Top Tips for Top Pics

Watching and Photographing Wildlife from the Kayak Seat

Kingfisher (taken from kayak…of course)

If you want the best front row seat in the stadium to see water-based wildlife, a kayak is what you need. It is not just exhilarating, fun and everybody’s favourite mode of transport. It is completely silent, very unobtrusive and offers the best perspective for observation and photography because you are sitting at water level.

Compare these two dolphin pics. The first is a Dusky Dolphin I took from the deck of a boat, the second is a Common Dolphin snapped from my kayak.

dusky d 3
Dusky Dolphin from boat
Common dolphin from kayak



You can look right into the eye of the dolphin at the same level and get much more of a feel of their (big) personality and (considerable) charisma. Audio input isn’t confused by the noise of an engine…you can hear every puff, every splash and the full range of squeaks and clicks. Have a listen to this. Bottlenose Dolphins.


What Camera?

I carry around two cameras when I go out paddling. One is as simple as a camera can be and so fits in as well with my minimalistic approach to gadgets as it does in my lifejacket pocket.

Akaso V50 pro
Akaso V50 Pro and waterproof case.

It is an AKASO V50 PRO which is a cheaper version of the legendary GoPro sports camera. It is a point and shoot and delivers very acceptable stills and excellent 4K videos. It has a very wide angle lens so is great for scenery shots…..

wide-angle Looe

and big wildlife up very close. When inside its waterproof case it is perfect for underwater stuff. Like this….

common dolphin

and this..

My previous underwater camera was not to be sneezed at either. It captured some great shots of this enormous Basking Shark as it cruised underneath my kayak. This was taken ten (gulp) years ago with an Olympus Tough compact camera. It was lucky I saw these when I did…a Basking Shark is now a rare sight.

Basking Shark, Land’s End


My main camera is the superb PANASONIC LUMIX FZ2000. I have been using it for two and-a-half years, having upgraded from a couple of superzoom bridge cameras over the previous decade. The Lumix FZ2000 is also a bridge camera (so NOT a SLR) but gives a superior image quality to most others of similar design because it has a larger (1″) sensor.

yours truly and nudger
Panasonic Lumix FZ 2000

It has a 24-480 zoom lens so can skip in a couple of seconds from a decent wide angle for scenes and close, large creatures to a respectable telephoto shot of a bird. This is where it REALLY has the edge over a DSLR for me. To get the same range of focal length with a DSLR I would have to carry at least two lens, and changing lens while out on a kayak is really not easy. Worse still it takes time and spontaneity is the key when trying to photograph wildlife that spends most of its time underwater.

Also DSLRs are very heavy (although the very latest are much lighter), and more expensive than the LUMIX FZ2000. Yes, they give an image with better resolution but, in good light particularly, the bridge camera comes close.

Bude Guillemot
Guillemot, taken with Lumix FZ2000

I use the Lumix FZ2000 for videos as well. The quality is HD or 4k and it is great to be able to use the 20X zoom while videoing.


It is a really great camera and has recorded some memorable images. It has only two drawbacks, one major and one minor. The less important issue is that the lens cap doesn’t attach very firmly and keeps falling off when I put the camera in its bag, which is quite irritating when I am a bit tired.

The major issue is that the camera doesn’t have any weatherproofing at all. It is about as unwaterproof as it is possible to be. So it is pretty remarkable it is still going strong having accompanied me for over 5,000 miles. It’s vulnerability makes me all the more careful about looking after it, which I would have to do, but maybe not so diligently, with any camera.

Following my ‘keep it simple’ rule, the Lumix stays tucked away in a dry bag until I want to take a pic, when I bring it out and then put it straight away or sit it on my lap and hope it doesn’t fall overboard. Nothing more fancy than that… waterproof case or special mounting.

The trouble is, when I see something like an otter I am going to take a pic whatever the weather, and just hope it doesn’t wreck the camera. I always carry around a couple of sheets of kitchen towel in the drybag to wipe off a bit of drizzle. (I also use the kitchen towel to clean the lens…there is less likely to be a bit of sand in the paper than a fancy lens cleaning cloth from your grubby pocket.)

Taking this video, with no water protection for the camera, was really pushing my luck.


Camera Setup. A bit of technical stuff.

Simple, simple, simple is the way to go. And think ahead. I always have the Lumix set up so that I can whip it out of its drybag in super quick time, point and shoot. If you start fiddling about with settings you will probably be too late.

Water-based wildlife such as otters and dolphins do not hang around and are incredibly challenging to photograph from a kayak, quite apart from the constant threat of splashes from waves, the paddle or your permanently wet hands.

It’s essential you have your camera set up and ready for the conditions, all the time. Spontaneity is the key. It’ll be a long time before another pod of White-beaked Dolphins swims past.White-beaked Dolphins

The kayak is rarely still, especially when you are in the open sea so I use a minimum shutterspeed of one thousandth of a second. If it is sunny I will use 1/1300 which will freeze most dolphin splashes. For stills I always use burst, set at a medium rate because I can’t be bothered to search through too many images later. For videos, I just press the little red button. No other gadgets.

One useful tip I have recently learnt. On a bright overcast day the surface of the sea is white so the subject (e.g seabird/dolphin), will be dark. So I make an aperture adjustment and ‘stop it up’ one or two points. Beneath a dark river bank (e.g photographing an otter) the reverse is true and the subject will be too light, so I stop the aperture down a couple of pips. And I always do it before I set off because in the heat of the moment you forget, and miss that special shot.

This is a good example. I came across this Stoat trying to mesmerise these ducks, so it could est one for lunch, beside the river Fowey one gloomy November day, so the background was quite dark. If I had stopped the aperture down and been prepared, the stoat and the ducks would not have looked so pale.

I carry a spare battery and spare SD card in the dry bag….just in case.

Planning a Wildlife Kayak Trip. Watch the Weather, especially the Wind

If you want to have the best possible day out you have really got to know exactly what the tide, swell and wind are doing.

For tide I use tides4fishing website because you can see how big the tide is (tidal coefficient) and get a good overview of what is going on, on a single page.

Screenshot (62)

For swell I use Magic Seaweed surf forecast. This is really important, especially if you are planning a beach launch somewhere like the North Cornish coast. It’s a bit of a blow when you have chosen a dead calm, scorching hot day without a cloud in the sky, and you get completely flattened by a crashing six foot wave as you paddle out…..all because you didn’t check the surf forecast.

Wind is by far the most important factor, especially if you plan to paddle open coast or head offshore. I use two forecasts. The best (I think) is XCWeather. This gives a live wind reading and a very accurate wind and gust forecast, and you can hunt around the map to find the most sheltered spot. It’s a much better overview than if you only check out the forecast for one place. It’s very helpful to know , for example, whether the forecast slack winds are in the middle of a high, or low, pressure system. The light winds in the anticyclone are more reliable than those in the middle of a ‘Low’, especially when planning a few days ahead. Having said that, the XCWeather forecast is incredibly accurate, and if it is wrong it is because winds are lighter than forecast, such as the calm of early morning. This is not a problem!

Here’s today’s forecast on XCWeather. Looks absolutely perfect for offshore kayaking, hardly a breath of wind around Cornwall….grrrr!

Screenshot (63)

I also like to look at BBC Weather because it gives a good written summary of the day’s weather. Cloud increasing, wind falling light, feeling cold…that sort of thing. I have been caught out once or twice by a forecast of 100% cloud 9on other forecast sites) and not taken suncream, It turned out that the cloud was a layer of thin high cloud so the UV and heat was hardly tempered at all and I just about fried, or would have done had I not wrapped my vest around my head. The written forecast would have made all that clear.

Extreme UV protection (so I got sunburnt shoulders instead)

The sea state reflects the wind gust speed rather than the mean wind speed, so it’s very important to know.

I am very wary about paddling offshore solo, although I enjoy it very much and if you want to maximise your chance of seeing porpoises, dolphins and maybe even a whale or a Leatherback, that’s what you’ve got to do. This Leatherback turtle was ten miles off Land’s End (en route back from Scilly), and the only one I have ever seen.

Leatherback turtle
My only Leatherback ever, it dived before I could get a photo at the surface.

I make sure I know EXACTLY what the tide is doing and which way the current is flowing (which doesn’t necessarily change at the same time as the tide, especially along the south coast and Land’s End), and EXACTLY what the swell and wind (including gusts) are forecast to do.

I aim to head out to sea only if the surface is like a lake. The maximum windspeed must not exceed five knots all day, or maybe just a bit more if it is going to be behind me on the way back. I find it no fun if there are any whitecaps, because photography becomes impossible with the movement of the kayak, and you are much less likely to see anything anyway because in choppy sea fins are much more difficult to spot.

whale 10
Minke Whale on a choppy grey day…marginal for offshore kayaking

Needless to say, the stronger the wind the more the risks increase.

Amongst my mass of safety equipment is my handheld Garmin GPS 72H. I have all the local headlands and ports plumbed in so I can see at a glance how far each one is away, and know how long it will take me to get there using the GPS speedometer. The speedo is very handy because it is easy to think you are making no headway at all when you are far offshore and a bit fatigued. Only once has this actually been the case ( and yes…it was a bit of a nasty shock); but there are actually only a few tidal currents around SW England which flow faster than cruising kayak speed. All off the most prominent headlands, or estuary mouths. Start Point, for example.

Start point
Start Point

Final Fling

1. Keep it simple, simple, simple. More clutter means less time on the water and more time looking down not up, and more to go wrong.

2. In the image, excitement factor rules over pixels. This pic of a lunging Humpback is a pathetic 174kb (a still from the video clip above) and would be laughed off court by the average camera buff (who wouldn’t consider putting out a photo with anything less than 10MB), but it was considered thrilling enough to get a half page spread in the Daily Mail.

daily mail
Daily Mail Whale Tale

3. Don’t take any notice of anything I have said. I am a kayaker who takes photographs, not a photographer. That would imply having a flair for art and being creative. I point, I shoot, and I hope for the best.

Brock takes a dip

4. Get out there and do it.

Top Tips for Top Trips (part 2)

Essential Equipment

DSC04206 (1) (1)
Ready to rock ‘n roll, with Dave and Paul

Here is my take on kayaking kit. My account is completely unbiased as I never really listen to advice and have always preferred to learn by trying and doing, and quite often failing. My opinions have evolved through experience of using the equipment and grinding out the miles during every type of weather that the UK (and a few other places) can muster up. And all sorts of sea conditions…..sometimes a bit hairy….

Hostile sea conditions. That is a BIG wave.



paddles old and new

The one piece of essential paddle kit that I do not hesitate to ‘ buy the best’ is my paddle. It’s because I really don’t want it to snap when I am far away from a safe haven. And I don’t carry around a spare because I am a minimalist. So I am the proud owner of a full carbon Werner Camano paddle…….er…well, I was until I left it behind on a beach somewhere and then went to the Antarctic for three weeks so I can’t remember where I lost it. What a blinking idiot. It is something of a false economy to have a really expensive paddle so it will last for a really long time, and then you go and lose it. Gutted.

It has been my faithful engine for the last six years, and driven me almost 15,000 miles. Totally abused, totally unappreciated, totally reliable. I’m even more gutted, now I’ve just written that.

For touring kayaking I would suggest you choose a paddle with a fairly small blade because maintaining a steady speed is all you need……a big blade is great for sudden power (such as white water kayaking) but is unnecessary for touring and can lead to arm strain especially if, like me, you are getting on a bit. That’s why some folk prefer a Greenland style paddle which is little more than a pole widened at the ends.

Paddling Heaven

I also like a longish paddle, 230cms. Paddle length is a potentially complex subject, but my approach is rather simplistic and just what works for me. A long paddle ensures you don’t scuff your knuckles on the deck, and I always feel that longer means a more efficient lever so you get ‘more for your money’ when paddling, but this would probably not be backed up by science. However when you’ve got to turn up the heat to catch up that pod of dolphins you have seen on the horizon, a long paddle encourages a steadier, more powerful stroke which is more likely to bring core muscles* into action which will mean you can paddle faster for longer.

*couldn’t get away without mentioning core muscles, could I?

Note: carbon fibre paddles do snap sometimes. This one broke right here…..

Doom on the Dee


For several years I wore a wetsuit for kayaking. These are fine in the summer and OK for short trips in the winter, but when the water is cold they don’t stop you getting cold, they just slow the process down. Also wetsuits, especially the thicker winter ones, restrict arm movement which makes a long trip much more tiring.

So drysuits are definitely the way to go. You can layer up with thermals underneath and stay completely cosy dry all day. I wear drysuits for three-quarters of the year, and for the summer months wear a pair of neoprene trousers and carry around a waterproof top if it looks like rain.

Warm water paddling gear
(very) cold water paddling gear

You should dress appropriately for the water temperature rather than the outside air, although it is sometimes difficult to do so. You can boil in a drysuit on a scorching May day when the water temperature is ten degrees but outside it is twenty-five. So I tend to take a risk and paddle in lighter clothing, knowing that because I paddle a sit-on-top kayak I can get back on again pretty quickly if necessary.

I have been the proud owner of a lot of kayaking drysuits, of many different brands, over the last fifteen years. The majority have been breathable fabric, and all have been fantastic for up to about one thousand miles of paddling, and then they have started to leak. In exactly the same manner as a goretex waterproof jacket starts to let in water after a few years. Paddling a sit-on-top kayak certainly is a harsh test for these garments, because you are constantly being splashed with water from the paddle, as well as sitting in a small puddle of water which collects in the seat. This is unlike a sit-in kayak where you are completely dry unless water comes splashing over the deck.

But a drysuit should keep you dry whatever (especially if you end up in the water), and I have had a variety of responses from various manufacturers when I have returned the garments as ‘leaky’. Some, like Typhoon, repair and return without question. Others have dug their heels in and been very unhelpful, and suggested that I treat the drysuit with water repellent. This isn’t going to be much good if you are up to your neck in water after a capsize, which must be the core purpose of  a drysuit.

Fifteen years worth of drysuits

Anyway, I have used Crewsaver, Typhoon, Peak, Palm, Gul, Kokatat breathable drysuits. All have been breathable fabric and all eventually leak. These have been the moderately priced drysuits…I have never owned one of the really expensive suits (such as the best Kokatat) and I believe these will maintain their waterproofing for much longer. I wore one of these in the Antarctic recently and it was super-comfortable, so when the finances improve I might be tempted.

For the last three years I have been using Reeds Chillcheater drysuits. They are made of a unique fabric that I have been told is partly breathable. It is certainly breathable enough, because I have yet to get sweaty in it. They are very comfortable and very reasonably priced. And they last two to three times longer than any of the other drysuits before I start to get a wet backside. The only drawback is that the drysocks are very prone to small perforations from tiny stones and grains of sand….preventable if you have a decent set of wetsuit boots (but I like to wear crocs to prevent sore feet).

I wear a separate top and bottom layer of drysuit, so that when the weather warms up I can take the top off. Keeping the dry trousers on is useful with a sit-on-top because your legs constantly get wet. However this is really not a good idea if you were to tip over. In fact it is a very, very bad idea because they would rapidly fill with water and make self-rescue very difficult. However like many other SOT paddlers that is what I do and take a risk…..although having said that a wide SOT kayak is very difficult to tip over.

Warm means happy

LIFEJACKET/PFD (personal flotation device)

As long as it works, and is comfortable, I do not feel strongly about PFDs. although the more pockets in which to stuff your safety equipment, and snacks, the better.

Simon and Dave all kitted up


I do, however, feel strongly about kayak seats, as I do like to go on excessively long trips where you might not get onto dry land for up to ten hours. Lots of potential for a numb backside.

There are two bits to consider…..the seat and the back support. Backside comfort comes from the depth of padding on the base of the seat. The thicker the better as far as I am concerned, but the thicker the seat the higher your centre of gravity becomes leading to more unstable kayak (much more than you would ever imagine). Even so, I like to sit on three layers of camping mat glued to the floor.

Last year I had a persistent ache around my lower back on one side. This was instantly improved by a thickly padded backrest (made by Palm). It may have been that my problem sorted itself out at exactly the same time but it’s a bit of a coincidence. Anyway, I continue to use it so I can stretch out a bit when I am getting a bit stiff.

seat selection


I am aware that competitive kayakers don’t use a backrest….the most efficient paddling position is with body leaning slightly forwards. However recreational kayaking, especially when you are out for a long time, and not as supple as you once were, is a lot more enjoyable and flexible when you have a sturdy and soft back support on your seat. You don’t have to lean against it if you don’t want to.


Absolutely essential, and the chocolatier the better! When the exhaustion starts to kick in and spirits start to sag, a couple of chunks of your favourite confectionery effectively reboots the system.

Food, food, food (not particularly healthy, but very tasty)



I often paddle solo and I often paddle far offshore so I need to take a load of emergency gadgets just in case.

emergency kit

In the photograph above, starting at the top and moving clockwise:

phone, spare waterproof phone, GPS locator, two-way radio, personal locator beacon (PLB), Flare, Compass.

In addition, whenever I do a long trip I always call in with the local NCI coastwatch station as I paddle out. This is for two reasons: the first is for personal safety so they are aware that I am around and if I don’t call in later on my way back there is a problem. Secondly it is a matter of courtesy to them…..if, through their pair of enormous binoculars, they spot a lone kayaker bobbing about several miles offshore, they might well be concerned as it is not the normal habitat of normal kayakers. Just the very few who enjoy the thrill of looking for, but nearly always failing to find, whales and their kin.

gulp 11
A wee bit of a splash, Humpback style.


Next Blog, coming soon in Top Tips for Top Trips……

Watching and Photographing Wildlife from the Kayak Seat, book the time off now!

dolphins 1




Top Tips for Top Trips (part 1)

SIT-IN vs SIT-ON….the Greatest Debate in Kayaking

The sit-in vs sit-on saga is complex and deep because it doesn’t just involve design, seaworthiness and technical stuff such as stability and comfort. You’ve got to throw tradition, experience, pride, machismo and credibility into the mix.

Having spent decades on the receiving end of scowls from the local surfers as the ‘geek in a goatboat’, and more recently completely ignored by passing paddlers when I am using my inflatable kayak, I know all about being bottom of the street-cred pile. So I am in quite a good position to be being non-judgemental.

Geek with a Goat Boat (but boy did I have some fun with it)

Especially as, over the last forty plus years, I have paddled all manner of different craft for all manner of different purposes: surfing, white water slalom, flat water racing, camping, fishing, river touring, coastal touring and offshore paddling.

Racing kayak days (fuelled by twiglets, it appears. No wonder I didn’t win.)


Just in case you don’t know……

In the picture below the paddlers on the outside are using Sit-in kayaks (SINK), i.e. enclosed kayaks with a cockpit and a spraydeck, and the paddler in the middle is using a Sit-on top (SOT) kayak and is sitting on a seat moulded into the deck.

Keith, Derrick, Joel

Sit-in or Sit-on….which one for me?…..

If SINKs are always going to have the edge over a SOT kayak, why did I hesitate to get one when the beaches of North Cornwall started to get a bit crowded and the surf line up too much like the queue for the till at Tescos?

bustling beach

It was because, in the back of my mind, I was worried about what would happen if I capsized. Even though I was competent at performing an eskimo roll and had a lot of experience paddling some very tippy kayaks, the concern was there so it acted as a bit of a brake. My intention was to paddle solo along the North coast of Cornwall and I was fully aware it was not a great place to get into trouble, as the sea is lively, the swell is relentless and sheltered creeks are few and far between. ‘From Hartland Point to Padstow Light, ’tis a watery grave by day or night.’

Then the Ocean Kayak Malibu 2 suddenly appeared and I bought one immediately.

Giant container ship, Fal River
Ocean kayak Malibu 2. The go anywhere, 100% fun kayak

It’s not a lot more than a plastic platform, but it was precisely what I had been waiting for. Very wide, very stable and you could hop on and off for a bit of snorkelling. It was superb family fun. Surf, open sea, rivers, canals……just leap on and go….and have a great time.

I started to piece together sections of the North Cornwall coast on the Malibu 2, and then Ocean Kayak started to produce single SOTs, and I wasted no time in purchasing what is probably the best kayak of its class ever made….The Prowler 15. This was a fantastic cruising craft, perfect for all-day paddling as well as multi-day camping trips and fishing, which I was into at the time. White water river paddling was (and still is) my least preferred paddling environment, but the Prowler guided me through.

Prowler 15 in action on the River Tweed

SINK vs SOT Seaworthiness…..some technical stuff

With a twenty-eight inch wide hull, and fifteen foot long, the Prowler was going to slice through the water a lot quicker than the Malibu 2 but much less efficiently than a conventional sea kayak with, say, a beam of twenty-two inches and length of seventeen plus feet. So that means more effort put in for any given speed, a lower cruising speed, and a lower top speed. A cruising speed of one knot less CAN be more significant than you might think. Paddling a mile against a two knot tidal current takes twice as long at a three knot cruising speed (as in the typical single SOT), compared to four knots (the typical  SINK sea kayak). And at two knots you never get there at all!

It is the bit of the kayak in the water (i.e. the hull) that determines performance. Essentially the longer and narrower it is the easier it will slip through the water and the faster it will go. The centre of gravity is lower in a SINK because you are sitting above only one layer of kayak skin, whereas on a SOT the seat is on two layers and therefore higher up so the kayak needs to be wider to achieve the same stability. In a SINK you are sitting just below water level, on a SOT you are sitting just above.

Conventional sea kayaks also have a significant advantage when sea conditions deteriorate. When paddling into a headwind and oncoming wave chop, the pointed bow of a sea kayak pierces the waves with minimal effect on the forward speed. However the wider hull of the average SOT impacts the waves more heavily, and bounces over the waves with a lot of hull slap, all contributing to a loss of momentum. The increase in effort to maintain speed is compounded by having to pull the paddle harder through water which is moving past more slowly. Also the push of wind on body and paddle blades is more significant on the wider profile of the average Sit-on-top.

All this results in a disproportionate slowing of the wider and more ‘floaty’ craft when paddling into wind. For the recreational paddler on a SOT kayak, struggling into a headwind has an erosive effect on morale. On more than one occasion I have been coastal touring with friends who are not regular kayakers, when we are faced with a long beat across a bay into a wind. It’s amazing how quickly heads go down and the group falls quiet. Because the average SOT has a lower speed and less ‘glide’ when there is a halt in paddling, every time you stop to scratch your nose you quickly end up heading backwards. The SINK however maintains a bit of forward speed when you pause and is less prone to getting caught by the wind than the wider craft. I’m embarrassed to admit I once was completely unable to turn up into a strong wind while paddling a long SOT kayak ( theTarpon 160) when it twisted me round beam on, and had to paddle into the shelter of a cliff to be able to head in the direction I wanted. Not a wise day to be on the water, in retrospect.

Most of the above can be avoided with careful planning, which I will investigate further in my next blog. But for example, on there-a-back day trip I always try to paddle into the wind first.

Big trips in small kayaks….

On a flat calm summer’s day, when the majority of casual paddlers take to the water, it really doesn’t matter what sort of craft you find yourself in, because carving across smooth water is reasonably effortless even in the most unstreamlined of kayaks. A few years ago I expanded my fleet with a nine foot long inflatable kayak, a Gumotex Safari. I bought it to help rehabilitation following a knee replacement, as it was very light and easy to chuck in the back of the car.

Gumotex Safari Inflatable sit-on top kayak. Not to be sneezed at.

I couldn’t resist the temptation to round Land’s End in it when I spotted an exceptionally favourable weather (and tide) window. My intention was to paddle the sixteen miles from Penzance to Sennen Cove, pack the kayak away in its bag and catch the bus back, but it was such a superb day I actually paddled all the way back to Penzance, including going round Longships Lighthouse and the Runnel Stone, some of the most committing kayaking in SW England.

A nice calm day

A Variety of Kayaks

I had some great fishing, and sea touring, using a succession of good but ‘recreational’ SOT kayaks, such as Ocean Kayak (OK) Prowler 15, OK Scupper Pro and Wilderness Tarpon 16. I clocked up a load of thirty plus mile day trips. Although the cruising speed is less than a sea kayak, the comfort levels are higher so you are happy to spend more time in the seat. There is a tendency when paddling a SINK (in my experience) to rush between stops where you can rest and stretch your legs and ease your back. With the freedom of movement of a SOT, including rest stops on the water when you can sit with legs dangling over the side, you can actually spend the entire day without stepping on to dry land, and still feel relatively un-achy.

One of the longest non-stop trips I have completed is the legendary Scilly crossing……the thirty miles of open sea between the Isles of Scilly and Sennen Cove on the tip of Cornwall. One of my companions (Keith) was paddling a SINK, my chum Austen was in his Perception Freedom SOT and I was paddling the battleship-like Wilderness Tarpon 160.

en route back from Scilly, in the Tarpon

The crossing took us about nine and-a-half hours, and included a sighting of a Leatherback Turtle. Yes we probably could have done it quicker in narrower sea kayaks, but we probably wouldn’t have seen that Leatherback (although I suppose we might have seen something else).

It’s like the hare and the tortoise (referring to the difference between the types of kayak…I’m not talking about the turtle).

In search of a narrower, faster SOT…

With a view to getting the best of both worlds, I started to look for a narrower sea kayak more akin to a SINK, but with a SOT format. These are not easy to find, because the SOT market is largely aimed at relatively inexperienced paddlers who want a stable craft (and maybe need to lose a pound or two….. a heavier paddler means a more unstable kayak, so it needs to be a bit wider to compensate).

However I managed to find a Paddleyak Swift on ebay, a rare craft from South Africa, home of fast SOT kayaks.

Tim in Paddleyak Swift

And then the superb Cobra Expedition kayak, which has been my most used craft and in which I have clocked up many thousands of miles. It essentially has the hull of a sea kayak and slides through the water beautifully. Laden with camping gear I undertook an eight hundred mile (solo, because my paddling chums never turned up!) kayak camping trip up the west coast of Scotland and back down the Outer Isles in 2014.

Cobra Expedition laden with camping clobber (inc. banana)
Scottish Otter

My main interest has now evolved into photographing wildlife from my kayak, and SOT kayaks with their storage areas moulded onto the deck providing easy access to my camera are ideally suited for the task. everything does, however, need to be in a waterproof dry bag, because even on calm days there is always a lot of water splashing about, especially when the paddle rate is cranked up when a pod of dolphins appears a mile ahead.

just hold it there……and smile

I now favour the slightly less narrow and less fast RTM Disco kayak, which is just a bit lighter and easier to move around than the Cobra Expedition, but just a bout the raciest of the recreational SOTs. It’s less strain on my ageing back. It is still good for a trip out to the Eddystone Lighthouse however, 25 miles, so it does the job.

Josh in the Disco

No Axe to Grind

I should point out that I really have no axe to grind when it comes to choice of kayak, whether SOT or SINK. I have never really been swayed by anyone else’s opinion and have tried out a large selection of kayaks. I have even been the proud owner of a very narrow and fast sea kayak, a Sipre Millenium. It had all the other advantages of a SINK such as keeping a dry bottom half below the spray deck, and as a result staying much warmer. However all this was far outweighed by that niggling worry of the disaster of falling out. So it soon disappeared via ebay.

Sipre Millenium sit-in sea kayak

A crunch moment came last August when I was over three miles off the Cornish coast, about an hour’s paddling from dry land, on a beautiful warm and calm August day. I was looking for dolphins and any other exciting sea creatures, and was really buzzing because I had already encountered porpoises, dolphins and Giant bluefin Tuna. Then a Humpback whale exploded from the surface nearby, engulfing one of the baitballs of sandeels and sprats that I could see below me in the clear water.

gulp 2
Humpback gulp……GULP

The whale proceeded to work its way round the shoals of baitfish, which were ‘marked’ by stippled patches of dark water at the surface. I found myself sitting in the middle of one of these patches and there was a moderately high chance the whale would come up right beside me (or closer)….but instead it chose an adjacent shoal about fifty metres away. An absolute off-the-scale thrill that I have always hoped to have but never thought I will…and probably won’t see again.

flipper 2
Humpback Flipper (a mere fifteen foot long… be avoided)

A large part of the 100% undiluted excitement, with no room for concern or worry, was the fact that I was paddling a SOT kayak (my Disco). If I was dislodged by the wave of a whale surfacing beside me….no problem, I would just clamber back on. It was a hot day, the water was warm, I was wearing wet suit trousers, a bit of stuff would get a bit wet, but it would have been worth it. But what would have happened if I was in a SINK with a spray deck? OK I might have been able to roll, but maybe not. Getting back into a swamped sea kayak is a major effort, whatever anybody says. Yes, I could have been rescued as I carry all the safety kit, but I would rather not have to call for help.

The fact is, when I initially saw the whale from a distance of about a mile away I had absolutely no hesitation in paddling towards it (keeping a distance that would not disturb the whale, of course), because I was on a SOT kayak. Had I been paddling a SINK I would have hesitated, and probably kept right back, just in case. So the once-in-a-lifetime experience would not have been quite so thrilling.

Here’s my current quiver of kayaks (and self-isolation tent). All SOTs.

Cobra Expedition,  RTM Disco, Paddleyak Swift, Perception Gemini, OK Scupper Pro, Gumotex Safari.












A Bit of Previous

Teign estuaryRegular readers will know that my blog is an account of my adventures in my kayak and the places I have been and the creatures I have seen (and the snacks in-between).

I’m not big on reflection and analysis, but if there is ever a time to do a bit of that sort of thing it is now, when we are all cooped up and major outdoor activities are put on hold.

Over the next few weeks I will look at all the kayaks, kit and clobber that make for a great day out watching  (and photographing) wildlife, but for a start I will give an insight into what makes me tick by turfing out some classic pics from my past.


Fresh-faced Youngster to Spotty Youth. (Tendency to Nerdiness)

There is no record of my first encounter with a kayak, but here’s my (slightly elder) brother sitting in my (slightly elder still) other brother’s canvas kayak, called Mayfly, in 1964. It was probably me that had been throwing sand at it. I was a bit like that.

Brother Tim at Studland Beach, Dorset

The die was cast. From the first moment my backside hit the seat of the kayak the excitement of being on the water never diminished, and it interlocked perfectly with my interest in natural history that had started from nappy days, or thereabouts. The fascination with wildlife was the same for the whole family. We’ve got Dad to thank for that.

Family Kirkwood (plus cousin, top left). I am nestled safely in the middle of the group.

However unlike the rest of the family who showed a normal and healthy level of interest in wildlife (although there were snakes in the bookcase, rabbits in the living room and an owl on the pelmet) I took it all to the extreme. For years I recorded every mammal, bird and butterfly species I saw every day, and trapped (and released) as many mice, voles and shrews as I could, and made scores of nestboxes. Oh, and I was a fanatic trainspotter. Wasn’t going to mention that.

Bird, mammal, train log books.

At school in Taunton I didn’t really tow the line when it comes to being cool. When my classmates were experimenting with noxious substances behind the science block I was in an adjacent ditch looking for Water Shrews.

But I absolutely loved the Canoe Club, and am hugely indebted to Mr. Fisher, on the right in this photo, for taking us out virtually every time the most enthusiastic members wanted to go for a paddle.

Thanks to my chum John Flower (back row, stripey shirt) for this excellent pic. That’s me on the second seat in from the left.

Taunton School Canoe Club 1974


Big Hair to Hardly Any Hair

At Bristol University I studied Veterinary Science, and was offered a job as a farm vet in Holsworthy, West Devon, the day I graduated. It is the only job I have ever had and boy have I been lucky. It was a supremely fulfilling occupation, and I was fortunate enough to work with highly friendly and motivated colleagues and highly friendly and appreciative farmers.

Screenshot (46)
doing my favourite job (a cow caesarian) with veterinary colleague

Holsworthy is fifteen minutes from Bude and some of the best surf beaches in the UK. By good fortune wave-skis (a cross between a surf board and kayak) had just been invented. I made the most of small amounts of time off.

Everything Retro. Retro kayak, retro paddle (wooden!), retro surf shorts, retro hair.
On a more up-to-date board (a mere thirty years old*)

*the board, not me

I always avoid taking an easy option when a more long-winded, and possibly more challenging and uncomfortable, one is available. More time and grunt put in results in a more rewarding outcome. Here’s an example.

In 1989 Becky and I decided to go to see the Mountain Gorillas in their natural habitat in the misty mountains of eastern Zaire (now Democratic Republic of Congo). We could easily have taken a plane but instead we decided to drive all the way from Holsworthy in a second-hand Landrover ……

A few thousand miles across the Sahara desert…..IMG_7585

Camped out every night on the roof…..IMG_7602

picked up a few hitchhikers…..IMG_7591

A few thousand miles of muddy jungle…..

Screenshot (54)

and after three months found the gorillas…

Mountain Gorilla

But we didn’t stop there, and continued down to Cape Town.

Table Mountain

In the sweeping bays of South Africa we saw our first ever whales….Southern Rights. Wow.

Southern Right Whale


Southern Right Whale

I wouldn’t mind seeing one of them from my kayak……mmmmm….there’s a thought.

Back in the UK the beaches and surf line-up was becoming a bit congested so I toyed with buying a (sit-in) sea kayak to explore the North Coast of Cornwall, but was wary about the safety aspect of paddling alone. What would happen if I tipped over and failed to eskimo roll? Then Sit-on-top kayaks came along and all that worry evaporated…if you tip out (although you hardly ever do) you just climb back on.

It all started with the legendary Ocean Kayak Malibu 2. Super stable, super versatile,OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

super family fun (and super comfortable).

Boscastle nap


For five or six years I did a lot of fishing from a variety of single sit-on-top kayaks. Most were put back to fight another day because I don’t particularly like fish, although a few mackerel and pollack were kept ‘for the table’.

pollack hat trick
Pollack hat-trick

I had some very memorable and enjoyable days shark-fishing off the north Cornish coast, all these Tope being returned unharmed.

A spot of shark-fishing

However, it suddenly dawned on me that fishing for what was essentially fun was not really compatible with my lifelong appreciation, and respect, for nature. So I stopped doing it, and replaced my fishing rod with a camera. And have never looked back.

I’ve clocked up a lot of miles (in excess of 24,000) ..all over the place but mainly the UK.

I have kayak-camped down all four of the big Scottish Rivers and the Caledonian Canal.

River Spey
Tay descent Team

And paddled up most of the west coast of Scotland, and back down much of the Outer Hebrides…..including terrifying St. Kilda.

Loch Etive
Camping on Mull
Camped on Mull
Relieved to have survived a solo circumnavigation of St.Kilda…phew

Paddling silently along the hundreds of miles of remote Scottish shoreline really opened my eyes to the opportunities for observing and photography some really exceptional wildlife that you really wouldn’t see from a craft with an engine. Such as otters and Pine Martens.

Pine Marten

On the Trail of a Whale

Having had a few tantalising glimpses of Minke Whales (from my chum Cush’s yacht) in Scotland, five or six years ago I set myself the target of seeing a whale from my kayak.

This means paddling far offshore so I bought a series of more narrow and fast (and slightly more unstable) sea kayaks, but still in the sit-on-top format.Such as these two boats. Both bought off ebay, and both quite cheap.

Ready to rock and roll

I have had the thrill of seeing a dozen whales a round the coast of Devon and Cornwall. Mostly Minkes, and a couple of Humpbacks. Seeing a whale from a kayak is tremendously challenging, not least in planning the weather and sea conditions.

Minke Whale

But even if you don’t see a whale, which is highly probable, there are other magical offshore creatures to grab your attention. Such as these dolphins:

Getting About a Bit

Although the focus of the majority of my kayaking efforts is the coast of SW England, I have dibbled with various other parts of the globe…..


Ardeche Gorge


Costa del Sol Bottlenose (on the left)


Greenland Kayak Camping


Californian Sea Otter


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Baja Peninsular, Mexico



and just a couple of months ago…ANTARCTICA

humpback pair slomo_Moment
Antarctic Humpback


The Present Day

So that’s my kayaking history up to date, and it is now undergoing an unexpected (and very frustrating, given the beautiful weather) pause with the Covid 19 lockdown.

We are frequently being told to re-engage with nature. It’s good for the soul, and mindfulness. Re-engaging is impossible for me, because I have never disengaged. And I am forever droning on about putting down that screen, taking off those ‘phones, lifting your head and looking up, looking out, and listening, to what is going on in the natural world around.

I would consider that the view of nature from the seat of a kayak is the most thrilling of all:

It also delivers a five star spirit of adventure:Derrick, Scilly

It is an excellent way to burn off a calorie or two:

selection of snacks

and everybody loves every minute of it:


especially when it is sunny and warm


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