Padstow Bay Perfection

IMG_1885
The River Camel at Rock

What is going on? Yet another sunny day on the North Cornwall coast with no incoming swell. Not good if you are a surfer, but absolutely brilliant if you are a sea kayaker who has a penchant for cetaceans and likes to venture as far offshore as possible.

The sandy Camel estuary between Rock and Padstow was looking stunning in the sunshine of the late April morning. And the water was as clear as I have ever seen, no doubt due to the virtual absence of rain over the last month, and helped by the fact that the sea life hasn’t ‘got going’ yet. The plankton bloom is yet to kick off, resulting in increased cloudiness known as ‘ May Water’ (or so I have been told).

Having said that, the plankton IS already evident on the south Cornwall coast and a couple of Basking Sharks have  been sighted in the Falmouth area hoovering it all up.

The two mile paddle to the mouth of the Camel estuary was a treat. It is over a shallow sandy bottom so the sea look positively Caribbean. The shoreline was dotted with early morning dog-walkers and their rampaging pets. Migrating shorebirds such as Whimbrels have a tough time finding a secluded beach on which to gather themselves for their onward journey, as every available patch of sand seems to come with a marauding dog.

IMG_2691
Whimbrel

This is the Whimbrel time of year. Whimbrels have the tremendous (if a bit unimaginative) old name of ‘Seven Whistler.’ Its characteristic piping call consisting of seven identical notes is one of the sounds of Spring on the open coast. There is a doomladen old saying which relates to the call of Whimbrel migrating overhead in the dark. It describes the ‘six birds of fate’ which fly about at night seeking their lost companion. When all seven are united, according to the story, the world will end.

Why can’t the ending describe them all being thrilled to get together again and going off for an all-night party?

Daymer Bay was absolute glass which made gliding over the turquoise water even more of a thrill.

IMG_1779_01
Daymer Bay

It was marginally less smooth after I had crossed the Doom Bar and passed into the open sea around Stepper Point. I couldn’t resist a photo of the moon behind the chimney at the point. I made directly for Gulland rock a couple of miles offshore towards Trevose Head.

IMG_1783
Stepper point

My intention was to slingshot around the island of Gulland Rock and then paddle north around the back of Newlands Rock and then on around ‘the Mouls’, before returning back past Rumps point and Pentire Head to Polzeath Bay.

I have never done this circuit involving all the three islands of Padstow Bay. Its the usual problem of wind and swell on theNorth Cornish coast not making for favourable paddling conditions on the day I would like to go.

IMG_1833
Newlands, Trevose Head and Gulland Rock

But not so today! It was perfect.

The stench of guano from Gulland Rock assailed my nostrils half-a-mile before I got close, and I started to pass little groups of Razorbills and Guillemots as I rounded the southern tip of the rock.

I was  a bit surprised at the very large rafts of auks floating about off the western side of Gulland Rock however; there must have been many hundred, with dozens more cackling from their nest sites on the cliffs. I drifted close enough for some decent photos and then paddled away before I caused a disturbance.

IMG_1794
Raft of Auks
IMG_1799
Guillemot
Razorbills
Razorbills

The three mile transit to Newlands was uneventful until I stopped for a coffee break on an exceptionally smooth patch of sea. I heard the piff of a porpoise but had difficulty in observing it  because it was a lot further away than I had thought. It moved past to the south followed by a chum shortly after.

IMG_2761
Porpoise

A few Manx Shearwaters zipped past and a few Gannets cruised overhead. Around the final island, The Mouls, I looked hard for the Puffins which are supposed to nest here, but didn’t see any. Just a very orange-looking seal basking on a rock. Last year’s pup?

Grey Seal
Grey Seal

I slid across the tidal current to get up close and personal with the dramatic, cliffy and highly convoluted coast at Rumps point. The flat conditions allowed me to paddle within inches of every nook and cranny. A Peregrine whinnied from its rocky promontory high above.

IMG_2808
Peregrine

Round the corner into the relatively busy Polzeath Bay I brushed past a few paddleboarders that were spilling out from the beach where a few surfers bobbed in the disappointing (for them) swell.

I was paddling against the tide coming out of the Camel estuary but with a bit of cunning coast-hugging I managed to avoid most of the current. If there is no swell running so that you can get right in against the shore, I have found that when paddling against a current there are almost as many eddies working in your favour as there are flows of water against you. Another very specific advantage of a kayak!

Rock was absolutely buzzing with humanity when I got back. The queue for the ferry to Padstow was long (no doubt heading for fish ‘n chips at Rick Stein’s) and the car park full.

Time to get home.

IMG_1863
Rumps Point
IMG_1901_01
The Beach at Rock

 

 

 

 

 

Dolphins!

This was forecast to be the last day of the cam weather in SW England before the high pressure moved away. In fact today was a bonus day because the winds were originally supposed to pick up overnight.

Despite spending virtually all day on the water yesterday I thought I’d better make the effort to go somewhere special and maybe do a bit of offshore paddling. Mount’s Bay should fit the bill nicely, with hopefully some cetacean sightings.

IMG_2652
Arrival at Sandy Bay

I arrived at Sandy Bay beside Newlyn harbour a bit later than I had intended. Although it’s not at all sandy it’s got a great view across the bay so I was going to have breakfast in a relaxed manner (muesli) before paddling off, while looking for marine wildlife through my binoculars.

IMG_2657
Sandy Bay…it’s not sandy

No chance of relaxation. Within five seconds of lifting the binoculars to my eyes and focusing on the sea a mile away off Penlee point, I was watching a large pod of Bottlenose Dolphins moving steadily across the bay towards St. Michael’s Mount. Aaargh, if only I had arrived ten minutes earlier I would have been beside them.

I got all my kayaking  stuff together in a record time (including packing muesli and milk) and went tearing off across the completely smooth water at Olympic pace. But the dolphins were gone so I throttled back and made a bee-line for St Michael’s Mount anyway. They might just be hanging around feeding somewhere.

I stopped for (late) breakfast in the middle of the bay and then cruised on. The briefest flash of sun reflected off the surface, which shouldn’t have happened because there were no waves. Just maybe it was a dolphin’s fin.  There it was again, and this time it was followed by a splash. Yes!

I cranked the speed back up to over 5 mph, and soon started to see quite a few fins appearing, together with puffs of spray. I could hear the blows. The dolphins were now heading back towards me, so I drifted to a halt and waited. As they approached I could hear the engine of the Marine Discovery catamaran coming up behind me from Penzance harbour.

IMG_2313
Marine Discovery Yacht

They put on a superb show right in front of us, surging about all over the place and occasionally hurling themselves right out of the water or just splashing on their sides. It was totally enthralling as there were quite a lot of them ( 15-20) and they are quite big creatures. In a kayak there is a feeling of uncertainty when they come really close.

IMG_2451_01
Bottlenose Dolphins

After a brief chat with the Marine Discovery folk, and hearing the dolphins clicking on their hydrophone, they (Marine Dicovery) continued on their way, but I stayed to see more. This is the sort of excitement that fuels my paddling muscles. (as well as the muesli)

IMG_2468_01
Bottlenose Dolphins

I spent over an hour watching them. Just me and the dolphins. They worked their way across the bay nearly to Penzance, and then came all the way back again. They accelerated past the end of St. Michael’s Mount and that is where I peeled off.

There were clearly two calves which were not only much smaller but also much paler than the rest. They led the way with the acrobatics and jumped clear of the water on several occasions. They stuck pretty close to Mum and seemed to remain in the middle of the group.

IMG_2430_01
Acrobatic adolescent dolphin

IMG_2556Two big dolphins with tall blackish fins, which I would presume to be males, patrolled around the outside of the pod like security guards.

IMG_2462
the ‘Security Guards’

I kept a good distance so as not to cause any disturbance, although I was expecting a posse to come over to have a look at me as Bottlenose dolphins have done in the past. A group did approach but then suddenly the whole lot disappeared, left a load of fluke prints all around my kayak, and then popped up a long way away. Maybe they saw me as some sort of threat and were protecting the calves.

I took loads of photos, most with the unexciting backdrop of Penzance industrial estate behind, but then the two bouncers appeared in front of the church (slightly better) before the whole lot passed in front of St. Michael’s Mount (a lot better).

IMG_2518
Bottlenose Dolphin and St. Michael’s Mount

After the dolphin encounter, I paddled across the bay past Mousehole keeping a mile offshore , saw a summer plumaged Great Northern Diver, heard a group of four porpoises puffing before I saw them, then popped in for a nose around Mousehole harbour before heading back around the corner to Sandy Bay.

IMG_2648
Mousehole

Maybe the best thing about Bottlenose Dolphins is their permanent smile.

IMG_2394
Bottlenose Dolphin

IMG_2541

Looking for Humpbacks

After my encounter with the suspected Fin whale near the Eddystone rocks last August, and a couple of brief sightings of Minkes, I thought that would put a pause on adventures with large cetaceans, at least until late summer.

It is still completely pretty amazing that a Humpback would appear in South Devon at all, and beyond belief that it would spend over six weeks cruising about the sheltered waters of Start Bay, wowing the crowd of assembled whale watchers with some unbelievably close passes to the beach at Slapton. The very fact that the carparks at Slapton Sands are so convenient and close to the steep shelving shingle beach (and therefore in close proximity to deep water), and usually swell-free because it is east facing, is a remarkable coincidence. Its about as perfect a place for whale-watching as you are going to get.

IMG_1046
Slapton Sands

If you were to put a pin in the map for the best pace for a whale to turn up for the maximum number if people to enjoy viewing it, you would choose Slapton sands. Even the bus stop is only yards away.

IMG_1048
The View down to Torcross

Needless to say I wanted to see the whale from my kayak. My first view from my Gumotex Inflatable was when the whale was trapped in a lobster pot rope. Hardly very memorable.

4I2A9019
First Slapton whale encounter

Ten days ago the sea at Slapton was just about flat calm and there was no ‘dumpy’ waves on the beach which can make launching here interesting/embarrassing/entertaining for the crowd. Apparently the whale was still around.

In my Scupper Pro kayak, which I had brought because it drags over the shingle well, I paddled a mile or two offshore. Lots of small parties of Guillemots whose guttural call could be heard for amazing distances over the millpond sea, a few Gannets and a pair of porpoises.

IMG_1004
Guillemot
IMG_1024_01
Harbour Porpoise

But no whale…yet.

I hadn’t really expected to see it because yet another remarkable feature of this remarkable whale is its habit of coming close inshore late in the day. Many seem to think this is tide-related but it can’t be because in the space of two weeks the tide has gone through its complete cycle, yet the whale still turns up at roughly the same time.

I slid my kayak into the water and sat around fifty metres from the shore, on a surface so calm I could have been in a lake.

To my toe tingling astonishment I heard the whale blowing half a mile away towards Torcross, and saw the bushy cloud of spray slowly disperse. Good grief, it seemed to be heading straight towards me. I fumbled for my camera but already my hands were trembling with excitement.

IMG_1057
The Blow

It surfaced and dived once more. I then saw patches of smooth water appearing in a line like giant footprints coming towards me at the surface as the whale approached….fluke prints caused by the whale swimming along just below the surface! Amazing!

It surfaced and blew only twenty yards away and I got a very unsatisfactory photo. Like a complete idiot I thought the action had finished when the bulk of its body disappeared and I lowered my camera, but then the tail flukes came up in perfect humpback-style as it deep dived. Moron…would have been a pic to remember.

IMG_1061
Slapton Humpback

However it was an absolutely extraordinary encounter. Who would have believed you could see a whale like this within a stone’s throw from the shore in South Devon. I had spent a fair amount of time during the winter researching where in the world you could see Humpback’s from a kayak, as it has been number one on my kayaking wishlist for some time. Hawaii or British Columbia were on the  shortlist.

Wherever it was going to be, I hadn’t expected it would only require about ten strokes of the paddle to get far enough from the shore to achieve the ideal position for viewing! Thinking about it, there probably isn’t anywhere else in the entire world when you can be loafing about  eating a Bakewell tart on the beach one minute, and having a Humpback swim more or less dirctly underneath your kayak less than five minutes later.

Four days ago a wildlife viewing boat (AK Wildlife Cruises) had absolutely incredible views of a Humpback breaching in the middle of Falmouth Bay right beside their boat. Crystal clear pictures and video, you couldn’t hope for better.

So a couple of days later I set off in my Cobra Expedition Kayak for a twenty-five mile paddle around Falmouth Bay, cutting right across the middle to the Manacles rocks, and then following the coast back. Tremendously exciting, calm waters, huge expectation, but no whale.

IMG_1414
St Mawes

I had a reasonable consolation prize. About three miles offshore I sped towards a mini feeding frenzy of gulls which had attracted a handful of Gannets which appeared from nowhere and wasted no time in plunging in. As I approached I could see fins of dolphins slashing at speed across the surface, and the pale patch behind the fin to show they were Common Dolphons. Superb. They appeared a couple of times more but were only momentarily visible in a burst of spray. And suddenly they were gone, the gannets drifted off, and the gulls settled on the water. The lone Manx Shearwater also winged away. Feeding frenzy over.

Gannet and Manx Shearwater
Feeding frenzy participants including gannet and Manx Shearwater

This is not the first time this has happened. It is quite difficult to get to a feeding frenzy before it finishes. One of my objectives for this year is to see a big frenzy. The only time I have ever achieved this was off Bude over ten years ago, when I threw out some mackerel for the gannets and they dived in beside my kayak to catch them.

Other wildlife highlights were five Sandwich Terns, four Great Northern Divers, a Whimbrel, six Purple Sandpipers on the Manacles and several swallows coming in off the sea.

Purple Sandpiper
Purple Sandpiper on the Manacles

And an excellent Barrel Jellyfish in the clear waters off Swanpool beach.

P1030366
Barrel Jellyfish

Nipped in for nice lunch at Porthallow and met up with former work colleague Andrew who is training for Lands End- John o’ Groats ! (by bike, not kayak)

P1030362
Kayaker meets Cyclist

Looking closely at photographs of the Slapton and Falmouth Humpbacks, it would seem they are different whales. This seems even more likely because the Slapton whale has been seen in its usual area since the Falmouth whale has been sighted, and it is unlikely the whale would backtrack sixty or seventy miles when it is supposed to be on migration.

So, probably two Humpbacks. Even more amazing. And on my ‘local’ patch. Thank goodness I hadn’t booked a whale watching by kayak trip somewhere on the other side of the world, which would never have been so much fun. (actually it might have been, but I’m a huge fan of wildlife in the UK, so it would have had to have been exceptional).

More please.

 

 

 

Gorgeous Gerrans Bay

With a weather forecast exceptional for early April I couldn’t resist a beefy offshore paddle across the relatively quiet waters of the south coast of Cornwall east of Falmouth.

I set off from the beautiful sandy beach at Carne in the heart of Gerrans Bay. It has parking close to the beach, a slipway….and it is free! There are only a few parking spaces however, which tend to rapidly fill with dog walkers, so you’ve got to get there early.

IMG_0813
Carne Beach in Gerrans Bay

Gerrans Bay is possibly the best site in Cornwall (and probably the whole of SW England) for wintering sea ducks and Divers, and there were still plenty on show today. Great Northern Divers do not seem to hurry north to their breeding grounds in the Spring, and of the fifteen to twenty I saw today only a couple were in their smart summer plumage. Some were still in their winter outfits, most in transitional moult.

IMG_0936
Great Northern Diver still in winter plumage
IMG_0851
Great Northern Diver moulting to summer plumage

Several uttered their querulous contact call which for some reason always sends a shiver up my spine. It is a true sound of the wilderness,

At Nare Head I swung south and dug in for a ten mile open sea stretch to a giant bulk carrier ship anchored in Falmouth Bay. It provided a good target and kept me over a mile offshore so I might see a dolphin.

IMG_0808
Bulk Carrier in Falmouth Bay ten miles away

More Divers and lots of small groups of Guillemots which were also in a variety of plumages. Some were pretty tame.

IMG_0870
Guillemots

It was more or less windless so I heard the puff of a porpoise clearly. I surfaced quite close and popped up a couple more times as it went on its way. It was probably the biggest porpoise I have ever seen  and I looked hard at it because I thought it might be something different. Definitely a porpoise-like triangular fin but it just seemed very stout with quite a broad back, and was moving with unusual purpoise for a porpoise (!). Mmmm.

I crossed the mouth of Carrick Roads and approached the mighty ship which was closer to the Helford River than I had thought.

The guy with the hard hard wandering around on the deck returned my greeting with an uncertain wave as he seemed a bit surprised to see me out there.

I slungshot around the Cape Veni and again dodged the many craft entering and exiting Falmouth, and headed for the beach at  Porthbeor  for lunch. I had it entirely to myself.

IMG_0889
Around the Bulk Carrier ‘Cape Veni’

Then it was offshore again to cross the mouth of Gerrans Bay, and a loop around Gull Rock. A few Gannets smacked into the water in front of me, sending a plume of spray up always higher than you would think.

IMG_0923
Gannet and Gull Rock

Back past Nare head again for the final leg. Nare head always cricks your neck because it is a particularly spectacular promontory that demands close scrutinisation.

I was thrilled to hear the musical call of a Chough which was prodding about with typical restlessness on the cliff, before floating off around the corner. Fab.

IMG_0981
Cornish Chough

I exited the water after an eight hour 22 mile trip. Had a chat with a few more dog walkers (and there dogs), and off for a McDonalds drive thru. Large Chicken Legend Meal (mayo, large Coke), followed by Strawberry Sundae. The perfect day

Epic Fail Whale

There has been a Humpback Whale close in to the coast of South Devon for the last three weeks. It has entertained huge numbers of super-enthusiastic whale-watchers by cruising up and down the sheltered beach of Slapton Sands so close you could throw a stone at it. it’s absolutely amazing that it has come in so close and stayed around for so long. I’m pretty sure this is unprecedented in this part of the world.

Hezzer humpback
The Humpback (taken from the shore)

It got even better for the growing group of Humpback lovers when it moved a short distance along the coast to Torbay. Here it dramatically upped its game ,which so far had involved a blow followed by a leisurely roll at the surface and a shallow dive which occasionally showed its flukes. In Torbay it hurled itself about, breaching  and generally putting on an impressive Humpback-style display. Best of all was for the watchers on Berry Head on a sunny Monday lunchtime, when it appeared directly below them in clear turquoise water, before slowly moving away breaching an incredible thirteen times successively.

I was thrilled to see it at unbelievably close range at Slapton. From the shore.But it would have been a lot better to see it from my kayak. That particularly day was too windy and hostile for kayaking so I returned a couple of days later and of course the whale didn’t show. Actually it did, but an hour after I had left.

I then  went to Berry head and paddled twenty miles around in a flat calm sea expecting the whale to burst out of the water at any minute. My heart was in my throat for the whole six hours I was on the water.Son Henry joined the throng of expectant watchers on the cliff top at Berry head and watched me cruise past on the silky smooth water. Fast heading south with the tide, very slow north against it.No whale, it had gone back to Slapton. Groan.

P1070876
Whale watchers at Berry Head
kayak berry head 2
Offshore paddling at Berry head

So the next day I went back to Slapton and paddled around around for a further twelve miles, and the whale was at the mouth of the River Dart and then turned up at Slapton a couple of hours after I had left.

Maybe it’s justice, as you are not supposed to chase around after any whales, or any other sea creature, in any craft, and there has been much publicity to this effect relating to this particular whale. With the threat of prosecution.

But paddling along at three mph in complete silence in a kayak is hardly going to make a whale jump out of its skin.The whale is more likely to snigger at your insignificance. It would be a lot worse if I was on a Jetski.

kayak and jetski 2However rules are rules and I wouldn’t deliberately approach any such creature closer than the recommended two hundred metres.

Anyway, in a kayak you really don’t need to, as the sea creature will often come to you to see what you are all about. This certainly applies to seals, Bottlenose Dolphins, and rather surprisingly (and worryingly) Basking Sharks.

I launched four specific trips in my kayak to where the whale was supposed to be, paddled fifty miles,  and I didn’t see it.

So thank goodness for all the porpoises. I have never seen so many so early in the year before. They seem to be resident year round at major headlands such as Hartland Point and Berry Head, but in other areas numbers only build up as the sea gets warmer. Maybe I am wrong about that, and it’s just that I tend not to venture too far offshore in my kayak during the colder months, and the porpoises are always there.

I have seen over forty porpoises over the last couple of weeks while looking for the whale. They are not attracted to kayaks but just keep doing their stuff and seem indifferent to my presence. Having said that , if they get too close they will just disappear. One feature of porpoises is their constant changes of direction, first surfacing that way ,then next breath pointing in another direction. Dolphins tend to progress with a definite purpose but porpoises roll as if they are attached to the top of a wheel.

The water was so calm off the end of Berry Head I could see  ten porpoises at once and was thrilled to hear them ‘piffing’ all around. Hearing the blow of porpoises and dolphins is special to kayaks as most other craft make too much noise to hear the animals, and  sailing boats on days calm enough to hear the breaths have an engine running.

porpoises berry head
Berry Head Porpoises

I noticed a couple of porpoises  lie horizontally at the surface for a period of several seconds with their fins showing. I’m not sure whether they were looking above the surface, or briefly resting.

P1080049
Resting harbour Porpoise

Some of my best and closest porpoise encounters yet.

They may be the UK’s commonest cetacean, and the world’s smallest (and certainly a lot smaller than the one I was hoping to meet) , but they are always a thrill to encounter, and I love their alternative title of ‘Puffing Pig’.

P1070986
Harbour porpoise, Slapton