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

mother and calf porpoise
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

Mevagissey Surprise

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.

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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.

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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.

 

 

 

 

 

Dolphins brighten up even the most dingy days.

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Hairy Hartland

“From Hartland Point to Padstow Light, ’tis a Watery Grave by Day or Night”

Having this cheerful old mariner’s sonnet lurking in the back of my mind always makes me a bit apprehensive about a paddle out from Hartland Quay. It is so totally and utterly exposed and there is nothing resembling a town or port or seaside village within sight. From Hartland point south the coast is  absolutely dead straight and points directly out to the west so catches every bit of Atlantic groundswell and is usually blasted by the wind from the same direction. Not a hint of a sheltering headland to moderate the beefy tidal current either.

When out on the water the only sign that humans have ever existed is the lighthouse at Hartland, another on Lundy fifteen miles away, the bizarre Hartland Quay hotel and the odd vapour trail.

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Hartland Point Lighthouse

Just to make it even more fun, there is no phone signal and the nearest other floating craft who might hear a shout from your two-way radio are the occasional ship passing ten miles out which is just peeping the top of it’s funnel over the horizon. There are very few fishing boats here.

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not a lot but sea and sky

But this was the part of Devon with least wind forecast today, a light easterly. So I was hopeful. And when I came over the brow of the hill the sea was like a millpond, ridged with only a two to three foot swell. Excellent.

I trolleyed my kayak through the middle of Hartland Quay Hotel, which is an ironic start to such a remote-feeling paddle, and paddled straight offshore.

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Trolley through Hartland Quay Hotel
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Hartland Quay beach

I kept up a fairly fast cruise speed because I was sure the windless conditions wouldn’t last, and even the slightest wind combined with the lively currents around here would rapidly cause quite choppy conditions.

I passed a couple of Porpoises two miles out with their fins glinting in the bright sunshine, but didn’t pause because I had my eye on a handful of circling Gannets a mile further out, which occasionally dived into the water.

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Cruising Gannet

By the time I appeared on location the Gannets had drifted off but my efforts were rewarded when a pod of about eight Common Dolphins (which the Gannets had been shadowing) came over to say hello.

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Common Dolphin pair exhaling
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Common Dolphin pair

This is the first time I have seen Common Dolphins on this bit of coast from my kayak.It’s usually been from the top of a headland through  pair of binoculars as the dolphins enjoy the typically wild sea state which is more normal for round here.

 

 

 

 

I drifted south, watching the dolphins, with the increasingly strong ebb tide and got to about four miles offshore which I thought was far enough, especially as I could see swirls in the water from the current, and a line of dark approaching which was the start of the wind. I have enormous respect for this wild stretch of coast and felt a bit small, so paddled shoreward, fast.

On the way back in I passed several more porpoises, in fact could hear one puff nearly every time I halted. Also the flopping fin of a Sunfish which spooked and dived when I was still many metres away from it, with camera poised.

Other wildlife interest today was a couple of posses of Guillemots and Razorbills, a handful of passing Red Admiral butterflies and a dozen or so swallows, far out to sea. On migration south from Wales presumably.

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Guillemots and Razorbills

As I neared the savage coast with multiple toothy reefs reaching far offshore I came across a tide race with whitecaps and standing waves which sloshed all over the deck. As I lurched over the waves I realised the body of water I was in was moving AGAINST the flow of the tide. It was part of a huge eddy current that was surging back towards Hartland Point as the main ebbing tide pours south around the corner and out to sea. Blooming heck, it’s all a bit hairy round here.

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Fangs of Hartland Heritage coast.

I can’t believe I once paddled out to Lundy from here (and back, after a chicken-flavoured pot noodle on the slipway).

Back on dry land I trolleyed my kayak back through the tables of tourists enjoying a lunchtime pint in the warm sunshine, several of which gave me a bemused look (not unusual).

My coastal trip south from Bude the next day was a bit more leisurely. It was great to meet local kayak fisherman Eric, who is one of very few kayakers who have seen a Leatherback Turtle. He encountered one just half a mile from the shore a few weeks ago. What a supreme sighting.

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Eric
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Bude