Out to Sea and Up the Creek

The open sea has gone quiet. During a couple of offshore paddle trips I have noticed that the few passing seabirds such as Gannets and Shearwaters do not deviate from their flight path because there is nothing to distract them. In other words no fish or sprats near the surface for them to dive upon.

In fact the only thing that does seem to distract them is me, with most Gannets cruising overhead to check me out, and Fulmars taking a high speed circuit around me before carrying on their way. Anything that breaks up the monotony of the sea surface might mean fish, as far as they are concerned.

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Fulmar

Floating seabirds are few and far between as well…just a few Razorbills and Guillemots.

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Guillemot

A couple of days have been absolutely flat and calm and I have been surprised at how few times I have heard the puff of a porpoise…they seem to have almost completely disappeared. In the autumn on days like this it is actually unusual not to hear the blow of a porpoise virtually every time you stop paddling.

Fortunately they haven’t all gone. I saw four off Coverack near Lizard point, and just to further investigate I went to the ultra reliable porpoise venue of Berry Head, and saw at least seven.

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Berry Head Porpoise Trio

Rather than some disaster I think this is all fairly normal. I have noticed in previous years that when the sea is thick with plankton during May, the visible activity seems to decline. Apart from the record numbers of Barrel Jellyfish that is. They are still very much in evidence:

 

 

If someone could get the message out to the Basking Sharks that the food parlour is stuffed full and all they have to do is swim along with mouths agape , it would be great to see them again. I havn’t seen one in SW England for five years.

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Basking shark (photo taken in 2009!)

When paddling I very rarely get bored because not many minutes go by without something interesting to look at. However the open sea has been so quiet that I have noticed how numb my backside is getting. This happens on every trip but I am usually too engrossed to notice. Fortunately the beautiful Cornish backdrop helps ease the pain:

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South Penwith coast
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Yacht struggling for wind
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Tater Du

On this particular day what I really needed was a pod of dolphins to inject a zip into my stroke, and I found out later I missed a group of over fifty by minutes…..all part of the challenge of kayaking I suppose. It would be a lot easier if I had an engine.

Anyway…the inshore coast has been a bit more interesting. May is the month of Whimbrels, shorebirds which look like a small Curlew, but which have a far carrying ti-ti-ti-ti-ti-ti-ti call. It’s nearly always seven syllables to the call, that’s why they are called ‘Seven Whistler’. Their call is one of the classic sounds of Spring along the coast. Which I wouldn’t hear if I had an engine so I’ll stick to kayaking for a bit.

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Whimbrel

They are long distance migrants, wintering down to South Africa and breeding from the north of Scotland upwards.

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Whimbrel

The cliffs are currently ablaze with Thrift (Sea Pink),

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Thrift

and I always enjoy watching the gulls chasing each other about when one catches a starfish which is the gull equivalent to a Cadbury’s Creme Egg.

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Starfish Lunch

The sheltered creeks are looking super-scenic at the minute, with banks all yellowy-green with the new growth of leaves. with the new growth of leaves. It was great to paddle up the Fowey estuary to Lerryn with Rob and Sue Honey who have a broad range of knowledge about the area, including the history which is not one of my strong subjects, so it was very interesting. And enjoyable.

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Rob and Sue Honey

They are sharp-eyed as well, because it was Sue who spotted the brood of nine or ten Shelduck chicks along the shore, probably the first to hatch out in the whole of Cornwall.

 

 

Further down in Cornwall I paddled up the Truro river with Paul, searching for a bit of protection from the savage east wind.

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Truro River

The narrow tidal creek is an unusual place to store a redundant monster-ship.

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Paul and the beast

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Up the Fal River a couple of weeks before I was very surprised to see a couple of Fallow Deer wandering along the shore in a very casual manner.

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Fallow Deer

 

And was even more surprised to see a larger herd leg it over a riverside hill. Part of the Tregothnan estate herd, I presume. So not genuinely wild deer but still great to see them. And they certainly acted as if they were wild.

 

This IS a genuinely wild deer, a Roe Deer. Tucked in amongst the trees beside Roadford Lake, hoping I wouldn’t see it if it remained stock still. I very nearly didn’t.

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Roe Deer

My favourite sighting over the last ten days is the Shelduck family. It’s great that these wild ducks can find somewhere quiet enough to sit on their eggs for an entire month, either down a rabbit or badger hole, or tucked deep in a thicket.

I notice on closer inspection of this pic that there are ten chicks. The fluffy top of a head can be seen just over the back of the mother duck.

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Shelduck Family

 

Beaches, Birds, Chums and Cherry Bakewells

 

Here’s a selection of assorted pics from trips during the fantastic weather of the last ten days:

 

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Razorbills changing into breeding plumage . Veryan Bay
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Lansallos Beach
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Polperro
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Guillemot, St Austell Bay
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Gribbin Head
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Lantic Bay , Fowey
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Great Northern Diver (Common Loon), Mevagissey
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Dave and Simon, Rumps Point, Polzeath
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Dave and Simon, Newlands, Polzeath
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Perfectly synchronised Guillemots, Polzeath
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Dave ‘n Cave, Portquin
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Puffin, The Mouls, Polzeath
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Peregrine peering
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Simon and Dave, Rumps Point, Polzeath
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Guillemot reluctant to change out of winter clothes, Portquin
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Dave and sushi. Healthy stuff.
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Cherry Bakewell. No natural ingredient within miles.
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Looe
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Eric the lone Eider, Looe
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Hang on !!!! Eric’s found a mate……Erica, Looe
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Duchess the (half blind) Grey Seal (thanks for the id, Sue)
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Oystercatcher, Looe
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Cormorants with nestlings, Looe
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Little rattly train , Looe
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Dave, Looe
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Filming with BBC Spotlight (thanks for the pic, Dave)
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Dave up the creek, Looe
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Barrel Jelly

Don’t try to tell me that SW England is not a world class sort of place.

 

 

Bored of Dolphins? I’m not , so here’s a Load More

The residual swell from the storms was subsiding….

 

and the wind disappeared completely, so I didn’t need any further encouragement to head far offshore. First I paddled round Veryan Bay to the west of (usually) gnarly Dodman Point. Even two miles offshore it was flat as a millpond and pleasantly warm…not bad for the end of March. This time last year it was snowing.

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Razorbills and Dodman point

I am very wary about heading offshore at this time of year because water temperature is only about ten degrees C. Not good if you go for a swim. So I call in with the local NCI Coastwatch to tell them of my plans, but most importantly I only go out if the sea is absolutely smooth, and I feel completely safe and secure. Also I bristle with communication technology: two phones, radio, GPS, Personal Locator Beacon.

There was very little bird activity on this day so I was expecting to see nothing, but then a single Gannet far ahead circled once, and I directly beneath it I saw the sun glint off a distant fin.

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Circling Gannet

Dolphins!

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Veryan Common Dolphin

As I quietly approached they came over to investigate.

 

It was a pod of about fifteen individuals containing a handful of calves. This seems to be the usual make-up of the groups I come across, with females and adolescents and youngsters together. I think the males go round in a sort of blokey gang by themselves (but I may be completely wrong here). I have occasionally seen groups of big beefy Common Dolphins with tall fins.

Whatever the technicalities, it was, as always, a thrilling sight made even better by the calm water and blue sea and sky.P1270088

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just too late with the shutter (as usual)

They finished off with a final close pass before tearing off into the distance.

 

A couple of days later I paddled out from fantastic Fowey Harbour for another offshore exploration in equally perfect paddling conditions.

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Fabulous Fowey

The open sea was completely quiet, just a handful of Guillemots dotted about and about as few Gannets as it is possible to see. It is very interesting that I would normally have expected to see quite a few porpoises out here (and out at Veryan the other day). The calm conditions were perfect for porpoise spotting because you can here them puff, and glimpse their small fins, from quite a distance away. In the late summer on a day like this it is actually unusual not to here the sound of a blow of a nearby porpoise every time you stop paddling and sit quietly.

So they have disappeared off somewhere else….maybe they don’t like all the barrel jellyfish that are still around.

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Barrel Jelly

I stopped for coffee exactly five miles out from Fowey and was about to head back. But there was a glint of sun at the surface further out. There were no waves to cause it, so it must have been the light glinting off a fin.

It turned out to be three juvenile Common Dolphins, being shadowed by a trio of adults a few hundred yards away.

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juvenile Common Dolphin

 

 

There are really only a handful of days a year when the offshore sea is this smooth, and it’s really something you don’t expect in mad March. I even tried a little bit of underwater GoPro stuff, but don’t think it would quite make the cut for Blue Planet live.

 

The weather is now on the turn with wind picking up, so that’s it for watching dolphins offshore for a while, I suspect.

 

 

 

Plague of Jellyfish

There are more Barrel jellyfish around the coast of SW England than I have ever seen in fifteen plus years of sea kayaking. A lot more. I have seen more in the last three days than all the other years added together……91 on Tuesday (yes I counted them, how nerdy is that?), 120+ on Wednesday (lost the plot after a hundred) and 40+ today.

This number of any other jellyfish is not unusual, but Barrel Jellyfish are so BIG that this is really quite a phenomenon. Their ‘bell’ can be two foot across and they can weigh in at over 30kgs.

This video clip shows the size quite nicely:

 

Their appearance seems to have coincided with a plankton bloom (upon which they feast) that has probably been caused by the sunny weather. The nearshore water is full of specks of plankton which you can see clearly in this clip:

 

I can’t recall ever seeing such a sudden bloom so early in the year….the water is usually very clear in March and April and gets full of plankton in May.

As I paddle along I can see jellyfish beneath the surface up to about ten foot from my kayak, so I only see a tiny fraction of the vast numbers out there. The three locations I have seen them over the last three days are fifty miles apart so there must be millions of these large and mysterious creatures floating about around our coast. Actually it’s a bit unfair to imply that they drift about passively. On the contrary they seem to be very motivated to get somewhere with the relentless pulsating of their ‘bell’, although they maybe don’t know exactly where that somewhere is ( they havn’t got a brain).

Personally I find them absolutely fascinating and a bit mesmerising, especially when they are illuminated by dancing shafts of sunlight.

 

If all these jellyfish end up on the beaches after an onshore gale it will cause quite a stir. Just one of these washed up on the sand causes heads to turn, so hundreds or thousands could be quite a scenario. At least they don’t sting so are harmless to people. Maybe they’ll swim away somewhere else. I don’t know.

One exciting possibility is that the unprecedented number of Barrel Jellyfish will lure in a Leatherback Turtle or two, because Barrel Jellyfish are the favourite food of the Leatherback. A good reason to keep on paddling and keep on looking.

 

Foggy Fowey Dolphins and Porpoises

A couple of days of superb paddling in light winds…..yesterday was an exploration of the Dart estuary from Totnes to Dartmouth and back with Dave, and today was a solo offshore paddle from Fowey, with wildlife sightings (once again) way beyond my expectations for March.

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Dart estuary

The Dart paddle was a fairly hefty nineteen miles but cunning tidal planning worked in our favour and even allowed a very civilised tea break at Dittisham.

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Dave and tea shop

The sun did its best to put in an appearance as we neared Dartmouth, resulting in dangerously high humidity levels in our drysuits.

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Decent Dartmouth

Of course we allowed time for a wee bit of trainspotting (it was just coincidence we arrived at Kingswear at exactly as the same time as the train…honest.)

 

Heading back up the river we had to frequently evade the tourist boats who tend to ignore inconsequential craft such as ours.P1260473

Wildlife highlight of the day was this exceptional sighting of three Harbour Seals hauled out on a pontoon. Harbour seals are rare in SW England with just one or two hanging about up some of the creeks, and I have only ever come across a handful, and  never seen more than one at a time. The familiar seal in the area is the much bigger Atlantic Grey seal. Harbour seals live along the east coast of England and around Scotland, but maybe this little cluster means they are now spreading this way.

There was actually more than three because I saw what I thought were a couple of Harbour seals in the water, as well as a couple of Greys.

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Dart Harbour Seal trio

This morning I started idiotically early in the morning because the wind forecast was exceptionally light and I might just be able to do an offshore paddle out of Fowey, an unusual occurrence in March.

It was misty and murky with intermittent drizzle, but the marine wildlife was buzzing. Fulmars zipped past my earholes…

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Fulmar

and Guillemots and Razorbills sat about and dived for sprats…

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Razorbill (nearly in breeding plumage)

Below the surface lurked the spooky ghostly white shape of a Barrel Jellyfish.

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Barrel Jelly

Gannets filed past and I watched each one closely. I have mentioned before that in places like this if a Gannet circles around it is probable that there is a Porpoise swimming below. Today, it was certainly the case…..with Gannets thumping into the water beside the feeding Porpoises. Watch this slomo carefully..(Fowey behind)

 

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Incoming Gannet!

One porpoise passed by very close. Unlike dolphins they are not inquisitive and pay no attention at all to boats and kayaks. They just get on with what they are doing and if that happens to mean they come close to where you are sitting, so be it.

 

As I watched the porpoise, the first flock of Manx Shearwaters that I have seen this year winged past a bit further out:

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Pack of Shearwaters

I stopped for a cup of coffee and essential nutrient supplementation in the shape of two chunks of Raisin and Biscuit Yorkie, and had a final scan (with eyeballs only) out to sea. The grey skies and smooth water were the perfect combination for seeing a black fin break the water. I was just on the point of turning back when I thought I might have glimpsed a couple of black specs, which then disappeared. I paddle towards the area for five minutes and saw nothing more. I was turning for home once again when the same thing happened so I once again paddled out to investigate.

Amazingly I came across a little pod of five or six Common Dolphins that were swimming along very quietly, more in the manner of Porpoises. However, being Common Dolphins one had to hurl itself out of the water and land with a bit of a splash, because that is what Common Dolphins do best.

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Common Dolphin

They cruised past the front of my kayak without a second glance, maybe because there was one small calf in the pod, and they don’t seem to be so investigative when there is a very young dolphin to look after, or maybe protect.

 

After the group of half a dozen had past, another pair came past….both adults, and one with a very pronounced dark moustache stripe (or should it be called a beard?)

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Adult Common Dolphins

Today’s excellent variety of wildlife was nicely rounded off by this beautifully lilac Sea urchin at the mouth of Fowey estuary, exposed by the exceptionally low tide.

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Sea Urchin

Spring has got off to a flying start.

 

 

Magical March Morning at Mevagissey

A succession of storms running in from the Atlantic have limited kayak trips to the most sheltered tidal creeks. These are well protected from the worst of the wind….but not the rain:

 

The deluge is currently so relentless that even the ducks seem fed up.

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Dripping Drake (Mallard)

But just before the unsettled weather arrived I managed to sneak out for a morning on the open coast along the Cornish Riviera.

It was ironic that after travelling half way round the world in the hope of seeing a whale (I as hoping for a ‘Blue’) from my kayak, I had a better view of a pod of dolphins a couple of days after we got back.

Also we somehow managed to miss the record-breaking February temperatures here in the UK, enduring some very mixed weather in the USA and Mexico. We touched down at Heathrow in sunshine and eighteen degrees, but by the time we were back in Devon it had started to rain.

I thought the best way to combat jetlag and the stickiness of airports and travelling, was to go for a bit of a paddle and the sheltered open coast at Mevagissey was beckoning, and temperatures were back to normal (i.e. quite chilly).

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Mevagissey light

Rounding Black Head to the north of Pentewan I was surprised to see Mevagissey Bay looking so flat, so I headed directly for the Gwinges (aka Gwineas) rocks on the far side of the bay. This would take me far enough offshore to give me the chance of seeing a porpoise, or maybe a dolphin.

A couple of handfuls of Gannets were circling and I was moderstely confident there would be porpoises underneath, but the had dispersed by the time I rolled up.

However suddenly half a dozen Gannets plunged in directly in front of me (I’ve got no idea how such a large bird can just instantly appear out of nowhere) and I saw a fin break the surface beside them. I was absolutely thrilled to see half-a-dozen Common Dolphins feeding on a baitball of fish which were just beneath the surface creating a sizeable ‘stippled’ area.

Conditions for dolphin-spotting weren’t great because there was a bit of a swell and an increasing wind which makes seeing fins a bit tricky, especially with the bouncing movement of the kayak.  

 

 

There were a couple of juveniles in the group and one small calf. The calf can be seen surfacing just after its mother submerges in this video.

 

 

 

They suddenly disappeared and I wasted no time in getting to the shore as the swell was picking up and cloud building ominously from the south. I couldn’t resist a quick slingshot around the Gwineas cardinal buoy however, because I don’t think I’ve paddled around it before.

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Gwineas cardinal buoy

Mevagissey was as quiet and quaint as ever:

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Mevagissey

Just a single Purple Sandpiper was poking about the rocks in the company of a handful of Turnstones, just outside the harbour mouth.

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Purple Sandpiper

I did a bit of a double-take when I glimpsed a ghostly white shape under the water beneath me, and was very surprised to see a Barrel Jellyfish, about three foot long, going slowly on its way. The earliest one I have ever seen, by quite a few weeks.

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Barrel jellyfish

A pair of Peregrines were very excited about something on the way back…..

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Peregrine

And to finish off an unexpectedly varied and successful morning of wildlife viewing from the kayak, the nesting Shags were looking smart in their bottle green breeding plumage and punked-up headgear.

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Shag
Shag
Shag

Bude Puffin.

The first time I have EVER seen an adult Puffin off Bude. Technically it wasn’t off Bude itself, it was about three miles offshore from Widemouth Bay (which is a couple of miles south of Bude).

Very early morning, flat calm sea, very little about. A couple of Manx Shearwaters, one or two Guillemots and Razorbills and then this particular Puffin whirred past and pitched onto the water just behind my kayak. Perfect for a photo with the early morning sun behind.

I guess it is a foraging bird from the expanding Lundy population.

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Bude Puffin

Below the surface a few jellyfish. Blue Jellies, Comb Jellies and a single three foot long Barrel Jelly.

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Barrel Jelly

As usual, dredging myself out of bed predawn was worth it.