Although I absolutely love to see the high octane, glamorous stuff such as dolphins and seals, the stealth and silence of a kayak and the ability to slink about where other craft fear to creep, can provide some memorable sightings of the less showy wildlife. Creatures that the vast majority of people overlook.
Snipe are the perfect example of this. They are not common down by the sea, but frosty weather means that they cannot probe the frozen ground around freshwater margins with their long beaks so they are forced to find softer conditions for feeding along the saltwater estuaries.
Also their modus operandi when approached by a threat (e.g. a human in a kayak) is to hunker down and rely on their camouflage to avoid detection. They are so convinced this will work they will only take to the wing when you are a few feet away. This is the usual snipe encounter….a bird which you never saw on the ground zigzagging off into the sky.
This particular day started grey and cold and I wondered why I bothered turfing out.
I had seen a kingfisher zip past and enjoyed a view of a few Greenshank and Curlew and the odd Little Grebe close to the shore.
In a patch of seaweed on the bank the slightest movement caught my eye, and I drifted a bit closer without moving a muscle.
It’s easy to see why they are confident about their cryptic colouration, it’s almost impossible to see.
As I watched it decided to have a bit of a smarten up…. I would imagine it can’t have been that easy with a preening tool that long.
I circled round for another couple of passes as this is the first Snipe I had seen from my kayak, on the ground, for several years.
When I got a bit too close it flattened itself down, but still didn’t take the option of using its wings.
How many Snipe have I passed without noticing them? Watching this video, you might think that number was quite large, because it is almost impossible to see.
Suddenly the weather perked up and a bit of wintry colour appeared. Such as the legs and beaks of these Redshank. Nice to hear the Robin singing in the background.
Everything looks a lot warmer in the late January sun, even if technically it isn’t.
The appearance of the sun even prompted the local Herons to renovate their nest which took a bit of a battering in the winter storms. The first bit of nest-building I have seen this year. Spring can’t be far off.
Anyone for a bit of trainspotting?
I certainly got close enough for a look at the number:
I have had the great good fortune to come across another couple of pods of Common Dolphins recently. The first was a very unobtrusive group of four juveniles in the middle of Torbay. I just happened to have a pair of binoculars in the car and gave the sea a quick scan when I arrived in the car park, and could just make out a few fins breaking the surface well over a mile away. The chances of me being able to locate these were very slim as it would take me twenty minutes to get out there, and there was a three foot swell running which makes seeing stuff on the surface difficult because half the time it is hidden by a wave.
However, one leaped clear of the water so I was in luck. I was actually looking UP at the dolphin as it rose out of the top of a swell. That’s one of the benefits of sitting at water level in a kayak….you can never get that kind of unique perspective from a (normal) boat.
They weren’t in a particularly sociable mood, but no less than I might have expected from a quartet of aloof adolescents. Even so, they half-heartedly swam along side in my pathetic pressure-wave for a few moments.
The wall-to-wall cloud was briefly interrupted by a burst of sunshine that instantly transformed the steel-grey scene to one of pleasant colour;
Yesterday I ventured out into Plymouth Sound to inspect the Breakwater. Another grey and drizzly day but I knew the wind was not due to pick up till midday, allowing me a few hours of safe offshore paddling.
It was a big tide and the breakwater was being used as a roost for many hundreds of Dunlin, that feed on the mud of the Tamar estuary when the water drops.
Half a dozen Purple Sandpipers were dodging the swells as they surged over the top of the breakwater.
I really like Purple Sandpipers. They are ridiculously tame and are difficult to spot because they are only ever found on exposed bits of rocky coast that have plenty of wave action.
As I was watching the birds I glanced round and did a huge double-take (which cricked my neck) when I saw, through the mist, a dozen fins cruising past a hundred yards away.
Astonishing, not just because I had never seen dolphins within the Sound before (although I only paddle here a few times a year), but because of the poor visibility. As I sat and watched they did a satisfactorily close ‘flypast’:
And as if trying to make the point that it really WAS worth my effort coming all this way to paddle at this location on such a dreary January day, the back marker surfaced just a few feet away.
As usual watching these dolphins was an absolute thrill, and it was good to see a couple of calves in amongst the group of twenty or so, which included some really big individuals.
I have been very lucky to see three pods of Common Dolphins in three separate locations in the last two weeks. So….. are there more dolphins around?
Are There More Dolphins Around?
I have been ploughing through all my old diaries in an effort to establish some detail about the numbers of dolphins I have seen. This is thunderously tedious and I have fallen asleep more than once. So I will be as succinct as possible with my findings.
I have been sea-kayaking for thirteen years. For the first seven or eight years I did a lot of fishing so had my head down and didn’t do the miles. Since then I have ditched the fishing and look out for, and hopefully photograph, wildlife.
In the first ten years I saw about a dozen pods of Common Dolphins. In 2016 I set my sights on seeing a whale so clocked up about 500 miles of offshore (more than a mile from the coast) paddling. I have done the same in 2017 and 2018.
This greatly increased my ‘hit’ rate for Common Dolphins because they favour deeper, offshore water. My records for the last three years are:
Common Dolphins: 2016 2017 2018
Number of days seen: 7 11 17
Total number of Dolphins: 81 148 432
So quite a dramatic increase in numbers, approx 100% up year on year.
My porpoise observations have increased as well:
Harbour Porpoise: 2016 2017 2018
Number of days seen: 16 33 44
Total number of Porpoises 88 177 327
Again, a roughly 100% increase year on year.
In 2016 I saw an incredible seven different species of cetacean from my kayak around Devon and Cornwall: Common, Bottlenose, Risso’s and Whitebeaked Dolphins, Harbour Porpoise, Minke and (probable) Sei Whale. In 2017 it was four and in 2018, despite the large numbers, only three species.
Why the increase in numbers?
So it would appear that it is only Common Dolphins and Porpoises that have increased dramatically, and the reason for this has got to be food. Both these species feed mainly on shoaling fish, and abundance of prey such as herring has increased following historic overfishing. Also in both Common Dolphins and Porpoises there doesn’t need to be an actual increase in numbers of individuals because there is plenty of them around in the local seas, they are just changing their distribution and following the food source, which luckily for dolphin watchers is close to the coast of SW England.
It’s like throwing more bird seed out onto the lawn….it brings in more birds from the local area.
This is not the case for whales which also feed on shoaling fish, because there aren’t a load of whales nearby ready to move in on the fish-fest, because they have a slow rate of reproduction and will take time to recover from their depletion of numbers. Having said that, I saw five Minke Whales this year (and have only ever see two before, in 2016), so hopefully this reflects an increase in that species. Minke Whales breed faster than any other whale so have the potential to ‘come back’ quicker than any other.
The very recent spike in reported sightings of dolphins (which, I think are all Common Dolphins) is almost certainly because there are more about, and more closer in to shore, since the New Year. It will also be influenced by the relatively quiet weather in January which means flatter seas and not only encourages more people to be out and about, but makes seeing fins easier. Not many dolphins are going to be seen during a storm. Everyone’s indoors watching Strictly on catchup.
The weather has certainly influenced my recent sightings. I am very wary about paddling far offshore during the winter and at the slightest hint of a wind disappear off up a sheltered creek.
Further influences are that when dolphins are reported more people are looking out for them (especially in relatively sheltered places such as Plymouth Sound ), more observers have got cameras, and there are more drone pilots around (which provide some very watchable dolphin images).
Is global warming involved? I personally say no.. I would think that levels of fishing influence the number of shoaling fish far more than any other factor.
Whatever the reasons, the apparent increase in numbers is good news all round, because everyone agrees that dolphins have a feelgood factor that is OFF THE SCALE.
I was looking forward to a nice relaxed paddle around the sheltered waters of Poole Harbour as I hadn’t ‘done’ the islands for many years.
Even better the wind was forecast very light, but by the time I got on the water my fingers had been nipped by the breeze straight out of the north, so the gloves went on.
The sun arose hopefully behind the Sandbanks ferry but then disappeared behind a sheet of cloud.
I crossed the channel to the south side of Brownsea island which was supper-sheltered from the wind.
I looked hard for a Red Squirrel (which I have seen once as I paddled past here, long ago), but the movement that caught my eye turned out to be a herd of five Sika Deer, who seemed so surprised to see me slipping past in the early morning mid-January half-light, they couldn’t resist coming a bit closer for a good snoop.
Lovely to see them so close. Like seals, it doesn’t seem to have taken them many years to lose their fear of people when they don’t appear in the sights of a rifle as often as they used to. (seals are now completely protected, deer are culled in a specific season).
I did a figure of eight loop around Fursey Island and Green Island, with the top of a big spring tide allowing to get in good and close. At low tide there is an awful lot of mud exposed. I could hardly believe the industrial hum coming from the middle of the pine trees on Fursey Island was an oil well. It was staggeringly well concealed.
Then I crossed over to paddle round the back of Round Island and Long Island via the Wych Channel. A drake Red-Breasted Merganser was fishing here.
I kept well out from the mouth of Arne bay beacause I knew it would be stuffed full of resting birds (because it is an RSPB reserve), but was surprised to see a splurge
of white was a roosting flock of about thirty Spoonbills. These birds were an extreme rarity until very recently.
As I crossed the mile and-a-half of open water back to Brownsea the surface glassed of completely.
A piping posse of Oystercatchers performed a close fly-past.
I looped right around the eastern end of Brownsea island but instead of crossing back to my start point couldn’t resist another paddle up the flat calm water of the island’s southern shore.
This time I had a close encounter with a pair of Brent Geese, winter visitors from the arctic Tundra. Their chattering contact call is the soundtrack of the winter around here.
So it was worth the extra effort, but was then it was DEFINITELY time for lunch (and my toes were starting to freeze).
The deer could carry on doing their thing without worrying about what on earth the idiot in the little yellow boat was up to. They had that look in their eye.
When I started all this watching-wildlife-from-a-kayak lark I never thought in a million years I would have an encounter like I did today. Certainly not in the UK, and in early January.
I very nearly DIDN’T have the encounter because I had difficulty dredging myself out of bed at 6am, with every unoccupied cavity and crevice in my head full of mucus following my man-cold.
However the wind forecast for Mount’s Bay, Penzance, was too much of a lure. Light wind all day and total glass off between 9 and midday. As an added bonus there was hardly any swell diffracting round the corner from Land’s End, and the predicted ‘light cloud’ didn’t materialise, so I set off from Penzance harbour under completely blue skies.
I headed directly out to sea, towards a tanker moored three miles out in the bay. Not a great start in terms of wildlife….I passed a couple of loons and the odd Guillemot on the water, and one or two kittiwake and Gannet roaming about aimlessly.
However I was full of expectation as the surface was so smooth, and atmosphere so still, that if anything surfaced within a mile of me I would either see or hear it. A lone porpoise swam past far off, but that was it for an hour or so.
Closer in to the shore near Mousehole I could see a flurry of gulls which I initially thought were following a little fishing boat. As I angled towards the coast did I see the distant fin in amongst the blur of wings? I cranked up the speed to investigate and a distant dolphin leapt clear of the water. Excellent.
The next two hours were simply extraordinary. I sat and watched a pod of 20-25 Common Dolphins cruising about and herding and attacking a baitball of herring. I hardly had to paddle a single stroke during the whole time, because the fish kept trying to take refuge underneath my kayak.
Initially two others boats were enjoying the spectacle….the small fishing boat I had seen earlier, and Mermaid II out of Penzance.
Every so often a dolphin would lunge at the fish and herring would spray from the surface, something I have only ever seen before on the telly (or maybe not even there, come to think of it).
If you like dolphins you will absolutely love all these video clips, if you don’t you might find them a bit long and boring (and need to get a life):
The two boats departed so it was just me and the dolphins (and several thousand fish), and an awful lot of flat calm sea. Tough.
I always bring my GoPro, just in case, but never imagined being able to use it for underwater shots during the winter. Not only is the sea usually too choppy ( to be able to use it from a kayak), but the water is usually too murky because there has usually been recent storms and/or rain.
However I could see the dolphins zipping about beneath me (video):
so tried my luck at some underwater shots.
It was great to see a mother and calf come past so close. The youngsters stick like glue to mum’s side most of the time, but occasional shoot off to worry the fish, or hurl themselves out of the water.
As usually capturing that magical shot of a dolphin clean out of the water managed to elude me, but I did manage to picture what was undoubtedly the highest flying herring in Cornwall.
And the sensational action, in perfect light, and perfect conditions, just went on and on:
It was very interesting that this little ‘feeding’ group were essentially harassing the same baitball for over two hours. I have written many times before that most dolphin frenzies I have previously seen have dispersed by the time I roll in up my kayak, say twenty minutes to half an hour after I have sighted it. But this one was still going strong after at least two hours.
I think these dolphins were ‘playing’ with these fish as I’m sure they could have demolished the baitball in a few minutes if they were really hungry. Or more likely they were using the baitball to teach the youngsters of the group how to hunt. There were three or four calves in the pod and they were often the ones who would slash through the fish as they burst from the surface.
It was time to leave. As had been precisely forecast, a NW wind was just about to pick up, because I could see a dark line approaching across Mount’s Bay from Penzance. Only a gentle breeze but enough to make it feel a lot colder, especially with the building cloud. I kept warm with a steady pace for the five miles back to the harbour, enjoying the little posse of Purple Sandpipers that are seasonal visitors to Penzance during the winter.
Fantastic, and I am a real champion of the little creatures, but today was all about the dolphins.
You might think it’s no big deal to photograph the same Harbour Porpoise in more or less the same place three times in a month. Unlike dolphins which are highly mobile and could be dozens of miles away the next day, porpoises seem to be regular at certain sites around southwest England, particular headlands, and nowhere I have paddled holds a more reliable pod of porpoises than Berry Head.
It is certainly the best spot to see a porpoise from a kayak because of its proximity to an excellent launch spot at Brixham and its relatively sheltered location which results in a smooth sea surface (essential for porpoise-spotting) more often than headlands further west. Further west generally means a more disturbed sea state with more wind, swell, and tidal flow.
Berry Head also has a very well-defined tideline along which the porpoises, if they are around, love to forage.
So why am I so excited about Notchy?
For a start Notchy is the first identifiable (because of the notch at the base of his/her dorsal fin) cetacean I have seen on more than one occasion. Apart from Horace the Humpback whale that is (which was rather more easy to spot).
Secondly it is a window into the population dynamics of Harbour Porpoises. Is the same group here all the time? Or is there a hard core with a mobile population that comes and goes? Is there a seasonal pattern or is availability of fish more of an influence?
The possible answers to all of these questions are tremendously blurred by the difficulty of observing porpoises in anything apart from calm conditions. As soon as there are any breaking whitecaps the chances of seeing a fin reduce considerably. This is certainly the case from kayak and I would only consider venturing offshore in absolutely calm conditions. It is maybe not quite so critical if watching from a telescope from Berry Head.
The overall impression I get from observing porpoises from my kayak all round SW England is that there is a peak of numbers in August which falls away till early in the year, then very few about in April to June before numbers rapidly build. This is skewed by the sea conditions which are smoother in summer which encourage me to go out to where the porpoises hang out more, but it is interesting that I usually see numbers into double figures (max 24 this year) in August and September, but only ones and twos in May.
I think that availability of their favourite food has a lot to do with this apparent seasonality, with the appearance of mackerel accounting for the late summer surge, with herring and pilchard appearing in early winter, and a noticeable gap in these tasty fish in the Spring.
Socialisation might have something to do with it, with the main ‘rutting’ season for porpoises known to be in late summer, maybe contributing to increased group size (like a sort of porpoise Magaluf).
My son Henry had to good fortune to snap this pic of an ultra-rare white porpoise off the North coast of Cornwall, and to the best of my knowledge it hasn’t been seen since, but it would be quite easy for a five foot long porpoise to get lost in the swells of the north coast as there aren’t many observers or boats about up there (and I’m not very well ‘connected’). But this would suggest that porpoises do travel.
Coming back to the Berry Head porpoise pod, I would guess that there is a nucleus which is added to, and thins out, according to seasonality of their baitfish.
If you like hunting along a tideline you will not find one more pronounced than Berry Head. It must be like being permanently camped in the carpark of MacDonalds, if you are partial to a Big Mac.
So back to ‘Notchy’. here he/she is on three dates in December. Characteristic notch at the back of the fin clearly visible in each pic.
Photographing porpoises is incredibly difficult, and doubly so from a kayak. After you see them surface for the first time you must predict where they will next appear. This is easy for a dolphin because they usually progress in a straight line, but porpoises will zigzag about all over the place underwater and could pop up anywhere. Add in the small size of the fin and the movement of the kayak, and that the porpoise could surface directly behind you or disappear completely, and it can get a tad frustrating.
I don’t have any idea of whether I have got any photos in focus, let alone any distinguishing features, until I get back to the stability of the shore.
So to picture the same one three times is a bit of a surprise.
Porpoises hardly ever breach but during my last visit there was one which was extremely pumped up and leapt clear of the water on a couple of occasions. Unfortunately I was a split second too late with the shutter.
I also observed one resting at the surface, a behaviour I have only rarely seen before, and only when the sea is completely smooth (although I suppose I wouldn’t see it if was choppy anyway). Video:
Far out to sea I caught a split second glimpse of a jumping beast so paddled out to investigate, and was pleased to see a couple of Common Dolphins cruising along at a speed which I could only match by paddling flat out.
With a bit of luck 2019 will be equally as enthralling, and maybe Notchy will still be around.
Having not seen a single otter along the River Torridge last year, I was quite keen to try my luck now the water level had dropped after a week of dry weather. There was plenty of evidence of the recent heavy rain, however, with all the driftwood dammed up against the bridges.
Otters are incredibly difficult to observe because they are extremely elusive and shy, not to mention being mainly nocturnal. So I made an extra effort to get out onto the water at first light. By the time I paddled off my fingers, despite wearing gloves, were already numb. Maybe not a surprise as it was minus 3 degrees. What an idiot. I certainly didn’t anticipate encountering any other kayakers.
I wasn’t at all prepared to see the first otter which was just around a corner only five minutes into my trip. I was fiddling about with my camera and the otter sensed my presence and vanished. I have learned from experience that if you get too close they just disappear and you will not see them again, no matter how long you wait.
The Torridge is fun to paddle, whether you see any otters or not.
Today’s eighteen mile, five hour paddle was as absorbing as ever and I soon found myself in the ‘zone’, paddling along in absolute silence and looking out for the slightest movement on the water or along the bank. The only noise I made was the occasional slurp of a warming draught of coffee. And crunch of an Orange Club.
Seventeen kingfishers, twenty-seven Dippers, five Goosanders, a Woodcock and a possible glimpse of a Mink, and of course I was hoping for another otter.
I looked at all the little patches of sand along the banks as I drifted past, and to my surprise nearly all of them had footprints and little scuffs that I’m pretty sure were otter prints. The owner of the footprints often seemed to have come from out of the water, and some of the tracks in soft sand were clearly webbed, so some were otters for sure. There was hardly a patch of sand without any tracks, so it looks like there’s plenty of them about.
After a couple of hours, along a straight bit of river, there was a big otter swimming in the middle of the river directly towards me. I paddled as fast and as silently as I could to the bank and hung onto a branch with one hand while I prepared my camera with the other. Excellent, it hadn’t seen (or smelled) me.
It worked its way up the river catching a small crunchy snack at every dive. At the end of this next clip I think it can sense my presence so it submerges with hardlyt a splash, and is gone.
I waited for it to reappear but soon gave up because I was getting cold, and I more or less knew it wouldn’t show again anyway.
To my astonishment, half-a-mile downstream was another otter also fishing in the middle of the river. This one put on a good demonstration of the technique of porpoising.
I knew it couldn’t resist climbing out on one of the mini islands to ‘mark’ it, as it drifted downstream away from me, so was ready with camera raised when it did so.
This otter was spooked by the whine of a slurry tanker in a field half a mile away, instantly disappearing as soon as the pump started.
Absolutely fantastic, two of my best otter sightings away from the coast of Scotland, and within a couple of minutes of each other.
It’s not very often the first day of the year is so conducive to a paddle along the open coast. I didn’t start off in a particularly relaxed fashion however, because the mile or so from Brixham to Berry Head was a bit lumpy in the NW wind, and the cloud cover made the sea look grey and unfriendly.
However around the headland we were sheltered from the wind and the surface smoothed off nicely. I was hopeful for a view of the porpoises so we drifted out with the current along the tideline along which the porpoises hunt. We were pretty pleased when a trio of porpoises puffed and surfaced for a few minutes right in amongst our motley group of four kayaks, especially as this was a kayaking ‘first’ for Suzanne.
As we drifted south on the tide the sun came out and instantly transformed the monochrome grey sea into a vibrant blue. With the warmth of the sun the temperature would have done justice to a day in March, not the first day of January.
We angled in towards a ‘kayak only’ beach for an early lunch, passing little groups of fishing Guillemots and Razorbills.
We tucked in to the coast for a very warm paddle back toward Berry Head.
I was surprised to see some Guillemots already lined up along their nesting ledges and already in their smart breeding plumage, apparently enjoying the spring-like conditions as much as we were.
Strangely, as we rounded Berry Head and knuckled down to flog into the wind and chop, the cloud came over again and the summery colours reverted to wintery gloom.
However our spirits were not to be quashed by the whims of the weather, and we finished off the first trip of 2019 with the sight of a dozen Grey Seals hauled out on the pontoon, which Paul had smelled (!) as we had paddled past.
My search for the calmest waters to paddle usually leads to the shelter of one of the estuaries at this time of year, with the open sea usually battered by windchop or groundswell, or both.
A recent jaunt to the Fowey River from Golant is more typical of this time of year, but demonstrates how paddling along in absolute silence (apart from a bit of merry banter) always seem to deliver some exceptional wildlife sightings. On this occasion it was one of only a handful of Harbour Seals in SW England.