Mola Mola is the scientific name of the incredibly weird Ocean Sunfish. It’s a really good name because it has a tropical flavour, and it is from warmer waters that the Sunfish originates before its wanderings to the North Atlantic,and elsewhere, in the summer.
My most recent Sunfish encounter was not in the UK however. A week in Spain seemed like the perfect way to escape the exceptionally rubbish weather in the UK. It was an extreme irony therefore that we left the warmest April day yet recorded in the UK behind us in the vapour trail as we jetted out from Exeter to indifferent conditions in Southern Spain.
Upon arrival at the beach at the Costa del Sol kayaking was on hold because of the huge surf that would have done a North Cornish beach proud.
Fortunately the Mediterranean reverted to its more typical benign state after a few days so I wasted no time in heading offshore.
A mile or two offshore I spotted a large triangular-shaped fin waving about at the surface and was pretty certain it was of a Basking Shark, especially when a great blunt nose just broke the surface about four foot in front of it. However no sign of a tail left me a bit puzzled.
All other Sunfish fins I had previously seen (from smaller specimens) had been tall and spiky, so I didn’t think it was one of those.
I sneaked up to the creature in absolute silence and was pretty gobsmacked to see the bits belonged to a really huge Sunfish. The biggest I have ever seen, although they actually can get very much bigger. Sunfish are the heaviest bony fish in the world, and this would be the be the third biggest sort of fish I had met up with from my kayak, after Basking Sharks and Giant Bluefin Tuna (although because it is circular and it was difficult to estimate its length it might just nudge the Tuna into third place).
In typical sunfish style it was wallowing about just below the surface, a circular disc with a large fin at the top and bottom.
I got to a couple of feet from it, and could see its glaring eye and permanently open mouth which makes it look both startled and gormless, before it sank into the depths and disappeared.
The next morning, in glass calm conditions, I came across a staggering number of mackerel splashing at the surface, attended only by gulls which swept over the shoals and hoped to be able to grab a fish in passing. I stayed around to watch and was sure some other sea creature would be interested in the potential feast, and was just about to give up when a single dolphin showed up.
I carefully paddled after it and it was soon joined by a calf which had been adventuring off by itself. I enjoyed watching them quietly surfacing in the calm water and warm sunshine, and then they suddenly sped off to join up with a larger scattered group of about twenty more Common Dolphins.
A mini feeding frenzy of dolphins and gulls started up about a mile away so I sped towards the action but as usual it had all finished by the time I got close, and then also as usual, the dolphins all sped off to where I had just come paddled from.
The Sunfish and the Dolphins were supported by a cast of some of my favourite offshore seabirds: half a dozen ‘Bonxie’ Great Skuas, a handful of Balearic Shearwaters and a couple of Storm Petrels. Even though this is the Mediterranean these are birds you would expect to see in the Atlantic and off the coast of South West England in a couple of months time.
The only land birds coming across the sea to Southern Spain from Africa were a scattering of swallows, and surprisingly, a couple of Goshawks.
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.
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.
If you were thinking that a flat calm, scorching hot Mediterranean beach heaving with paddleboarders and buzzing with jetskis would be a wildlife desert, you would need to think again.
This sea along this section of coast, six miles east of Estepona and within sight of Gibraltar, seems to be particularly fertile. Although on this occasion Gibraltar, thirty miles away, was hidden in mist for the whole six days of our visit. Apart for about five minutes when just the top was visible.
I think it is because the tide sucks the Atlantic into the neck of the Mediterranean to just about here, and the meeting of the warm and cold waters provide a bit of a plankton bloom.
The sea state was perfect for kayaking. Virtually no wind and hardly any swell for the whole time. Just the occasional patch of fog which prompted me to always carry my GPS while paddling offshore.
On the first day I was thrilled to encounter half-a-dozen Cory’s Shearwaters carving around low over the water with their effortless almost bat-like flight. And a kayak in their path didn’t seem to worry them…they just sliced past a few feet away from me with a very slight ‘whoosh’ of their feathers. Absolutely fantastic. Every so often they would shallow plunge-dive into the sea from only a few feet up.
They shared the sea with groups of Balearic Shearwaters that were passing with a bit more purpose to get somewhere particular. And was that a Sooty Shearwater? Not easy to establish that it was all-brown because I was looking into the sun; maybe it was just a dark Balearic.
I came across a resting flock of Cory’s and Balearics a couple of miles offshore, and the five bigger shearwaters seemed to be quite happy as I drifted within yards of them.
Next morning I was out early and headed way offshore again. More shearwaters and I was very surprised to see a Bonxie getting involved with the action. (it was actually no surprise to see a Bonxie ‘in the thick of it’, because that is what Bonxies do best). I was just amazed to see one in The Mediterranean in early July when they should be up north in Scotland or Iceland. Maybe a youngster that hadn’t bothered to migrate.
While sitting about on glassy water absorbed by the seabird action I heard a series of ‘splashes’ approaching. A large number of dolphins scattered over a wide area of sea were heading towards me. They were travelling very fast and spent such a short time at the surface I really couldn’t see any markings and didn’t have a hope of a photograph. But surely Common Dolphins. At least thirty or forty, but probably a lot more.
After lunch I went for a paddle along the coast with Becky and we had soon spotted another group of dolphins, this time a lot slower, and feeding ,judging by the attendant gulls and shearwaters.
As we paddled at top speed to see them a gin-palace powerboat also saw them and adjusted course, as did a jetski…groan!
The reason they were slow is that there were a lot of calves in the group, and they were sticking like glue beside their mothers. They changed direction and swam right past us. In kayaks we represented very little threat to the dolphins but the jetski was far to keen to get his photos and chased them far too vigorously. Becky managed to scowl at the driver and, credit to him, he did back off.
We watched and had a pretty reasonable view for about fifteen minutes. The pod of about 15 then swam directly offshore, pursued by the jetski at a slightly more respectable distance. Still not good, however, because some of the calves were very small and so understandably slow.
Incredibly, we had another dolphin encounter the next day, no doubt helped by the completely smooth surface which makes seeing fins that much easier. Jake and Christina reported seeing a lone dolphin in the morning, and scanning the sea from the shore with binoculars later I saw a big-looking fin a couple of miles away. I powered towards it in the Tribord Kayak which has a pretty decent top speed (about 5 mph). However it took ages to get within naked eyeball range of the dolphin, and it was heading away from me. I watched it surface a couple of times several hundred yards ahead of me and then gave up. Fatigue.
It was a big dolphin with a prominent dorsal fin. I would think a Bottlenose but I just wondered about a Risso’s, especially as I had seen a couple of gulls finishing off some dead cuttlefish which are Risso’s dolphins favourite snack. It didn’t look grey or pale so Bottlenose looks most likely.
On the last day I glimpsed a large streamlined creature, the size of a dolphin, jumping out of the water once only. Just for a fraction of a second. Then nothing more, and nothing surfaced to breathe. I’m pretty sure it was a giant Tuna. I need to get a photo of one of these soon as this is the second time I have seen one in Spain, in addition to a similarly fleeting view of a group in Falmouth bay last autumn.
All these creatures shared the busy Mediterranean waters with numerous pleasure boats and commercial fishing boats, including large offshore trawlers whose throbbing engines provided the constant sound backdrop to the superb viewing.
Getting to the top of the UK from Holsworthy represents seven hundred miles of driving and a twelve hour ferry trip from Aberdeen to Lerwick. Just about worth it provided it was wall-to-wall wildlife action and excitement for the entire time we were there. And ideally some good conditions for kayaking so that I could experience paddling in a new location.
Remarkably Unst, Shetland’s most northerly island, is almost exactly the same latitude as southern Greenland where Hezzer and I went on a sea kayaking expedition last year. Just above 60 degrees North. No icebergs around Shetland though.
Driving up the M6 was the usual tedious and stressful challenge (bear in mind we have no traffic queues and only one set of traffic lights in Holsworthy), possibly made worse by the poor weather forecast for Shetland….strong winds and…groan…FOG.
I picked up Hezzer and Sharpy en route and by 7pm we were on the deck of the ferry scanning for sea creatures. Glimpses of porpoises and the odd Puffin, that’s all.
First day on Shetland was a bit of a struggle, especially as southern England was basking in 30 degrees and sunshine. It was windy, cold, wet and sometimes misty, sometimes foggy. But I was determined to camp. My amateurish festival-style tent might well collapse or blow away, but we were going to give it a go. We pitched it at a sort of official campsite at the marina at Brae and although it bent and distorted alarmingly it looked like it would just about survive.
We took a stroll to a sandy beach on the adjacent island of Muckle Roe and while hunkered down out of the wind an otter appeared around the headland and started to swim towards us. The wind was in our face so it would not catch our scent (if it was downwind it wouldn’t have come within sight). Hezzer got ready with his camera but before I had time to get mine out of its waterproof bag the otter appeared in the waves breaking on the shore just in front of us. It emerged from the water and without hesitation strode directly towards Hezzer who was settled on the foreshore, with a sort of ‘what are you doing on my patch?’ type attitude (the otter, not Hezzer).
It marched forward, hesitated, then continued its approach, finally stopping when it was only five paces in front of Hezzer. When it clicked what was going on it fairly rapidly, but not panickly, returned to the sea, and carried on fishing. It emerged onto the beach again a bit further on, sniffed about a bit, and then swam back to the point where it had come from.
The next couple of days involved trying not to get battered or crushed by the wind, and working our way north to the island of Unst, the most northerly part of the UK. We witnessed some superb wildlife action between Arctic Skuas and Arctic terns as the former tried to steal the latter’s lunch. Sometimes four skuas to one tern.
We camped wild one night on the west coast of Yell, and in the grounds of Gardisfauld Hostel on Unst for the remaining three. It’s got a superb view out over the sound where we saw otters, seals and all manner of seabirds. And a rainbow.
Hermaness nature reserve overlooking Muckle Flugga lighthouse is as far north as you can get in the UK. And it is staggering because of its wild west-facing coast with offshore stacks whit-topped with Gannets, as well as vast areas of moorland dotted with numerous pairs of ‘Bonxie’ Great Skuas, which were either cruising about looking for trouble (as Bonxies do) or standing about displaying by throwing their wings back and uttering a primeval gulping call that sends a shiver up your spine (in a horror movie type way).
But I do like Bonxies, they are one of my favourite seabirds. Non-birders hardly notice them because they look so scruffy.
At last, after three days, the wind dropped. It was due to stay fairly calm till lunchtime the next day, which just happened to be 21 June, the longest day of the year. I have always made an extra special effort to get up extra early on the longest day so I didn’t need much persuasion to set my alarm clock for 4am, as I was itching to go for a paddle. My Cobra Expedition kayak had travelled the best part of one thousand miles on the roof of the car to get here; it would be a pity to take it back without it getting wet (with sea water).
In fact the alarm clock was surplus to requirements because a Blackbird, which had made one of only about three bushes on the entire island its home, decided to have a bit of a sing-song to welcome in the dawn at 2.30. It did well to spot the difference between night and day because at this latitude there is not a lot of difference and you can still just about read a book in the darkest part of the night.
I was all packed up and on the water by 3.40am. My earliest start ever on a kayaking trip. And was very excited because early means otters.
Less than a minute of paddling along the glass calm water in front of Gardisfauld Hostel I heard a cat yowling from the undergrowth and saw an otter hopping about amongst the rocks. Obviously not the cat’s best chum. This was followed a couple of minutes later by another (otter, not cat), also on the shore, which was an unusually pale individual.
I crossed the sound over to the island of Uyea as a couple of Red-throated Divers (Rain Geese as they are called in Shetland) arrived from their freshwater loch for breakfast in the sea, striking the water at speed breast-first with quite a splash. The sound of their honking calls as birds shuttled backwards and forwards to their breeding areas in the hills, was more or less continuous all morning.
There was a lot of honking which apparently means there is going to be a lot of rain. ‘They’ were right.
Another singleton otter as I arrived at the shore of Uyea and then I heard a piercing otter ‘whistle’ followed by a bit of a chatter as an otter on a rock communicated to its mate which was following some distance behind. All a bit too dark for photos as it wasn’t even four o’clock!
As it brightened I had an excellent prolonged view of an otter fishing in front of me. I followed it along at a safe distance and watched as it emerged onto a rock to munch its way through a butterfish in a typical noisy, mouth open, crunchy otter way. And a half decent photograph.
As I emerged out of the shelter of the island around the more exposed east-facing shore of Uyea the otters were replaced by Grey Seals and a few small groups of Black Guillemots which were uttering their high-pitched whistling calls, one of which sounded more like a Great Tit.
As I rounded a headland the golden sandy beach of Sand Wick came into view, but before stretching my legs on the sand, I took a diversion up the narrow inlet of the Ham of Muness. A bottling seal, noisy Arctic tern colony and Fulmars nesting on an old building kept me entertained, but as soon as I saw an otter swimming directly towards me I took evasive action before it detected me and paddled round in a huge circle and tucked in to the shore, hoping it would swim right past. I held on to a flat rock on the shore and got my camera ready. The otter appeared, swimming quite happily, and then dived. The trail of bubbles approached, went under the front of my kayak, and the otter momentarily climbed out of the water onto the flat rock, close enough to touch. In an instant and a splash of water it was gone.
I felt a built guilty about upsetting this otter but I was actually stationary and the otter came to me, I wasn’t chasing it around.
At the headland I had the briefest view of a porpoise surfacing once, the only cetacean I was to see in Shetland.
I downed a king-sized Bakewell Tart (from Baltasound Bakery) on Sand Wick while a trio of Red-Throated Divers came close into the shallows.
After my pit-stop just as I was leaving the beach Hezzer and Sharpy appeared over the horizon so I stopped to have a word with them, watching the terns fishing in the bay.
Then it was back the way I had come, this time including a circuit of the small island of Half Gruney in the itinerary. I was a bit surprised to pass a lone Sanderling on the exposed rocks; they are usually faithful to beaches.
After an excellent encounter with three incredibly approachabl Arctic Terns on the way back, I arrived back at Gardisfauld at midday after an eight hour 20 plus mile paddle…my first in Shetland. And six otters….five before 5am…..that’s another first!
The rain, and wind, arrived later in the day and the tent buckled and tent poles splintered. During the night I frequently got a faceful of canvas but we all kept dry and the tent stayed essentially tent-shaped (thanks to a roll of Gorilla tape).
Our final day was spent with a steady drive back down the island chain to the ferry terminal at Lerwick, and a warm (!) sunny afternoon seawatching at Sumburgh Head, hoping for the Orca pack to appear. Needless to say it didn’t, but we had superb views of Puffins and both species of skua. Hezzer glimpsed a Minke Whale far,far out but I failed to spot it.
That was it. Fairwell to Shetland.
It was such a pleasant evening as the ferry crept across Lerwick harbour, the kayakers and paddleboarders were out in their boardshorts.
Despite the windchill from the speed of the ferry I stayed out on deck for several hours. A big swirl at the surface close by was confirmed to be a Minke whale by the only other few people left on the deck who saw it before it dived. I must have missed seeing the actual creature by less than a hundredth of a second. Probably the same one Hezzer had seen from the shore, as we were passing Sumburgh Head.
That would have been the icing on what was already a pretty good cake.
One of my personal rules about kayaking is that I spend at least as long on the water as the car journey it took to get there.
This is the first time I think I have failed, and failed in a spectacular fashion. Twenty-five to thirty hours in the car for eight hours on the water. Crikey.
Time to get back to Devon and put in some hours on my local patch.
We spent four days on the Costa del Sol, based halfway between Estepona and Puerto Banus. From the beach the extraordinary Rock of Gibraltar is usually visible thirty miles away to the southwest sticking out like a sole molar from the gappy gum of Andalucia.
The weather forecast for the first couple of days was exceptional for mid March, even for Spain. Sunny, hot, and most importantly for a kayaker, hardly a breath of wind. Perfect for the paddle to Gibraltar.
I was using a RTM Disco kayak, a really excellent sit-on-top that is quite narrow (26″) so licks along and is effectively a mini sea kayak. It cuts through the water a bit better than the slightly fatter sit-on-tops, and with no ‘hull-slap’.
It was completely dark when I set off at 6.30 (Spanish time). I stopped for breakfast on the beach at Estepona soon after sunrise and ladled on the factor 50 suncream. And then ladled on a load more.
The sea was so calm and flat and benign that I decided to cut directly across the bay to Gibraltar 23 miles away, which would take me several miles offshore so hopefully meet up with a sea creature or two.
I was nearly too far out to see a small school of Common dolphins between me and the coast. I adjusted course slightly to intercept and then paddled along beside them for about a mile, only just able to keep up as their cruising speed is four to five mph.
It was a school of about a dozen , with a couple of small calves sticking very close to their mother’s side the whole time, and breathing when they did. The water was oily calm and with the slab of Gibraltar as a backdrop it was quite an experience. Eventually they swung offshore and I resumed my course.
The kayak-fishermen off the headlands were not particularly friendly, saying, in perfect English, that they did not speak English. I think they considered me a threat to their fishing even though I quite clearly had no rods.
I had my passport tucked away in a drybag just in case I was stopped by one of the many customs/police boats zipping about.
As I crossed from Spanish water into Gibraltar a dark shape at the surface several hundred metres away caught my eye. I initially thought it was inanimate and nearly didn’t bother with it until it flopped half-heartedly. It turned out to be a fin belonging to a really big Sunfish, by far the biggest I have ever seen.
Sunfish are the biggest bony fish in the world (so excluding sharks and rays, which are cartilaginous), and it wasn’t quite a record breaker, but must have been four foot across. I sneaked up on it silently and managed a few underwater pics as it very slowly and reluctantly sunk into the depths. They really are the most bizarre design.
After 31 miles and ten hours paddling I rolled up at Catalan beach , Gibraltar.Feeling fairly pooped, and a bit burnt where the copious quantities of suncream didn’t reach.
Back along the coast near Estepona, the next day was equally sunny and still ,so I headed offshore. I was a bit surprised to come across half a dozen Great Skuas (aka Bonxies)which really do not seem to be suited to the calm waters and busy, built-up coast of Southern Spain. They are surely more suited to a windblasted patch of bogland above a wavetorn Scottish coast.
Some were cruising about with that alarming sense of purpose, and enormous potential power. Some were resting on the water.
I saw half a dozen more the next day, and wonder whether they actually winter here as they seemed quite at home and not just passing through (although I’m not sure quite how they would look different if they WERE just passing through). Maybe, like us, they were on holiday.
I really like Bonxies and they might just be my favourite seabird. I’m not sure why as their plumage is sludge brown and they always look a bit scruffy. But they are never boring and to see them accelerate in to intercept a tern or a kittiwake or a gannet to make it disgorge is breathtaking.
The birding was complemented by a dozen or so Balearic Shearwaters zipping past, and a couple of Adouin’s gulls to dilute the monopoly of the hefty Yellow-legged Gulls (that are the size of a Greater Black-back).
The final day in Spain was absolutely awful: rain, wind and cold. Couldn’t have been more British. Time to head home.