A couple of recent trips to Mount’s Bay have been sensational. They both got off to a good start with views of Eddie the Eider who seems to have made Penzance Harbour his home. He has just completed his autumn moult. When I saw him on 24 Sept he still had blotches of brown transitional plumage and looked a bit scruffy, but by 7 Oct he was looking very smart and ready to impress for the winter:
Mount’s bay is a very exciting place and I am always full of expectation as I head out into the open sea beyond St.Michael’s Mount.
Gannets appear after a mile or so where the offshore current shears past the still waters of the bay.
On my September trip a large flock of Kittiwake that had been resting on the surface all took off in a panic as a couple of Great Skuas (Bonxies) piled in to the group to cause a bit of trouble, which is what Bonxies do best.
On both these trips I have seen a Minke Whale, but only fleeting views when the whale’s exhalation draws my attention. They travel so fast that they can be almost out of sight when they surface again, especially if the surface is a bit choppy. No photos, unfortunately.
I saw a handful of porpoises on the second trip because the surface went so flat for an hour or so I could hear them puffing from a long distance away.
On my second trip I got very excited because I could see a wheeling group of about a hundred Gannets a mile or two ahead of me and every so often a they peel off and plunge into the sea. This could be my first close encounter with a major Gannet feeding frenzy although I knew from previous (dismal) experience that during the twenty minutes it was going to take to get there the action might be over. However, the bigger the frenzy, the longer it will last…..
As I approached I could see big creatures jumping out of the water beneath the Gannets. I was too far off to see whether these were Bluefin Tuna or dolphins, but I suspect they were probably both. And….groan….I couldn’t believe my bad luck when the Gannets suddenly wheeled away just as I was drawing close enough to get a pic….blooming typical. I suspect the bigger fish had been hoovered up, there were just sprats left. However there was a nice school of Common Dolphins remaining to provide a bit of a spectacle. They were busy milling about feeding so for an hour I just sat about and watched.
I was joined by the Marine Discovery yacht from Penzance who had presumably, like me, seen the feeding frenzy from afar.
Every so often some dolphins would speed off and put in some fantastic leaps. This one would have ended up amongst the enthralled guests aboard Shearwater II if it had put in one more jump.
After coffee break I paddled slowly off along the coast, but kept a mile or so from the shore, which is where the action seems to happen. Another pod of about twenty dolphins crossed my path and one really started to leap about. By enormous good fortune it jumped right in front of the circular hole in the cliff which gives the coastal village of Mousehole its name. The perfect image.
Then, just in case I had missed its first performance, it did a slightly less energetic leap with Mousehole itself as the backdrop.
The dolphins then dispersed and I was left to admire the supporting cast of characters and views. However every so often I would see a sizeable splash which was not followed by a show of dolphin’s fins. Tuna for certain, but I never actually saw the fish.
Yet another astonishing day, with every second filled with excitement or anticipation. No more offshore paddling for the foreseeable because the wind is on the up (BIG time).
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.
Common Dolphins are usually quite a challenge to watch from a kayak because they spend most of their time a long way offshore. I have clocked up nearly 500 miles this year paddling more than a mile offshore in the hope of running into a school or two, and some of their pelagic partners.
So it was a bit of a surprise when, on the shortest day of the year, I saw a host of fins breaking the surface within five minutes of paddling out from the slipway at the root of Brixham breakwater. I followed the school of about twenty-five Common Dolphins as they cruised and splashed their way towards Berry head, with several coming over to bowride my rather weak pressure wave.
They teamed up with another group of a dozen or so for a bit of a cavort about a mile off the headland. I had to paddle just about flat out to keep up with the pace, and several times gave up as they disappeared off, but then was ‘pursuaded’ to have one more sprint when they slowed down a bit.
Absolutely fantastic. I had the best ringside seat you could wish for and watched the dolphins for almost an hour. There were several juveniles and calves amongst the group and as usual these stuck to their mother’s side like glue.
The scattered group disappeared off out to sea to the south and I continued offshore on a very calm sea to Sharkham Point. Beneath a couple of plunging Gannets rolled a handful of Harbour Porpoises. In contrast to the habitually boisterous and splashy nature of the dolphins, porpoises roll at the surface with hardly any disturbance to the water as if they are attached to an underwater wheel. I have seen them breach on occasion when they get really fired up about a shoal of fish, but this is rare (and even rarer on a flat calm day).
I turned back at Mansands where a Peregrine watched from above. En route back to Berry Head I passed Guillemots, Fulmars and Kittiwakes dotted about on the surface, and a few more porpoises quite close in off the headland.
As I was having a brief word with a fisherman who was casting out from a tiny cove right at the tip of the headland I glanced out to sea and observed quite a splash. My initial thought was jumping dolphin but a second later another spray of water was accompanied by the silvery flash and spiky fins of a Giant Tuna! Only about 100m off the headland (if that). Blooming heck!
Two days later I returned for (hopefully) more dolphin action, with son Henry who positioned himself on the end of Brixham breakwater with his camera and huge lens on a tripod. It was a bit windier and was quite choppy as I ventured off the end of Berry Head. I had brief views of a couple of porpoises before I saw the more active fins of some dolphins further out.
I arrived on the scene at the same time as a small boat containing father, son and daughter of the Smerdon family. As usual the dolphins found the larger craft rather more interesting than my own and I didn’t get a great view, although did observe one dolphin who had the curious habit of surfacing with a bit of a belly flop every time it came up for breath.
I battled back to the headland through the wind chop and got a call from Hezzer (Henry) that there was another pod of dolphins off the breakwater. I eventually arrived on the scene and the dolphins came over to greet me. I absolutely piled on the steam to try to get them to bow ride, and a handful obliged providing some thrilling views through the clear water as they swam directly beneath me before bursting out of the water inches in front of my kayak.
Once again they deserted me in favour of a passing vessel, this time a yacht, and my attempted humorous comment shouted across the water of “you’ve nicked my dolphins!” was partly lost on the wind and, judging by the unsmiling expression on the crew’s faces, didn’t convey in as friendly or humorous manner as it was intended.
The dolphin with the funny belly flop breathing action appeared in the bay with its group and I had one more good view before it was time for lunch and time to go home.
One distressing observation today. As I munched a sandwich discussing the day’s excitement with Hezzer while sitting in my kayak at the tip of Brixham breakwater, a Turnstone was close by on the shore pecking frantically at its foot. We could see something was wrapped around it, probably fishing line, and during the time it took me to eat two sandwiches, it hadn’t made any progress in freeing it up. Poor thing.
Apart from that, not a bad way to spend the shortest day of the year.
Final open sea fling of the year was a sunny post Christmas afternoon at Teignmouth with Simon and Jake. Low sun, superb colours, and a big flock of Common Scoters providing a bit of wildlife interest.
The silence, stealth and unobtrusiveness of a kayak, combined with ability to churn out the miles when required, and a seat at water level which allows you to look directly into the eyes of your favourite wild creatures, have resulted in (yet more) memorable encounters recently.
Actually kayaks act as a bit of a wildlife magnet, as I found when I was messing about on the Thames at Oxford.
A pair of Muntjac deer were having a Christmas social with a couple of Roe deer and I drifted to within ten yards of them as they browsed. I got the impression that they just assumed nobody would be daft enough to be paddling on the Cherwell with the temperature only a degree above freezing so had turned their intruder proximity alarm off.
Deer have got noticeably less wary of people over the last few decades as they get shot at less and less, and the same undoubtedly applies to seals. Some of the Grey Seals around the Devon coast are positively tame, and none more so than the gang that hang around in the Teignmouth area. I have said before that I am very cautious about approaching resting seals that are hauled out on the rocks in a kayak, because it can cause them to ‘stampede’ into the sea which at best upsets the seals and at worst can cause injury, especially if there are pups around. This certainly applies to the larger ‘rookeries’ further west in the remoter parts of Cornwall which are less habituated to recreational kayakers invading their patch of water.
However the Teignmouth seals do not just not bat an eyelid as you approach quietly in a kayak, they seem actually to quite enjoy it. Its not very often you get into the position of looking UP at the heaviest mammal to go on land in the UK……..
Paul seemed to get on so well with this particular seal it gave him a brief burst of ‘song’.
It had been joined by a couple of chums on the way back, and as we departed all three remained firmly hauled out and unspooked.
The coast near Teignmouth provides some of the best sheltered open sea kayaking in SW England, with its east facing beaches protected from prevailing wind and swell. There are some cracking little coves to stop for a cup of tea.
The following day was forecast to be extraordinarily wind free so I made the significant effort to drive to Penzance for a paddle round Mount’s Bay. This is a very special and exciting place and offers some great wildlife sightings. Migrating sea creatures rounding Land’s End could well come within range of a kayak putting in at Penzance……and so it was to prove!
I really didn’t expect to see much because it was only a couple of days from the shortest day and I had the impression that the visiting pelagic sea creatures such as whales, dolphins and tuna, which reach a peak in numbers in late summer and autumn, had thinned out.
However the sea was so remarkably smooth that if there was anything on the surface within half a mile of me, I was going to see it. I was so full of anticipation I had completed the 80+ mile drive and got onto the water before the sun had come up. As I paddled out of the harbour, fully protected in thermal gear and drysuit top and bottom as the temperature was about three degrees, I was horrified to pass a chap paddling a sit-on-top kayak wearing just a pair of swimming trunks. He explained, as if it was obvious, that he was ‘just trying to chill himself down’ before his swim!
I heard my first pair of porpoises ‘piffing’ within half a mile of setting off and passed several Loons on the water. A big fishing boat heading into Newlyn was surrounded by so many gulls it looked like smoke, and I wondered if it had lured in some rarer seabirds such as skuas as well. A couple of ‘Bonxie’ Great Skuas passed at distance so clearly it had.
I couldn’t resist a bit of an offshore jaunt as it was so calm and the sea looked very benign under the cloudless skies. I skirted past Mousehole about two miles offshore and kept at that range as I followed the coast west. Hundreds of passing Guillemots.
I have found that the sea really livens up half way between Mousehole and Lamorna. There’s a bit more swirl and I suspect it gets significantly deeper here. In exactly this spot a year ago a Minke Whale surfaced with a blast just metres behind me as I was watching a Gey Phalarope.
So I stopped for a cup of tea just in case. To my amazement I again heard quite a splash just behind me, and lumbered my kayak around (which is quite slow) to see the silvery flashes of a load of Giant Bluefin Tuna surging and splashing in quite a frenzy. Long thin fins all over the place, and one jumped right out. I reckon I saw about ten in all. Only twenty metres away, so I was exactly in the right spot. Unfortunately it was all over in about thirty seconds, just when I had got my camera ready. Typical.
After this I thought it would be a bit greedy to hope for dolphins as well, so I could hardly believe my eyes when I saw a double splash and what looked like something jumping, maybe a mile away further out. I paddled hard towards it but after five minutes with no more signs of life I throttled back.
Suddenly, directly in front, about fifteen huge-looking dolphins exploded from the water in perfect synchrony, heading straight for me. Followed by a load more, absolutely rocketing through the water a top speed and jumping and splashing all over the place. An astoundingly large area of sea was suddenly a confusion of white water.And it was all heading my way! My excitementometer blew a fuse and I fumbled to get my camera ready. The lead dolphins leapt past a few feet away and sped off, followed by two more waves. I could see that they were too big for Common Dolphins and initially thought they were Risso’s, but a few passing close showed the classic Bottlenose profile. Alas my camera chose that moment to not work properly in burst mode so I missed the dramatic synchronous leaping of dozens of dolphins.
Absolutely incredible. They went passed so fast in such a flurry I had difficulty assessing the number. It was at least thirty, it could well have been fifty, or more.
Even more remarkable was their behaviour. Although I have seen individual Bottlenose Dolphins doing spectacular jumps, they are usually surprisingly unobtrusive and quiet for such a large creature (two or three times the size of a Common Dolphin). Most groups I have encountered close inshore but once came across some ten miles offshore near Eddystone. But these were not very fast and splashy, and were very inquisitive. Today’s were not interested in me one little bit.
Today’s group seemed to be on a mission to travel as fast as possible with as much white water as possible, behaviour more typical of Common Dolphins.
That is why I think these were ‘transient’ or possibly ‘offshore’ dolphins that are not resident locally and are migrating past. It was a significantly larger group than is usual for Bottlenose Dolphins around the UK, and seemingly different behaviour, although it may have been just because they were in a hurry.
Interestingly I was reading that there are only 300 Bottlenose Dolphins resident around the UK, and I might have just seen fifty! I’m pretty sure that to see this sort of number around the UK is very rare (especially from a kayak).
They headed directly towards the coast and then turned to run parallel to it towards Land’s End keeping at least a mile offshore.
Wow! and Wow! again.
I even saw a festive jellyfish, a translucent cylinder with edges glittering with an array of shifting multicoloured lights, better than anything you will see hanging from a Christmas tree.
Surely no more excitement. Wrong. A chunky looking skua that flew directly over my head was an immature Pomarine, only the second ever from my kayak.
And just another fourteen porpoises (groups of 4, 4, 3, 3) and many more heard ‘piffing’ but not seen. And another dozen Loons.
And just to finish off, Eddie the Eider at Penzance Harbour.
If someone said to me that they had seen all these incredible wildlife sightings in the sea in a single six hour, sixteen mile kayak trip in mid December, I would struggle to believe them.
It’s not easy looking for Tuna in the ‘Big Blue’. Sir David Attenborough said so last night on Blue Planet II.
It took his team three weeks.They had a sizeable ship bulging with technology and knowledgeable scientists and were looking in the tropical Pacific, where Tuna live. Oh, and a helicopter. I had a plastic kayak less than two foot wide laden only with a small camera and some out-of-date rolls for lunch (reduced for quick sale, three days ago), and was looking for Tuna near Fowey in South Cornwall, which is really not where they are supposed to live.
So, as usual, the odds were heavily stacked in favour of spectacular failure, but having glimpsed a breaching tuna here a couple of days previously, I was absolutely set on making the effort to get one on camera, while the calm conditions lasted. Definitely not easy because after a single jump they are gone until another one pops up for a fraction of a second somewhere else , and so on. I was just hoping for a more sustained feeding ‘event’ within camera shot of the kayak which might involve a succession of leaps.
Companions today were Jeremy and Jane, better than any eyes in the sky ( and also scientists, sort of). They were paddling their well-seasoned Ocean Kayak Malibu 2, and although it looks like the sort of craft that was designed for a Sunday afternoon saunter on the Serpentine, they pushed it along at a speed that I had difficulty matching in my much narrower and theoretically faster Cobra Expedition.
We were assisted by an outgoing tide as we sped between Fowey and Polruan. and turned east once out onto the open coast. Thrilling as always, and even better today under cloudless skies. The only slight problem was that there was a steady easterly wind which would make offshore paddling a bit unrelaxing, but I was hopeful that it would drop.
For the time being we hugged the coast and dropped in to the stunning, sandy Lantic Bay for a quick leg stretch.
By this time Jane’s wildlife spotting eyes had been finely tuned and she clocked up the first three interesting observations of the day. A lard-laden seal hauled out on a rock, a Garfish skipping across the surface, and a surging shoal of baitfish. Jeremy spotted a Red Admiral butterfly (not bad for late November) when we stopped next at Lantivet, while I was yet to get my eyeballs off the mark.
It was time to head out to sea and swing back to Fowey in a big arc which would take us a couple of miles offshore and hopefully……
Not long after we passed Udder Rock Buoy, which was clanging mournfully, Jane did very well to spot the slight splash of a fin just breaking the surface. Not easy in the slightly choppy conditions. We followed and observed three dolphins, one clearly a youngster, which were in no mood to hang around and be sociable and rapidly sped off. I’m not even sure what species they were. Fantastic nonetheless.
As we ‘took luncheon’ and I forced down my rolls which by now were even harder, the wind dropped further and the stage was set.
The splashes started shortly afterwards. Dotted about all over the place and not particularly close to us, but Jeremy was looking in exactly the right direction when a Tuna the size of a dolphin jumped clean out of the water. The intensity of activity seemed to build, along with our excitement.
My camera was poised and I took an awful lot of shots of empty sea where a splash had just occurred.
We powered towards a more sustained burst of activity at the surface with great big fish partly showing themselves , and I snapped away. Then all would go quiet and we would hear a great swoosh behind us and turn round to see a patch of smooth water where some huge creature had just broken the surface.
We continued to zigzag around and charge towards where we thought the action would take place. A gang of gulls came to our observational aid and circled over the school of Tuna to mark the spot. When they suddenly dipped down to the surface I rattled away with my camera and the Giant Tuna burst out, but I really wasn’t sure if the camera was pointing in the right direction, or zoomed in too far, or images blurred with the rocking of the kayak.
Jeremy and Jane had the thrill of seeing a load of baitfish, which they reckoned were Mackerel, bursting from the surface with the Tuna exploding out in pursuit. Wow.
After in excess of fifty big splashes and seeing a score of Giant Tuna, Jeremy and Jane headed for home but I just could not drag myself away. I had no idea whether I had got my photo of a Tuna, or a bit of one, because I didn’t want to waste time reviewing my pics.
But after they departed it all went quiet. However the remarkable day was rounded off in a perfect manner, in the bright sunshine and blue sea, by a cameo appearance of one of my favourite seabirds, a Great Skua aka ‘Bonxie’.
The group of gulls which had settled on the surface to digest their tuna-meal leftovers suddenly spooked as the skua scythed into their post-prandial get-together. The skua chased one gull with typical aggression and surprising agility and then dropped down to settle on the sea.
I sneaked up to it, making sure the sun was behind me. To my amazement I drifted to within a few feet of it with it apparently unconcerned (if anything it looked like it was eyeing me up for a meal). I have done this before at the Bonxie’s breeding grounds in Scotland but never seen one closer than hundreds of yards from my kayak in south-west England.
I had a clear view right down its larynx as it yawned before continuing on its way on migration.
What an incredible day. Unbelievable. Even better when reviewing my pics revealed a single frame of a Giant Bluefin Tuna clean out of the water.
Not in the tropical Pacific, but in the English Channel. Not from a multimillion pound state-of-the-art research vessel, but from a couple of little plastic kayaks. Not using a helicopter to spot the fish, but Jane and Jeremy. And fuelled not by fossil fuel, but by a couple of stale rolls from Tesco.