Offshore Bottlenose Dolphins

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.P1000765

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.

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Muntjac
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Muntjac and Roe Deer

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……..

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Paul works his charm

 

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.P1010207

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.

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Teignmouth cove

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.

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Mount’s Bay sunrise

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!

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St. Michael’s Mount

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.

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Typically elusive Porpoise

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. P1010239P1010235

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Bottlenose Dolphins, Mount’s Bay

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.

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Pomarine Skua

And just another fourteen porpoises (groups of 4, 4, 3, 3) and many more heard ‘piffing’ but not seen. And another dozen Loons.

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Penzance Loons

And just to finish off, Eddie the Eider at Penzance Harbour.

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Eddie the Eider

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.

 

 

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Christmas Bonus. Dolphins, Porpoises and Seals.

Still a few weeks to go to Christmas I know, but I just couldn’t resist the title.

The winter storms, which bludgeon me into submission and send me cowering up a creek, have been kept at bay for a further couple of days by a nose of high pressure. Not only light winds but also very little groundswell which is unusual at this time of the year, making offshore paddling irresistible.

Fowey was my destination on Day 1. Fowey is not only an exceptionally beautiful place, paddling always seems to be more relaxing here as the tidal currents seem to be less than around the corner past Dodman Point. Even the slightest current working against the wind chops up the surface significantly.

And following my recent encounters with the Giant Tuna and dolphins and porpoises here, I was full of expectation.

I called in my ‘passage plan’ on the radio with Charlestown NCI because there was nobody at home in Polruan NCI probably because I was a bit early, as usual.

I got the impression that there was not a lot going on in the sea in terms of wildlife but was kept interested by the little parties of Guillemots I passed. First photo with my new camera!

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Guillemot (in winter outfit)

I watched the handful of passing Gannets closely as they filed past. All they have to do is circle round once and show an interest in a particular patch of sea, and my eyeballs are locked on to the surface, because the fish that attracts a Gannet will also lure in other sea creatures. I’ve often located porpoises in this way, but for every one I have seen there will be twenty that I have missed, not only because porpoises are so small and unobtrusive, but because by the time I have arrived at the scene the action, if there has been any, has finished. Chasing down feeding ‘events’ in a kayak is a slow process. It’s a lot easier with a 200 horsepower outboard. Even two hp would be quicker than me.

Encouraged by a light tailwind I wandered about three miles offshore, and suddenly found myself on the edge of a group of twenty circling Gannets which seemed to have appeared out of nowhere. Sure enough, there were fins below. Three Common Dolphins. Fab. As I quietly approached, five more dolphins joined the gang and they all came over to  say hello. Just for fun I piled on the speed (can’t go more than 6-7mph flat out) and the dolphins responded with a load of splashing and surging in my excuse for a pressure wave.

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Dolphin and the Dodman

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Common Dolphin, Fowey

The dolphins hung around for five minutes then moved off. It all went a bit quiet after that so I paddled in for a leg stretch at superb Lantic Bay. As I was approaching the beach I heard the haunting querulous call of a Loon and observed a family of three fishing in the bay. Great Northern Divers (aka Common Loon across the pond) often go around in threes and I’m pretty sure these are Mum, Dad and this year’s offspring. Just by the way they act, and look, and communicate to each other in a family sort of way. Amazing that they can stick together on their migration from the arctic.

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Lantic Bay Loon

My enjoyable day was soured a bit as I arrived back in Fowey. A Dory which I had seen leaving the estuary at the same time as me six hours earlier overtook me on the way in and it was full up to the gunwhales, and beyond, with Sea Urchins. I had a chat with the three crew and they said they had picked up over six hundred (!) urchins by shallow diving along the local coast, and were going to sell them on to souvenir and craft shops. Blimey. They must have had nearly the lot.

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Sea Urchin (one that got away)

Day 2  involved a fifteen mile circuit of one of my favourite sheltered bays in South Cornwall, initially heading three miles offshore and then coming back along the coast.

I set off just as it was getting light and my systems (e.g eyes and ears) were far from fully operational when a small duck, which I initially presumed to be a Guillemot, pitched onto the surface with quite a splash in front of me.  Because it was half dark I was only ten yards away when I realised it was a Long-tailed Duck. I scrambled my new camera out of its dry bag and just managed a few shots before the duck paddled off into the gloom. My fourth L-T Duck of the autumn….pleased with that.

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Long-tailed Duck

Incidentally, no long tail because it’s a female.

My offshore jaunt was rather dull and was rescued by the appearance of a couple of porpoises which surfaced only a few yards away. In typical aloof porpoise style they popped up, piffed, and then completely disappeared.

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Harbour Porpoises

From a couple of miles offshore I could hear the weird wailing ‘song’ of a seal drifting out from a sheltered cove. At one stage it droned on for about a minute without a breath. A bit like Leonard Cohen, but more tuneful.

After coffee ‘at sea’ I cautiously paddled towards the seals who were hauled out on the rocks. I am acutely aware that seals can feel very vulnerable when out of the water and kayakers can, and do, cause real disturbance to colonies, so I kept my distance and was subjected only to a disapproving stare.

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Six-eyed Stare
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Large and Little

One seal, which had a nasty-looking fresh injury on its back, was mottled like a granite-style kitchen surface. A Harbour (or Common) Seal. Not Common at all in SW England, only the second I have seen in Cornwall. Maybe it’s because they get beaten up by the Grey Seals, as seemed to have happened to this one.

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Common (Harbour) seal

The Spring tide was just about low as I came round the headland to Portscatho. The local gulls were very busy and very noisy as they hunted through the exposed kelp for their favourite delicacy. Flicking over the fronds with their beaks and shallow-diving from the surface. If one caught a starfish it was immediately hounded by half-a-dozen friends who were keen to have an ‘arm’ or two. Dramas like this that are played out as you paddle along unobtrusively and silently are what I like most about kayaking (as well as all the other stuff).

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Gull plus seafood lunch. Rick Stein would approve.

I consumed my cheese and pickle sandwiches on the foreshore at Portscatho. The weather wasn’t bad for December 5th…..it was completely windless and warm enough for me not to have cold feet, even though I was wearing two pairs of socks. My photos would have looked better if the sun was shining, however. A turquoise sea is always better than one which is battleship grey.

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Portscatho

My ornithologically outstanding day was nicely rounded off with a close encounter with two Purple Sandpipers, distant views of a couple of Slavonian Grebes and a Red-necked Grebe, and another dozen Loons.

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Purple Sandpiper with purfect camouflage.
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Great Northern Diver (Loon)

It’s not just the marine environment that provides the best wildlife encounters from a kayak. It’s nice to get close views of some of the commoner, but no less attractive, species that seem only to be tame enough for close approach in city parks. Like this Moorhen with its incongruously large, and green, feet.

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Oxford Moorhen

I snapped this squirrel in the middle of Oxford (from my kayak of course). I’m not entirely sure that the tree to which it was clinging wasn’t some sort of creature from Middle Earth. Those look like faces in its bark.

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Secret Squirrel
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That’s got to be an Ent from Fangorn, surely

 

More Fantastic Common Dolphins

IMG_0258A single day with light winds was forecast . It was a gap between ex-hurricane Ophelia and approaching Storm Brian (I’m sure weather never used to be like this!). I was tempted offshore in an effort to see cetaceans. Although I have had a couple of really excellent prolonged encounters with inquisitive and friendly dolphins this year, it doesn’t look as though I will match last year’s tally of seven cetacean species (two whale, four dolphin and porpoise).

It must be one of the windiest years on record and the opportunities for offshore kayaking have been very limited. I’m sure I have said before that I prefer the sea to have no whitecaps which means I have worry-free paddling and makes spotting fins easier. Any sort of chop means you are much less likely to see a fin, and unlikely to be able to hold a camera steady enough to take a photo. Even if the sea is smooth any sort of groundswell can hide the horizon for a significant proportion of time because your eyeballs are only three foot above the surface.

Veryan bay in South Cornwall seemed to fit the bill. A lovely launch at sandy Carne Beach (with the bonus of FREE parking…gasp), direct access to the open sea, and not too strong a tidal current.

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Veryan Bay

It was lucky I was wearing my drysuit top when paddling out from the beach because the only sizeable wave of the entire morning broke across my chest as I got the timing through the surf completely wrong, as usual. That was the last wave I saw the entire day and in fact the sea surface was unusually smooth…..absolutely perfect for gliding along in complete silence and getting completely absorbed (lost) in the marine wilderness.

It was so still I could hear the slight rustle of Gannet’s wings as they came over to inspect me as usual, and the noise of boat engines carrying so far I could only just see the source.

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Nosy sub-adult Gannet

I skirted Nare Head and Gull Rock and headed out into the open sea. It’s rare to be able to use binoculars from a kayak on the sea but today was different because it was so flat. I watched my first Great-Northern Diver (Common Loon) of the season fly past in front of me, and noticed a large circling gang of gulls busy feeding about about a mile ahead.

Mmmm. I would be surprised if they were not accompanied by some other sea creatures, so upped the pace and closed in on the action. I hadn’t gone far when I saw some fins converging on the same spot. A school of Common Dolphins! They were travelling at exactly the same pace as me (4-5 mph) and I didn’t want to disturb them so kept well away. I thought they would move off but as I neared the feeding frenzy of gulls noticed a couple more dolphins feeding and jumping about. When they met up they all stopped for a bit of a feed and a bit of a splash, and then the whole lot came over to check me out.

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Common Dolphin

There followed an absolutely incredible ten minutes. I could see the dolphins approaching just under the surface, and some swam along beside me just inches away. They popped up in front of me then sped off, did some jumping, and then all came back over to inspect me further, or maybe to check out what score I gave their performance.IMG_0370

IMG_0317There were a couple of youngsters in the group who didn’t want to miss out on all the excitement.IMG_0273

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Junior Dolphin

Eventually they lost interest in me and moved off. I couldn’t resist paddling further out and passed another eight or so dolphins. I eventually ended up at Dodman A buoy, about six miles south of Dodman Point, and decided that was far enough.

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Dodman A buoy

There were quite a few small parties of Guillemots and Razorbills dotted about, often in threes. I suspect these were mother, father and this year’s offspring.

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Family Guillemot

The nine-mile paddle back to the beach was a bit of a haul as paddling back often is. However virtually every time I stopped for a break I could hear the ‘piff’ of a porpoise. The sea was so very flat and the air so still the sound was carrying probably a mile over the surface, so I  only saw a few of them. This is maybe not surprising as they represent a very small eyeball target because they are the world’s smallest cetacean (four to five foot long) and their fin is less than six inches tall.

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Harbour Porpoise

 

 

 

Medley of Scottish Lochs

It had to happen sooner or later. After many years of being incredibly lucky with the weather during my Spring trips to Scotland, mid May 2017 looked as though it was going to let me down. The forecast was stiff winds from the west and intermittent rain. The west coast would have been no fun. I still can’t believe I was so fortunate with my two month expedition round the west coast and islands three years ago when I only lost one or two days to strong winds.

Plan B was to paddle in the relative shelter of various freshwater lochs, and ideally the ones with no roads along the sides to maximise the chance of wildlife encounters.

I drove the 650 miles from Holsworthy to Taynuilt beside Loch Etive near Oban in one very long day, and during the night as I was curled up in my sleeping bag the car was rocked by a gusty wind coming down from the mountains. Loch Etive was definitely no-go for a kayak so I sought the quieter waters of Loch Awe a few miles away.

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Loch Awe

It was windy and quite warm and dry so pretty reasonable. I drifted close enough to a Dipper for a reasonable photograph, always difficult because they are generally not that tame and are usually amongst dark rocks which makes getting the exposure right difficult.

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Dipper

In a sheltered bay on the north bank I was very surprised to come across a Great Northern Diver, still in its winter plumage (although it was 12 May). This looked like a  juvenile from last years brood.

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Great Northern Diver

I was very keen not to frighten it by getting too close but it allowed me to drift to about twenty yards away while it continued to dive. I got what I thought were some great images but noticed that every so often it would ‘gag’ slightly in a unnatural manner.

Upon reviewing the images I fell into an instant gloom when I saw the fishing line wrapped around its bottom mandible and trailing out behind it. Poor blooming thing. It’s flown all the way from Iceland or further to grace the UK with its amazing presence, just to get tangled up in  discarded fishing tackle.

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GND with fishing line wrapped around lower mandible

There wasn’t a hope of being able to help it as it seemed to be swimming and diving quite normally (and probably catching some fish) but I think its long term outlook is pretty hopeless.

I was lured into one of the lochside Bluebell woods for lunch by the dazzling colour.

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Loch Awe Bluebells

Just as I was completing my twenty mile circuit and trying to avoid the many fishing speedboats around a marina on the southern side of the Loch, I had a superb view of a couple of Black-throated Divers, these ones in full breeding plumage. They are exciting enough to see when dressed in their two-tone winter outfit around the bays of SW England, but in their breeding plumage they are arguably the UK’s most beautifully marked bird. This is definitely the case if you are photographing in black-and-white.

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Black-throated Divers

I was very careful not to approach too close to cause them distress, but they seemed relatively happy with several small fishing boats plying past and me floating about in my kayak, and continued to look for fish by dipping their heads underwater.

Black-throated Divers at their nest sites are super-sensitive to disturbance which includes photographers getting too close for that perfect photo.

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Black-throated Divers

I spent the weekend with son Henry who was working in Stirling, and the wildlife action continued, now focused around his enormous telephoto lens rather than my kayak. While sitting in his hide at 6am it was a thrill to hear,simultaneously, a cuckoo calling on a distant hillside, a snipe drumming overhead (sounding more like a mosquito), the bubbling call of a dozen Blackcocks which were ‘lekking’ (displaying) nearby, and the honking call of a pair of divers (Red-throats I think) flying overhead. Tremendous, and well worth the effort of turfing out of bed early. And we saw a Hen Harrier.

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The forecast was wet so when I left Henry on Monday morning I opted for a circuit around Loch Tummel clad in full waterproof gear. Exciting because I was paddling new shores but otherwise grey and damp.

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Loch Tummel

I was determined to set up my tent for at least one night and although I was very aware that the further west I drove the wetter it would get, I had my eye on the southern shore of Loch Arkaig. It’s got no road access for ten miles along its shore so should feel nice and remote. I should have a decent paddle but not too far if things should ‘blow up’ (meteorologically speaking).

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Loch Arkaig

The first day started dry and quite still but gradually deteriorated into sheet rain with a fair old howling headwind. However I was not going to let it beat me so I dug in with the paddle and ploughed on, waves breaking over the deck, cheered up by the tumbling song of Willow Warblers and peep of numerous Common Sandpipers.

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Common Sandpiper taking a nap

A lucky drier interlude allowed me to pitch my tent at the mouth of a small river a couple of miles before the end of the loch, and after a brew I paddled into an even stronger headwind to the sandy beach at the head of the loch. Typical, this camping spot was better as there was a large area of short-cropped flat grass with no-one in sight. Even better, a Greenshank was piping its slightly haunting and slightly mournful song somewhere upwind not very far away. To me it is the ornithological equivalent of bagpipes.

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Camp on Loch Arkaig

No way was I going to paddle back to my tent and bring it here in these conditions, so I enjoyed the downwind run back to my camp and settled in to read my book. I emptied out a tin of catfood I had brought to lure in the local Pine Martens but needless to say it hadn’t been touched by the time I departed in the morning.

And as usual I fell asleep within five minutes of starting to read. Fortunately a Hercules passing overhead about 5 foot (or so it seemed) above my tent woke me up. But then it was time to go to bed anyway.

The next day dawned sunny and I enjoyed the twelve mile paddle back to the car. A Merlin crossed the loch high above my head and I could hear the bubbling croon of Blackcocks coming from the patch of forest more than a mile away over the water.

My next loch was Loch Ness and I had a specific purpose. I had arranged a rendezvous with a friend who was pedalling (not paddling) from Land’s End to John O’Groats at at the pub in Dores at the eastern end of the loch. I had to be there at 1pm so I thought I should set off by 5am to allow for the odd break.

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Loch Ness

Lovely sunny day, light following wind, great paddle, but virtually zero wildlife apart from two floating (and smelling)deer carcases. And limited viewing and scenic surprises as the loch is dead straight. The trees at the end of the loch which were my destination, were over the horizon when I set off.

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Loch Ness Ducklings

However it was great to see my chum Andrew plus cycling companions, and we were joined by my brother Tim who works nearby. Super pub in super location by nice beach.

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The promise of lighter winds the following day lured me down to the sea at the Moray firth, with the hope of an encounter with some of its resident Bottlenose Dolphins.

I paddled out from Ardesier on the southern shore near Fort George in glassy conditions. On approaching Chanonry Point  a distant splashing encouraged me to crank up the pace as it must have been dolphins. Sure enough they soon appeared, and as Bottlenose dolphins always do, they seemed big. This is because they are, and also because the individuals of the Moray Firth pod are reputed to be even bigger than normal as they are one of the furthest north groups in the world and need extra blubber to keep warm.

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Moray Firth Dolphins

Two outliers swam past before a group of five came past satisfactorily slowly and close to allow me a few pics. Interestingly the photographs show a sort of crease below the forehead on some of the bigger dolphins giving them the appearance of a frown, confirming perhaps that they do indeed have more blubber than some of their species that inhabit warmer climes.

I paddled a few miles up the coast of the Black Isle for lunch then back past Rosehearty beach. It was great to hear the constant cheerful call of passing terns.

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Common Tern

The dolphin watchers were out in force as I crossed back over to Ardesier. The dolphins obliged by fishing a few metres off the point for much of the afternoon….I could even see their fins through binoculars from two miles away when I got back to the car.

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Chanonry Point
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Chanonry Point dolphin watchers

My final short paddle adventure was in the rain at Loch Insh, the highlight being a couple of broods of newly hatched Goldeneye, and an Osprey.

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Goldeneye brood

Although I did break the appallingly slow and traffic laden drive back to Devon with a quick ten miles on the River Avon at Tewkesbury. Perfect, warm ,still.

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Dolphins!

This was forecast to be the last day of the cam weather in SW England before the high pressure moved away. In fact today was a bonus day because the winds were originally supposed to pick up overnight.

Despite spending virtually all day on the water yesterday I thought I’d better make the effort to go somewhere special and maybe do a bit of offshore paddling. Mount’s Bay should fit the bill nicely, with hopefully some cetacean sightings.

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Arrival at Sandy Bay

I arrived at Sandy Bay beside Newlyn harbour a bit later than I had intended. Although it’s not at all sandy it’s got a great view across the bay so I was going to have breakfast in a relaxed manner (muesli) before paddling off, while looking for marine wildlife through my binoculars.

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Sandy Bay…it’s not sandy

No chance of relaxation. Within five seconds of lifting the binoculars to my eyes and focusing on the sea a mile away off Penlee point, I was watching a large pod of Bottlenose Dolphins moving steadily across the bay towards St. Michael’s Mount. Aaargh, if only I had arrived ten minutes earlier I would have been beside them.

I got all my kayaking  stuff together in a record time (including packing muesli and milk) and went tearing off across the completely smooth water at Olympic pace. But the dolphins were gone so I throttled back and made a bee-line for St Michael’s Mount anyway. They might just be hanging around feeding somewhere.

I stopped for (late) breakfast in the middle of the bay and then cruised on. The briefest flash of sun reflected off the surface, which shouldn’t have happened because there were no waves. Just maybe it was a dolphin’s fin.  There it was again, and this time it was followed by a splash. Yes!

I cranked the speed back up to over 5 mph, and soon started to see quite a few fins appearing, together with puffs of spray. I could hear the blows. The dolphins were now heading back towards me, so I drifted to a halt and waited. As they approached I could hear the engine of the Marine Discovery catamaran coming up behind me from Penzance harbour.

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Marine Discovery Yacht

They put on a superb show right in front of us, surging about all over the place and occasionally hurling themselves right out of the water or just splashing on their sides. It was totally enthralling as there were quite a lot of them ( 15-20) and they are quite big creatures. In a kayak there is a feeling of uncertainty when they come really close.

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Bottlenose Dolphins

After a brief chat with the Marine Discovery folk, and hearing the dolphins clicking on their hydrophone, they (Marine Dicovery) continued on their way, but I stayed to see more. This is the sort of excitement that fuels my paddling muscles. (as well as the muesli)

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Bottlenose Dolphins

I spent over an hour watching them. Just me and the dolphins. They worked their way across the bay nearly to Penzance, and then came all the way back again. They accelerated past the end of St. Michael’s Mount and that is where I peeled off.

There were clearly two calves which were not only much smaller but also much paler than the rest. They led the way with the acrobatics and jumped clear of the water on several occasions. They stuck pretty close to Mum and seemed to remain in the middle of the group.

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Acrobatic adolescent dolphin

IMG_2556Two big dolphins with tall blackish fins, which I would presume to be males, patrolled around the outside of the pod like security guards.

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the ‘Security Guards’

I kept a good distance so as not to cause any disturbance, although I was expecting a posse to come over to have a look at me as Bottlenose dolphins have done in the past. A group did approach but then suddenly the whole lot disappeared, left a load of fluke prints all around my kayak, and then popped up a long way away. Maybe they saw me as some sort of threat and were protecting the calves.

I took loads of photos, most with the unexciting backdrop of Penzance industrial estate behind, but then the two bouncers appeared in front of the church (slightly better) before the whole lot passed in front of St. Michael’s Mount (a lot better).

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Bottlenose Dolphin and St. Michael’s Mount

After the dolphin encounter, I paddled across the bay past Mousehole keeping a mile offshore , saw a summer plumaged Great Northern Diver, heard a group of four porpoises puffing before I saw them, then popped in for a nose around Mousehole harbour before heading back around the corner to Sandy Bay.

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Mousehole

Maybe the best thing about Bottlenose Dolphins is their permanent smile.

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Bottlenose Dolphin

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Monumental Mullion

IMG_1528The five miles of coast between Mullion Cove and Kynance Cove is nothing short of awesome. As cliffy and intimidating as any other stretch of Cornwall.

If you were just dropped in here you would swear it was the North coast because there is always a restless sort of underlying swell, even on the calm days. It is because this southern section of the lizard peninsular sticks out beyond the protection of the Land’s End peninsular and so receives the full force of whatever is going on in the Atlantic.

It is only on the days when the swell is minimal that it is any fun to do this bit in a kayak (which is not very often). There are large sections of vertical cliff which reflect any waves and so would make it very lumpy in a larger swell, or onshore wind.

I chose a recent day with a small swell and moderate easterly wind. Even this swirled around the headlands and, as usual, seemed to spend much more time blowing in my face than from behind.

At least it was blue sky and the lack of rain over the previous few weeks made the water as clear as I think I have ever seen it.

I set off from Poldhu Cove, a perfect sandy beach a mile or so north of Mullion. Every headland around here seems to have a hotel perched right on top.

Although I have paddled this section twice before, I wasn’t quite expecting the fantastic location of Mullion Cove, squeezed into a gap in the cliffs surrounded by huge buttresses. It seemed to be bigger and better than the last occasions….probably enhanced by the sun.

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Mullion Cove

I bypassed Mullion island with a view to ‘doing’ it on the way back, and ventured round the corner to start the very committing and potentially hostile cliffy bit.

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Mullion Island

However I was soon completely absorbed in the excitement of it all (as usual) but my excitementometer suddenly lurched off the scale when I saw a fin break the water a hundred metres further out. I changed direction to observe and was thrilled to see the grey backs of a couple of Bottlenose Dolphins appear. The first ones I had seen in the UK for three years. They looked big, not surprising as they are up to five times the weight of a Common Dolphin.

Bottlenose Dolphin
Bottlenose Dolphin

I was rather hoping they would come over to ‘play’ but they didn’t, they just cruised on past at a speed that I wouldn’t be able to match.

Craggy headlands alternated with wide bays backed by tall cliffs. Ogo-dour Cove, Pot Cornick, Gew  graze and Pigeon Ogo. None of these names really bring out the friendliness and softer side of the area. IMG_1656

I nearly leapt out of my skin when an unseen seal snorted and simultaneously splashed just a few feet behind me.

After rounding ‘the Horse’ a sliver of golden sand of Kynance Cove a mile further on provided the promise of a safe haven and a target for a leg stretch. As I approached the water became progressively more turquoise and when hauling my kayak onto the sand I could well see why Kynance has the reputation of the most beautiful beach in Britain. It was high water but only a neap tide so there was still a strip of dry sand. And I had it all to myself because the state of the tide made it inaccessible to walkers. Absolutely superb. I loafed about and slurped coffee from my Thermos and munched a couple of Cookies and felt very Caribbean (apart from the drysuit and thermal underwear side of things).

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Kynance Cove

A minute or two after starting the return leg I encountered a very confiding Razorbill (still in its winter outfit) that was dipping its head underwater to look for fish even when I was only a few feet away.

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Razorbill

Before I took a circuit around Mullion island, and its pungent odour of guano, I pulled up onto another excellent strip of sand just exposed by the receding tide.

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Another ‘kayak only’ beach

Back at Poldhu the beach was a bit different to the zero number of people on it when I set off this morning at 8 am. It echoed to chatter and laughter and the sea floated surfers, paddleboarders and the odd swimmer. Pretty remarkable for mid April. And the sea is still only eleven degrees! (so the swimmers weren’t in long)

Just before I started my ‘final approach’ a seabird with a white belly sat up in the water for a quick wing flap. A Great Northern Diver in full breeding plumage! What a stunner. All the Diver species look a bit ‘plain’ in their winter dress but morph into the most fantastic designs in the summer.

Unfortunately in the only photo that was in focus the bulk of the bird’s body was hidden behind a wavelet.

Great Northern Diver
Great northern Diver

Another cracking day enhanced by the continuing Spring sunshine.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Guillemot
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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Purple Sandpiper on the Manacles

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

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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)

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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.