A single day with light winds was forecast . It was a gap between ex-hurricane Ophelia and approaching Storm Brian (I’m sure weather never used to be like this!). I was tempted offshore in an effort to see cetaceans. Although I have had a couple of really excellent prolonged encounters with inquisitive and friendly dolphins this year, it doesn’t look as though I will match last year’s tally of seven cetacean species (two whale, four dolphin and porpoise).
It must be one of the windiest years on record and the opportunities for offshore kayaking have been very limited. I’m sure I have said before that I prefer the sea to have no whitecaps which means I have worry-free paddling and makes spotting fins easier. Any sort of chop means you are much less likely to see a fin, and unlikely to be able to hold a camera steady enough to take a photo. Even if the sea is smooth any sort of groundswell can hide the horizon for a significant proportion of time because your eyeballs are only three foot above the surface.
Veryan bay in South Cornwall seemed to fit the bill. A lovely launch at sandy Carne Beach (with the bonus of FREE parking…gasp), direct access to the open sea, and not too strong a tidal current.
It was lucky I was wearing my drysuit top when paddling out from the beach because the only sizeable wave of the entire morning broke across my chest as I got the timing through the surf completely wrong, as usual. That was the last wave I saw the entire day and in fact the sea surface was unusually smooth…..absolutely perfect for gliding along in complete silence and getting completely absorbed (lost) in the marine wilderness.
It was so still I could hear the slight rustle of Gannet’s wings as they came over to inspect me as usual, and the noise of boat engines carrying so far I could only just see the source.
I skirted Nare Head and Gull Rock and headed out into the open sea. It’s rare to be able to use binoculars from a kayak on the sea but today was different because it was so flat. I watched my first Great-Northern Diver (Common Loon) of the season fly past in front of me, and noticed a large circling gang of gulls busy feeding about about a mile ahead.
Mmmm. I would be surprised if they were not accompanied by some other sea creatures, so upped the pace and closed in on the action. I hadn’t gone far when I saw some fins converging on the same spot. A school of Common Dolphins! They were travelling at exactly the same pace as me (4-5 mph) and I didn’t want to disturb them so kept well away. I thought they would move off but as I neared the feeding frenzy of gulls noticed a couple more dolphins feeding and jumping about. When they met up they all stopped for a bit of a feed and a bit of a splash, and then the whole lot came over to check me out.
There followed an absolutely incredible ten minutes. I could see the dolphins approaching just under the surface, and some swam along beside me just inches away. They popped up in front of me then sped off, did some jumping, and then all came back over to inspect me further, or maybe to check out what score I gave their performance.
There were a couple of youngsters in the group who didn’t want to miss out on all the excitement.
Eventually they lost interest in me and moved off. I couldn’t resist paddling further out and passed another eight or so dolphins. I eventually ended up at Dodman A buoy, about six miles south of Dodman Point, and decided that was far enough.
There were quite a few small parties of Guillemots and Razorbills dotted about, often in threes. I suspect these were mother, father and this year’s offspring.
The nine-mile paddle back to the beach was a bit of a haul as paddling back often is. However virtually every time I stopped for a break I could hear the ‘piff’ of a porpoise. The sea was so very flat and the air so still the sound was carrying probably a mile over the surface, so I only saw a few of them. This is maybe not surprising as they represent a very small eyeball target because they are the world’s smallest cetacean (four to five foot long) and their fin is less than six inches tall.
I like jellyfish and feel we have something in common. Not so much that they are exotic and mysterious, but because they have no brain.
Up till now I have come across six different species:
Common, or Moon jellyfish.
Lion’s Mane Jellyfish
Barrel Jellyfish. These are the first ones to appear in April and are up to the size of a dustbin!
Crystal Jellyfish. These are supposed to be very rare, or have been up till very recently, and are like something out of Avatar.
This autumn I have heard about some Cornish beaches being closed because Portugese Men of War jellyfish had been washed up, but I wasn’t expecting to see one while out paddling because typically only a handful turn up each year.
I was hopeful for an encounter when I did a circuit of Mount’s Bay starting at Marazion. It was a bit choppy but I still went straight across to Mousehole. I had a brief view of a couple of porpoises and was very lucky to see a handful of Common Dolphins which passed just in front of me and stayed alongside for a couple of minutes. There were a couple of silvery-coloured youngsters in the group. Photography was very difficult and this is the only half-decent shot I managed:
Spotting cetaceans in choppy conditions, let alone photographing them, is quite a challenge.
As I was watching the dolphins I drifted towards a floating translucent bladder with a mauve tinge….a Portugese Man of War jelly. I was actually a bit disappointed because it struggles to live up to it’s very dramatic name and I thought at first it was a discarded plastic bag. However I treated it with respect as I knew the dangling blue tentacles can pack a nasty sting, and recoiled in horror as it seemed to suddenly come towards me although it had probably just been caught by a gust of wind.
Over the next six hours I came across fifteen Men of War, up to about ten inches long and some without ‘tentacles’.
And my encounters with ‘Floating Terrors’ (another of it’s superb names) didn’t stop there. A couple of days later while kayaking between Looe and Polperro, Dave, Paul and myself passed another twenty or so of the much-feared siphonophore (technically the Portugese Man of War is not a jellyfish but a siphonophore consisting of three types of medusoid and four types of polypoid grouped into cormidia beneath the pneumatophore. Jelly would be so much easier).
To be honest some looked more like a shortcrust top-crimped Cornish pasty.
Portugese Man of War in Full Sail
The sea was quite lumpy again but it didn’t interfere with our jellyfish spotting and, as usual, a good time was had by all.
The ultra-sheltered narrow harbour of Polperro provided a bit of a break before the paddle back to Looe.
Incidentally, the unluckiest jellyfish I have ever seen is this one that was in the wrong place at the wrong time and was accidentally inhaled by a Basking Shark who usually prefer a diet of plankton. Maybe it was having the jelly for afters.
This strange, windblown visitor from the subtropics is probably the most dangerous sea creature I have yet encountered. I have had a few tussles with quite large fish with impressive teeth while doing a spot of fishing, but I think the Man of War just about takes the biscuit in terms of health hazard.
I had forgotten just how good the Purbeck coast of Dorset is for sea kayaking. It manages to squeeze in just about every type of scenery, from white-chalk cliffs to sludge-filled creeks, in a coastline ofnot much more than forty miles.
The clear placid water of Studland Bay was the venue for my first ever venture out onto the brine in a kayak many decades ago. One of those awful uncomfortable fibreglass craft that used to go round in circles no matter what you did with the paddles.
It was also here I landed my first ever kayak-caught fish, a mackerel, from the same meandering kayak, using a cotton reel and line with a single hook and silver-paper lure. Forty years ago probably.
This time I started off with a nice downwind paddle from Swanage to Shell Bay, with the superb white cliffs and stacks of Ballard Down and Old Harry as the major highlight. Chalk cliffs always look sensational when the sun is shining on them.
My entire body recoiled in a sort of primitive terror reflex as a Hercules roared over the clifftop above my head with absolutely no prior warning (although, I accept, I wouldn’t really have expected any), and then swung round over Studland Bay with its cargo door open. A heavy object attached to a parachute was thrown out (looked like a dishwasher on a pallet, but probably wasn’t) and was retrieved by a couple of very high speed splashy craft in a suitably professional manner.
There were a lot of Mediterranean Gulls feeding along the shore in Studland Bay, a species which was completely absent from this area (and the UK, I think), until recently.
I paddled over Studland Bay’s areas of eel grass which provide a home to a variety of seahorse, amazingly. I lifted my rudder so as not to mess it up because the tide was very low.
Possibly more remarkable still was the nudist sitting all alone on the sand on what wasn’t really a sort of day for sitting around on a beach, with or without any clothes.
I just managed to dodge in front of the Sandbanks ferry before it landed. Paddling around it would have meant battling into the stiff tidal flow coming out of Poole Harbour, which is avoidable by sneaking along the shore only a few feet out.
On Day two I circuited Brownsea island which sits in the middle of Poole Harbour. Usually a nice sheltered paddle but on this occasion there was a stiff NW wind and the very big Spring tides made for some fairly dramatic (drastic) ferry glides across the channels. There is plenty to look at but mainly relating to humans e.g. hundreds of moored yachts and the most expensive real estate in the world on Sandbanks peninsula. It might actually be the second most expensive after somewhere like Malibu, I can’t remember exactly.
The armed forces were using a Chinook to entertain the hoardes of dog-walkers along Studland beach this time. It was carrying around a speedboat which seemed more appropriate to the needs of frontline troops than the Hercules’ Hotpoint.
Day 3 was the best. Clear blue sky and fantastic visibility. Perfect for the classic paddle from Lulworth Cove to Durdle Door, one of the most photographed coastal features in the UK. You can’t really claim to be a sea kayaker until you have paddled through the Door.
I had a bit of a chat with the guide from Jurassic Tours who was leading a posse of sit-on-toppers through the arch of the ‘Door’.
I couldn’t resist paddling all the way along the Bay and then punching right through the buttress at the other end using the conveniently positioned doorway of Bat Hole. I then paddled back to Durdle Door along the line of four rocky islets with the excellent names of The Calf, The Cow, The Blind Cow and The Bull. I spent quite a long time trying to work out exactly what feature made the second cow blind, but eventually gave up none the wiser.
Becky and my sister Juliet had walked along the cast path from Lulworth taking a few photos, wisely turning back before the alarmingly named valley of Scratchy Bottom. I joined them on the cliff for a quick pic.
The water in Man O’ War cove was satisfactorily turquoise and would not have been out of place on a June day in the Maldives, let alone early October in England.
I paddled back to Lulworth Cove and had to dodge surprisingly large numbers of milling burger-eaters/ ice-cream slurpers while trolleying my kayak back up to the carpark.
I’m not sure why I like the Thames so much, when my favourite sort of paddling is the open sea. It’s probably because I spent quite a lot of time messing about on the river at Sonning in craft ranging from canvas canoes to tippy marathon racers, in days when I had hair and used to go trainspotting.
Paddling the Thames is about as relaxed as you are going to get in a kayak. The water is flat and the flow is barely perceptible.The only slightly turbulent water is when you are sitting in the locks. Everyone is very friendly because life on the water is a great leveller. And there’s loads of Kingfishers.
I was dropped off at Donnington Bridge in Oxford and had soon inflated Puffing Pig II, my Gumotex Seawave kayak, which was to be my transport for the sixty-five miles down to Cookham. The Seawave is a pretty large craft but I wanted to take all my provisions with me as I have found before that there are not as many convenience shops along the river as you might think. This is actually seems to be true for most of the places I go kayaking.
So I was laden with food, and although I love camping I’m not that hard-core so take along a good thick self-inflating mattress, which also takes up a lot of space. Plus a load of spare clothes in case of disaster. And a fat book….Lord of the Rings (again) in fact, so you can see why I needed a big boat.
Up until Iffley Lock the river was chaos with a rowing race, but below the lock it was pretty much deserted. Just a handful of hire boats (with everyone on board, without exception, clutching a bottle), and a few big River Cruisers which announced their approach with the thump of a bassline from an eighties disco classic long before they came into view. Party goers lurched about on their deck (also clutching bottles). They were pretty pleased when I twirled my paddled in time with ‘Tragedy’ but I nearly dislocated my wrist when the blade snagged the water. Fortunately it happened at exactly at the same moment as Barry Gibb was doing his warbly bit when the whole song grinds to a halt before before the final triumphant (tragic) chorus, and I just about managed to make it look like it was all part of the routine.
Mid September is about as late as I enjoy wild camping in the UK as it is starting to get cold and it is pretty dark by seven. It is also frequently wet and my first day was no exception. I found a decent place to camp before Culham cut but as I was setting up my tent, while simultaneously trying to shoo away a herd of Aberdeen Angus bullocks which were slavering over my bag of pegs, the heavens opened. I dived into the tent and was pretty soon in my sleeping bag as there was really nothing else to do. Except have supper. I unwrapped my (limited edition) Ginsters Beef and Tribute Ale pasty but was horrified to find it was still frozen even though I had taken it out of the freezer at home twelve hours previously.
Was I going to extract myself from my cosy bag and venture out across the stair-rod rain to get a packet of biscuits instead? No way. So I ate the frozen pasty. I just imagined I was eating some type of novelty pastry and meat ice cream and sort of enjoyed it. Actually I didn’t, it was disgusting. Luckily I found a Double Decker tucked away in my lifejacket to have for afters.
I had the Jetboil on for a cup of tea the next morning at the first whiff of light at six, and was on the water long before anyone else, having to operate the first couple of locks myself before the lockkeepers came on duty. The rest of Day 2 was uneventful and very pleasant and peaceful, if a bit cool and cloudy. I had a good view of a Muntjac deer which was grazing beneath the bushes close to the bank. Nice to see because we don’t get them as far down as West Devon.
I camped at my ‘favourite’ spot beside a little sandy beach just beyond Goring lock. At midnight I was awoken by a lot of splashing and chattering noises with quite a few high pitched squeaks. Otters! I shone my pathetic torch out across the river but the snivelling beam never illuminated them, although the noises continued for an hour. I think there were at least two cubs because the squeaks came from two places fifty yards apart. A perfect location for otters with several islands covered in a tangle of bushes and trees. In the morning I found ottery footprints on the beach yards from my tent. Although it was a pity I didn’t see them it is absolutely excellent to know otters are thriving on the Thames.
On Day 3 I paddled through Reading and through a familiar Sonning, although everything looked a lot smaller than when I was ten. I took a prolonged diversion off the main river down the St Patrick’s Stream, which bypasses Shiplake lock, and then the Hennerton Backwater.
Henley was fairly busy with rowing sculls as usual, and drunken fools in zigzagging hire boats, but my attention was suddenly captured by a tussle between a Great-crested Grebe and a whopping fish. The fish was so large that initially it wasn’t entirely clear who was trying to eat who.
The drama which then unfolded over the next ten minutes is the sort of extraordinary wildlife encounter that makes me pick up my paddle time and time (and time and time) again. It was absolutely gripping stuff, and all the more remarkable that it was played out within a stone’s throw from Henley bridge, with nobody else in any of the boats or the buzzing Angel’s Arms having the vaguest notion of what was going on. They were far too busy looking at screens and discussing Bake Off.
The Grebe held a twelve inch Pike in its beak. I would have thought it would have been a bit risky to mess with a Pike half that size, but to tangle with a top predator of that proportion is surely asking for trouble.
The bird kept changing its grasp on the fish and then tried to line it up to get the pike’s head in its mouth. This was initially unsuccessful and I assumed there was no way that the fish would fit down that neck. Wrong. Many minutes later all that was sticking out of the grebe’s beak was the tip of a tail fin, and soon that too disappeared. Absolutely amazing.
Even the local Cormorants were impressed.
I camped at the end of the regatta course and didn’t put up my tent till it started to get dark to avoid detection. Alas, as I was in my sleeping bag, reading about Bilbo’s eleventy- first birthday party, an official-looking launch pulled up and told me I couldn’t camp there. When I groaned in dismay he conceded to let me camp but pay the £10 mooring fee. I’m not sure that this was a good deal but it would have been a drag to move.
Next morning was stunning. No wind and a mist hanging over the water. The rowers were out early and I was scorned by a sculler in a GB team t-shirt who muttered that I was paddling on the wrong side of the river. As I switched sides I was nearly bisected by a coxless four who suddenly appeared out of the mist.
I had a relaxed run through Marlow and was approaching my destination at Cookham when I saw a small lithe black beast scampering along a pontoon. A mink, in the middle of Bourne End! It had a fish in its mouth and scurried into a bush. I stopped and waited and it soon reappeared and stared me out, with those beady black eyes. I have been scrutinised by quite a few mink before and they have such evil intent that it makes you feel a bit uneasy and want to cover up your jugulars.
In wildlife terms they are public enemy number one and it is mink that have exterminated the endearing little Water Vole that used to be so common along the Thames when I was growing up. The characteristic ‘plop’ of a vole jumping into the water was a familiar sound. On this trip I didn’t see a single vole.
I watched the mink for fifteen minutes as it scurried about, eventually emerging out of the bushes with the tattered fish in its mouth. I got the impression it (the Mink) was a youngster as it acted in a sort of teenagery manner.
I hadn’t been expecting that much wildlife action in the tail end of the year, so the grebe and the Mink were an unexpected surprise.
After four days on the water, the sight of a Red Kite floaing over the river hardly made me look up. There were absolutely loads of them and the rather weedy mewing call from this years offspring could be heard more or less continuously during my trip down the river.. I still can’t believe they can all find enough to eat. A major success story as a few decades ago there were none in this area.
Thames trip over.
p.s. A couple of my Grebe-eating-the-pike pics were printed in The Sunday People newspaper, with a suitably over-the-top headline:
Boscastle again. This time with Paul, Kevin and Dave.
Another sensational day. Each time I come the seals seem to get bigger, the cliffs taller, the islands craggier and the caves deeper, and my sandwiches staler.
Outside the harbour mouth we turned north for the three mile paddle up to the seal colony at Beeny. As I was the most responsible grown-up of the group, I called up the Boscastle Coastwatch on the radio to let them know our plans. It is just remotely possible that the reason I called up the Coastwatch was because I was the only one with a two-way radio, and absolutely nothing at all to do with me being the most responsible (or grown-up).
This is a really lively bit of coast and although careful planning of wind, tide and swell is the most important safety factor, it’s very reassuring to know that the Coastwatch volunteers, sitting in their little white tower on the headland, are there if you need them. If you end up swimming you are going to have to be rescued by boat (or chopper) because there really aren’t any accessible beaches….its just cliffs, and caves, and a load of water.
Today it was like a lake and nice and warm, and sort of sunny so it was about as relaxing and enjoyable as Boscastle could possibly be.
As we were embraced by the huge black cliffs of Beeny bay, the seals popped up around us. All shapes and sizes and colours, from very tame and inquisitive creamy-coloured youngsters, to a couple of enormous bull seals with big ‘Roman’ noses.
We made sure none were resting on the beaches before approaching closer. The reason they use these haul-outs is because there is no disturbance from humans (or dogs) and we didn’t want to mess it all up and frighten them. When they are in the water they are totally in command so apparently show very little fear.
This particularly applies to the biggest bull seal of the lot whose is presumably ‘king-pin ‘ of the whole colony. He is really vast and can only have achieved this size, or so we mused, by having three marine MacDonalds (plus mackerel Mcflurry) every day since we last saw him four months ago. And possibly before.
After he was rudely awaken from his mid-morning nap by Paul, he shadowed us as we toured around his domain. Actually he mostly shadowed Paul, probably because he was a bit miffed about being woken up.
There were plenty of his entourage to keep us entertained as we decided to head back south. Kevin prepared his rod and feathers to do a spot of fishing as we paddled a bit further offshore to take a ride on the ebbing tide.
We swept (were swept) back past Boscastle, around the really excellent and unbelievably craggy and eroded Short and Long islands (neither of which is particularly long, or short) and aimed for a leg-stretch at Bossiney.
We loafed about on a sandy beach which we had all to ourselves apart from the occasional swimmer who ventured round from Bossiney main beach as the tide went out. Inexplicably, as soon as they saw us, they swam back round the corner again and disappeared.
The return to Boscastle harbour wasn’t quite so easy as a bit of a northerly breeze had picked up which made it a bit lumpy in places especially where there was a tidal current such as inside the islands.
We couldn’t go as far into the big cave at Willapark as we would have liked because it was low tide, but it always makes a good pic:
The Boscastle seals will not be meeting any more kayakers for many weeks, probably a lot longer, as sea conditions have reverted to normal: wind and big waves. Maybe it won’t be calm enough until next year.
So they can remain undisturbed. Even though we did our best not to disturb them. The big bull can complete his morning nap, and the mackerel don’t have to worry about Kevin’s attempt to catch them on the end of a hook (spectacularly unsuccessful anyway). They will be much more concerned about becoming Mackerel Mcflurries.
Fired up by my encounter with the ultra rare Wilson’s Petrel, I was dead keen to get offshore again to taste more wildlife action. A week later conditions for the Eddystone were just about OK for another jaunt out to the lighthouse. I make sure that the mean windspeed, and more importantly, the gusts, are forecast to blow at no more than 10mph for the whole eight or nine hours of the trip. Any more than this makes it a bit less relaxing, and the chances of seeing a cetacean’s fin decreases dramatically. Windspeed doesn’t matter so much for seabirds, but taking a photo becomes very much more difficult as the kayak moves around a lot more.
Despite careful planning I was caught out by the strong current at the mouth of Plymouth sound which was throwing up quite a chop. It was caused by the very big Spring tide which was flowing out into a light SW wind. I nearly turned back but every often I could see the patch of calmer water some distance ahead, so battled on across the flow until I reached the quieter area.
Quite a few more Balearic Shearwaters and a scattering of Storm Petrels further out. A single fin flashed past in front of me with a bit of a puff…it looked like a lone Common Dolphin-far too fast for a porpoise.
As I neared the lighthouse a flurry of splashing in the calm water to my left made me power towards it to investigate. I found myself in amongst a pod of about ten Common Dolphins, and they seemed as though they wanted to play as they all came over to surround me and splash about. As they swum underneath the kayak they turned on their side and looked up. I piled on the speed and they sped alongside-one of the very few times I have had dolphins bowriding my kayak.
They surged around me very close and splashed me several times. I snapped away with the camera but always seemed to just miss the best action.
I continued on my route to the lighthouse and for five minutes they continued along in a chaotic splashing escort. Absolutely excellent.
Finally they peeled off and very rapidly disappeared.
At one stage as I was stationary taking in the excitement of the dolphins, a Sooty Shearwater flew past close, followed by a Balearic Shearwater and a Storm petrel ,all within a minute of each other.
To round off the exceptional wildlife sightings of the day I ran into a juvenile Puffin on the way back, not quite as striking as in their adult breeding plumage!
And had to dodge a tanker coming out of Plymouth.
As usual I pushed my luck too far and paddled once more to the Eddystone a few days later and encountered only a pair of porpoises. However they came very close to the kayak and puffed in a very loud manner when they took breath. I’m not surprised one of their local names is ‘Puffing Pig’.
On this particular trip I was very pleased I was able to rescue a sub-adult Gannet that had a long length of rope wrapped around its lower jaw. I was unable to yank it free from distance so ended up grabbing the gannet by the back of the neck and teasing the strands of rope from its beak, while it tried to nip my hand. Quite a risky procedure to carry out nine miles from the nearest land, but it turned out successfully, although the Gannet was a bit fatigued, and dishevelled.
My next, very brief, dolphin encounter was on a very rare calm day on the North Cornish coast a couple of miles off Bude. A fleeting view of two Common Dolphins.
Then it was down to the far west of Cornwall in an effort to see one of the whales which have been reported down there.
A twelve mile paddle from Pothgwarra back to Marazion, and again I was disappointed with the sparsity of wildlife. Just one Sooty Shearwater and one Balearic although there was a constant stream of Manx Shearwaters zipping past my kayak that stopped me from getting bored.
By shear luck, as I was only a mile or so from my destination, I caught a fraction of a second glimpse of a dolphin leaping clear of the water, about a quarter of a mile away. I surged towards it and thought I had missed them but then saw a group of fins moving very quietly at the surface. They disappeared then exploded into action with a good display. There was a very young calf jumping perfectly alongside his Mum.
As I was waiting for a dolphin to surface with camera poised, it popped up only a couple of feet away, too big to fully fit in the picture!
Trying to find dolphins from a kayak is very difficult. You really can’t use binoculars so you are left with searching with your bare eyeballs.
Using a telescope or binoculars from a headland foreshortens the distance so you can see everything in an instant that would take up to two hours to paddle across in a kayak!
When I came back from the Eddystone the other day, having failed to see any dolphins during nine hours of paddling, I cast my binoculars out over a glassy flat Whitsand Bay during my drive home, and immediately spotted a pod of twenty dolphins a couple of miles offshore. Almost too easy.
But strangely for me having the odds impossibly stacked up is part of the appeal, and the results are certainly worth the wait.
So far it’s been a fantastic summer for sightings of unusual cetaceans and pelagic seabirds off the coast of southwest England. Quite a lot of whales around and a possibly unprecedented number of the large Shearwater species (Sooty, Great and Cory’s) that are usually further out to sea. And also some much rarer birds such as Wilson’s petrels which have been seen around the coast of Cornwall but still NEVER recorded in Devon. The last one I saw was following in the wake of the RMS St. Helena in the south Atlantic 27 years ago. Surely no chance of ever seeing one from my kayak in the UK.
The birds have been nearer to the coast in part due to the relentlessly windy conditions. So not great if, like me, you like to watch your wildlife from a kayak. There has not been a single day in the last month that has been windless enough for me to do a significant offshore paddle. It’s been the windiest summer for as long as I can remember.
I have sneaked the odd few hours here and there during the early morning lull when winds have often fallen light, to sprint offshore. At Fowey I saw my first Sunfish of the year a mile offshore , and a few minutes later heard the loud, sustained blow of a whale between me and the shore. I heard it twice more at intervals of several minutes, but failed to catch a glimpse of it.
So when the 13 August was forecast to be flat with light winds all day I was very excited. Especially as it is reaching the time of year when the sea is most alive with cetaceans.
I set my alarm for 4am and was on the water before six, paddling out through Plymouth Sound as the sun arose over a bank of fog. Beyond the confines of the sound the sea was flat smooth, the sky was cloudless and the Eddystone Lighthouse, my destination, was clearly visible as a little stick on the horizon exactly ten miles away. Perfect, and my expectations were high.
After a bit of a quiet start , Manx Shearwaters started to increase in number, some flicking past my kayak a few feet away. Some seem to come extra close to investigate as anything that disrupts the featureless surface of the sea could mean a source of food for them (especially if I was a whale or something similar). This never ceases to give me a thrill; these fantastic birds dashing past at eye level. Although maybe not happy to be mistaken for a whale.
I approached a group resting on the surface as sneakily as possible with a single Balearic Shearwater sitting amongst them. Not the most beautifully marked seabird but a ‘goody’ amongst the birding fraternity. I got a decent pic with it beside a Manx to provide a good plumage comparison.
The excitement went up a notch when, four miles from the mouth of Plymouth Sound, a Sooty Shearwater sprinted past. Bigger and faster than the Manx, and all brown. Bad view into the sun, but my first ever ‘big’ shearwater from my kayak in the UK! Fab. I was in the zone.
Gannets passing overhead giving you a bit of a sideways look are great, shearwaters are better, but nothing beats a glimpse of a tiny Storm Petrel twisting its way over the surface like a bat. These are birds of the open sea and to see them from a kayak represents the culmination of an awful lot of planning and effort. They are so small that most sightings are a fleeting glimpse, but some get close enough for a decent view of their white rump. Binoculars are nearly always a waste of time from a kayak on the sea due to the constant movement of the surface. So all your birdwatching is eyeballs only.
Storm petrels are extremely difficult to photograph unless they are feeding group, which I have only ever seen once. But I did just get one zipping past in front of the Lighthouse.
There was the usual cluster of private fishing boats scattered about near the Eddystone reef, and one fisherman took a snap of me with his i-phone. Thanks, Ben.
After a cup of coffee and a large slab of horribly synthetic Victoria sponge, I took a big loop around the Lighthouse to the east to utilise the last of the incoming tidal current. I could also sense it was a fertile patch of sea as the surface was swirly.
Quite a few more Storm Petrels and two more singleton Sooty Shearwaters speeding past.
Then, about an hour after I left the lighthouse, two or three miles north-east of Eddystone, a small petrel approached, far enough away to allow me to scramble my camera out of its drybag. I was just in time to fire off a couple of shots, but really wasn’t sure whether the subject was in the screen. There was nothing to suggest it was anything unusual apart from the fact that it seemed to be flying higher above the surface than the other petrels, despite completely windless conditions.
The paddle back to the sound was assisted by a southerly wind which slowly increased, and excitement was provided by a handful of porpoises, which as usual I heard ‘piffing’ long before I saw them.
I had given up on seeing any dolphins when I got in amongst the many yachts that were coastal cruising a mile from the shore, but suddenly a group of fins appeared in front of me. I followed for a couple of minutes and then in a flash they disappeared. About eight altogether, and surprisingly difficult to see in the slight chop.
I arrived back at Cawsand after nine hours on the water and twenty-five miles paddled. Not too exhausted because I had deliberately paddled slowly because…what’s the hurry?
Back at home I reviewed my photos and as usual most of the Petrel efforts were of an empty sea, with maybe a tiny blurred black dot in the corner, but often with nothing. The ‘high flying’ petrel pics however were better than I had expected when I zoomed in. I immediately noticed that its feet projected significantly past the end of its tail, a feature even more obvious in the second pic. Ferreting about in a flurry of bird books seemed to suggest this is a key feature of a Wilson’s Petrel. Wow. Mega excitement.
I submitted my photos to the Devon Birds website and it was quickly confirmed by the editors that this was indeed a Wilson’s Petrel, and the first authentic record EVER in Devon. However as Devon records are only valid to five miles offshore, this sighting was technically too far out (about eight miles) to be officially recognised.
Never mind. Two new ‘kayak seen’ species today. Sooty Shearwater and the super-rare Wilson’s Petrel. I never expected to see one in the UK, let alone from my kayak.