prob Pomarine Skua

The dolphins cruised about finishing up their meal.

 

 

And I headed out past Berry Head looking for more exciting sea creatures. The surface was nice and flat (for a change).

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Berry Head

I found three more small pods of dolphins. One group, a couple of miles off Berry Head, were exceptionally inquisitive and accompanied me for the best part of half an hour as I cruised along. Superb.

 

 

 

 

My underwater photo effort was disappointing because, although the dolphins came very close, the water was cloudier than it looked from above the surface (although not surprising after all the storms and rain). You can hear lots of communication clicks, however.

Add to all this four Porpoises, which have a characteristic ‘puff’ which is much louder than a dolphin, and an exceptional number of Great Northern Divers (including a preening group of eight) completed a day which was rather beyond my expectations.

Birds on the Breakwater

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After the excitement of seeing the dolphin close to Plymouth, I repeated my circuit of the Sound in the hopes of a similar encounter.

Plymouth Sound, even in mid December, is a very busy place. There are naval craft constantly on the move, such as the patrol ship HMS Mersey:

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HMS Mersey

These larger boats are surrounded by a flurry of support vessels including the maritime police.

Then there is the cross channel ferry:

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Brittany Ferries Armorique

and probably most ubiquitous of all are the Princess Motor Yachts being taken out for sea trials all round the Sound. I could see six of them at any one time.

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Princess Motor Yacht

Crossing the main shipping lane out of the Sound is not straightforward because of the constant movement of boats, and on my way to the breakwater I had to wait to let two ships pass.

But despite all this boat traffic, or maybe in spite of it, I came across a Porpoise hunting in the strong tidal surge around the western end of the breakwater (no photo).

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Plymouth Breakwater

The breakwater itself is a satisfactorily remote and mysterious place. It is about a mile from natural dry land and also about a mile long. With its old structures and a fort dotted along its length, it is also a bit spooky (especially if you used to have nightmares about Sea Devils after watching Dr. Who, like me).

So it is a fantastic place for wading birds, which feed along the shore of the Tamar when the water is low, to rest when their feeding grounds are flooded at high tide. Well away from human disturbance, and more importantly, dogs.

But as I approached the middle of the breakwater near the old fort, I was taken aback by the sheer numbers of birds dotted along the wall. Many, many hundreds of them.They were concentrated on this section because it was about the only bit that was not constantly sloshed by the swell surging against the other side of the barrage.

I was very pleased to see a large number of Purple Sandpipers, which are my favourite coastal ‘wader’. They are winter visitors and inhabit rocky coast that is battered by waves, so this was perfect for them! And they are very tame which makes them even more endearing. It was great to hear them chattering as they jostled for position on the steep slope. They don’t seem to be happy on the flat, they are only at home on a steep barnacle-encrusted rock being splashed by the surf.

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Purple Sandpiper

 

I counted a total of forty-three Purple Sandpipers, which I think is exceptional for Devon. It was actually more than this because there were a few dotted about in amongst the Dunlin flock.

I don’t suppose many other birdwatchers come out here during the winter, not least because it doesn’t look that welcoming (or interesting) from afar.

Amongst the throng were five slightly larger waders….Knot. Winter visitors from the high arctic.

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Pair of Knot

But the really remarkable sight were the hordes of Dunlin, at a rough guess over 650. Yes, they are the UK’s most abundant winter-visiting wader and not a particularly noteworthy sight when they are scattered over acres of mud on a grey winter’s day. But lined up along the breakwater they were a spectacle.

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Dunlin

Excuse the shaky camera work, but conditions were, as usual, not favourable for photography. A sneaky little north wind was throwing up a chop which bounced back of the wall and lurched me about all over the place, and every so often the biggest of the swells on the ocean side of the wall would break over the top with a boom and a surge of white water and cause the birds to scatter (and my heart miss a beat).

 

The best ornithological spectacle was yet to come. As the tide dropped the Dunlin became restless in preparation for flying off to their feeding grounds a few miles away. They gave a display almost as impressive as a Starling murmuration.

 

A(nother) top wildlife day.

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Dunlin

Watch this last video clip closely. This is a perfect example of what is so good about watching wildlife from a kayak. It is so quiet and unobtrusive it allows a close-up and personal insight into the daily mini-dramas that usually go unnoticed.

This extraordinary incident definitely wouldn’t have been noticed by anyone else.

What on earth sparked this little Dunlin into this particular act of unprompted aggression?. It was in the middle of a flock in excess of five hundred and the rest were completely stationary and rested.

A long-standing grudge, or did it just have an eye on what it consider to be the best perch around.? Who knows?

Here it is again:

Merry Christmas

Dolphin in the Sound

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Light winds but a hefty groundswell left over from the gales meant that Plymouth Sound promised a compromise between relatively sheltered water and a flavour of the open sea.

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Cawsand and Kingsand

Although paddling out from Cawsand over to the breakwater I passed over some mighty swells which made me gulp.

Dodging a load of navy hardware I then looped around Drake’s island , and halted for a coffee (on board) in the smooth and sheltered water.

I could hardly believe my eyeballs when a tall fin broke the surface.

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Dolphin first view

It looked big and I was wondering whether it was a Bottlenose dolphin, but as I circled round up sun to get a better pic, it was clearly a Common Dolphin with the distinctive buff (although quite pale on this individual) patch on it’s side.

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Common Dolphin

As I drifted and watched it swam directly beneath me although it wasn’t easy to see in the fairly cloudy water.

I watched it for about twenty minutes, busy feeding in the fast moving water in the ebbing tide.

This encounter was totally unexpected, because Common Dolphins prefer deeper offshore water, but they are being observed closer to the shore more often. This hopefully means there are more about, or at least there are more fish around for them to eat.

The increase in the number of Marine Conservation Zones around the coast will benefit the fish which are the prey of the dolphins, so these no doubt play a part in the increase in sightings.

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Plymouth Common Dolphin

It is also very unusual to see a Common Dolphin on its own. This one was big, and I suspect this was a lone bull dolphin, and I also got the impression it was quite old. There is no real reason for this, apart from the fact that the patch on it’s side looked quite ‘washed out’. I’m sure when it glanced at me it thought I looked quite old too (although hopefully not too washed out).

It certainly looks big in this pic:P1000717

Absolutely fantastic as always.

For thelonekayaker a day with a dolphin is a day complete.

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Up the Creek…Autumn Gold, Winter Grey

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Mevagissey

We are actually going to start today’s adventure with a rare recent coastal trip which included a circuit round Mevagissey’s inner harbour, serenaded by a male voice choir! The even rarer appearance of the sun makes the super-quaint coastal town look even more scintillating than usual.

 

Turnstones are regular winter visitors to the harbour walls and quaysides of all the coastal towns, and are often very tame. They are particularly tolerant of kayakers, but it’s unfair to get so close you disturb their catnap. So I don’t.

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Turnstone

Overlooking Mevagissey bay the autumn showers provide a hint of colour to the grey tones of the china clay country behind St.Austell.

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Clay country rainbow

I also had the briefest of paddles along the north coast of Cornwall at Bude during a lull in the swell. That’s certainly the last time this bit of coast will be suitable for a kayak for the next few weeks, the surf is going to be huge.

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‘Kayak-only’ beach near Bude

Up the creeks the mists of autumn add a mysterious flavour to the early mornings. It’s hard to be stealth with all the Canada Geese about, they are very vocal guard dogs and it’s impossible to sneak past without being noticed.

It’s amazing how the winding estuaries can be completely glassy when the open coast, only a few miles away, is seriously blowy.

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Every creek echoes to the flutey piping of Redshank

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and the call of the Curlew which is one of the classic sounds of the winter water.

Beady eyes are always watching.

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Grey Heron

This pic shows thelonekayaker demonstrating nice straight arms for the perfect paddling technique (although they only straightened from the usual slovenly position when the camera was noticed):

 

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Mike from Bideford kayak club shows how it is done without having to worry about what you do with your arms. His Hobie kayak, powered by pedal power that drives a pair of flippers beneath the kayak, speeds along faster than most conventional kayaks. I tried to keep up with him and was left behind rather pathetically.

The weather has been very autumnal and is now very wintry in a southwest England sort of a way. That is wet, windy, and although not particularly cold, feeling pretty miserable and not conducive to outdoor activities.P1400159

Now winter is upon us the colours in the rainbows are still as vivid, but they have leached out of the surrounding countryside which has assumed a more monochrome grey.P1000585

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The grey of winter

However there is a different spectrum of wildlife trying to keep a low profile around the edges of the creeks. Especially good if you have an ornithological bias, because most of them are birds.

Little Grebes (aka Dabchicks) have arrived for the winter up the estuaries. They keep close to the edge and are easy to overlook because they are very small and very elusive.P1000573

And stay stock still:

I like to get ‘in the zone’ as I paddle along, getting completely absorbed in the natural environment, and I have often thought that my senses become enhanced as I strain to see and hear everything that moves.

Anyway, my habit of scrutinising every inch of shoreline as I paddle along in complete silence certainly helped me spot this perfectly camouflaged Snipe hunkered down beside the estuary.

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Snipe

Common Sandpipers used to winter on the continent but increasingly they find the mild climes of SW England satisfy their needs (they obviously don’t mind the rain).

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Common Sandpiper

I find their flutey piping quite charming, but when it comes to decibels they are knocked into second place by the large and in-your-face Oystercatchers.

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Oystercatcher

I am not complaining though, on a drab winters day the clamour of a little group of Oystercatchers might be the only sound you hear, so it is always welcome.

On the mammal front I came across a Harbour Seal in the early morning mist up the Fowey estuary recently.

Once again I have to thank Sue Sayer from the Cornwall Seal Group (and her prompt replies and unending enthusiasm) for an individual id on this seal.

This is Serena Lowen, who I last saw at Looe island in July and who was last recorded up this estuary over two years ago.

There are only a handful of Harbour Seals around Cornwall, the vast majority are the much bigger Grey Seals.

Down at the estuary mouth I at first couldn’t work out what the regularly ‘plinking’ noise was coming from a rocky shore. It turned out to be a Crow who was repeatedly dropping a stone, with a limpet attached, onto the rocks to try to crack open the shell.

It was successful after about the fifth attempt, as was its mate who feasted on a mussel using precisely the same technique. They are worryingly clever birds. I wonder what else they know.

So the leaves and the colour are now gone. So is the sun,

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If it wasn’t for the hint of colour in my kayak, you’d swear this was a black-and-white pic.

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Sensational Cetaceans

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It is maybe not surprising that Mount’s Bay is such a good place for looking for porpoises, dolphins….and whales…from my kayak. They are ocean wanderers that generally prefer to be far out to sea, and Cornwall is the last bit of land to stick out into the Atlantic where they live. Marine creatures on migration from north to south (or vice versa) may also drop by for a refuel because the confused currents, reefs and upwellings around Land’s End are rich in fish.

It is also a great location for kayaking because the Land’s End peninsular provides protection from Atlantic swell, and there are a lot of sheltered, and super-scenic locations to get on the water. All under the gaze of amazing St.Michaels’ Mount.

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St. Michael’s Mount

Also if the weather is not conducive to offshore paddling, the coast is exceptionally interesting and varied in terms of scenery and human habitation, and the near-shore holds a lot of seabirds during the winter. Most impressive of which are the Loons ( the North American name, aka Great Northern Diver in the UK), this one is in transition from summer to winter plumage. It also has a slightly wonky beak with the end crossing over.

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Great Northern Diver

There are plenty of Guillemots and Razorbills:

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Guillemot
Razorbill
Razorbill

And Eddie the resident Eider duck is usually in evidence somewhere around Penzance harbour, sometimes with some friends, sometimes not.

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Eddie the Eider

After a long, long period of stormy weather, the sea has at last settled down and I have ventured out into Mount’s Bay on a couple of occasions in the last week. Both trips in excess of fifteen miles and keeping well offshore.

During the second trip I came across two large pods of Harbour Porpoises between St.Michael’s Mount and Mousehole. Porpoises usually go around singly or twos and threes, but these two pods contained in excess of ten each. You can hear why they used to be called ‘Puffing Pigs’ by Newfoundland fishermen. (in England they were known as ‘Herring Hogs’). Unfortunately you can also hear my drysuit creaking as I pan round.

One porpoise halted at the surface to enjoy the calm conditions and maybe a little bit of warm winter sun. They don’t do this very often, probably because the sea isn’t this smooth very often.

Any sort of bird activity which is focused on the surface of the sea attracts my interest when I am offshore paddling. I have mentioned before that more often than not there is a porpoise beneath a circling Gannet, but on this occasion it was a large milling group of gulls that kept dipping down to the surface that lured me over for a closer inspection. They were scattered over a wide area with several Kittiwakes amongst them. When a couple of Gannets arrived and dived I increased pace because I was sure there would be ‘fins’ about.

Sure enough a couple of dolphins splashed in front of me.

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Common Dolphin

I approached the group cautiously to avoid spooking them, but they were in a very sociable mood and came over to see what as going on.P1000136

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As I cruised on they were quite happy to act as an escort.

As usual there were a handful of juveniles mixed in amongst the pod, and as usual they stuck like glue to their mother’s side.

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Juvenile and adult Common Dolphin

On the second day the dolphin watching was even better because the surface was oily smooth, enabling the dolphins to get as good a look at me as I was getting of them.close dolphins 3

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This is a big thrill, and the excitement of this sort of encounter never seems to diminish. There cannot be many situations where a couple of completely wild creatures of this size (seven foot long) voluntarily come within touching distance of a human being. And for me it is all the more compelling because getting several miles offshore, and locating a pod of dolphins, is really quite a challenge.

This particular group seemed quite happy to hang around as I just floated and watched, so I got out the Gopro for some underwater action. I love this (very brief) clip as this dolphin glides by on its side.

Although the water isn’t as clear as it is in the summer, the dolphins came so close I was able to get the best underwater shots I have yet achieved.

This individual takes a good look at the Gopro as it cruises past. A proper dolphin mugshot.

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Common Dolphin

Absolutely excellent, and the fact that it is December makes the whole experience even more remarkable.

I had a good lesson in how to push things too far (or not) on my way back to Marazion. Before the two hour paddle back to my launch site, I could just make out a group of Gannets circling and diving far out to sea. Of course I couldn’t resist heading out to take a look, but  half an hour of paddling and nearly two miles later I still hadn’t arrived upon the scene.

Then, contrary to the forecast which had predicted flat calm all day, a steady north wind picked up. Probably only 10mph but it made the paddle back very long indeed, with a relentless cold breeze in my face and waves slapping over the front slowing me down considerably. The feeding frenzy turned out to be disappointing too, just a couple of distant dolphins and no sign of anything larger (which of course I always hope for).

I arrived back at Marazion, after seven hours on the water and 17.5 miles paddled, fairly pooped. But worth it, with over twenty dolphins and thirty porpoises to enjoy.P1000372

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