Trio of Top Trips along the South Cornwall Coast, and even one on the North!

MOUNT’S BAY

Lighter winds and an easing of the Atlantic groundswell lured Paul and myself down to Penzance for a tour around Mount’s Bay.

It’s one of my favourite circuits: from Penzance harbour along the coast to slingshot around St. Michael’s Mount, then three plus miles of open sea across to Mousehole and then back along the coast to Penzance with a nose around Newlyn harbour on the way.

St. Michael’s Mount was looking even more impressive than I was expecting….it always does even though I have paddled past it dozens of times.

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St.Michaels Mount

Although there was more of a rolling swell than I was expecting for the sea crossing to Mousehole, the wind was light and the sun was trying to appear so Paul and I didn’t feel uneasy about the level of exposure. He did however intermittently disappear behind the swells.

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Is that Paul or is that Jose Mourinho?
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Phew, it’s Paul

I was a bit disappointed not to see any sea mammals on the way over. I have encountered several species of dolphin and a whale around here and was expecting a porpoise at the very least but it wasn’t to be.

We ventured a little way down the coast past Mousehole but the current combined with increasing wind and steady swell made it feel a bit less safe so we headed for the extreme cosiness of Mousehole harbour. Always a few seals hanging around St. Clements Isle just offshore.

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Seal plus flatfish snackette

Around the corner in Newlyn there was a lot going on as usual with a constant movement of fishing boats. Tucked in behind the harbour wall out of the wind it, at last, felt really quite warm as the strong sun emerged from behind a cloud.

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Newlyn

Half a dozen chattering Sandwich Terns floated past along Penzance promenade to confirm that Spring really had arrived. Yaroo.

GERRAN’S BAY, ROSELAND PENINSULAR

Next day took me to Gerran’s Bay and a launch from the stunning Carne beach. Even better that there is no parking charge here (unlike £8.50 for the day at Penzance….blooming heck!).

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Carne beach (aka Heaven)

I swung offshore at Nare Head where I caught a microglimpse of a Chough after drew attention to itself with its animated call before disappearing. I checked out the Guillemot colony on Gull Rock before a long looping circuit out to sea, after reporting my journey plan over the radio to Portscatho NCI.

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Nare Head

Wandering Gannets passed and the occasional Porpoise puffed, as well as a scattering of Guillemots, Razorbills and a few passing shearwaters.

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Gannet
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Guillemot
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Razorbill
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Manx Shearwaters

Fifteen miles later I arrived back at Carne beach which was now buzzing with activity and echoing to the shriek of holidaymakers finding out how cold the water still is.

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Gerrans Bay Paddleboarders

Just offshore was a handful of loons (the ornithological ones, not the Paddleboarders), and I was extremely pleased to see some of these spectacular birds had moulted into their stunning breeding plumage, making them even more impressive to look at.

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Stunning Black-throated Diver in Summer Clothes

FALMOUTH BAY

I could hardly believe that another day of light winds was in prospect, especially as we were in the middle of a low pressure system so the weather was far from settled.

This time I paddled out from a small side creek of Carrick Roads at Percuil (another absolutely excellent launch location) and out across glassy waters past St.Mawes and the lighthouse at St. Anthony and into the open sea. This time I was really hopeful of a BIG cetacean sighting as the water was completely smooth.

I could hear the Gannets hitting the water with a ‘thoomph’ from half-a-mile away, but when I came upon the mini-feeding frenzy which also involved a load of Manx Shearwaters, the only cetacean involved in the show was a single Porpoise, which was however unusually animated and surged at the surface while on the hunt.

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Plunging Gannets

Although I had registered my offshore paddle with Nare Point NCI, a couple of fishing boats came over to see if I was OK, which I suppose was quite understandable as a kayak bobbing about motionless (as I was eating a cheese ‘n pickle sandwich at the time,  and cheese ‘n onion crisps with a handful of cherry tomatoes to provide the healthy bit) a couple of miles from the shore, is a bit weird.

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Porpoise on collision course

The most surprising wildlife sighting of the day was a lone Puffin that was squadron leader at the front of a V-formation of Guillemots.

There is alot of hardware in and around Falmouth Bay but I was much more interested in the natural history which was made even more photogenic by the exceptionally smooth conditions.

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Falmouth modern hardware
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Falmouth Old Hardware
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Porpoise on Glass

PADSTOW BAY

The North coast usually looks like this:

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Hostile North coast of Cornwall

or this:

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Calm canal, savage sea

So it was nice for it to ease off for a day or two to allow sea kayak access.

This was my first decent paddle trip on the North Cornwall Coast since last Autumn. I set off from Rock which is another of my favourite launch sites. Unfortunately the excitement of the day was a little bit soured by the slipway attendant who first told me I wasn’t allowed to use that particular slipway (which left me struggling for words as I had trolleyed my kayak down the water from the carpark and there was absolutely nobody else in sight), and then informed me I had to pay a £3 launching fee. It would be the same price if I was to slide the QE2 down the slipway. Someone hasn’t quite thought this through, methinks.

My clenched teeth slowly relaxed as I slipped out silently into the watery wilderness, serenaded by squadron of Sandwich Terns and their ‘kirrick’ calls.

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Sandwich Terns

Out of the mouth of the Camel Estuary I crossed over to Pentire head and then into the more swirly water of Rump’s Point.

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Newlands, Rumps Point and Pentire Head

A ghostly white shape below my kayak was my first Barrel Jellyfish of the year, quickly followed by two more.

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Fist Barrel Jelly of the Year

As I watched the seals and Auk colony on the Mouls island I was joined by a couple of huge RIBs bristling with tourists on a Wildlife cruise. They sped off North while I followed a smooth patch of water, along which the Shearwaters tracked, back to Newlands island and then back to the Camel.

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Shearwater

These sheltered waters reverberated to the sound of boat engines as people enjoyed the last few days of the Easter holidays.

Noisiest is the ‘Jaws’ speedboat which looks like it has been lifted from a scene from a James Bond movie from the seventies (or possibly sixties). A bit of a contrast to the stealth of a kayak.

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Jaws speedboat
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The Perfect Porpoise Pic (nearly)

I really like Porpoises, and have named both my inflatable kayaks after their Newfoundland name ‘Puffing Pig’. Their Old English name of ‘Herring Hog’ is equally as offbeat and excellent, and in my view only adds to their personality.

I feel they are very much a speciality of kayaking, because the complete silence as you paddle along makes the characteristic ‘puff’ of a porpoise easy to hear. On a calm day it carries far over the water and is usually the first hint a porpoise is around. They are so unobtrusive and small that they must be hugely overlooked by people like me (and other observers in ‘normal’ boats) , but even so are by far the most common cetacean around the southwest coast and the one I encounter most regularly during offshore jaunts.

Gannet behaviour can also be a help if you are on the lookout for porpoises. All a wandering Gannet has to do is circle around just once, and more often than not there will be a porpoise fishing below. I know this may sound completely daft and exaggerated, but the last four times I have seen a hunting Gannet circle around while cruising in my kayak, there has been a Porpoise below (and presumably a few fish suitable for a Gannet snack).

Porpoises are very aloof and unlike most cetaceans are not inclined to come over to a kayak to investigate. They just carry on with going about their daily business. This makes  porpoise photography quite challenging, and it is further complicated by their constant change of direction and only rare appearances of anything more than back and fin above the surface.

So up till now all my porpoise photos consist of a body and fin rolling at the surface. probably my best so far is this atmospheric-style arty-type shot.Harbour Porpoises

So I was very pleased to be in the epicentre of a group of  eight very busy and active porpoises in perfect calm conditions off Berry Head with the early morning April sun behind me. Absolutely excellent, all the more so because calm offshore conditions are so rare. And at last a photo of a porpoise’s head and eye (which actually looks a bit weird without a dolphin’s ‘beak’). Definitely my best porpoise image yet.P1060722P1060791

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Berry Head Porpoises

There were similar sort of conditions in Falmouth Bay a few days later, very flukey because the light winds were right in the centre of a low pressure system. I  half expected to see dolphins (or possibly a whale) because viewing conditions were so good, but had to settle for half a dozen porpoises instead. Not too much of a hardship.P1070319

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Porpoise , Falmouth Bay
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Typical view of a Porpoise

Where’s the Blinking Spring Thing?

It’s half-way to the longest day and Spring is struggling to put in an appearance. The Daffodils have been flattened by the recent blizzard and the Blackbird which dared to start singing outside the loo window about  three weeks ago hasn’t uttered a note since.

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Hostile Sea

Although it would be nice for it to warm up a bit so I could wash my thermal base layer, I can cope with the rain and the cold. It’s the wind I don’t like. Paddling into a headwind is not only very hard work, it’s appallingly demoralising, and the subsequent downwind run doesn’t compensate for the upwind struggle. Watching and photographing wildlife is almost impossible while the kayak is being thrown about and splashed with spray, and basically no fun.

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Tragic Weather

The open sea and exposed coast are no-go zones. At least there are a few sheltered estuaries which are doable if you have read your tide tables correctly. The wintering waders provide a bit of entertainment with their cheerful piping calls, especially the ‘shanks’, both Red and Green.

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Paul, Torridge, Bideford
Penquite quay
Penquite Quay, Fowey estuary
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Redshank

However I did manage to squeeze in a coastal jaunt during the briefest lull in the relentless blow, with temperature just about survivable in full thermal gear and drysuit. And gloves and balaclava. (fuel today was Raisin and Biscuit Yorkie….DUO)

I couldn’t resist a visit to Torbay in the (unlikely) hope of seeing the dolphins again, even though the traffic round the back of Paignton on the road to Brixham is enough to make me go  (even more) grey and bald (again).

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Paignton

Brixham on the southern side of Torbay is a sensational place to launch, with the paddle out of the busy fishing port providing all the sights, sound and smells necessary to sharpen up the senses (especially if you are a fan of fish).

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Brixham

I was initially drawn to Berry Head because the swirling currents concentrate sealife activity. As I approached the headland and stared hard at the patch of sea beneath half-a-dozen circling Gannets, I could hardly believe my luck because a dolphin breached clear of the water. I cranked up the speed and as I drew close to the dolphins changed to cautious mode in an effort not to frighten them. A splinter group sped right past me and then joined up with the main pod of about twenty and sped off southwards.

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Common Dolphin (in a hurry)

I followed but as usual had difficulty keeping up, just about staying in touch at fast cruising pace. As we sped past St. Mary’s Bay they suddenly completely disappeared and I decided to continue down the coast towards Dartmouth, even though I had originally planned to go the other way.

Good move, as I had only paddled this bit of coast a couple of times before and had forgotten how stunning it was. Cliffs interspersed with some excellent beaches, the most scenic of which is Scabbacombe, backed by sweeping green hills.

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Superb Scabbacombe

The seabirds clearly hadn’t been told that Spring had been put on hold. Oystercatchers were piping excitedly and all along the cliffs Fulmars were settled on their nesting ledges and cackling in their very primeval way. Seabirds do seem to hint at a link with reptiles from long ago because the call of Fulmars, Guillemots, Razorbills and Gannets would not seem out of place in a colony of Pterodactyls, although I’m not old enough to  confirm (quite).

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Extrovert and noisy Oystercatcher
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Cackling Fulmars
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(Shag and) Cormorant in Breeding Plumage

A flock of Common Scoters were disturbed by a passing jetski and did a couple of circuits of the bay before pitching in.

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Common Scoters

Gloom. One of a pair of Great Black-backed Gulls that were sitting on a headland had a trace from a fishing line sticking out of its beak. I would think a hook was stuck in its throat so almost certainly it was doomed.

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Poor blooming Gull

The Mew Stone, sitting like a mini-fortress at the mouth of the Dart estuary, provided a suitable turning point for my trip, and the slumbering seals barely bothered to wake up as I slipped silently past.

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Mew Stone and Froward point
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Lazing Lump of Lard

For the sake of completeness I made the effort to paddle round the back of the fang-like Eastern Black rock before returning, and my efforts paid off with a brief sighting of a couple of Porpoises and a handful of Purple Sandpipers picking  amongst the barnacles on the rocky islet.

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Turnstone and purple Sandpiper

Berry Head was a bit more lively on the return leg with a strengthening Southerly wind and I was quite pleased to get back to the quieter waters of Torbay.

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Berry Head

Back in Brixham harbour I had an entertaining prolonged encounter with a large bull Grey Seal which had clearly seen so many boats and kayakers it was devoid of any fear, and finished off with a paddle tour around the inner harbour.

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Idiotically Tame Seal

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For now it’s back to a near white-out and challenging conditions for watersports enthusiasts.

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Yours truly looking fed up, and with sizeable snowflake about to go up nose.

However every cloud has a silver (Starling-flavoured) lining if you are a top predator like this Sparrowhawk:

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Sparrowhawk with lunch
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Is it possible for eyes to be more piercing?

 

2017. The Year of the Dolphin

2017 IN FIGURES

2814 miles paddled in total.

2400 in Devon and Cornwall

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Winter Dawn on the Torridge estuary

183 in Spain (Costa del Sol)

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Gibraltar (from Spain)

133 in Scotland

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Loch Arkaig

100 along Rivers in England (Thames and two Avons)

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September Thames

500+ miles of offshore paddling (more than a mile from the coast) in Devon and Cornwall.

6 trips out to the Eddystone Lighthouse

The author at the Eddystone
Yours Truly at Eddystone

1 Interception by the UK Border Force

Wildlife seen from my kayak in 2017:

1 Humpback whale seen. Horace, aka Doris, hung around the sheltered waters of Slapton sands in South Devon for an incredible six weeks in the Spring. I saw him (her) twice from my kayak, although the first time shouldn’t really count because he (she) was tangled up in a lobster pot rope.

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Horace the Humpback takes a puff

33 days with Harbour Porpoises seen, a total of approx 177 individuals. Porpoises are very small and very unsplashy and easily overlooked unless the sea is flat calm. For every one I saw, I missed an equal number when all I heard was there ‘piff’ as they breathed, the sound of their breathing carrying long distances over the water.

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Harbour porpoises

11 days with Common Dolphins, totally approx 171 individuals. Another 175ish in Spain. Several fantastic close encounters with groups bow riding when I could muster up the power to paddle at top speed. I need to eat more pasties.

Seeing Common Dolphins is extremely unpredictable and random as they range far and wide and usually keep well offshore. However the pods in Torbay around Brixham at the end of the year and running into early 2018, were the closest in, and most regular, I have known.

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Common Dolphin (youngster)

3 days with Bottlenose Dolphins, totalling 50-80 individuals. Plus 8-10 at Chanonry point in the Moray Firth in Scotland, probably the best dolphin watching location in the UK.

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Bottlenose Dolphins

A huge thrill on 18 Dec a couple of miles off Lamorna Cove when a proper ‘stampede’ of 30+ Bottlenosers charged directly towards me in a line all jumping out of the water simultaneously. An unforgettable image.

2017 was by far my best year yet for number of dolphin sightings.

7 Giant Bluefin Tuna sightings, all after 13 Nov. Amazing. I have glimpsed them on occasion before and seen the odd random splash but there seems to have been an invasion of them this autumn. Hopefully it means the baitfish are making a bit of a comeback which will mean more mega sightings of large fish-eating sea creatures.

Jumping Giant Bluefin Tuna
Giant Bluefin Tuna

Four days with tuna at Fowey, with one extraordinary day with scores of splashes and fish jumping right out, one at Mevagissey  (double splash), one at Berry Head (double splash), and brief intense feeding frenzy off Lamorna Cove near Penzance.

Loads of seals. All Grey seals in SW England apart from one Harbour Seal near Portscatho.

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Grey Seal pup
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Harbour Seal, south Cornwall

11 Otters in Devon and Cornwall, plus 6 (before 6am on one day!) in Shetland. A poor year overall for otter sightings; there don’t seem to be so many on the River Torridge. ???

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Otter

I saw otters on the Rivers Tamar, Taw, Camel and Torridge.

2 Mink. Nasty, nasty little creatures which have almost exterminated  Water Voles. Maybe this is a bit unfair because if you are a Mink you do what Minks do and can’t really help it (although leaving Water Voles off the menu would help the public image).

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Mink (trying not to look too evil)

One on the Torridge, one beside the Thames in Marlow!

1 Sunfish at Fowey. There were quite a lot around this year, I just didn’t seem to bump into many by shear random luck (or lack of).

Also one off Gibraltar (also from kayak) on 10 March. A real whopper.

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Gibraltar Sunfish

5 days with Portugese Man-of-War sightings, totalling over 50. A good year for jellyfish in general with nine or ten species seen, including the not so common, and unpleasantly named, Mauve Stingers.

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Portugese Man o’War

Technically Portugese Man o’Wars are not jellyfish, they are Siphonophores. Likewise By-the-wind Sailors (another excellent name) are not jellyfish, they are Hydrozoa. However because I am a bit of a simpleton it seems sensible to lump them all together in one group because they are all jellylike and do what is expected of a jellyfish (i.e. float about and look like they might give you a bit of a sting).

6 Sooty Shearwaters, on four days. A true ocean-wandering seabird which nests on islands in the Southern Ocean. My first ever kayak-seen Sooty ‘Shears’ were the result of my concentrated efforts to paddle offshore this year. 5 seen near Eddystone, 1 near Land’s End.

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Sooty Shearwater

37 Balearic Shearwaters, on six days. Scattered amongst the much more common Manx Shearwater, usually well offshore.

Manx and Balearic Shearwater
Manx and Balearic Shearwater

43 Storm Petrels, on six days from mid June to the end of August. 29 at Eddystone, 1 at Porthcurno and 13, several very close, on a rainy but fortunately fairly windless day off Fowey.

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Storm Petrel

Storm Petrels are probably my favourite pelagic seabird I have seen from my kayak because they look impossibly small and vulnerable when fluttering low over the waves, yet spend all their time when not involved with nesting at sea scattered over the oceans of the world.

They are indeed vulnerable because they seem to be a favourite snack of Peregrines. I have seen a Peregrine snatch a Storm Petrel from just above the surface of a stormy sea off Hartland Point (not from my kayak). Probably a good reason why they usually keep well offshore.

5 ‘Bonxie’ Great Skuas. Another of my favourites, and a sensational encounter with one off Fowey on a calm and sunny day, only a few feet from my kayak. By far my best view in SW England.

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Great Skua

6 Arctic Skuas . All near Torbay and no decent photos.

6 Puffins. All around Eddystone. The usual gang of dirty-faced immature birds in late Spring , and one (very unusual sighting, I think) juvenile on 21 Aug. A Puffling.

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Juvenile Puffin

1 Black Tern In Mevagissey Bay with a load of Common Terns. Only my second ever from a kayak, and first ever half decent pic.

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Black Tern

8 Long-tailed Ducks. An exceptionally good year and (yet) another of my favourites. The males are one of the most attractive sea ducks. This year I was treated not only to a superb pair at Porthpean, but also a hugely unusual drake in summer plumage on the Taw estuary on 29 Sept.

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Drake Long-tailed Duck in Summer plumage
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Drake (and duck) Long-tailed Duck in Winter plumage

1 Pink-footed Goose Another kayaking first , and actually I can’t remember the last time I saw a ‘Pink-foot’, even from dry land. Superb close view, in amongst some Canada Geese, on the upper reaches of the Fowey River.

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Pink-footed Goose

Several pairs of Black-throated Divers in Scotland. The most beautifully marked UK bird?

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Black-throated Divers

 

Kingfishers on 21 days. Everybody’s favourite waterbird.

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Kingfisher

1 WILSON’S PETREL. I can still hardly believe this. The chances of seeing one of these from a kayak in England are as remote as Captain Sensible becoming Prime Minister. Ironically they are one of the most numerous birds in the world, nesting in the Southern Hemisphere and visiting the northern oceans in our summer.  A lot of birdwatchers spend a lot of time staring out to sea through telescopes hoping to see one but hardly any ever do. It’s only during storms that they are likely to be driven close enough to the shore to be seen, so when the sea is calm enough to venture far out in a kayak the petrels will usually be long gone.

So I was pretty lucky to see one a couple of miles from the Eddystone lighthouse, bringing back memories of the first one I ever saw with my father from the deck of the RMS St.Helena off the coast of South Africa, in 1989.

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Wilson’s Petrel

Finally, 3 Favourite Scenes from the year. All great to look at from the depths of winter and give prospective kayakers hope that at least a few days next year might be warm, sunny and still.

1 Hartland Point

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Hartland Point

Looe

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Looe

3 Kynance Cove

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Kynance Cove

The Brixham Dolphins

Common Dolphins are usually quite a challenge to watch from a kayak because they spend most of their time a long way offshore. I have clocked up nearly 500 miles this year paddling more than a mile offshore in the hope of running into a school or two, and some of their pelagic partners.

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Brixham Harbour

So it was a bit of a surprise when, on the shortest day of the year, I saw a host of fins breaking the surface within five minutes of paddling out from the slipway at the root of Brixham breakwater. I followed the school of about twenty-five Common Dolphins as they cruised and splashed their way towards Berry head, with several coming over to bowride my rather weak pressure wave.P1010794

They teamed up with another group of a dozen or so for a bit of a cavort about a mile off the headland. I had to paddle just about flat out to keep up with the pace, and several times gave up as they disappeared off, but then was ‘pursuaded’ to have one more sprint when they slowed down a bit. P1010792

P1010879P1010663Absolutely fantastic. I had the best ringside seat you could wish for and watched the dolphins for almost an hour. There were several juveniles and calves amongst the group and as usual these stuck to their mother’s side like glue.P1010615

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Common Dolphin calf

The scattered group disappeared off out to sea to the south and I continued offshore on a very calm sea to Sharkham Point. Beneath a couple of plunging Gannets rolled a handful of Harbour Porpoises. In contrast to the habitually boisterous and splashy nature of the dolphins, porpoises roll at the surface with hardly any disturbance to the water as if they are attached to an underwater wheel. I have seen them breach on occasion when they get really fired up about a shoal of fish, but this is rare (and even rarer on a flat calm day).

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Harbour Porpoise (rather more sedate than dolphins)

I turned back at Mansands where a Peregrine watched from above. En route back to Berry Head I passed Guillemots, Fulmars and Kittiwakes dotted about on the surface, and a few more porpoises quite close in off the headland.

As I was having a brief word with a fisherman who was casting out from a tiny cove right at the tip of the headland I glanced out to sea and observed quite a splash. My initial thought was jumping dolphin but a second later another spray of water was accompanied by the silvery flash and spiky fins of a Giant Tuna! Only about 100m off the headland (if that). Blooming heck!

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Berry Head and Brixham Breakwater
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Hezzer awaits the action

Two days later I returned for (hopefully) more dolphin action, with son Henry who positioned himself on the end of Brixham breakwater with his camera and huge lens on a tripod. It was a bit windier and was quite choppy as I ventured off the end of Berry Head. I had brief views of a couple of porpoises before I saw the more active fins of some dolphins further out.

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Family Smerdon

I arrived on the scene at the same time as a small boat containing father, son and daughter of the Smerdon family. As usual the dolphins found the larger craft rather more interesting than my own and I didn’t get a great view, although did observe one dolphin who had the curious habit of surfacing with a bit of a belly flop every time it came up for breath.

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Belly flopping Dolphin

I battled back to the headland through the wind chop and got a call from Hezzer (Henry) that there was another pod of dolphins off the breakwater. I eventually arrived on the scene and the dolphins came over to greet me. I absolutely piled on the steam to try to get them to bow ride, and a handful obliged providing some thrilling views through the clear water as they swam directly beneath me before bursting out of the water inches in front of my kayak.4I2A8650

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It’s behind you

roops dolphin

Once again they deserted me in favour of a passing vessel, this time a yacht, and my attempted humorous comment shouted across the water of “you’ve nicked my dolphins!” was partly lost on the wind and, judging by the unsmiling expression on the crew’s faces, didn’t convey in as friendly or humorous manner as it was intended.

The dolphin with the funny belly flop breathing action appeared in the bay with its group and I had one more good view before it was time for lunch and time to go home.

One distressing observation today. As I munched a sandwich discussing the day’s excitement with Hezzer while sitting in my kayak at the tip of Brixham breakwater, a Turnstone was close by on the shore pecking frantically at its foot. We could see something was wrapped around it, probably fishing line, and during the time it took me to eat two sandwiches, it hadn’t made any progress in freeing it up. Poor thing.

Apart from that,  not a bad way to spend the shortest day of the year.

Final open sea fling of the year was a sunny post Christmas afternoon at Teignmouth with Simon and Jake. Low sun, superb colours, and a big flock of Common Scoters providing a bit of wildlife interest.

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Simon and Jake, Teignmouth
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Jake, Teignmouth
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Common Scoters

 

 

Offshore Bottlenose Dolphins

The silence, stealth and unobtrusiveness of a kayak, combined with ability to churn out the miles when required, and a seat at water level which allows you to look directly into the eyes of your favourite wild creatures, have resulted in (yet more) memorable encounters recently.

Actually kayaks act as a bit of a wildlife magnet, as I found when I was messing about on the Thames at Oxford.P1000765

A pair of Muntjac deer were having a Christmas social with a couple of Roe deer and I drifted to within ten yards of them as they browsed. I got the impression that they just assumed nobody would be daft enough to be paddling on the Cherwell with the temperature only a degree above freezing so had turned their intruder proximity alarm off.

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Muntjac
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Muntjac and Roe Deer

Deer have got noticeably less wary of people over the last few decades as they get shot at less and less, and the same undoubtedly applies to seals. Some of the Grey Seals around the Devon coast are positively tame, and none more so than the gang that hang around in the Teignmouth area. I have said before that I am very cautious about approaching resting seals that are hauled out on the rocks in a kayak, because it can cause them to ‘stampede’ into the sea which at best upsets the seals and at worst can cause injury, especially if there are pups around. This certainly applies to the larger ‘rookeries’ further west in the remoter parts of Cornwall which are less habituated to recreational kayakers invading their patch of water.

However the Teignmouth seals do not just not bat an eyelid as you approach quietly in a kayak, they seem actually to quite enjoy it. Its not very often you get into the position of looking UP at the heaviest mammal to go on land in the UK……..

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Paul works his charm

 

Paul seemed to get on so well with this particular seal it gave him a brief burst of ‘song’.

It had been joined by a couple of chums on the way back, and as we departed all three remained firmly hauled out and unspooked.P1010207

The coast near Teignmouth provides some of the best sheltered open sea kayaking in SW England, with  its east facing beaches protected from prevailing wind and swell. There are some cracking little coves to stop for a cup of tea.

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Teignmouth cove

The following day was forecast to be extraordinarily wind free so I made the significant effort to drive to Penzance for a paddle round Mount’s Bay. This is a very special and exciting place and offers some great wildlife sightings. Migrating sea creatures rounding Land’s End could well come within range of a kayak putting in at Penzance……and so it was to prove!

I really didn’t expect to see much because it was only a couple of days from the shortest day and I had the impression that the visiting pelagic sea creatures such as whales, dolphins and tuna, which reach a peak in numbers in late summer and autumn, had thinned out.

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Mount’s Bay sunrise

However the sea was so remarkably smooth that if there was anything on the surface within half a mile of me, I was going to see it. I was so full of anticipation I had completed the 80+ mile drive and got onto the water before the sun had come up. As I paddled out of the harbour, fully protected in thermal gear and drysuit top and bottom as the temperature was about three degrees, I was horrified to pass a chap paddling a sit-on-top kayak wearing just a pair of swimming trunks. He explained, as if it was obvious, that he was ‘just trying to chill himself down’ before his swim!

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St. Michael’s Mount

I heard my first pair of porpoises ‘piffing’ within half a mile of setting off and passed several Loons on the water. A big fishing boat heading into Newlyn was surrounded by so many gulls it looked like smoke, and I wondered if it had lured in some rarer seabirds such as skuas as well. A couple of ‘Bonxie’ Great Skuas passed at distance so clearly it had.

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Typically elusive Porpoise

I couldn’t resist a bit of an offshore jaunt as it was so calm and the sea looked very benign under the cloudless skies. I skirted past Mousehole about two miles offshore and kept at that range as I followed the coast west. Hundreds of passing Guillemots.

I have found that the sea really livens up half way between Mousehole and Lamorna. There’s a bit more swirl and I suspect it gets significantly deeper here. In exactly this spot  a year ago a Minke Whale surfaced with a blast just metres behind me as I was watching a Gey Phalarope.

So I stopped for a cup of tea just in case. To my amazement I again heard quite a splash just behind me, and lumbered my kayak around (which is quite slow) to see  the silvery flashes of a load of Giant Bluefin Tuna surging and splashing in quite a frenzy. Long thin fins all over the place, and one jumped right out. I reckon I saw about ten in all. Only twenty metres away, so I was exactly in the right spot. Unfortunately it was all over in about thirty seconds, just when I had got my camera ready. Typical.

After this I thought it would be a bit greedy to hope for dolphins as well, so I could hardly believe my eyes when I saw a double splash and what looked like something jumping, maybe a mile away further out. I paddled hard towards it but after five minutes with no more signs of life I throttled back.

Suddenly, directly in front,  about fifteen huge-looking dolphins exploded from the water in perfect synchrony, heading straight for me. Followed by a load more, absolutely rocketing through the water a top speed and jumping and splashing all over the place. An astoundingly large area of sea was suddenly a confusion of white water.And it was all heading my way! My excitementometer blew a fuse and I fumbled to get my camera ready. The lead dolphins leapt past a few feet away and sped off, followed by two more waves. I could see that they were too big for Common Dolphins and initially thought they were Risso’s, but a few passing close showed the classic Bottlenose profile. Alas my camera chose that moment to not work properly in burst mode so I missed the dramatic synchronous leaping of dozens of dolphins. P1010239P1010235

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Bottlenose Dolphins, Mount’s Bay

Absolutely incredible. They went passed so fast in such a flurry I had difficulty assessing the number. It was at least thirty, it could well have been fifty, or more.

Even more remarkable was their behaviour. Although I have seen individual Bottlenose Dolphins doing spectacular jumps, they are usually surprisingly unobtrusive and quiet for such a large creature (two or three times the size of a Common Dolphin). Most groups I have encountered close inshore but once came across some ten miles offshore near Eddystone. But these were not very fast and splashy, and were very inquisitive. Today’s were not interested in me one little bit.

Today’s group seemed to be on a mission to travel as fast as possible with as much white water as possible, behaviour more typical of Common Dolphins.

That is why I think these were ‘transient’ or possibly ‘offshore’ dolphins that are not resident locally and are migrating past. It was a significantly larger group than is usual for Bottlenose Dolphins around the UK, and seemingly different behaviour, although it may have been just because they were in a hurry.

Interestingly I was reading that there are only 300 Bottlenose Dolphins resident around the UK, and I might have just seen fifty! I’m pretty sure that to see this sort of number around the UK is very rare (especially from a kayak).

They headed directly towards the coast and then turned to run parallel to it towards Land’s End keeping at least a mile offshore.

Wow! and Wow! again.

I even saw a festive jellyfish, a translucent cylinder with edges glittering with an array of shifting multicoloured lights, better than anything you will see hanging from a Christmas tree.

Surely no more excitement. Wrong. A chunky looking skua that flew directly over my head was an immature Pomarine, only the second ever from my kayak.

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Pomarine Skua

And just another fourteen porpoises (groups of 4, 4, 3, 3) and many more heard ‘piffing’ but not seen. And another dozen Loons.

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Penzance Loons

And just to finish off, Eddie the Eider at Penzance Harbour.

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Eddie the Eider

If someone said to me that they had seen all these incredible wildlife sightings in the sea in a single six hour, sixteen mile kayak trip in mid December, I would struggle to believe them.

 

 

Christmas Bonus. Dolphins, Porpoises and Seals.

Still a few weeks to go to Christmas I know, but I just couldn’t resist the title.

The winter storms, which bludgeon me into submission and send me cowering up a creek, have been kept at bay for a further couple of days by a nose of high pressure. Not only light winds but also very little groundswell which is unusual at this time of the year, making offshore paddling irresistible.

Fowey was my destination on Day 1. Fowey is not only an exceptionally beautiful place, paddling always seems to be more relaxing here as the tidal currents seem to be less than around the corner past Dodman Point. Even the slightest current working against the wind chops up the surface significantly.

And following my recent encounters with the Giant Tuna and dolphins and porpoises here, I was full of expectation.

I called in my ‘passage plan’ on the radio with Charlestown NCI because there was nobody at home in Polruan NCI probably because I was a bit early, as usual.

I got the impression that there was not a lot going on in the sea in terms of wildlife but was kept interested by the little parties of Guillemots I passed. First photo with my new camera!

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Guillemot (in winter outfit)

I watched the handful of passing Gannets closely as they filed past. All they have to do is circle round once and show an interest in a particular patch of sea, and my eyeballs are locked on to the surface, because the fish that attracts a Gannet will also lure in other sea creatures. I’ve often located porpoises in this way, but for every one I have seen there will be twenty that I have missed, not only because porpoises are so small and unobtrusive, but because by the time I have arrived at the scene the action, if there has been any, has finished. Chasing down feeding ‘events’ in a kayak is a slow process. It’s a lot easier with a 200 horsepower outboard. Even two hp would be quicker than me.

Encouraged by a light tailwind I wandered about three miles offshore, and suddenly found myself on the edge of a group of twenty circling Gannets which seemed to have appeared out of nowhere. Sure enough, there were fins below. Three Common Dolphins. Fab. As I quietly approached, five more dolphins joined the gang and they all came over to  say hello. Just for fun I piled on the speed (can’t go more than 6-7mph flat out) and the dolphins responded with a load of splashing and surging in my excuse for a pressure wave.

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Dolphin and the Dodman

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Common Dolphin, Fowey

The dolphins hung around for five minutes then moved off. It all went a bit quiet after that so I paddled in for a leg stretch at superb Lantic Bay. As I was approaching the beach I heard the haunting querulous call of a Loon and observed a family of three fishing in the bay. Great Northern Divers (aka Common Loon across the pond) often go around in threes and I’m pretty sure these are Mum, Dad and this year’s offspring. Just by the way they act, and look, and communicate to each other in a family sort of way. Amazing that they can stick together on their migration from the arctic.

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Lantic Bay Loon

My enjoyable day was soured a bit as I arrived back in Fowey. A Dory which I had seen leaving the estuary at the same time as me six hours earlier overtook me on the way in and it was full up to the gunwhales, and beyond, with Sea Urchins. I had a chat with the three crew and they said they had picked up over six hundred (!) urchins by shallow diving along the local coast, and were going to sell them on to souvenir and craft shops. Blimey. They must have had nearly the lot.

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Sea Urchin (one that got away)

Day 2  involved a fifteen mile circuit of one of my favourite sheltered bays in South Cornwall, initially heading three miles offshore and then coming back along the coast.

I set off just as it was getting light and my systems (e.g eyes and ears) were far from fully operational when a small duck, which I initially presumed to be a Guillemot, pitched onto the surface with quite a splash in front of me.  Because it was half dark I was only ten yards away when I realised it was a Long-tailed Duck. I scrambled my new camera out of its dry bag and just managed a few shots before the duck paddled off into the gloom. My fourth L-T Duck of the autumn….pleased with that.

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Long-tailed Duck

Incidentally, no long tail because it’s a female.

My offshore jaunt was rather dull and was rescued by the appearance of a couple of porpoises which surfaced only a few yards away. In typical aloof porpoise style they popped up, piffed, and then completely disappeared.

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Harbour Porpoises

From a couple of miles offshore I could hear the weird wailing ‘song’ of a seal drifting out from a sheltered cove. At one stage it droned on for about a minute without a breath. A bit like Leonard Cohen, but more tuneful.

After coffee ‘at sea’ I cautiously paddled towards the seals who were hauled out on the rocks. I am acutely aware that seals can feel very vulnerable when out of the water and kayakers can, and do, cause real disturbance to colonies, so I kept my distance and was subjected only to a disapproving stare.

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Six-eyed Stare
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Large and Little

One seal, which had a nasty-looking fresh injury on its back, was mottled like a granite-style kitchen surface. A Harbour (or Common) Seal. Not Common at all in SW England, only the second I have seen in Cornwall. Maybe it’s because they get beaten up by the Grey Seals, as seemed to have happened to this one.

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Common (Harbour) seal

The Spring tide was just about low as I came round the headland to Portscatho. The local gulls were very busy and very noisy as they hunted through the exposed kelp for their favourite delicacy. Flicking over the fronds with their beaks and shallow-diving from the surface. If one caught a starfish it was immediately hounded by half-a-dozen friends who were keen to have an ‘arm’ or two. Dramas like this that are played out as you paddle along unobtrusively and silently are what I like most about kayaking (as well as all the other stuff).

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Gull plus seafood lunch. Rick Stein would approve.

I consumed my cheese and pickle sandwiches on the foreshore at Portscatho. The weather wasn’t bad for December 5th…..it was completely windless and warm enough for me not to have cold feet, even though I was wearing two pairs of socks. My photos would have looked better if the sun was shining, however. A turquoise sea is always better than one which is battleship grey.

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Portscatho

My ornithologically outstanding day was nicely rounded off with a close encounter with two Purple Sandpipers, distant views of a couple of Slavonian Grebes and a Red-necked Grebe, and another dozen Loons.

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Purple Sandpiper with purfect camouflage.
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Great Northern Diver (Loon)

It’s not just the marine environment that provides the best wildlife encounters from a kayak. It’s nice to get close views of some of the commoner, but no less attractive, species that seem only to be tame enough for close approach in city parks. Like this Moorhen with its incongruously large, and green, feet.

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Oxford Moorhen

I snapped this squirrel in the middle of Oxford (from my kayak of course). I’m not entirely sure that the tree to which it was clinging wasn’t some sort of creature from Middle Earth. Those look like faces in its bark.

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Secret Squirrel
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That’s got to be an Ent from Fangorn, surely