Chillaxed New Year’s Day

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It’s not very often the first day of the year is so conducive to a paddle along the open coast. I didn’t start off in a particularly relaxed fashion however, because the mile or so from Brixham to Berry Head was a bit lumpy in the NW wind, and the cloud cover made the sea look grey and unfriendly.

However around the headland we were sheltered from the wind and the surface smoothed off nicely. I was hopeful for a view of the porpoises so we drifted out with the current along the tideline along which the porpoises hunt. We were pretty pleased when a trio of porpoises puffed and surfaced for a few minutes right in amongst our motley group of four kayaks, especially as this was a kayaking ‘first’ for Suzanne.

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Harbour Porpoise

As we drifted south on the tide the sun came out and instantly transformed the monochrome grey sea into a vibrant blue. With the warmth of the sun the temperature would have done justice to a day in March, not the first day of January.

We angled in towards a ‘kayak only’ beach for an early lunch, passing little groups of fishing Guillemots and Razorbills.P1220049

We tucked in to the coast for a very warm paddle back toward Berry Head.

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Dave and Cliff
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Suzanne and Paul
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Dave and Arch

I was surprised to see some Guillemots already lined up along their nesting ledges and already in their smart breeding plumage, apparently enjoying the spring-like conditions as much as we were.

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Guillemots

Strangely, as we rounded Berry Head and knuckled down to flog into the wind and chop, the cloud came over again and the summery colours reverted to wintery gloom. P1220098

However our spirits were not to be quashed by the whims of the weather, and we finished  off the first trip of 2019 with the sight of a dozen Grey Seals hauled out on the pontoon, which Paul had smelled (!) as we had paddled past.

 

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Grey Seals showing how it should be done on New Year’s Day

My search for the calmest waters to paddle usually leads to the shelter of one of the estuaries at this time of year, with the open sea usually battered by windchop or groundswell, or both.

A recent jaunt to the Fowey River from Golant is more typical of this time of year, but demonstrates how paddling along in absolute silence (apart from a bit of merry banter) always seem to deliver some exceptional wildlife sightings. On this occasion it was one of only a handful of Harbour Seals in SW England.20170314_130121

 

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Dave explains how to Paul and Mark during coffee break at Lostwithiel.
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Ent Moot
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Drake Mandarin

Boxing Day Blast at Brixham

The weather gods were in a considerate mood when we were planning a bit of a post-Christmas, calorie-burning, fustiness-removing paddle.

Light winds meant a coastal trip was on the cards so Brixham seemed like a good bet. This of course means a quick snoop at the superbly action-packed (in terms of wildlife) waters off Berry Head, so Jake and I cornered the end of the breakwater and  made straight for the end of the headland.

There were a lot of Gannets cruising about, including a large extended fishing flock in the heart of Torbay. The last of the incoming tide was flowing north past the headland and the tideline between the offshore current and the static water of the bay formed a focus for a handful of circling Gannets and, I hoped, some cetaceans.

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Gannet

We nudged out towards the birds and sure enough a couple of porpoises surfaced nearby with a puff. These were the first cetaceans Jake had seen in the UK so we hung around hoping for a better view. Although porpoises are not attracted to boats and tend to be a bit haphazard in their movements, there were enough around (approximately ten) to make the chance of one surfacing nearby quite high.

One did indeed surface with a loud puff only a few metres away from Jake’s kayak. Perfect. This porpoise had a distinctive notch at the back of its dorsal fin, and looks like the same one I photographed a few weeks ago.

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Harbour Porpoise (Notchy seems like a good name)

I think I photographed the same porpoise in the same place on 4 Dec.You might think that this is not that remarkable because porpoises seem to be resident at Berry Head, but they are difficult to spot because they are so small and inconspicuous, and very difficult to photograph, and of all the porpoises around Berry Head (approx 15-20?) I was unlikely to snap the same one twice in two visits.

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Porpoise photographed on 4 Dec

This is the first cetacean that I have ever re-photographed, as far as I am aware.

After half an hour watching porpoises, and chasing after distant unexplained splashes which appeared to be jumping porpoises although could have been tuna or dolphins (porpoises only jump when they are really fired up and chasing fish, and these splashes seemed a bit ‘big’ for that), we headed back into Torbay.

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Jake in Torbay

The gannets were thumping in all over the place and put on a great show as we passed the centre of Torbay. There were a few Loons dotted about as we neared the shore. I don’t know why I find these birds so charismatic as their plumage is not particularly remarkable, but they are big and robust and knowledge of how far they have come to spend the winter here, and how they transform into one of the most beautifully marked of all seabirds in the Spring, no doubt adds to their appeal.

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Torbay Loon (Great Northern Diver)

We followed the coast back to Brixham and were spotted by some of the rest of the family (and chums, and pets) who were on the end of the breakwater.P1210551

The Torbay lifeboat looked impressive in the winter sun as it sped back to its base, and was appallingly photobombed by a jetski.

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Jetski photobomb

Fortunately I had time for an uncluttered pic before it eased off on the throttle.

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Torbay Lifeboat

It was a bit of a surprise to hear Brixham harbour echoing to the bawl of seals , who turned out to be resting on a pontoon on the edge of the marina, all ten of them!

We finished with a tour of the inner harbour.

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Brixham

We calculated the ten miles paddled was the calorie equivalent of about a third of a mince pie. Looks like we’ll just have to go out more often to burn off the rest of the packet  (and half a tin of Quality Street). Tough.

Puffing and Chuffing

I am always looking to paddle out into the open sea whenever there is a lull in the autumn winds, but this is currently very difficult because the quiet gaps between weather systems only last a couple of hours.

With the forecast of a morning of calm conditions I went scampering off down to Torbay hoping to find a smooth sea, and knowing that this east-facing bit of coast offers good shelter from the hefty swell which was thumping the bits which look out to the west.

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Torbay dawn

I had planned to be on the water as the sun popped up and was quietly smug that it had only just surfaced as I rounded the end of Brixham breakwater, after a 90 minute drive including the traffic chaos of the Torbay hinterland (we don’t really ‘do’ traffic chaos in Holsworthy).

As I approached Berry Head I could see circling Gannets and the odd splash at the surface and glimpse of a dark sea creature, but I was too far off to see what was herding the baitball….dolphins, tuna, or porpoises.

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Nice and calm off Berry Head

As usual by the time I arrived on the scene the mini feeding-frenzy was over and the Gannets had completely disappeared. It always amazes me that although they are big birds with a six foot wingspan they can apparently disappear in an instant. They just dip a wing and they speed off.

All that was left of the action was a couple of porpoises rolling lazily at the surface, the first I had seen since the end of October.

Porpoises are small (four to five foot long) and very easy to overlook because they generally make no splash when they surface to breath, and tend to go around alone or very small groups. This is in contrast to dolphins that usually go around in a pod and do a lot of splashing and jumping.

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Harbour porpoise

There were actually a minimum of half-a-dozen porpoises off the headland, as usual hunting along the smooth line on the surface where the offshore tidal current shears against the static waters of Torbay.

I sat around and enjoyed a cup of coffee while watching, and listening to the porpoises. In this video clip it is quite obvious why the Newfoundland whalers used to call porpoises ‘Puffing Pigs’.

 

Today’s sideshow consisted of Fulmars zipping past a few feet away, a handful of flypast Great Northern Divers, a (probable) Red-throated Diver , and a pack of Common Scoter.

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Fulmar

The tide was fairly rapidly sucking me down the coast towards Dartmouth so I tucked in close to the shore and paddled back into Torbay. Annoyingly the predicted ‘glass-off’ when the wind dropped away completely occurred when I was in the depths of Torbay, not out beyond Berry Head as I had planned. It would have made porpoise spotting even easier…and maybe something else.

I was pleased to see a rare Red-necked Grebe just round the corner from Brixham:

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Red-necked Grebe

and a youngish-looking seal was taking time out on a quiet beach. I always steer well away from these resting seals to avoid frightening them into the water, because they may just have been on the go for a very long time and be in much need of a rest.

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Grey seal

Brixham was buzzing with fishing boat activity (although it looks fairly sleepy in this pic).

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Brixham

So if it was the porpoise that was doing the puffing, what was doing the chuffing?…..

 

 

Seal catches hefty Salmon

It’s really important not to have your plans for a pleasant morning’s paddle messed up by a pumped-up storm called Diana, with its promise of sixty mph winds and an inch of rain.

However down by the Tamar it certainly was weather for ducks. I wasn’t expecting to see anything resembling another human.

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Calstock and its ducks

And oh yes did it rain:

But at least it was warm, and down in the bottom of the valley it wasn’t as blowy as I had expected.

The incoming tide wasn’t a match for the outgoing flow of the swollen river Tamar so it was quite a challenge to sneak up close to the banks and creep about amongst the branches to avoid the adverse current. One of the advantages of being in ‘Puffing Pig’ my inflatable kayak is that it is extremely manoeuvrable compared to my sea kayak that has the turning circle of a supertanker.

As usual a drab day was enlivened by the wildlife. It was great to see a couple of tiny Little Grebes (aka Dabchicks) in the river… they are regular winter visitors to the Devon coast but I can’t recall the last time I saw one here.

A Dipper zipped over my head before I got to Morwellham, no doubt in search of one of the clear rushing streams flowing down the hillsides because the main river was completely brown. Dippers love clear water and rocky streams and are not at all happy with mud.

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Morwellham looking drab

I just managed to stick my nose around the corner at Morwell rocks before my forward speed exactly matched the current moving the other way. So turned about and drifted down the river in complete silence, supping a cup of coffee, at three mph.

I nearly leapt out of my drysuit when there was a loud snort about two foot behind me. I cranked (and cricked) my neck around to see that I was being eyeballed by a  medium-sized seal.

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Inquisitive seal

It shadowed me for a mile as I drifted on down, and when it popped up in front of me after a long dive I saw the flash of a fish in its mouth.

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seal with salmon

It wasn’t a piffling little fish…it was a decent-sized salmon (distinguishable from a sea trout by its slightly forked, not square-ended, tail).

Somehow the seal managed to peel off the skin like taking off a glove, in about a minute. Slicker than any fishmonger.seal plus salmon 1

And then it really enjoyed the tasty-looking pink flesh that made my breakfast of muesli mixed with Jordan’s country crisp (with dried raspberries) look a bit amateurish.

The next surprising encounter was with one of the police launches that protect the naval ships at Devonport (15 miles) downstream. ‘Which way to Plymouth?’ , one of the officers joked.

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Police Launch

Absolutely superb, I hadn’t expected to see anything today apart from wind and rain.

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Calstock viaduct

 

 

 

 

Nudger

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.

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Looe Harbour

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.

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Nudger

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. nudger 8

 

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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.

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Nudger pulling at the toggle.

 

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.

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Polperro Porpoise

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.polperro lunch.jpg

 

Lunch was taken on the wall of the super-quaint village of Polperro.

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Polperro-lunch on the wall

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.

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Looe Kingfisher

(yet to get a good Kingfisher pic from kayak).

Today belonged to Nudger:

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Brilliant Boscastle

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.

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Purple Sandpiper

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.

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Seal’s Hole Cave (aka the Cathedral)

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).

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Seal pups. These could be twins.
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Newborn pup.

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.

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Guillemot (in winter outfit)

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.

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Shadowing seal
Bull Grey Seal
Shadowing seal number 2 (a sizeable bull)

In every direction here the scenery is BIG.

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View south: Tintagel Head and Gull Rock
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View North: High Cliff (the highest in Cornwall), Short Island, Long Island.

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.

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Long Island
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Passing Sea Kayakers

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).

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Gull with Starfish platter.

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.

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Snoozing seal pup

 

Red-throated Diver. What a Beauty.

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.

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Looe

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.

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Red-throated Diver

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.

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Red-throated Diver

At on stage it emerged from a dive just a couple of feet away from my kayak….absolutely extraordinary.

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Red-throated Diver

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.

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Eric the Eider takes a kip

 

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:

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Dave, Treasure Divers UK

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.

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Polperro

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.

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Looe Lump
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Looe Seals

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.

 

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