Looking for Humpbacks

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

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

Slapton Sands

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

The View down to Torcross

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

First Slapton whale encounter

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

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

Harbour Porpoise

But no whale…yet.

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

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

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

The Blow

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

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

Slapton Humpback

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

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

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

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

St Mawes

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

Gannet and Manx Shearwater
Feeding frenzy participants including gannet and Manx Shearwater

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

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

Purple Sandpiper
Purple Sandpiper on the Manacles

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

Barrel Jellyfish

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

Kayaker meets Cyclist

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

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

More please.





Gorgeous Gerrans Bay

With a weather forecast exceptional for early April I couldn’t resist a beefy offshore paddle across the relatively quiet waters of the south coast of Cornwall east of Falmouth.

I set off from the beautiful sandy beach at Carne in the heart of Gerrans Bay. It has parking close to the beach, a slipway….and it is free! There are only a few parking spaces however, which tend to rapidly fill with dog walkers, so you’ve got to get there early.

Carne Beach in Gerrans Bay

Gerrans Bay is possibly the best site in Cornwall (and probably the whole of SW England) for wintering sea ducks and Divers, and there were still plenty on show today. Great Northern Divers do not seem to hurry north to their breeding grounds in the Spring, and of the fifteen to twenty I saw today only a couple were in their smart summer plumage. Some were still in their winter outfits, most in transitional moult.

Great Northern Diver still in winter plumage
Great Northern Diver moulting to summer plumage

Several uttered their querulous contact call which for some reason always sends a shiver up my spine. It is a true sound of the wilderness,

At Nare Head I swung south and dug in for a ten mile open sea stretch to a giant bulk carrier ship anchored in Falmouth Bay. It provided a good target and kept me over a mile offshore so I might see a dolphin.

Bulk Carrier in Falmouth Bay ten miles away

More Divers and lots of small groups of Guillemots which were also in a variety of plumages. Some were pretty tame.


It was more or less windless so I heard the puff of a porpoise clearly. I surfaced quite close and popped up a couple more times as it went on its way. It was probably the biggest porpoise I have ever seen  and I looked hard at it because I thought it might be something different. Definitely a porpoise-like triangular fin but it just seemed very stout with quite a broad back, and was moving with unusual purpoise for a porpoise (!). Mmmm.

I crossed the mouth of Carrick Roads and approached the mighty ship which was closer to the Helford River than I had thought.

The guy with the hard hard wandering around on the deck returned my greeting with an uncertain wave as he seemed a bit surprised to see me out there.

I slungshot around the Cape Veni and again dodged the many craft entering and exiting Falmouth, and headed for the beach at  Porthbeor  for lunch. I had it entirely to myself.

Around the Bulk Carrier ‘Cape Veni’

Then it was offshore again to cross the mouth of Gerrans Bay, and a loop around Gull Rock. A few Gannets smacked into the water in front of me, sending a plume of spray up always higher than you would think.

Gannet and Gull Rock

Back past Nare head again for the final leg. Nare head always cricks your neck because it is a particularly spectacular promontory that demands close scrutinisation.

I was thrilled to hear the musical call of a Chough which was prodding about with typical restlessness on the cliff, before floating off around the corner. Fab.

Cornish Chough

I exited the water after an eight hour 22 mile trip. Had a chat with a few more dog walkers (and there dogs), and off for a McDonalds drive thru. Large Chicken Legend Meal (mayo, large Coke), followed by Strawberry Sundae. The perfect day