Destination: Dolphins

IMG_0953Fired up by my encounter with the ultra rare Wilson’s Petrel, I was dead keen to get offshore again to taste more wildlife action. A week later conditions for the Eddystone were just about OK for another jaunt out to the lighthouse. I make sure that the mean windspeed, and more importantly, the gusts, are forecast to blow at no more than 10mph for the whole eight or nine hours of the trip. Any more than this makes it a bit less relaxing, and the chances of seeing a cetacean’s fin decreases dramatically. Windspeed doesn’t matter so much for seabirds, but taking a photo becomes very much more difficult as the kayak moves around a lot more.

Despite careful planning I was caught out by the strong current at the mouth of Plymouth sound which was throwing up quite a chop. It was caused by the very big Spring tide which was flowing out into a light SW wind. I nearly turned back but every often I could see the patch of calmer water some distance ahead, so battled on across the flow until I reached the quieter area.

Quite a few more Balearic Shearwaters  and a scattering of Storm Petrels further out. A single fin flashed past in front of me with a bit of a puff…it looked like a lone Common Dolphin-far too fast for a porpoise.

As I neared the lighthouse a flurry of splashing in the calm water to my left made me power towards it to investigate. I found myself in amongst a pod of about ten Common Dolphins, and they seemed as though they wanted to play as they all came over to surround me and splash about. As they swum underneath the kayak they turned on their side and looked up. I piled on the speed and they sped alongside-one of the very few times I have had dolphins bowriding my kayak.

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Common Dolphin
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Common Dolphins from kayak
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Common Dolphin

They surged around me very close and splashed me several times. I snapped away with the camera but always seemed to just miss the best action.

I continued on my route to the lighthouse and for five minutes they continued along in a chaotic splashing escort. Absolutely excellent.

Finally they peeled off and very rapidly disappeared.

At one stage as I was stationary taking in the excitement of the dolphins, a Sooty Shearwater flew past close, followed by a Balearic Shearwater and a Storm petrel ,all within a minute of each other.

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Sooty Shearwater

To round off the exceptional wildlife sightings of the day I ran into a juvenile Puffin on the way back, not quite as striking as in their adult breeding plumage!

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Juvenile Puffin

And had to dodge a tanker coming out of Plymouth.IMG_8340

As usual I pushed my luck too far and paddled once more to the Eddystone a few days later and encountered only a pair of porpoises. However they came very close to the kayak and puffed in a very loud manner when they took breath. I’m not surprised one of their local names is ‘Puffing Pig’.

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Harbour Porpoise
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Harbour porpoise off Plymouth

On this particular trip I was very pleased I was able to rescue a sub-adult Gannet that had a long length of rope wrapped around its lower jaw. I was unable to yank it free from distance so ended up grabbing the gannet by the back of the neck and teasing the strands of rope from its beak, while it tried to nip my hand. Quite a risky procedure to carry out nine miles from the nearest land, but it turned out successfully, although the Gannet was a bit fatigued, and dishevelled.

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Rescued Gannet

My next, very brief, dolphin encounter was on a very rare calm day on the North Cornish coast a couple of miles off Bude. A fleeting view of two Common Dolphins.

Bude Dolphin
Bude Common Dolphins

Then it was down to the far west of Cornwall in an effort to see one of the whales which have been reported down there.

A twelve mile paddle from Pothgwarra back to Marazion, and again I was disappointed with the sparsity of wildlife. Just one Sooty Shearwater and one Balearic although there was a constant stream of Manx Shearwaters zipping past my kayak that stopped me from getting bored.

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Balearic Shearwater

By shear luck, as I was only a mile or so from my destination, I caught a fraction of a second glimpse of a dolphin leaping clear of the water, about a quarter of a mile away. I surged towards it and thought I had missed them but then saw a group of fins moving very quietly at the surface. They disappeared then exploded into action with a good display. There was a very young calf jumping perfectly alongside his Mum.

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Common Dolphins
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Common Dolphins

As I was waiting for a dolphin to surface with camera poised, it popped up only a couple of feet away, too big to fully fit in the picture!IMG_8849

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Trying to find dolphins from a kayak is very difficult. You really can’t use binoculars so you are left with searching with your bare  eyeballs.

Using a telescope or binoculars from a headland foreshortens the distance so you can see everything in an instant that would take up to two hours to paddle across in a kayak!

When I came back from the Eddystone the other day, having failed to see any dolphins during nine hours of paddling, I cast my binoculars out over a glassy flat Whitsand Bay during my drive home, and immediately spotted a pod of twenty dolphins a couple of miles offshore. Almost too easy.

But strangely for me having the odds impossibly stacked up is part of the appeal, and the results are certainly worth the wait.IMG_8147

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Arrival at Marazion

 

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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

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.

Harbour porpoise
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!