It’s taken a long time. Tens of thousands of miles paddled and thousands of hours on the water. But today I feel I have passed my apprenticeship as a member of the sea beast society. They seem to have taken me as one of their own.
I was hugging the coast to keep out of the wind (as usual) approaching Pentewan beach in South Cornwall when a seal burst out of the water with a loud snort a couple of feet behind me. As usual it made me jump out of my skin and as usual I cricked my neck while turning round to have a look. It was a buff-coloured adolescent grey seal.
I wasn’t that surprised when it shadowed me, constantly diving and surfacing close nearby, but wasn’t expecting it to keep it up for over a mile.
I presumed it would lose interest as I weaved in and out of the bathers, speedboats, paddleboards, jetskis and kayaks along the beachfront at Pentewan, but was gobsmacked when it ignored all these other distractions and swam along beside my kayak like a puppy on a lead. Even more remarkable was that only a handful of the hundreds of people on the beach noticed it.
It was still there twenty minutes later as I approached Mevagissey, surfacing , splashing and hurling itself about without a care in the world. It was noticed by a boatful of (unsuccessful) fishermen and a couple of kayakers, who took snaps as the two of us sped past.
Why was I selected? Was it an unseen bond between two finely-tuned marine marvels, or was it that my wetsuit trousers were overdue for a rinse?
The seal kept displaying its fine set of teeth so I threw it a wedge of my Waggonwheel (superb value at £1 for six in Holsworthy Coop, using my new Coop card), but it wasn’t interested. Clearly no appreciation of a good deal.
By the time I had arrived at the entrance to Mevagissey harbour the seal and I were firm friends and I expected the large crowd of onlookers to be staggered by the man meets wild creature sort of thing, but unfortunately it suddenly disappeared and I was left bereft. I didn’t see it again.
So I finished off my Waggonwheel, sat around the harbour for a bit, and paddled back.
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.
What is going on? Yet another sunny day on the North Cornwall coast with no incoming swell. Not good if you are a surfer, but absolutely brilliant if you are a sea kayaker who has a penchant for cetaceans and likes to venture as far offshore as possible.
The sandy Camel estuary between Rock and Padstow was looking stunning in the sunshine of the late April morning. And the water was as clear as I have ever seen, no doubt due to the virtual absence of rain over the last month, and helped by the fact that the sea life hasn’t ‘got going’ yet. The plankton bloom is yet to kick off, resulting in increased cloudiness known as ‘ May Water’ (or so I have been told).
Having said that, the plankton IS already evident on the south Cornwall coast and a couple of Basking Sharks have been sighted in the Falmouth area hoovering it all up.
The two mile paddle to the mouth of the Camel estuary was a treat. It is over a shallow sandy bottom so the sea look positively Caribbean. The shoreline was dotted with early morning dog-walkers and their rampaging pets. Migrating shorebirds such as Whimbrels have a tough time finding a secluded beach on which to gather themselves for their onward journey, as every available patch of sand seems to come with a marauding dog.
This is the Whimbrel time of year. Whimbrels have the tremendous (if a bit unimaginative) old name of ‘Seven Whistler.’ Its characteristic piping call consisting of seven identical notes is one of the sounds of Spring on the open coast. There is a doomladen old saying which relates to the call of Whimbrel migrating overhead in the dark. It describes the ‘six birds of fate’ which fly about at night seeking their lost companion. When all seven are united, according to the story, the world will end.
Why can’t the ending describe them all being thrilled to get together again and going off for an all-night party?
Daymer Bay was absolute glass which made gliding over the turquoise water even more of a thrill.
It was marginally less smooth after I had crossed the Doom Bar and passed into the open sea around Stepper Point. I couldn’t resist a photo of the moon behind the chimney at the point. I made directly for Gulland rock a couple of miles offshore towards Trevose Head.
My intention was to slingshot around the island of Gulland Rock and then paddle north around the back of Newlands Rock and then on around ‘the Mouls’, before returning back past Rumps point and Pentire Head to Polzeath Bay.
I have never done this circuit involving all the three islands of Padstow Bay. Its the usual problem of wind and swell on theNorth Cornish coast not making for favourable paddling conditions on the day I would like to go.
But not so today! It was perfect.
The stench of guano from Gulland Rock assailed my nostrils half-a-mile before I got close, and I started to pass little groups of Razorbills and Guillemots as I rounded the southern tip of the rock.
I was a bit surprised at the very large rafts of auks floating about off the western side of Gulland Rock however; there must have been many hundred, with dozens more cackling from their nest sites on the cliffs. I drifted close enough for some decent photos and then paddled away before I caused a disturbance.
The three mile transit to Newlands was uneventful until I stopped for a coffee break on an exceptionally smooth patch of sea. I heard the piff of a porpoise but had difficulty in observing it because it was a lot further away than I had thought. It moved past to the south followed by a chum shortly after.
A few Manx Shearwaters zipped past and a few Gannets cruised overhead. Around the final island, The Mouls, I looked hard for the Puffins which are supposed to nest here, but didn’t see any. Just a very orange-looking seal basking on a rock. Last year’s pup?
I slid across the tidal current to get up close and personal with the dramatic, cliffy and highly convoluted coast at Rumps point. The flat conditions allowed me to paddle within inches of every nook and cranny. A Peregrine whinnied from its rocky promontory high above.
Round the corner into the relatively busy Polzeath Bay I brushed past a few paddleboarders that were spilling out from the beach where a few surfers bobbed in the disappointing (for them) swell.
I was paddling against the tide coming out of the Camel estuary but with a bit of cunning coast-hugging I managed to avoid most of the current. If there is no swell running so that you can get right in against the shore, I have found that when paddling against a current there are almost as many eddies working in your favour as there are flows of water against you. Another very specific advantage of a kayak!
Rock was absolutely buzzing with humanity when I got back. The queue for the ferry to Padstow was long (no doubt heading for fish ‘n chips at Rick Stein’s) and the car park full.
At last! Yippee. The sea promised to be quiet enough on the north coast of Cornwall to allow terror-free exploration of the many caves of Boscastle. Hardly any wind and one foot of swell. Perfect. Days like this are rarer than an unpleasant McFlurry.
The Magnificent (motley) Six paddlers convened in the main car park of Boscastle and trolleyed down the High Street to the harbour. This is all part of the build up. It’s a lot easier, but less fun, to offload on the quayside and drive back to the carpark. And if you do that you don’t get to see the Museum of Witchcraft.
It was ultra low tide so we also had to trolley down the weed laden river which wasn’t quite so entertaining.
We were off! Beep, Mark, Luke, Paul, Kevin and yours truly. Slicing in complete silence (apart from the chit-chat) through crystal clear turquoise water under a cloudless blue sky.
Within minutes we had stopped to admire a couple of Barrel Jellyfish below us, ghostly-white and almost luminescent. Absolutely extraordinary creatures but I can never work out quite what they think they are doing or where they think they are going. The answer is probably along the lines of ‘not alot’ and ‘nowhere in particular’.
Before we reached Pentargon Strand we were lured into a gigantic cave, a good hundred yards long. I bravely followed Luke and Paul (who had decent torches) into the blackness. I wasn’t at all happy about the roar of waves trapped in a sucky bit which sounded like a dragon.
Incredibly there was a sandy beach at the end of the cave which needed a bit of exploring, but the best bit for me was getting back out into the sunshine.
We passed under an archway, paddled across Pentargon Bay, checked out several smaller caves, and then found a real whopper. Plus a few seals in there for company. We went in around the corner and then into total blackness. Luke went further into the narrowing gap but I was a bit wary in case that unexpected large wave came that squashed us against the ceiling. I paid the penalty for my pathetic overcaution when the only unexpected large wave of the entire day came when we were back out into the sunshine and broke on a reef just as I was crossing it. Typical. Fortunately my damp patch was rapidly forgotten when we saw a couple of Purple Sandpipers poking about on the rocks.
Round past Fire Beacon point there were seals spread around all over the Beeny Sisters rocks, providing some superb viewing in millpond-like conditions. Then more seals, like giant maggots, on the beaches at Beeny which we did our best not to disturb.
One particular adolescent seal was extremely curious and came very close as we shovelled in some food. I think it was my chocolate Hobnobs that drew its attention although it could have been Kevin’s eyecatching, and capacious, spray-skirt.
We cut directly back across the bay to the mouth of Boscastle harbour and couldn’t resist exploring the coast further south. There might not be another kayak-friendly day here for many months.
Despite loafing about off Short Island for a tea break we failed to spot any of its Puffins. A loop around the never-ceasing-to-amaze, eroded and craggy and precipitous Long Island brought us into Bossiney Bay. The sandy beaches were covered by the high tide so getting out for a leg stretch wasn’t easy.
We turned north for the two miles back to Boscastle and investigated every nook and cranny and gulch and, of course, every cave. Every time a black hole appeared in the cliff Luke wasted no time in darting in followed rapidly by Paul. And the caves just kept on coming. Just one huge long cave would be absolutely remarkable, but we must have ventured into a dozen in this six mile length of coast. Some just narrowed down to nothing but others opened out to great big chambers, one with quite an impressive stalagmite (ot was it ____tite?). I got completely wedged trying to turn my kayak around in the cold inky depths of one chasm. The only possible explanation was that my kayak was longer than anyone else’s, it couldn’t possibly have been anything to do with bungling incompetence.
Even the enormous ‘zawn’ just outside the harbour mouth at Boscastle was impressive today. It’s usually too lumpy to enter.
That was it. An easy exit straight onto the slipway thanks to the high tide, and a hike back up the High Street to the carpark.
Yet another TOP trip. Although I know why I am a kayaker and lover of wide open spaces, and not a caver.
The ten mile stretch of open coast between Porthpean, St. Austell and Dodman Point is undoubtedly one of the best paddles in Cornwall.
It’s got everything. Sandy beaches, coves only accessible by kayak, cliffs, headlands, rocky areas to dodge in and out, and two super quaint coastal villages.
Even better for the paddler that relishes knifing across calm water (like me), it is east facing so immune to much of the wind and swell from the west. So it is often one of the only stretches of paddleable sea during the winter.
Paul and I picked a beautiful early April day for a fifteen mile jaunt from Porthpean to Gorran Haven and back.
Mevagissey bay looked very calm and inviting when we rounded Black Head so we cut directly across to the offshore rocks on the other side called The Gwinges (excellent name). There are nearly always seals hanging about here but today there were none.
A mile further south we had a leg stretch and a bite at Gorran Haven which is about as perfect a sheltered Cornish harbour as you could ever hope to find, and it was looking particularly appealing in the Spring sunshine. Families sat around, dogs yipped, children shrieked with excitement, frisbees flew.
With the deliberate aim to make it as much of a circular paddle as possible, we ‘coast-hugged’ on the way back, after staying offshore on the outward leg.
Of course we couldn’t resist investigating Mevagissey with its outer and inner harbour. It was heaving with visitors sauntering along at a holiday pace.
Mevagissey is almost too quaint to be real. I have visited by kayak on dozens of occasions but only once by car when I collided with a wall. I intend to visit again by kayak and never to go near the place again in a vehicle.
The final few miles past the long sandy beach of Pentewan and around Black head were uneventful but enjoyable. A pair of Peregrines sat motionless at the back of their usual cove, and we were stalked by a couple of seals when we were nearly back at Porthpean. One was an absolute whopper and I don’t think I have ever seen a bull seal with a more prominent nose.
This is a fantastic bit of coast and justifiably popular with the sit-on-top brigade, especially the very sheltered bay containing Porthpean and Charlestown , and its many inviting beaches.
I don’t paddle the ‘middle’ section of the River Tamar Estuary very often. It’s further for me to drive and doesn’t offer much more than the the upper bit between Calstock and Gunnislake, which is exceptional.
It’s also a bit less scenic than the upper bit, more exposed to the wind with its wider valley, and quite a lot more mud exposed as the tide drops. Mudflats aren’t everyone’s idea of a beautiful paddle.
However it was time for a change of scenery so we set off to do this stretch again, starting at the superb ‘all stage of the tide’ slipway at Weir Quay and paddling six miles upstream to Calstock, with careful tidal planning hopefully working in our favour. The tide really zips past at Weir Quay and I was relieved to see it heading in the right direction to give us a bit of a kick start.
My paddling companion Paul was trying out his recently purchased Prowler 13, I was in my super comfortable Gumotex Safari inflatable kayak, and vulnerable to guffaws from any other person afloat who thinks inflatables are not serious watercraft. I was pretty certain we were not going to meet any other paddlers, being January 7th and not a very pleasant day ,so I was probably safe.
The wide muddy shores made fertile by the billions of leaves and other organic matter that come down with the river are a waterfowl heaven. We were only just getting absorbed into the surroundings , being serenaded by piping Redshank and bubbling Curlew, when we put up a flight of Wigeon from the shore. As they circled back round over our heads a Peregrine knifed across the sky and attacked the little group. It was unsuccessful so then pursued an individual bird as it twisted and turned virtually down to water level, but departed empty-handed (-footed) and cruised back to an exposed bough of a tree high above the wide sweeping bend of the river.
Pity, I havn’t seen a successful Peregrine kill for many years.Plenty of near misses though.
That was our first treat of the day.
We had the tidal flow in our favour for the whole six miles to Calstock although it did seem to stop every so often, well before the tide was full. Cotehele Quay draws the eye as it is set in a very scenic bit of valley and seems to be beautifully well-preserved and groomed by the National Trust. Just round the corner is the familiar, but always astonishing (as it is so high), Calstock viaduct. We stopped for lunch on the slipway and had a chat with the Muscovy ducks.
The tide turned and assisted our progress back down. Treat number two came in the elegant form of ten or so Avocets that were doing what they do on the mud on the Devon side of the river. I well remember the excitement of seeing my first Avocet at Arne in Dorset nearly half a century ago (!).
‘Peregrine’ corner was completely sheltered from the wind so we just drifted along with the current supping a cup of tea(me)/coffee(Paul). We watched a couple of Cormorants fishing the smooth water. Remarkably, both surfaced with flatfish in their beaks within a minute of each other. And both fish looked too big to swallow. The first was reluctantly ditched by its captor, the second looked as if it was going to be swallowed no matter what. The equivalent of a human downing a laptop whole. I think I got a bit too close in my efforts to take ‘that’ photo…the Cormorant dropped the fish and cleared off.
Treat number two and-a-half, not quite qualifying for a whole.
A head just popping above the surface a hundred yards away lured us over to investigate…..although I thought it was a seal it just could have been an otter.
Just when I was beginning to think whatever-it-was was not going to surface, a seal appeared directly behind Paul’s kayak and then started to rub its nose, quite vigorously, on the plastic. We were both gob-smacked by its sudden appearance and apparent lack of bashfulness and watched as it swam about close to our kayaks before submerging and disappearing. Treat number three.
The hugely hugely entertaining trip was soured somewhat when Paul discovered the hull of his e-bay purchased Prowler was sloshing with water. Lucky we hadn’t gone off to the Eddystone. It would have sunk.
The source of the leak was a worn through skid-plate from being dragged around too much by its previous owner.. This is a common problem with Prowlers as their hull tapers to quite a narrow point at the back of the boat, but easy to prevent if you don’t drag it around too much. Use a kayak trolley.