2017. The Year of the Dolphin

2017 IN FIGURES

2814 miles paddled in total.

2400 in Devon and Cornwall

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Winter Dawn on the Torridge estuary

183 in Spain (Costa del Sol)

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Gibraltar (from Spain)

133 in Scotland

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Loch Arkaig

100 along Rivers in England (Thames and two Avons)

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September Thames

500+ miles of offshore paddling (more than a mile from the coast) in Devon and Cornwall.

6 trips out to the Eddystone Lighthouse

The author at the Eddystone
Yours Truly at Eddystone

1 Interception by the UK Border Force

Wildlife seen from my kayak in 2017:

1 Humpback whale seen. Horace, aka Doris, hung around the sheltered waters of Slapton sands in South Devon for an incredible six weeks in the Spring. I saw him (her) twice from my kayak, although the first time shouldn’t really count because he (she) was tangled up in a lobster pot rope.

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Horace the Humpback takes a puff

33 days with Harbour Porpoises seen, a total of approx 177 individuals. Porpoises are very small and very unsplashy and easily overlooked unless the sea is flat calm. For every one I saw, I missed an equal number when all I heard was there ‘piff’ as they breathed, the sound of their breathing carrying long distances over the water.

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Harbour porpoises

11 days with Common Dolphins, totally approx 171 individuals. Another 175ish in Spain. Several fantastic close encounters with groups bow riding when I could muster up the power to paddle at top speed. I need to eat more pasties.

Seeing Common Dolphins is extremely unpredictable and random as they range far and wide and usually keep well offshore. However the pods in Torbay around Brixham at the end of the year and running into early 2018, were the closest in, and most regular, I have known.

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Common Dolphin (youngster)

3 days with Bottlenose Dolphins, totalling 50-80 individuals. Plus 8-10 at Chanonry point in the Moray Firth in Scotland, probably the best dolphin watching location in the UK.

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Bottlenose Dolphins

A huge thrill on 18 Dec a couple of miles off Lamorna Cove when a proper ‘stampede’ of 30+ Bottlenosers charged directly towards me in a line all jumping out of the water simultaneously. An unforgettable image.

2017 was by far my best year yet for number of dolphin sightings.

7 Giant Bluefin Tuna sightings, all after 13 Nov. Amazing. I have glimpsed them on occasion before and seen the odd random splash but there seems to have been an invasion of them this autumn. Hopefully it means the baitfish are making a bit of a comeback which will mean more mega sightings of large fish-eating sea creatures.

Jumping Giant Bluefin Tuna
Giant Bluefin Tuna

Four days with tuna at Fowey, with one extraordinary day with scores of splashes and fish jumping right out, one at Mevagissey  (double splash), one at Berry Head (double splash), and brief intense feeding frenzy off Lamorna Cove near Penzance.

Loads of seals. All Grey seals in SW England apart from one Harbour Seal near Portscatho.

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Grey Seal pup
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Harbour Seal, south Cornwall

11 Otters in Devon and Cornwall, plus 6 (before 6am on one day!) in Shetland. A poor year overall for otter sightings; there don’t seem to be so many on the River Torridge. ???

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Otter

I saw otters on the Rivers Tamar, Taw, Camel and Torridge.

2 Mink. Nasty, nasty little creatures which have almost exterminated  Water Voles. Maybe this is a bit unfair because if you are a Mink you do what Minks do and can’t really help it (although leaving Water Voles off the menu would help the public image).

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Mink (trying not to look too evil)

One on the Torridge, one beside the Thames in Marlow!

1 Sunfish at Fowey. There were quite a lot around this year, I just didn’t seem to bump into many by shear random luck (or lack of).

Also one off Gibraltar (also from kayak) on 10 March. A real whopper.

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Gibraltar Sunfish

5 days with Portugese Man-of-War sightings, totalling over 50. A good year for jellyfish in general with nine or ten species seen, including the not so common, and unpleasantly named, Mauve Stingers.

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Portugese Man o’War

Technically Portugese Man o’Wars are not jellyfish, they are Siphonophores. Likewise By-the-wind Sailors (another excellent name) are not jellyfish, they are Hydrozoa. However because I am a bit of a simpleton it seems sensible to lump them all together in one group because they are all jellylike and do what is expected of a jellyfish (i.e. float about and look like they might give you a bit of a sting).

6 Sooty Shearwaters, on four days. A true ocean-wandering seabird which nests on islands in the Southern Ocean. My first ever kayak-seen Sooty ‘Shears’ were the result of my concentrated efforts to paddle offshore this year. 5 seen near Eddystone, 1 near Land’s End.

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Sooty Shearwater

37 Balearic Shearwaters, on six days. Scattered amongst the much more common Manx Shearwater, usually well offshore.

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Manx and Balearic Shearwater

43 Storm Petrels, on six days from mid June to the end of August. 29 at Eddystone, 1 at Porthcurno and 13, several very close, on a rainy but fortunately fairly windless day off Fowey.

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Storm Petrel

Storm Petrels are probably my favourite pelagic seabird I have seen from my kayak because they look impossibly small and vulnerable when fluttering low over the waves, yet spend all their time when not involved with nesting at sea scattered over the oceans of the world.

They are indeed vulnerable because they seem to be a favourite snack of Peregrines. I have seen a Peregrine snatch a Storm Petrel from just above the surface of a stormy sea off Hartland Point (not from my kayak). Probably a good reason why they usually keep well offshore.

5 ‘Bonxie’ Great Skuas. Another of my favourites, and a sensational encounter with one off Fowey on a calm and sunny day, only a few feet from my kayak. By far my best view in SW England.

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Great Skua

6 Arctic Skuas . All near Torbay and no decent photos.

6 Puffins. All around Eddystone. The usual gang of dirty-faced immature birds in late Spring , and one (very unusual sighting, I think) juvenile on 21 Aug. A Puffling.

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Juvenile Puffin

1 Black Tern In Mevagissey Bay with a load of Common Terns. Only my second ever from a kayak, and first ever half decent pic.

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Black Tern

8 Long-tailed Ducks. An exceptionally good year and (yet) another of my favourites. The males are one of the most attractive sea ducks. This year I was treated not only to a superb pair at Porthpean, but also a hugely unusual drake in summer plumage on the Taw estuary on 29 Sept.

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Drake Long-tailed Duck in Summer plumage
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Drake (and duck) Long-tailed Duck in Winter plumage

1 Pink-footed Goose Another kayaking first , and actually I can’t remember the last time I saw a ‘Pink-foot’, even from dry land. Superb close view, in amongst some Canada Geese, on the upper reaches of the Fowey River.

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Pink-footed Goose

Several pairs of Black-throated Divers in Scotland. The most beautifully marked UK bird?

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Black-throated Divers

 

Kingfishers on 21 days. Everybody’s favourite waterbird.

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Kingfisher

1 WILSON’S PETREL. I can still hardly believe this. The chances of seeing one of these from a kayak in England are as remote as Captain Sensible becoming Prime Minister. Ironically they are one of the most numerous birds in the world, nesting in the Southern Hemisphere and visiting the northern oceans in our summer.  A lot of birdwatchers spend a lot of time staring out to sea through telescopes hoping to see one but hardly any ever do. It’s only during storms that they are likely to be driven close enough to the shore to be seen, so when the sea is calm enough to venture far out in a kayak the petrels will usually be long gone.

So I was pretty lucky to see one a couple of miles from the Eddystone lighthouse, bringing back memories of the first one I ever saw with my father from the deck of the RMS St.Helena off the coast of South Africa, in 1989.

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Wilson’s Petrel

Finally, 3 Favourite Scenes from the year. All great to look at from the depths of winter and give prospective kayakers hope that at least a few days next year might be warm, sunny and still.

1 Hartland Point

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Hartland Point

Looe

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Looe

3 Kynance Cove

Kynance Cove
Kynance Cove
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The Brixham Dolphins

Common Dolphins are usually quite a challenge to watch from a kayak because they spend most of their time a long way offshore. I have clocked up nearly 500 miles this year paddling more than a mile offshore in the hope of running into a school or two, and some of their pelagic partners.

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Brixham Harbour

So it was a bit of a surprise when, on the shortest day of the year, I saw a host of fins breaking the surface within five minutes of paddling out from the slipway at the root of Brixham breakwater. I followed the school of about twenty-five Common Dolphins as they cruised and splashed their way towards Berry head, with several coming over to bowride my rather weak pressure wave.P1010794

They teamed up with another group of a dozen or so for a bit of a cavort about a mile off the headland. I had to paddle just about flat out to keep up with the pace, and several times gave up as they disappeared off, but then was ‘pursuaded’ to have one more sprint when they slowed down a bit. P1010792

P1010879P1010663Absolutely fantastic. I had the best ringside seat you could wish for and watched the dolphins for almost an hour. There were several juveniles and calves amongst the group and as usual these stuck to their mother’s side like glue.P1010615

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Common Dolphin calf

The scattered group disappeared off out to sea to the south and I continued offshore on a very calm sea to Sharkham Point. Beneath a couple of plunging Gannets rolled a handful of Harbour Porpoises. In contrast to the habitually boisterous and splashy nature of the dolphins, porpoises roll at the surface with hardly any disturbance to the water as if they are attached to an underwater wheel. I have seen them breach on occasion when they get really fired up about a shoal of fish, but this is rare (and even rarer on a flat calm day).

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Harbour Porpoise (rather more sedate than dolphins)

I turned back at Mansands where a Peregrine watched from above. En route back to Berry Head I passed Guillemots, Fulmars and Kittiwakes dotted about on the surface, and a few more porpoises quite close in off the headland.

As I was having a brief word with a fisherman who was casting out from a tiny cove right at the tip of the headland I glanced out to sea and observed quite a splash. My initial thought was jumping dolphin but a second later another spray of water was accompanied by the silvery flash and spiky fins of a Giant Tuna! Only about 100m off the headland (if that). Blooming heck!

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Berry Head and Brixham Breakwater
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Hezzer awaits the action

Two days later I returned for (hopefully) more dolphin action, with son Henry who positioned himself on the end of Brixham breakwater with his camera and huge lens on a tripod. It was a bit windier and was quite choppy as I ventured off the end of Berry Head. I had brief views of a couple of porpoises before I saw the more active fins of some dolphins further out.

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Family Smerdon

I arrived on the scene at the same time as a small boat containing father, son and daughter of the Smerdon family. As usual the dolphins found the larger craft rather more interesting than my own and I didn’t get a great view, although did observe one dolphin who had the curious habit of surfacing with a bit of a belly flop every time it came up for breath.

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Belly flopping Dolphin

I battled back to the headland through the wind chop and got a call from Hezzer (Henry) that there was another pod of dolphins off the breakwater. I eventually arrived on the scene and the dolphins came over to greet me. I absolutely piled on the steam to try to get them to bow ride, and a handful obliged providing some thrilling views through the clear water as they swam directly beneath me before bursting out of the water inches in front of my kayak.4I2A8650

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It’s behind you

roops dolphin

Once again they deserted me in favour of a passing vessel, this time a yacht, and my attempted humorous comment shouted across the water of “you’ve nicked my dolphins!” was partly lost on the wind and, judging by the unsmiling expression on the crew’s faces, didn’t convey in as friendly or humorous manner as it was intended.

The dolphin with the funny belly flop breathing action appeared in the bay with its group and I had one more good view before it was time for lunch and time to go home.

One distressing observation today. As I munched a sandwich discussing the day’s excitement with Hezzer while sitting in my kayak at the tip of Brixham breakwater, a Turnstone was close by on the shore pecking frantically at its foot. We could see something was wrapped around it, probably fishing line, and during the time it took me to eat two sandwiches, it hadn’t made any progress in freeing it up. Poor thing.

Apart from that,  not a bad way to spend the shortest day of the year.

Final open sea fling of the year was a sunny post Christmas afternoon at Teignmouth with Simon and Jake. Low sun, superb colours, and a big flock of Common Scoters providing a bit of wildlife interest.

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Simon and Jake, Teignmouth
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Jake, Teignmouth
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Common Scoters

 

 

Christmas Bonus. Dolphins, Porpoises and Seals.

Still a few weeks to go to Christmas I know, but I just couldn’t resist the title.

The winter storms, which bludgeon me into submission and send me cowering up a creek, have been kept at bay for a further couple of days by a nose of high pressure. Not only light winds but also very little groundswell which is unusual at this time of the year, making offshore paddling irresistible.

Fowey was my destination on Day 1. Fowey is not only an exceptionally beautiful place, paddling always seems to be more relaxing here as the tidal currents seem to be less than around the corner past Dodman Point. Even the slightest current working against the wind chops up the surface significantly.

And following my recent encounters with the Giant Tuna and dolphins and porpoises here, I was full of expectation.

I called in my ‘passage plan’ on the radio with Charlestown NCI because there was nobody at home in Polruan NCI probably because I was a bit early, as usual.

I got the impression that there was not a lot going on in the sea in terms of wildlife but was kept interested by the little parties of Guillemots I passed. First photo with my new camera!

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Guillemot (in winter outfit)

I watched the handful of passing Gannets closely as they filed past. All they have to do is circle round once and show an interest in a particular patch of sea, and my eyeballs are locked on to the surface, because the fish that attracts a Gannet will also lure in other sea creatures. I’ve often located porpoises in this way, but for every one I have seen there will be twenty that I have missed, not only because porpoises are so small and unobtrusive, but because by the time I have arrived at the scene the action, if there has been any, has finished. Chasing down feeding ‘events’ in a kayak is a slow process. It’s a lot easier with a 200 horsepower outboard. Even two hp would be quicker than me.

Encouraged by a light tailwind I wandered about three miles offshore, and suddenly found myself on the edge of a group of twenty circling Gannets which seemed to have appeared out of nowhere. Sure enough, there were fins below. Three Common Dolphins. Fab. As I quietly approached, five more dolphins joined the gang and they all came over to  say hello. Just for fun I piled on the speed (can’t go more than 6-7mph flat out) and the dolphins responded with a load of splashing and surging in my excuse for a pressure wave.

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Dolphin and the Dodman

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Common Dolphin, Fowey

The dolphins hung around for five minutes then moved off. It all went a bit quiet after that so I paddled in for a leg stretch at superb Lantic Bay. As I was approaching the beach I heard the haunting querulous call of a Loon and observed a family of three fishing in the bay. Great Northern Divers (aka Common Loon across the pond) often go around in threes and I’m pretty sure these are Mum, Dad and this year’s offspring. Just by the way they act, and look, and communicate to each other in a family sort of way. Amazing that they can stick together on their migration from the arctic.

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Lantic Bay Loon

My enjoyable day was soured a bit as I arrived back in Fowey. A Dory which I had seen leaving the estuary at the same time as me six hours earlier overtook me on the way in and it was full up to the gunwhales, and beyond, with Sea Urchins. I had a chat with the three crew and they said they had picked up over six hundred (!) urchins by shallow diving along the local coast, and were going to sell them on to souvenir and craft shops. Blimey. They must have had nearly the lot.

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Sea Urchin (one that got away)

Day 2  involved a fifteen mile circuit of one of my favourite sheltered bays in South Cornwall, initially heading three miles offshore and then coming back along the coast.

I set off just as it was getting light and my systems (e.g eyes and ears) were far from fully operational when a small duck, which I initially presumed to be a Guillemot, pitched onto the surface with quite a splash in front of me.  Because it was half dark I was only ten yards away when I realised it was a Long-tailed Duck. I scrambled my new camera out of its dry bag and just managed a few shots before the duck paddled off into the gloom. My fourth L-T Duck of the autumn….pleased with that.

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Long-tailed Duck

Incidentally, no long tail because it’s a female.

My offshore jaunt was rather dull and was rescued by the appearance of a couple of porpoises which surfaced only a few yards away. In typical aloof porpoise style they popped up, piffed, and then completely disappeared.

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Harbour Porpoises

From a couple of miles offshore I could hear the weird wailing ‘song’ of a seal drifting out from a sheltered cove. At one stage it droned on for about a minute without a breath. A bit like Leonard Cohen, but more tuneful.

After coffee ‘at sea’ I cautiously paddled towards the seals who were hauled out on the rocks. I am acutely aware that seals can feel very vulnerable when out of the water and kayakers can, and do, cause real disturbance to colonies, so I kept my distance and was subjected only to a disapproving stare.

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Six-eyed Stare
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Large and Little

One seal, which had a nasty-looking fresh injury on its back, was mottled like a granite-style kitchen surface. A Harbour (or Common) Seal. Not Common at all in SW England, only the second I have seen in Cornwall. Maybe it’s because they get beaten up by the Grey Seals, as seemed to have happened to this one.

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Common (Harbour) seal

The Spring tide was just about low as I came round the headland to Portscatho. The local gulls were very busy and very noisy as they hunted through the exposed kelp for their favourite delicacy. Flicking over the fronds with their beaks and shallow-diving from the surface. If one caught a starfish it was immediately hounded by half-a-dozen friends who were keen to have an ‘arm’ or two. Dramas like this that are played out as you paddle along unobtrusively and silently are what I like most about kayaking (as well as all the other stuff).

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Gull plus seafood lunch. Rick Stein would approve.

I consumed my cheese and pickle sandwiches on the foreshore at Portscatho. The weather wasn’t bad for December 5th…..it was completely windless and warm enough for me not to have cold feet, even though I was wearing two pairs of socks. My photos would have looked better if the sun was shining, however. A turquoise sea is always better than one which is battleship grey.

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Portscatho

My ornithologically outstanding day was nicely rounded off with a close encounter with two Purple Sandpipers, distant views of a couple of Slavonian Grebes and a Red-necked Grebe, and another dozen Loons.

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Purple Sandpiper with purfect camouflage.
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Great Northern Diver (Loon)

It’s not just the marine environment that provides the best wildlife encounters from a kayak. It’s nice to get close views of some of the commoner, but no less attractive, species that seem only to be tame enough for close approach in city parks. Like this Moorhen with its incongruously large, and green, feet.

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Oxford Moorhen

I snapped this squirrel in the middle of Oxford (from my kayak of course). I’m not entirely sure that the tree to which it was clinging wasn’t some sort of creature from Middle Earth. Those look like faces in its bark.

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Secret Squirrel
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That’s got to be an Ent from Fangorn, surely

 

Chasing Tuna

It’s not easy looking for Tuna in the ‘Big Blue’. Sir David Attenborough said so last night on Blue Planet II.

It took his team three weeks.They had a sizeable ship bulging with technology and knowledgeable scientists and were looking in the tropical Pacific, where Tuna live. Oh, and a helicopter. I had a plastic kayak less than two foot wide laden only with a small camera and some out-of-date rolls for lunch (reduced for quick sale, three days ago), and was looking for Tuna near Fowey in South Cornwall, which is really not where they are supposed to live.

So, as usual, the odds were heavily stacked in favour of spectacular failure, but having glimpsed a breaching tuna here a couple of days previously, I was absolutely set on making the effort to get one on camera, while the calm conditions lasted. Definitely not easy because after a single jump they are gone until another one pops up for a fraction of a second somewhere else , and so on. I was just hoping for a more sustained feeding ‘event’ within camera shot of the kayak which might involve a succession of leaps.

Companions today were Jeremy and Jane, better than any eyes in the sky ( and also scientists, sort of). They were paddling their well-seasoned Ocean Kayak Malibu 2, and although it looks like the sort of craft that was designed for a Sunday afternoon saunter on the Serpentine, they pushed it along at a speed that I had difficulty matching in my much narrower and theoretically faster Cobra Expedition.

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Out past Fowey

We were assisted by an outgoing tide as we sped between Fowey and Polruan. and turned east once out onto the open coast. Thrilling as always, and even better today under cloudless skies. The only slight problem was that there was a steady easterly wind which would make offshore paddling a bit unrelaxing, but I was hopeful that it would drop.

For the time being we hugged the coast and dropped in to the stunning, sandy Lantic Bay for a quick leg stretch.

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Lantic Bay

By this time Jane’s wildlife spotting eyes had been finely tuned and she clocked up the first three interesting observations of the day. A lard-laden seal hauled out on a rock, a Garfish skipping across the surface, and a surging shoal of baitfish. Jeremy spotted a Red Admiral butterfly (not bad for late November) when we stopped next at Lantivet, while I was yet to get my eyeballs off the mark.

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Jeremy and Jane, Pencarrow Head

It was time to head out to sea and swing back to Fowey in a big arc which would take us a couple of miles offshore and hopefully……

Not long after we passed Udder Rock Buoy, which was clanging mournfully, Jane did very well to spot the slight splash of a fin just breaking the surface. Not easy in the slightly choppy conditions. We followed and observed three dolphins, one clearly a youngster, which were in no mood to hang around and be sociable and rapidly sped off. I’m not even sure what species they were. Fantastic nonetheless.

As we ‘took luncheon’ and I forced down my rolls which by now were even harder, the wind dropped further and the stage was set.

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A distant splash of something the size of a dolphin

The splashes started shortly afterwards. Dotted about all over the place and not particularly close to us, but Jeremy was looking in exactly the right direction when a Tuna the size of a dolphin jumped clean out of the water.  The intensity of activity seemed to build, along with our excitement.

My camera was poised and I took an awful lot of shots of empty sea where a splash had just occurred.

We powered towards a more sustained burst of activity at the surface with great big fish partly showing themselves , and I snapped away. Then all would go quiet and we would hear a great swoosh behind us and turn round to see a patch of smooth water where some huge creature had just broken the surface.

We continued to zigzag around and charge towards where we thought the action would take place. A gang of gulls came to our observational aid and circled over the school of Tuna to mark the spot. When they suddenly dipped down to the surface I rattled away with my camera and the Giant Tuna burst out, but I really wasn’t sure if the camera was pointing in the right direction, or zoomed in too far, or images blurred with the rocking of the kayak.IMG_2502

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That’s the image I was after!

Jeremy and Jane had the thrill of seeing a load of baitfish, which they reckoned were Mackerel, bursting from the surface with the Tuna exploding out in pursuit. Wow.

After in excess of fifty big splashes and seeing a score of Giant Tuna, Jeremy and Jane headed for home but I just could not drag myself away. I had no idea whether I had got my photo of a Tuna, or a bit of one, because I didn’t want to waste time reviewing my pics.

But after they departed it all went quiet. However the remarkable day was rounded off in a perfect manner, in the bright sunshine and blue sea, by a cameo appearance of one of my favourite seabirds, a Great Skua aka ‘Bonxie’.

The group of gulls which had settled on the surface to digest their tuna-meal leftovers suddenly spooked as the skua scythed into their post-prandial get-together. The skua chased one gull with typical aggression and surprising agility and then dropped down to settle on the sea.

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Bonxie harrying Gull

I sneaked up to it, making sure the sun was behind me. To my amazement I drifted to within a few feet of it with it apparently unconcerned (if anything it looked like it was eyeing me up for a meal). I have done this before at the Bonxie’s breeding grounds in Scotland but never seen one closer than hundreds of yards from my kayak in south-west England.IMG_2717

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Great Skua, Fowey

I had a clear view right down its larynx as it yawned before continuing on its way on migration.IMG_2702_01

What an incredible day. Unbelievable. Even better when reviewing my pics revealed a single frame of a Giant Bluefin Tuna clean out of the water.

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Giant Bluefin Tuna, Fowey, Cornwall

Not in the tropical Pacific, but in the English Channel. Not from a multimillion pound state-of-the-art research vessel, but from a couple of little plastic kayaks. Not using a helicopter to spot the fish, but Jane and Jeremy. And fuelled not by fossil fuel, but by a couple of stale rolls from Tesco.

 

 

Dolphins, Porpoises and GIANT TUNA!

Just when I thought the offshore paddling season was coming to a close and I was going to be forced back into more sheltered waters by the autumnal weather, up pops a completely still day.

My destination had to be Fowey.  Although heading further west to Falmouth or Mounts Bay would increase the chances of a big cetacean encounter, I really couldn’t be bothered to drive that far having clocked up seven hundred miles over the weekend.

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Fowey

Fowey ticks all the right boxes for the perfect day’s sea kayaking. A superb and busy launch site at the slipway in the Caffa Mill carpark, a great super-sheltered paddle out past the town with the tide running in your direction (hopefully) to get your muscles warmed up, and then out into the wide open sea. A vista bounded by Dodman Point to the southwest and Rame head to the east, although it was so clear today I could just see the South Hams as well.

The only drawback is the savage carpark charges which always grind with me.

I hadn’t really made up my mind where I was going so turned southeast once I was out of the harbour and paddled directly into the bright low sun,  heading offshore. A single gull which was circling ‘with intent’ attracted my attention and I could hardly believe my eyeballs when I saw a load of fins appear beneath it. I was less than half-a-mile from the shore and was yet to get ‘in the zone’.

I diverted towards the group of dolphins and moved up a couple of gears but had a bit of a struggle closing the gap as they were cruising along at 4-5 mph. I was careful not to go too close because I could see at least one juvenile in the group but as usual they came over to me for a bit of a look. Not quite as interested as my previous few encounters but a thrill nonetheless, enhanced by the flat calm water and blue sea under cloudless sky.

The biggest dolphin slapped the water with its tail every time it surfaced. I’m not sure whether this was a ‘warning’ thing because I was there, or whether it was just a sort of habit. It certainly acted, and looked like, group leader.

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Dolphin doing tail-slappy thing

Being Common Dolphins they were extremely active and did an awful lot of splashing and I was very keen to get that much sought after image, which I have yet to achieve, of one completely out of the water. As usual I failed, but only just. Somehow my camera wasn’t pointing in quite the right place! Aaargh.

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Very nearly a fab photo

To complicate matters my memory card became full up and the dolphins sped away as I was fiddling with my camera trying to decide what to delete. How often have I moaned at people staring at a screen while missing the wonders of the real world, and now I was prime offender number one.IMG_2393

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Common Dolphin

Fired up by this encounter and the sea state which seemed to have become even more smooth, I paddled further out. It was a very rare day where there was so lttle movement of the kayak that binoculars could be used, and through them I could see a lot more diffuse gull activity another mile or so ahead. I piled on the steam and glimpsed something the size of a dolphin jump clear off the water directly ahead, but then nothing more. Mmmm, I would have expected to see a dolphin surfacing for a breath.

A little further one I came upon a sedately cruising group of about eight Porpoises which were rolling at the surface in their unobtrusive and quiet manner, drawing attention to themselves with their surprisingly loud ‘piff’. In contrast to Common Dolphins they don’t very often splash, although I have seen them get fired up on occasion.

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Harbour Porpoise

Excellent, the day had already way exceeded my expectations.

I munched lunch ( endured one jam and one peanut butter sandwich so I could luxuriate in a heavenly slab of coffee cake) about five miles offshore, sporadically entertained by Guillemots, Gannets and a couple of compact flocks of Common Scoter flying past. Also one Dunlin which I would have probably thought was something more rare had it not uttered its characteristic ‘dzeep’ call.

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Lunch break in a marine wilderness, five miles from shore.

Shortly after I swung back towards Fowey for the return leg I saw a big splash several hundred yards ahead directly in front of me. Moments later two dolphin-sized creatures leapt out of the water and re-entered the water in a great splash. But hang on…they  weren’t dolphins. I sped towards the scene but saw absolutely nothing more. No fins and nothing coming up for a breath. It was so flat calm I would have seen or heard any dolphin if it came up within half-a-mile.

It was only a split second view but I’m virtually certain these were Giant Tuna. I am aware that they are now regularly seen in the Autumn around Falmouth Bay, and am pretty sure I saw some there last year, but once again it was a frustratingly brief glimpse.

I also think that this is what I had seen jumping an hour previously.

I hung around waiting for a repeat performance but had no joy.

However as a consolation I was treated to yet another Common Dolphin encounter on the way back in. This group of about eight were a bit more sociable than the earlier pod and surged all around me and went for a bit of bow-riding when I paddled  flat out.

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Common Dolphin Escort

The biggest problem of today, apart from the car park charge, was thermoregulation. As I set off it was only a couple of degrees above freezing so was layered up inside full drysuit gear. However the absolute lack of wind combined with bright sunshine and several cetacean-watching sprints tested my thermostat to the limit. Lightly poached would be an understatement.

 

 

Would you believe it?…Even More Dolphins

IMG_1034Having clocked up twenty miles the day before, and fifteen the day before that, I was contemplating an easy day. Fowey seemed to fit the bill for a bit of laid-back paddling , and I could stick my nose out into the open sea in case I case I fancied a bit of an offshore jaunt.

Fowey is always great. Whichever way you decide to go at the mouth of the ria, you’ve had an excellent ‘warm up’ paddle through the harbour, dodging the Polruan ferry and all the other boat traffic.

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Fowey

I spontaneously decided to turn left and head east once out into open water, because that was where the wind was coming from, and I always paddle into the wind to start off with because it makes coming back easier. My planned coffee break on the sand at beautiful Lantic Bay didn’t happen because the waves were a bit ‘dumpy’ and getting out wouldn’t have been that easy.. So I carried on round to Lantivet beach which was a bit more sheltered, but not before I severely scrunched the bottom of my kayak over a savagely coarse barnacle-encrusted rock when I cut a corner a bit fine just before a wave was about to break . What an idiot, why didn’t i just paddle a few yards further out? Lucky my boat is plastic and not fibreglass.

I disturbed a Peregrine having its breakfast on a grassy knoll as I paddled past, and downed all three segments of a Bounty Trio while being scrutinised hard by a young family on Lantivet beach. By the way they were staring I got the impression that the image that their eyeballs was transferring to their cerebral cortex was not one that had been relayed before. It might have been the Bounty Trio that drew their gaze, but I think it was just me generally . Such was their unswerving eye contact I opted to have the rest of my coffee break far out to sea and took to the water again.

Considering what happened next they had unwittingly done me a huge favour. Just for the hell of it I paddled half a mile out around the excellently named ‘Udder Rock’ buoy and was going to take a slingshot around it and head back. However another half a mile further out was a scattered group of Kittiwakes feeding at the surface. I was lured out to investigate and was pleased to encounter a singleton porpoise who ‘piffed’ past a few feet from me.

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Udder Rock buoy

I was just about to crack open my thermos when, about as far out as I could see with my naked eye, my attention was drawn by a more compact and more vigorously feeding group of gulls. Out came the binoculars and I looked hard at the surface for several minutes. Just as I was about to give up, there was the splash of a dolphin. I instantly engaged warp drive and paddled flat out for twenty minutes or so towards the action.

I thought I was too late but was suddenly accompanied by four or five Common Dolphins who came in to ride my bow wave. Absolutely thrilling. Waves from dolphins surging beside me sloshed over the deck. For half an hour they played and puffed and looked and splashed all around. About a dozen in total with, I think, just a single juvenile.

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There she (he) blows
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Common Dolphin
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Dolphin sloshing water over the deck
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Being eyeballed by a dolphin
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that was close!

One adult dolphin had a significant injury on its back behind the dorsal fin which looked as though it was healing and certainly didn’t compromise its ability. Another also seemed to have some sort of old scar on its flank. Are these injuries from being caught in nets, or maybe boat injuries? My money would be on the net thing. At least  I don’t think it’s Great Whites.

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Dolphin with injury
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Dolphin with injury
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Dolphin with vertical scar on flank

Although the action took place two and-a-half miles off Pencarrow Head ,the wind had dropped completely, the sea was smooth, there was no tidal current an it was all so relaxing and enjoyable I supped my cup of coffee while being entertained by the dolphin troup.

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Coffee break with entertainment

They finally lost interest in me and headed off, and I lazily paddled back towards Fowey, passing about ten Portugese Men-of -War on the way.

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Portugese Man-of -War

The sun came out and it was all very warm and pleasant as I paddled back up the ‘urban’ section of water to Caffa Mill Car Park. There were lots of other sit-on-top kayaks about, not all piloted by homo sapiens.IMG_1433

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Fowey

More Fantastic Common Dolphins

IMG_0258A single day with light winds was forecast . It was a gap between ex-hurricane Ophelia and approaching Storm Brian (I’m sure weather never used to be like this!). I was tempted offshore in an effort to see cetaceans. Although I have had a couple of really excellent prolonged encounters with inquisitive and friendly dolphins this year, it doesn’t look as though I will match last year’s tally of seven cetacean species (two whale, four dolphin and porpoise).

It must be one of the windiest years on record and the opportunities for offshore kayaking have been very limited. I’m sure I have said before that I prefer the sea to have no whitecaps which means I have worry-free paddling and makes spotting fins easier. Any sort of chop means you are much less likely to see a fin, and unlikely to be able to hold a camera steady enough to take a photo. Even if the sea is smooth any sort of groundswell can hide the horizon for a significant proportion of time because your eyeballs are only three foot above the surface.

Veryan bay in South Cornwall seemed to fit the bill. A lovely launch at sandy Carne Beach (with the bonus of FREE parking…gasp), direct access to the open sea, and not too strong a tidal current.

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Veryan Bay

It was lucky I was wearing my drysuit top when paddling out from the beach because the only sizeable wave of the entire morning broke across my chest as I got the timing through the surf completely wrong, as usual. That was the last wave I saw the entire day and in fact the sea surface was unusually smooth…..absolutely perfect for gliding along in complete silence and getting completely absorbed (lost) in the marine wilderness.

It was so still I could hear the slight rustle of Gannet’s wings as they came over to inspect me as usual, and the noise of boat engines carrying so far I could only just see the source.

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Nosy sub-adult Gannet

I skirted Nare Head and Gull Rock and headed out into the open sea. It’s rare to be able to use binoculars from a kayak on the sea but today was different because it was so flat. I watched my first Great-Northern Diver (Common Loon) of the season fly past in front of me, and noticed a large circling gang of gulls busy feeding about about a mile ahead.

Mmmm. I would be surprised if they were not accompanied by some other sea creatures, so upped the pace and closed in on the action. I hadn’t gone far when I saw some fins converging on the same spot. A school of Common Dolphins! They were travelling at exactly the same pace as me (4-5 mph) and I didn’t want to disturb them so kept well away. I thought they would move off but as I neared the feeding frenzy of gulls noticed a couple more dolphins feeding and jumping about. When they met up they all stopped for a bit of a feed and a bit of a splash, and then the whole lot came over to check me out.

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Common Dolphin

There followed an absolutely incredible ten minutes. I could see the dolphins approaching just under the surface, and some swam along beside me just inches away. They popped up in front of me then sped off, did some jumping, and then all came back over to inspect me further, or maybe to check out what score I gave their performance.IMG_0370

IMG_0317There were a couple of youngsters in the group who didn’t want to miss out on all the excitement.IMG_0273

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Junior Dolphin

Eventually they lost interest in me and moved off. I couldn’t resist paddling further out and passed another eight or so dolphins. I eventually ended up at Dodman A buoy, about six miles south of Dodman Point, and decided that was far enough.

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Dodman A buoy

There were quite a few small parties of Guillemots and Razorbills dotted about, often in threes. I suspect these were mother, father and this year’s offspring.

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Family Guillemot

The nine-mile paddle back to the beach was a bit of a haul as paddling back often is. However virtually every time I stopped for a break I could hear the ‘piff’ of a porpoise. The sea was so very flat and the air so still the sound was carrying probably a mile over the surface, so I  only saw a few of them. This is maybe not surprising as they represent a very small eyeball target because they are the world’s smallest cetacean (four to five foot long) and their fin is less than six inches tall.

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Harbour Porpoise