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.
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.
We tucked in to the coast for a very warm paddle back toward Berry Head.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Two days of light winds were forecast so it was time to head offshore again. The first trip was to Penzance with Dave and I was under pressure to deliver some cetacean sightings. We had a good thirteen mile paddle out of Mount’s Bay and along the coast to Lamorna, and managed fifteen porpoises which put on a very good puffing show, but I was just a little disappointed (and surprised) that we didn’t see any dolphins because spotting conditions were ideal.
There was a nice scattering of seabirds however: Razorbills, Guillemots, Eddie the Eider, a passing Great Northern Diver (my first of the autumn), and lots of Kittiwakes.
The next day was a stunner with clear blue skies and virtually no wind. I was on the water at Fowey as the sun had just peeped over the horizon, and paddled directly out to sea once out of the estuary.
Almost immediately I saw a large milling mass of seabirds circling low over the surface about a mile out, with a dozen Gannets intermittently dropping in. A very active ‘work up’ and there was going to be some big fish-eaters beneath, for sure. As I steamed at full speed towards the action I could see dolphins jumping clear of the water, but as usual the frenzy had tempered a bit when I eventually rolled up. The gannets had moved on but there seemed to be plenty of fish left over for the dolphins, and gulls,to pick off at a leisurely pace.
I just sat still in my kayak taking in the scene. Dolphins passed within inches.
I was sure my attempt at underwater footage with the GoPro would be a success, but the clarity of the water wasn’t great so the result was a bit disappointing. However it’s interesting to hear the dolphin clicks and squeaks in this video clip:
Suddenly all twenty-five (ish) dolphins were off at top speed, lured away by a China Clay ship which had emerged from Fowey docks and was starting to crank up the speed. The dolphins sprinted towards it and I could just see them leaping out of its bow wave as it receded into the distance.
A good start to the morning….and it wasn’t even nine o’clock.
I was just settling into my usual breakfast of 50% muesli, 50% Jordans Country Crisp (with raspberries), when I caught sight on an even bigger ‘work up’ at the limits of vision with hundreds of circling white dots of Gannets which every so often plunged into the sea en masse. Wow, this was a biggy.
Putting my muesli/country crisp on hold I paddled hard towards the action, but knew it was going to take at least twenty minutes to get there as it was probably two miles away, and knew I was going to be on the point of meltdown because I was already hot in my waterproof coat in the windless and sunny conditions. However if this was going to be my first big Gannet feeding frenzy I had observed up close, being a liquefied sack of sweat was the price I was willing to pay.
From long distance I could once again see large creatures jumping clean out of the water. I got the impression that some of these looked a bit like giant Tuna as I fancied I saw some spiky fins, but it was just too far away to tell and they might have been dolphins.
From what I have observed, these feeding frenzies evolve very rapidly. A pod of dolphins herds fish into a baitball and pins it against the surface, reducing the fish’s options of escape. Passing Gannets don’t hesitate to seize the chance of a meal and dive in onto the larger baitfish (probably mackerel). The flash of white wings draws in other Gannets from afar, while below the surface the dolphins strike the baitball from below and frequently burst from the surface, as do the Tuna (if they were there!).
One reliable feature of these events is that the main action finishes just before I arrive on the scene. I think the Gannets (and maybe Tuna) move off when all the bigger fish have been eaten, leaving the dolphins and gulls to concentrate on the bits and pieces. Such was the case, again, as I rolled up with temperature gauge well into the red.
But today there was a bit of a treat in store because a rather larger predator had been attracted in to all the commotion. As I sat still watching all the splashing action as dolphins criss-crossed around and the juvenile gulls were squealing, there was a big prolonged breath and a much larger fin appeared at the surface….a Minke Whale. It disappeared in towards Fowey and then turned to come back. I was hopeful of a very close pass but it came to no nearer than about a hundred metres, and as usual very difficult to photograph because you really don’t know where it is going to appear next, and they cover large distance between breaths. They are in fact very like a giant porpoise in that they roll surprisingly quietly at the surface, and keep changing direction.
Anyway, I was quite pleased to get this clip of it as it surfaced, with Fowey five miles away in the background.
Ironically the closest it surfaced was when I was struggling to take off my jacket and drop my core temperature out of the critical range, and my face was covered in sweaty goretex.
For a final push I paddled just a little bit further out, and was joined by another (or maybe the same ones as earlier) pod of dolphins as I headed into the sun. When they disappeared it went quiet enough for me to finish my breakfast which was not surprisingly quite soggy.
The paddle back in was moderately uneventful (in comparison to the paddle out) although the sea had smoothed off even further which allowed me to hear, and then observe, ten porpoises which were dotted about in ones and twos as they usually are.
My final ‘encounter’ was at the mouth of the estuary where I had a chat with a kayak fisherman who was in an extremely well-equipped craft.
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.
The Lone Kayaker is on a mission to bring you the best of the UK’s water-based wildlife, as seen from his kayak, and is quietly smug about his latest adventure. Put Love Island on pause. See what is going on in the REAL world.
The relentlessly tropical weather was continuing although a stiff easterly breeze was forecast for SW England (which didn’t actually materialise). On the spur of the moment I shoved a load of camping stuff in the car and headed off to a tiny beach in the middle of Cardigan Bay in west Wales. It was supposed to be still, sunny, and hot.
My main aim was to see some of the Cardigan Bay Bottlenose Dolphins. It was unlikely to happen as an encounter with dolphins is always hit-and-miss, but it was worth a go.
It was indeed blisteringly hot and the sky a deep blue upon arrival and I was soon on the water (lots of people on beach and overwhelming stench of perfume mixed with suncream, with whiff of barbecued sausage). Disappointingly there was quite a surface chop and combined with a stiff tidal flow this made for quite a lumpy ride, especially going past a huge Guillemot colony on the cliff.
The adult Guillemots had their wings partly open to protect their downy offspring from the heat.
The scale of the colony is not only an assault on the eyeballs but the eardrums as well. Quite a cacophony. Take a listen to this: (video)
I unfortunately witnessed one of those incidents which always upsets people watching programs like Blue Planet, even though we know it all happens and is a normal part of nature at this kind of place.
A Herring Gull swiped an unguarded Guillemot chick from the ledge and proceeded to try to swallow it whole on the rocks below. I certainly wasn’t too happy about the (understandably) distressed noise coming from the chick. I tried to man up but I wished I hadn’t seen it and the gull had stolen someone’s pasty instead.
Skip this next pic if you don’t like this kind of stuff: (I certainly don’t)
The sea was a lot calmer around the corner in the bay and I glimpsed a pod of about eight dolphins in the distance. One jumped high out of the water, just once, and then they were gone. So I paddled back to the car and admired the sunset while chatting to a Welsh chap who used to be a coalminer in the Rhondda. We both boiled up our coffee on the wall at the back of the carpark, me using my jetboil, him and his wife using his Kelly Kettle. (Jetboil faster, Kelly Kettle bigger)
I slept like a log stretched out in the back of the car, until 3.05am, precisely. That is when a very noisy diesel car pulled up beside mine, containing a man with a loud and sonorous voice, and a woman who easily outclassed him in words per minute and volume. They were parked very close and their windows were open, and at one stage man said to wife, so boomingly that it made the upholstery shake, that someone appeared to be asleep in the car next door because the windows were down. In the car…yes. Asleep….you’ve got to be joking.
They chatted non stop till I turfed out at about 6, when I bid them good morning and asked if they ever bothered with sleep. The man looked at me like I was the weird one.
Needless to say I was on the water good and early and heading back up the coast full of expectation because the sea was super-smooth, the sky was clear blue, and it was already hot. In the even smoother waters of the bay I spotted the prominent fin and surprisingly large bulk of a Bottlenose Dolphin quite close to the shore. I approached cautiously and waited, some distance away, very careful not to cause any disturbance.
Soon the dolphin surfaced, breathed three times, flipped up its tail, and headed for the bottom again. And even better it had a calf with it, sticking to its side like glue.
The next couple of hours were pretty magical. Sitting in my kayak in shorts and vest and PFD (lifejacket) under a cloudless sky in twenty-five degrees, with no wind and no tidal current to move me around. I watched the pair surfacing, taking one to four breaths and then disappearing for three or four minutes.
I just happened to be sitting in the epicentre of their feeding activity and they kept appearing so close that the blast of their exhalation gave me quite a jump. |I’m sure they were hunting shellfish in the sand below because any school of fish with any sort of brains would move away from the area pretty smartish. The dolphins stayed more or less in the same place for the whole time.
For long periods the calf stayed absolutely tight to the side of its mother (I’m presuming that) but just occasionally during a prolonged dive had to come up for an extra breath of air, and just occasionally went off on a bit of a solo exploration.
But these forays never lasted long and it was soon back in the security of Mum’s side:
I took a breakfast break on the adjacent beach and when I paddled back they were still feeding strong. Another couple of dolphins cam over to join them for a brief while.
At last I dragged myself away and started to paddle back down the coast, further offshore this time. I admired the fishing Guillemots and Razorbills as I went past. There was so much going on that I didn’t have time to admire the ghostly shape of a couple of Barrel jellyfish just beneath the surface, or my first Compass jellyfish of the the year with their very long tentacles.
After such a fantastic couple of hours I could hardly believe my luck when I saw another group of dolphins heading directly towards me. I stopped paddling and waited to see what would happen, hardly expecting an improvement on what I had already seen. And then a pretty hefty dolphin jumped clean out of the water.
Could it oblige and do one more leap for me with camera in movie mode? No, it couldn’t.
I havn’t paddled Land’s End for several years so have been looking for some suitable conditions. The sea there is always lively as it is a focal point of currents and swell and everything that conspires to make the surface lumpy.
Today the weather was no problem as it was clear blue sky. The wind was light and I had done my tidal planning…..not straightforward as at Land’s End it flows north for nine hours and south for only three. The only potential glitch was the forecast four foot of Atlantic groundswell.
My departure point at Porthgwarra could not have been more picture perfect with the cliffs carpeted in the pink of Thrift and yellow of Kidney Vetch. I trolleyed through the tunnel onto the beach.
The sea here was smooth so I couldn’t resist paddling offshore to the Runnelstone buoy. This is a wildlife hotspot and Gannets and gangs of Manx Shearwaters loped past.
All very placid and sunny and warm, but the Runnelstone buoy gives me the creeps. The sea here is very restless in a tethered rhinoceros sort of a way, but worse by far is the appalling moan of the buoy when there is a bit of a swell running. More sinister than the theme from jaws….just listen to this:
I decided to keep well offshore in the hope of meeting up with some oceanic wildlife and with the tide in my favour I got a bit of a slingshot around Gwennap Head. However, with the mournful moan of the buoy still droning behind me, I started to run into the full Atlantic swell and felt a bit small in a big sea.
I suddenly found myself looking UP at a pair of porpoises as they emerged out of the top of a rolling swell. They swam right past me and one left a fluke ‘print’ swirling right beside the kayak.
Seconds after I lost sight of the porpoises I saw a bit of random splashing on the surface and paddled over to investigate. It was my first UK Ocean Sunfish of the year (although I saw one in the Med a couple of months ago). I quietly crept upsun to get some decent pics and drifted to within a few feet of it.
It didn’t disappoint and performed precisely as I had hoped. Even better actually because as it floated at the surface its eye was completely out of the water and appeared to be as interested in me as I was it (although it probably wasn’t).
A great encounter with a really extraordinary creature in a really dramatic place.
Fired up by all this I stayed well offshore and headed directly towards Longships Lighthouse. A circling group of Gannets plunged as the tide drew me closer to a much more confused patch of water around Longships Reef. I was on the edge of my comfort zone and was pleased that I had called in to Gwennap Head NCI (coastwatch station) on the radio to tell them of my plans….just in case.
Of course I had to paddle around the lighthouse having come this far, but then cranked up the speed and made for the shelter and cosiness of Sennen Cove a couple of miles away. I had a bit of a fright when there was the unexpected noise of a large breaking wave really quite close……
which turned out to be another bit of the Longships Reef.
Sennen Cove was, in contrast, idiotically warm and sunny and sheltered and smelled of suncream as tourists wandered around licking ice creams and taking snaps.
I had a brief chat with a couple who were just about to launch their inflatable kayaks and advised them to stay within the shelter of Sennen (Whitesand) bay.
I was a bit apprehensive about the paddle back but still decided to keep close to the cliffs to make the whole trip a bit of a circuit.
It was indeed lumpy but I never actually felt in danger. The waves broke against the cliffs with quite an impressive impact, however.
I stopped to check out a small Guillemot colony at the island called the Armed Knight, while being scrutinised by a load of people milling about on the cliff top beside the Lands End Theme Park. Thank goodness I was down here and not up there.
As the coast bent round to the south the tidal current eased and the swell subsided a bit, but the cliffs all the way back to Porthgwarra, past Gwennap Head which is the most southwesterly point of mainland Britain, can only be described as ‘unforgiving’.
There is the most remarkable instant transformation from exposed cliffs with a tide race, to sheltered sun-drenched cove, when you come round the corner into Porthgwarra.
And as icing on the cake of a memorable paddle, a German tourist gave me a hand with my kayak back up through the ‘tunnel’.
I’ve been getting about a bit recently because the weather, which I constantly groan about, has been absolutely stunning. More or less sunny, as warm as you would want and often light winds.
The biggest limiting factor in the kayaking department is my ageing musculoskeletal system, despite some parts being replaced and others removed. When I aim it in the direction of a headland barely visible on the horizon I can almost hear the mutters of mutinous dissent from biceps to buttock (notice I left out brain..that jumped overboard long ago).
I coax it along with frequent stops for coffee and Viennese Whorls and for the time being it is still just about serviceable.
Having said that, I seem to have strained my elbow which I think was the result of chasing a cruise ship in Fowey very early yesterday morning.
This was the Prinsendam and I didn’t really need to get out of bed quite so early because when I paddled out of the mouth of the Fowey estuary it was only just visible on the horizon. I then waited around getting cold while it ever so slowly approached.
Although I’ve ventured out to sea a bit, it’s been hard work spotting cetaceans and I’ve only come across the odd porpoise. I had a decent view of this one off Teignmouth, though.
They often seem to disappear at this time of year when the water goes clear for a while before the plankton really gets going.
Fortunately there’s always the seabirds to keep me entertained. Out to sea are Razorbills, Guillemots and Manx Shearwaters:
And along the coast are some beautiful, but difficult to see, waders. Needless to say, a kayak is (in my predictable opinion)the best way to observe these little beauties.
And there are still one or two winter visitors hanging about, seemingly reluctant to head north. This Purple Sandpiper, in its breeding plumage, for example.
Oystercatchers, however, are not only not difficult to see, they are excessively loud, although I very much like their maniacal piping because sometimes, on a wet and windy winter’s day, it is sometimes the only nugget of wildlife around.
The gulls sitting on eggs are currently finding it very hot:
although probably not as hot as this parent will soon be, trying to keep its newly hatched offspring entertained and fed, and protected.
I’ve visited the fantastic North Cornwall coast with Becky, Jeremy and Jane:
And even found a rare flat calm day along the Hartland heritage coast north of Bude. I paddled with Paul who found some new beaches, accessible only by kayak, to clear of plastic. He was thrilled with this discarded fishing net, his first ‘load’ from one particular beach.
And finally one of the very best of Cornish bays at Porthcurno near land’s End:
Having got back from an all-weekend wedding 250 miles away in the early hours, when the titanium knees were subjected to dance moves (largely unsuccessful) way beyond their manufacturer’s recommended tolerance, anyone with any sense would spend the next day doing weeding.
The Lone Kayaker however wouldn’t know where to start with all the weeds, and has got the same amount of sense as the average slice of toast.
And the promise of one of the warmest early May days EVER, combined with light winds, meant he couldn’t resist heading offshore. Looe was the chosen destination, which was very lucky because he very nearly selected the North Cornwall coast which ended up being fogbound all day and about ten degrees cooler than the sun-drenched south coast.
I didn’t have big expectations in the wildlife front for the day, as I have only ever seen dolphins here once (although they were the rare Risso’s), but it got off to a good start with an encounter with the resident male Eider duck who is always very smartly turned out.
I paddled over to Looe island, and out past the Rannies Reef. A loafing Bull seal put in a spectacular yawn which just about summed up my sleepiness as well (perhaps he had just come back from an all-weekend Pinniped party).
Also there were half a dozen Turnstones on the last rock of the reef, looking very smart in their breeding plumage with white heads.
Then I just headed straight out to sea, because it was flat calm with no swell and warm enough to be paddling in just a vest. Totally and utterly perfect, and if there was anything sitting on, or breaking, the surface for half a mile around I was going to see it.
I passed through the line of coastal touring yachts, several of whom (understandably) looked at me as if I was barking mad, just paddling out into a blank open sea.
A ragged formation of about twenty-five migrating Whimbrels flew over constantly ‘tittering’, the classic coastal sound of early May, as Whimbrels have a very short migration ‘window’. A handful of Swallows zipped past me having just crossed the Channel, one in full bubbling song.
I also saw a scattering of the more common seabirds: Razorbills, Guillemots, Manx Shearwaters and only a very few Gannets, which din’t give me much hope of seeing any Dolphins because the sea seemed a bit lifeless.
I stopped for lunch five miles out from Looe island (Cheese ‘n Pickle Sandwiches). Completely quiet and still apart from the occasional cackle of a Guillemot drifting over the surface, too far off to see. As I digested, a single wandering Gannet momentarily dipped a wing as if it was going to dive but then aborted the plunge, but it made me look hard at the patch of sea below, and up popped a Porpoise. I paddled over for a closer look but didn’t get a good view although I saw it surface a few more time at distance.
Then things seemed to hot up. I came upon quite a large raft of Razorbills and Guillemots mixed with a few Manx Shearwaters which were busy diving from the surface, and there were more Shearwater flocks circling around. I guess I was over some sort of reef.
I stopped to watch and photograph another auk flock, and suddenly there was a great gush of air and a pretty sizeable back broke the surface followed by a fin, only fifty yards away and heading straight towards me! No question a Minke Whale.
I swung the kayak round to see it surface again but it only popped up when it was nearly out of sight. I tore after it and it reappeared having turned to the south, but although viewing conditions were as perfect as they could be it never came very close. I heard, and saw, it surface a further three or four times and then it was gone.
I managed a very poor photograph, my camera always struggling to autofocus during such smooth sea conditions because it doesn’t have anything to ‘get a grip’ on.
Wow. My first whale since Horace (or Doris) the Humpback over twelve months ago. Only my third Minke whale seen from kayak, the other two being momentary glimpses of a single blow. The identity of the whale during my prolonged encounter off Eddystone two years ago , when I was at the epicentre of its feeding activity for half an hour, remains uncertain, although it was a lot bigger than the Minke Whales I have seen and has been positively identified by one whale expert as a Sei. For me they remain the ultimate sea creature to see from my kayak, together with a Leatherback turtle which I have only ever seen once.
So, pretty pleased, and a little shaky with adrenaline overdose (and Olympic-style kayak sprint). Soon cured by an Orange Club.
The sea smoothed off even more for the paddle back in, and I came across a few other kayakers who were doing the circuit of Looe island.
From a mile out the shrieks of enjoyment of bathers on the main beach at Looe carried over the sea. No doubt made more shrill by the water temperature which is only just over 12 degrees.