Unlocked.Unleashed.

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Covid-free zone

Phew, lockdown has eased just in time get out and enjoy the REALLY sunny weather. My chum Paul always says that the third week in May is the best week of the year and I think he’s just about spot-on…..wildflowers in full bloom and birds as busy as they can possibly be with raising their families.

The Guillemots on Gull Rock are lined up like ten-pins on their tiny ledges and jostling for position. I love their primeval cackle….

They are looking at their very best at the moment, all chocolately brown and white, and I spotted a rare bridled version (a plumage variation, not a separate species) amongst the throng.

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Bridled Guillemot

I didn’t get too close to the breeding ledges…..making them  ‘stampede’ is completely unacceptable and can cause eggs, which are just placed on the narrow ledges with no nest to hold them in place, to fall off.

I opted for admiring them on the water instead.

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Gang of Guillemots

Also nesting on Gull Rock (apart from Gulls, of course) are Razorbills, but in much fewer numbers than the Guillemots. I think they look even better than their auk cousins, decked out in velvety-black with a perfectly positioned white designer streak in front of the eye.

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Razorbill

Here’s one trying to ensure it’s impeccable image is maintained….

I was a bit surprised to come across this little posse resting on a tiny islet half a mile offshore.

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Sanderling snoozing (plus Dunlin, top left)

A group of Sanderling and Dunlin, moulting into their breeding plumage, no doubt en route to their breeding grounds in the arctic. Sanderlings, perhaps not surprisingly, are most at home on a sandy beach, running in and out with the waves.

Other arctic breeders that winter around the coast of Cornwall are also still around. This pair of Great Northern Divers in Gerrans Bay are reluctant to cast off their winter dress,

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Great Northern Diver

whereas this one in Penzance is in full breeding plumage. Bad pic I know, but it shows off the ‘necklace’ well.

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Great Northern Diver breeding plumage.

Purple Sandpipers, which specifically like to winter on wave battered barnacle-encrusted rocks in exposed locations, also have not all departed for the north.

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Purple Sandpiper

Fin-tastic

OK, let’s ramp up the post-lockdown kayaking excitement a notch or two.

Seeing a fin slicing through the clear waters of the open sea is one of the greatest wildlife sightings you can have from a kayak, in my opinion. Not least because it is quite an achievement in terms of planning, and physical effort, to get out to where they might be….usually far offshore.

The last one I saw was attached to the back of a porpoise off Dodman Point on 16 March. Because I am a bit of a fin addict, I was pretty keen to find a few more, and as soon as the wind forecast for Mounts Bay, Penzance , was suitable, I was off down the A30 for my dose of extended, and legal, exercise.

Launching from Penzance harbour at low tide is currently rather tricky because there is a ship parked in the channel, the Scillonian III.

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Penzance Harbour

Heading offshore I was lucky enough to hear a couple of Porpoises puffing before I had stopped for breakfast. Excellent. I didn’t watch them for long because I had moved on to the next ‘thing’…..what else might be about? I had to keep paddling out before the wind picked up (it wasn’t forecast to increase, and didn’t, but I always maintain a sense of urgency in case it does. Quite exhausting, really).

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Porpoise, Penzance

Good call, another fin ahead, and this one was slightly bigger and accompanied by a little splash…..Dolphin!

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Common Dolphin

It got better……the dolphin’s calf then popped up beside it.common dolphins

I settled in (as much as you can in a kayak on the open sea), ate my breakfast, had a cup of coffee, and enjoyed the show.

And then I paddled on. I saw very little for the next few hours, although paddled over to investigate a small group of Kittiwakes dipping down to the surface snatching small fish. Far out to sea small fish at the surface is good news for Kittiwakes, good news for me, but bad news for small fish.

They are there because predators from below have herded them into a baitball and pinned them up against the surface to make them easier to catch. Last autumn, in exactly this place, baitballs of sprats and sandeels were being engulfed by dolphins, porpoises, giant tuna, a Minke Whale and a Humpback whale.

Today wasn’t quite so dramatic, but it was the first time I had seen this particular predator doing the herding. Sea Bass. The first one I glimpsed just below me was so big it gave me a bit of a start. Big for a Bass anyway…must have been 5lbs plus (danger of exaggeration here…it’s a fishy story).

On the way back, amazingly, I bumped into the dolphin pair again, three miles away from our first encounter. Like finding the needle in the haystack, twice.

I took lunch at Mousehole. Looking good, as always (Mousehole, not me).

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Mousehole

And as usual a few seals were lounging about on the island. Including this rather glistening youngster….last year’s pup?

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The Beadiest of Eyes

Although I would describe the cheese sandwiches I had hastily constructed at 4.30am as forgettable, they didn’t go unnoticed by the local gulls, some of whom might tend towards a scavenging sort of approach to life. They came close enough to allow unusually close scrutiny of their features.

How amazing is this eye? The iris looks more like a map of the moon than a map of the moon.

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Eyeball that eyeball

It belongs to the local avian bully-boy and public enemy number one, a Great Black-backed Gull. Gulls in seaside towns have an appalling public image, but I personally like them very much, not least because their eyes are filled with character. The call of a Herring Gull is the sound of the seaside.

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Great Black-back

Although, having said that, the sound of a Great Black-back is a rather intimidating ‘gulp’.

 

And finally…back to the (semi-lockdown) garden

To further uplift the spirits, here’s a couple of recent specials to round things off.

The first snake I have ever seen in the garden (in 25 years).

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Grass Snake

And a Willow Warbler doing it’s best to maintain the tail end of the dawn chorus, despite being audio-bombed by a wren during its second verse.

 

 

 

Top Tips for Top Pics

Watching and Photographing Wildlife from the Kayak Seat

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Kingfisher (taken from kayak…of course)

If you want the best front row seat in the stadium to see water-based wildlife, a kayak is what you need. It is not just exhilarating, fun and everybody’s favourite mode of transport. It is completely silent, very unobtrusive and offers the best perspective for observation and photography because you are sitting at water level.

Compare these two dolphin pics. The first is a Dusky Dolphin I took from the deck of a boat, the second is a Common Dolphin snapped from my kayak.

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Dusky Dolphin from boat
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Common dolphin from kayak

 

 

You can look right into the eye of the dolphin at the same level and get much more of a feel of their (big) personality and (considerable) charisma. Audio input isn’t confused by the noise of an engine…you can hear every puff, every splash and the full range of squeaks and clicks. Have a listen to this. Bottlenose Dolphins.

 

What Camera?

I carry around two cameras when I go out paddling. One is as simple as a camera can be and so fits in as well with my minimalistic approach to gadgets as it does in my lifejacket pocket.

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Akaso V50 Pro and waterproof case.

It is an AKASO V50 PRO which is a cheaper version of the legendary GoPro sports camera. It is a point and shoot and delivers very acceptable stills and excellent 4K videos. It has a very wide angle lens so is great for scenery shots…..

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wide-angle Looe

and big wildlife up very close. When inside its waterproof case it is perfect for underwater stuff. Like this….

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common dolphin

and this..

My previous underwater camera was not to be sneezed at either. It captured some great shots of this enormous Basking Shark as it cruised underneath my kayak. This was taken ten (gulp) years ago with an Olympus Tough compact camera. It was lucky I saw these when I did…a Basking Shark is now a rare sight.

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Basking Shark, Land’s End

 

My main camera is the superb PANASONIC LUMIX FZ2000. I have been using it for two and-a-half years, having upgraded from a couple of superzoom bridge cameras over the previous decade. The Lumix FZ2000 is also a bridge camera (so NOT a SLR) but gives a superior image quality to most others of similar design because it has a larger (1″) sensor.

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Panasonic Lumix FZ 2000

It has a 24-480 zoom lens so can skip in a couple of seconds from a decent wide angle for scenes and close, large creatures to a respectable telephoto shot of a bird. This is where it REALLY has the edge over a DSLR for me. To get the same range of focal length with a DSLR I would have to carry at least two lens, and changing lens while out on a kayak is really not easy. Worse still it takes time and spontaneity is the key when trying to photograph wildlife that spends most of its time underwater.

Also DSLRs are very heavy (although the very latest are much lighter), and more expensive than the LUMIX FZ2000. Yes, they give an image with better resolution but, in good light particularly, the bridge camera comes close.

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Guillemot, taken with Lumix FZ2000

I use the Lumix FZ2000 for videos as well. The quality is HD or 4k and it is great to be able to use the 20X zoom while videoing.

 

It is a really great camera and has recorded some memorable images. It has only two drawbacks, one major and one minor. The less important issue is that the lens cap doesn’t attach very firmly and keeps falling off when I put the camera in its bag, which is quite irritating when I am a bit tired.

The major issue is that the camera doesn’t have any weatherproofing at all. It is about as unwaterproof as it is possible to be. So it is pretty remarkable it is still going strong having accompanied me for over 5,000 miles. It’s vulnerability makes me all the more careful about looking after it, which I would have to do, but maybe not so diligently, with any camera.

Following my ‘keep it simple’ rule, the Lumix stays tucked away in a dry bag until I want to take a pic, when I bring it out and then put it straight away or sit it on my lap and hope it doesn’t fall overboard. Nothing more fancy than that…..no waterproof case or special mounting.

The trouble is, when I see something like an otter I am going to take a pic whatever the weather, and just hope it doesn’t wreck the camera. I always carry around a couple of sheets of kitchen towel in the drybag to wipe off a bit of drizzle. (I also use the kitchen towel to clean the lens…there is less likely to be a bit of sand in the paper than a fancy lens cleaning cloth from your grubby pocket.)

Taking this video, with no water protection for the camera, was really pushing my luck.

 

Camera Setup. A bit of technical stuff.

Simple, simple, simple is the way to go. And think ahead. I always have the Lumix set up so that I can whip it out of its drybag in super quick time, point and shoot. If you start fiddling about with settings you will probably be too late.

Water-based wildlife such as otters and dolphins do not hang around and are incredibly challenging to photograph from a kayak, quite apart from the constant threat of splashes from waves, the paddle or your permanently wet hands.

It’s essential you have your camera set up and ready for the conditions, all the time. Spontaneity is the key. It’ll be a long time before another pod of White-beaked Dolphins swims past.White-beaked Dolphins

The kayak is rarely still, especially when you are in the open sea so I use a minimum shutterspeed of one thousandth of a second. If it is sunny I will use 1/1300 which will freeze most dolphin splashes. For stills I always use burst, set at a medium rate because I can’t be bothered to search through too many images later. For videos, I just press the little red button. No other gadgets.

One useful tip I have recently learnt. On a bright overcast day the surface of the sea is white so the subject (e.g seabird/dolphin), will be dark. So I make an aperture adjustment and ‘stop it up’ one or two points. Beneath a dark river bank (e.g photographing an otter) the reverse is true and the subject will be too light, so I stop the aperture down a couple of pips. And I always do it before I set off because in the heat of the moment you forget, and miss that special shot.

This is a good example. I came across this Stoat trying to mesmerise these ducks, so it could est one for lunch, beside the river Fowey one gloomy November day, so the background was quite dark. If I had stopped the aperture down and been prepared, the stoat and the ducks would not have looked so pale.

I carry a spare battery and spare SD card in the dry bag….just in case.

Planning a Wildlife Kayak Trip. Watch the Weather, especially the Wind

If you want to have the best possible day out you have really got to know exactly what the tide, swell and wind are doing.

For tide I use tides4fishing website because you can see how big the tide is (tidal coefficient) and get a good overview of what is going on, on a single page.

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For swell I use Magic Seaweed surf forecast. This is really important, especially if you are planning a beach launch somewhere like the North Cornish coast. It’s a bit of a blow when you have chosen a dead calm, scorching hot day without a cloud in the sky, and you get completely flattened by a crashing six foot wave as you paddle out…..all because you didn’t check the surf forecast.

Wind is by far the most important factor, especially if you plan to paddle open coast or head offshore. I use two forecasts. The best (I think) is XCWeather. This gives a live wind reading and a very accurate wind and gust forecast, and you can hunt around the map to find the most sheltered spot. It’s a much better overview than if you only check out the forecast for one place. It’s very helpful to know , for example, whether the forecast slack winds are in the middle of a high, or low, pressure system. The light winds in the anticyclone are more reliable than those in the middle of a ‘Low’, especially when planning a few days ahead. Having said that, the XCWeather forecast is incredibly accurate, and if it is wrong it is because winds are lighter than forecast, such as the calm of early morning. This is not a problem!

Here’s today’s forecast on XCWeather. Looks absolutely perfect for offshore kayaking, hardly a breath of wind around Cornwall….grrrr!

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I also like to look at BBC Weather because it gives a good written summary of the day’s weather. Cloud increasing, wind falling light, feeling cold…that sort of thing. I have been caught out once or twice by a forecast of 100% cloud 9on other forecast sites) and not taken suncream, It turned out that the cloud was a layer of thin high cloud so the UV and heat was hardly tempered at all and I just about fried, or would have done had I not wrapped my vest around my head. The written forecast would have made all that clear.

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Extreme UV protection (so I got sunburnt shoulders instead)

The sea state reflects the wind gust speed rather than the mean wind speed, so it’s very important to know.

I am very wary about paddling offshore solo, although I enjoy it very much and if you want to maximise your chance of seeing porpoises, dolphins and maybe even a whale or a Leatherback, that’s what you’ve got to do. This Leatherback turtle was ten miles off Land’s End (en route back from Scilly), and the only one I have ever seen.

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My only Leatherback ever, it dived before I could get a photo at the surface.

I make sure I know EXACTLY what the tide is doing and which way the current is flowing (which doesn’t necessarily change at the same time as the tide, especially along the south coast and Land’s End), and EXACTLY what the swell and wind (including gusts) are forecast to do.

I aim to head out to sea only if the surface is like a lake. The maximum windspeed must not exceed five knots all day, or maybe just a bit more if it is going to be behind me on the way back. I find it no fun if there are any whitecaps, because photography becomes impossible with the movement of the kayak, and you are much less likely to see anything anyway because in choppy sea fins are much more difficult to spot.

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Minke Whale on a choppy grey day…marginal for offshore kayaking

Needless to say, the stronger the wind the more the risks increase.

Amongst my mass of safety equipment is my handheld Garmin GPS 72H. I have all the local headlands and ports plumbed in so I can see at a glance how far each one is away, and know how long it will take me to get there using the GPS speedometer. The speedo is very handy because it is easy to think you are making no headway at all when you are far offshore and a bit fatigued. Only once has this actually been the case ( and yes…it was a bit of a nasty shock); but there are actually only a few tidal currents around SW England which flow faster than cruising kayak speed. All off the most prominent headlands, or estuary mouths. Start Point, for example.

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Start Point

Final Fling

1. Keep it simple, simple, simple. More clutter means less time on the water and more time looking down not up, and more to go wrong.

2. In the image, excitement factor rules over pixels. This pic of a lunging Humpback is a pathetic 174kb (a still from the video clip above) and would be laughed off court by the average camera buff (who wouldn’t consider putting out a photo with anything less than 10MB), but it was considered thrilling enough to get a half page spread in the Daily Mail.

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Daily Mail Whale Tale

3. Don’t take any notice of anything I have said. I am a kayaker who takes photographs, not a photographer. That would imply having a flair for art and being creative. I point, I shoot, and I hope for the best.

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Brock takes a dip

4. Get out there and do it.

2019.The Year of THE Whale

Here’s my top twelve wildlife sightings (all from the kayak seat, of course) for 2019. The cream of 2,444 miles of paddling.

There’s so much action to pack in that the coastal scenery, which has a claim to be as world class as the marine wildlife, doesn’t even get a mention (apart from this one pic).

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So here we go, in reverse order.

12. Fowey Osprey

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Osprey

This beautiful juvenile Osprey was an end of year bonus, stopping off for a rest (and no doubt refuelling on a mullet or two) near the mouth of the Fowey estuary. It had probably hatched out in Scotland or the north of England, and was on its way to the main Osprey wintering ground in West Africa. I look forward to seeing it again next year (hopefully).

I usually see one or two Ospreys around the estuaries of Devon and Cornwall in the autumn, but this is by far and away my best view….and I so nearly overlooked it as it was sat completely still near the top of a tall waterside tree.

11. Barrel Jellyfish

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Barrel Jellyfish

2019 has been a spectacular year for Barrel Jellyfish. They have been around in vast numbers, and for a long time. From early March to the end of October. On one day I saw more than the previous five years put together.

They are really great creatures….big and mysterious.

10. Boscastle Puffins

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Puffin Pair, Boscastle

There’s a handful of breeding colonies of everybody’s favourite seabird dotted around SW England, and nowhere is more dramatic than the rocky islets off the craggy and hostile coast of North Cornwall just up from Tintagel.

There’s only a couple of pairs of Puffins at Boscastle, and there’s only a couple of days a month when sea conditions are suitable for attempting to go and see them by kayak.

9. Torridge Otter.

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This is our only venture into fresh water in this review, into the home of Tarka the otter in North Devon. A superb prolonged view in early January of a dog otter fishing.

An encounter matched by it’s cousin on the other side of the pond, or more technically the OTHER pond, because this is a Pacific Sea Otter which Becky and I watched from a kayak during a trip to California in February.

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Californian Sea Otter

I saw a total of six river otters in 2019…..three in the Torridge, three in the Tamar. (plus one on the Wye)

8. Harbour Porpoise

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mother and calf porpoise

I really like porpoises. They are a kayak speciality, because the majority I see I have heard puffing first, a noise that would be drowned out by any sort of engine. There is no doubt they are hugely overlooked, because they are small (only four to five foot long), and they appear at the surface without a splash. Also they tend to go around in very small groups which makes them even easier to miss.

This year I have seen a total of 275 porpoises on 38 days. Down from last year ( 327 on 44 days) but I don’t get the impression there are any fewer around. If you paddle a couple of miles offshore almost anywhere around the coast of Devon and Cornwall in August, you will probably hear one puffing.

 

7. Micky the Harbour Seal

It is rare to see a Harbour Seal in Cornwall, and even more unusual (and probably unprecedented) to see a pup that has swum all the way from Holland and is still only five months old. Another success story for the seal rescue and rehabilitation centres.

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Micky the (Dutch) Harbour Seal

6. Beaver

A handful of  trips up an estuary through the patchy mist of dawn in July were rewarded with several encounters with Beavers. I had heard they were about, but I had no idea they were in this particular location, didn’t realise that they inhabited saltwater estuaries, and anyway didn’t think I would see one in daylight.

Another good example of the benefits of paddling along in complete silence (and early in the morning).

Five beaver sightings on three days.

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Beaver

 

5. Common Dolphin

My Common Dolphin year started off in grand style with a prolonged encounter with a pod of about twenty off Penzance. It was early January but the flat calm sea and warm sun made it feel, and look, like summer.

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Penzance dolphin

I will never ever get bored of seeing a dolphin from my kayak. In fact the excitement will never dip below the 100% level. Partly because it is so very difficult to do…..Common Dolphins don’t often come within sight of the shore so you’ve really got to be a long way out, and sea conditions suitable for this are infrequent even in the summer.

It’s a good news story for SW England and the efforts of the marine conservation groups that Common Dolphins seem to be increasing, no doubt because there are more fish around. This is reflected in my total for the year of 564 individuals on 23 days. (it’s actually probably a lot more than this but estimating the number of dolphins in an active and splashy pod is very difficult).This compares to 432 on 17 days last year, and 148 on 11 days in 2017.

This includes a couple of ‘superpods’ (over 50 individuals) on consecutive days at the end of August…one in Devon and the other in Cornwall.

 

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Interestingly I only saw an average of one pod per year when I kayaked along the coast; the increase only occurred when I took to offshore paddling. I now average about 500 miles a year more than a mile from the shore specifically looking for ‘fins’.

Only one or two of this year’s pods would have been visible to a kayaker paddling close to the shore.

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I can’t think of any other situation where such a large number of completely wild creatures voluntarily come so close to an observer. Even better for the dolphins, they remain completely undisturbed and unspooked because I have no engine, and a kayak is about as threatening as a floating log.

 

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4. Bottlenose Dolphins

My first sighting of these big and charismatic dolphins for several years was in Mount’s Bay, and three miles offshore. Bottlenose Dolphins usually prefer to stay close in because they like to hunt fish that live on the seabed, but these were thought to be part of an offshore pod that live in the open sea (and feed on shoaling fish).

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Bottlenose Dolphins

 

3. Risso’s Dolphin

This was a really extraordinary encounter on one of the most beautiful days of the year. It was hot, sunny and windless. Even the relentless swell along the north coast of Cornwall had abated allowing a relaxed twenty-mile paddle from St.Ives to Sennen. I couldn’t resist a jaunt offshore around the Brisons rocks for the final section, and was rewarded with an extended sight of a pod of eight Risso’s Dolphins.

They are big and dynamic and ran through just about every trick in the dolphin book: spyhopping, fin-clapping, lobtailing, breaching as well as  a bit of logging at the surface.

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Risso’s dolphin spyhopping

I was thrilled when one swam past a few feet away because they are usually quite shy, and I personally have only seen them at a distance before.

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Risso’s

 

2. Minke Whale

Ever since I first sat in a kayak (about fifty years ago) I have dreamt about seeing a whale from the kayak seat. Because I never thought it would happen in Devon or Cornwall I have been to Greenland, USA and Mexico to try and see one, and failed.

In the last four years I have discovered that if you grind out the miles, as far offshore as you dare, you will eventually see a whale.

In fact prior to this year I have seen ten whales in SW England. Fantastic, but August 2nd 2019 was to blast any other previous sighting clean out of the water, and I still can’t quite believe it happened.

Because I saw two species of whale in the same place at the same time, without paddling a single stroke. (as well as Common Dolphin, Porpoise, Giant Bluefin Tuna).

While I was waiting for the ‘other’ whale to surface, this Minke Whale appeared close enough to give me my best ever photograph of the species. If you consider whales as a whole, Minkes are not the biggest (about thirty foot) and not the most exciting, because they roll at the surface like a giant porpoise. But heck, they are a whale, and who would believe you can see a whale from a kayak in UK.

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Minke Whale

1. HUMPBACK WHALE!!!!!

This once-in-a-lifetime drama was played out in a location that I usually  avoid  because of the tidal currents and confused and choppy water. But conditions for cetacean viewing AND photography were absolutely perfect…flat water, and cloudless blue sky.

It was the perfect un-storm.

Even so, the chances of me being three to four miles offshore in precisely the right place at precisely the same time as a Humpback whale appears, make a win on the lottery look easy. It was the first Humpback seen in the area since the Spring, and it was only around for a few hours.

I would have been over the moon just to have a fleeting view of it like this:

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Humpback

And to see the flukes come up as it deep dived was something I had always wanted to capture on film…..even better with St.Michael’s Mount behind (seven miles away!).

 

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Humpback and St.Michael’s Mount

Waving its enormous pectoral fin about was  an unexpected bonus…..

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Humpback flipper

But to be sitting right in the middle of its feeding area, as it proceeded to gulp down the baitballs of sandeels and other small fish just a few yards away, was something I hadn’t anticipated.

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Humpback gulp
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Humpback splash

To see this sort of sight from a whale-watching boat in California or Hawaii would be the thrilling enough, but to ‘stumble’ across it in my kayak while randomly paddling around far offshore, right here on our doorstep in Southwest England, is total excitement overload.

It will be hard to top in 2020.

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Christmas Bonus. Torbay Dolphins.

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).P1010555

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.

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Prob Pomarine Skua

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).

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Berry Head

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.

Dolphin in the Sound

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Light winds but a hefty groundswell left over from the gales meant that Plymouth Sound promised a compromise between relatively sheltered water and a flavour of the open sea.

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Cawsand and Kingsand

Although paddling out from Cawsand over to the breakwater I passed over some mighty swells which made me gulp.

Dodging a load of navy hardware I then looped around Drake’s island , and halted for a coffee (on board) in the smooth and sheltered water.

I could hardly believe my eyeballs when a tall fin broke the surface.

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Dolphin first view

It looked big and I was wondering whether it was a Bottlenose dolphin, but as I circled round up sun to get a better pic, it was clearly a Common Dolphin with the distinctive buff (although quite pale on this individual) patch on it’s side.

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Common Dolphin

As I drifted and watched it swam directly beneath me although it wasn’t easy to see in the fairly cloudy water.

I watched it for about twenty minutes, busy feeding in the fast moving water in the ebbing tide.

This encounter was totally unexpected, because Common Dolphins prefer deeper offshore water, but they are being observed closer to the shore more often. This hopefully means there are more about, or at least there are more fish around for them to eat.

The increase in the number of Marine Conservation Zones around the coast will benefit the fish which are the prey of the dolphins, so these no doubt play a part in the increase in sightings.

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Plymouth Common Dolphin

It is also very unusual to see a Common Dolphin on its own. This one was big, and I suspect this was a lone bull dolphin, and I also got the impression it was quite old. There is no real reason for this, apart from the fact that the patch on it’s side looked quite ‘washed out’. I’m sure when it glanced at me it thought I looked quite old too (although hopefully not too washed out).

It certainly looks big in this pic:P1000717

Absolutely fantastic as always.

For thelonekayaker a day with a dolphin is a day complete.

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Sensational Cetaceans

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It is maybe not surprising that Mount’s Bay is such a good place for looking for porpoises, dolphins….and whales…from my kayak. They are ocean wanderers that generally prefer to be far out to sea, and Cornwall is the last bit of land to stick out into the Atlantic where they live. Marine creatures on migration from north to south (or vice versa) may also drop by for a refuel because the confused currents, reefs and upwellings around Land’s End are rich in fish.

It is also a great location for kayaking because the Land’s End peninsular provides protection from Atlantic swell, and there are a lot of sheltered, and super-scenic locations to get on the water. All under the gaze of amazing St.Michaels’ Mount.

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St. Michael’s Mount

Also if the weather is not conducive to offshore paddling, the coast is exceptionally interesting and varied in terms of scenery and human habitation, and the near-shore holds a lot of seabirds during the winter. Most impressive of which are the Loons ( the North American name, aka Great Northern Diver in the UK), this one is in transition from summer to winter plumage. It also has a slightly wonky beak with the end crossing over.

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Great Northern Diver

There are plenty of Guillemots and Razorbills:

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Guillemot
Razorbill
Razorbill

And Eddie the resident Eider duck is usually in evidence somewhere around Penzance harbour, sometimes with some friends, sometimes not.

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Eddie the Eider

After a long, long period of stormy weather, the sea has at last settled down and I have ventured out into Mount’s Bay on a couple of occasions in the last week. Both trips in excess of fifteen miles and keeping well offshore.

During the second trip I came across two large pods of Harbour Porpoises between St.Michael’s Mount and Mousehole. Porpoises usually go around singly or twos and threes, but these two pods contained in excess of ten each. You can hear why they used to be called ‘Puffing Pigs’ by Newfoundland fishermen. (in England they were known as ‘Herring Hogs’). Unfortunately you can also hear my drysuit creaking as I pan round.

One porpoise halted at the surface to enjoy the calm conditions and maybe a little bit of warm winter sun. They don’t do this very often, probably because the sea isn’t this smooth very often.

Any sort of bird activity which is focused on the surface of the sea attracts my interest when I am offshore paddling. I have mentioned before that more often than not there is a porpoise beneath a circling Gannet, but on this occasion it was a large milling group of gulls that kept dipping down to the surface that lured me over for a closer inspection. They were scattered over a wide area with several Kittiwakes amongst them. When a couple of Gannets arrived and dived I increased pace because I was sure there would be ‘fins’ about.

Sure enough a couple of dolphins splashed in front of me.

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Common Dolphin

I approached the group cautiously to avoid spooking them, but they were in a very sociable mood and came over to see what as going on.P1000136

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As I cruised on they were quite happy to act as an escort.

As usual there were a handful of juveniles mixed in amongst the pod, and as usual they stuck like glue to their mother’s side.

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Juvenile and adult Common Dolphin

On the second day the dolphin watching was even better because the surface was oily smooth, enabling the dolphins to get as good a look at me as I was getting of them.close dolphins 3

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This is a big thrill, and the excitement of this sort of encounter never seems to diminish. There cannot be many situations where a couple of completely wild creatures of this size (seven foot long) voluntarily come within touching distance of a human being. And for me it is all the more compelling because getting several miles offshore, and locating a pod of dolphins, is really quite a challenge.

This particular group seemed quite happy to hang around as I just floated and watched, so I got out the Gopro for some underwater action. I love this (very brief) clip as this dolphin glides by on its side.

Although the water isn’t as clear as it is in the summer, the dolphins came so close I was able to get the best underwater shots I have yet achieved.

This individual takes a good look at the Gopro as it cruises past. A proper dolphin mugshot.

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Common Dolphin

Absolutely excellent, and the fact that it is December makes the whole experience even more remarkable.

I had a good lesson in how to push things too far (or not) on my way back to Marazion. Before the two hour paddle back to my launch site, I could just make out a group of Gannets circling and diving far out to sea. Of course I couldn’t resist heading out to take a look, but  half an hour of paddling and nearly two miles later I still hadn’t arrived upon the scene.

Then, contrary to the forecast which had predicted flat calm all day, a steady north wind picked up. Probably only 10mph but it made the paddle back very long indeed, with a relentless cold breeze in my face and waves slapping over the front slowing me down considerably. The feeding frenzy turned out to be disappointing too, just a couple of distant dolphins and no sign of anything larger (which of course I always hope for).

I arrived back at Marazion, after seven hours on the water and 17.5 miles paddled, fairly pooped. But worth it, with over twenty dolphins and thirty porpoises to enjoy.P1000372

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Nine-Jump Dolphin at Fowey

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It was a chilly two degrees as I drove through the valleys on the flank  of Bodmin moor on the way to Fowey. I was very thankful there was a pair of gloves in my kayak bag. left over from their last glimpse of action in the Spring.

As I paddled out of the estuary at Fowey, there was a river of cold air and mist flowing out to sea. Quite atmospheric.

I ‘checked in’ with Polruan NCI coastwatch and paddled directly out to sea. The forecast was light winds and I was a little bit disappointed the sea surface was quite choppy.

The first interesting sea creature of the day was a Portugese Man o’ War jellyfish. The first I had seen for a couple of years. They are such an innocuous looking bladder, but those blue tentacles dangling beneath have a really savage sting.

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Portugese Man o’ War

My plan was to paddle at least five miles offshore but after an hour’s effort I was beginning to get a bit despondent. There was hardly any wildlife and the surface seemed to be getting more disturbed, as the incoming tide worked against the wind creating small wavelets. The only glimmer of hope of seeing a ‘fin’ were the Gannets which were circling about, quite high up, as though they expected some fish to appear below them at any moment. I can feel the intense scrutiny from their beady eyes burning into my head as they drift over to inspect my credentials. To them , anything at the surface usually means food.

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Glaring Gannet
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Gannet Mugshot

When I was four miles out I looked up as a gull when I heard a gull squealing with an angry edge to its voice, and was amazed to see a Short-eared Owl flying over, with two angry Herring Gulls in hot pursuit. It was obviously on migration south, but this is the first one I have ever seen from the kayak seat. And of course it was a bit of a surprise to see it this far offshore. Here’s the only photo I managed to scramble.

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Short-eared Owl

And then, dead ahead about a mile away, a large flock of diving Gannets. Bingo. And I could see dolphins jumping beneath them when I was still ten minutes paddling time away.

It was pod of about twenty Common Dolphins. They were not interested in checking me out, they were focused on food.

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Common Dolphins, Fowey

The lumpy sea made holding the camera exceptionally difficult, especially when zoomed in.

One energy-filled youngster pulled off nine mini jumps in succession. I hope this shaky video doesn’t make you seasick.

It’s always great to see dolphins, not matter what the sea conditions.

When the dolphins moved off, I had lunch at the five mile mark (on my GPS) and the sea suddenly, and completely, smoothed off. Superb. So I was looking forward to some exciting sightings on the way back, but saw absolutely nothing! Blooming typical.

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Velvet sea

At the entrance to the estuary I bumped into Dave and Simon on their way back from a coastal paddle and they told me with great glee that they had just seen a pod of Dolphins/Porpoises, in glassy conditions, off Pencarrow Head. Even more Blooming Typical.

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Dave and Simon

We paddled back to the slipway together. Paddling between Fowey and Polruan is about the best way to end a day’s kayak trip imaginable.

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Fowey
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Dolphins 4-5 miles out from Fowey