Out to Sea and Up the Creek

The open sea has gone quiet. During a couple of offshore paddle trips I have noticed that the few passing seabirds such as Gannets and Shearwaters do not deviate from their flight path because there is nothing to distract them. In other words no fish or sprats near the surface for them to dive upon.

In fact the only thing that does seem to distract them is me, with most Gannets cruising overhead to check me out, and Fulmars taking a high speed circuit around me before carrying on their way. Anything that breaks up the monotony of the sea surface might mean fish, as far as they are concerned.

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Fulmar

Floating seabirds are few and far between as well…just a few Razorbills and Guillemots.

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Guillemot

A couple of days have been absolutely flat and calm and I have been surprised at how few times I have heard the puff of a porpoise…they seem to have almost completely disappeared. In the autumn on days like this it is actually unusual not to hear the blow of a porpoise virtually every time you stop paddling.

Fortunately they haven’t all gone. I saw four off Coverack near Lizard point, and just to further investigate I went to the ultra reliable porpoise venue of Berry Head, and saw at least seven.

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Berry Head Porpoise Trio

Rather than some disaster I think this is all fairly normal. I have noticed in previous years that when the sea is thick with plankton during May, the visible activity seems to decline. Apart from the record numbers of Barrel Jellyfish that is. They are still very much in evidence:

 

 

If someone could get the message out to the Basking Sharks that the food parlour is stuffed full and all they have to do is swim along with mouths agape , it would be great to see them again. I havn’t seen one in SW England for five years.

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Basking shark (photo taken in 2009!)

When paddling I very rarely get bored because not many minutes go by without something interesting to look at. However the open sea has been so quiet that I have noticed how numb my backside is getting. This happens on every trip but I am usually too engrossed to notice. Fortunately the beautiful Cornish backdrop helps ease the pain:

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South Penwith coast
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Yacht struggling for wind
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Tater Du

On this particular day what I really needed was a pod of dolphins to inject a zip into my stroke, and I found out later I missed a group of over fifty by minutes…..all part of the challenge of kayaking I suppose. It would be a lot easier if I had an engine.

Anyway…the inshore coast has been a bit more interesting. May is the month of Whimbrels, shorebirds which look like a small Curlew, but which have a far carrying ti-ti-ti-ti-ti-ti-ti call. It’s nearly always seven syllables to the call, that’s why they are called ‘Seven Whistler’. Their call is one of the classic sounds of Spring along the coast. Which I wouldn’t hear if I had an engine so I’ll stick to kayaking for a bit.

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Whimbrel

They are long distance migrants, wintering down to South Africa and breeding from the north of Scotland upwards.

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Whimbrel

The cliffs are currently ablaze with Thrift (Sea Pink),

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Thrift

and I always enjoy watching the gulls chasing each other about when one catches a starfish which is the gull equivalent to a Cadbury’s Creme Egg.

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Starfish Lunch

The sheltered creeks are looking super-scenic at the minute, with banks all yellowy-green with the new growth of leaves. with the new growth of leaves. It was great to paddle up the Fowey estuary to Lerryn with Rob and Sue Honey who have a broad range of knowledge about the area, including the history which is not one of my strong subjects, so it was very interesting. And enjoyable.

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Rob and Sue Honey

They are sharp-eyed as well, because it was Sue who spotted the brood of nine or ten Shelduck chicks along the shore, probably the first to hatch out in the whole of Cornwall.

 

 

Further down in Cornwall I paddled up the Truro river with Paul, searching for a bit of protection from the savage east wind.

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Truro River

The narrow tidal creek is an unusual place to store a redundant monster-ship.

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Paul and the beast

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Up the Fal River a couple of weeks before I was very surprised to see a couple of Fallow Deer wandering along the shore in a very casual manner.

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Fallow Deer

 

And was even more surprised to see a larger herd leg it over a riverside hill. Part of the Tregothnan estate herd, I presume. So not genuinely wild deer but still great to see them. And they certainly acted as if they were wild.

 

This IS a genuinely wild deer, a Roe Deer. Tucked in amongst the trees beside Roadford Lake, hoping I wouldn’t see it if it remained stock still. I very nearly didn’t.

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Roe Deer

My favourite sighting over the last ten days is the Shelduck family. It’s great that these wild ducks can find somewhere quiet enough to sit on their eggs for an entire month, either down a rabbit or badger hole, or tucked deep in a thicket.

I notice on closer inspection of this pic that there are ten chicks. The fluffy top of a head can be seen just over the back of the mother duck.

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Shelduck Family

 

Seabird Frenzy

Sitting amongst a flock of thousands of offshore seabirds as they sleep and preen and croon is a magical experience. I have mentioned before that creatures of the open sea, whether below or above the water, tend to show little fear so when you are in a kayak you literally can sit right in the middle of them and they just get on with what they are doing. Out in the open sea everyone and everything is equal and the animals seem to know that. Of course me in my little kayak is by far the most inept creature for miles around, but I do my best to act big.

 

 

I encountered this huge flock of Manx Shearwaters during a recent circuit of Mount’s Bay, setting out from Penzance. Where the tidal current starts to kick in between Mousehole and Lamorna the availability of fish or sandeels (or whatever is on the menu)  increases and the sea creatures gather.

I had an early start and was well offshore by the time the Scillonian III passed en route to St.Mary’s, Isles of Scilly.

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Scillonian III past Mousehole

Just about the first seabird I encountered was this solo Puffin, with another five zipping past my ear later.

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Mousehole Puffin

The bird numbers steadily increased with cackling parties of Guillemots and Razorbills full of the joys of Spring.

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Guillemots
Razorbill pair
Razorbill pair (having a bit of a chat)

During a coffee break I saw what looked like a dark cloud in the distance further out, so I paddled over to investigate. The blurr eventually resolved into a milling mass of hundreds (probably thousands) of Manx Shearwaters. They would swirl about, large groups would shallow plunge into the water onto a shoal of sprats (or something similar) and then they would circle off and repeat the performance over a different patch of sea. And all around were further large groups just chilling out.

 

 

Manx Shearwaters aren’t particularly impressive to look at if you are a non-birder. Compared to a Puffin for example, although if you took away a Puffins brightly coloured beak it too would look rather more anonymous….like this juvenile I photographed a couple of years ago (near Eddystone).

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Juvenile Puffin

However their characters become very much more colourful if you know a bit about their natural history. They spend the winter off the coast of Brazil and in early Spring make the 7,000 mile journey back to their nesting burrows in islands off the coast of the UK. Today’s birds probably nest on the welsh islands of Skomer and Skokholm which are home to almost 100,000 pairs, or maybe from the increasing (thanks to rat eradication) number on Lundy, where several thousand pairs now nest.

They only return to their burrows under cover of darkness because if they came back during the day they might end up as lunch for a Great Black-backed Gull. They are so slow and ungainly on land they are a sitting duck.

At dawn they set off on a multi-hundred mile circuit which takes them down the north coast of Cornwall and to feeding grounds like the one where I was currently sitting.

The daily flypast of hundreds of thousands of these fantastic seabirds along the coast of southwest England is one of the UK’s greatest wildlife spectacles, but hardly anyone ever sees it. Probably because it occurs early in the morning and is usually miles out to sea. And who now bothers to make the effort to stare out to sea in the hope of seeing something which could well be out of sight (or at best a mass of tiny dots through binoculars) , when there is something much more here and now on  a screen in front of them?

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Manx Shearwater

If you want to get a proper insight into the character of this remarkable species, sitting amongst them and in a kayak, and just watching and listening, is the way to do it.

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Shearwater catching forty

I dropped in to Mousehole harbour to eat my catastrophically dull sandwiches. It’s desperately difficult to be creative during confectionary construction at 5am and taste buds are doomed to be disappointed. The struggle through the doorsteps of bread was offset by vista…Mousehole has got to be the most perfect mini-harbour in Cornwall.

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Mousehole

One more interesting item of trivia about Manx Shearwaters which could mean you avoid the wooden spoon at the next pub quiz ….their scientific name is Puffinus puffinus!

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Manx Shearwater… hugely overlooked and understated

 

 

Beaches, Birds, Chums and Cherry Bakewells

 

Here’s a selection of assorted pics from trips during the fantastic weather of the last ten days:

 

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Razorbills changing into breeding plumage . Veryan Bay
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Lansallos Beach
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Polperro
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Guillemot, St Austell Bay
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Gribbin Head
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Lantic Bay , Fowey
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Great Northern Diver (Common Loon), Mevagissey
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Dave and Simon, Rumps Point, Polzeath
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Dave and Simon, Newlands, Polzeath
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Perfectly synchronised Guillemots, Polzeath
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Dave ‘n Cave, Portquin
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Puffin, The Mouls, Polzeath
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Peregrine peering
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Simon and Dave, Rumps Point, Polzeath
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Guillemot reluctant to change out of winter clothes, Portquin
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Dave and sushi. Healthy stuff.
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Cherry Bakewell. No natural ingredient within miles.
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Looe
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Eric the lone Eider, Looe
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Hang on !!!! Eric’s found a mate……Erica, Looe
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Duchess the (half blind) Grey Seal (thanks for the id, Sue)
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Oystercatcher, Looe
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Cormorants with nestlings, Looe
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Little rattly train , Looe
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Dave, Looe
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Filming with BBC Spotlight (thanks for the pic, Dave)
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Dave up the creek, Looe
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Barrel Jelly

Don’t try to tell me that SW England is not a world class sort of place.

 

 

Bored of Dolphins? I’m not , so here’s a Load More

The residual swell from the storms was subsiding….

 

and the wind disappeared completely, so I didn’t need any further encouragement to head far offshore. First I paddled round Veryan Bay to the west of (usually) gnarly Dodman Point. Even two miles offshore it was flat as a millpond and pleasantly warm…not bad for the end of March. This time last year it was snowing.

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Razorbills and Dodman point

I am very wary about heading offshore at this time of year because water temperature is only about ten degrees C. Not good if you go for a swim. So I call in with the local NCI Coastwatch to tell them of my plans, but most importantly I only go out if the sea is absolutely smooth, and I feel completely safe and secure. Also I bristle with communication technology: two phones, radio, GPS, Personal Locator Beacon.

There was very little bird activity on this day so I was expecting to see nothing, but then a single Gannet far ahead circled once, and I directly beneath it I saw the sun glint off a distant fin.

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Circling Gannet

Dolphins!

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Veryan Common Dolphin

As I quietly approached they came over to investigate.

 

It was a pod of about fifteen individuals containing a handful of calves. This seems to be the usual make-up of the groups I come across, with females and adolescents and youngsters together. I think the males go round in a sort of blokey gang by themselves (but I may be completely wrong here). I have occasionally seen groups of big beefy Common Dolphins with tall fins.

Whatever the technicalities, it was, as always, a thrilling sight made even better by the calm water and blue sea and sky.P1270088

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just too late with the shutter (as usual)

They finished off with a final close pass before tearing off into the distance.

 

A couple of days later I paddled out from fantastic Fowey Harbour for another offshore exploration in equally perfect paddling conditions.

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Fabulous Fowey

The open sea was completely quiet, just a handful of Guillemots dotted about and about as few Gannets as it is possible to see. It is very interesting that I would normally have expected to see quite a few porpoises out here (and out at Veryan the other day). The calm conditions were perfect for porpoise spotting because you can here them puff, and glimpse their small fins, from quite a distance away. In the late summer on a day like this it is actually unusual not to here the sound of a blow of a nearby porpoise every time you stop paddling and sit quietly.

So they have disappeared off somewhere else….maybe they don’t like all the barrel jellyfish that are still around.

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Barrel Jelly

I stopped for coffee exactly five miles out from Fowey and was about to head back. But there was a glint of sun at the surface further out. There were no waves to cause it, so it must have been the light glinting off a fin.

It turned out to be three juvenile Common Dolphins, being shadowed by a trio of adults a few hundred yards away.

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juvenile Common Dolphin

 

 

There are really only a handful of days a year when the offshore sea is this smooth, and it’s really something you don’t expect in mad March. I even tried a little bit of underwater GoPro stuff, but don’t think it would quite make the cut for Blue Planet live.

 

The weather is now on the turn with wind picking up, so that’s it for watching dolphins offshore for a while, I suspect.

 

 

 

Penzance Puffin

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Loe Beach

To get a bit of shelter from the moderate SW wind, but still have the feel of the open coast, Dave, Simon and I set out from Loe Beach at the neck of Carrick Roads for a saunter down to Falmouth and back.

The sun did its best to shine:

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Carrick Roads, open water

We stopped off at Flushing for lunch of stale sandwiches, followed by an unexpectedly delicious bar of Galaxy Cookie Crumble. A new one on me, and only £1 in Holsworthy Co-op.

We took an easy circuit around Falmouth and Penryn estuary before the much anticipated easy downwind return leg (as it had been a bit of a struggle against the wind).

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Simon and Dave

Wildlife highlight of this particular day was a most extraordinary one, and something I have never seen before, and may not even have been anything to do with wildlife. It was the lowest low tide for several years so some bits of shore were exposed that hadn’t seen fresh air for a very long time. As usual I was scrutinising the beach as we slid silently past, and every so often saw a squirt of water come up out of the shore. Completely random, but from all sorts of different locations. Weird.

Simon went ashore to investigate while Dave and I bravely sat in our kayaks a safe distance from the dry land, because for all we knew it could have been a delegation from a galaxy far far away.

You can see for or five jets of water randomly squirting up as Simon searches for the source:

 

Although Simon found an eel, the consensus of our combined scientific wisdom was that it was cockles that sent up a squirt of water as they slammed shut.

Highlights of the trip back were a close up investigation of HMS Argus, and a tea break at Penarrow point (the headland of drowned bodies, so we didn’t stay long)

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HMS Argus and Dave
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Penarrow Point

The day before I was very excited about a possible offshore paddle around Mounts Bay from Penzance, but when I arrived at 10am, the whole coast was fogbound, drizzly and very cheerless.

So I coast-hugged and hope the mist would clear. As usual the wildlife brightened up the scene, first of all it was a couple of Eiders (imm drakes):

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Eiders

The local gulls were very busy hunting along the shoreline for starfish exposed by the exceptionally low low tide. They were being very successful.

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Starfish lunch number 1
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Starfish lunch number 2

Mousehole was stranded by several hundred yards of exposed kelp forest, and I struggled to find somewhere to get out for a cup of coffee and half a Double Decker Duo. Desperate times!

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Kelp and Mousehole

As I supped I had a chat with a man picking up sea lettuce which he was going to sell to the local restaurants to use as a ‘wrap’ for their tasty seafood morsels. A knowledgable  and informed chap who gave a good overview of everything marine. And with a sound insight into the local wildlife as well…even better.20170531_150831

As I paddled out from Mousehole the mist miraculously dispersed and even better (and unexpectedly) the wind dropped completely. So timed to perfection for me to take a huge swing offshore to arc back to Penzance, with a chance of a BIG wildlife encounter.

It’s not very often as smooth as this two miles off Mousehole:

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Mount’s Bay Glass-off.

It wasn’t long before I heard the puff of a Porpoise, and in fact I heard them more or less constantly for the next couple of hours, because it was so calm the sound carried far over the surface. I saw only seven or eight:

 

Most of the auks dotted about were Guillemots, but I saw one was noticeably smaller from a long way off..a Puffin!

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Penzance Puffin
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Penzance Puffin

I’m pretty sure this is the first one I have ever seen in March from my kayak.

 

It briefly teamed up with a passing Guillemot giving a good size comparison.

I looped around the big tanker moored in the bay,

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St.Michael’s Mount and Tanker

and passed a load more Guillemots in various stages of transition from winter into their breeding plumage.

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Guillemots

 

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Foggy Fowey Dolphins and Porpoises

A couple of days of superb paddling in light winds…..yesterday was an exploration of the Dart estuary from Totnes to Dartmouth and back with Dave, and today was a solo offshore paddle from Fowey, with wildlife sightings (once again) way beyond my expectations for March.

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Dart estuary

The Dart paddle was a fairly hefty nineteen miles but cunning tidal planning worked in our favour and even allowed a very civilised tea break at Dittisham.

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Dave and tea shop

The sun did its best to put in an appearance as we neared Dartmouth, resulting in dangerously high humidity levels in our drysuits.

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Decent Dartmouth

Of course we allowed time for a wee bit of trainspotting (it was just coincidence we arrived at Kingswear at exactly as the same time as the train…honest.)

 

Heading back up the river we had to frequently evade the tourist boats who tend to ignore inconsequential craft such as ours.P1260473

Wildlife highlight of the day was this exceptional sighting of three Harbour Seals hauled out on a pontoon. Harbour seals are rare in SW England with just one or two hanging about up some of the creeks, and I have only ever come across a handful, and  never seen more than one at a time. The familiar seal in the area is the much bigger Atlantic Grey seal. Harbour seals live along the east coast of England and around Scotland, but maybe this little cluster means they are now spreading this way.

There was actually more than three because I saw what I thought were a couple of Harbour seals in the water, as well as a couple of Greys.

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Dart Harbour Seal trio

This morning I started idiotically early in the morning because the wind forecast was exceptionally light and I might just be able to do an offshore paddle out of Fowey, an unusual occurrence in March.

It was misty and murky with intermittent drizzle, but the marine wildlife was buzzing. Fulmars zipped past my earholes…

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Fulmar

and Guillemots and Razorbills sat about and dived for sprats…

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Razorbill (nearly in breeding plumage)

Below the surface lurked the spooky ghostly white shape of a Barrel Jellyfish.

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Barrel Jelly

Gannets filed past and I watched each one closely. I have mentioned before that in places like this if a Gannet circles around it is probable that there is a Porpoise swimming below. Today, it was certainly the case…..with Gannets thumping into the water beside the feeding Porpoises. Watch this slomo carefully..(Fowey behind)

 

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Incoming Gannet!

One porpoise passed by very close. Unlike dolphins they are not inquisitive and pay no attention at all to boats and kayaks. They just get on with what they are doing and if that happens to mean they come close to where you are sitting, so be it.

 

As I watched the porpoise, the first flock of Manx Shearwaters that I have seen this year winged past a bit further out:

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Pack of Shearwaters

I stopped for a cup of coffee and essential nutrient supplementation in the shape of two chunks of Raisin and Biscuit Yorkie, and had a final scan (with eyeballs only) out to sea. The grey skies and smooth water were the perfect combination for seeing a black fin break the water. I was just on the point of turning back when I thought I might have glimpsed a couple of black specs, which then disappeared. I paddle towards the area for five minutes and saw nothing more. I was turning for home once again when the same thing happened so I once again paddled out to investigate.

Amazingly I came across a little pod of five or six Common Dolphins that were swimming along very quietly, more in the manner of Porpoises. However, being Common Dolphins one had to hurl itself out of the water and land with a bit of a splash, because that is what Common Dolphins do best.

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Common Dolphin

They cruised past the front of my kayak without a second glance, maybe because there was one small calf in the pod, and they don’t seem to be so investigative when there is a very young dolphin to look after, or maybe protect.

 

After the group of half a dozen had past, another pair came past….both adults, and one with a very pronounced dark moustache stripe (or should it be called a beard?)

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Adult Common Dolphins

Today’s excellent variety of wildlife was nicely rounded off by this beautifully lilac Sea urchin at the mouth of Fowey estuary, exposed by the exceptionally low tide.

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Sea Urchin

Spring has got off to a flying start.

 

 

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