I didn’t need much persuasion to nip across to Torbay for an open sea paddle, given the brief lull in the wind and the desperate need to offset my colossal festive calorie footprint. There is a danger I might end up with the same BMI as the local seals (no disrespect to them intended).
It was gloomy and drizzly but my spirits were lifted by a small group off Dolphins only just off the end of the breakwater. They passed by close with a sense of urgency. It was great to see a calf tucked in close beside its mum.
Another small pod sped past to join up with a larger group of about twenty.
This larger pod were milling about in one area and attracting quite a large flock of Gannets that were circling expectantly overhead. The dolphins then coordinated into a circle , corralling a baitball of fish in the middle. The baitball can be clearly seen in this video.
The Gannets wasted no time in joining in with the feast, with the baitball pinned against the surface. I am particularly pleased with these shots because it is the first time I have succeeded in getting a reasonable film of dolphins with a half-decent Gannet feeding frenzy. I have seen plenty from afar, but by the time I roll up the action has long passed.
I was very surprised to glimpse a skua causing a bit of trouble amongst a group of gulls some distance away. It is very unusual to see this type of seabird at this time of year. It is an Arctic/Pomarine type…probably a Pomarine because Arctics winter a lot further south in the Atlantic.
The dolphins cruised about finishing up their meal.
And I headed out past Berry Head looking for more exciting sea creatures. The surface was nice and flat (for a change).
I found three more small pods of dolphins. One group, a couple of miles off Berry Head, were exceptionally inquisitive and accompanied me for the best part of half an hour as I cruised along. Superb.
My underwater photo effort was disappointing because, although the dolphins came very close, the water was cloudier than it looked from above the surface (although not surprising after all the storms and rain). You can hear lots of communication clicks, however.
Add to all this four Porpoises, which have a characteristic ‘puff’ which is much louder than a dolphin, and an exceptional number of Great Northern Divers (including a preening group of eight) completed a day which was rather beyond my expectations.
Two consecutive days of full-on Dolphin action, including two large groups which may have qualified as superpods. It is very difficult to estimate the number of individuals in a confused mass of water, especially when one’s grey matter is on the verge of blowing a fuse with all the fizzing excitement.
This sort of stuff was way beyond my wildest dreams when I started offshore sea kayaking, but if you can be bothered to paddle miles and miles offshore for hours and hours, sooner or later you are going to come across some action.
Most likely a quiet little Porpoise puffing its way quietly along….
but every so often, especially in late summer, you are in for a bit of a treat.
DAY 1: Berry Head, Brixham
My offshore paddle beyond Berry Head was initially halted by a bank of fog that rolled in when I was a mile off the headland. I had just seen a small pod of dolphins but they were suddenly consumed in the murk, and I had to navigate back to the headland using the GPS. Being out of sight of land is always a bit unsettling, but the greatest danger is being run over by some moron in a speedboat (or jetski).
The mist dispersed so I headed off again, directly out from Berry Head.
The surface was initially a bit choppy, but smoothed off as the mist thinned, and I heard splashing behind me that came from a small pod of Common Dolphins. One had an unusually pale dorsal fin:
Sights such as this ensure that you will be planning your next kayaking trip the minute you get home.
I was ‘checked out’ by four ‘Bonxie’ Great Skuas. Migrating seabirds always fly a bit closer to the coast during conditions of poor visibility, and these are on their way to spend the winter in the Atlantic after (probably) breeding in Scotland.
Although the activity went quiet my aim was to paddle exactly five miles from Berry Head. When my GPS got precisely to 5.00 miles I stopped for a coffee and crunch cream. And heard a distant continuous splashy roar that was like surf breaking on a beach, coming from further out to sea. At the limit of vision I could just see a mass of dark shapes appearing at the surface.
Fifteen minutes of flat-out paddling later……..
I estimated 50-70 in the group and the general rule is that the actual number of dolphins is twice what you think. So probably 100+, and 100 qualifies as a superpod. Another first for thelonekayaker.
Two relaxed hours of paddling later, and another small pod of dolphins and a porpoise or two, I was back amongst (sort of) civilisation.
Tombstoners and a busy bank-holiday Brixham Breakwater beach.
DAY 2: Mount’s Bay, Penzance
I was meeting Henry’s friend Josh at Penzance at 7.30am. He was dead keen to see dolphins, so the pressure was on. I generally don’t go far offshore unless the wind forecast is less than 5mph. Any more and the kayak bounces around too much, you can’t hear blows and splashes above the sound of the breaking wavelets, and you can’t see a fin so well when the surface is not smooth.
I am also wary in taking anyone out far offshore in a kayak for a trip which could easily be twenty miles and seven to eight hours long. Not just because of safety, but it’s not everyone’s cup of tea, especially if you don’t see any dolphins, which is very possible because they are so wide-ranging.
Anyway, Josh seemed up for it, and we got off to a good start by seeing Eddie the resident Eider duck (in eclipse plumage), about a minute after getting on the water. The first one Josh had seen in UK.
Over the next two hours we swung three miles offshore past Mousehole and saw just one porpoise. The sea was choppy, with small whitecaps, and was steely grey under cloudy skies. Not great, especially as the wind was behind us which would make the long paddle back even longer.
But everything changed in an instant.
Half-a-mile ahead ten Gannets were circling and diving from a huge height. I knew that with such intense activity there would almost certainly be dolphins involved so we powered forward. Fins at the surface. Phew. Pressure off. Even better the sea suddenly smoothed off and the sun came out!
Josh was as enthralled and as excited I thought he would be. Listen to this clip carefully.
As the pod moved off we heard a persistent distant splashing a lot further out, so of course could not resist a bit of investigation…… it was a huge pod of dolphins spread over a large area, with hundreds of Manx Shearwaters zipping past and loafing about on the surface. Offshore kayak wildlife heaven. The shearwaters alone would have probably made the whole trip worthwhile.
We spent a long time watching and enjoying, basically sat right in the middle of the action. It was a feast for the ears as much as the eyes, surrounded by a permanent sloshing and splashing and puffing. Common Dolphins are my favourite cetacean for that precise reason…they are so energetic and active.
And then we heard the blow of a whale. Loud and long and a blast that sounds like it is coming out of a very wide tube. It was not easy to work out precisely where the noise came from, so we stared in the general direction, and wished the dolphins would quieten down a bit (how amazing is that….not being able to hear a whale for the sound of splashing dolphins!). Nothing more for a long while, then another non-directional blast of breath and that was it….we never saw it, although Josh thinks he saw a long back in front of a curved fin for an instant.
But come on, Josh, it’s a bit much to see a whale on your first ever offshore wildlife kayak trip.
So he had to settle for a dolphin superpod instead. Tough.
I had been watching a very black-looking thunderstorm gathering in the south. We were ninety minutes paddling time from the shore and it is not a great idea to be stuck out in the middle of the sea holding a carbon-fibre paddle if there is lightning around.
We started to head in as the first drops of rain started to fall (so a bit late, probably), but the dolphins hadn’t finished with us.
The biggest dolphin of the pod swum right in between us….
and it then escorted us away by riding our bow wave for a few minutes as we sped towards the shore.
More distraction when we were a couple of miles from the security of Mousehole. An unusually large pod of Harbour Porpoises, probably in excess of twenty. Same routine, we just quietly approached and sat completely still and the action ( quiet and porpoisey, unlike the animated dolphins) happened around us…..often behind us!
We rolled into Mousehole for lunch (sandwiches) on the harbour wall in the rain, and headed back to Penzance as it eased off, narrowly avoiding getting tombstoned.
One more wildlife nugget awaited us as we arrived back at Penzance Harbour after our seventeen mile, seven hour trip. Tucked in amongst the Turnstones roosting at high tide was this cracking Knot, still with a wash of orange summer plumage. A migrant from the high arctic.
So, two very large pods of dolphins on two consecutive days in two different counties, both probably exceeding the magical number of a hundred to make them superpods.
You might think it’s no big deal to photograph the same Harbour Porpoise in more or less the same place three times in a month. Unlike dolphins which are highly mobile and could be dozens of miles away the next day, porpoises seem to be regular at certain sites around southwest England, particular headlands, and nowhere I have paddled holds a more reliable pod of porpoises than Berry Head.
It is certainly the best spot to see a porpoise from a kayak because of its proximity to an excellent launch spot at Brixham and its relatively sheltered location which results in a smooth sea surface (essential for porpoise-spotting) more often than headlands further west. Further west generally means a more disturbed sea state with more wind, swell, and tidal flow.
Berry Head also has a very well-defined tideline along which the porpoises, if they are around, love to forage.
So why am I so excited about Notchy?
For a start Notchy is the first identifiable (because of the notch at the base of his/her dorsal fin) cetacean I have seen on more than one occasion. Apart from Horace the Humpback whale that is (which was rather more easy to spot).
Secondly it is a window into the population dynamics of Harbour Porpoises. Is the same group here all the time? Or is there a hard core with a mobile population that comes and goes? Is there a seasonal pattern or is availability of fish more of an influence?
The possible answers to all of these questions are tremendously blurred by the difficulty of observing porpoises in anything apart from calm conditions. As soon as there are any breaking whitecaps the chances of seeing a fin reduce considerably. This is certainly the case from kayak and I would only consider venturing offshore in absolutely calm conditions. It is maybe not quite so critical if watching from a telescope from Berry Head.
The overall impression I get from observing porpoises from my kayak all round SW England is that there is a peak of numbers in August which falls away till early in the year, then very few about in April to June before numbers rapidly build. This is skewed by the sea conditions which are smoother in summer which encourage me to go out to where the porpoises hang out more, but it is interesting that I usually see numbers into double figures (max 24 this year) in August and September, but only ones and twos in May.
I think that availability of their favourite food has a lot to do with this apparent seasonality, with the appearance of mackerel accounting for the late summer surge, with herring and pilchard appearing in early winter, and a noticeable gap in these tasty fish in the Spring.
Socialisation might have something to do with it, with the main ‘rutting’ season for porpoises known to be in late summer, maybe contributing to increased group size (like a sort of porpoise Magaluf).
My son Henry had to good fortune to snap this pic of an ultra-rare white porpoise off the North coast of Cornwall, and to the best of my knowledge it hasn’t been seen since, but it would be quite easy for a five foot long porpoise to get lost in the swells of the north coast as there aren’t many observers or boats about up there (and I’m not very well ‘connected’). But this would suggest that porpoises do travel.
Coming back to the Berry Head porpoise pod, I would guess that there is a nucleus which is added to, and thins out, according to seasonality of their baitfish.
If you like hunting along a tideline you will not find one more pronounced than Berry Head. It must be like being permanently camped in the carpark of MacDonalds, if you are partial to a Big Mac.
So back to ‘Notchy’. here he/she is on three dates in December. Characteristic notch at the back of the fin clearly visible in each pic.
Photographing porpoises is incredibly difficult, and doubly so from a kayak. After you see them surface for the first time you must predict where they will next appear. This is easy for a dolphin because they usually progress in a straight line, but porpoises will zigzag about all over the place underwater and could pop up anywhere. Add in the small size of the fin and the movement of the kayak, and that the porpoise could surface directly behind you or disappear completely, and it can get a tad frustrating.
I don’t have any idea of whether I have got any photos in focus, let alone any distinguishing features, until I get back to the stability of the shore.
So to picture the same one three times is a bit of a surprise.
Porpoises hardly ever breach but during my last visit there was one which was extremely pumped up and leapt clear of the water on a couple of occasions. Unfortunately I was a split second too late with the shutter.
I also observed one resting at the surface, a behaviour I have only rarely seen before, and only when the sea is completely smooth (although I suppose I wouldn’t see it if was choppy anyway). Video:
Far out to sea I caught a split second glimpse of a jumping beast so paddled out to investigate, and was pleased to see a couple of Common Dolphins cruising along at a speed which I could only match by paddling flat out.
With a bit of luck 2019 will be equally as enthralling, and maybe Notchy will still be around.