The Portugese Armada

I like jellyfish  and feel we have something in common. Not so much that they are exotic and mysterious, but because they have no brain.

Up till now I have come across six different species:

Common, or Moon jellyfish.

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Common Jelly

Blue Jellyfish.

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Blue jelly

Lion’s Mane Jellyfish

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lion’s Mane Jelly

Compass Jellyfish.

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Compass Jellyfish

Barrel Jellyfish. These are the first ones to appear in April and are up to the size of a dustbin!

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Barrel Jellyfish

Crystal Jellyfish. These are supposed to be very rare, or have been up till very recently, and are like something out of Avatar.

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Crystal Jelly

This autumn I have heard about some Cornish beaches being closed  because Portugese Men of War jellyfish had been washed up, but  I wasn’t expecting to see one while out paddling because typically only a handful turn up each year.

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Mount’s Bay

I was hopeful for an encounter when I did a circuit of Mount’s Bay starting at Marazion. It was a bit choppy but I still went straight across to Mousehole. I had a brief view of a couple of porpoises and was very lucky to see a handful of Common Dolphins which passed just in front of me and stayed alongside for a couple of minutes. There were a couple of silvery-coloured youngsters in the group. Photography was very difficult and this is the only half-decent shot I  managed:

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Juvenile Common Dolphin (I think)

Spotting cetaceans in choppy conditions, let alone photographing them, is quite a challenge.

As I was watching the dolphins I drifted towards a floating translucent bladder with a mauve tinge….a Portugese Man of War jelly. I was actually a bit disappointed because it struggles to live up to it’s very dramatic name and I thought at first it was a discarded plastic bag. However I treated it with respect as I knew the dangling blue tentacles can pack a nasty sting, and recoiled in horror as it seemed to suddenly come towards me although it had probably just been caught by a gust of wind.

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Portugese Man of War Jellyfish

Over the next six hours I came across fifteen Men of War, up to about ten inches long and some without ‘tentacles’.

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Portugese Man of War

And my encounters with ‘Floating Terrors’ (another of it’s superb names) didn’t stop there. A couple of days later while kayaking between Looe and Polperro, Dave, Paul and myself  passed another twenty or so of the much-feared siphonophore (technically the Portugese Man of War is not a jellyfish but a siphonophore consisting of three types of medusoid and four types of polypoid grouped into cormidia beneath the pneumatophore. Jelly would be so much easier).

To be honest some looked more like a shortcrust top-crimped Cornish pasty.

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Portugese Man of War in Full Sail

The sea was quite lumpy again but it didn’t interfere with our jellyfish spotting and, as usual, a good time was had by all.

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Paul, Dave and lumpy sea

The ultra-sheltered narrow harbour of Polperro provided a bit of a break before the paddle back to Looe.

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Polperro
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Looe Harbour

Incidentally, the unluckiest jellyfish I have ever seen is this one that was in the wrong place at the wrong time and was accidentally inhaled by a Basking Shark who usually prefer a diet of plankton. Maybe it was having the jelly for afters.

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Basking Shark and the unluckiest jellyfish in Cornwall

This strange, windblown visitor from the subtropics is probably the most dangerous sea creature I have yet encountered. I have had a few tussles with quite large fish with impressive teeth while doing a spot of fishing, but I think the Man of War just about takes the biscuit in terms of health hazard.

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shark…piece of cake
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Portugese Man of War…takes the biscuit

 

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The Amazing Caves of Boscastle

IMG_2183At last! Yippee. The sea promised to be quiet enough on the north coast of Cornwall to allow terror-free exploration of the many caves of Boscastle. Hardly any wind and one foot of swell. Perfect. Days like this are rarer than an unpleasant McFlurry.

The Magnificent (motley) Six paddlers convened in the main car park of Boscastle and trolleyed down the High Street to the harbour. This is all part of the build up. It’s a lot easier, but less fun, to offload on the quayside and drive back to the carpark. And if you do that you don’t get to see the Museum of Witchcraft.

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Tackling Boscastle High Street

It was ultra low tide so we also had to trolley down the weed laden river which wasn’t quite so entertaining.

We were off! Beep, Mark, Luke, Paul, Kevin and yours truly. Slicing in complete silence (apart from the chit-chat) through crystal clear turquoise water under a cloudless blue sky.

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Our posse of kayakers in Pentargon Bay

Within minutes we had stopped to admire a couple of Barrel Jellyfish below us, ghostly-white and almost luminescent. Absolutely extraordinary creatures but I can never work out quite what they think they are doing or where they think they are going. The answer is probably along the lines of ‘not alot’ and ‘nowhere in particular’.

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Barrel jellyfish

Before we reached Pentargon Strand we were lured into a gigantic cave, a good hundred yards long. I bravely followed Luke and Paul (who had decent torches) into the blackness. I wasn’t at all happy about the roar of waves trapped in a sucky bit which sounded like a dragon.IMG_2042

Incredibly there was a sandy beach at the end of the cave which needed a bit of exploring, but the best bit for me was getting back out into the sunshine.

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Mark and Beep

We passed under an archway, paddled across Pentargon Bay, checked out several smaller caves, and then found a real whopper. Plus a few seals in there for company. We went in around the corner and then into total blackness. Luke went further into the narrowing gap but I was a bit wary in case that unexpected large wave came that squashed us against the ceiling. I paid the penalty for my pathetic overcaution when the only unexpected large wave of the entire day came when we were back out into the sunshine and broke on a reef just as I was crossing it. Typical. Fortunately my damp patch was rapidly forgotten when we saw a couple of Purple Sandpipers poking about on the rocks.

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Monumental Cave

Round past Fire Beacon point there were seals spread around all over the Beeny Sisters rocks, providing some superb viewing in millpond-like conditions. Then more seals, like giant maggots, on the beaches at Beeny which we did our best not to disturb.

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Three seals and Mark (on the right)

One particular adolescent seal was extremely curious and came very close as we shovelled in some food. I think it was my chocolate Hobnobs that drew its attention although it could have been Kevin’s eyecatching, and capacious, spray-skirt.IMG_2105

We cut directly back across the bay to the mouth of Boscastle harbour and couldn’t resist exploring the coast further south. There might not be another kayak-friendly day here for many months.

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Luke and Paul

Despite loafing about off Short Island for a tea break we failed to spot any of its Puffins. A loop around the never-ceasing-to-amaze, eroded and craggy and precipitous Long Island brought us into Bossiney Bay. The sandy beaches were covered by the high tide so getting out for a leg stretch wasn’t easy.

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Kevin ‘the kayak’ Stevens
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Another amazing cave

We turned north for the two miles back to Boscastle and investigated every nook and cranny and gulch and, of course, every cave. Every time a black hole appeared in the cliff Luke wasted no time in darting in followed rapidly by Paul. And the caves just kept on coming. Just one huge long cave would be absolutely remarkable, but we must have ventured into a dozen in this six mile length of coast. Some just narrowed down to nothing but others opened out to great big chambers, one with quite an impressive stalagmite (ot was it ____tite?). I got completely wedged trying to turn my kayak around in the cold inky depths of one chasm. The only possible explanation was that my kayak was longer than anyone else’s, it couldn’t possibly have been anything to do with bungling incompetence.

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Another amazing cliff
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Another amazing gap
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Another amazing ‘Zawn’

Even the enormous ‘zawn’ just outside the harbour mouth at Boscastle was impressive today. It’s usually too lumpy to enter.

That was it. An easy exit straight onto the slipway thanks to the high tide, and a hike back up the High Street to the carpark.

Yet another TOP trip. Although I know why I am a kayaker and lover of wide open spaces, and not a caver. IMG_2185IMG_2197

Looking for Humpbacks

After my encounter with the suspected Fin whale near the Eddystone rocks last August, and a couple of brief sightings of Minkes, I thought that would put a pause on adventures with large cetaceans, at least until late summer.

It is still completely pretty amazing that a Humpback would appear in South Devon at all, and beyond belief that it would spend over six weeks cruising about the sheltered waters of Start Bay, wowing the crowd of assembled whale watchers with some unbelievably close passes to the beach at Slapton. The very fact that the carparks at Slapton Sands are so convenient and close to the steep shelving shingle beach (and therefore in close proximity to deep water), and usually swell-free because it is east facing, is a remarkable coincidence. Its about as perfect a place for whale-watching as you are going to get.

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Slapton Sands

If you were to put a pin in the map for the best pace for a whale to turn up for the maximum number if people to enjoy viewing it, you would choose Slapton sands. Even the bus stop is only yards away.

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The View down to Torcross

Needless to say I wanted to see the whale from my kayak. My first view from my Gumotex Inflatable was when the whale was trapped in a lobster pot rope. Hardly very memorable.

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First Slapton whale encounter

Ten days ago the sea at Slapton was just about flat calm and there was no ‘dumpy’ waves on the beach which can make launching here interesting/embarrassing/entertaining for the crowd. Apparently the whale was still around.

In my Scupper Pro kayak, which I had brought because it drags over the shingle well, I paddled a mile or two offshore. Lots of small parties of Guillemots whose guttural call could be heard for amazing distances over the millpond sea, a few Gannets and a pair of porpoises.

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Guillemot
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Harbour Porpoise

But no whale…yet.

I hadn’t really expected to see it because yet another remarkable feature of this remarkable whale is its habit of coming close inshore late in the day. Many seem to think this is tide-related but it can’t be because in the space of two weeks the tide has gone through its complete cycle, yet the whale still turns up at roughly the same time.

I slid my kayak into the water and sat around fifty metres from the shore, on a surface so calm I could have been in a lake.

To my toe tingling astonishment I heard the whale blowing half a mile away towards Torcross, and saw the bushy cloud of spray slowly disperse. Good grief, it seemed to be heading straight towards me. I fumbled for my camera but already my hands were trembling with excitement.

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The Blow

It surfaced and dived once more. I then saw patches of smooth water appearing in a line like giant footprints coming towards me at the surface as the whale approached….fluke prints caused by the whale swimming along just below the surface! Amazing!

It surfaced and blew only twenty yards away and I got a very unsatisfactory photo. Like a complete idiot I thought the action had finished when the bulk of its body disappeared and I lowered my camera, but then the tail flukes came up in perfect humpback-style as it deep dived. Moron…would have been a pic to remember.

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Slapton Humpback

However it was an absolutely extraordinary encounter. Who would have believed you could see a whale like this within a stone’s throw from the shore in South Devon. I had spent a fair amount of time during the winter researching where in the world you could see Humpback’s from a kayak, as it has been number one on my kayaking wishlist for some time. Hawaii or British Columbia were on the  shortlist.

Wherever it was going to be, I hadn’t expected it would only require about ten strokes of the paddle to get far enough from the shore to achieve the ideal position for viewing! Thinking about it, there probably isn’t anywhere else in the entire world when you can be loafing about  eating a Bakewell tart on the beach one minute, and having a Humpback swim more or less dirctly underneath your kayak less than five minutes later.

Four days ago a wildlife viewing boat (AK Wildlife Cruises) had absolutely incredible views of a Humpback breaching in the middle of Falmouth Bay right beside their boat. Crystal clear pictures and video, you couldn’t hope for better.

So a couple of days later I set off in my Cobra Expedition Kayak for a twenty-five mile paddle around Falmouth Bay, cutting right across the middle to the Manacles rocks, and then following the coast back. Tremendously exciting, calm waters, huge expectation, but no whale.

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St Mawes

I had a reasonable consolation prize. About three miles offshore I sped towards a mini feeding frenzy of gulls which had attracted a handful of Gannets which appeared from nowhere and wasted no time in plunging in. As I approached I could see fins of dolphins slashing at speed across the surface, and the pale patch behind the fin to show they were Common Dolphons. Superb. They appeared a couple of times more but were only momentarily visible in a burst of spray. And suddenly they were gone, the gannets drifted off, and the gulls settled on the water. The lone Manx Shearwater also winged away. Feeding frenzy over.

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Feeding frenzy participants including gannet and Manx Shearwater

This is not the first time this has happened. It is quite difficult to get to a feeding frenzy before it finishes. One of my objectives for this year is to see a big frenzy. The only time I have ever achieved this was off Bude over ten years ago, when I threw out some mackerel for the gannets and they dived in beside my kayak to catch them.

Other wildlife highlights were five Sandwich Terns, four Great Northern Divers, a Whimbrel, six Purple Sandpipers on the Manacles and several swallows coming in off the sea.

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Purple Sandpiper on the Manacles

And an excellent Barrel Jellyfish in the clear waters off Swanpool beach.

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Barrel Jellyfish

Nipped in for nice lunch at Porthallow and met up with former work colleague Andrew who is training for Lands End- John o’ Groats ! (by bike, not kayak)

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Kayaker meets Cyclist

Looking closely at photographs of the Slapton and Falmouth Humpbacks, it would seem they are different whales. This seems even more likely because the Slapton whale has been seen in its usual area since the Falmouth whale has been sighted, and it is unlikely the whale would backtrack sixty or seventy miles when it is supposed to be on migration.

So, probably two Humpbacks. Even more amazing. And on my ‘local’ patch. Thank goodness I hadn’t booked a whale watching by kayak trip somewhere on the other side of the world, which would never have been so much fun. (actually it might have been, but I’m a huge fan of wildlife in the UK, so it would have had to have been exceptional).

More please.

 

 

 

Risso’s and Jelly

Risso’s and Jelly

Charlie and Jelly

Where on earth do Barrel Jellyfish think they are going? And where on earth have they come from? And why on earth do they like to congregate off headlands where their unbelievably weak and slow swimming action is even less effective at getting them where they want to go because headlands are always the places where tidal currents are strongest. They will end up going with the flow whether they like it or not.

Barrel Jelly

But however casual and frilly their approach to life, they seem to have hit upon a winning formula as this Spring they are around the coast in vast numbers.Maybe they do know what they are doing despite apparent frailty and vulnerability. They are big (3ft long) and a bit ghostly and very weird. And great to see as you cruise silently above in your kayak.

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And how excellent is it that the most successful creature around at the minute does not even have a brain. It confirms that life is sustainable without an i-phone (and having a casual and frilly approach to life is not necessarily a bad thing).

In Mount’s Bay the other day just beyond St. Michael’s Mount there was a swarm of Barrel Jellyfish.Many hundreds of them. Taking random photos underwater from the edge of my kayak would show up to five jellies on screen at any one time. Amazing. I wonder if it means that the sea creatures that feast on jellyfish, Sunfish and Leatherback turtles, will also put in a big appearance this year.Hopefully.

Jelly Trio

May’s weather has, as usual, been a bit catchy especially, as usual, down here in the South west with strong winds making the sea out of bounds to kayaks for much of the time.

But being forced to head inland for a bit of kayaking action is not necessarily a bad thing. The Tamar estuary upstream of Calstock is always a favourite.

Kayaking the Tamar near Gunnislake

And a two -day trip to the Upper Thames provides an unexpected ribbon of wilderness within a shout of Swindon. Trilling Curlews, cuckoos , screaming swifts and bushes full of a variety of singing warblers. And  as many ducklings, goslings and cygnets as you would care to see.P1080015

P1080032Locks and lockkeepers cottages remained unchanged for centuries.P1080004

The canoe pass at Radcot lock is inspirational. More please.

Radcot lock canoe pass

Only one thing split the sound of nature, and it kept going round and round as it practised landing at RAF Fairford.About as unfeasible as a Barrel Jellyfish.

Globemaster transport

Nice camp spot with a decent view along the river:

Tent window with a view

I have ventured out for one brief fishing session off the south coast during a window of quieter weather. My first mackerel of the season was followed by half a dozen pollack, a couple of whiting and a grey gurnard. All caught on a string of silver foil feathers. All small. All put back. While in fishing mode I took a spin round Newlyn harbour to see how the ‘big boys’ do it.

Grey Gurnard

Busy Newlyn Harbour

My most recent visit to Penzance provided BIG excitement. Not just for the vast numbers of jellyfish and the scenic backdrop of St. Michael’s Mount jutting out into the middle of the bay.

St.Michael's Mount

Launching from Marazion I ventured out offshore in the hope of encountering some sea creatures. I soon saw a big fin at the surface, but too sickle-shaped for a shark and too big for a common dolphin. In fact too big for a bottle-nose dolphin as well, I thought. I got my camera ready and of course did not see it again. For a while anyway.

Ten minutes later a different big fin surfaced quite close beside me and I floundered to get my camera poised in the choppy conditions. It surfaced briefly four times then once again was gone. I was pretty sure this was a Risso’s dolphin considering the size and shape of the fin but was keen to get a better view.

Risso's dolphin

Over the next few hours I saw the big fins about ten more times. Usually a single, big, dolphin but also one or two small groups. And in the far distance beyond St. Michaels’s mount a wild splashing that must have been of dolphin origin. I paddled over to have a look, saw nothing, paddled a mile back to the middle of the bay, and glanced back to see the exact splashing again where I had just been. So I paddled back,waited around for half an hour, nothing appeared, so I paddled back to the middle of the bay again, and unbelievably the splashing once again appeared in the far distance, in the same place. Maybe they just didn’t like me.

As I pondered over a ham sandwich (with lettuce and coleslaw), another big fin sliced the water in front of me, this one looking very bleached..surely a Risso’s. As I was waiting for it to resurface a school of very active but not particularly friendly common dolphins appeared and surged all around. Very much smaller than the Risso’s and much more dashing. Impossible to photograph. I suspect the wildlife watchers on Shearwater II had a better and more stable view than I had.

Wildlife watchers on shearwater II

Before I headed for home I caught two very brief glimpses of Risso’s dolphins breaching. One had a lot of white on it and the other was greyer but showed the characteristic blunt head. I didn’t get to see the ‘classic’ scarring marks that Risso’s are supposed to have on their bodies. They didn’t seem to be inquisitive like bottle-nose dolphins and were intent on feeding, apparently on cuttlefish.

The local gulls were very pleased to clear up the pieces. This Greater Black-back puffed himself (herself) up to look even bigger and even more threatening than normal.

Greedy Gull

So very pleased with a new dolphin species seen from kayak. Just got to see that whale now!

Another Risso's fin