This was my twentieth trip out to the Eddystone, and as usual I was full of expectation of encounters with amazing marine megafauna. Mind you, I am always full of expectation when I go out to the ‘Eddy’, and have often been disappointed, not just exhausted, when I get back. Its a minimum twenty-three mile round trip from Cawsand, and more if you have not done your tidal homework, or go chasing after distant dolphins. But dolphins don’t always appear….
I was on the water just before six. Too early, as usual. I was hoping for absolutely smooth conditions but a land breeze chopped up the surface making viewing tricky for the first few hours. Although there was a nice flat patch tucked in behind Rame Head.
Even so, I soon heard the puff of a couple of Porpoises when I was a mile offshore. It was nice to be able to see the blow condense in the chill of the early morning, something I have rarely observed before.
I was tempted to go and investigate a huge circling work-up of Gannets a couple of miles west, but this was just too far off my route, and previous experience has shown that by the time I roll up the feeding frenzy has finished.
I thought there were bound to be dolphins beneath that number of Gannets, but as a consolation I came across my own minipod of three, racing past. Not a good view.
I watched another pod of what I thought were male Common Dolphins, with tall fins, seven miles offshore, and then it was all quiet until I reached the lighthouse after about four hours.
For the return leg the sea smoothed off completely. My favourite conditions. Paddling was absolutely effortless as the kayak slid over the glassy surface, and I really got in the zone and scanned the surface for fins and feathers, and could have heard a pin drop from a mile away. I could certainly hear the drone of boat engines from five miles away, and the thud of marine artillery from a warship which was over the horizon.
A couple of Balearic Shearwaters zipped passed amongst the steady stream of Manx, and I think this is a juvenile (jumpling) Guillemot with its parent.
I swung a mile or two east because there was still a bit of push left in the tide. I might as well gain a bit of benefit before the current started to head west again.
A couple of miles from the lighthouse I thought I heard the blow of a whale. Very distant and only just audible. I sat absolutely still and then heard the same noise when my PFD (lifejacket) scuffed against my kayak seat. False alarm…..but no, because there was the noise again when I was sitting absolutely motionless. I sped towards the source of the noise and after going flat out for ten minutes saw a big slow motion back break the surface…a Minke Whale!
Absolutely fantastic, this is why I paddle hundreds of offshore miles per year. Precisely to have this kind of thrilling encounter, and to hear that blast of air……in my opinion the most evocative sound in the animal kingdom. Even better when it’s on your own patch here in Devon. And sitting in the seat of your own kayak, eight miles from shore.
It’s difficult enough to find a whale in a boat with an engine, but finding one far offshore with a kayak is so challenging that few are daft enough to try. So the reward is great.
I sat and watched as the whale had a series of breaths. At one stage it was about to come up right beneath my kayak and left an an enormous tail fluke print of swirling water at the surface. So swirly that my kayak twisted round 180 degrees.
It then moved away so I paddled after it, and then it popped up precisely where I had been sitting ten minutes previously. Typical. Minke whales travel fast and cover very long distances between breaths. On a couple of previous occasions I have heard a whale blow once, and heard, or seen, nothing more.
I watched the whale surface about twenty times over the next hour. My camera was usually pointing in the wrong direction, but I managed to succeed on a couple of occasions.
This is the first time I have managed to capture the nose breaking the surface:
and this one shows that this whale did venture over the Cornish border into Devonian water…that’s Plymouth in the background….
I had difficulty dragging myself away, but eventually headed in when the whale seemed to disappear off to the west. However, that wasn’t the end of the Minkes. For the next couple of hours, hardly a couple of minutes went by without me hearing the puff of a porpoise, or the extended blast of a distant whale. Sends a shiver down my spine every time.
I observed a total of ten porpoises and heard a lot more that were too far away for me to see. The breath of a whale carries a huge distance, but it didn’t seem to subside as I clocked up the miles in towards the coast.
Just after the half-way reef I saw another long black back roll slowly at the surface, about a mile ahead. I couldn’t believe it…I have never seen two Minkes in a day before. I surged ahead and this whale did appear to be very large , but still clearly a Minke.
And if you think this is a different whale, this is number three!
Here is the second, and possibly third, whales fins in close-up. Are they a different whale? What do you think? It certainly popped up far from where I was expecting number 2 to surface.
The action did not let up for the final four miles back to the coast. I ran straight into a pod of twenty-five Common Dolphins.
Arriving back at busy Cawsand, with all the coastal kayaks and paddleboards and icecream and excited shrieks from the swimmers, was a bit of a culture shock. After nearly ten hours, and almost twenty-nine miles, of watery wilderness…… and whales!
The Rumps is another north Cornwall headland that hardly ever opens its doors to the casual kayaker who likes flat water and lots of loafing about taking photos (and supping coffee) . It catches every little bit of swell, current and wind that is around and mixes and magnifies them all up into a confusion of clapotis (technical term meaning confused sea bouncing back off a cliff, that likes to cause havoc amongst small boats).
The big carrot for me, as I paddled out of the absurdly sheltered harbour at Portquin was the little colony of Puffins that I hope to observe in less bouncy conditions than I did last time, a couple of weeks ago.
I was thrilled to see them again, and the busy crowds of Guillemots and Razorbills, but the tidal current working against the wind made surface conditions tricky for photography again, especially when zoomed in. No complaints…that’s all part of the challenge, and fun, of taking pics from a kayak (and probably why very few other people do it).
Just like the seabird colony in full swing on the Exmoor coast, this seemed to be a very successful breeding season. Lots of adults flying past with fish, and several large baitballs of sandeels just below the surface.
It may just be an impression, because if a seabird colony is going to be busy at any time, it is now when the youngsters demand for food is greatest.
Here’s the gallery of seabird pics from the day:
I continued down the ‘alley’ between Rumps point and Pentire Head and Newlands island.
A flopping fin of a Sunfish was on the surface in front of me, but disappeared long before I could get my camera out. Then another, equally shy. And then one breaching just in front of me. In fact over the next hour or so, I saw five or six more random splashes which I’m pretty sure were all sunfish. They like areas of tidal movement like this, and hopefully this heralds a good season of sightings….I only saw one last year.
For a final fling I was lured a mile (or more) further offshore by a mini Gannet feeding frenzy. Usually where there are diving Gannets, there are cetaceans. But on this occasion there were no fins visible at the surface.
It was great to see the Gannets hurling themselves into the water, with a splosh that can be heard from far away. They often cannot contain themselves and utter a cackle of excitement as they twist prior to their plunge.
That’s it for the north Cornwall coast for a few days. There’s wind and a swell on the way.
So the Puffins won’t have to worry about being pestered by kayakers for a while.
I’ve said that a lot recently. But this time it wasn’t just the superb calm weather. How often is the sea this flat three miles off the coast of Exmoor?
It was the gobsmacking scenery as well.
I’ve paddled this bit of coast three or four times before, but always as a fallback when the swell on the west facing coast is too big. I didn’t realise that big swell further west means that close investigation of this fascinating bit of coast, with all the caves and gullies, is not possible due to the waves. Also in winter more or less the whole of the Bristol Channel, as an extension of the Severn estuary, is brown.
Today was completely different to my previous experiences. The sea was flat and the water was clear.
So I couldn’t resist heading straight offshore to see if I could find some of the Porpoises that frequent this bit of the North Devon coast. I think they are resident here.
If it hadn’t been glass calm I would have missed the first one. Just a glisten off a fin a half-mile ahead, and when I arrived upon the scene a single porpoise puffed past, surfacing four or five times, and was gone on its way.
The next two hours were quiet, apart from Guillemots and Razorbills zipping past, many with fish poking out of their beaks, brunch for expectant offspring on the cliffs ahead.
I stopped for a coffee break before I headed in. And as is often the case when I stop for a slurp, I heard a porpoise puff. Clearly although kayaking is silent, the slight splashing of the paddle can mask a distant puff. A thousand times better than a boat with an engine, however.
For the next half-hour I was completely absorbed in watching mother and calf porpoise doing their stuff. They would surface together, then Mum might speed off to look for some fish; junior would get left behind and race to catch up. Or Mum might do a deep dive and the youngster would have to surface for some extra breaths before the adult resurfaced.
Here’s the best of the show. The clips show all the characteristics of the porpoise nicely. The triangular fin, the roll at the surface without a splash, the loud puff, and sudden change of direction (which can catch out the unwary lensman…..I was clearly ‘on it’ today).
I paddled inshore and soaked up the sensurround experience of the next natural wonder, the extensive seabird colony on the cliffs. Cackling Guillemots and Razorbills, a whirr of wings overhead as parents commute back and forth, and most excitingly, the laugh of Kittiwakes. The name describes the call perfectly.
Kittiwakes are the neatest-looking of the resident UK ‘gulls’, but are loyal to the sea (and sea coast), and the few colonies around the coast of Southwest England seem to be in decline.
Listen to the call, the name ‘Kittiwake describes it perfectly.
However today the whole colony seemed to be bursting with life and the impression that was created was that all was well. Large numbers of small fish were being delivered to the unseen chicks on the ledges, and everyone (?!) seemed happy.
This Razorbill has a couple of what look like Herring in its beak. I don’t think they are sandeels, which is their staple diet.
One more clip for you, it is a sight to be savoured. Masses of seabirds in a spectacular location.
I was so full of excitement about this trip, I came back the next day with Dave and Simon.
The Oystercatchers were doubly unhappy about the intrusion than the day before, they will have a chick nearby, without doubt.
There were loads of caves and gulches which required close investigation.
Then we literally stumbled upon a seal (as much as you can ‘stumble’ in a kayak), which was just in front of me as I was drifting along taking photos of jellyfish.. It was lying absolutely motionless at the surface. Fast asleep, small stream of bubbles coming from her nose.
There were more seals hauled out, which we passed at a socially acceptable distance so they were not disturbed.
Lunch was taken at Heddon’s Mouth.
There was just the little issue of a seven mile paddle back. And the threat of a drop of rain.
More Mighty scenes….
Plenty more wildlife above the water….
And plenty of wildlife below the water…. (I’ll do a jellyfish ‘special’ blog soon)
A hundred years ago there were many thousands of Puffins breeding around the Cornish coast, and prior to that even more. In the fourteenth and fifteenth century some of the islands of the Isles of Scilly paid their rent in Puffins, and there were a hundred thousand birds on the island of Annet (where they still breed) in the early 1900s.
Nowadays there are probably no more than a few dozen Puffins nesting around the edge of Cornwall (although there are now a lot more just over the border into Devon, on Lundy, following eradication of the rats). In late Spring and early Summer there are more scattered around the coast generally, probably non-breeding birds or last year’s chicks. I usually come across a few, well offshore, in May and June. The youngsters aren’t quite as smart looking as the adults without the brightly coloured beak and they have grubby dark markings on their face (like they’ve had their head in a bin).
I came across this one near Eddystone last week.
Apart from Scilly, all the colonies are on islands off the North Cornish coast. So they are not only fully exposed to wind and tide, they also catch the full force of the groundswell. And, because they are off headlands, the effects of all of the above are exaggerated, making a visit by kayak quite a challenge.
The islands are also pretty remote, and are two or three miles paddle from the nearest ‘safe haven’ and launch point. It all adds to the excitement.
Suitable calm conditions, as I have said on many occasions before, are rare at Boscastle. If you want to really enjoy this bit of coast the wind has got to be light and from the south or south-east, and the swell has got to be small (less than one foot). Any bigger and you will not feel happy to go in those amazing caves and ‘zawns’ (steep-sided clefts).
The north Cornish coast has a relentless swell which rarely eases:
However one day, as close to perfect as it could be, came along on Saturday. Boscastle at its best. Deep blue sky, light winds, toasty temperature. Moon jellyfish below,
and my first Barrel Jellyfish of the year (compared to many hundreds by this time last year)
and plenty of Razorbills and Guillemots above.
I looked hard for the Puffins that nest on Short island, and just caught a glimpse of a pair scorch past on their way out to sea. At least it means that the tiny ‘colony’ here is still hanging on.
Boscastle has more than its fair share of gobsmacking scenery, that is of course best appreciated by kayak. The only possible downside is that the scenery is so BIG, it makes you feel very small.
We carried on down the coast for a paddle right through the neck of Tintagel island…the legendary Merlin’s Cave. Listen for Dave’s seal impression. Very realistic.
On the way back we stopped to watch the auk action at Lye Rock, which long ago was home to Cornwall’s biggest Puffin colony. No Puffins here now (that we saw) but I managed to catch an underwater clip of Razorbills ‘flying’ underwater. You would be forgiven if you thought they were penguins.
This ultra-brief glimpse of the Puffin pair made me extra keen to head a bit further down the coast, just past Port Isaac, the next day. I had seen Puffins on one of the islands off Rumps Point, Polzeath, on the few occasions I had paddled there before.
There was only one problem….the easterly wind had picked up, and the tides were now Springs so the currents would be more swirly than usual.
Fortunately another deep blue sky day made the sea look as benign as possible, and a perfect little sandy beach for a coffee break was a very acceptable start.
I was mobbed so enthusiastically by an Oystercatcher that I looked hard on the rocks for any sign of movement of a chick, not easy as my kayak was bouncing around all over the place in the chop. However, there was a tiny little fluffball, a chick a few days old.
I made the short crossing from the headland to the island with waves sloshing over the bow as tidal current fought against windchop, but my efforts paid off straightaway with a couple of adult Puffins bobbing about close to the island shore. Fab. I fired off loads of pics but it was at the limits of practicality as the image was lurching about all over the place, especially when zoomed in. No chance to check to see whether any pics were in focus.
I was lured round the back of the island by a gull feeding frenzy in the shearline between tide race and static water, with a couple of opportunist Gannets hanging overhead. I was hoping for a fin to break the surface but no luck.
I sped back to coffee break beach, had a look at the pics and, hey presto, the wind had dropped a notch. So I went paddled back to the Puffins, and a whole load more had appeared…a dozen in total including a pack of five. I rattled off vast numbers of pics, and attempted some sort of video. You can see how bouncy the conditions were in this clip…
Here’s a gallery of the best of the stills, starting off with a particularly camera shy individual:
The very few days a year when it is possible to venture out to these Puffin breeding colonies in a kayak, in anything approaching relaxing conditions, makes the challenge of going to see them even more fulfilling and enjoyable.
I’m glad I went when I did because, looking at the forecast for the next week and beyond, the Puffins will be safe from disturbance by kayak. The open coast will be far too lumpy.
While we are talking about Puffins, I can’t resist giving this pic another airing…taken off Sennen Cove last July. Two iconic Cornish species in the same frame: Risso’s Dolphins and Puffins.
Everybody’s favourite seabird. Right here in Cornwall. Photographed from my kayak. Hard to beat.
Wow, what a way to shake off the shackles of lockdown. My two favourite iconic landmarks of the south Cornish coast, on consecutive days of unbroken sunshine, paddling under deep blue skies.
The trip out to the Eddystone lighthouse, which lies ten miles southwest of the mouth of Plymouth sound, is my favourite big offshore paddle. It’s a minimum of twenty-four miles there and back (launching from Cawsand), but more when you have chased around after a few sea creatures.
This was my nineteenth expedition out to the lighthouse, eleven years after my first. I was a little bit nervous that I still had the power and endurance in the bag, given that I have recently tiptoed across the threshold into my seventh decade.
It lures me back because of its sense of adventure, and the lure of the fantastic wildlife that one might expect to bump into en route. I’ve seen a couple of Minke Whales, Common, Bottlenose and even White-beaked dolphins, Porpoise, Basking Shark, Blue Shark, Sunfish, Seals, and one of only two Wilson’s Petrels ever recorded in Devon.
So, as usual, I was full of expectation.
The forecast was flat calm until ten o’clock, then a light southerly. Perfect , a bit of assistance on the way back. I was too early to get on the water (nothing new there) and there was a cool breeze flowing like a river out of the mouth of the Tamar. This combined with an incoming Spring tide created more of a chop than I had expected. Nothing hairy, just a bumpy ride, which wasn’t great for wildlife watching. It was compounded by a small groundswell, and the constant wash from fishing boats en route from Plymouth to the Eddystone reef.
However I did manage to spot a small pod of Common Dolphins thanks to one youngster repeatedly breaching directly in front of me. Although I engaged top gear and sped after them I failed to close the gap enough to take a photo.
It took in excess of four hours to reach the Eddystone, as the tide was about as unhelpful as it could have been. I knew this to be the case, but the only other option was not to go, which clearly wasn’t an option.
I nearly leapt out of my skin when a multiple booming blast made my entire kayak vibrate. It came from the Queen Elizabeth aircraft carrier ten miles away, that had decided it was time to cruise on. What a cacophony.
It was too lumpy around the back of the lighthouse for a relaxing break so I just headed straight back. It’s not often not lumpy here.
I nearly ran straight into a pair of Porpoises soon after leaving the light, and then a Puffin popped up right in front of me. Photography was not at all easy because the kayak was bouncing about but I couldn’t resist risking a few shots of this immature (probably last year’s fledgling) Puffin.
Suddenly the wind dropped (and I think the flow changed direction….not always easy to predict here) and the last five miles back to the mainland were like a lake.
I dropped in to the lovely sandy beach in the armpit of Rame Head for a leg stretch (after over eight hours in the kayak seat) but it was heaving with Bank Holiday boaters so I ditched that idea and carried on. My pleasant wilderness bubble was further dented, if not burst, by the roar of jetskis coming out of the sound.
It was suddenly time to get home. 25.9 miles, nine and a quarter hours total.
St. Michael’s Mount is rather more relaxing because it is less than half a mile offshore. What it lacks in remoteness and starkness, it makes up with eyecatching beauty and drama. You just can’t help looking up at those little windows on the sheer wall above the craggy cliff.
I bumped into a couple of paddling chums as I left Penzance harbour, and we formed a loose convoy, with approved sort of distancing, for a circuit around the Mount.
The sea, as forecast, was flat enough for the three and-a-half mile crossing to Mousehole, and of course I scoured the surface for fins. Was that a distant puff I heard? Yes, a couple of Porpoises popped up right beside Dave as he devoured a Twix. They were very camera shy (the porpoises, not Dave and confectionery) but I just managed to capture this fleeting fin.
A few Guillemots were dotted about, and a flypast Razorbill.
Mousehole was echoing to the sound of laughing and chattering of splashing children, perhaps appropriate for the picture-perfect little coastal village that time seems to have forgotten about, and hopefully so has Covid 19.
Back at Penzance I was surprised to see three Purple Sandpipers hanging on, still loathe to move north. Perhaps they have a taste for bright sunshine. They were not keen to perform for the lens however (initially at least).
It’s a funny time of year for oceanic sealife, because offshore it often goes very quiet in May and June. There are hardly any Gannets around, which generally means not much cetacean activity. Gannets have superb eyesight and will spot fins at the surface from a huge distance. I havn’t seen one circling, which means action below, for a while. Apart from over me, that is. In fact judging by the way they sprint over to check me out as if I am the only interesting feature on the surface for miles around, the sea everywhere else must be quite quiet at the moment.
So not may cetaceans, but fortunately for wildlife-watching kayakers there are the birds, the coastal scenery looking at its best, and the wall -to- wall deep blue sky to enjoy.
Phew, lockdown has eased just in time get out and enjoy the REALLY sunny weather. My chum Paul always says that the third week in May is the best week of the year and I think he’s just about spot-on…..wildflowers in full bloom and birds as busy as they can possibly be with raising their families.
The Guillemots on Gull Rock are lined up like ten-pins on their tiny ledges and jostling for position. I love their primeval cackle….
They are looking at their very best at the moment, all chocolately brown and white, and I spotted a rare bridled version (a plumage variation, not a separate species) amongst the throng.
I didn’t get too close to the breeding ledges…..making them ‘stampede’ is completely unacceptable and can cause eggs, which are just placed on the narrow ledges with no nest to hold them in place, to fall off.
I opted for admiring them on the water instead.
Also nesting on Gull Rock (apart from Gulls, of course) are Razorbills, but in much fewer numbers than the Guillemots. I think they look even better than their auk cousins, decked out in velvety-black with a perfectly positioned white designer streak in front of the eye.
Here’s one trying to ensure it’s impeccable image is maintained….
I was a bit surprised to come across this little posse resting on a tiny islet half a mile offshore.
A group of Sanderling and Dunlin, moulting into their breeding plumage, no doubt en route to their breeding grounds in the arctic. Sanderlings, perhaps not surprisingly, are most at home on a sandy beach, running in and out with the waves.
Other arctic breeders that winter around the coast of Cornwall are also still around. This pair of Great Northern Divers in Gerrans Bay are reluctant to cast off their winter dress,
whereas this one in Penzance is in full breeding plumage. Bad pic I know, but it shows off the ‘necklace’ well.
Purple Sandpipers, which specifically like to winter on wave battered barnacle-encrusted rocks in exposed locations, also have not all departed for the north.
OK, let’s ramp up the post-lockdown kayaking excitement a notch or two.
Seeing a fin slicing through the clear waters of the open sea is one of the greatest wildlife sightings you can have from a kayak, in my opinion. Not least because it is quite an achievement in terms of planning, and physical effort, to get out to where they might be….usually far offshore.
The last one I saw was attached to the back of a porpoise off Dodman Point on 16 March. Because I am a bit of a fin addict, I was pretty keen to find a few more, and as soon as the wind forecast for Mounts Bay, Penzance , was suitable, I was off down the A30 for my dose of extended, and legal, exercise.
Launching from Penzance harbour at low tide is currently rather tricky because there is a ship parked in the channel, the Scillonian III.
Heading offshore I was lucky enough to hear a couple of Porpoises puffing before I had stopped for breakfast. Excellent. I didn’t watch them for long because I had moved on to the next ‘thing’…..what else might be about? I had to keep paddling out before the wind picked up (it wasn’t forecast to increase, and didn’t, but I always maintain a sense of urgency in case it does. Quite exhausting, really).
Good call, another fin ahead, and this one was slightly bigger and accompanied by a little splash…..Dolphin!
It got better……the dolphin’s calf then popped up beside it.
I settled in (as much as you can in a kayak on the open sea), ate my breakfast, had a cup of coffee, and enjoyed the show.
And then I paddled on. I saw very little for the next few hours, although paddled over to investigate a small group of Kittiwakes dipping down to the surface snatching small fish. Far out to sea small fish at the surface is good news for Kittiwakes, good news for me, but bad news for small fish.
They are there because predators from below have herded them into a baitball and pinned them up against the surface to make them easier to catch. Last autumn, in exactly this place, baitballs of sprats and sandeels were being engulfed by dolphins, porpoises, giant tuna, a Minke Whale and a Humpback whale.
Today wasn’t quite so dramatic, but it was the first time I had seen this particular predator doing the herding. Sea Bass. The first one I glimpsed just below me was so big it gave me a bit of a start. Big for a Bass anyway…must have been 5lbs plus (danger of exaggeration here…it’s a fishy story).
On the way back, amazingly, I bumped into the dolphin pair again, three miles away from our first encounter. Like finding the needle in the haystack, twice.
I took lunch at Mousehole. Looking good, as always (Mousehole, not me).
And as usual a few seals were lounging about on the island. Including this rather glistening youngster….last year’s pup?
The Beadiest of Eyes
Although I would describe the cheese sandwiches I had hastily constructed at 4.30am as forgettable, they didn’t go unnoticed by the local gulls, some of whom might tend towards a scavenging sort of approach to life. They came close enough to allow unusually close scrutiny of their features.
How amazing is this eye? The iris looks more like a map of the moon than a map of the moon.
It belongs to the local avian bully-boy and public enemy number one, a Great Black-backed Gull. Gulls in seaside towns have an appalling public image, but I personally like them very much, not least because their eyes are filled with character. The call of a Herring Gull is the sound of the seaside.
Although, having said that, the sound of a Great Black-back is a rather intimidating ‘gulp’.
And finally…back to the (semi-lockdown) garden
To further uplift the spirits, here’s a couple of recent specials to round things off.
The first snake I have ever seen in the garden (in 25 years).
And a Willow Warbler doing it’s best to maintain the tail end of the dawn chorus, despite being audio-bombed by a wren during its second verse.
Watching and Photographing Wildlife from the Kayak Seat
If you want the best front row seat in the stadium to see water-based wildlife, a kayak is what you need. It is not just exhilarating, fun and everybody’s favourite mode of transport. It is completely silent, very unobtrusive and offers the best perspective for observation and photography because you are sitting at water level.
Compare these two dolphin pics. The first is a Dusky Dolphin I took from the deck of a boat, the second is a Common Dolphin snapped from my kayak.
You can look right into the eye of the dolphin at the same level and get much more of a feel of their (big) personality and (considerable) charisma. Audio input isn’t confused by the noise of an engine…you can hear every puff, every splash and the full range of squeaks and clicks. Have a listen to this. Bottlenose Dolphins.
I carry around two cameras when I go out paddling. One is as simple as a camera can be and so fits in as well with my minimalistic approach to gadgets as it does in my lifejacket pocket.
It is an AKASO V50 PRO which is a cheaper version of the legendary GoPro sports camera. It is a point and shoot and delivers very acceptable stills and excellent 4K videos. It has a very wide angle lens so is great for scenery shots…..
and big wildlife up very close. When inside its waterproof case it is perfect for underwater stuff. Like this….
My previous underwater camera was not to be sneezed at either. It captured some great shots of this enormous Basking Shark as it cruised underneath my kayak. This was taken ten (gulp) years ago with an Olympus Tough compact camera. It was lucky I saw these when I did…a Basking Shark is now a rare sight.
My main camera is the superb PANASONIC LUMIX FZ2000. I have been using it for two and-a-half years, having upgraded from a couple of superzoom bridge cameras over the previous decade. The Lumix FZ2000 is also a bridge camera (so NOT a SLR) but gives a superior image quality to most others of similar design because it has a larger (1″) sensor.
It has a 24-480 zoom lens so can skip in a couple of seconds from a decent wide angle for scenes and close, large creatures to a respectable telephoto shot of a bird. This is where it REALLY has the edge over a DSLR for me. To get the same range of focal length with a DSLR I would have to carry at least two lens, and changing lens while out on a kayak is really not easy. Worse still it takes time and spontaneity is the key when trying to photograph wildlife that spends most of its time underwater.
Also DSLRs are very heavy (although the very latest are much lighter), and more expensive than the LUMIX FZ2000. Yes, they give an image with better resolution but, in good light particularly, the bridge camera comes close.
I use the Lumix FZ2000 for videos as well. The quality is HD or 4k and it is great to be able to use the 20X zoom while videoing.
It is a really great camera and has recorded some memorable images. It has only two drawbacks, one major and one minor. The less important issue is that the lens cap doesn’t attach very firmly and keeps falling off when I put the camera in its bag, which is quite irritating when I am a bit tired.
The major issue is that the camera doesn’t have any weatherproofing at all. It is about as unwaterproof as it is possible to be. So it is pretty remarkable it is still going strong having accompanied me for over 5,000 miles. It’s vulnerability makes me all the more careful about looking after it, which I would have to do, but maybe not so diligently, with any camera.
Following my ‘keep it simple’ rule, the Lumix stays tucked away in a dry bag until I want to take a pic, when I bring it out and then put it straight away or sit it on my lap and hope it doesn’t fall overboard. Nothing more fancy than that…..no waterproof case or special mounting.
The trouble is, when I see something like an otter I am going to take a pic whatever the weather, and just hope it doesn’t wreck the camera. I always carry around a couple of sheets of kitchen towel in the drybag to wipe off a bit of drizzle. (I also use the kitchen towel to clean the lens…there is less likely to be a bit of sand in the paper than a fancy lens cleaning cloth from your grubby pocket.)
Taking this video, with no water protection for the camera, was really pushing my luck.
Camera Setup. A bit of technical stuff.
Simple, simple, simple is the way to go. And think ahead. I always have the Lumix set up so that I can whip it out of its drybag in super quick time, point and shoot. If you start fiddling about with settings you will probably be too late.
Water-based wildlife such as otters and dolphins do not hang around and are incredibly challenging to photograph from a kayak, quite apart from the constant threat of splashes from waves, the paddle or your permanently wet hands.
It’s essential you have your camera set up and ready for the conditions, all the time. Spontaneity is the key. It’ll be a long time before another pod of White-beaked Dolphins swims past.
The kayak is rarely still, especially when you are in the open sea so I use a minimum shutterspeed of one thousandth of a second. If it is sunny I will use 1/1300 which will freeze most dolphin splashes. For stills I always use burst, set at a medium rate because I can’t be bothered to search through too many images later. For videos, I just press the little red button. No other gadgets.
One useful tip I have recently learnt. On a bright overcast day the surface of the sea is white so the subject (e.g seabird/dolphin), will be dark. So I make an aperture adjustment and ‘stop it up’ one or two points. Beneath a dark river bank (e.g photographing an otter) the reverse is true and the subject will be too light, so I stop the aperture down a couple of pips. And I always do it before I set off because in the heat of the moment you forget, and miss that special shot.
This is a good example. I came across this Stoat trying to mesmerise these ducks, so it could est one for lunch, beside the river Fowey one gloomy November day, so the background was quite dark. If I had stopped the aperture down and been prepared, the stoat and the ducks would not have looked so pale.
I carry a spare battery and spare SD card in the dry bag….just in case.
Planning a Wildlife Kayak Trip. Watch the Weather, especially the Wind
If you want to have the best possible day out you have really got to know exactly what the tide, swell and wind are doing.
For tide I use tides4fishing website because you can see how big the tide is (tidal coefficient) and get a good overview of what is going on, on a single page.
For swell I use Magic Seaweed surf forecast. This is really important, especially if you are planning a beach launch somewhere like the North Cornish coast. It’s a bit of a blow when you have chosen a dead calm, scorching hot day without a cloud in the sky, and you get completely flattened by a crashing six foot wave as you paddle out…..all because you didn’t check the surf forecast.
Wind is by far the most important factor, especially if you plan to paddle open coast or head offshore. I use two forecasts. The best (I think) is XCWeather. This gives a live wind reading and a very accurate wind and gust forecast, and you can hunt around the map to find the most sheltered spot. It’s a much better overview than if you only check out the forecast for one place. It’s very helpful to know , for example, whether the forecast slack winds are in the middle of a high, or low, pressure system. The light winds in the anticyclone are more reliable than those in the middle of a ‘Low’, especially when planning a few days ahead. Having said that, the XCWeather forecast is incredibly accurate, and if it is wrong it is because winds are lighter than forecast, such as the calm of early morning. This is not a problem!
Here’s today’s forecast on XCWeather. Looks absolutely perfect for offshore kayaking, hardly a breath of wind around Cornwall….grrrr!
I also like to look at BBC Weather because it gives a good written summary of the day’s weather. Cloud increasing, wind falling light, feeling cold…that sort of thing. I have been caught out once or twice by a forecast of 100% cloud 9on other forecast sites) and not taken suncream, It turned out that the cloud was a layer of thin high cloud so the UV and heat was hardly tempered at all and I just about fried, or would have done had I not wrapped my vest around my head. The written forecast would have made all that clear.
The sea state reflects the wind gust speed rather than the mean wind speed, so it’s very important to know.
I am very wary about paddling offshore solo, although I enjoy it very much and if you want to maximise your chance of seeing porpoises, dolphins and maybe even a whale or a Leatherback, that’s what you’ve got to do. This Leatherback turtle was ten miles off Land’s End (en route back from Scilly), and the only one I have ever seen.
I make sure I know EXACTLY what the tide is doing and which way the current is flowing (which doesn’t necessarily change at the same time as the tide, especially along the south coast and Land’s End), and EXACTLY what the swell and wind (including gusts) are forecast to do.
I aim to head out to sea only if the surface is like a lake. The maximum windspeed must not exceed five knots all day, or maybe just a bit more if it is going to be behind me on the way back. I find it no fun if there are any whitecaps, because photography becomes impossible with the movement of the kayak, and you are much less likely to see anything anyway because in choppy sea fins are much more difficult to spot.
Needless to say, the stronger the wind the more the risks increase.
Amongst my mass of safety equipment is my handheld Garmin GPS 72H. I have all the local headlands and ports plumbed in so I can see at a glance how far each one is away, and know how long it will take me to get there using the GPS speedometer. The speedo is very handy because it is easy to think you are making no headway at all when you are far offshore and a bit fatigued. Only once has this actually been the case ( and yes…it was a bit of a nasty shock); but there are actually only a few tidal currents around SW England which flow faster than cruising kayak speed. All off the most prominent headlands, or estuary mouths. Start Point, for example.
1. Keep it simple, simple, simple. More clutter means less time on the water and more time looking down not up, and more to go wrong.
2. In the image, excitement factor rules over pixels. This pic of a lunging Humpback is a pathetic 174kb (a still from the video clip above) and would be laughed off court by the average camera buff (who wouldn’t consider putting out a photo with anything less than 10MB), but it was considered thrilling enough to get a half page spread in the Daily Mail.
3. Don’t take any notice of anything I have said. I am a kayaker who takes photographs, not a photographer. That would imply having a flair for art and being creative. I point, I shoot, and I hope for the best.
It is fortunate that nature is not affected by corona chaos. It just steadily gets on with doing its stuff, slowly adjusting to the seasons. Spring is trying its best to appear….the primroses in the bank, the occasional bumble bee and butterfly in a sunny corner, a chiffchaff singing from a copse and the superb blackbird singing outside the bedroom window at the first hint of dawn (it piped up at 5.43 this morning).
Coronavirus can’t mess up the coastal scenery either. In fact, unbelievably, it has made it a bit better, because there are no vapour trails in the sky. It is an extraordinary coincidence that only a month ago I was saying that the cherry on top of the iced bun that is the remoteness of Antarctica was that there were no vapour trails overhead, which kept the absence of human influence absolutely complete.
And here it was (or wasn’t). Right here on our doorstep in Cornwall. not a plane in sight. You would normally expect to see up to a dozen trails lined across a morning vista such as this.
No vapour trails here…..
No vapour trails there……..
No vapour trails anywhere……
Not having the exhaust fumes from 100,000 flights per day around the globe can only be of benefit to the inhabitants therein (or thereon).
Enough of the heavy stuff, let’s go for a bit of a paddle and see what we can find!
Oystercatchers are always good. Everything about them is extrovert and full on. They make absolutely no attempt at camouflage or being quiet and unnoticed. They kick up an enormous racket. And they are common enough to liven up virtually every trip I do.
This one is obligingly perched with a waterfall in the background, making the image even more easy on the eye.
Further offshore (and opportunities to paddle out have been few and far between due to wind) it’s quite quiet. There are not many hunting Gannets around, and few hunting Gannets tends to mean few dolphins or porpoises.
So to find some cetaceans I had to make a bit of an effort to paddle out beyond one of the most notoriously hairy headlands of the south coast…Dodman Point. It has a reputation for wild seas, which get thrown up when the wind and the tide race have a disagreement. However, with a bit of cunning planning, and a windless morning, I managed to find three Harbour porpoises rolling very quietly at the surface at the tideline, where the water moving past the end of the point shears past the more static water of Mevagissey bay.
Of course I had to take a bit of a spin around Mevagissey’s inner harbour….its charm seems to increase each time I drop by.
Back out in the open sea the Guillemots are just deciding that it’s time to put on their summer outfits. The one on the left is still in non-breeding (winter) plumage, the one on the right is in full breeding (summer) colours.
You can see why these members of the auk family have the nickname of ‘northern penguins’ *. They are remarkably similar to penguins such as the Gentoos I watched a month or two ago. Guillemots use their wings to propel themselves underwater in exactly the same way penguins do. See the similarity yourself.
*if they haven’t, they should
I was joined by a very smart looking Fulmar Petrel off Polperro. Like most birds of the open sea, they can’t resist coming over to have a look.
These are part of the ‘tubenose’ group of seabirds that have a salt extraction gland located on top of their beak to enable them to survive using the sea as their only source of water.
Here’s a close up of the tube. And study at that beak; it looks as though it’s been air-brushed and polished like a car at a vintage rally.
Eric the Eider isn’t so curious however. He’s doing his best to go unnoticed.
Grey Seals are a constant source of fascination. They too are inherently inquisitive but some are very much more shy than others. This one could be either. It is fast asleep (bottling) with just the tip of its nose above the water. My main job is to not wake it up. That would be unfair (and completely unacceptable). Observe the wildlife, don’t frighten it.
Grey seals come in all sorts of shapes and sizes. This (I think) is a this-year’s pup. It puts on a good show with a perfect three-point turn. (And you can hear a Dunnock (aka Hedge Sparrow) singing in the background)
In major contrast to the fine features of the juvenile seal, this is a grizzled old bull. I think this could have been the largest seal I have ever seen in the UK. When it rolled at the surface its back was more like a small whale. It also had a very nasty-looking scar on the end of its nose.
And I didn’t come within ten metres of another person (apart from passing cars) all day.
It is maybe not surprising that Mount’s Bay is such a good place for looking for porpoises, dolphins….and whales…from my kayak. They are ocean wanderers that generally prefer to be far out to sea, and Cornwall is the last bit of land to stick out into the Atlantic where they live. Marine creatures on migration from north to south (or vice versa) may also drop by for a refuel because the confused currents, reefs and upwellings around Land’s End are rich in fish.
It is also a great location for kayaking because the Land’s End peninsular provides protection from Atlantic swell, and there are a lot of sheltered, and super-scenic locations to get on the water. All under the gaze of amazing St.Michaels’ Mount.
Also if the weather is not conducive to offshore paddling, the coast is exceptionally interesting and varied in terms of scenery and human habitation, and the near-shore holds a lot of seabirds during the winter. Most impressive of which are the Loons ( the North American name, aka Great Northern Diver in the UK), this one is in transition from summer to winter plumage. It also has a slightly wonky beak with the end crossing over.
There are plenty of Guillemots and Razorbills:
And Eddie the resident Eider duck is usually in evidence somewhere around Penzance harbour, sometimes with some friends, sometimes not.
After a long, long period of stormy weather, the sea has at last settled down and I have ventured out into Mount’s Bay on a couple of occasions in the last week. Both trips in excess of fifteen miles and keeping well offshore.
During the second trip I came across two large pods of Harbour Porpoises between St.Michael’s Mount and Mousehole. Porpoises usually go around singly or twos and threes, but these two pods contained in excess of ten each. You can hear why they used to be called ‘Puffing Pigs’ by Newfoundland fishermen. (in England they were known as ‘Herring Hogs’). Unfortunately you can also hear my drysuit creaking as I pan round.
One porpoise halted at the surface to enjoy the calm conditions and maybe a little bit of warm winter sun. They don’t do this very often, probably because the sea isn’t this smooth very often.
Any sort of bird activity which is focused on the surface of the sea attracts my interest when I am offshore paddling. I have mentioned before that more often than not there is a porpoise beneath a circling Gannet, but on this occasion it was a large milling group of gulls that kept dipping down to the surface that lured me over for a closer inspection. They were scattered over a wide area with several Kittiwakes amongst them. When a couple of Gannets arrived and dived I increased pace because I was sure there would be ‘fins’ about.
Sure enough a couple of dolphins splashed in front of me.
I approached the group cautiously to avoid spooking them, but they were in a very sociable mood and came over to see what as going on.
As I cruised on they were quite happy to act as an escort.
As usual there were a handful of juveniles mixed in amongst the pod, and as usual they stuck like glue to their mother’s side.
On the second day the dolphin watching was even better because the surface was oily smooth, enabling the dolphins to get as good a look at me as I was getting of them.
This is a big thrill, and the excitement of this sort of encounter never seems to diminish. There cannot be many situations where a couple of completely wild creatures of this size (seven foot long) voluntarily come within touching distance of a human being. And for me it is all the more compelling because getting several miles offshore, and locating a pod of dolphins, is really quite a challenge.
This particular group seemed quite happy to hang around as I just floated and watched, so I got out the Gopro for some underwater action. I love this (very brief) clip as this dolphin glides by on its side.
Although the water isn’t as clear as it is in the summer, the dolphins came so close I was able to get the best underwater shots I have yet achieved.
This individual takes a good look at the Gopro as it cruises past. A proper dolphin mugshot.
Absolutely excellent, and the fact that it is December makes the whole experience even more remarkable.
I had a good lesson in how to push things too far (or not) on my way back to Marazion. Before the two hour paddle back to my launch site, I could just make out a group of Gannets circling and diving far out to sea. Of course I couldn’t resist heading out to take a look, but half an hour of paddling and nearly two miles later I still hadn’t arrived upon the scene.
Then, contrary to the forecast which had predicted flat calm all day, a steady north wind picked up. Probably only 10mph but it made the paddle back very long indeed, with a relentless cold breeze in my face and waves slapping over the front slowing me down considerably. The feeding frenzy turned out to be disappointing too, just a couple of distant dolphins and no sign of anything larger (which of course I always hope for).
I arrived back at Marazion, after seven hours on the water and 17.5 miles paddled, fairly pooped. But worth it, with over twenty dolphins and thirty porpoises to enjoy.
“From Hartland Point to Padstow Light, ’tis a Watery Grave by Day or Night”
Having this cheerful old mariner’s sonnet lurking in the back of my mind always makes me a bit apprehensive about a paddle out from Hartland Quay. It is so totally and utterly exposed and there is nothing resembling a town or port or seaside village within sight. From Hartland point south the coast is absolutely dead straight and points directly out to the west so catches every bit of Atlantic groundswell and is usually blasted by the wind from the same direction. Not a hint of a sheltering headland to moderate the beefy tidal current either.
When out on the water the only sign that humans have ever existed is the lighthouse at Hartland, another on Lundy fifteen miles away, the bizarre Hartland Quay hotel and the odd vapour trail.
Just to make it even more fun, there is no phone signal and the nearest other floating craft who might hear a shout from your two-way radio are the occasional ship passing ten miles out which is just peeping the top of it’s funnel over the horizon. There are very few fishing boats here.
But this was the part of Devon with least wind forecast today, a light easterly. So I was hopeful. And when I came over the brow of the hill the sea was like a millpond, ridged with only a two to three foot swell. Excellent.
I trolleyed my kayak through the middle of Hartland Quay Hotel, which is an ironic start to such a remote-feeling paddle, and paddled straight offshore.
I kept up a fairly fast cruise speed because I was sure the windless conditions wouldn’t last, and even the slightest wind combined with the lively currents around here would rapidly cause quite choppy conditions.
I passed a couple of Porpoises two miles out with their fins glinting in the bright sunshine, but didn’t pause because I had my eye on a handful of circling Gannets a mile further out, which occasionally dived into the water.
By the time I appeared on location the Gannets had drifted off but my efforts were rewarded when a pod of about eight Common Dolphins (which the Gannets had been shadowing) came over to say hello.
This is the first time I have seen Common Dolphins on this bit of coast from my kayak.It’s usually been from the top of a headland through pair of binoculars as the dolphins enjoy the typically wild sea state which is more normal for round here.
I drifted south, watching the dolphins, with the increasingly strong ebb tide and got to about four miles offshore which I thought was far enough, especially as I could see swirls in the water from the current, and a line of dark approaching which was the start of the wind. I have enormous respect for this wild stretch of coast and felt a bit small, so paddled shoreward, fast.
On the way back in I passed several more porpoises, in fact could hear one puff nearly every time I halted. Also the flopping fin of a Sunfish which spooked and dived when I was still many metres away from it, with camera poised.
Other wildlife interest today was a couple of posses of Guillemots and Razorbills, a handful of passing Red Admiral butterflies and a dozen or so swallows, far out to sea. On migration south from Wales presumably.
As I neared the savage coast with multiple toothy reefs reaching far offshore I came across a tide race with whitecaps and standing waves which sloshed all over the deck. As I lurched over the waves I realised the body of water I was in was moving AGAINST the flow of the tide. It was part of a huge eddy current that was surging back towards Hartland Point as the main ebbing tide pours south around the corner and out to sea. Blooming heck, it’s all a bit hairy round here.
I can’t believe I once paddled out to Lundy from here (and back, after a chicken-flavoured pot noodle on the slipway).
Back on dry land I trolleyed my kayak back through the tables of tourists enjoying a lunchtime pint in the warm sunshine, several of which gave me a bemused look (not unusual).
My coastal trip south from Bude the next day was a bit more leisurely. It was great to meet local kayak fisherman Eric, who is one of very few kayakers who have seen a Leatherback Turtle. He encountered one just half a mile from the shore a few weeks ago. What a supreme sighting.