I already can’t remember the last time I saw the sun. It’s at least a week. Today there was the slight slackening in the winds, so I couldn’t resist a quick jaunt to the Cornish Riviera. It’s east facing so there is good shelter from the westerly swell, and there is good access to open clear sea, so I was going to venture as far offshore as the conditions would allow. Which I didn’t think would be very far.
It was a monochrome grey day and the sea didn’t look welcoming, but I followed the coast towards Mevagissey about half-a-mile offshore. After a quick coffee break on a gravelly beach, that is. Water, water, everywhere.
I was very pleased to see this particularly large Barrel Jellyfish appear ghost-like beneath me. They have had a very long season this year (I saw the first on the first day of March) , and have been around in record numbers.
This one was unusual in that it was playing host to large number of little fish (about 30) that took refuge behind the pulsating umbrella for a bit of protection from fish-shaped snack-hunters.
Over a mile further out I saw an intense circling flock of Gannets. Dilemma, do I go to investigate or do I do the sensible thing and stay near dry land?
No choice really, and although the sea looked grey and unfriendly the wind was still light, with only the odd whitecap. So I headed out.
As usual, by the time I arrived upon the scene the feeding activity was over and about fifty Gannets were sat about on the water looking very replete and full of fish, but fortunately a pod of about twenty Common Dolphins were milling about in a relaxed many clearing up the leftovers.
Very difficult to photograph with the movement of the kayak, and nobody really wants to see dolphins in a grey sea under leaden skies, but here they are. Because it’s always a thrill and I really wasn’t expecting to see any today. I thought it would be yet another trip cringeing and cowering up a creek out of the wind.
We’ll start off below the surface and work upwards, culminating in an encounter to match anything you will see in the natural world, anywhere.
High summer means a jellyfish boom in the waters around Devon and Cornwall. The lack of rain and calm conditions has made the water crystal clear, so the jellyfish look even better than usual.
Following record numbers during the spring, there are still plenty of Barrel Jellyfish around, up to about four foot long.
Compass jellies are my favourite, because of there intricate colour scheme and the fact that they are ‘proper’ jellies because, unlike Barrel jellies, they have a sting.
New kids on the block for July are Moon Jellies. How appropriate for the anniversary of the lunar landings. They occur in huge numbers and concentrate around the current lines.
As usual there are plenty of seals dotted along the coast, concentrating in their favourite rocky haulouts. There is no doubt they are increasingly tolerant of humans, it’s dogs they really don’t like. They have very acute hearing and a dog barking half-a-mile away can make them more agitated than a kayaker bobbing about a few feet away.
They show only a passing interest in waterskiers……..
and are quite happy to be the stars of the show:
A big hazard for seals is fast moving craft. This injury is probably caused by an impact with a boat, although it could conceivably be the result of a fight.
I was thrilled to meet up with this Harbour Seal along the south Cornwall coast. Harbour Seals are rare in SW England, the majority are the bigger, and arguably less attractive Grey Seals.
Cetacean viewing from my kayak is my favourite occupation, because it is so challenging. Most porpoises, dolphins and whales hunt miles from the shore so just getting out to where they might be is not easy, and when eventually a day comes along which is calm enough for you to make the considerable effort to get out there, they are so widely scattered that you almost certainly won’t see them.
A smooth surface is the key to success and this month I have been lucky enough to see three different species: Harbour Porpoise, Common Dolphin and Risso’s Dolphin. I might even call it three and-a-half because a glimpse of a big back disappearing below the water followed by a big swirl while down at Penzance was almost certainly a Minke Whale. If only I had looked round a quarter of a second earlier…….
Guillemots and Razorbills have completed their breeding on the sea cliffs and have now headed far out to sea. Just a few stragglers are reluctant to depart.
Manx Shearwaters are constant companions offshore, zipping past the kayak in compact groups, or resting on the surface.
I have been very pleased to have seen several Oystercatcher chicks along the coast this year. Like other waders, which are all declining, they are ground-nesting and so disturbance by dogs is a big issue.
This pair chose a little rocky promontory to raise their two youngsters.
We are going to take a jaunt inland up the rivers now, before returning to the coast for my grand finale.
I am very excited to have seen this next little wildlife gem recently. I was very familiar with Water Voles when I was a teenager in Berkshire, as you can see from my entries in my wildlife diary 1975. In those days I sported a luxuriant (but greasy) mop of hair and my knees were composed of bone, not titanium. You could guarantee a handful of water vole sightings during a short visit to the Thames or one of its tributaries.
Then Mink came along and ate nearly all of them.
This is the first Water Vole I have seen for decades. It was beside the very upper reaches of the Thames, so just about (or very nearly) qualifies for SW England. Even if it doesn’t quite qualify it is GREAT to see.
I took this next video clip, of a very similar-looking, but very much larger herbivore beside the upper reaches of an estuary which was definitely in Southwest England.
A Beaver enjoying breakfast.
We now float off downstream, back to the open coast.
Peregrine falcons are not uncommon, but to actually see one making a kill is exceptional. If you see one in hunting mode, or just starting a stoop, it will probably be out of sight (either round a headland or disappeared into the distance) by the time it strikes its prey. Even if you see the final moments of the plunge, they frequently miss.
I had only picked Jed up from the station in Exeter a couple of hours previously, so I was very pleased to be able to show him a Peregrine, as a fledgling snickered at its passing parent. I told him to watch that passing pigeon closely, just in case the falcons had a ‘go’ at it.
They certainly did. The adult and young Peregrine stooped in a shallow dive at the pigeon, there was a mid-air scuffle of wings for a split second, and then the struggling pigeon was just about scrambled to the rocks on the shore, secured in the talons of the peregrine that was losing height fast with the weight.
All in a few seconds, and a hundred yards away, and as usual I was hoping for an action replay to work out exactly what just happened. Looking at my pics later helped.
It is a juvenile Peregrine holding the pigeon (streaked breast, not barred). It looks as though the pigeon is a youngster as well (no white flashes on its neck), so was maybe easier to catch.
I’m pretty sure the young Peregrine actually caught the pigeon itself, although I might have expected the adult bird to have made the catch, and then passed it to its offspring as part of its training. I think the young bird had already progressed on to making its own ‘kills’, or perhaps this was its very first, and amazingly successful, effort!
I’m also pretty sure I saw the adult actually herd the pigeon in the direction of the young falcon because it was flying in the opposite direction a few seconds before the stoop.
Peregrines have a notch in their upper mandible to nip the spinal cord of their avian victims to kill them outright. This young bird didn’t do that (probably hadn’t had that lesson yet) so the unfortunate pigeon was still very much alive, and still flapping, as the Peregrine takes it behind a rock and out of sight to deal with it.
Here is the action again slowed down even further.
Fantastic. One of the great spectacles of the natural world. In my opinion right up there with things like seeing a Lion taking an antelope. Maybe even better, because it happened right here on our ‘doorstep’ and I suspect fewer people have seen a peregrine make a kill than a lion. All played out as we watched from the comfort of a kayak seat. And a completely random sight that only comes from putting in the hours of paddling. In my case, many thousands of hours. In Jed’s case, an hour and-a-half. Lucky.
My first trip out to the legendary lighthouse of 2019.
As is typical of me I arrived beach too early, and it was far too breezy. I paddled out from Cawsand in a steady force 4 NE wind and started to get very cold feet about heading out to the Eddystone. Fortunately I had sneaked a final look at the wind forecast before I left home and was as confident as I could be that this was just a flow of cool air off the land that would ease off as the sun got to work. Much of the day was supposed to be just about windless.
Even so, I hugged the coast round to Rame Head and checked in with the NCI lookout on the headland above before gingerly starting on the ten mile crossing to Eddystone.
The Queen Elizabeth was still at anchor in the outer sound:
The wind dropped only slowly and the first five miles were quite bouncy. Manx Shearwaters flicked past, and a few sat about on the sea.
I started to relax as the sun warmed my back and the surface smoothed off.
There were quite a variety of jellyfish today: a handful of Barrel Jellies, lots of Compass jellies and one or two Moon and Blue.
Breakfast was taken on board. Not another soul for many miles around.Of course I wanted to see some fins breaking the water and my hopes were raised by the slightly larger number of patrolling Gannets than I had seen offshore recently. As usual they came over and checked me out. Large objects at the surface tend to eat fish so can mean a meal to a Gannet. Unfortunately for them , I don’t . Not for breakfast anyway.
However by the time I arrived at the Eddystone reef I had seen no large marine creatures. However I was amazed to see huge numbers of silvery-coloured fish over the reef. I thought these were Mullet but close inspection of the pics later showed they were Bass. Probably thousands of them!
I don’t think I’ve ever seen a single Bass under the water before (which wasn’t on the end of a hook). Fortunately for them they were managing to outwit the several boatloads of sport fishermen around (who had not observed them below the surface).
Time to head back towards terra firma…after a quick selfie of course;
The four hour paddle back was absolutely superb, and my absolute favourite type of sea kayaking. Cloudless sky, sun behind, ten miles offshore, completely smooth surface and no wind so that if anything appeared broke the surface within half a mile I was going to see it, and if anything splashed or blew within two miles I was going to hear it.
The excitement started steadily. Three porpoises.
This bit of sea a mile or two north of Eddystone seems to be a cetacean hotspot, because four dolphins appeared straight in front of me….two adults and two juveniles. In superb conditions and nicely illuminated by the sun.
I dragged myself away and stopped for lunch a few miles further on, and was caught on the horns of a dilemma when I heard splashing far far behind me (where I had paddled half an hour before). Surely dolphins, but should I go back, and add on another three miles to an already hefty trip?
Of course I had to, they might be an ultra rare species. Needless to say they weren’t, it was about ten more Common Dolphins, with a handful of energetic juveniles in amongst the pod.
Added to this was another porpoise and a single speeding dolphin, and then it all went quiet after the half-way reef.
Apart from the odd Guillemot,
a Common Scoter drake that was trying to conceal itself in amongst a raft of Manx Shearwaters,
and the oil-tanker ‘Emma’ (not the name that would come immediately to mind for an oil tanker) thundering past on its way out of Plymouth sound.
The Queen Elizabeth had left in early afternoon too, with blasts on its horn so loud it made my ribcage vibrate and fillings rattle at a distance of nearly ten miles.
If you want to try to watch dolphins from a kayak my advice would be not to. It is incredibly difficult and you are almost certain to fail. Most of the time they are more than a couple of miles offshore, and just finding a day when the sea is smooth enough to make the trip enjoyable, and calm enough to see fins breaking the surface, is a challenge.
Also dolphins range far and wide so the chances of seeing them at all is always small, especially as using binoculars on a kayak (as would a dolphin-watching boat) is useless due to constant movement.
I hadn’t seen any dolphins since the end of March, since when I have paddled nearly 600 miles, including over one hundred and sixty miles over a mile offshore specifically looking for dolphins. The sea has been extraordinarily quiet, just a few porpoises and hardly a roving Gannet to be seen. All the marine wildlife watching companies around the coast have been saying the same.
I was on the water at 5am because the window of light winds was only forecast to last till midday. It started off grey and choppy but as I headed offshore the wind lightened and the surface glassed off nicely. Manx shearwaters zipped past and a few Razorbills and Guillemots fished from the surface.
Far ahead a single Gannet twisted in the air and dived, and three more circled. That was the only encouragement I needed to engage top gear because I was sure there would be something interesting swimming beneath, and sure enough there were the fins. Dolphins. Phew, I was about to pack in all this stuff due to lack of success!
I could see there were quite a few juveniles, with their smaller dorsal fins, in the pod of about eight individuals. As usual a delegate of adults came over to investigate me as I carefully approached. I presume this is to assess my threat level ( I could be an Orca) and warn the rest of the group accordingly.
Fortunately they decided I was completely benign and went off to carry on with hunting as a pack.
There ensued an enthralling half hour as the pod remained in essentially the same place, slow swimming, diving, resting, rushing and every so often jumping. Unlike porpoises which roll at the surface with barely a ripple, Common Dolphins are very dynamic and do a lot of splashing.
I silently left the scene and headed further out, looking for even bigger stuff, although the next marine marvel was actually quite small….a Puffin, with the grubby-looking face and smudgy-coloured bill of an immature bird probably hatched last year.
I loitered four or five miles offshore, downed coffee and headed back in before the wind picked up. I stopped at an obvious tideline and saw a couple of distant Porpoises slinking about before checking out the underwater action……jellyfish: one Barrel Jelly, several Blue jellies and over fifty Compass jellyfish, the first I have seen this year:
Notice the little pink fish that is tucked in behind the jellyfish’s umbrella. The perfect safe place away from hungry mouths, and made even safer because it is surrounded by a palisade of stinging tentacles.
As I watched I heard a thumping splash further along the tideline, almost a mile away. I paddled over to investigate and came upon another small pod of dolphins, about half-a-dozen. These were even more dynamic than the first lot:
Sometimes they re-entered the water seamlessly after a jump, sometimes they bellyflopped appallingly with a mighty splash:
I was getting a stiff back and numb backside after seven hours in the kayak seat, so was just setting off for the shore when this dolphin put in the best jump of the day. An appropriate finale.
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.
Floating seabirds are few and far between as well…just a few Razorbills and Guillemots.
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.
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.
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:
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.
They are long distance migrants, wintering down to South Africa and breeding from the north of Scotland upwards.
The cliffs are currently ablaze with Thrift (Sea Pink),
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.
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.
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.
The narrow tidal creek is an unusual place to store a redundant monster-ship.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.