Here’s my top twelve wildlife sightings (all from the kayak seat, of course) for 2019. The cream of 2,444 miles of paddling.
There’s so much action to pack in that the coastal scenery, which has a claim to be as world class as the marine wildlife, doesn’t even get a mention (apart from this one pic).
So here we go, in reverse order.
12. Fowey Osprey
This beautiful juvenile Osprey was an end of year bonus, stopping off for a rest (and no doubt refuelling on a mullet or two) near the mouth of the Fowey estuary. It had probably hatched out in Scotland or the north of England, and was on its way to the main Osprey wintering ground in West Africa. I look forward to seeing it again next year (hopefully).
I usually see one or two Ospreys around the estuaries of Devon and Cornwall in the autumn, but this is by far and away my best view….and I so nearly overlooked it as it was sat completely still near the top of a tall waterside tree.
11. Barrel Jellyfish
2019 has been a spectacular year for Barrel Jellyfish. They have been around in vast numbers, and for a long time. From early March to the end of October. On one day I saw more than the previous five years put together.
They are really great creatures….big and mysterious.
10. Boscastle Puffins
There’s a handful of breeding colonies of everybody’s favourite seabird dotted around SW England, and nowhere is more dramatic than the rocky islets off the craggy and hostile coast of North Cornwall just up from Tintagel.
There’s only a couple of pairs of Puffins at Boscastle, and there’s only a couple of days a month when sea conditions are suitable for attempting to go and see them by kayak.
9. Torridge Otter.
This is our only venture into fresh water in this review, into the home of Tarka the otter in North Devon. A superb prolonged view in early January of a dog otter fishing.
An encounter matched by it’s cousin on the other side of the pond, or more technically the OTHER pond, because this is a Pacific Sea Otter which Becky and I watched from a kayak during a trip to California in February.
I saw a total of six river otters in 2019…..three in the Torridge, three in the Tamar. (plus one on the Wye)
8. Harbour Porpoise
I really like porpoises. They are a kayak speciality, because the majority I see I have heard puffing first, a noise that would be drowned out by any sort of engine. There is no doubt they are hugely overlooked, because they are small (only four to five foot long), and they appear at the surface without a splash. Also they tend to go around in very small groups which makes them even easier to miss.
This year I have seen a total of 275 porpoises on 38 days. Down from last year ( 327 on 44 days) but I don’t get the impression there are any fewer around. If you paddle a couple of miles offshore almost anywhere around the coast of Devon and Cornwall in August, you will probably hear one puffing.
7. Micky the Harbour Seal
It is rare to see a Harbour Seal in Cornwall, and even more unusual (and probably unprecedented) to see a pup that has swum all the way from Holland and is still only five months old. Another success story for the seal rescue and rehabilitation centres.
A handful of trips up an estuary through the patchy mist of dawn in July were rewarded with several encounters with Beavers. I had heard they were about, but I had no idea they were in this particular location, didn’t realise that they inhabited saltwater estuaries, and anyway didn’t think I would see one in daylight.
Another good example of the benefits of paddling along in complete silence (and early in the morning).
Five beaver sightings on three days.
5. Common Dolphin
My Common Dolphin year started off in grand style with a prolonged encounter with a pod of about twenty off Penzance. It was early January but the flat calm sea and warm sun made it feel, and look, like summer.
I will never ever get bored of seeing a dolphin from my kayak. In fact the excitement will never dip below the 100% level. Partly because it is so very difficult to do…..Common Dolphins don’t often come within sight of the shore so you’ve really got to be a long way out, and sea conditions suitable for this are infrequent even in the summer.
It’s a good news story for SW England and the efforts of the marine conservation groups that Common Dolphins seem to be increasing, no doubt because there are more fish around. This is reflected in my total for the year of 564 individuals on 23 days. (it’s actually probably a lot more than this but estimating the number of dolphins in an active and splashy pod is very difficult).This compares to 432 on 17 days last year, and 148 on 11 days in 2017.
This includes a couple of ‘superpods’ (over 50 individuals) on consecutive days at the end of August…one in Devon and the other in Cornwall.
Interestingly I only saw an average of one pod per year when I kayaked along the coast; the increase only occurred when I took to offshore paddling. I now average about 500 miles a year more than a mile from the shore specifically looking for ‘fins’.
Only one or two of this year’s pods would have been visible to a kayaker paddling close to the shore.
I can’t think of any other situation where such a large number of completely wild creatures voluntarily come so close to an observer. Even better for the dolphins, they remain completely undisturbed and unspooked because I have no engine, and a kayak is about as threatening as a floating log.
4. Bottlenose Dolphins
My first sighting of these big and charismatic dolphins for several years was in Mount’s Bay, and three miles offshore. Bottlenose Dolphins usually prefer to stay close in because they like to hunt fish that live on the seabed, but these were thought to be part of an offshore pod that live in the open sea (and feed on shoaling fish).
3. Risso’s Dolphin
This was a really extraordinary encounter on one of the most beautiful days of the year. It was hot, sunny and windless. Even the relentless swell along the north coast of Cornwall had abated allowing a relaxed twenty-mile paddle from St.Ives to Sennen. I couldn’t resist a jaunt offshore around the Brisons rocks for the final section, and was rewarded with an extended sight of a pod of eight Risso’s Dolphins.
They are big and dynamic and ran through just about every trick in the dolphin book: spyhopping, fin-clapping, lobtailing, breaching as well as a bit of logging at the surface.
I was thrilled when one swam past a few feet away because they are usually quite shy, and I personally have only seen them at a distance before.
2. Minke Whale
Ever since I first sat in a kayak (about fifty years ago) I have dreamt about seeing a whale from the kayak seat. Because I never thought it would happen in Devon or Cornwall I have been to Greenland, USA and Mexico to try and see one, and failed.
In the last four years I have discovered that if you grind out the miles, as far offshore as you dare, you will eventually see a whale.
In fact prior to this year I have seen ten whales in SW England. Fantastic, but August 2nd 2019 was to blast any other previous sighting clean out of the water, and I still can’t quite believe it happened.
Because I saw two species of whale in the same place at the same time, without paddling a single stroke. (as well as Common Dolphin, Porpoise, Giant Bluefin Tuna).
While I was waiting for the ‘other’ whale to surface, this Minke Whale appeared close enough to give me my best ever photograph of the species. If you consider whales as a whole, Minkes are not the biggest (about thirty foot) and not the most exciting, because they roll at the surface like a giant porpoise. But heck, they are a whale, and who would believe you can see a whale from a kayak in UK.
1. HUMPBACK WHALE!!!!!
This once-in-a-lifetime drama was played out in a location that I usually avoid because of the tidal currents and confused and choppy water. But conditions for cetacean viewing AND photography were absolutely perfect…flat water, and cloudless blue sky.
It was the perfect un-storm.
Even so, the chances of me being three to four miles offshore in precisely the right place at precisely the same time as a Humpback whale appears, make a win on the lottery look easy. It was the first Humpback seen in the area since the Spring, and it was only around for a few hours.
I would have been over the moon just to have a fleeting view of it like this:
And to see the flukes come up as it deep dived was something I had always wanted to capture on film…..even better with St.Michael’s Mount behind (seven miles away!).
Waving its enormous pectoral fin about was an unexpected bonus…..
But to be sitting right in the middle of its feeding area, as it proceeded to gulp down the baitballs of sandeels and other small fish just a few yards away, was something I hadn’t anticipated.
To see this sort of sight from a whale-watching boat in California or Hawaii would be the thrilling enough, but to ‘stumble’ across it in my kayak while randomly paddling around far offshore, right here on our doorstep in Southwest England, is total excitement overload.
It will be hard to top in 2020.