A 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.
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.
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.
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.
There were a couple of youngsters in the group who didn’t want to miss out on all the excitement.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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)
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.
Two big dolphins with tall blackish fins, which I would presume to be males, patrolled around the outside of the pod like 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).
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.
Maybe the best thing about Bottlenose Dolphins is their permanent smile.
The 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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
Another cracking day enhanced by the continuing Spring sunshine.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
And an excellent Barrel Jellyfish in the clear waters off Swanpool beach.
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)
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).
With a weather forecast exceptional for early April I couldn’t resist a beefy offshore paddle across the relatively quiet waters of the south coast of Cornwall east of Falmouth.
I set off from the beautiful sandy beach at Carne in the heart of Gerrans Bay. It has parking close to the beach, a slipway….and it is free! There are only a few parking spaces however, which tend to rapidly fill with dog walkers, so you’ve got to get there early.
Gerrans Bay is possibly the best site in Cornwall (and probably the whole of SW England) for wintering sea ducks and Divers, and there were still plenty on show today. Great Northern Divers do not seem to hurry north to their breeding grounds in the Spring, and of the fifteen to twenty I saw today only a couple were in their smart summer plumage. Some were still in their winter outfits, most in transitional moult.
Several uttered their querulous contact call which for some reason always sends a shiver up my spine. It is a true sound of the wilderness,
At Nare Head I swung south and dug in for a ten mile open sea stretch to a giant bulk carrier ship anchored in Falmouth Bay. It provided a good target and kept me over a mile offshore so I might see a dolphin.
More Divers and lots of small groups of Guillemots which were also in a variety of plumages. Some were pretty tame.
It was more or less windless so I heard the puff of a porpoise clearly. I surfaced quite close and popped up a couple more times as it went on its way. It was probably the biggest porpoise I have ever seen and I looked hard at it because I thought it might be something different. Definitely a porpoise-like triangular fin but it just seemed very stout with quite a broad back, and was moving with unusual purpoise for a porpoise (!). Mmmm.
I crossed the mouth of Carrick Roads and approached the mighty ship which was closer to the Helford River than I had thought.
The guy with the hard hard wandering around on the deck returned my greeting with an uncertain wave as he seemed a bit surprised to see me out there.
I slungshot around the Cape Veni and again dodged the many craft entering and exiting Falmouth, and headed for the beach at Porthbeor for lunch. I had it entirely to myself.
Then it was offshore again to cross the mouth of Gerrans Bay, and a loop around Gull Rock. A few Gannets smacked into the water in front of me, sending a plume of spray up always higher than you would think.
Back past Nare head again for the final leg. Nare head always cricks your neck because it is a particularly spectacular promontory that demands close scrutinisation.
I was thrilled to hear the musical call of a Chough which was prodding about with typical restlessness on the cliff, before floating off around the corner. Fab.
I exited the water after an eight hour 22 mile trip. Had a chat with a few more dog walkers (and there dogs), and off for a McDonalds drive thru. Large Chicken Legend Meal (mayo, large Coke), followed by Strawberry Sundae. The perfect day
Much as I love footling about miles from the shore on a calm summer’s day with shearwaters and maybe the odd Storm Petrel zipping past, there are some cracking birds to encounter in SW England that arrive from the far north to spent the colder months around the coast. Ducks, divers, grebes and scoters. The shearwaters and petrels have gone.
And these winter ducks tend not to be quite so far offshore as the summer seabirds, which is handy because when the weather and water are cold I find offshore paddling a bit more intimidating. Even better, they seem to prefer sheltered bays as I suspect they dislike being battered by wind and waves as much as I do.
I just about managed to get my camera out of my dry bag as a couple of Long-tailed Ducks flew directly past me during a jaunt to Teignmouth. Not particularly spectacular to look at (although they are when in breeding plumage) but a favourite amongst birders as they are quite rare.
I encountered some of my favourite coastal birds at the tip of Nare Head in Southern Cornwall. Purple Sandpipers. Funnily enough they are only at home skipping about on barnacle-encrusted wave-pounded rocks, generally in fully exposed locations, so they buck the shelter-seeking trend. They are incredibly easy to overlook and I very nearly missed them despite paddling past only a few feet away.
The birdworld winter king of the coast must be the Great Northern Diver (bad name). Called the Common Loon (good name) in America. They are the most widespread visiting Diver and probably the commonest. Their penchant for flatfish and crabs means they are often close to the shore. But it was a bit of a surprise to find one right outside the entrance to Padstow.harbour.
This was the tamest Loon out of many hundred I have observed from a kayak. It busily fished in the strong tidal current as I drifted around watching. Absolutely fantastic. It had to dodge out of the way of the Padstow to Rock ferry but didn’t seem at all fussed.
I thought cetacean watching was just about finished for the season.It’s definitely what REALLY gives me a buzz from a kayak but quite a challenge to achieve because not only is the season quite short, conditions suitable for heading out to see them on a flimsy sliver of plastic are patchy.Especially on the swell exposed North Cornwall coast.
I have had my eye on a paddle around Padstow bay and its offshore islands all year because I know it is quite productive for marine life, but have so far been put off by the relentlessly lumpy sea conditions. To make it non-worrying and fun, and to make spotting the fins of cetaceans easier, I would be looking for a swell of less than two foot and a wind of less than 10 mph. Bingo! The forecast for both the 30 Nov and 1 Dec were perfect. Blooming cold but pure sunshine and little wind or swell.
On the first day chum Dave and I paddled the coast between Rock and Trevone past several miles of vertical black exposed cliff which managed to be quite bumpy even in the calm conditions.
My son Henry who was observing from a clifftop at Stepper point reported seeing a couple of ‘big splashes’ a mile offshore towards Gulland Rock. Mmmmm, what on earth might they be…dolphins? whales?
My curiosity was ignited so on the second day I planned a thirteen mile circuit around Padstow Bay from Harlyn up to the mouth of the River Camel, then around Gulland Rock and straight down to the ‘Quies’ rocks off Trevose Head, then back to Harlyn. Using my Cobra Expedition kayak.
This would involve eight or nine miles of offshore paddling so I was hopeful of meeting up with one of the splashy things.
It was below freezing as I paddled out but the sun soon got to work to thaw out my toes. A grey seal was fast asleep ‘bottling’ a couple of miles out and clearly not expecting to be disturbed…it crash-dived with a mighty splash.
A couple of miles north of Gulland Rock three fast-moving fins slashed the surface. I think I glimpsed the yellow side of a Common Dolphin but was not certain…they could just have been porpoises on a hunting ‘surge’.
It was calm enough for me to hear the characteristic ‘piff’ of a group of nine Puffing Pigs (aka Harbour Porpoises) long before I saw them. A good prolonged view as they swam away and then came back.
I assumed another ‘puff’ behind me was also a porpoise, but was very pleased to see a largish looking solo dolphin passing at a leisurely speed. I tore after it but although I was paddling like a demon in a flurry of white water, the dolphin increased the distance between us even though it looked as though it was having the cetacean equivalent of a Sunday afternoon stroll. Of course I always keep well away so as not to disturb any of these superb creatures, but this is often academic as they frequently come over to check you out (although this one didn’t).
The photograph I took of this dolphin confused me a bit as it seemed to show a pale flank patch and I started to get excited about the possibility of a White-sided Dolphin, but guidance from the folk at Seawatch confirm it as a Common Dolphin.
Anyway, dolphins and porpoises from a kayak in December. Fab.
The tide helped with crossing the open water to the fangs of rock off Trevose Head. This really is a sinister place and I got the impression it is not friendly to kayaks very often. In fact I would go so far as to say it is even more ‘exposed feeling’ than Land’s End. I have only ever paddled past here twice before.
I was quite pleased to get round into the shelter of Mother Ivey’s Bay, and the very impressive lifeboat station, before the easy paddle back to Harlyn.
I was sorry to miss out on Henry’s remarkable cetacean sighting while he was perched on top of the cliffs photographing peregrine falcons at Morwenstowe in North Cornwall. He observed a harbour porpoise which was entirely white!
This is apparently ultra rare and there have only been fifteen or so such sightings in the last century. The porpoise-loving fraternity got very excited. My attempts to go and see it by kayak were thwarted by strong winds (surprise,surprise). Another entry for my bucket list for next year!