Since the first phase of lockdown in the early Spring the horizon off the south Devon coast has been broken up by a load of gigantic ships. They draw the gaze because they are just so BIG….like the side of a cliff.
Although I would sooner be looking at a nugget of nature, these mothballed monsters provide a good target for a bit of an offshore paddle. They are at anchor two to three miles offshore, so perfect for a nice leisurely trip with a good chance of seeing some deep water wildlife.
Back in the late summer this Manx Shearwater flock chose the smooth water in the lee of the Marella Explorer to have a bit of a rest, a bit of a social, and a bit of a preen.
In amongst the hundreds of Manx was a single Balearic shearwater, a visitor from the Mediterranean. Not easy to spot with its rather unremarkable plumage, which is a variety of shades of brown (more like you might expect a British bird be). Nonetheless if you are a birder you will know that this is a very special creature.
There have been about ten of these mighty ships moored along the coast from Dartmouth to Teignmouth over the last six months.
Recent arrivals in Torbay are a fleet of four modestly proportioned cruise liners owned by Holland America Lines. The Niew Statendam hiding behind Brixham breakwater…….
And its slightly smaller sister ships Zaandam and Volendam sheltering a bit further into Torbay.
Around the northern rim of Torbay, past Hope’s Nose into Teignmouth Bay, a couple of real whoppers lie at rest.
This great slab of luxurious liner could accommodate the entire population of Holsworthy.
Ventura is big…….116,000 tons and nearly 300 metres long.
But not as big, and as grand, as the one behind.
The Queen Mary 2 is my favourite of all these moored-up monster ships. Not just because it is the biggest (nearly 150,000 tons and 350m long), but because it is owned by Cunard and has classic lines, looking a bit like a giant Titanic. So all a bit iconic.
It also has a bit of poke underneath the bonnet……it can slice through the sea at 30 knots….amazing.
These ships provide an unlikely backdrop to the normal sort of activities that go on a long this bit of coast…….
So although I’d sooner be absorbed in the thrill of watching a pod of splashing dolphins, these big boats provide a bit of eyeball entertainment.
It’s been a fantastic year for watching marine wildlife from the kayak seat. Lots of flat calm days, and a huge variety of fins, feathers, splashes and sploshes to enjoy.
As the activity in the sea winds down for winter, I don’t expect to see anything like this again for a while. Surely this is the biggest SWOOOSH of the year! That has got to be a tuna attacking the shoal of sprats…..it’s a pity it didn’t break the surface and jump into my kayak.
And looking at the weather forecast I won’t be seeing scenes like this for a week or two…..dolphins slicing through glassy waters….
Or a creche of porpoises on a sea of velvet….
Over the last week or so the Common Dolphins which have provided so much entertainment for so many people who have been out to see them in a variety of boats, seem to have thinned out and more or less disappeared. (or maybe I’ve just been looking in the wrong place!)
So Hezzer and I were lucky to find a very amenable and inquisitive pod when out on ‘Spot-on!’, skippered by Ross Parham, while filming for ‘Devon and Cornwall’.
The biggest problem was not finding the dolphins, it was getting into (and out of) the kayaks from the boat in a lumpy sea. And looking in the right direction when the dolphins surfaced!
I thought it was a bit of a tall order to find a seal and dolphins to film in just a few hours, but the wildlife was in an exceptionally cooperative mood, and a seal appeared exactly where we had hoped.
My last major (twenty plus miles) offshore paddle was from Portmellon, near Mevagissey.
A couple of Sandwich Terns were resting at Chapel Point. Adult in winter plumage above, juvenile dotted with dark chevrons below. The youngster calls to its parent every few seconds, the whole time. Whether flying or resting, all the way down to their wintering area off West Africa. You would think it would drive mum, or dad, bonkers.
But of course it doesn’t. Wildlife is bigger than the very human emotion of getting irritated.
From an ornithological enthusiast point of view, it is great to see a ground nesting bird (terns nest on beaches) having a successful breeding season.
They are on migration heading west. They don’t nest in Cornwall or Devon.
Another migrant, a Dunlin, was resting nearby. A rather anonymous bird when amongst thousands of chums on a wind-blasted estuarine mud-flat (their usual choice of habitat), but rather charming sitting here all alone on a barnacle encrusted rock.
Dodman Point was my destination, and I was relieved that the wind dropped just as I paddled out into the swirling water beyond. It’s a potentially hairy place.
But the moving water off the point attracts the wildlife. Every so often I heard an explosion of splashes as Tuna burst out of the surface. Disappointingly none of the dozen or so feeding frenzies that I saw were very close. But some of the tuna were really huge…..bigger than dolphins.
At one stage a pod of about ten porpoises got really fired up and surged about with an almost tuna-like splash. This is unusual for porpoises which are quite sedate and rarely cause a ripple…they must have been homing in on a shoal.
Just like dolphins, juvenile porpoises stick like glue to the side of their mothers. The maternal bond is clearly strong because this one is nearly as big as mum. It really doesn’t want to leave home. They are so close together that it looks more like one porpoise with two fins.
I paddled as far as Dodman C buoy, three-and-a-half miles off the headland. Hoping for a dolphin or a whale, but I saw nothing but more splashing tuna.
The unexpected comings and goings of the megafauna off the coast enhances its appeal. It’s difficult to explain why one day will be full of splashes and action and loads of circling Gannets, and the next will be spookily quiet. One day loads of dolphins, the next none. But that’s all part of the fun.
With a weather chart like this, I won’t be heading anywhere offshore again for a while.
It’ll be back to the coast for a bit of seal watching…….
I encountered the first patch of ‘boiling’ water about half-a-mile out as I paddled straight offshore from the mouth of the Fowey estuary, on another day which was forecast to be flat calm.
The surface was fizzing with small fish and making an amazing prolonged, sploshing, roaring noise, like a tropical deluge. Every so often a wave of splashing would move across the shoal, as an unseen predator attacked from below.
The attackers were possibly mackerel, but judging by the size of the fish which I saw later, more likely to be a bass. I was a bit surprised that the Tuna did not join in with what would prove to be an easy feast for them, but during the whole day I only saw one school of Tuna slashing about , and they were a lot further out.
I think the shoals consisted of Sprats, a member of the herring family, and a constituent of whitebait when they are younger.
And I passed huge shoals of these fish, marked as distinct dark stippled patches on the completely smooth surface, all day. Hundreds of them. Many were so loud with sploshing that I could hear the roar from so far away, I couldn’t see the shoal.
By the end of the day my neck was so stiff from being cranked round suddenly with a ‘what the heck was that’ moment’, that I could hardly move it.
You can see from my track that I was constantly zigzagging all over the place to see what was going on.
Lots of Gannets roving around means lots of fish and probably porpoises and dolphins. And there were dozens of Gannets on view the whole time…..not to mention scores of the local Fowey Gulls lured off the shore by the fish-fest. A bit different to some similar offshore paddle trips in June when there are no seabirds around at all, and the surface of the sea is completely devoid of activity.
and Gannets resting……
My first pod of Common dolphins were four miles from the shore, and as usual a pair of ‘bouncers’ came over to check me out as I drew alongside the group, carefully. When the rest of the pod of about twenty were given the green light that I was not a hostile, they attempted to ride my bow wave, but soon lost interest despite my best efforts to stoke up the boilers for max power output. (Can’t compete with a 200hp outboard)
One larger dolphin had a strange surfacing action. It would leave a trail of bubbles at the surface for several seconds before its head would appear out of the water, more vertically than is typical, and then flop down with a small splash after a bit of a waver with its nose.
That’s curious, I saw one doing precisely that near Eddystone a couple of weeks ago. A quick bit of detective work hunting through photos….and BINGO….it’s the same individual!
It may not be a surprise that the same dolphin is within twenty miles of where I last saw it sixteen days ago, as Common Dolphins wander far and wide. However the chances of me getting a usable photo of the same dolphin twice is slim indeed (photographing dolphins is not easy, especially from a kayak). Not to mention the minimal chance of considering looking through past photos for a match…..the ultimate needle in a haystack. Only a weirdo would do that.
Here’s today’s pic….note shape of pale patch on fin, horizontal scar behind eye, and circular ‘spot’ (looks like a pellet hole) midway between eye and base of fin.
And here’s the pic taken near Eddystone 31 Aug. Scar and spot more clearly visible in this pic taken under full sun.
Yep, definitely Noselifter (couldn’t think of a more catchy name), on both occasions.
Here is my only snip of video of this particular dolphin. He (or she) is back left, with the pale fin patch, and you can clearly (fairly clearly) see the hesitant sort of breathing sequence. Maybe due to an injury….speedboat???
As I was expecting with the unprecented number of shoals of Sprats, the wildlife action continued.
Fifteen porpoises, including a pod of approx eight, five small cetaceans too far off to identify, and at least sixty dolphins. It could easily have been twice that number but they are tricky to count.
And this little chap. Sitting right in the middle of nowhere. Just over five miles from the shore. A Grey Phalarope. Fantastic.
Fantastic not just because they have a really great name, but because of their unusual migration and behaviour. They are technically a ‘wader’, but they don’t do a lot of wading. They breed in the arctic, migrating down past the UK, but usually far out to sea, and wintering in (on) the tropical ocean off the west coast of Africa. Where I have seen them! From the RMS St.Helena…..flocks of many thousands milling about on the surface, in the fertile green waters off Senegal, out of sight of land.
So this was a very special gem. Here it is in action, picking at plankton. In a frantic sort of way (like me with a chunk of Victoria sponge).
On the paddle in I couldn’t resist veering to the west where they was a particularly loud continuous roar of fish shoals. A fisherman in a speedboat got a bit of a soaking when a couple of dolphins leapt out right under his bows, and spattered him with their splash. Pity I was just too slow for the photo.
I sat about and watched them for a while, hoping that maybe an even larger beast from the depths might join in the fun. But on this occasion nothing appeared…..can’t see a whale every time I suppose.
So I had to settle for more dolphin action……
and watching the astonishing sploshing phenomenon of the shoals of fish. Which I have rarely seen before, and never on this sort of scale.
Millions, probably billions of fish. (and the creatures that eat them).
As usual I was on the water too early (dawn), because as usual I was overexcited about what the day might promise. Sunshine and light winds all day were forecast, but there was that sneaky little offshore breeze for the first couple of hours which made me hesitate to paddle too far offshore. However after onboard breakfast (muesli/Country crisp) the wind seemed to be easing so I continued out.
Nothing for an hour, then I headed over to see what was attracting the attention of half a dozen circling Gannets. Some big jumping shapes beneath…..TUNA!
Lots of splashing…..the fish which caused this blast of water in this pic below never showed above the surface…not even a fin!
I just sat and watched and over twenty minutes or so must have seen thirty or forty big splashes, and half that number of fish.
If you are ever tempted to try to photograph Tuna, my advice would be to do something else. They are so unbelievably fast, and the camera is always pointing in the wrong direction. From a kayak it’s even more challenging, because the camera is moving around all over the place as well.
Here’s my effort to catch a bit of crazy tuna action…..
When the splashing stopped and the Gannets drifted away I continued directly offshore. I was hopeful of more finned creatures because there were generally a lot of seabirds milling about…not just roving Gannets but also Manx, and a couple of Balearic Shearwaters, and Guillemots on the water.
I caught a glimpse of a fin glittering in the sun directly ahead…..and then a load more. A pod of about thirty Common Dolphins. Doing what dolphins do best: speeding over to check me out, sploshing about the place, youngsters cavorting, then suddenly all rushing off somewhere.
I spent half an hour in their company as they were cruising in essentially the same direction as me, and during that time the sea smoothed off completely. Perfect, I was four miles offshore, and carried on out.
The next hour was quite quiet, apart from single splashes from lone tuna, and the occasional big fish breaking the surface. One was exceptionally large, so definitely qualified for the tag ‘Giant’ Bluefin Tuna.
I stopped for coffee break at seven miles out from the mouth of Fowey estuary, and spent a long time listening. There was a whole lot of puffing going on. A pod of approximately eight porpoise were busy criss-crossing around, and nearby a mother porpoise with a very small calf. You can just see its tiny fin on the left here:
Did I hear a more pronounced, and prolonged blow, further out? Not sure…it could have been my PFD (lifejacket) scuffing, or a tuna raking the surface far away.
Even so, I spent a long time listening. It was so completely calm I could hear absolutely everything. Including a motorbike in Fowey, about eight miles away.
I really wanted to see a whale to make a ‘full house’ of fins for the day, but failed to hear anything more resembling a blow so started to paddle slowly back in. And saw a long, slow moving back, far away in the direction of St, Austell. Superb…a Minke Whale!
My kayak leapt out of the starting blocks as I engaged max power to get a closer view.
Conditions couldn’t have been much more perfect for watching a whale. It’s not very often this calm this far offshore.
I glanced at my GPS and it told me I was precisely 5.00 miles from the mouth of the Fowey estuary. A coincidence, because I always tell people that if you want to see a whale you have to paddle five miles out!
Anyway, I spent the next hour, more or less in the same place, watching the whale surfacing fairly close by. Two or three blows at an interval of about thirty seconds, then submerged for three or four minutes before reappearing.
It’s behaviour was actually like a giant porpoise. Surfacing with barely a ripple, and frequently changing the direction of travel between blows.
I got to within about thirty metres of it as I watched it blow thirty to forty times. I was close enough to hear the short intake of breath after the prolonged exhalation.
An excellent prolonged encounter. Just me and the whale and not a lot else for miles around…apart from some porpoises puffing some distance away.
With no seabirds to mark its location (as is frequently the case with dolphins and porpoises), this really was like finding a needle in a haystack. OK it’s a thirty foot-long needle, but haystacks don’t get much bigger than the open ocean!
Enjoy these videos……
This is my favourite, with the whale sliding past the nose of my kayak. That’s Polperro in the distance on the right.
I thought it was a single whale, because it always surfaced just about when I thought it would, and I never heard two blows closer together than about twenty seconds. But take a look at these photos…..the fin shapes look quite different, but maybe its the angle at which the whale was moving which makes them look dissimilar.
Anyway, what a fantastic encounter with a magnificent creature. My ultimate target animal for my offshore kayak trips, and my ninth (possibly tenth!) of the season.
This photograph is not so flattering. So even whales have a ‘good’ side.
Fowey was looking good, as always, as I paddled the final mile back up the river to the slipway. A great way to end a top day of wildlife watching.
It’s not very often that I get close to a large mob of Gannets feeding over dolphins.
Gannets are the key to locating porpoises and dolphins, because where there are a pack of hunting Gannets, there will usually be cetaceans below. In fact more generally, if there are roaming Gannets, even singletons, my expectations of seeing a fin are high compared to some days when there is not a Gannet in sight. Such as often happens in May and June.
They are big, with a six foot wingspan, so you can see them from a long way off. As can their companions, so when one stoops and thumps into the water (from what always seems like an unnecessarily long way up), any others within sight in the area speed over to join in.
On many occasions I have seen a vortex of white beads plunging down over a mile away and paddled as fast as I could to witness the action. But nearly always the feeding glut is over by the time I arrive on the scene…it is only the really big ‘work-ups’ that last for more than a few minutes. The predators which attack the fish from both above and below are very, very good at doing their job. It’s really quite bad news if you are a fish.
So I was very pleased to come round the corner of a headland and see over two hundred Gannets whirling around just half-a-mile ahead, so engaged top gear, sport mode, to get a closer look. And had a superb front row seat.
They slowly rotate around is a fairly disorganised manner before lining up for their final approach, heading into the wind, and hopefully eyeballing their quarry as they pass over the hotspot. If they see the fish, down they dive; if they don’t, they circle round again.
I really like the way the Gannets, which are completely silent the rest of the time when they are cruising about, cannot resist an excited cackle at the moment they drop a wing and start their plunge. One of the great sounds of the open sea.
Sure enough there were a load of Common Dolphins splashing about beneath the Gannets. It’s the dolphins that have herded the shoal of fish, probably mackerel, to the surface to limit their options of escape and make them easier to pick off. If it’s not dolphins doing the herding, it’s porpoises, tuna or bass or some other finely-tuned top predator.
The beady-eyed Gannets waste no time in joining in with the feast, and it always amazes me how dozens of them can appear from absolutely nowhere in an unbelievably fast time. I suspect their eyesight is as good as mine when I am staring through a pair of 10X magnification binoculars.
They also disappear as fast as they arrived. Once the baitball of fish has been demolished, they just dip a wing and slice away, and are lost to sight in seconds.
But on this occasion the enjoyable action was not over when the feeding frenzy fizzled out.
I happened to find myself sitting in the middle of a mini-creche. A couple of adult dolphins with small calves stuck to sides like glue…most of the time…
Enjoy this peaceful family scene. I think they are actually picking up the injured fish left over from the baitball, and maybe teaching the calves how to catch a snack.
Watch this video closely. Mother sees a fish which she rather fancies as a meal and scorches after it at incredible speed, presumably deserting her calf for a few seconds. But after her, hopefully successful, foray she immediately rushes back to the side of her offspring.
The storms have disappeared and the wind has dropped and the sun has come out. Excellent…time to head out to the Eddystone lighthouse again to see if those amazing sea creatures are still around.
Apparently not, because during the twelve mile, three and-a-half hour paddle out, I passed only four porpoises. I was trying not to be disappointed as seeing just a single porpoise should be special, but because I had seen well over a hundred large finned creatures by this stage last time, I had perhaps expected more.
One porpoise, however, did provide an exceptionally close view. Porpoises are notoriously aloof and do not come over to see what is going on, and what you are about, like Common Dolphins always do. In fact they are quite shy.
This one could not resist a couple of seconds of sunbathing on the glassy surface before puffing and proceeding on its way….
Interestingly the sea remained green throughout today’s trip, whereas during my last two Eddystone visits the water had become oceanic cobalt blue half way out. The recent storms seemed to have shaken everything up, and rebooted the range of wildlife.
There were fifteen recreational fishing boats, and a couple of diving boats, clustered around the Eddystone reef as I approached.
I didn’t halt as I did a slingshot around the lighthouse. Better to stop for a break a mile back towards Plymouth which is where the reef drops off and my chance of a whale encounter is greatest. However my eyes were fixed on the extraordinary structure as I rounded it. It’s just the best building, in the best location!
The five hour paddle back to Cawsand delivered the cetaceans I had hoped to see . It was five hours because I added three miles on to the direct route chasing after dolphins.
The first was a very large looking dolphin which breached about a mile away. I sprinted over to the area but saw nothing further. I suppose it could have been a whopping Tuna, but I will never know.
Next up was a pod of about ten porpoises. OK they are not the most showy of cetaceans, usually rolling at the surface without any hint of a splash, but they have the best blow. It’s a very characteristic sudden blast of air.
And just sometimes, when a snack is close by, they will get fired up and surge through the water.
One of these just can’t help stopping to enjoy the warmth of the sun.
Five miles from the coast I noticed a large powerboat circling slowly about with a couple of paddleboarders nearby, who had presumably come out of the boat. I strongly suspected they were watching dolphins but they were over a mile away and I was reluctant to add on further mileage to my long day.
But after half an hour or so about ten Gannets turned up and started to dive in, right beside them…..there must be dolphins there. I paddled over and sure enough the sun glinted off the back of a couple of Common Dolphins.
The next half-an-hour was excessively enjoyable. I was sat in the middle of a scattered pod of about twenty-five dolphins, who were casually chasing fish around. Most of the pods I have seen recently have been travelling and so difficult to catch up with.
My companions were the two paddleboarders, and the large powerboat as ‘mothership’ (which kept a respectful distance from the dolphins). A passing yacht couldn’t resist coming over for a look.
The paddleboarders were as thrilled as I was to see the dolphins cruising about, coming over to check us out, and the suddenly powering off to hunt some fish. Explosive splashing, the odd leap, plenty of puffing and looking. A superb prolonged encounter.
And extraordinary that we were four or five miles offshore in surface conditions like a lake.
Here’s Andrew and Philip Noall watching the action:
This juvenile dolphin approaches them in a very shark-like manner!
Andrew kindly popped over to say hello, and offer me a lift back in, as they were entering Plymouth sound at the same time as me. He said that the dolphins stayed around and the girls aboard the boat also managed to get out on the boards to see them. Incredible that the pod stayed in one place for such along time.
So, overall, another amazing Eddystone day. Nearly twenty-seven miles and nine hours in the seat…good thing I put four layers of camping mat in as a cushion!
27 Dolphins (ish) and 26 porpoises (ish)
p.s just received this pic from Andrew Noall…thanks!
The super-calm weather of the last six weeks has abruptly come to an end. Here’s yesterday’s wind map. Kayakers around SW England will be confined to cowering in creeks……there is little chance of finding any bit of coast sheltered enough for a paddle let alone venturing into the open sea.
This maybe isn’t such a bad thing, if you’re a dolphin.
When I am paddling offshore I spend my whole time watching everything that is going on, and that includes passing boats. I have noticed that a large number of the recreational powerboats that roar past momentarily slow down to take a couple of slow speed circuits, undoubtedly because they have seen dolphins. The sea has been so smooth that even the generally unobservant owners of floating Gin palaces can see fins at the surface from a significant distance.
Fortunately I get the impression that most boat owners show a bit of respect to the dolphins and keep back, but some don’t. Jetskis are the biggest problem.
So the dolphins are getting a bit of a break.
I nipped out from Plymouth sound on the last calm morning earlier this week. The wind was due to pick up at eleven, so I had to be ultra early, which is always good.
The weather on the horizon was looking so hostile that I didn’t fancy going all the way out to the half-way reef, five miles offshore.
There were random splashes of Tuna all over the place, and then a quiet little pod of five Common Dolphins appeared, busy feeding and criss-crossing around more in the manner of porpoises.
I watched them for half-an-hour and started to head in with the first whiff of wind from the west.
The dolphins lined up to give me a bit of a send off. Who knows what they were thinking. Although they frequently show great interest in all things human, they might just have had enough of being pestered by boats, and the considerable noise that many make, so they are probably relieved to see the back of people like me for a while.
Amazing….when I went to bed the forecast for the following day was wet and foggy for the whole of Devon and Cornwall. When I checked again at 5am it was rain in Plymouth, drizzle in Looe, ghastly in Fowey and……sunny and still in Penzance….wwhat?
My picnic was packed in superquick time (no chance to layer mayonnaise in the sandwiches) and I got my first glimpse of Mount’s Bay at about 7.30. It was so glass calm and I was so keen to get on the water I parked beside the sea at Marazion to save a ten minute drive to Penzance harbour. As a bonus the car park ticket machine was broken.
And the next seven hours were not only a feast for the eyeballs, they were a fest for the eardrums.
It consolidated my firmly held view that watching marine wildlife is best from a kayak.
The view from the seat of the kayak is second to none. An uninterrupted vista. This might seem like a statement of the obvious, but with any other craft there are distractions. Screens to check, bits of equipment to look at. Always the danger of looking in, and looking down. When you should be looking up and out. Looking for that fin.
A sailing boat has much of the view obstructed by the sail, and there is always the temptation of slipping below, clicking the kettle and sneaking a chunk of battenberg.
In a kayak the very fact that you have to paddle means you HAVE to spend the whole time looking up, and looking ahead. There is nothing else to do.
I have droned on about how the complete silence of a kayak means you can hear absolutely everything that dares to squeak within a mile radius, and today was the perfect example of how excellent a kayak is for listening to, and watching, the current boom of magical marine megafauna. Because it was staggeringly still.
In fact of the hundred or so big creatures I saw today, all but a few I heard before I saw. Puffs, splishes, splashes, sploshes, roars (of water), breaths, blasts.
Seven different sounds from the surface of the lake-like sea.
So, here they are:
1. The thoomph of a diving Gannet
Gannets are big birds, with a six foot wingspan.They dive onto shoals of surface fish from an extraordinary height and hit the surface hard. Despite assuming the shape of a missile as they strike the water, they send up quite a plume of spray and make quite a noise.
2. The slappy splash of a Sunfish.
Here is the normal view of a Sunfish. A sharp fin corkscrewing across the surface. But every so often they will dredge themselves out of apparent torpor and hurl themselves from the water and land back with a slap. It is a characteristic noise because they always land on their side so it lacks the depth of sound of all the other splashing creatures. I can now recognise it from quite a distance. I have never managed to photograph one breaching, although I was very close today.
3. The puff of a Porpoise.
Harbour Porpoises are the cetacean I encounter most often. They are outnumbered by Common Dolphins because dolphins go around in larger pods, but I see porpoises on many more days.
The majority I hear first, because they have a characteristic explosive breath. That’s why they used to be called Puffing Pigs off eastern USA.
4. The blow of a Common Dolphin
I REALLY like Common Dolphins, and a day with a dolphin encounter is very special day indeed. In fact everybody loves dolphins, and the recent seasonal surge in numbers around the coast has sparked off a huge demand for boat trips to go and see them. Certainly a bit of pestering by jetskis, some of whom have not been adhering to the rules about approaching wild creatures in the sea, and who have the manoeuvrability and speed to chase, and potentially really harass, the dolphins.
They (dolphins, not jetskis) feature in this list twice, for two different sounds. The first is their blow, which although is quieter than a porpoise (although the first breath after a dive is quite noisy), is somehow full of character. And because they go around in gangs there is a lot of characterful puffs going on!
Here’s today’s dolphins:
5. The crazy raking splash of a Giant Bluefin Tuna.
The noise is quite characteristic, and totally astonishing. Although I have heard it a lot recently, every time it generates a “what the heck was that?” response in my brain, and I have cricked my neck more often than reccommended.
It is an explosion of sound because the fish are travelling at such incredibly speed when they ambush their small fish prey from below. On this trip to Mount’s Bay I heard and saw about a hundred tuna splashes, but actually saw only about ten fish.
I have seen more Atlantic Bluefin Tuna exploding from the surface along the south coast of Cornwall and Devon in the last two weeks than ever before. This includes some really big fish that definitely cross the threshold (150kgs) to qualify them for the tag of GIANT Bluefin tuna.
Here’s a really big one. The Manx Shearwaters in the pic have a wingspan of just less than three feet, so that is some hefty fish!
6. The controlled and polite splashing of a Common Dolphin.
Although I like the crazed manner of Giant Tuna erupting from the surface, the splash of the dolphins appeals to me just a bit more, because dolphins are more interactive with kayakers than the amazing, but personality-less, tuna.
These dolphins below are being about as splashy as they ever get, but are still less wild and thrashing than the ultra high speed tuna.
There’s a bonus sound in this video clip if you listen closely….one of the dolphins has got a bit of a squeak when it breathes.
7. The prolonged blasting blow of a Minke Whale.
Hearing the blow of a whale, in SW England, has got to be the most thrilling sound a wildlife-watching kayaker can hear, by quite a long way.
It was my ambition for many years to hear and see one, and it took many years before I did. It’s all so wonderfully ludicrous…..who on earth goes looking for whales in a kayak in Devon and Cornwall. I don’t think there are many fellow kayakers in the whale club.
Today’s whale was, not unusually, very elusive. It was beyond my paddling limit as I already had a ten mile paddle back to Marazion (and was three miles offshore). This seems to happen to me a lot…I stop for a coffee break before paddling back and hear a whale blow another mile further out.
I heard it six or seven times and just glimpsed the long back surfacing twice. This is the only pic I could manage…the tip of a fin and a swirl of water.
To hear the blow a bit more clearly here’s a clip from one off Plymouth three weeks ago.
That sound is a bit special. It’s also very addictive.
And so it goes on….another quite unbelievable day on the water.
The forecast was for a flat calm surface, and because it is mid August, which is when the sea should be bursting with life, I was just a bit excited, and on the water just before seven, en route to Eddystone (again).
First up, a mile from the coast, was a pod of Common Dolphins.
A few minutes later a small pod of Porpoises got really fired up about something (food-related, no doubt), and a couple actually breached. This is rare for the normally quiet and splash-free Porpoise.
Then, about three miles from the shore, I ran into some serious action.
In conditions of flat calm like this a kayak really comes into its own for watching wildlife. Because you can hear absolutely everything.
It’s total sensurround sound.
And I was hearing a lot of splashing. All over the place.
I investigated the nearest source….another pod of Dolphins. Including this very small calf which seemed to keep up with Mum in an effortless manner.
The pod of fifteen suddenly took off at enormous speed and with some impressive jumps. One flew past me at head height about ten feet away like a missile.
Here they go……keep your head down!!
Wow, wow, wow.
It can’t get more exciting than that, can it? Well, yes, quite a lot more actually, especially if you like big fish.
Because as the dolphins disappeared into the glare of the sun, I heard an enormous roar behind me. What the blinking heck is that racket…a submarine? I cranked the kayak around as fast as I could and saw the surface being ripped apart by great carving splashes, a couple of hundred yards away. Every so often a spiky fin would rake through the water, and maybe half a very large fish would expose itself for a split second.
Tuna!!!! Atlantic Bluefin Tuna actually, but I prefer the name Giant Bluefin Tuna because that name does justice to these amazing high speed attack predators. Although technically the ‘Giant’ bit only refers to fish over 150kgs. I’m sure there were a few of those in here (probably!).
They were certainly the size of Common Dolphins as this pick shows…..Dolphin on the left and Tuna (spiky fins in amongst the spray) on the right.
And Common Dolphins can be knocking on 100kgs.
Manx Shearwaters cruised about looking for scraps to pick up.
Over the next two hours I heard the explosive splashing all over the place. So loud and the sound carrying so far that I could only just make out the splashes on the horizon. I must have seen over twenty feeding frenzies, all lasting a few minutes, and a total of 50-100 fish in all. And a lot more glimpses of fins. And loads of single splashes as well.
After a load of failed pics I managed to catch one mid jump. Bingo.
And amongst the wild anarchy of the Tuna were the measured puffs and more graceful splashes of more dolphins.
This one came for a particularly close look:
As the action throttled back I continued on towards the Eddystone lighthouse, ten miles beyond the mouth of Plymouth Sound. I was tempted to stay to watch the Tuna and dolphins, but couldn’t resist the chance of seeing a whale in their favourite haunt, about two miles short of the lighthouse. I think it is where the edge of the reef drops off.
Unbelievably, I just caught a glimpse of a long slow moving back of a Minke whale far off to the east, and a couple more brief views after that, and then it was gone. No blows heard.
I turned for home a mile short of the lighthouse.
This would give me a bit of slack for going to investigate stuff, otherwise it is a very long haul and I am not inclined to add to an already long mileage (it’s twenty-four miles minimum, eight or nine hours in the kayak).
Interestingly, I saw eighty-four dolphins, sixteen porpoises, scores of Giant Bluefin Tuna, one Minke Whale, two sunfish and a probable Blue Shark on the way out. (All within sight of Plymouth incidentally…just, through the haze).
But hardly anything on the way back.
So early morning is definitely good. Whether the creatures are put off by an increase in boat traffic as the morning progresses, I don’t know. Or is it the hour…or the tide??
However, I did hear two whale blows almost simultaneously en route for Plymouth sound , and saw one of them…another Minke:
This whale is different again to the ones I have seen in this location during the last month. It has a notch at the base of its fin. Maybe this isn’t a surprise, but I wondered if certain whales make a certain location their home for a few weeks. Maybe they do, and there are rather more around than we might think!
I finished off the extraordinary day with another leaping Tuna….this one in a very satisfactory ball of spray…and this one could easily justify the tag of ‘Giant’. It was a whopper.
Oh and a third Minke Whale (that’s not counting the fourth one which I only heard blowing, and didn’t see).
I couldn’t resist another short jaunt from Looe this morning (despite achy arms). But it was worth it…..
More Porpoises, more Dolphins….can’t believe these yachstspeople aren’t watching the action!
And another Minke. This one was only three miles offshore. That’s seven or eight Minke Whales in the last three weeks. WWWHAT??
And a couple more jumping Tuna, this one in front of Polperro..
Dolphins. A whole load of them today: over a hundred (could have been twice that number) including a pod of over sixty. Estimating numbers is very tricky.
It’s no wonder they are everyone’s favourite animal…they are energetic, acrobatic and charismatic, and most of all they are SPLASHY:
Intelligent too, of course.
I was on the water paddling out of Brixham before seven. Early is always good for wildlife, and because Torbay is a very busy place at this time of year, it gave me an opportunity to be well offshore by the time the jetski(ers)s got out of bed.
My plan was to paddle out around the huge cruise ship, Marella Explorer, anchored three miles beyond Berry Head.
As I drew level with the headland half-a-dozen circling Gannets caught my attention, and sure enough a dolphin cleared the water directly beneath them.
I approached the pod of about twenty-five cautiously. I can’t believe that my kayak, with my cruising speed of moderate walking pace, and completely silent and unsplashy, and projecting about two inches beneath the surface, could ever cause concern to a creature of the open sea, but it is not right (and not legal) to paddle too close.
However, they decided to come over and see me, and do a bit of bow-riding.
Of course I had to boost the pace a bit to give them something to get excited about. This one seemed to appreciate my efforts (although not as much as I appreciated it’s leap).
Then the whole lot came over and did their splashy thing.
A good start to the morning.
The wind actually died down as I paddled out to sea, enabling me to hear the splashing of the next dolphin pod before I saw it. This is one of the (many) benefits of cetacean watching from a kayak, and I would guess that two thirds of the porpoises, whales and dolphins I see, I hear first. In fact several whales I have frustratingly only heard. One big blow, and that’s it.
Nice image of a mother and calf…..
As I approached the Marella Explorer I passed another small pod, and then had a bit of an ornithological interlude before the main performance.
A couple of hundred Manx Shearwaters were chilling out in a large scattered flock, with a single Balearic Shearwater in amongst them.
I stopped for breakfast about a mile past the cruise ship, and soaked up the silence. And then heard a sound like a dishwasher, far away to the east. No individual splashes, but I couldn’t resist paddling over for an investigation. Fifteen minutes later I came upon the scene, and a LOAD of fins broke the surface….Common Dolphin SUPERPOD. Maybe not a superpod on a global scale, but certainly one on the lonekayaker’s scale.
At least sixty individuals, it could well have been over a hundred.
They were cruising around slowly and circling about, so I just sat and watched….
here’s part of the pod:
They eventually drifted away so I reluctantly headed back towards land, and towards the drone and howl of speedboat engines. I was precisely 4.89 miles out from Berry Head (according to my GPS), but I could hear the whine of each individual jetski coming out of Brixham. If it was irritating to me, what do the dolphins think about it? If it was loud above the water, it’s even worse under the surface. I could hear the clicks and whistles of the dolphins as they communicated with each other, but it must be a struggle for them with the noise pollution of a score of boat engines within the surrounding few miles.
The other smaller pods of dolphins seemed to have moved offshore as I paddled back in. Good Move.
The only fins appearing were the inconspicuous small black triangles of the resident porpoises as they rolled silently at the surface. They will be looking forward to windier days, and the end of the summer season, when recreational boat traffic coming out of Torbay is less. Their home, in the swirly water just off the end of Berry Head, is a focal point for all boats coming out of Torbay heading south (and coming into Torbay FROM the south, for that matter).
The porpoises today were very much eclipsed by their larger cousins.