Mousehole Whale

After a long drive to Penzance I was thrilled to see Mount’s Bay was much smoother than the wind forecast had predicted. However knowing it was probably just the calm of the early morning I was on the water in double-quick time.

Within a minute of exiting Penzance Harbour the omens for a good day of wildlife-watching were favourable… several dark patches at the surface were shoals of sprats or sandeels, and Eddie the resident Eider duck was half way through a crab-shaped breakfast.

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Eider plus (legless) crab

As I paddled quietly passed the rocks by Jubilee Pool a little posse of Dunlin were catching forty on their migration south.

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Dunlin trio

I paddled directly offshore at quite a lick because I knew it was probable that sea conditions would only be favourable for an hour or two. A hat-trick of swans which would probably be more at home on the Thames at Henley looked a bit incongruous in the middle of the bay.

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Penzance bay

A couple of miles out where the offshore tidal current shears past the more static waters of Mount’s bay the action started to hot up. Flocks of Manx Shearwaters cruised around while some were resting on the surface.

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Manx Shearwaters

 

Amongst the throng was a single Balearic Shearwater which at one stage flew directly towards me, zipping past a few feet away.

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Balearic Shearwater

Had I turned for home these sightings alone would have made my day worthwhile. It was a good thing I didn’t. A couple of miles off St. Michael’s Mount I saw a sparkle as the sun glinted off the fins of a pod of cetaceans. Common Dolphins, which I carefully approached. A lone porpoise popped up once and puffed as I drew close to the dolphins

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Common Dolphins and St. Michael’s Mount

As usual they came over to investigate and I saw it was a nursery group of about twenty in total with quite a few calves and juveniles sticking close to mum as usual.

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Dolphin and youngster

 

Two interesting observations were that one was very pale grey, and one adult had a moderately mangled fin which was probably caused by a boat injury or being caught in a net.

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Pale dolphin
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Dolphin with damaged fin

It was superbly relaxed conditions for viewing with smooth sea and hardly any wind so I just watched the action. Every so often the whole lot would speed off and a couple jumped really high but as usual I missed the action with the camera. This is the best I could manage:

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Semi-jumping dolphins

As I ate my breakfast (muesli and granola mix) in the company of the dolphins I kept glimpsing what looked like wafting black smoke further out to sea, and then realised it was vast numbers of shearwaters circling about low over the water. More than I had ever seen before in one place.

So I stoked up the boilers and set off out to investigate at high speed, because usually the feeding event has finished by the time I arrive on the scene. I was very flattered when the dolphin pod came over to benefit from my pathetic bow wave. I fumbled the GoPro onto my head as quickly as possible:

 

 

 

Exciting stuff, especially as the calves seemed to be jumping and surging as enthusiastically as their parents. Look at this slomo, are those dolphin twins?

 

 

 

Incredibly, en route to the seabird feeding frenzy I passed another pod of common dolphins consisting of fifteen sturdy looking individuals which I think were a pack of male dolphins. Even more interestingly, several did the bellyflopping breathing action which is maybe just so they can have a bit more of a look around above the surface. As visibility in the water wasn’t great today it certainly would have provided them with a bit more of a view.

 

 

 

I had my first effort at underwater photography of the dolphins but I wouldn’t say it was a raging success.

 

 

 

Phew, excitement overload. But I could sense better was yet to come because the vast numbers of feeding seabirds meant large amounts of baitfish which would also bring in other predators. In fact I thought it was tuna splashing at the surface as I drew near to the action, but it turned out to be the shearwaters shallow diving onto the baitfish from a few feet up.

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Quite a lot of shearwaters

A couple of miles off Mousehole I passed a stationary yellow boat containing a load of fishermen, and started to converge with Shearwater II,  a catamaran yacht owned by Marine Discovery who run wildlife watching trips from Penzance, as it was heading further offshore.

As I was watching the yacht there was a great breathy blast and a fullgrown (it seemed pretty big anyway) Minke Whale surfaced between the two of us. Blinking heck. It surfaced again in the distance towards Penzance and then looked like it had turned to come back.

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Minke whale and Penzance

It duly obliged and surfaced again just behind Shearwater II, scenically passing in front of the circular cave in the background from which the village of Mousehole gets its name.

 

 

 

The it came back again. You can hear its breath in this video clip:

 

 

 

Of course I was hoping for it to surface  right beside (ideally not on top of) my kayak but it appeared to have moved on. They cover a lot of distance between breaths and there is absolutely no point in chasing after them  in a kayak because they move so fast and are just about out of sight after surfacing a couple of times.

There was plenty of other wildlife to hold my attention. The thousands of Manx Shearwaters intermittently rested on the surface and were conveniently settled  in a long line so I could paddle along in front trying to pick out any rarer species, in the manner of an inspection at a military parade.

About one in two hundred were the smoky-brown coloured Balearic Shearwaters. Not that impressive to look at if you are not a ‘birder,’ but if you are you will know it is always fantastic to see one because they are a globally threatened species.

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Balearic Shearwater

I hit the jackpot when I spotted a larger chocolate-coloured shearwater trying to be inconspicuous amongst its smaller relatives. A Sooty Shearwater! This is a proper offshore species that I had never seen from my kayak till last year, and have never seen sitting on the water around the UK. (the last one I saw like this was off New Zealand):

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Sooty Shearwater

As I was sat enjoying the seabird flock supping a cup of coffee a couple of miles out to sea, the cloud drifted over and the wind suddenly started to lift. Fortunately I had allowed for this in my action plan, which is precisely why I had come to this particular stretch of coast today. It seems to be about the best place to see deepwater species relatively close to the shore, as well as being relatively protected from wind and swell. I think there is also a good interface between currents about one and a half to two miles from the coast here which provides a good concentration of baitfish.

I had not seen the last of the whale, as it was working its way up and down the current interface. I thought it was still about because the shearwaters kept getting very excited. Interestingly it was only shearwaters and not Gannets because the baitfish involved were very small and Gannets prefer larger individual fish to target.

 

 

 

It then disappeared and I paddled a bit faster towards Mousehole as the wind steadily increased. The whale then appeared in amongst the shearwaters.

 

 

 

and to finish off with surfaced a couple of times relatively close by when the sea was beginning to look a bit less friendly. No boats or anyone else within a mile.

 

 

 

Buzzing with adenaline I scorched back past St. Clement’s Isle and got a sort of resigned look from the resident seals who assumed I was another idiotic kayaker who was going to frighten them in to the sea. Idiotic maybe, but I make an effort to keep well away from resting seals.

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Mousehole seal

On the final stretch back to Penzance harbour the wildlife eased off a bit giving me time to appreciate a bit of scenery. Just the cheerful ‘kirrick’ call of migrating Sandwich terns.

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Newlyn harbour
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Penzance

This was my sixth whale seen from kayak in SW England. Four Minkes, one Humpback, one possible Sei. Autumnal weather with gales are now forecast so it’s back to creek paddling for the foreseeable. Hopefully there will be a few more windows of calm weather while the sea is still bursting with baitfish so I can enjoy a bit more of this kind of stuff:

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Common Dolphins
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Common Dolphin with small calf
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Common Dolphin with ?twins (maybe just nursery chums)
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Minke Whale

 

 

 

More Fantastic Dolphins

A steady deterioration in the weather threatened to mess up any plans I had for offshore paddling to see extreme sea creatures. Whales and Giant Tuna have appeared around Cornwall and I would like to join in the fun. However the promise of a snippet of a calm few hours in Torbay lured me out of bed appallingly early and on the water by seven.(yes I know Torbay is Devon and not Cornwall, but Cornwall was too windy today

The headlands around Torbay always seem to be very productive for marine wildlife with their lively currents and a small group of circling Gannets alerted me to a scattered group of porpoises. Despite one of the biggest Spring tides of the year, the offshore waters were calm so I headed out to see what was about. Little packs of Manx Shearwaters, which will soon have disappeared on migration, zipped past, as did a handful of smoky brown Balearic Shearwaters. One looked bigger…was that a Sooty Shearwater? With binoculars impossible to use on a kayak (due to movement) and the fact that it was soon gone, I will never know.

As I was ploughing my way through a bowl of muesli I glimpsed a black shape, for an instant, far out to sea. Then more….jumping dolphins! Rest of muesli overboard, I headed out to look and as I cautiously approached the group of about twenty which had now slowed down, they veered over to check me out.

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Common Dolphin

There was one very small calf in the group which leapt out of the water with as much vigour as any of its elders. Some of the group came over for a bit of bow-riding:

 

I was a bit concerned about the forecast increase in wind so started to paddle back to the headland, but the dolphins were not finished with me and came along.

 

When they looked as though they were going to stay for a while I set up the GoPro on its headmount and set off again:

 

At last they seemed to lose interest as my speed dropped when fatigue kicked in. Maybe I shouldn’t have jettisoned those last few mouthfuls of muesli. You really do have to paddle flat out to generate enough of a pressure wave to keep dolphins interested. It’s a lot easier in a boat with a huge outboard motor.

Maybe they were off hunting an unsuspecting shoal of mackerel.

They looped round in front of me providing quite a satisfactory ‘grandstand’ view as a finale. You can see a few youngsters jumping around in the pod.

 

En route to calmer waters in the shelter of the bay I passed a flock of about 300 Kittiwakes resting on the surface, the largest group I think I have ever seen. As I watched, a passing large gull made them all take off, and upon scrutiny of the photographs later I noticed that two had coloured rings on their legs:

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Kittiwakes

Back in the harbour everyone and everything was getting going. All very interesting, but the dolphins take the biscuit.P1160870

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The Sensational South-West Coast (part 1)

Photo montage of assorted pics that have not appeared in any of this year’s blogs. Browse and enjoy.

But first listen to the spooky, deathly, grim reaper-type bell on the excellently named Udder Rock buoy off Lansallos in South Cornwall:

Prinsendam cruise ship in Fowey in May,

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Prinsendam

and an even bigger one, the Europa 2, in early September.

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Europa 2

Superb beach for a tea break. Great Perhaver near Gorran Haven:

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Great Perhaver beach

Gorran Haven, picture perfect Cornish fishing village

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Gorran Haven

but with hot competition only a few miles away in the shape of Mevagissey:

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Mevagissey

Charlie and James speeding in the Gumotex Solar at Maidencombe,

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Charlie and James

while Peggy and Becky cruise under the Torridge bridge:

 

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Peggy and Becky

Paul is a bit further upstream by the Old Bideford Bridge:

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Paul in Bideford

The south Cornwall seals put on a fantastic show:seal 17

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but it’s great to see the less obvious wildlife gems from the kayak seat too:

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Ringed Plover
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Hat-trick of Dunlin

The Eddystone light lures me offshore,

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Eddystone

while the seas down at Land’s End are forever restless:

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Gwennap Head

A rare swell-free spell allowed a bit of exploration along the (usually) savage Hartland heritage coast in North Cornwall.

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Duckpool
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Lower Sharpnose Point
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Hartland Cliffs

Now autumn is knocking on the door, it’s easy to forget how warm and sunny summer was, and how exceptionally clear the sea was this year:

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Tabby seems to be flying

Don’t forget the dazzling dolphins:

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Common dolphins Torbay (in Feb!)

That’s it for now. Part 2 soon.

 

 

 

 

Lots of Porpoises for Fowey Regatta

Fowey is good.

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(Gig race in )  Fowey

It’s a great place to go kayaking, and in my opinion the most scenic and paddle-friendly estuary/ria in SW England.

Providing you can clench your teeth hard enough to handle the savage price for parking your car, it provides quick access to the open sea via a very pleasant one-mile paddle between Polruan and Fowey.

I was surprised to see the small cruise ship ‘Hebridean Princess’ moored-up in mid river. My last encounter was on a very wet day in Loch Sunart in 2014 during my month-long kayak trip up the west coast of Scotland.

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Hebridean princess at Fowey

Once out of the mouth of the estuary I headed directly out to see but not before I heard a couple of Whimbrel ‘tittering’ on a rocky shore. They are migratory waders, very similar to Curlew but slightly smaller and with that distinctive monotone ‘seven-whistle’ call.

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Whimbrel

The sea was lovely and flat with little wind so it wasn’t long before I heard my first porpoise ‘piffing’, although it was minutes before I was actually close enough to see it.

I swung round a couple of miles off Gribbin Head and met up with two  bigger pods of Porpoises, about ten in each. I just sat and watched as they surfaced all around, but always frustrating from a photography point of view because they constantly change direction and pop up where you least expect them to do so (like directly behind).

You can here the characteristic piff quite well in this video, as they pass in front of distant Mevagissey:

 

 

Porpoises are small and very easy to overlook and I’m pretty sure none of the many passing boats noticed this little posse going about its business.

There was at least one juvenile amongst the group which was probably only two foot long….no wonder they don’t get seen.

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Porpoise and calf

I think there must be a reef stretching out well offshore from Gribbin Head, because it does seem to focus the feeding activity of a mixture of sea creatures. A handful of tiny Storm Petrels, always a thrill to see from a kayak, (because they are only seen far offshore as well as being diminutive…the size of a sparrow) zipped past.

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Storm Petrel

Their name is accurate because they always fly a bit closer to the shore during poor weather. Today was drizzly but fortunately not windy:

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Pencarrow Head
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Dodgy day

Also off Gribbin Head I saw the fin of a small Ocean Sunfish flopping at the surface. I was hoping to get close for an underwater shot but it spooked surprisingly early.

 

 

The grand wildlife finale was a mini feeding frenzy of Gannets off the headland. I could see little white dots circling and dropping into the sea a mile, possibly two, in front of me. They are big birds with a six foot wingspan so can be seen from a huge distance (a bit different to Storm petrels). I have learnt from (bitter) experience that even if I crank the kayak up to its top cruising speed of five to six mph, the feeding event will probably have finished by the time I roll up.

This nicely summarises the extreme challenge of trying to observe offshore wildlife from a kayak, and is probably the reason why nobody else does it. Another Gannet seeing the ‘work-up’ from afar (which is precisely what they look out for when cruising about) can cover the distance in a couple of minutes. They just dip a wing and disappear off at staggering speed. A wildlife-watching speedboat could cover the distance a little slower than a Gannet but in time to see what is going on. The Lone Kayaker generally arrives on scene when all that is left is a few fish scales rotating about in the swirled-up water.

Despite all this I stoked up a head of steam because the circling birds were on my way back anyway, and arrived twenty minutes later to just in time to witness the end of the action. In fact it was definitely the end because there was only one mackerel of the baitball left, and the last two Gannets to dive in ended up fighting over it. Both had their beaks locked around the same fish as they flapped about in a melee at the surface. See it for yourself in this video…..I’ve slowed down the action because it’s all a bit of a blurr otherwise. You will notice the porpoises are still busy looking for any escapee fish.

 

 

 

Here’s another pair of diving gannets at normal speed. It’s great to hear their cackles of excitement which they only utter when they are involved in feeding…they are completely silent the rest of the time.

 

 

Back nearer to Fowey the profusion of wildlife was replaced with a plethora of sailing boats as the annual regatta was in full swing. A tremendous sight despite the grey conditions.

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Fowey sailing Regatta
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Fowey sailing Regatta

The sea in front of the town was heaving with action and I had to weave amonst entrants of the gig race, which seemed very competitive.

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Fowey gig boats

The water around the slipway was similarly choc-a-bloc with water enthusiasts in the style of fellow kayakers.

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Caffa Mill kayakers

For the lone kayaker the most impressive performance of the day was by the porpoises.

 

 

 

Dashing Teignmouth Dolphins

Today exemplified the all-or-nothing nature of my chosen pastime. Six hours of offshore paddling with hardly any wildlife to see at all. A couple of Gannets, a single Common Scoter and a handful of Sandwich terns fishing at the mouth of the Teign estuary. My enthusiasm dipped, my arms began to ache and I could feel a yawn coming on.

The sea was so calm I would have seen a fin a long way off, or heard the piff of a porpoise. But nothing. Until…….

Far away between me and the shore I could just see the red shape of a wildlife-watching RIB cruising slowly round in circles, and I knew they must be looking at something. As I slowly paddled closer I knew it must be something interesting because it stayed there for a long time…and I suspected dolphins. So I cranked up the speed and then glimpsed the sun sparkling off the back of a large number of dolphins that were heading straight towards me. I primed the cameras and waited for their arrival. They didn’t disappoint.

 

It was a school of twenty-five to thirty with at least a few calves in amongst them. I was hoping a posse might come over to say hello, but suddenly all hell broke loose. The entire lot disappeared from view for a second and then all exploded from the surface simultaneously. I recorded the splashes on the Gopro and the image is reminiscent of the scene in Das Boot when the German submarine gets strafed by a Spitfire.

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Twenty dolphins leaping out simultaneously

They then reformed and proceeded to cruise about in a (slightly) more relaxed state:

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Dolphins in front of the cliff railway at Torquay
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Posse of Common Dolphins

And then they were off again at top speed. I think they even gained some ground on a jetski that was skittering past in the far distance (which could have done with a bit of strafing)

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Leaping Common Dolphin
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Motley mass of dolphins

For a final fling they put on a supreme display, all conveniently down-sun to assist my photographic efforts. I don’t know how fast they were moving but it must have been thirty mph. You can see Teignmouth in the background at the end.

 

Wow. I have never had such a good view of a pod of speeding dolphins, apart maybe the school of about fifty offshore Bottlenose dolphins last December at Penzance, when my camera decided to freeze!

Thanks to the dolphins my day ended up fantastically exciting; without them it would have been thunderously tedious.

When I got back near the shore Teignmouth seafront was buzzing with August activity:

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Teignmouth

and Shaldon was even busier because the regatta was in full swing.

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Watery fun at Shaldon

Dolphin fatigue…..never!dolphin 6

What is this Dolphin doing?

Although the Lone Kayaker is dedicated to bringing you the best of wildlife from the British coast, he occasionally ventures to foreign lands (seas) to check out the marine scene elsewhere…….

 

 

Off the Mediterranean coast of Spain, within sight of Gibraltar, I managed to find myself at the epicentre of a feeding frenzy of Common Dolphins. This is the first time I have seen a pod in such a flurry of activity, with a large number of dolphins splashing about all over the place and causing disturbance of a large area of water, and a lot of splashy noise. Fantastic.

When all the commotion had died down and the sea settled back to its more normal sleepy state, a single dolphin arrived on the scene as if it was trying to catch up with the action which had just finished. It had a very strange surfacing action involving a bit of a bellyflop every time it breathed. The video clip shows that in fact there was another dolphin which surfaces a second after the ‘bellyflopper’ takes its first breath.

 

 

The second dolphin is breathing normally…..why on earth does the first lurch so far out of the water before flopping back down in what must be a very energy-expensive effort.

I noticed from a couple of still photos that the ribs of this dolphin were very visible, something I have never observed before.bellyflop dolphin

So you wouldn’t have to be a top physician to deduce that this dolphin had a chronic health condition, or maybe was just old. Or perhaps injured by a jetski:IMG_6775

Look at the clip again in slow motion:

 

 

 

It really does seem like the sick dolphin is getting a bit of an assisting shove from below. Is the other dolphin helping it to get to the surface to breathe?

After  it surfaces for the second time there is an extra surge of water behind the sick dolphin which could well be the ‘flukeprint’ of the assisting dolphin.

Is this a remarkable example of a dolphin’s superior intelligence and social cooperation or am I being a buffoon and the dolphin is just taking a look around?