It’s a great place to go kayaking, and in my opinion the most scenic and paddle-friendly estuary/ria in SW England.
Providing you can clench your teeth hard enough to handle the savage price for parking your car, it provides quick access to the open sea via a very pleasant one-mile paddle between Polruan and Fowey.
I was surprised to see the small cruise ship ‘Hebridean Princess’ moored-up in mid river. My last encounter was on a very wet day in Loch Sunart in 2014 during my month-long kayak trip up the west coast of Scotland.
Once out of the mouth of the estuary I headed directly out to see but not before I heard a couple of Whimbrel ‘tittering’ on a rocky shore. They are migratory waders, very similar to Curlew but slightly smaller and with that distinctive monotone ‘seven-whistle’ call.
The sea was lovely and flat with little wind so it wasn’t long before I heard my first porpoise ‘piffing’, although it was minutes before I was actually close enough to see it.
I swung round a couple of miles off Gribbin Head and met up with two bigger pods of Porpoises, about ten in each. I just sat and watched as they surfaced all around, but always frustrating from a photography point of view because they constantly change direction and pop up where you least expect them to do so (like directly behind).
You can here the characteristic piff quite well in this video, as they pass in front of distant Mevagissey:
Porpoises are small and very easy to overlook and I’m pretty sure none of the many passing boats noticed this little posse going about its business.
There was at least one juvenile amongst the group which was probably only two foot long….no wonder they don’t get seen.
I think there must be a reef stretching out well offshore from Gribbin Head, because it does seem to focus the feeding activity of a mixture of sea creatures. A handful of tiny Storm Petrels, always a thrill to see from a kayak, (because they are only seen far offshore as well as being diminutive…the size of a sparrow) zipped past.
Their name is accurate because they always fly a bit closer to the shore during poor weather. Today was drizzly but fortunately not windy:
Also off Gribbin Head I saw the fin of a small Ocean Sunfish flopping at the surface. I was hoping to get close for an underwater shot but it spooked surprisingly early.
The grand wildlife finale was a mini feeding frenzy of Gannets off the headland. I could see little white dots circling and dropping into the sea a mile, possibly two, in front of me. They are big birds with a six foot wingspan so can be seen from a huge distance (a bit different to Storm petrels). I have learnt from (bitter) experience that even if I crank the kayak up to its top cruising speed of five to six mph, the feeding event will probably have finished by the time I roll up.
This nicely summarises the extreme challenge of trying to observe offshore wildlife from a kayak, and is probably the reason why nobody else does it. Another Gannet seeing the ‘work-up’ from afar (which is precisely what they look out for when cruising about) can cover the distance in a couple of minutes. They just dip a wing and disappear off at staggering speed. A wildlife-watching speedboat could cover the distance a little slower than a Gannet but in time to see what is going on. The Lone Kayaker generally arrives on scene when all that is left is a few fish scales rotating about in the swirled-up water.
Despite all this I stoked up a head of steam because the circling birds were on my way back anyway, and arrived twenty minutes later to just in time to witness the end of the action. In fact it was definitely the end because there was only one mackerel of the baitball left, and the last two Gannets to dive in ended up fighting over it. Both had their beaks locked around the same fish as they flapped about in a melee at the surface. See it for yourself in this video…..I’ve slowed down the action because it’s all a bit of a blurr otherwise. You will notice the porpoises are still busy looking for any escapee fish.
Here’s another pair of diving gannets at normal speed. It’s great to hear their cackles of excitement which they only utter when they are involved in feeding…they are completely silent the rest of the time.
Back nearer to Fowey the profusion of wildlife was replaced with a plethora of sailing boats as the annual regatta was in full swing. A tremendous sight despite the grey conditions.
The sea in front of the town was heaving with action and I had to weave amonst entrants of the gig race, which seemed very competitive.
The water around the slipway was similarly choc-a-bloc with water enthusiasts in the style of fellow kayakers.
For the lone kayaker the most impressive performance of the day was by the porpoises.
I’ve been getting about a bit recently because the weather, which I constantly groan about, has been absolutely stunning. More or less sunny, as warm as you would want and often light winds.
The biggest limiting factor in the kayaking department is my ageing musculoskeletal system, despite some parts being replaced and others removed. When I aim it in the direction of a headland barely visible on the horizon I can almost hear the mutters of mutinous dissent from biceps to buttock (notice I left out brain..that jumped overboard long ago).
I coax it along with frequent stops for coffee and Viennese Whorls and for the time being it is still just about serviceable.
Having said that, I seem to have strained my elbow which I think was the result of chasing a cruise ship in Fowey very early yesterday morning.
This was the Prinsendam and I didn’t really need to get out of bed quite so early because when I paddled out of the mouth of the Fowey estuary it was only just visible on the horizon. I then waited around getting cold while it ever so slowly approached.
Although I’ve ventured out to sea a bit, it’s been hard work spotting cetaceans and I’ve only come across the odd porpoise. I had a decent view of this one off Teignmouth, though.
They often seem to disappear at this time of year when the water goes clear for a while before the plankton really gets going.
Fortunately there’s always the seabirds to keep me entertained. Out to sea are Razorbills, Guillemots and Manx Shearwaters:
And along the coast are some beautiful, but difficult to see, waders. Needless to say, a kayak is (in my predictable opinion)the best way to observe these little beauties.
And there are still one or two winter visitors hanging about, seemingly reluctant to head north. This Purple Sandpiper, in its breeding plumage, for example.
Oystercatchers, however, are not only not difficult to see, they are excessively loud, although I very much like their maniacal piping because sometimes, on a wet and windy winter’s day, it is sometimes the only nugget of wildlife around.
The gulls sitting on eggs are currently finding it very hot:
although probably not as hot as this parent will soon be, trying to keep its newly hatched offspring entertained and fed, and protected.
I’ve visited the fantastic North Cornwall coast with Becky, Jeremy and Jane:
And even found a rare flat calm day along the Hartland heritage coast north of Bude. I paddled with Paul who found some new beaches, accessible only by kayak, to clear of plastic. He was thrilled with this discarded fishing net, his first ‘load’ from one particular beach.
And finally one of the very best of Cornish bays at Porthcurno near land’s End:
At last, after nearly 20,000 miles on the paddling odometer, The Lone Kayaker has discovered the little red video button on his camera. Before now he has only pressed it by accident.
However in a supreme effort to extricate himself from the sort of era when voles ruled the planet, he is now video-enabled (love the jargon) so he can embed (there it is again) movies into his blog.
So now your favourite reading and viewing can be even more favouriter.
Here’s a handful of the older videos to get things started:
Common Dolphins off Fowey Aug 2016. A total and utter thrill, how could it ever be anything else?:
Otter on River Torridge 2016. A typically wet, ottery type day:
Slapton Porpoise 2017…..listen for the ‘piff ‘as it breathes. That is why they had the old name of ‘Puffing Pig’ in Newfoundland (they were called ‘Herring Hogs’ in England)
And finally, for the time-being, no apologies for a nod to the hundreds of hours I spent taking down train numbers on platform 4 of Reading station as a little lad. As the ancient Chinese proverb says “Once a trainspotter, always a trainspotter”. Actually it might not have been the Chinese, it might have been my friend Neil from the platform, but never mind.
Here’s the superb China Clay train at Fowey. Number 66 187,in case you want to put it in your little book. Just listen to those air brakes!
Note: these videos are taken with old cameras and of a dodgy quality……from now on they will be 4K quality. Not sure what that is but they are going to be pretty pin sharp!
It’s half-way to the longest day and Spring is struggling to put in an appearance. The Daffodils have been flattened by the recent blizzard and the Blackbird which dared to start singing outside the loo window about three weeks ago hasn’t uttered a note since.
Although it would be nice for it to warm up a bit so I could wash my thermal base layer, I can cope with the rain and the cold. It’s the wind I don’t like. Paddling into a headwind is not only very hard work, it’s appallingly demoralising, and the subsequent downwind run doesn’t compensate for the upwind struggle. Watching and photographing wildlife is almost impossible while the kayak is being thrown about and splashed with spray, and basically no fun.
The open sea and exposed coast are no-go zones. At least there are a few sheltered estuaries which are doable if you have read your tide tables correctly. The wintering waders provide a bit of entertainment with their cheerful piping calls, especially the ‘shanks’, both Red and Green.
However I did manage to squeeze in a coastal jaunt during the briefest lull in the relentless blow, with temperature just about survivable in full thermal gear and drysuit. And gloves and balaclava. (fuel today was Raisin and Biscuit Yorkie….DUO)
I couldn’t resist a visit to Torbay in the (unlikely) hope of seeing the dolphins again, even though the traffic round the back of Paignton on the road to Brixham is enough to make me go (even more) grey and bald (again).
Brixham on the southern side of Torbay is a sensational place to launch, with the paddle out of the busy fishing port providing all the sights, sound and smells necessary to sharpen up the senses (especially if you are a fan of fish).
I was initially drawn to Berry Head because the swirling currents concentrate sealife activity. As I approached the headland and stared hard at the patch of sea beneath half-a-dozen circling Gannets, I could hardly believe my luck because a dolphin breached clear of the water. I cranked up the speed and as I drew close to the dolphins changed to cautious mode in an effort not to frighten them. A splinter group sped right past me and then joined up with the main pod of about twenty and sped off southwards.
I followed but as usual had difficulty keeping up, just about staying in touch at fast cruising pace. As we sped past St. Mary’s Bay they suddenly completely disappeared and I decided to continue down the coast towards Dartmouth, even though I had originally planned to go the other way.
Good move, as I had only paddled this bit of coast a couple of times before and had forgotten how stunning it was. Cliffs interspersed with some excellent beaches, the most scenic of which is Scabbacombe, backed by sweeping green hills.
The seabirds clearly hadn’t been told that Spring had been put on hold. Oystercatchers were piping excitedly and all along the cliffs Fulmars were settled on their nesting ledges and cackling in their very primeval way. Seabirds do seem to hint at a link with reptiles from long ago because the call of Fulmars, Guillemots, Razorbills and Gannets would not seem out of place in a colony of Pterodactyls, although I’m not old enough to confirm (quite).
A flock of Common Scoters were disturbed by a passing jetski and did a couple of circuits of the bay before pitching in.
Gloom. One of a pair of Great Black-backed Gulls that were sitting on a headland had a trace from a fishing line sticking out of its beak. I would think a hook was stuck in its throat so almost certainly it was doomed.
The Mew Stone, sitting like a mini-fortress at the mouth of the Dart estuary, provided a suitable turning point for my trip, and the slumbering seals barely bothered to wake up as I slipped silently past.
For the sake of completeness I made the effort to paddle round the back of the fang-like Eastern Black rock before returning, and my efforts paid off with a brief sighting of a couple of Porpoises and a handful of Purple Sandpipers picking amongst the barnacles on the rocky islet.
Berry Head was a bit more lively on the return leg with a strengthening Southerly wind and I was quite pleased to get back to the quieter waters of Torbay.
Back in Brixham harbour I had an entertaining prolonged encounter with a large bull Grey Seal which had clearly seen so many boats and kayakers it was devoid of any fear, and finished off with a paddle tour around the inner harbour.
For now it’s back to a near white-out and challenging conditions for watersports enthusiasts.
However every cloud has a silver (Starling-flavoured) lining if you are a top predator like this Sparrowhawk:
Before the ‘Beast from the East’ weather system snarled in, brandishing its Siberian temperatures, snow and savage wind, I managed a handful of very pleasant trips. The first was a bit of an offshore paddle in St.Austell Bay from Fowey , and to my complete jaw-dropping amazement (and entertainment), I yet again stumbled upon a pod of Common Dolphins.
It’s always a thrill to see them because it really doesn’t happen very often. Over the last fifteen years I have only seen dolphins about once every 500 miles paddled, but in the last four months have come across ten pods. Maybe this is random chance but maybe it means that there are more dolphins, and more dolphin food, about. If this is the case it is excellent news considering it is the polluted and littered nature of the sea that usually makes the headlines. It is possible I am getting to know the best places to see them but their highly mobile nature makes sightings extremely unpredictable, which for me is all part of the fun, and challenge. Success in spotting dolphins is a reflection of the number of miles paddled.
The Cornish Riviera, like its Devon counterpart in Torbay, is east-facing and so fairly protected from the winter swells that usually come from the west. It’s more attractive than Torbay and a lot less built-up and generally more of a wilderness experience, with much less chance of running into, or being mown down by, a jetski.
As I emerged from the shelter of Fowey estuary I was a bit disappointed the sea was so lumpy, and took a few waves over the front. No danger but just not so much fun as carving over flat water. I was hoping it was a residual chop from the southerly wind that had now changed direction but it was looking like offshore paddling was out. However I stuck with it and hugged the shore, stopping for breakfast onboard (bowlful of muesli) in the shelter of Gribbin Head.
As I crunched granola, I caught sight of a load of Gannets plunging vertically into the sea just round the corner of the headland. I couldn’t resist sticking my nose in, so rounded Gribbin Head and followed the circling pack of Gannets as it headed out across the bay towards Mevagissey. And hey presto, the sea had miraculously smoothed off.
I was back in my comfort zone and powered after the gannets although stupidly, in all the excitement, forgot to ‘check in’ with Polruan or Charlestown NCI (coastwatch) which I usually do. My radio batteries were flat anyway…oops.
Suddenly a dolphin surfaced a few yards in front of me and gave me quite a jump. It looked very big. Nothing else happened for a minute and just when I thought that was all I was going to see, a whole load more appeared and started to splash, puff, snort and surge all around the place.
Twelve to fifteen in total and at least one juvenile amongst them.
Yet another fantastic dolphin experience and only the second time I have seen them in February, the first being a couple of weeks ago!
After half an hour in their company I took a big swing around Gribbin Head before heading back to Fowey and was rewarded with the brief sight of four ‘Puffing Pigs’ (porpoises), a pair and two singletons, that were hunting beneath a circling gannet. Always incredibly elusive and difficult to see because they are so small, but a speciality from a kayak because you can hear their loud ‘piff’ from quite a disatnce, which you would never hear above the engine if a boat (or even the ‘noise’ of a yacht).
I completed my day at Fowey with a quick blast up the river to admire the Class 66 loco heading the China Clay train up to Lostwithiel, and a well-earned cup of tea at Penquite Quay. As they say: once a trainspotter always a trainspotter. I might add: once a tea-drinker always a tea-drinker. The two seem to go together quite nicely.
There are quite a few Little Grebes (aka Dabchicks) wintering up these sheltered creeks at the minute; their numbers increase further during cold snaps when their freshwater haunts freeze over.
The Herons are sporting a fancy array of plumes around their necks in preparation for creating a bit of an impression for the start of the breeding season.
My next little jaunt was to the Cornish coast at Mevagissey (the other side of the bay from where I saw the dolphins) where I was very pleased to observe half a dozen rare gulls visiting from the arctic. It’s unusual to see just one of these ‘white-winged’ gulls, but to see four Glaucous and two Iceland Gulls in one trip is, for me, unprecedented.
Glaucous Gulls are great big bruisers the size of the more familiar Great Black-backs, Iceland Gulls are smaller and finer but telling them apart requires a bit of ornithological expertise, because their plumage is almost identical.
Finally I managed a paddle up the beautiful Camel estuary from Rock with Dave before the weather became too kayak unfriendly. It was only a couple of degrees above freezing and there was a bit of a sneaky wind from the east but the winter sun made our trip feel a little warmer.
As usual there was lots of birdlife to admire, including a handful of perfectly camouflaged Ringed Plovers roosting amongst the pebbles on the tideline.
It’s now time to ‘batten down the hatches’ till the Beast has blown itself out.
100 along Rivers in England (Thames and two Avons)
500+ miles of offshore paddling (more than a mile from the coast) in Devon and Cornwall.
6 trips out to the Eddystone Lighthouse
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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. ???
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).
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.
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.
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.
37 Balearic Shearwaters, on six days. Scattered amongst the much more common Manx Shearwater, usually well offshore.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Several pairs of Black-throated Divers in Scotland. The most beautifully marked UK bird?
Kingfishers on 21 days. Everybody’s favourite waterbird.
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.
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.