A long-arranged day’s kayaking with Jeremy and Jane was looking good with very light wind and decent temperature for early October, so the open sea coast was our destination.
We started off at Looe.
Out into the open sea we headed directly offshore, stopping to take in the glass smooth surface and clear water…….and up popped Nudger the seal between our two kayaks.
We didn’t go to him. he came to us. So for a little while, we enjoyed the extraordinary encounter.
He worked his way round all four of us kayakers, clearly hoping for a fishy handout.
It was smiles all round (although maybe not from Nudger who failed to get any seal-type snacks) but we eventually dragged ourselves away and paddled off at top speed. However Nudger had not finished with us and followed in our slipstream, tugging at the skeg on Becky’s and my kayak and pulling at the toggle on Jeremy and Jane’s.
It was only when we came into the territory of a big bull seal that Nudger suddenly disappeared.
Wow, a good start to our wildlife watching trip.
We paddled out to sea in a big arc with Polperro our destination for lunch. A single Balearic Shearwater was an unexpected bonus although you probably have to be a bit of a birder to fully appreciate them, as to the non-birder they are disappointingly smudgy brown, and usually distant, and easy to overlook.
Just before we swung into Polperro, about a mile and-a-half offshore, there were a handful of Gannets circling and occasionally plunging. I was certain there would be a porpoise around and one duly appeared with a very satisfactory ‘piff’. It put on a fantastic show as we just sat and watched surfacing so close we could hear it inhaling as well as the main exhalation blast. A kayaking first for Becky and Jane.
We scorched into Polperro as all the wildlife excitement had seriously delayed our lunch. As fast as you can go in an inflatable double kayak (with a bit of a leak) anyway.
Lunch was taken on the wall of the super-quaint village of Polperro.
The day of wildlife was nicely rounded off with a distant peregrine scorching across the horzon, and a couple of Kingfishers fishing up the hidden creeks of the Looe estuary.
There can’t be a more scenic coastal paddle around SW England. You might even be pushed to find a better one in the whole of the UK.
I have said before that, for Boscastle to be enjoyable, the wind must be light and swell less than two foot. On the exposed North Cornwall coast this doesn’t happen very often so it is very special when it does, and even better when the sky is as cloudless and deep blue as it was today.
My plan for today was to paddle up the coast to the north, head offshore and catch a ride on the ebbing tide down to Tintagel, and then coast-hop back to Boscastle Harbour.
The wildlife watching got off to a good start with my first Purple Sandpiper of the autumn resting on the rocks, looking very plump. Excellent little birds…their niche is wave-pounded, barnacle-encrusted, coastal rocks.
I couldn’t resist investigation a few of the many caves, but felt very nervous as I was by myself and I am not at all comfortable in the dripping, dank, darkness. I have never been hot on speliology. Even so, it would have been unacceptable to pass by the enormous cavern of Seal’ Hole Cave.
Much more my style was the escort of seals that accompanied me for the next mile or so. I was careful not to disturb the seals hauled out on the small beaches, which included a few fat, white pups which resembled monster maggots, as well as one which looked newborn. (Photos taken with 10x lens at over 200 yards).
Diverting well offshore I was, as usual, hopeful of a dolphin/porpoise encounter but the open sea was completely quiet today. Virtually nothing. Just this Guillemot.
A couple of seals, however, were intent on ensuring I didn’t get bored. They followed me for the best part of an hour. I glimpsed a tag on the flipper of one which means it had been rescued by Gweek seal sanctuary further down in Cornwall.
In every direction here the scenery is BIG.
I stopped for lunch at a rocky beach in Bossiney Bay. My kind of place….not a hint of human existence (apart from the caravans you can just make out on the top of the hill on the right).
After rounding Long island, which was looking more precipitous and craggy than ever, I ran into the only other group of kayakers I have ever met along this section of coast, apart from my own paddling companions.
I was also surprised to catch a glimpse of a ghostly white Barrel Jellyfish floating past beneath me, the first I have seen for several months. They are mainly a Spring species.
Just before re-entering the haven of Boscastle Harbour I enjoyed watching a young Herring Gull whose persistence at hunting the low water mark had paid off in the shape of a starfish (even though it looked a bit knobbly, and chewy).
And appropriately, to finish of a day with a lot of seals, this slumbering pup did not so much as open an eye as I slipped silently past. It was the picture of relaxation.
Looe Harbour is not the sort of place I would expect to come across a Red-throated Diver, or any Diver at all for that matter. They are birds of the open sea and usually quite shy so the narrow confines of Looe Harbour with all its human-related activity is not really their scene.
So my eyes did a double-take when I approached what looked like a Diver close to the harbour wall just past the fish quay. As I got ‘up sun’ I was amazed to sea it was a Red-Throat and even more amazed, and thrilled, to see it was still in its stunning breeding plumage.
More remarkable was that it was busy diving and fishing along the foot of the harbour wall with people chatting and walking about a few feet above it. As I drifted carefully closer it was unconcerned and remained intent on feeding, speeding about underwater and often emerging with a small fish in its beak.
At on stage it emerged from a dive just a couple of feet away from my kayak….absolutely extraordinary.
It worked its way out past the end of the breakwater and then drifted out into the open sea off Looe’s main beach and started to have a bit of a brush up. Eric the resident Eider drifted past fast asleep a little bit further out……two birds which should be more at home in the far north, relaxing just off the beach in sunny southern Cornwall.
I joined in with the downtime and supped a coffee and munched an orange club as the Diver busily preened twenty yards away.
It suddenly finished its makeover and set off back to the harbour entrance to hunt some more fry.
I departed and set off west along the coast. Half-a-mile before Polperro I met a diver called Dave who had just emerged from the water having spent forty-five minutes on the bottom of the sea looking for the wreck of the ‘Albemarle’, an East Indiaman that went down during a storm in 1708. Dave is hoping to find its lost treasure and has so far been looking for a year, and certainly spent a bob or two on his project . Fantastic, what an exciting enthusiasm to have…good luck Dave. Here he is:
Polperro was as quaint as ever and lots of tourists were milling about and walking very slowly. One had unfortunately taken a tumble and was being attended by paramedics.
I looped round Looe island on the way back to have a chat with ‘Nudger’ the very inquisitive young seal that climbed onto my kayak a couple of months ago. Unfortunately no ‘Nudger’ but lots of his compatriates were draped about on the rocks.
Upon arrival back at Looe I was staggered to see the Red-throated Diver still busily chasing fish around in the shallows. I had expected it to have moved on to the open sea which is the more typical hunting ground for Red-throats.
They have always been one of my favourite UK birds since I saw my first one, at very long range, beside a Loch in Scotland having spent hours trying to locate the source of the weird wailing call floating over the water. Their American name is Red-throated Loon, and their calls are suitably loon-like.
Some spend the winter along the Cornish coast but today’s sighting is exceptional because most overwintering birds are in their rather drab winter plumage, and most are far out to sea. Also they are more common along the North coast and not very numerous at all along the south. To see one in full summer plumage at a range of only a few yards is remarkable wherever the location. I wonder if this is one of those birds that comes from such a remote location somewhere around the arctic circle that it has never come across anything resembling a human before, and so has no fear. The Little Auk that climbed aboard my kayak a few years ago would fall into the same category.
I was certainly in the right place at the right time today.
After several major offshore paddles recently, to Eddystone, Dodman Point and Tintagel, a downturn in the weather forced The Lone Kayaker to a return to coastal paddling.
Although I find being far out to sea the most exciting environment for paddling, with the possibility of a whale appearing at any second, following the shore is more interesting from a scenery point of view. Also there are more boats and people to look at, if that is your thing. Maybe even 007 himself……
Or watching some poor devil getting a ticket because he was parked slightly on the grass because the carpark was completely full.
Out along the coast there is always something to maintain the attention in the ornithological department. For example, incessantly piping Oystercatchers,
stands of reptilian-looking shags resting on the offshore rocks,
and a handful of very confiding Turnstones creeping about amongst the barnacles. Beautiful little birds, but extraordinarily difficult to spot amongst the acres of rocks exposed at low tide.
As I was watching the Turnstone a seal popped up beside me with a snort. I was pretty sure it was the same individual that had climbed onto my kayak a couple of weeks ago…a smallish Grey Seal with the look and behaviour of a youngster. It wasted no time in checking me out and then starting to sniff the deck of my kayak, probably looking for a snack. You will see from this video that it once again appears to be excited and playful and throws its head about a bit while working out what to do.
(p.s ignore the date stamp….havn’t got to grips with GoPro fully.)
In anticipation of its next move I paddled alongside a rock and hung on tight, and sure enough the seal decided to hop on board. Hardcore science types would say that this action is purely motivated by food, and indeed the seal did do a lot of sniffing about and close inspection of my dry bag on the back deck, which contained nothing more stimulating to the appetite than some moderately stale Custard Creams. However watching the seal’s behaviour closely, I am sure that a bit of horsing about was involved.
It finished off with an inverted swimpast.
It was then joined by a pale-coloured friend and they had a bit of an introductory twirl.
Other larger and maybe wiser members of the group watched from a distance, and I made sure I didn’t approach too close to frighten them into the water, so took a long loop around the reef out to sea when I moved on.
Only the friendly seal came along to accompany me, porpoising along beside the kayak and bumping into the rudder regularly. At one stage a gull flew over about six foot above the seal’s head and the seal playfully snapped at the bird.
It got even more excited when a local tourist boat appeared round the corner and it benefited from a handout in the shape of a mackerel.
As I paddled across the bay the seal eventually disappeared and I reverted to admiring the shore-based wildlife. A juvenile Buzzard on top of the cliff was constantly whining at it’s unseen parents. This is the main soundtrack of the countryside at this time of the year when all other birds have largely fallen silent.
I pulled up on a tiny beach for a coffee break and as I did so a Kingfisher flashed past with a whistle, and a flash of orange and brilliant turquoise. This was the first one I have seen on the open coast this summer, presumably a bit of post-breeding dispersal as they nest in holes along river banks. It was a typical fleeting view, summed up quite nicely by this indistinct photo:
And so back to something resembling civilisation, and the buzz of the beach.
The last nugget of wildlife before I got back to the slipway was a Little Egret hunting little fish as the tide surged in.
This seal is just larking about. I’m fairly certain of this because I had been watching it closely for the previous half-an-hour. Or more accurately, it had been watching me.
As usual my very early start had paid off and I had the opportunity to observe the scattered group of Grey Seals without the disturbance of any other craft.
First chance to use the GoPro:
This particular, very pale seal, swam around the kayak for several minutes and then lost interest and cleared off.
As I paddled on another seal took up the batten and started to shadow me. I stopped to watch and it just cavorted about in a patch of bootlace seaweed, snorting, splashing and twisting round in the weed. When it surfaced, only a few feet from my kayak, it had the cheeky look of a puppy wanting someone to throw its ball. It kept eyeing me up sideways and then hurling itself into the water.
It was like a dog whose owner has just come back having been shut up all day.
There was no way that it wasn’t extremely excited, possibly because I was the first boat of the day on its patch with which it could interact.
This next clip which is not that easy to see shows the seal rolling itself in bootlace weed. I can’t think of any other reason to do this apart from just horsing around in excitement.
It then tucked in behind me as I paddled along, every so often bumping the bottom of my kayak or grabbing the rudder. Half of the time it was upside down and apparently just loving life.
Or maybe it was overexcited about the stunt which it was about to pull.
I stopped to watch the show as I have never been bumped about so much by any sea creature. In fact the only thing that has impacted my kayak before was a huge Basking Shark about eight years ago.
This seal is not only fun-loving, it would seem to be very clever. Look into its eyes and you can see a bit of friendly mischief, and the shove of its flipper is absolutely perfectly aimed to soak as much of me as possible:
I have cut out the expletive from the end of the video as the splash completely drenched my moderately expensive and completely unwaterproof camera.
As I was frantically trying to dry the camera with a pathetic little bit of soggy tissue I found in the bottom of my camera bag, the seal swam round to the front of my kayak for its Grand Finale.
To my total amazement it hauled itself out on the front of my boat with absolutely no sign of fear or hesitation. As it pumped with its tail to get further out of the water my kayak wobbled but my number one aim was to take a pic or two, although after a while I did try to reason with it that it was in danger of tipping me out.
Falling in would not be a problem because I use a sit-on-top kayak and can just climb back on, but I would not be happy about dunking my camera in the sea. I would then need a bit more than a soggy piece of kitchen towel to resurrect it.
The seal just would not leave me alone so I engaged top gear for the paddle back to the shore. This seemed to spur it on even more, but at last it gave up as I approached the town.
So it’s not just dolphins that seem to enjoy themselves so much.
Although the otter catching and eating the crab was by far my best wildlife encounter during my five days in the Arisaig area of Western Scotland, there was plenty else going on in the natural history section.
Not least the five trillion midges that came over to pester me one still and warm evening. What sort of a creature is it that deliberately flies into your eyeball and voluntarily gets blinked to death? In their thousands. Their friends in the itch depatment are ticks several of which, despite my best efforts to avoid them, managed to find their way into various cracks and crevices about my person.
More of a threat to wildlife was the two Mink I briefly saw. Despite being very fluffy and floating high on the water they are adept swimmers and seem to dive as well as an otter.
I would have been disappointed not to see an Eagle and ended up with two. Sea Eagles are so incredibly huge that if one is around you really have to be pretty daft not to see it (or eyes down on your phone…..again). One was being pestered by Gulls on the south side of the Arisaig peninsular, the second sat in a tree at loch Moidart.
The half dozen or so Great Northern Divers I saw were all nearly in full summer plumage. I’m not sure whether these are non-breeding birds that spend the summer here or that they are winter visitors that still havn’t headed north. I suspect most will soon depart.
A pair of Red-throated Divers were fishing in the sea in front of my tent at Peanmeanach beach and flew back to their loch in the hills calling in classic, honking, ‘Rain Goose’ (their Shetland name) style. There was no rain in the forecast however, and I suspect they got this name in Shetland because it rains much of the time and there are a lot of breeding Red-throats there.
Trying hard to compete with the divers for snappiness of plumage were the Black Guillemots. I really like these busy little birds (although their movements verge on frantic) and unlike their southern cousins they have an extraordinary high-pitched whistle as a call note. A good sound for carrying distance on a windy day. In the video the second bird hasn’t quite finished moulting out of its winter plumage. (video)
The islands in Loch na Ceal near Arisaig hosted a lot of birds and the still and sunny weather enhanced the atmosphere. The main soundtrack came from the Oystercatchers. If they didn’t have such charisma I might be tempted to say what an appalling din. (video)
A pair of Common Terns looked like they were checking out somewhere to nest,
and a rather smart looking Common Gull was busy incubating her eggs beside a bouquet of Sea Pink. (could be a ‘he’ I suppose). Incidentally ‘Common Gull’ is a very bad name for what is NOT the most Common gull and is in fact an extremely neat and attractive bird.
I know it’s ‘only’ a seagull but I had to insert this video because I love the way the Gull settles back down to incubate its eggs so proudly and cosily with a contented shuffle and waggle of its tail. (video)
A pair of Ringed Plovers were a bit agitated as I passed so I guess they were nesting as well. They got a lot more stressed when a Great Black-backed Gull turned up with bird’s eggs on the menu for lunch.
Arisaig’s most prominent residents are the Harbour Seals. There are a lot of them and they drape themselves about on low flat islets and their bawls and grunts carry far over the water. They enjoy nothing more than following kayakers in large numbers and diving with a splash. They are rather more photogenic than Cornwall’s Grey Seals, and have a more dished cat-like face. (video)
I saw one Grey Seal in amongst a colony at the mouth of Loch Moidart. It had a whitish blaze across its head.
A trip to Scotland would not be complete without a Red Deer and I would have been surprised not to see one…..
but I certainly wasn’t expecting to see quite so many (tens of thousands) Moon jellyfish wafting about in the clear waters of Loch Sunart. Accompanied by a few Lion’s mane and small white jellies with very long tentacles.
The other wildlife highlight of my early morning paddle on the smooth waters of Lochs Sunart and Teacuis was the sound of birds with the songs of Blackcaps, Willow and Wood Warblers drifting down from the deciduous woods on the bank. Plus the occasional Tree Pipit and ‘zip, zip’ of a Spotted Flycatcher. Didn’t see any of them . Plus the odd Cuckoo, which I did see. I could hear one calling from over a mile away.
The rarest bird I saw was not the most glamorous and a bit specialist to the ornithologist. This iceland Gull was hanging around the fish farm on Sunart.
It was so still most of the time that I could here the ‘coos’ of these Eiders long before I could see them.
It was time to head for home, a mere 650 miles away.