Sizzling Summer Part Two: The Sensational Wildlife of Southwest England

 

We’ll start off below the surface and work upwards, culminating in an encounter to match anything you will see in the natural world, anywhere.

High summer means a jellyfish boom in the waters around Devon and Cornwall. The lack of rain and calm conditions has made the water crystal clear, so the jellyfish look even better than usual.

Following record numbers during the spring, there are still plenty of Barrel Jellyfish around, up to about four foot long.

 

 

 

 

Compass jellies are my favourite, because of there intricate colour scheme and the fact that they are ‘proper’ jellies because, unlike Barrel jellies, they have a sting.

 

 

 

 

New kids on the block for July are Moon Jellies. How appropriate for the anniversary of the lunar landings. They occur in huge numbers and concentrate around the current lines.

 

 

 

 

As usual there are plenty of seals dotted along the coast, concentrating in their favourite rocky haulouts. There is no doubt they are increasingly tolerant of humans, it’s dogs they really don’t like. They have very acute hearing and a dog barking half-a-mile away can make them more agitated than a kayaker bobbing about a few feet away.

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They show only a passing interest in waterskiers……..P1340660

and are quite happy to be the stars of the show:P1340663

A big hazard for seals is fast moving craft. This injury is probably caused by an impact with a boat, although it could conceivably be the result of a fight.

 

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I was thrilled to meet up with this Harbour Seal along the south Cornwall coast. Harbour Seals are rare in SW England, the majority are the bigger, and arguably less attractive Grey Seals.

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Harbour Seal

 

 

 

 

Cetacean viewing from my kayak is my favourite occupation, because it is so challenging. Most porpoises, dolphins and whales hunt miles from the shore so just getting out to where they might be is not easy, and when eventually a day comes along which is calm enough for you to make the considerable effort to get out there, they are so widely scattered that you almost certainly won’t see them.

A smooth surface is the key to success and this month I have been lucky enough to see three different species: Harbour Porpoise, Common Dolphin and Risso’s Dolphin. I might even call it three and-a-half because a glimpse of a big back disappearing below the water followed by a big swirl while down at Penzance was almost certainly a Minke Whale. If only I had looked round a quarter of a second earlier…….

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Porpoise in a rush, Portscatho
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Common Dolphin in even more of a rush, Looe
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Risso’s Dolphin taking a look, Sennen

Guillemots and Razorbills have completed their breeding on the sea cliffs and have now headed far out to sea. Just a few stragglers are reluctant to depart.

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Bude Guillemot

Manx Shearwaters are constant companions offshore, zipping past the kayak in compact groups, or resting on the surface.

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Manx Shearwater

I have been very pleased to have seen several Oystercatcher chicks along the coast this year. Like other waders, which are all declining, they are ground-nesting and so disturbance by dogs is a big issue.

This pair chose a little rocky promontory to raise their two youngsters.

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Oystercatcher plus chick

We are going to take a jaunt inland up the rivers now, before returning to the coast for my grand finale.

I am very excited to have seen this next little wildlife gem recently. I was very familiar with Water Voles when I was a teenager in Berkshire, as you can see from my entries in my wildlife diary 1975. In those days I sported a luxuriant (but greasy) mop of hair and my knees were composed of bone, not titanium. You could guarantee a handful of water vole sightings during a short visit to the Thames or one of its tributaries.

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Entry in my wildlife book….from 44 years ago (gulp..that’s nearly half a century)

Then Mink came along and ate nearly all of them.

This is the first Water Vole I have seen for decades. It was beside the very upper reaches of the Thames, so just about (or very nearly) qualifies for SW England. Even if it doesn’t quite qualify it is GREAT to see.

 

 

 

 

I took this next video clip, of a very similar-looking, but very much larger herbivore beside the upper reaches of an estuary which was definitely in Southwest England.

A Beaver enjoying breakfast. 

 

 

 

 

We now float off downstream, back to the open coast.

Peregrine falcons are not uncommon, but to actually see one making a kill is exceptional. If you see one in hunting mode, or just starting a stoop, it will probably be out of sight (either round a headland or disappeared into the distance) by the time it strikes its prey. Even if you see the final moments of the plunge, they frequently miss.

I had only picked Jed up from the station in Exeter a couple of hours previously, so I was very pleased to be able to show him a Peregrine, as a fledgling snickered at its passing parent. I told him to watch that passing pigeon closely, just in case the  falcons had a ‘go’ at it.

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Jed aghast

They certainly did. The adult and young Peregrine stooped in a shallow dive at the pigeon, there was a mid-air scuffle of wings for a split second, and then the struggling pigeon was just about scrambled to the rocks on the shore, secured in the talons of the peregrine that was losing height fast with the weight.

All in a few seconds, and a hundred yards away, and as usual I was hoping for an action replay to work out exactly what just happened. Looking at my pics later helped.

It is a juvenile Peregrine holding the pigeon (streaked breast, not barred). It looks as though the pigeon is a youngster as well (no white flashes on its neck), so was maybe easier to catch.

I’m pretty sure the young Peregrine actually caught the pigeon itself, although I might have expected the adult bird to have made the catch, and then passed it to its offspring as part of its training. I think the young bird had already progressed on to making its own ‘kills’, or perhaps this was its very first, and amazingly successful, effort!

I’m also pretty sure I saw the adult actually herd the pigeon in the direction of the young falcon because it was flying in the opposite direction a few seconds before the stoop.

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Juvenile Peregrine clasping Woodpigeon

Peregrines have a notch in their upper mandible to nip the spinal cord of their avian victims to kill them outright. This young bird didn’t do that (probably hadn’t had that lesson yet) so the unfortunate pigeon was still very much alive, and still flapping, as the Peregrine takes it behind a rock and out of sight to deal with it.

 

 

 

 

Here is the action again slowed down even further.

 

 

 

 

Fantastic. One of the great spectacles of the natural world. In my opinion right up there with things like seeing a Lion taking an antelope. Maybe even better, because it happened right here on our ‘doorstep’ and I suspect fewer people have seen a peregrine make a kill than a lion. All played out as we watched from the comfort of a kayak seat. And a completely random sight that only comes from putting in the hours of paddling. In my case, many thousands of hours. In Jed’s case, an hour and-a-half. Lucky.

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Dolphins put on a Show

If you want to try to watch dolphins from a kayak my advice would be not to. It is incredibly difficult and you are almost certain to fail. Most of the time they are more than a couple of miles offshore, and just finding a day when the sea is smooth enough to make the trip enjoyable, and calm enough to see fins breaking the surface, is a challenge.

Also dolphins range far and wide so the chances of seeing them at all is always small, especially as using binoculars on a kayak (as would a dolphin-watching boat) is useless due to constant movement.

I hadn’t seen any dolphins since the end of March, since when I have paddled nearly 600 miles, including over one hundred and sixty miles over a mile offshore specifically looking for dolphins. The sea has been extraordinarily quiet, just a few porpoises and hardly a roving Gannet to be seen. All the marine wildlife watching companies around the coast have been saying the same.

Until now.

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Common Dolphins in a rush

I was on the water at 5am because the window of light winds was only forecast to last till midday. It started off grey and choppy but as I headed offshore the wind lightened and the surface glassed off nicely. Manx shearwaters zipped past and a few Razorbills and Guillemots fished from the surface.

Far ahead a single Gannet twisted in the air and dived, and three more circled. That was the only encouragement I needed to engage top gear because I was sure there would be something interesting swimming beneath, and sure enough there were the fins. Dolphins. Phew, I was about to pack in all this stuff due to lack of success!

I could see there were quite a few juveniles, with their smaller dorsal fins, in the pod of about eight individuals. As usual a delegate of adults came over to investigate me as I carefully approached. I presume this is to assess my threat level ( I could be an Orca) and warn the rest of the group accordingly.

 

 

 

 

Fortunately they decided I was completely benign and went off to carry on with hunting as a pack.

 

 

 

 

There ensued an enthralling half hour as the pod remained in essentially the same place, slow swimming, diving, resting, rushing and every so often jumping. Unlike porpoises which roll at the surface with barely a ripple, Common Dolphins are very dynamic and do a lot of splashing.

 

 

 

I silently left the scene and headed further out, looking for even bigger stuff, although the next marine marvel was actually quite small….a Puffin, with the grubby-looking face and smudgy-coloured bill of an immature bird probably hatched last year.

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immature Puffin

I loitered four or five miles offshore, downed coffee and headed back in before the wind picked up. I stopped at an obvious tideline and saw a couple of distant Porpoises slinking about before checking out the underwater action……jellyfish: one Barrel Jelly, several Blue jellies and over fifty Compass jellyfish, the first I have seen this year:

 

 

 

Notice the little pink fish that is tucked in behind the jellyfish’s umbrella. The perfect safe place away from hungry mouths, and made even safer because it is surrounded by a palisade of stinging tentacles. 

 

 

 

As I watched I heard a thumping splash further along the tideline, almost a mile away. I paddled over to investigate and came upon another small pod of dolphins, about half-a-dozen. These were even more dynamic than the first lot:

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Common Dolphins
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Common Dolphins

 

 

 

Sometimes they re-entered the water seamlessly after a jump, sometimes they bellyflopped appallingly with a mighty splash:P1330078

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I was getting a stiff back and numb backside after seven hours in the kayak seat, so was just setting off for the shore when this dolphin put in the best jump of the day. An appropriate finale.

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Common Dolphin

Dolphin drought over.

 

 

Bored of Dolphins? I’m not , so here’s a Load More

The residual swell from the storms was subsiding….

 

and the wind disappeared completely, so I didn’t need any further encouragement to head far offshore. First I paddled round Veryan Bay to the west of (usually) gnarly Dodman Point. Even two miles offshore it was flat as a millpond and pleasantly warm…not bad for the end of March. This time last year it was snowing.

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Razorbills and Dodman point

I am very wary about heading offshore at this time of year because water temperature is only about ten degrees C. Not good if you go for a swim. So I call in with the local NCI Coastwatch to tell them of my plans, but most importantly I only go out if the sea is absolutely smooth, and I feel completely safe and secure. Also I bristle with communication technology: two phones, radio, GPS, Personal Locator Beacon.

There was very little bird activity on this day so I was expecting to see nothing, but then a single Gannet far ahead circled once, and I directly beneath it I saw the sun glint off a distant fin.

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Circling Gannet

Dolphins!

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Veryan Common Dolphin

As I quietly approached they came over to investigate.

 

It was a pod of about fifteen individuals containing a handful of calves. This seems to be the usual make-up of the groups I come across, with females and adolescents and youngsters together. I think the males go round in a sort of blokey gang by themselves (but I may be completely wrong here). I have occasionally seen groups of big beefy Common Dolphins with tall fins.

Whatever the technicalities, it was, as always, a thrilling sight made even better by the calm water and blue sea and sky.P1270088

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just too late with the shutter (as usual)

They finished off with a final close pass before tearing off into the distance.

 

A couple of days later I paddled out from fantastic Fowey Harbour for another offshore exploration in equally perfect paddling conditions.

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Fabulous Fowey

The open sea was completely quiet, just a handful of Guillemots dotted about and about as few Gannets as it is possible to see. It is very interesting that I would normally have expected to see quite a few porpoises out here (and out at Veryan the other day). The calm conditions were perfect for porpoise spotting because you can here them puff, and glimpse their small fins, from quite a distance away. In the late summer on a day like this it is actually unusual not to here the sound of a blow of a nearby porpoise every time you stop paddling and sit quietly.

So they have disappeared off somewhere else….maybe they don’t like all the barrel jellyfish that are still around.

Barrel Jelly
Barrel Jelly

I stopped for coffee exactly five miles out from Fowey and was about to head back. But there was a glint of sun at the surface further out. There were no waves to cause it, so it must have been the light glinting off a fin.

It turned out to be three juvenile Common Dolphins, being shadowed by a trio of adults a few hundred yards away.

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juvenile Common Dolphin

 

 

There are really only a handful of days a year when the offshore sea is this smooth, and it’s really something you don’t expect in mad March. I even tried a little bit of underwater GoPro stuff, but don’t think it would quite make the cut for Blue Planet live.

 

The weather is now on the turn with wind picking up, so that’s it for watching dolphins offshore for a while, I suspect.

 

 

 

Foggy Fowey Dolphins and Porpoises

A couple of days of superb paddling in light winds…..yesterday was an exploration of the Dart estuary from Totnes to Dartmouth and back with Dave, and today was a solo offshore paddle from Fowey, with wildlife sightings (once again) way beyond my expectations for March.

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Dart estuary

The Dart paddle was a fairly hefty nineteen miles but cunning tidal planning worked in our favour and even allowed a very civilised tea break at Dittisham.

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Dave and tea shop

The sun did its best to put in an appearance as we neared Dartmouth, resulting in dangerously high humidity levels in our drysuits.

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Decent Dartmouth

Of course we allowed time for a wee bit of trainspotting (it was just coincidence we arrived at Kingswear at exactly as the same time as the train…honest.)

 

Heading back up the river we had to frequently evade the tourist boats who tend to ignore inconsequential craft such as ours.P1260473

Wildlife highlight of the day was this exceptional sighting of three Harbour Seals hauled out on a pontoon. Harbour seals are rare in SW England with just one or two hanging about up some of the creeks, and I have only ever come across a handful, and  never seen more than one at a time. The familiar seal in the area is the much bigger Atlantic Grey seal. Harbour seals live along the east coast of England and around Scotland, but maybe this little cluster means they are now spreading this way.

There was actually more than three because I saw what I thought were a couple of Harbour seals in the water, as well as a couple of Greys.

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Dart Harbour Seal trio

This morning I started idiotically early in the morning because the wind forecast was exceptionally light and I might just be able to do an offshore paddle out of Fowey, an unusual occurrence in March.

It was misty and murky with intermittent drizzle, but the marine wildlife was buzzing. Fulmars zipped past my earholes…

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Fulmar

and Guillemots and Razorbills sat about and dived for sprats…

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Razorbill (nearly in breeding plumage)

Below the surface lurked the spooky ghostly white shape of a Barrel Jellyfish.

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Barrel Jelly

Gannets filed past and I watched each one closely. I have mentioned before that in places like this if a Gannet circles around it is probable that there is a Porpoise swimming below. Today, it was certainly the case…..with Gannets thumping into the water beside the feeding Porpoises. Watch this slomo carefully..(Fowey behind)

 

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Incoming Gannet!

One porpoise passed by very close. Unlike dolphins they are not inquisitive and pay no attention at all to boats and kayaks. They just get on with what they are doing and if that happens to mean they come close to where you are sitting, so be it.

 

As I watched the porpoise, the first flock of Manx Shearwaters that I have seen this year winged past a bit further out:

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Pack of Shearwaters

I stopped for a cup of coffee and essential nutrient supplementation in the shape of two chunks of Raisin and Biscuit Yorkie, and had a final scan (with eyeballs only) out to sea. The grey skies and smooth water were the perfect combination for seeing a black fin break the water. I was just on the point of turning back when I thought I might have glimpsed a couple of black specs, which then disappeared. I paddle towards the area for five minutes and saw nothing more. I was turning for home once again when the same thing happened so I once again paddled out to investigate.

Amazingly I came across a little pod of five or six Common Dolphins that were swimming along very quietly, more in the manner of Porpoises. However, being Common Dolphins one had to hurl itself out of the water and land with a bit of a splash, because that is what Common Dolphins do best.

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Common Dolphin

They cruised past the front of my kayak without a second glance, maybe because there was one small calf in the pod, and they don’t seem to be so investigative when there is a very young dolphin to look after, or maybe protect.

 

After the group of half a dozen had past, another pair came past….both adults, and one with a very pronounced dark moustache stripe (or should it be called a beard?)

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Adult Common Dolphins

Today’s excellent variety of wildlife was nicely rounded off by this beautifully lilac Sea urchin at the mouth of Fowey estuary, exposed by the exceptionally low tide.

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Sea Urchin

Spring has got off to a flying start.

 

 

Magical March Morning at Mevagissey

A succession of storms running in from the Atlantic have limited kayak trips to the most sheltered tidal creeks. These are well protected from the worst of the wind….but not the rain:

 

The deluge is currently so relentless that even the ducks seem fed up.

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Dripping Drake (Mallard)

But just before the unsettled weather arrived I managed to sneak out for a morning on the open coast along the Cornish Riviera.

It was ironic that after travelling half way round the world in the hope of seeing a whale (I as hoping for a ‘Blue’) from my kayak, I had a better view of a pod of dolphins a couple of days after we got back.

Also we somehow managed to miss the record-breaking February temperatures here in the UK, enduring some very mixed weather in the USA and Mexico. We touched down at Heathrow in sunshine and eighteen degrees, but by the time we were back in Devon it had started to rain.

I thought the best way to combat jetlag and the stickiness of airports and travelling, was to go for a bit of a paddle and the sheltered open coast at Mevagissey was beckoning, and temperatures were back to normal (i.e. quite chilly).

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Mevagissey light

Rounding Black Head to the north of Pentewan I was surprised to see Mevagissey Bay looking so flat, so I headed directly for the Gwinges (aka Gwineas) rocks on the far side of the bay. This would take me far enough offshore to give me the chance of seeing a porpoise, or maybe a dolphin.

A couple of handfuls of Gannets were circling and I was moderstely confident there would be porpoises underneath, but the had dispersed by the time I rolled up.

However suddenly half a dozen Gannets plunged in directly in front of me (I’ve got no idea how such a large bird can just instantly appear out of nowhere) and I saw a fin break the surface beside them. I was absolutely thrilled to see half-a-dozen Common Dolphins feeding on a baitball of fish which were just beneath the surface creating a sizeable ‘stippled’ area.

Conditions for dolphin-spotting weren’t great because there was a bit of a swell and an increasing wind which makes seeing fins a bit tricky, especially with the bouncing movement of the kayak.  

 

 

There were a couple of juveniles in the group and one small calf. The calf can be seen surfacing just after its mother submerges in this video.

 

 

 

They suddenly disappeared and I wasted no time in getting to the shore as the swell was picking up and cloud building ominously from the south. I couldn’t resist a quick slingshot around the Gwineas cardinal buoy however, because I don’t think I’ve paddled around it before.

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Gwineas cardinal buoy

Mevagissey was as quiet and quaint as ever:

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Mevagissey

Just a single Purple Sandpiper was poking about the rocks in the company of a handful of Turnstones, just outside the harbour mouth.

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Purple Sandpiper

I did a bit of a double-take when I glimpsed a ghostly white shape under the water beneath me, and was very surprised to see a Barrel Jellyfish, about three foot long, going slowly on its way. The earliest one I have ever seen, by quite a few weeks.

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Barrel jellyfish

A pair of Peregrines were very excited about something on the way back…..

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Peregrine

And to finish off an unexpectedly varied and successful morning of wildlife viewing from the kayak, the nesting Shags were looking smart in their bottle green breeding plumage and punked-up headgear.

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Shag
Shag
Shag

Are There More Dolphins Around?

I have had the great good fortune to come across another couple of pods of Common Dolphins recently. The first was a very unobtrusive group of four juveniles in the middle of Torbay. I just happened to have a pair of binoculars in the car and gave the sea a quick scan when I arrived in the car park, and could just make out a few fins breaking the surface well over a mile away. The chances of me being able to locate these were very slim as it would take me twenty minutes to get out there, and there was a three foot swell running which makes seeing stuff on the surface difficult because half the time it is hidden by a wave.

However, one leaped clear of the water so I was in luck. I was actually looking UP at the dolphin as it rose out of the top of a swell. That’s one of the benefits of sitting at water level in a kayak….you can never get that kind of unique perspective from a (normal) boat.

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Jumping juvenile Common Dolphin

They weren’t in a particularly sociable mood, but no less than I might have expected from a quartet of aloof adolescents. Even so, they half-heartedly swam along side in my pathetic pressure-wave for a few moments.

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The wall-to-wall cloud was briefly interrupted by a burst of sunshine that instantly transformed the steel-grey scene to one of pleasant colour;

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Common Dolphin and early morning fogged English Riviera

Yesterday I ventured out into Plymouth Sound to inspect the Breakwater. Another grey and drizzly day but I knew the wind was not due to pick up till midday, allowing me a few hours of safe offshore paddling.

It was a big tide and the breakwater was being used as a roost for many hundreds of Dunlin, that feed on the mud of the Tamar estuary when the water drops.

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Dunlin plus micro-snack

Half a dozen Purple Sandpipers were dodging the swells as they surged over the top of the breakwater.

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Purple Sandpiper

I really like Purple Sandpipers. They are ridiculously tame and are difficult to spot because they are only ever found on exposed bits of rocky coast that have plenty of wave action.

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(super-plump) Purple Sandpiper

As I was watching the birds I glanced round and did a huge double-take (which cricked my neck) when I saw, through the mist, a dozen fins cruising past a hundred yards away.

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Dolphins in the murk (plus calf, at the back)

Astonishing, not just because I had never seen dolphins within the Sound before (although I only paddle here a few times a year), but because of the poor visibility. As I sat and watched they did a satisfactorily close ‘flypast’:

And as if trying to make the point that it really WAS worth my effort coming all this way to paddle at this location on such a dreary January day, the back marker surfaced just a few feet away.

As usual watching these dolphins was an absolute thrill, and it was good to see a couple of calves in amongst the group of twenty or so, which included some really big individuals.

I have been very lucky to see three pods of Common Dolphins in three separate locations in the last two weeks. So….. are there more dolphins around?

Are There More Dolphins Around?

I have been ploughing through all my old diaries in an effort to establish some detail about the numbers of dolphins I have seen. This is thunderously tedious and I have fallen asleep more than once. So I will be as succinct as possible with my findings.

I have been sea-kayaking for thirteen years. For the first seven or eight years I did a lot of fishing so had my head down and didn’t do the miles. Since then I have ditched the fishing and look out for, and hopefully photograph, wildlife.

In the first ten years I saw about a dozen pods of Common Dolphins. In 2016 I set my sights on seeing a whale so clocked up about 500 miles of offshore (more than a mile from the coast) paddling. I have done the same in 2017 and 2018.

This greatly increased my ‘hit’ rate for Common Dolphins because they favour deeper, offshore water. My records for the last three years are:

Common Dolphins:                               2016                    2017                  2018

Number of days seen:                             7                           11                      17

Total number of Dolphins:                    81                         148                    432

So quite a dramatic increase in numbers, approx 100% up year on year.

My porpoise observations have increased as well:

Harbour Porpoise:                                2016                    2017                  2018

Number of days seen:                             16                        33                      44

Total number of Porpoises                     88                       177                    327

Again, a  roughly 100% increase year on year.

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Porpoises

Other Cetaceans

In 2016 I saw an incredible seven different species of cetacean from my kayak around Devon and Cornwall: Common, Bottlenose, Risso’s and Whitebeaked Dolphins, Harbour Porpoise, Minke and (probable) Sei Whale. In 2017 it was four and in 2018, despite the large numbers, only three species.

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White-beaked Dolphins

Why the increase in numbers?

So it would appear that it is only Common Dolphins and Porpoises that have increased dramatically, and the reason for this has got to be food. Both these species feed mainly on shoaling fish, and abundance of prey such as herring has increased following historic overfishing. Also in both Common Dolphins and Porpoises there doesn’t need to be an actual increase in numbers of individuals because there is plenty of them around in the local seas, they are just changing their distribution and following the food source, which luckily for dolphin watchers is close to the coast of SW England.

It’s like throwing more bird seed out onto the lawn….it brings in more birds from the local area.

This is not the case for whales which also feed on shoaling fish, because there aren’t a load of whales nearby ready to move in on the fish-fest, because they have a slow rate of reproduction and will take time to recover from their depletion of numbers. Having said that, I saw five Minke Whales this year (and have only ever see two before, in 2016), so hopefully this reflects an increase in that species. Minke Whales breed faster than any other whale so have the potential to ‘come back’ quicker than any other.

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Minke Whale

 

The very recent spike in reported sightings of dolphins (which, I think are all Common Dolphins) is almost certainly because there are more about, and more closer in to shore, since the New Year. It will also be influenced by  the relatively quiet weather in January which means flatter seas and not only encourages more people to be out and about, but makes seeing fins easier. Not many dolphins are going to be seen during a storm. Everyone’s indoors watching Strictly on catchup.

The weather has certainly influenced my recent sightings. I am very wary about paddling far offshore during the winter and at the slightest hint of a wind disappear off up a sheltered creek.

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Sheltered Creek Perfection

Further influences are that when dolphins are reported more people are looking out for them (especially in relatively sheltered places such as Plymouth Sound ), more observers have got cameras, and there are more drone pilots around (which provide some very watchable dolphin images).

Is global warming involved? I personally say no.. I would think that levels of fishing influence the number of shoaling fish far more than any other factor.

Whatever the reasons, the apparent increase in numbers is good news all round, because everyone agrees that dolphins have a feelgood factor that is OFF THE SCALE.

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Plymouth Sound Dolphin…the antidote to a drizzly day.

Absolutely Unbelievable Dolphins

When I started all this watching-wildlife-from-a-kayak lark I never thought in a million years I would have an encounter like I did today. Certainly not in the UK, and in early January.

I very nearly DIDN’T have the encounter because I had difficulty dredging myself out of bed at 6am, with every unoccupied cavity and crevice in my head full of mucus following my man-cold.

However the wind forecast for Mount’s Bay, Penzance, was too much of a lure. Light wind all day and total glass off between 9 and midday. As an added bonus there was hardly any swell diffracting round the corner from Land’s End, and the predicted ‘light cloud’ didn’t materialise, so I set off from Penzance harbour under completely blue skies.

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Mount’s Bay

I headed directly out to sea, towards a tanker moored three miles out in the bay. Not a great start in terms of wildlife….I passed a couple of loons and the odd Guillemot on the water, and one or two kittiwake and Gannet roaming about aimlessly.

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St. Michael’s Mount and an exceptionally calm Mount’s Bay

However I was full of expectation as the surface was so smooth, and atmosphere so still, that if anything surfaced within a mile of me I would either see or hear it. A lone porpoise swam past far off, but that was it for an hour or so.

Closer in to the shore near Mousehole I could see a flurry of gulls which I initially thought were following a little fishing boat. As I angled towards the coast did I see the distant fin in amongst the blur of wings? I cranked up the speed to investigate and a distant dolphin leapt clear of the water. Excellent.

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Dolphins first appearance…mother and calf

The next two hours were simply extraordinary. I sat and watched a pod of 20-25 Common Dolphins cruising about and herding and attacking a baitball of herring. I hardly had to paddle a single stroke during the whole time, because the fish kept trying to take refuge underneath my kayak.

Initially two others boats were enjoying the spectacle….the small fishing boat I had seen earlier, and Mermaid II out of Penzance.

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Fellow Dolphin Watchers

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Every so often a dolphin would lunge at the fish and herring would spray from the surface, something I have only ever seen before on the telly (or maybe not even there, come to think of it).

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Dolphin lunging at fish just feet away!
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Blinking Heck…that was close!

If you like dolphins you will absolutely love all these video clips, if you don’t you might find them a bit long and boring (and need to get a life):

 

 

 

 

 

 

The two boats departed so it was just me and the dolphins (and several thousand fish), and an awful lot of flat calm sea. Tough.

I always bring my GoPro, just in case, but never imagined being able to use it for underwater shots during the winter. Not only is the sea usually too choppy ( to be able to use it from a kayak), but the water is usually too murky because there has usually been recent storms and/or rain.

However I could see the dolphins zipping about beneath me (video):

 

 

so tried my luck at some underwater shots.

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Baitball of Herring
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Dolphin and baitball

 

 

 

 

It was great to see a mother and calf come past so close. The youngsters stick like glue to mum’s side most of the time, but occasional shoot off to worry the fish, or hurl themselves out of the water.

 

 

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As usually capturing that magical shot of a dolphin clean out of the water managed to elude me, but I did manage to picture what was undoubtedly the highest flying herring in Cornwall.

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High Flying Herring

And the sensational action, in perfect light, and perfect conditions, just went on and on:

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Pinpoint sharp Common Dolphin

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Dolphin doing passable ICBM impression

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Just the tip of the dolphin’s nose visible!

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wow, that one’s really shifting!

It was very interesting that this little ‘feeding’ group were essentially harassing the same baitball for over two hours. I have written many times before that most dolphin frenzies I have previously seen have dispersed by the time I roll in up my kayak, say twenty minutes to half an hour after I have sighted it. But this one was still going strong after at least two hours.

I think these dolphins were ‘playing’ with these fish as I’m sure they could have demolished the baitball in a few minutes if they were really hungry. Or more likely they were using the baitball to teach the youngsters of the group how to hunt. There were three or four calves in the pod and they were often the ones who would slash through the fish as they burst from the surface.

It was time to leave. As had been precisely forecast, a NW wind was just about to pick up, because I could see a dark line approaching across Mount’s Bay from Penzance. Only a gentle breeze but enough to make it feel a lot colder, especially with the building cloud. I kept warm with a steady pace for the five miles back to the harbour, enjoying the little posse of Purple Sandpipers that are seasonal visitors to Penzance during the winter.

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Purple Sandpipers

Fantastic, and I am a real champion of the little creatures, but today was all about the dolphins.