Wilson’s Petrel!

So far it’s been a fantastic summer for sightings of unusual cetaceans and pelagic seabirds off the coast of southwest England. Quite a lot of whales around and a possibly unprecedented number of the large Shearwater species (Sooty, Great and Cory’s) that are usually further out to sea. And also some much rarer birds such as Wilson’s petrels which have been seen around the coast of Cornwall but still NEVER recorded in Devon. The last one I saw was following in the wake of the RMS St. Helena in the south Atlantic 27 years ago. Surely no chance of ever seeing one from my kayak in the UK.

The birds have been nearer to the coast in part due to the relentlessly windy conditions. So not great if, like me, you like to watch your wildlife from a kayak. There has not been a single day in the last month that has been windless enough for me to do a significant offshore paddle. It’s been the windiest summer for as long as I can remember.

I have sneaked the odd few hours here and there during the early morning lull when winds have often fallen light, to sprint offshore. At Fowey I saw my first Sunfish of the year a mile offshore , and a few minutes later heard the loud, sustained blow of a whale between me and the shore. I heard it twice more at intervals of several minutes, but failed to catch a glimpse of it.

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Ocean Sunfish

So when the 13 August was forecast to be flat with light winds all day I was very excited. Especially as it is reaching the time of year when the sea is most alive with cetaceans.

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Dawn over Plymouth Sound

I set my alarm for 4am and was on the water before six, paddling out through Plymouth Sound as the sun arose over a bank of fog. Beyond the confines of the sound the sea was flat smooth, the sky was cloudless and the Eddystone Lighthouse, my destination, was clearly visible as a little stick on the horizon exactly ten miles away. Perfect, and my expectations were high.

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Fog over Plymouth Breakwater

After a bit of a quiet start , Manx Shearwaters started to increase in number, some flicking past my kayak a few feet away. Some seem to come extra close to investigate as anything that disrupts the featureless surface of the sea could mean a source of food for them (especially if I was a whale or something similar). This never ceases to give me a thrill; these fantastic birds dashing past at eye level. Although maybe not happy to be mistaken for a whale.

I approached a group resting on the surface as sneakily as possible with a single Balearic Shearwater sitting amongst them. Not the most beautifully marked seabird but a ‘goody’ amongst the birding fraternity. I got a decent pic with it beside a Manx to provide a good plumage comparison.

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Manx and Balearic Shearwater

The excitement went up a notch when, four miles from the mouth of Plymouth Sound, a Sooty Shearwater sprinted past. Bigger and faster than the Manx, and all brown. Bad view into the sun, but my first ever ‘big’ shearwater from my kayak in the UK! Fab. I was in the zone.

Gannets passing overhead giving you a bit of a sideways look are great, shearwaters are better, but nothing beats a glimpse of a tiny Storm Petrel twisting its way over the surface like a bat. These are birds of the open sea and to see them from a kayak represents the culmination of an awful lot of planning and effort. They are so small that most sightings are a fleeting glimpse, but some get close enough for a decent view of their white rump. Binoculars are nearly always a waste of time from a kayak on the sea due to the constant movement of the surface. So all your birdwatching is eyeballs only.

Storm petrels are extremely difficult to photograph unless they are feeding group, which I have only ever seen once. But I did just get one zipping past in front of the Lighthouse.

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Storm Petrel at Eddystone

There was the usual cluster of private fishing boats scattered about near the Eddystone reef, and one fisherman took a snap of me with his i-phone. Thanks, Ben.

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Yours truly at Eddystone

After a cup of coffee and a large slab of horribly synthetic Victoria sponge, I took a big loop around the Lighthouse to the east to utilise the last of the incoming tidal current. I could also sense it was a fertile patch of sea as the surface was  swirly.

Quite a few more Storm Petrels and two more singleton Sooty Shearwaters  speeding past.

Then, about an hour after I left the lighthouse, two or three miles north-east of Eddystone, a small petrel approached, far enough away to allow me to scramble my camera out of its drybag. I was just in time to fire off a couple of shots, but really wasn’t sure whether the subject was in the screen. There was nothing to suggest it was anything unusual apart from the fact that it seemed to be flying higher above the surface than the other petrels, despite completely windless conditions.

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Original photo of high-flying Petrel

The paddle back to the sound was assisted by a southerly wind which slowly increased, and excitement was provided by a handful of porpoises, which as usual I heard ‘piffing’ long before I saw them.

I had given up on seeing any dolphins when I got in  amongst the many yachts that were coastal cruising a mile from the shore, but suddenly a group of fins appeared in front of me. I followed for a couple of minutes and then in a flash they disappeared. About eight altogether, and surprisingly difficult to see in the slight chop.

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Common Dolphin

I arrived back at Cawsand after nine hours on the water and twenty-five miles paddled. Not too exhausted because I had deliberately paddled slowly because…what’s the hurry?

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Trolleying back through Cawsand

Back at home I reviewed my photos and as usual most of the Petrel efforts were of an empty sea, with maybe a tiny blurred black dot in the corner, but often with nothing. The ‘high flying’ petrel pics however were better than I had expected when I zoomed in. I immediately noticed that its feet projected significantly past the end of its tail, a feature even more obvious in the second pic. Ferreting about in a flurry of bird books seemed to suggest this is a key feature of a Wilson’s Petrel. Wow. Mega excitement.

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Wilson’s Petrel pic 1
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Wilson’s Petrel pic 2

I submitted my photos to the Devon Birds website and it was quickly confirmed by the editors that this was indeed a Wilson’s Petrel, and the first authentic record EVER in Devon. However as Devon records are only valid to five miles offshore, this sighting was technically too far out (about eight miles) to be officially recognised.

Never mind. Two new ‘kayak seen’ species today. Sooty Shearwater and the super-rare Wilson’s Petrel. I never expected to see one in the UK, let alone from my kayak.IMG_7826

Superb Sealife on the Costa del Sol

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Costa del Sol

If you were thinking that a flat calm, scorching hot Mediterranean beach heaving with paddleboarders and buzzing with jetskis would be a wildlife desert, you would need to think again.

This sea along this section of coast, six miles east of Estepona and within sight of Gibraltar, seems to be particularly fertile. Although on this occasion Gibraltar, thirty miles away, was hidden in mist for the whole six days of our visit. Apart for about five minutes when just the top was visible.

I think it is because the tide sucks the Atlantic into the neck of the Mediterranean to just about here, and the meeting of the warm and cold waters provide a bit of a plankton bloom.

The sea state was perfect for kayaking. Virtually no wind and hardly any swell for the whole time. Just the occasional patch of fog which prompted me to always carry my GPS while paddling offshore.

On the first day I was thrilled to encounter half-a-dozen Cory’s Shearwaters carving around low over the water with their effortless almost bat-like flight. And a kayak in their path didn’t seem to worry them…they just sliced past a few feet away from me with a very slight ‘whoosh’ of their feathers. Absolutely fantastic. Every so often they would shallow plunge-dive into the sea from only a few feet up.

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Cory’s Shearwater
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Cory’s Shearwater

They  shared the sea with groups of Balearic Shearwaters that were passing with a bit more purpose to get somewhere particular. And was that a Sooty Shearwater? Not easy to establish that it was all-brown because I was looking into the sun; maybe it was just a dark Balearic.

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Balearic Shearwater
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Balearic Shearwater

I came across a resting flock of Cory’s and Balearics  a couple of miles offshore, and the five bigger shearwaters seemed to be quite happy as I drifted within yards of them.

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Group of Cory’s Shearwaters
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Beautiful Cory’s Shearwater

Next morning I was out early and headed way offshore again. More shearwaters and I was very surprised to see a Bonxie getting involved with the action. (it was actually no surprise to see a Bonxie ‘in the thick of it’, because that is what Bonxies do best). I was just amazed to see one in The Mediterranean in early July when they should be up north in Scotland or Iceland. Maybe a youngster that hadn’t bothered to migrate.

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Unseasonal Mediterranean Bonxie

While sitting about on glassy water absorbed by the seabird action  I heard a series of ‘splashes’ approaching. A large number of dolphins scattered over a wide area of sea were heading towards me. They were travelling very fast and spent such a short time at the surface I really couldn’t see any markings and didn’t have a hope of a photograph. But surely Common Dolphins. At least thirty or forty, but probably a lot more.

After lunch I went for a paddle along the coast with Becky and we had soon spotted another group of dolphins, this time a lot slower, and feeding ,judging by the attendant gulls and shearwaters.IMG_6750

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Mother and calf Common Dolphin

As we paddled at top speed to see them a gin-palace powerboat also saw them and adjusted course, as did a jetski…groan!

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Jetski pursuing dolphin
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Common Dolphins, jetski, Becky

The reason they were slow is that there were a lot of calves in the group, and they were sticking like glue beside their mothers. They changed direction and swam right past us. In kayaks we represented very little threat to the dolphins but the jetski was far to keen to get his photos and chased them far too vigorously. Becky managed to scowl at the driver and, credit to him, he did back off.

We watched and had a pretty reasonable view for about fifteen minutes. The pod of about 15 then swam directly offshore, pursued by the jetski at a slightly more respectable distance. Still not good, however, because some of the calves were very small and so understandably slow.

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Mother and calf Common Dolphin

Incredibly, we had another dolphin encounter the next day, no doubt helped by the completely smooth surface which makes seeing fins that much easier. Jake and Christina reported seeing a lone dolphin in the morning, and scanning the sea from the shore with binoculars later I saw a big-looking fin a couple of miles away. I powered towards it in the Tribord Kayak which has a pretty decent top speed (about 5 mph). However it took ages to get within naked eyeball range of the dolphin, and it was heading away from me. I watched it surface a couple of times several hundred yards ahead of me and then gave up. Fatigue.

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Distant ?Bottlenose Dolphin

It was a big dolphin with a prominent dorsal fin. I would think a Bottlenose but I just wondered about a Risso’s, especially as I had seen a couple of gulls finishing off some dead cuttlefish which are Risso’s dolphins favourite snack. It didn’t look grey or pale so Bottlenose looks most likely.

On the last day I glimpsed a large streamlined creature, the size of a dolphin, jumping out of the water once only. Just for a fraction of a second. Then nothing more, and nothing surfaced to breathe. I’m pretty sure it was a giant Tuna. I need to get a photo of one of these soon as this is the second time I have seen one in Spain, in addition to a similarly fleeting view of a group in Falmouth bay last autumn.

All these creatures shared the busy Mediterranean waters with numerous pleasure boats and commercial fishing boats, including large offshore trawlers whose throbbing engines provided the constant sound backdrop to the superb viewing.

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Typical Mediterranean Scene
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Not so typical Mediterranean Scene

Looking for Humpbacks

After my encounter with the suspected Fin whale near the Eddystone rocks last August, and a couple of brief sightings of Minkes, I thought that would put a pause on adventures with large cetaceans, at least until late summer.

It is still completely pretty amazing that a Humpback would appear in South Devon at all, and beyond belief that it would spend over six weeks cruising about the sheltered waters of Start Bay, wowing the crowd of assembled whale watchers with some unbelievably close passes to the beach at Slapton. The very fact that the carparks at Slapton Sands are so convenient and close to the steep shelving shingle beach (and therefore in close proximity to deep water), and usually swell-free because it is east facing, is a remarkable coincidence. Its about as perfect a place for whale-watching as you are going to get.

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Slapton Sands

If you were to put a pin in the map for the best pace for a whale to turn up for the maximum number if people to enjoy viewing it, you would choose Slapton sands. Even the bus stop is only yards away.

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The View down to Torcross

Needless to say I wanted to see the whale from my kayak. My first view from my Gumotex Inflatable was when the whale was trapped in a lobster pot rope. Hardly very memorable.

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First Slapton whale encounter

Ten days ago the sea at Slapton was just about flat calm and there was no ‘dumpy’ waves on the beach which can make launching here interesting/embarrassing/entertaining for the crowd. Apparently the whale was still around.

In my Scupper Pro kayak, which I had brought because it drags over the shingle well, I paddled a mile or two offshore. Lots of small parties of Guillemots whose guttural call could be heard for amazing distances over the millpond sea, a few Gannets and a pair of porpoises.

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Guillemot
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Harbour Porpoise

But no whale…yet.

I hadn’t really expected to see it because yet another remarkable feature of this remarkable whale is its habit of coming close inshore late in the day. Many seem to think this is tide-related but it can’t be because in the space of two weeks the tide has gone through its complete cycle, yet the whale still turns up at roughly the same time.

I slid my kayak into the water and sat around fifty metres from the shore, on a surface so calm I could have been in a lake.

To my toe tingling astonishment I heard the whale blowing half a mile away towards Torcross, and saw the bushy cloud of spray slowly disperse. Good grief, it seemed to be heading straight towards me. I fumbled for my camera but already my hands were trembling with excitement.

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The Blow

It surfaced and dived once more. I then saw patches of smooth water appearing in a line like giant footprints coming towards me at the surface as the whale approached….fluke prints caused by the whale swimming along just below the surface! Amazing!

It surfaced and blew only twenty yards away and I got a very unsatisfactory photo. Like a complete idiot I thought the action had finished when the bulk of its body disappeared and I lowered my camera, but then the tail flukes came up in perfect humpback-style as it deep dived. Moron…would have been a pic to remember.

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Slapton Humpback

However it was an absolutely extraordinary encounter. Who would have believed you could see a whale like this within a stone’s throw from the shore in South Devon. I had spent a fair amount of time during the winter researching where in the world you could see Humpback’s from a kayak, as it has been number one on my kayaking wishlist for some time. Hawaii or British Columbia were on the  shortlist.

Wherever it was going to be, I hadn’t expected it would only require about ten strokes of the paddle to get far enough from the shore to achieve the ideal position for viewing! Thinking about it, there probably isn’t anywhere else in the entire world when you can be loafing about  eating a Bakewell tart on the beach one minute, and having a Humpback swim more or less dirctly underneath your kayak less than five minutes later.

Four days ago a wildlife viewing boat (AK Wildlife Cruises) had absolutely incredible views of a Humpback breaching in the middle of Falmouth Bay right beside their boat. Crystal clear pictures and video, you couldn’t hope for better.

So a couple of days later I set off in my Cobra Expedition Kayak for a twenty-five mile paddle around Falmouth Bay, cutting right across the middle to the Manacles rocks, and then following the coast back. Tremendously exciting, calm waters, huge expectation, but no whale.

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St Mawes

I had a reasonable consolation prize. About three miles offshore I sped towards a mini feeding frenzy of gulls which had attracted a handful of Gannets which appeared from nowhere and wasted no time in plunging in. As I approached I could see fins of dolphins slashing at speed across the surface, and the pale patch behind the fin to show they were Common Dolphons. Superb. They appeared a couple of times more but were only momentarily visible in a burst of spray. And suddenly they were gone, the gannets drifted off, and the gulls settled on the water. The lone Manx Shearwater also winged away. Feeding frenzy over.

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Feeding frenzy participants including gannet and Manx Shearwater

This is not the first time this has happened. It is quite difficult to get to a feeding frenzy before it finishes. One of my objectives for this year is to see a big frenzy. The only time I have ever achieved this was off Bude over ten years ago, when I threw out some mackerel for the gannets and they dived in beside my kayak to catch them.

Other wildlife highlights were five Sandwich Terns, four Great Northern Divers, a Whimbrel, six Purple Sandpipers on the Manacles and several swallows coming in off the sea.

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Purple Sandpiper on the Manacles

And an excellent Barrel Jellyfish in the clear waters off Swanpool beach.

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Barrel Jellyfish

Nipped in for nice lunch at Porthallow and met up with former work colleague Andrew who is training for Lands End- John o’ Groats ! (by bike, not kayak)

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Kayaker meets Cyclist

Looking closely at photographs of the Slapton and Falmouth Humpbacks, it would seem they are different whales. This seems even more likely because the Slapton whale has been seen in its usual area since the Falmouth whale has been sighted, and it is unlikely the whale would backtrack sixty or seventy miles when it is supposed to be on migration.

So, probably two Humpbacks. Even more amazing. And on my ‘local’ patch. Thank goodness I hadn’t booked a whale watching by kayak trip somewhere on the other side of the world, which would never have been so much fun. (actually it might have been, but I’m a huge fan of wildlife in the UK, so it would have had to have been exceptional).

More please.

 

 

 

Costa del Bonxie

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Puerto Banus

We spent four days on the Costa del Sol,  based halfway between Estepona and Puerto Banus. From the beach the extraordinary Rock of Gibraltar is usually visible thirty miles away to the southwest sticking out like a sole molar from the gappy gum of Andalucia.

The weather forecast for the first couple of days was exceptional for mid March, even for Spain. Sunny, hot, and most importantly for a kayaker, hardly a breath of wind. Perfect for the paddle to Gibraltar.

I was using a RTM Disco kayak, a really excellent sit-on-top that is quite narrow (26″) so licks along and is effectively a mini sea kayak. It cuts through the water a bit better than the slightly fatter sit-on-tops, and with no ‘hull-slap’.

It was completely dark when I set off at 6.30 (Spanish time). I stopped for breakfast on the beach at Estepona soon after sunrise and ladled on the factor 50 suncream. And then ladled on a load more.

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Sunrise Spanish-style

The sea was so calm and flat and benign that I decided to cut directly across the bay to Gibraltar 23 miles away, which would take me several miles offshore so hopefully meet up with a sea creature or two.

I was nearly too far out to see a small school of Common dolphins between me and the coast. I adjusted course slightly to intercept and then paddled along beside them for about a mile, only just able to keep up as their cruising speed is four to five mph.

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Common Dolphins and Gibraltar

It was a school of about a dozen , with a couple of small calves sticking very close to their mother’s side the whole time, and breathing when they did. The water was oily calm and with the slab of Gibraltar as a backdrop it was quite an experience. Eventually they swung offshore and I resumed my course.

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Mother and calf Common Dolphin

The kayak-fishermen off the headlands were not particularly friendly, saying, in perfect English, that they did not speak English. I think they considered me a threat to their fishing even though I quite clearly had no rods.

I had my passport tucked away in a drybag just in case I was stopped by one of the many customs/police boats zipping about.

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Lunch break

As I crossed from Spanish water into Gibraltar a dark shape at the surface several hundred metres away caught my eye. I initially thought it was inanimate and nearly didn’t bother with it until it flopped half-heartedly. It turned out to be a fin belonging to a really big Sunfish, by far the biggest I have ever seen.

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First glimpse of thumping great Sunfish

Sunfish are the biggest bony fish in the world (so excluding sharks and rays, which are cartilaginous), and it wasn’t quite a record breaker, but must have been four foot across. I sneaked up on it silently and managed a few underwater pics as it very slowly and reluctantly sunk into the depths. They really are the most bizarre design.

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Ocean Sunfish

After 31 miles and ten hours paddling I rolled up at Catalan beach , Gibraltar.Feeling fairly pooped, and a bit burnt where the copious quantities of suncream didn’t reach.

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Arrival at Catalan beach

Back along the coast near Estepona, the next day was equally sunny and still ,so I headed offshore. I was a bit surprised to come across half a dozen Great Skuas (aka Bonxies)which really do not seem to be suited to the calm waters and busy, built-up coast of Southern Spain. They are surely more suited to a windblasted patch of bogland above a wavetorn Scottish coast.

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Bonxie on the Costa

Some were cruising about with that alarming sense of purpose, and enormous potential power. Some were resting on the water.

I saw half a dozen more the next day, and wonder whether they actually winter here as they seemed quite at home and not just passing through (although I’m not sure quite how they would look different if they WERE just passing through). Maybe, like us, they were on holiday.

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Bonxie and the Sierras

I really like Bonxies and they might just be my favourite seabird. I’m not sure why as their plumage is sludge brown and they always look a bit scruffy. But they are never boring and to see them accelerate in to intercept a tern or a kittiwake or a gannet to make it disgorge is breathtaking.

The birding was complemented by a dozen or so Balearic Shearwaters zipping past, and a couple of Adouin’s gulls to dilute the monopoly of the hefty Yellow-legged Gulls (that are the size of a Greater Black-back).

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Adouin’s Gull

The final day  in Spain was absolutely awful: rain, wind and cold. Couldn’t have been more British. Time to head home.

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Gannet

December Dolphins

Much as I love footling about miles from the shore on a calm summer’s day with shearwaters and maybe the odd Storm Petrel zipping past, there are some cracking birds to encounter in SW England that arrive from the far north to spent the colder months around the coast. Ducks, divers, grebes and scoters. The shearwaters and petrels have gone.

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Offshore Paddling (me in Cobra Expedition just right of middle)

And these winter ducks  tend not to be quite so far offshore as the summer seabirds, which is handy because when the weather and water are cold I find offshore paddling a bit more intimidating. Even better, they seem to prefer sheltered bays as I suspect they dislike being battered by wind and waves as much as I do.

I just about managed to get my camera out of my dry bag as a couple of Long-tailed Ducks flew directly past me during a jaunt to Teignmouth. Not particularly spectacular to look at (although they are when in breeding plumage) but a favourite amongst birders as they are quite rare.

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Long-tailed Ducks

I encountered some of my favourite coastal birds at the tip of Nare Head in Southern Cornwall. Purple Sandpipers. Funnily enough they are only at home skipping about on barnacle-encrusted wave-pounded rocks, generally in fully exposed locations, so they buck the shelter-seeking trend. They are incredibly easy to overlook and I very nearly missed them despite paddling past only a few feet away.

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Purple Sandpipers

The birdworld winter king of the coast must be the Great Northern Diver (bad name). Called the Common Loon (good name) in America. They are the most widespread visiting Diver and probably the commonest. Their penchant for flatfish and crabs means they are often close to the shore. But it was a bit of a surprise to find one right outside the entrance to Padstow.harbour.

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Reluctant Loon

This was the tamest Loon out of many hundred I have observed from a kayak. It busily fished in the strong tidal current as I drifted around watching. Absolutely fantastic. It had to dodge out of the way of the Padstow to Rock ferry but didn’t seem at all fussed.

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Great Northern Diver

I thought cetacean watching was just about finished for the season.It’s definitely what REALLY gives me a buzz from a kayak but quite a challenge to achieve because not only is the season quite short, conditions suitable for heading out to see them on a flimsy sliver of plastic are patchy.Especially on the swell exposed North Cornwall coast.

I have had my eye on a paddle around Padstow bay and its offshore islands all year because I know it is quite productive for marine life, but have so far been put off by the relentlessly  lumpy sea conditions. To make it non-worrying and fun, and to make spotting the fins of cetaceans easier, I would be looking for a swell of less than two foot and a wind of less than 10 mph. Bingo! The forecast for both the 30 Nov and 1 Dec were perfect. Blooming cold but pure sunshine and little wind or swell.

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Mouth of the River Camel

On the first day chum Dave and I paddled the coast between Rock and Trevone past several miles of vertical black exposed cliff which managed to be quite bumpy even in the calm conditions.

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Gunver Head

My son Henry who was observing from a clifftop at Stepper point reported seeing a couple of ‘big splashes’ a mile offshore towards Gulland Rock. Mmmmm, what on earth might they be…dolphins? whales?

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Hezzer on lookout at Stepper point

My curiosity was ignited so on the second day I planned a thirteen mile circuit around Padstow Bay from Harlyn up to the mouth of the River Camel, then around Gulland Rock and straight down to the ‘Quies’ rocks off Trevose Head, then back to Harlyn. Using my Cobra Expedition kayak.

This would involve eight or nine miles of offshore paddling so I was hopeful of meeting up with one of the splashy things.

It was below freezing as I paddled out but the sun soon got to work to thaw out my toes. A grey seal was fast asleep ‘bottling’ a couple of miles out and clearly not expecting to be disturbed…it crash-dived with a mighty splash.

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Snoozy seal

A couple of miles north of Gulland Rock three fast-moving fins slashed the surface. I think I glimpsed the yellow side of a Common Dolphin but was not certain…they could just have been porpoises on a hunting ‘surge’.

It was calm enough for me to hear the characteristic ‘piff’ of a group of nine Puffing Pigs (aka Harbour Porpoises) long before I saw them. A good prolonged view as they swam away and then came back.

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Padstow Porpoise

I assumed another ‘puff’ behind me was also a porpoise, but was very pleased to see a largish looking solo dolphin passing at a leisurely speed. I tore after it but although I was paddling like a demon in a flurry of white water, the dolphin increased the distance between us even though it looked as though it was having the cetacean equivalent of a Sunday afternoon stroll. Of course I always keep well away so as not to disturb any of these superb creatures, but this is often academic as they frequently come over to check you out (although this one didn’t).

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Common Dolphin

The photograph I took of this dolphin confused me a bit as it seemed to show a pale flank patch and I started to get excited about the possibility of a White-sided Dolphin, but guidance from the folk at Seawatch confirm it as a Common Dolphin.

Anyway, dolphins and porpoises from a kayak in December. Fab.

The tide helped with crossing the open water to the fangs of rock off Trevose Head. This really is a sinister place and I got the impression it is not friendly to kayaks very often. In fact I would go so far as to say it is even more ‘exposed feeling’ than Land’s End. I have only ever paddled past here twice before.

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Trevose head
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Lifeboat Sation

I was quite pleased to get round into the shelter of Mother Ivey’s Bay, and the very impressive lifeboat station, before the easy paddle back to Harlyn.

I was sorry to miss out on Henry’s remarkable cetacean sighting while he was perched on top of the cliffs photographing peregrine falcons at Morwenstowe in North Cornwall. He observed a harbour porpoise which was entirely white!

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White Porpoise

This is apparently ultra rare and there have only been fifteen or so such sightings in the last century. The porpoise-loving fraternity got very excited. My attempts to go and see it by kayak were thwarted by strong winds (surprise,surprise). Another entry for my bucket list for next year!

More Offshore Paddling

Still fizzing after my encounter with the whale, I watched the weather charts closely waiting for a forecast slackening of the wind. It’s been a tricky year with very few (if any) prolonged periods of settled weather dominated by high pressure. Just the odd day or two here and there.

As I have already mentioned, the North Cornwall coast has been very poor for sea kayaking in a relaxed manner as is pummelled by wind or swell. The south coast has been the best place by far and fortunately has come up with the goods in terms of wildlife.

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Cruise liner entering Plymouth Sound

I had one more recent paddle out around the Eddystone Lighthouse starting at Cawsand. The Eddystone lies twelve miles beyond Plymouth breakwater and ten miles from Penlee Point which is the last bit of land you pass on the way (the western edge of Plymouth Sound). Although it was pretty calm there were no more whales and surprisingly no dolphins either. Only the ever-reliable porpoises which were exposing more of their bodies than they usually do as they were in a bit of a feeding frenzy.

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Harbour Porpoise
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Porpoise and Eddystone

Nine Balearic Shearwaters and fleeting views of a couple of Storm Petrels. And a couple of ‘marauding ‘ Bonxies that both flew a low circuit over my kayak and checked me out for fleshy morsels. As is usual with Bonxies, no shyness was evident.Totally XXY. The bird world’s Donald Trump.

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Prowling Bonxie

Paddling about in the sea miles offshore doesn’t lend itself to landscape photography unless you have an albatross-style love of expansive sea views.

So a trip along the coast from Looe to Polperro was a bit of a scenic change. Paddling through the middle of Looe is always good fun as it is always busy.

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Looe

And then there’s the ever reliable Fowey with its steep ,sheltered shores providing superb protection from elements of weather that are trying to spoil your day.We had a great day out first visiting Lantic Bay, then back up the estuary (is it called an estuary if it’s a ria?) to the super quaint village of Lerryn up a side creek. With my brother, sister-in-law and paddling prodigy, Jed.

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Foggy Fowey
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Hardcore Fowey Paddling Team

Another half-day of vaguely calm conditions presented itself so I nipped off down to Penzance for a bit of dolphin hunting. I could see dolphins jumping about in the far distance when I pulled up in the car park in Newlyn, probably half-an-hours paddling time away from where I was watching. They were out beyond Penlee point.(the other Penlee Point!).

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Newlyn

I got my stuff together in superquick time and cracked my head on the top of the boot as usual (but a bit harder than usual).

And tore off. No time to warm up those ageing paddling muscles. I was going to be very disappointed if I didn’t catch up with those dolphins. However my experience told me that they don’t hang around in any one place for very long because they are pretty efficient at hoovering up the fish they had found.. And there was only a couple of gannets circling half-heartedly over them so it was hardly a feeding frenzy.

I ‘scorched’ out into the open sea past Mousehole at approx 5 mph. Can’t keep that up for too long.Even though I was in my Cobra Expedition which is relatively quick. Puffing Pig, my inflatable kayak, has a max speed of only 4 mph. Good thing I wasn’t in that (although it’s good for chasing jellyfish).

By sheer luck I just glimpsed the disappearing back of a dolphin heading west parallel to the coast, and adjusted course to follow. Unfortunately cruising dolphins tend to travel at about 5 mph also, so I had to crank it up even more so I just had about half a mile-an-hour on them. There are definite rules about how close you are allowed to approach sea creatures without disturbing them, which I applaud, but in a kayak you generally don’t need to get too close , because they come over to check you out first!dolphin-off-mousehole

And this pair were no exception.My paddling efforts were rewarded when the pair of Common Dolphins swerved over towards me and actually did a very brief bit of bow-riding a few feet in front of my kayak, the first time this has ever happened. They soon decided it wasn’t much help so carried on by themselves, and I stopped for a rest.

I continued directly offshore and had brief encounters with two small parties of three Common Dolphins, before running into a larger school about three miles south of St. Michael’s Mount. I would probably have missed them if I hadn’t seen one jump. Unless the surface is absolutely smooth, which hardly ever happens, dorsal fins easily get lost amongst the wavelets.common-dolphins-off-st-michaels-mount

An excellent prolonged encounter. I followed them at moderate speed for fifteen minutes.A couple of small calves with them and one with a very small fin.When it surfaced beside me I saw it had extensive white scarring on its back behind the fin area.dolphin-with-mangled-fin

Speedboat injury or Great White attack?

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St. Michael’s Mount
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St Michael’ Mount artistic pic

Stopped for a cup of tea in the cafe at St. Michael’s mount. Very nice, but enjoyed using the superb new Dyson Airblades in the Gents more.

On the Trail of a Whale. My Holy Grail.

I’ve been making a real effort to paddle offshore as often as possible this summer. It actually isn’t possible very often because it is rarely calm enough.

I go specifically to see the amazing marine wildlife around the coast of SW England which seems to explode into life in July and August. The surface has really got to be almost smooth to spot fins surfacing, even small ripples make it very much more difficult. And if it’s calm you can hear the ‘piff’ of porpoises and dolphins carrying a long way over the water.

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Gullemots

My rule is that I don’t go if there are whitecaps. Not just because spotting cetaceans is more tricky but it’s less enjoyable in terms of effort paddling into wind and swell and, of course, potential danger should something go wrong.

My planning of these offshore jaunts is meticulous in terms of tide, wind and swell and I carry a barrage of emergency equipment: GPS, phone, radio, PLB (personal locator beacon) and flares.

Paddling from Plymouth sound to the Eddystone Lighthouse is perfect for this kind of jaunt. The Eddystone lighthouse has a fascinating history and is a bit of an iconic sight and could just be my current favourite place to visit. You will soon see why.

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Eddystone Lighthouse

It’s a perfect distance offshore (about 11 miles from Plymouth breakwater) to give a good long day on the water to make the effort of getting there worthwhile. It provides an excellent target and sense of satisfaction in getting there. It wouldn’t be so good if I just paddled 11 miles offshore to a random point I had programmed into my GPS.

You are not allowed to get out onto the lighthouse but I usually loaf about a bit (in the kayak) round the back of the lighthouse, have a word with a few fishermen in their boats, have a cup of coffee and head for home.

And it comes up with the goods in the wildlife department.

So I was pretty excited about the completely smooth water in Plymouth sound and the forecast of hot sunshine and clear blue sky all day. Paddling in a vest, superb (with PFD of course). This was my sixth jaunt out to Eddystone this summer and I had already racked up some fantastic sightings including porpoises, common dolphins, storm petrels, a pomarine skua and sunfish.

The usual steady stream of gannets cruised overhead, they always come over just to check me out as I might just mean fish. Manx Shearwaters whipped past my ears. I was suddenly in amongst a busy school of feeding porpoises criss-crossing about all over the place. I looked down and saw a large number of the fish they were hunting hiding directly beneath my kayak.

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Harbour porpoise

Then a couple of passing schools of common dolphins but they were distant and not hanging around so not great views.

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Compass Jellyfish

A lot of Compass jellyfish doing their thing (whatever it is they do, which seems to be to be not a lot), and a couple of glimpses of storm petrels carving about low over the surface, brought me to the lighthouse.

Storm Petrel
Storm Petrel

Stoked up with caffeine I struck back for Plymouth. My PFD (lifejacket) rubbed agaainst my kayak seat with every paddle stroke making a faint scuffing noise, but I heard a couple of scuffs that were out of sequence with my stroke. I stopped, nothing. Apart from regular ‘piffs’ from porpoises and dolphins often too far away to see. and the ‘thoomph’ of gannets impacting the water. The sea was alive with activity today.It was as if the stage was set for something really remarkable.

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Eddystone

Then that scuffy noise again. Very faint. I stopped paddling again and this time I realised it was a faint prolonged breathy noise coming from way out to the west.I dug out my binoculars and followed the noise. I rarely use binoculars form the kayak as any sort of rocking movement is amplified making them useless, but today was so still I was able to see an intense circling troop of gannets plunging into the water in the far distance, and there was a dark back appearing at the surface beneath them. Just a bit slow and big-looking to be a dolphin.

Mmmmm. A quandry. I was already faced with a four hour paddle back. Did I want to paddle a further couple of miles in the other direction. Of course you can you lightweight! This could just be the whale that you have been hunting for many years and many thousands of miles of paddling.

I didn’t hang around and tore towards the gannets. Needless to say they had dispersed long before I was half way there but the large back surfaced a bit closer and my heart missed a beat. It was a whale for certain!

Closer still during its next sequence of breaths and blimey it looked enormous. I snapped away with my camera on rapid fire.

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Whopping Whale

It had passed way to the east next time it came up (ironically exactly where I had been half-an-hour ago) and I was tempted to head back, although on its final breath it just seemed to have turned back towards me…..

One more effort I thought, so paddled towards it again, and then waited silently just when I thought it was due to show.

The atmosphere suddenly seemed to electrify. There was complete silence apart from the slight rustly squeak of the wings of a load of gannets that had appeared from nowhere and were circling directly above my head, looking very expectant. No piffing from any small cetacean. I could sense something rather dramatic was about to happen and felt a long way from land (actually 8.5 miles) and a bit small sitting on top of my eighteen foot sliver of yellow plastic, less than two foot wide. I hoped I didn’t smell like a pilchard (although I probably did as it was very hot and I had done a lot of paddling).

Small fish exploded from the surface only twenty metres away and this was followed by a n explosion of water over a large area as (I realised afterwards) the whale lunged at the fish just below the surface. A second later it surfaced for a huge intake of breath and powered away at astonishing (terrifying) speed. Blinking heck, what a thrill. And it was absolutely enormous.Diving

.I sat about for more and by great good fortune found myself in the best ringside seat because, although it disappeared off to breathe almost as far away as I could see, it came back right beside me on several more occasions. I sat completely and utterly absorbed for over an hour.

At one stage it powered towards me with Plymouth in the distance directly behind and I thought for a minute it was a submarine. It’s speed was staggering.coming straight towards meapproaching

Even more incredibly I was temporarily distracted by the blowing of a school of four stout-looking dolphins that were heading straight towards me and which passed a few feet away. I saw they had rather attractive grey spray-paint like markings on their sides and photographs revealed later they were White-beaked dolphins. Another new cetacean species from my kayak! And as I watched them the whale surfaced in the background. A memorable image.

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White-beaked dolphins

For it’s grand finale the whale put on quite a display of lunge-fishing with a decent amount of splashing. I couldn’t help but get the impression it was for my benefit, as it was once again right in front of me but I rather suspect it was to get a bellyfull of fish instead.lunge feeding

And then it moved off. So did I. But the cetacean action carried on. Two schools of friendly and active common dolphins to break up the long paddle back.Common Dolphins

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Common Dolphin

Wow. Nine hours on the water. One whale, 4 white-beaked dolphins, 5 schools of common dolphins, two schools of porpoises (plus many many more heard bur not seen), 4 Storm Petrels, 4 Balearic Shearwaters, and a sunfish. Plus the common stuff!

Of course I assumed it was a Minke Whale as they are the most frequently seen, and I never thought I would see anything else. But it rapidly dawned on me that it was far too big for the thirty foot max of a Minke. I have paddled with twenty-five foot long basking shark and this was at least twice the size of that, infact I would guess it was three times the length of my kayak.

I posted my many photos to Hannah Jones at Marine Discovery in Penzance and she was immediately very interested and helpfully forwarded them to her Rorqual expert acquaintance. She rapidly gave a detailed analysis of the photos and explained that in her opinion it was definitely not a Minke Whale, could possibly have been a Sei Whale but was probably a juvenile Fin Whale! Wow!

There is currently ongoing debate about its precise identity. I even wonder whether there were two whales, one with a very long back putting in a brief appearance further out, but I can’t be sure and never saw them surface together.

Maybe I’m pleased that I have failed to spot a whale during kayak trips to Scotland and even Greenland. There’s something very satisfying about seeing one on ‘your own patch’, close to home. And against all the odds (because it was in Devon…just). And under your own steam. And in a kayak.

I have deliberately resisted the temptation to go on a dedicated whale-watching-from-kayak-trip in America or wherever specifically so I could see one under these circumstances. Although I didn’t honestly think I would. And anyway not this big a whale and not this good a view.

Could it have been the largest sea creature ever seen by a kayaker in the UK?Fin whale

latest update: seawatch southwest are pretty confident that this is in fact a Sei Whale. Slightly smaller than a Fin but a lot rarer!