Isolation

It is fortunate that nature is not affected by corona chaos. It just steadily gets on with doing its stuff, slowly adjusting to the seasons. Spring is trying its best to appear….the primroses in the bank, the occasional bumble bee and butterfly in a sunny corner, a chiffchaff singing from a copse and the superb blackbird singing outside the bedroom window at the first hint of dawn (it piped up at 5.43 this morning).

Coronavirus can’t mess up the coastal scenery either. In fact, unbelievably, it has made it a bit better, because there are no vapour trails in the sky. It is an extraordinary coincidence that only a month ago I was saying that the cherry on top of the iced bun that is the remoteness of Antarctica was that there were no vapour trails overhead, which kept the absence of human influence absolutely complete.

And here it was (or wasn’t). Right here on our doorstep in Cornwall. not a plane in sight. You would normally expect to see up to a dozen trails lined across a morning vista such as this.

No vapour trails here…..

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Portmellon Dawn

No vapour trails there……..

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Vault Beach

No vapour trails anywhere……

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Chapel Point

Not having the exhaust fumes from 100,000 flights per day around the globe can only be of benefit to the inhabitants therein (or thereon).

Enough of the heavy stuff, let’s go for a bit of a paddle and see what we can find!

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C’mon Everybody

Oystercatchers are always good. Everything about them is extrovert and full on. They make absolutely no attempt at camouflage or being quiet and unnoticed. They kick up an enormous racket. And they are common enough to liven up virtually every trip I do.

This one is obligingly perched with a waterfall in the background, making the image even more easy on the eye.

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Oystercatcher and waterfall
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Oystercatcher

Further offshore (and opportunities to paddle out have been few and far between due to wind) it’s quite quiet. There are not many hunting Gannets around, and few hunting Gannets tends to mean few dolphins or porpoises.

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Gannet looking for fish

So to find some cetaceans I had to make a bit of an effort to paddle out beyond one of the most notoriously hairy headlands of the south coast…Dodman Point. It has a reputation for wild seas, which get thrown up when the wind and the tide race have a disagreement. However, with a bit of cunning planning, and a windless morning, I managed to find three Harbour porpoises rolling very quietly at the surface at the tideline, where the water moving past the end of the point shears past the more static water of Mevagissey bay.

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Dodman Point
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Harbour Porpoise (Portloe behind)

Of course I had to take a bit of a spin around Mevagissey’s inner harbour….its charm seems to increase each time I drop by.

Back out in the open sea the Guillemots are just deciding that it’s time to put on their summer outfits. The one on the left is still in non-breeding (winter) plumage, the one on the right is in full breeding (summer) colours.

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Guillemots

You can see why these members of the auk family have the nickname of ‘northern penguins’ *. They are remarkably similar to penguins such as the Gentoos I watched a month or two ago. Guillemots use their wings to propel themselves underwater in exactly the same way penguins do. See the similarity yourself.

*if they haven’t, they should

I was joined by a very smart looking Fulmar Petrel off Polperro. Like most birds of the open sea, they can’t resist coming over to have a look.

These are part of the ‘tubenose’ group of seabirds that have a salt extraction gland located on top of their beak to enable them to survive using the sea as their only source of water.

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Fulmar

Here’s a close up of the tube. And study at that beak; it looks as though it’s been air-brushed and polished like a car at a vintage rally.

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Eric the Eider isn’t so curious however. He’s doing his best to go unnoticed.

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Eider

Grey Seals are a constant source of fascination. They too are inherently inquisitive but some are very much more shy than others. This one could be either. It is fast asleep (bottling) with just the tip of its nose above the water. My main job is to not wake it up. That would be unfair (and completely unacceptable). Observe the wildlife, don’t frighten it.

Grey seals come in all sorts of shapes and sizes. This (I think) is a this-year’s pup. It puts on a good show with a perfect three-point turn. (And you can hear a Dunnock (aka Hedge Sparrow) singing in the background)

In major contrast to the fine features of the juvenile seal, this is a grizzled old bull. I think this could have been the largest seal I have ever seen in the UK. When it rolled at the surface its back was more like a small whale. It also had a very nasty-looking scar on the end of its nose.P1060166

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Huge bull Grey Seal

And I didn’t come within ten metres of another person (apart from passing cars) all day.

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Polperro

Tough going

It’s been just about the windiest month on record so not great for kayaking. There has been just one morning of misty calm…in fact this was probably the only classic frosty, misty morning of the entire winter!P1020130

And the only glassy surface for months, although Morwellham Quay in the Tamar Valley is about as sheltered as it is possible to get in SW England.

I have battled my way up a variety of other creeks in Cornwall since the New Year. It’s important to get the tides right to avoid getting sludged at low tide. But low tide is the time to enjoy the wintering waders feeding on the expansive mud flats, such as these super-cool Black-tailed Godwits.

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Black-tailed Godwits

And a mixed bag of Oystercatchers and Curlew.

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Oystercatchers

At high tide the waders roost on whatever suitable perch they can find at the edge of the water…Redshank and a single Greenshank.

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Redshank and Greenshank

This Snipe doesn’t make too much of an effort to conceal itself because it is quite well concealed anyway with its camo-clothing.

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Snipe

What’s all that weird blue stuff in the sky?…OMG, there’s the sun!

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Paul picked up a huge plastic dumpy bag that had been caught up in the waterside trees…good job and one less, very large, piece of plastic pollution.

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Excellent to see this Common Sandpiper doing its stuff hunting for edible critters beneath the leaves. These little birds used to migrate to the continent during winter but increasing numbers now stay in the local estuaries during the colder months.

A familiar face resting on an exposed sand bar in the middle of the Fowey river. I have encountered this Harbour Seal at several locations over the last few years (including Looe Island).

I have only been able to venture out onto the open coast once. Clearly I was not the only kayaker to have researched the most sheltered section of coast that day. This kayak was bristling with hardware…the fish don’t stand a chance.

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Lovely drake Common Scoter trying to keep a low profile. Scoters are a true offshore sea duck.

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Common Scoter

I often get a sort of low-grade burning in the back of my head as if I am being scrutinised by a pair (or two) of very intense eyeballs. This is because there is not very many sections of coast where I am NOT being studied by the bird with the sharpest eyes of all…the Peregrine Falcon.

This pair show the discrepancy in size between the female (left) and the male (right) quite nicely. No prizes for guessing who wears the trousers.

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Time for a tea break.

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The ideal snack if you are feeling low on E numbers

I could hardly believe my eyeballs (and ears) when a pair of porpoises surfaced with a loud puff in front of me as I was cowering along the coast trying to keep out of the wind. They were only 50 metres from a mini headland, about as close in as I have ever seen one. A hugely pleasant surprise making the effort of paddling on such a marginal day worthwhile, and the first cetaceans since the Humpbacks of Antarctica!

You can actually see the eye on this one which is unusual because porpoises aren’t that ‘showy’.

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A good seal encounter livens up a dull winter’s day. This one has just caught a cuttlefish and demolishes it very expertly, and very quickly:

And these two seem to be having something of a disagreement over social distancing (very topical).

The seals on the pontoon are a bit more relaxed than their friend the Shag,

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especially this one…..

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super-chilled seal

Big Spring low tides are a feast for the local gulls. They are not stupid. Although to the casual observer they spend most of the day just sitting around and generating a bad public image (which I think is completely unjustified..it’s their home more than ours), they know when to move in for a tasty meal. They stalk silently amongst the rock pools which are chock full of fish and crabs. It’s not good to be a fish or a crab when a pair of Great Black-backed Gulls are on the prowl.

This Butterfish goes down the hatch whole, and still wriggling:

And I’m sure this Spider Crab thought it was too big to end up as lunch for a Seagull. Wrong.

Better weather next week…..bring it on.P1060045

 

Antarctica. A Fond Farewell.

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We had one more superb kayak trip through the misty stillness of Graham passage. Once again the silence was so intense that I kept doing the yawny thing to try to unblock my ears. There was just the occasional cheerful chatter of a passing Antarctic Tern, and the gentle splish of kayak paddles, to convince me that I hadn’t gone deaf overnight.

The snow covered rocky mountains gave way to full-blown ice walls every so often.

 

We were becoming a bit spoilt, because we were now EXPECTING to hear the blow of a whale cracking the quietness. This time the great blast came from very close to the cliff. I am still programmed to think that the whales will favour the deeper water in the middle of the channel, but here they seem quite at home close to the edge…..wherever there is food (krill) I suppose.

It was another pair of Humpbacks, mother and calf again I suspect.

 

Everything about Humpbacks is thrilling, especially their habit of throwing those enormous tail flukes up when they do a deep dive. It is a popular misconception that all whales do this, but in fact only a handful of species do (although they are the most well-known). Humpbacks and Sperm Whales.

These two gave us a great send-off with both throwing up their tails in a suitably snowy and icy Antarctic setting. We did glimpse another Humpback and a Minke whale as we were leaving a mini-beach after taking a break, but that was the last of the whales seen from the kayak seat. No complaints from me, we had seen as many in six days and forty-four miles of paddling, as I had seen in fifteen years and twenty-four thousand miles previously.

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The icebergs havn’t really had much of a mention yet….the hole in this one made a convenient perch for a prowling skua. Up to no good for certain (as usual).P1040270

Our last kayak trip was a circuit of Half-moon island. As usual the penguins just got on with their daily routine as the kayak flotilla slipped quietly past in the background.

The Weddell seals showed marginally more, but still only a passing, interest in us.

 

So that was it, our last paddle in Antarctica. It was time to get out on the pontoon at the back of the ship. The weather was suitably antarctic as a light snow started to fall.

It was farewell to the Chinstraps, the most characterful of the penguins..chinstrap 2

We watched the last of the snowy crags of Antarctica fading into the distance as the ship headed north and started to roll in the swell of the open sea of the fabled Drake passage. But there was no time to relax because Drake passage is chock full of marine marvels, including the most charismatic bird in the entire world (which just happens to have the longest wingspan as well)…the Wandering Albatross.

Here’s a pictorial summary of what we saw from the back of the ship during the two day crossing back to Ushuaia. No written commentary because it was not seen, or photographed, from a kayak.

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Southern Giant petrel
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Black-browed Albatross

These next two are the ‘Great’ Albatrosses, with the greatest wingspan of any bird on the planet…..a mere 11-12ft.

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Royal Albatross
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Wandering Albatross
Antipodean maybe 1
(possible) Antipodean Albatross
Antipodean maybe 2
(possible) Antipodean Albatross
Antipodean maybe 5
(possible) Antipodean Albatross
Antipodean maybe 4
(possible) Antipodean Albatross
Hourglass dolphins
Hourglass Dolphins
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Pilot Whales
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Sei Whales

The Black-browed Albatrosses in Drake’s passage nicely demonstrated how they use even small waves (such as this, the bow wave generated by our ship) to ‘surf’ along.

A few final pics from Ushuaia and Iguazu (North Argentina/Brazil) on our way back north.

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Magellanic Woodpecker

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Black Vultures, Iguazu
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Toco Toucan
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Toco Toucan

We have arrived back in the UK and been battered by wind and rain ever since. The wettest and windiest February on record. So opportunities for kayaking have been few and far between, but there has been plenty of time to reflect on the enormity of our short time spent in the enormity of Antarctica.

Its size is indeed one of its superlatives. If the Antarctic continent was the size of your house, the three hundred miles we ventured into it wouldn’t get us much past the front doormat.

It is quite impressive that such a desolate place, without a hint of vegetation, could have stimulated our sensory centres so much that every kilo, mega and terabyte of capacity within our whirring craniums was stuffed to max capacity.

There’s so much we didn’t see that makes it even more remarkable. No litter, not a hint of any plastic pollution in the sea, and hardly any sign that humans exist, or have ever existed. The occasional other ship, one or two yachts, a few scientific bases and tumbledown whaling stations.

For me personally it was the whales that made it so very, very special. The huge tail rising far out of the water is jawdropping enough, but it is the blow that is the signature sound of the Antarctic. It perfectly complements the limitless vista of rock, snow, and ice. It is hard to believe that only half-a-century ago there were hardly any Humpbacks here, in fact during the previous fifty years the numbers got so low that they very, very nearly didn’t bounce back. The population was virtually annihilated when whaling stations were set up in the area in the early 1900s. They came as close to the brink as it is possible to get.

That made our close encounters even more thrilling. How fantastic is it that this pair of Humpbacks just swam round and round us (blowing an amazing THIRTEEN times on the video…and the hairs stand up on the back of my neck every time), obviously taking a look at us. You can see them slowing down and doing some tight turns to stay in amongst the group of three kayaks. Real gentle giants.

Whales are BIG in so many ways.

This is the standout clip. Taken from the kayak seat, of course.