Nice Spot of Weather

I’ve been getting about a bit recently because the weather, which I constantly groan about, has been absolutely stunning. More or less sunny, as warm as you would want and often light winds.

The biggest limiting factor in the kayaking department is my ageing musculoskeletal system, despite some parts being replaced and others removed. When I aim it in the direction of a headland barely visible on the horizon I can almost hear the mutters of mutinous dissent from biceps to buttock (notice I left out brain..that jumped overboard long ago).

I coax it along with frequent stops for coffee and Viennese Whorls and for the time being it is still just about serviceable.

Having said that, I seem to have strained my elbow which I think was the result of chasing a cruise ship in Fowey very early yesterday morning.

 

This was the Prinsendam and I didn’t really need to get out of bed quite so early because when I paddled out of the mouth of the Fowey estuary it was only just visible on the horizon. I then waited around getting cold while it ever so slowly approached.

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Princendam approaching
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Twenty minutes late!
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Prinsendam settled into Fowey for the day

Although I’ve ventured out to sea a bit, it’s been hard work spotting cetaceans and I’ve only come across the odd porpoise. I had a decent view of this one off Teignmouth, though.

 

They often seem to disappear at this time of year when the water goes clear for a while before the plankton really gets going.

Fortunately there’s always the seabirds to keep me entertained. Out to sea are Razorbills, Guillemots and Manx Shearwaters:

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Razorbills
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Guillemot (with brush marks of winter plumage left)
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Manx Shearwater off Berry Head

And along the coast are some beautiful, but difficult to see, waders. Needless to say, a kayak is (in my predictable opinion)the best way to observe these little beauties.

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Turnstones at Looe Island
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Dunlin at Looe Island

And there are still one or two winter visitors hanging about, seemingly reluctant to head north. This Purple Sandpiper, in its breeding plumage, for example.

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Purple Sandpiper

Oystercatchers, however, are not only not difficult to see, they are excessively loud, although I very much like their maniacal piping because sometimes, on a wet and windy winter’s day, it is sometimes the only nugget of wildlife around.

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Oystercatchers

The gulls sitting on eggs are currently finding it very hot:

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Panting Gull

although probably not as hot as this parent will soon be, trying to keep its newly hatched offspring entertained and fed, and protected.

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Herring Gull and chicks

I’ve visited the fantastic North Cornwall coast with Becky, Jeremy and Jane:

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Long Island, Boscastle

 

 

And even found a rare flat calm day along the Hartland heritage coast north of Bude. I paddled with Paul who found some new beaches, accessible only by kayak, to clear of plastic. He was thrilled with this discarded fishing net, his first ‘load’ from one particular beach.P1090513

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Paul and Higher Sharpnose Point

And finally one of the very best of Cornish bays at Porthcurno near land’s End:

 

My car must feel almost as pooped as I do.

 

 

 

The River Medway

The South-east of England is very different to the South-west. People really do use personal trainers for a bit of fisticuffs in the park beside the river. I thought that only happened on the telly.

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duck and weave

On an exceptionally warm and sunny day in early May Becky and I paddled the Tonbridge ‘circuit’ of the River Medway in Kent, setting off from the slipway at the edge of the swimming pool car park, and then paddled downstream as far as East Lock. I was going to go further and catch the train back to Tonbridge but it was such a pleasant day I didn’t fancy being cooped up with a load of sweaty people so we paddled back. More time under the lovely sun.

The wildlife was all about the birds, and birdsong. Additions to the Dawn Chorus list from my previous post were Whitethroat, Linnet, Turtle Dove (heard crooning but not seen), and the legendary song of the Nightingale (which we also didn’t see). I know it was some distance away and the notes were muffled by the density of the bush in which it lurked, but I personally think the Nightingale is hard-pushed as the nation’s number one songster by the Blackbird.

The tops of the bushes were surrounded by a blurr of those strange black flies with dangling legs that you always get at this time of year….St.Mark’s Flies. One was being squared up for a snack by this Whitethroat which was wanting to regain a bit of weight after burning off a load of blubber during its recent migration from Africa.

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Whitethroat and Fly

From a photographic perspective it was a bit of a pity that the river was still brown from the recent heavy rain, although the extraordinary yellowness of a field of rape did something to brighten things up.

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Porter’s Lock

The river is very kayak-friendly with all the locks having a ‘canoe pass’ which is a little water chute that prevents the need for a portage. Unfortunately for us all but one were closed due to high water levels, so we had to portage (which is always a bit of a drag).

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Eldridge’s Lock Canoe Pass

By far the most entertaining bird encounter was a busy family of Grey Wagtails, with both parents struggling to satisfy the demands of their three recently fledged offspring that were loafing about amongst the waterside vegetation.

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Mother and junior Grey Wagtail

The mother brought in beakfuls of mayflies at an impressive rate and just about kept pace with the appetite of two youngsters, whereas the father seemed very inactive and struggled to feed the remaining fledgling. In fact he looked very fluffed-up and sick and I wouldn’t fancy his chances. Maybe this is not surprising given some of the plastic pollution in the river (although despite this picture the river was generally very clean).

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Male Grey Wag (not well)

The south-east of England is certainly a busy place….even the sky is congested:

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‘shove over, mate’

But if you have a kayak and can find a little bit of water, you can escape the rush and enjoy your own little world of wildlife and wilderness.

 

 

The Laugh of the Loon

The sensational wildlife encounter just keep on coming as I just keep on paddling.

Today it was my best-ever sightings of one of my favourite seabirds, The Great Northern Diver. Across the pond it is known by the very much less ‘text-booky’ name of Common Loon.

They are not uncommon around the coast of Cornwall during winter, but have now transformed from there drabbish winter plumage into absolutely stunning breeding plumage.

I will let the movies do the talking, and listen out for that loon laugh. It is a genuine sound of the wilderness and makes the hair stand up on the back of my neck every time.

 

 

 

 

They will soon be heading north to their breeding grounds in Iceland and Greenland.

I was passed by several roving packs of Manx Shearwaters. These too are special, because to see Manx Shearwaters like this you have to be a long way off shore, and to be a long way offshore in a kayak it has to be a very calm day, which as you can see, it was. You can see my launch point of Portscatho in the background.

 

 

For the return trip I paddled along the coast which was looking totally tropical:

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Towan Beach

 

and was shadowed by a cluster of seals who larked about behind my kayak, but don’t like being looked at. I felt like the pilot of a Russian Badger bomber being escorted out of UK airspace by a posse of Eurofighters. Although maybe I wasn’t wearing the right hat.

 

 

 

 

Remind me to clean the weed off the back of my kayak, and decompress my jugulars, next time.

Great fun, but today it was the Loons who called the Tune.

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Hunting Loon
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Great Northen Diver aka Loon

Dawn Chorus and an Otter or two

May started off,  in perfect paddling style, with a dawn chorus trip along the River Tamar.

The appallingly early start paid off with some great wildlife sightings and a mysterious paddle through the early morning mist that was reluctant to be dissipated by the sun.

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Misty morning on the Tamar

The river surface was glassy smooth but round a corner I ran into some ripples that I suspected might have been created by an otter. I then heard some loud sloshing noises coming from the bank beneath some trees and through the mist could see a Roe Deer trying to clamber out of the water and up the steep slope…..I had missed it swimming across the river in front of me by about a minute!….and would have seen it but for the fog.

 

 

As the sun appeared the dawn chorus really got going and over the period of about three hours I picked out at least twenty-five different songs. The most frequent, and loudest, were Wrens and easily the best were Blackbirds, hotly pursued by Blackcap and Robin. Assisting Blackcaps in the migrant department were Chiffchaffs, Sedge Warblers and the tuneless rattle of a rarely seen Lesser Whitethroat (which of course I didn’t see). Chaffinch, Goldfinch and Reed Bunting did not want to be left out and four species of Tit just about qualified as songsters. Stretching it a bit was the coo of Stock Doves and Pigeons, the crow of a Pheasant and laugh of a Green Woodpecker. Nearly forgot about a single Goldcrest. Oh, and Swallows.

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Chattering Swallow

If you were to toss in to the mix the whistle of a pair of passing Mandarins, the peep of a Kingfisher, jink of a Dipper, and assorted cries of Great Spotted Woodpeckers, crows, rooks and jackdaws, that brings the total of bird species heard to over thirty. Surely you’d struggle to find a better place on the planet.

Unfortunately the serenity was shattered by the death-screech of a Song Thrush, a fledgling I suspect, that was carried off by a Carrion Crow for breakfast for its own brood.

While lost in listening to a particular loud and clear blackbird, a big swirl on the surface fifty yards ahead caught my attention. An otter for certain. And it was struggling with a BIG fish. I drifted a bit closer and watched it splash and twist and roll with occasional glimpses of what appeared to be an eel about three foot long. After a minute or so it swam to the bank and then rapidly followed the shore downstream, constantly struggling with the eel which was still very much alive, so there was quite a lot of splashing still. It travelled fast (three to four mph) and as it approached a dense bush overhanging the water it uttered a high pitched ‘peep’ and disappeared into the bush, and that was it gone.

 

 

 

Perhaps it was just  finding somewhere  quiet to eat its breakfast, but I think that there may have been cubs nearby and it was presenting them with a live fish and had called to them on its approach.

A couple of weeks prior to this encounter I had seen another (possibly the same) otter with a fish on the shore in roughly the same place, and had then glimpsed a smaller creature disappearing into a large hole at water level….was this a cub? Intriguing, and a good reason to go back to investigate.

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Otter eating fish

I dropped in to the shore for a thermos of coffee at a place where there are an awful lot of signs making you feel very unwelcome and basically saying you can’t get out. So I always do.

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Unwelcoming signs

Nice to see a Common Sandpiper who also contributed to the catalogue of ‘peeps’ with its own version (and Sandpipers are the best at it).

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Common Sandpiper

Apart from the assault on the eardrums of scores of singing birds along the Tamar in early May, nostrils are bludgeoned with the overwhelming smell of Wild Garlic, which seems to concentrate in the heavy air of a cold early morning. It’s so strong it makes your eyes water.P1080558.JPG

The Beech trees seemed to have got even more yellowy-green on the way back.P1080358

I passed a couple of broods of Mallard ducklings, the first was a large family of a dozen and a week or so old, the second straight out of the nest and about eleven.

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Mallard family 1
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Mallard family 2

Most bizarre was the Canada Goose that was looking for somewhere to nest and making sure that the site was above high water level. She had clearly factored in the recent heavy rainfall but when calculating a margin of safety I think had got her decimal point one or two places out.

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Canada Goose looking for nest site
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….bit too far for the goslings to jump, maybe…

 

The Lone Kayaker is now Video Enabled!

At last, after nearly 20,000 miles on the paddling odometer, The Lone Kayaker has discovered the little red video button on his camera. Before now he has only pressed it by accident.

However in a supreme effort to extricate himself from the sort of era when voles ruled the planet, he is now video-enabled (love the jargon) so he can embed (there it is again) movies into his blog.

So now your favourite reading and viewing can be even more favouriter.

Here’s a handful of the older videos to get things started:

Common Dolphins off Fowey Aug 2016. A total and utter thrill, how could it ever be anything else?:

 

 

 

Otter on River Torridge 2016. A typically wet, ottery type day:

 

 

 

Slapton Porpoise 2017…..listen for the ‘piff ‘as it breathes. That is why they had the old name of ‘Puffing Pig’ in Newfoundland (they were called ‘Herring Hogs’ in England)

 

 

 

And finally, for the time-being, no apologies for a nod to the hundreds of hours I spent taking down train numbers on platform 4 of Reading station as a little lad. As the ancient Chinese proverb says “Once a trainspotter, always a trainspotter”. Actually it might not have been the Chinese, it might have been my friend Neil from the platform, but never mind.

Here’s the superb China Clay train at Fowey. Number 66 187,in case you want to put it in your little book. Just listen to those air brakes!

 

 

 

 

Note: these videos are taken with old cameras and of a dodgy quality……from now on they will be 4K quality. Not sure what that is but they are going to be pretty pin sharp!

Whale!

Having got back from an all-weekend wedding 250 miles away in the early hours, when the titanium knees were subjected to dance moves (largely unsuccessful) way beyond their manufacturer’s recommended tolerance, anyone with any sense would spend the next day doing weeding.

The Lone Kayaker however wouldn’t know where to start with all the weeds, and has got the same amount of sense as the average slice of toast.

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Lovely Looe

And the promise of one of the warmest early May days EVER, combined with light winds, meant he couldn’t resist heading offshore. Looe was the chosen destination, which was very lucky because he very nearly selected the North Cornwall coast which ended up being fogbound all day and about ten degrees cooler than the sun-drenched south coast.

I didn’t have big expectations in the wildlife front for the day, as I have only ever seen dolphins here once (although they were the rare Risso’s), but it got off to a good start with an encounter with the resident male Eider duck who is always very smartly turned out.

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Drake Eider

I paddled over to Looe island, and out past the Rannies Reef. A loafing Bull seal put in a spectacular yawn which just about summed up my sleepiness as well (perhaps he had just come back from an all-weekend Pinniped party).

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yawning Seal

Also there were half a dozen Turnstones on the last rock of the reef, looking very smart in their breeding plumage with white heads.

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Turnstones

Then I just headed straight out to sea, because it was flat calm with no swell and warm enough to be paddling in just a vest. Totally and utterly perfect, and if there was anything sitting on, or breaking, the surface for half a mile around I was going to see it.

I passed through the line of coastal touring yachts, several of whom (understandably) looked at me as if I was barking mad, just paddling out into a blank open sea.

A ragged formation of about twenty-five migrating Whimbrels flew over constantly ‘tittering’, the classic coastal sound of early May, as Whimbrels have a very short migration ‘window’. A handful of Swallows zipped past me having just crossed the Channel, one in full bubbling song.

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Squadron of Whimbrel

I also saw a scattering of the more common seabirds: Razorbills, Guillemots, Manx Shearwaters and only a very few Gannets, which din’t give me much hope of seeing any Dolphins because the sea seemed a bit lifeless.

I stopped for lunch five miles out from Looe island (Cheese ‘n Pickle Sandwiches). Completely quiet and still apart from the occasional cackle of a Guillemot drifting over the surface, too far off to see. As I digested, a single wandering Gannet momentarily dipped a wing as if it was going to dive but then aborted the plunge, but it made me look hard at the patch of sea below, and up popped a Porpoise. I paddled over for a closer look but didn’t get a good view although I saw it surface a few more time at distance.

Then things seemed to hot up. I came upon quite a large raft of Razorbills and Guillemots mixed with a few Manx Shearwaters which were busy diving from the surface, and there were more Shearwater flocks circling around. I guess I was over some sort of reef.

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Guillemot
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Razorbill
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Manx Shearwater
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Photo taken moments before whale surfaced

I stopped to watch and photograph another auk flock, and suddenly there was a great gush of air and a pretty sizeable back broke the surface followed by a fin, only fifty yards away and heading straight towards me! No question a Minke Whale.

I swung the kayak round to see it surface again but it only popped up when it was nearly out of sight. I tore after it and it reappeared having turned to the south, but although viewing conditions were as perfect as they could be it never came very close. I heard, and saw, it surface a further three or four times and then it was gone.

I managed a very poor photograph, my camera always struggling to autofocus during such smooth sea conditions because it doesn’t have anything to ‘get a grip’ on.

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Minke Whale

Wow. My first whale since Horace (or Doris) the Humpback over twelve months ago. Only my third Minke whale seen from kayak, the other two being momentary glimpses of a single blow. The identity of the whale during my prolonged encounter off Eddystone two years ago , when I was at the epicentre of its feeding activity for half an hour, remains uncertain, although it was a lot bigger than the Minke Whales I have seen and has been positively identified by one whale expert as a Sei. For me they remain the ultimate sea creature to see from my kayak, together with a Leatherback turtle which I have only ever seen once.

So, pretty pleased, and  a little shaky with adrenaline overdose (and Olympic-style kayak sprint). Soon cured by an Orange Club.

The sea smoothed off even more for the paddle back in, and I came across a few other kayakers who were doing the circuit of Looe island.

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Fellow kayakers at Rannies Reef

From a mile out the shrieks of enjoyment of bathers on the main beach at Looe carried over the sea. No doubt made more shrill by the water temperature which is only just over 12 degrees.

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Looe main beach

 

 

 

Monstrous Mola Mola

Mola Mola is the scientific name of the incredibly weird Ocean Sunfish. It’s a really good name because it has a tropical flavour, and it is from warmer waters that the Sunfish originates before its wanderings to the North Atlantic,and elsewhere, in the summer.

My most recent Sunfish encounter was not in the UK however. A week in Spain seemed like the perfect way to escape the exceptionally rubbish weather in the UK. It was an extreme irony therefore that we left the warmest April day yet recorded in the UK behind us in the vapour trail as we jetted out from Exeter to indifferent conditions in Southern Spain.

Upon arrival at the beach at the Costa del Sol kayaking was on hold because of the huge surf that would have done a North Cornish beach proud.

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Stormy Southern Spain

Fortunately the Mediterranean reverted to its more typical benign state after a few days so I wasted no time in heading offshore.

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Sunfish Fin

A mile or two offshore I spotted a large triangular-shaped fin waving about at the surface and was pretty certain it was of a Basking Shark, especially when a great blunt nose just broke the surface about four foot in front of it. However no sign of a tail left me a bit puzzled.

All other Sunfish fins I had previously seen (from smaller specimens) had been tall and spiky, so I didn’t think it was one of those.

I sneaked up to the creature in absolute silence and was pretty gobsmacked to see the bits belonged to a really huge Sunfish. The biggest I have ever seen, although they actually can get very much bigger. Sunfish are the heaviest bony fish in the world, and this would be the be the third biggest sort of fish I had met up with from my kayak, after Basking Sharks and Giant Bluefin Tuna (although because it is circular and it was difficult to estimate its length it might just nudge the Tuna into third place).

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Ocean Sunfish

In typical sunfish style it was wallowing about just below the surface, a circular disc with a large fin at the top and bottom.

I got to a couple of feet from it, and could see its glaring eye and permanently open mouth which makes it look both startled and gormless, before it sank into the depths and disappeared.

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Ghostly outline of Sunfish

The next morning, in glass calm conditions, I came across a staggering number of mackerel splashing at the surface, attended only by gulls which swept over the shoals and hoped to be able to grab a fish in passing. I stayed around to watch and was sure some other sea creature would be interested in the potential feast, and was just about to give up when a single dolphin showed up.

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Splashing Baitfish
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Gull hoping for an easy snack

I carefully paddled after it and it was soon joined by a calf which had been adventuring off by itself. I enjoyed watching them quietly surfacing in the calm water and warm sunshine, and then they suddenly sped off to join up with a larger scattered group of about twenty more Common Dolphins.

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Dolphin and calf

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Common Dolphins

A mini feeding frenzy of dolphins and gulls started up about a mile away so I sped towards the action but as usual it had all finished by the time I got close, and then also as usual, the dolphins all sped off to where I had just come paddled from.

The Sunfish and the Dolphins were supported by a cast of some of my favourite offshore seabirds: half a dozen ‘Bonxie’ Great Skuas, a handful of Balearic Shearwaters and a couple of Storm Petrels. Even though this is the Mediterranean these are birds you would expect to see in the Atlantic and off the coast of South West England in a couple of months time.

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Bonxie (bottom right) shadowing fishing boat
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Bonxie
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Storm Petrel

 

The only land birds coming across the sea to Southern Spain from Africa were a scattering of swallows, and surprisingly, a couple of Goshawks.

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Migrating Goshawk
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Costa del Sol back to normal conditions