2019.The Year of THE Whale

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).

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So here we go, in reverse order.

12. Fowey Osprey

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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

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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

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Puffin Pair, Boscastle

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.

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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.

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Californian Sea Otter

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

mother and calf porpoise
mother and calf 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.

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Micky the (Dutch) Harbour Seal

6. Beaver

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.

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Beaver

 

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.

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Penzance dolphin

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.

 

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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.

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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.

 

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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).

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Bottlenose Dolphins

 

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.

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Risso’s dolphin spyhopping

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.

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Risso’s

 

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.

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Minke Whale

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:

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Humpback

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!).

 

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Humpback and St.Michael’s Mount

Waving its enormous pectoral fin about was  an unexpected bonus…..

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Humpback flipper

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.

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Humpback gulp
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Humpback splash

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.

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Christmas Bonus. Torbay Dolphins.

I didn’t need much persuasion to nip across to Torbay for an open sea paddle, given the brief lull in the wind and the desperate need to offset my colossal festive calorie footprint.  There is a danger I might end up with the same BMI as the local seals (no disrespect to them intended).P1010555

It was gloomy and drizzly but my spirits were lifted by a small group off Dolphins only just off the end of the breakwater. They passed by close with a sense of urgency. It was great to see a calf tucked in close beside its mum.

 

 

Another small pod sped past to join up with a larger group of about twenty.

 

 

This larger pod were milling about in one area and attracting quite a large flock of Gannets that were circling expectantly overhead. The dolphins then coordinated into a circle , corralling a baitball of fish in the middle. The baitball can be clearly seen in this video.

 

 

The Gannets wasted no time in joining in with the feast, with the baitball pinned against the surface. I am particularly pleased with these shots because it is the first time I have succeeded in getting a reasonable film of dolphins with a half-decent Gannet feeding frenzy. I have seen plenty from afar, but by the time I roll up the action has long passed.

 

 

 

 

I was very surprised to glimpse a skua causing a bit of trouble amongst a group of gulls some distance away. It is very unusual to see this type of seabird at this time of year. It is an Arctic/Pomarine type…probably a Pomarine because Arctics winter a lot further south in the Atlantic.

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Prob Pomarine Skua

The dolphins cruised about finishing up their meal.

 

 

And I headed out past Berry Head looking for more exciting sea creatures. The surface was nice and flat (for a change).

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Berry Head

I found three more small pods of dolphins. One group, a couple of miles off Berry Head, were exceptionally inquisitive and accompanied me for the best part of half an hour as I cruised along. Superb.

 

 

 

 

My underwater photo effort was disappointing because, although the dolphins came very close, the water was cloudier than it looked from above the surface (although not surprising after all the storms and rain). You can hear lots of communication clicks, however.

Add to all this four Porpoises, which have a characteristic ‘puff’ which is much louder than a dolphin, and an exceptional number of Great Northern Divers (including a preening group of eight) completed a day which was rather beyond my expectations.

Sensational Cetaceans

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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.

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St. Michael’s 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.

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Great Northern Diver

There are plenty of Guillemots and Razorbills:

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Guillemot
Razorbill
Razorbill

And Eddie the resident Eider duck is usually in evidence somewhere around Penzance harbour, sometimes with some friends, sometimes not.

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Eddie the Eider

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.

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Common Dolphin

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.P1000136

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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.

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Juvenile and adult Common Dolphin

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.close dolphins 3

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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.

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Common Dolphin

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.P1000372

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In the Thick of the Action. Twice.

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Two consecutive days of full-on Dolphin action, including two large groups which may have qualified as superpods. It is very difficult to estimate the number of individuals in a confused mass of water, especially when one’s grey matter is on the verge of blowing a fuse with all the fizzing excitement.

This sort of stuff was way beyond my wildest dreams when I started offshore sea kayaking, but if you can be bothered to paddle miles and miles offshore for hours and hours, sooner or later you are going to come across some action.

Most likely a quiet little Porpoise puffing its way quietly along….

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Harbour porpoise

but every so often, especially in late summer, you are in for a bit of a treat.

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DAY 1: Berry Head, Brixham

My offshore paddle beyond Berry Head was initially halted by a bank of fog that rolled in when I was a mile off the headland. I had just seen a small pod of dolphins but they were suddenly consumed in the murk, and I had to navigate back to the headland using the GPS. Being out of sight of land is always a bit unsettling, but the greatest danger is being run over by some moron in a speedboat (or jetski).

 

 

The mist dispersed so I headed off again, directly out from Berry Head.

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Berry Head

The surface was initially a bit choppy, but smoothed off as the mist thinned, and I heard splashing behind me that came from a small pod of Common Dolphins. One had an unusually pale dorsal fin:

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pale-finned dolphin

Sights such as this ensure that you will be planning your next kayaking trip the minute you get home.

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Common Dolphin going for air

I was ‘checked out’ by four ‘Bonxie’ Great Skuas. Migrating seabirds always fly a bit closer to the coast during conditions of poor visibility, and these are on their way to spend the winter in the Atlantic after (probably) breeding in Scotland.

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Great Skua

Although the activity went quiet my aim was to paddle exactly five miles from Berry Head. When my GPS got precisely to 5.00 miles I stopped for a coffee and crunch cream. And heard a distant continuous splashy roar that was like surf breaking on a beach, coming from further out to sea. At the limit of vision I could just see a mass of dark shapes appearing at the surface.

Fifteen minutes of flat-out paddling later……..

 

 

I estimated 50-70 in the group and the general rule is that the actual number of dolphins is twice what you think. So probably 100+, and 100 qualifies as a superpod. Another first for thelonekayaker.

Two relaxed hours of paddling later, and another small pod of dolphins and a porpoise or two, I was back amongst (sort of) civilisation.

Tombstoners and a busy bank-holiday Brixham Breakwater beach.

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Brixham Tombstoners
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Breakwater beach and Brixham

DAY 2: Mount’s Bay, Penzance

I was meeting Henry’s friend Josh at Penzance at 7.30am. He was dead keen to see dolphins, so the pressure was on. I generally don’t go far offshore unless the wind forecast is less than 5mph. Any more and the kayak bounces around too much, you can’t hear blows and splashes above the sound of the breaking wavelets, and you can’t see a fin so well when the surface is not smooth.

I am also wary in taking anyone out far offshore in a kayak for a trip which could easily be twenty miles and seven to eight hours long. Not just because of safety, but it’s not everyone’s cup of tea, especially if you don’t see any dolphins, which is very possible because they are so wide-ranging.P1360811

Anyway, Josh seemed up for it, and we got off to a good start by seeing Eddie the resident Eider duck (in eclipse plumage), about a minute after getting on the water. The first one Josh had seen in UK.

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Eddie the Eider

Over the next two hours we swung three miles offshore past Mousehole and saw just one porpoise. The sea was choppy, with small whitecaps, and was steely grey under cloudy skies. Not great, especially as the wind was behind us which would make the long paddle back even longer.

But everything changed in an instant.

Half-a-mile ahead ten Gannets were circling and diving from a huge height. I knew that with such intense activity there would almost certainly be dolphins involved so we powered forward. Fins at the surface. Phew. Pressure off. Even better the sea suddenly smoothed off and the sun came out!

 

Josh was as enthralled and as excited I thought he would be. Listen to this clip carefully.

 

As the pod moved off we heard a persistent distant splashing a lot further out, so of course could not resist a bit of investigation…… it was a huge pod of dolphins spread over a large area, with hundreds of Manx Shearwaters zipping past and loafing about on the surface. Offshore kayak wildlife heaven. The shearwaters alone would have probably made the whole trip worthwhile.

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Manx Shearwaters

 

 

We spent a long time watching and enjoying, basically sat right in the middle of the action. It was a feast for the ears as much as the eyes, surrounded by a permanent sloshing and splashing and puffing. Common Dolphins are my favourite cetacean for that precise reason…they are so energetic and active.

And then we heard the blow of a whale. Loud and long and a blast that sounds like it is coming out of a very wide tube. It was not easy to work out precisely where the noise came from, so we stared in the general direction, and wished the dolphins would quieten down a bit (how amazing is that….not being able to hear a whale for the sound of splashing dolphins!). Nothing more for a long while, then another non-directional blast of breath and that was it….we never saw it, although Josh thinks he saw a long back in front of a curved fin for an instant.

But come on, Josh, it’s  a bit much to see a whale on your first ever offshore wildlife kayak trip.

So he had to settle for a dolphin superpod instead. Tough.

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I had been watching a very black-looking thunderstorm gathering in the south. We were ninety minutes paddling time from the shore and it is not a great idea to be stuck out in the middle of the sea holding a carbon-fibre paddle if there is lightning around.

We started to head in as the first drops of rain started to fall (so a bit late, probably), but the dolphins hadn’t finished with us.

The biggest dolphin of the pod swum right in between us….

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Josh and big dolphin
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King of the dolphins and thelonekayaker! (thanks for the pic, Josh)

 

and it then escorted us away by riding our bow wave for a few minutes as we sped towards the shore.

More distraction when we were a couple of miles from the security of Mousehole. An unusually large pod of Harbour Porpoises, probably in excess of twenty. Same routine, we just quietly approached and sat completely still and the action ( quiet and porpoisey, unlike the animated dolphins) happened around us…..often behind us!

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It’s behind you….three porpoises (if you look closely)

 

We rolled into Mousehole for lunch (sandwiches) on the harbour wall in the rain, and headed back to Penzance as it eased off, narrowly avoiding getting tombstoned.

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Mousehole
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Mousehole tombstoners

One more wildlife nugget awaited us as we arrived back at Penzance Harbour after our seventeen mile, seven hour trip. Tucked in amongst the Turnstones roosting at high tide was this cracking Knot, still with a wash of orange summer plumage. A migrant from the high arctic.

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Napping Knot and Turnstone
Knot and Turnstone
Knot and Turnstone

So, two very large pods of dolphins on two consecutive days in two different counties, both probably exceeding the magical number of a hundred to make them superpods.

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Jump for joy.

 

 

 

August Wildlife: Up the Creek to Open Sea

The encounter with the Humpback  (on 2nd Aug) is the most exciting wildlife spectacle I have witnessed from my kayak, by quite a long way.

Explosive drama.

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Humpback Whale

The scene is rather more serene at the upper tidal limit of the River Torridge. In fact not a lot could be more serene.

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Torridge Swans

The Swan family are thriving and drift about in the complete silence of a late summer morning.

 

 

 

 

Unfortunately the family with three cygnets on the River Tamar is not doing so well.

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Morwellham Swans

They are now down to one youngster as I passed the corpses of the other two cygnets yesterday floating at the surface, over a mile apart. ????

Most birds stopped singing at the end of June when their breeding season came to an end, but swallows are an exception and are not only still singing, there are still young in the nest. Some pairs will rear a third brood which may not fledge until early October.

The soundtrack  of the summer.

 

The top of the tidal estuaries are fresh water and are the home of Dippers who just can’t resist bobbing.

 

 

 

 

One of the bonuses of choosing Devon and Cornwall as a kayaking destination is the hundreds of miles of sheltered creek to explore when the exposed coast and open sea is lashed by wind, as it has been on and off for the last couple of weeks.

 

 

 

 

It’s great to see the pretty little Mandarin Ducks that seem to have made the Upper Torridge their home. They originate from escapes from collections and have only been in this area for a few years.

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Mandarin Duck

Heading down towards the sea Curlews demonstrate how to spruce oneself up despite an enormous bill, and Little Egrets spear little fish in the shallows.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The flock of Black-headed gulls is irresistible to a passing Peregrine that slices through the middle of them. You will see it cut through the flock from right to left. Unsuccessfully, on this occasion. It looks brownish so it is probably a this year’s youngster.

 

 

 

 

This next clip is a bit depressing. A Herring gull with a plastic bag wrapped round its leg. I don’t fancy its chances.

 

 

 

Seals sometimes venture far up the estuaries because there is the potential for good fishing. Even if salmon and sea trout are not as numerous as they used to be, there’s plenty of mullet that follow the tide in.

This is a Harbour Seal well up the Fowey estuary. It clearly wants to take a mid-morning nap  but is unfortunately spooked by the approach of a rowing scull.

 

 

I have sneaked out along the coast during the very few spells of lighter wind during the last few weeks. The Turnstones have returned to the barnacle encrusted rocks. Here one is still in full summer plumage (the smarter-looking bird) while the other is in the less smart winter plumage.

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Turnstones, Mevagissey

It was a bit of a surprise to see a Redshank out on the rocky coast…they usually prefer the mud of estuaries. On migration, no doubt.

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Torbay Redshank (looking a bit knock-kneed)

The problem with wearing Crocs for kayaking is that when you stop for a cup of coffee and a Crunch Cream and walk across a beach they have an almost magnetic attraction for the most painful and spiky stones and shells to get inside and poke the soles of your feet.

It’s a common occurrence, but this is the first one to have been alive.

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Hermit Crab in Croc

At Mevagissey this is the first Crystal jellyfish I have seen this year…didn’t they star in Avatar, by the Tree of Life?

 

 

Grey Seals always make me chuckle when they are ‘bottling’ i.e. sleeping vertically in the water. They can be really deep asleep and I have actually accidentally bumped into them before.

This one at Mevagissey was certainly fairly well gone and you can hear it snoring. Fortunately I didn’t disturb it at all and managed to depart the scene without it apparently waking.

 

 

I came across more seals in Torbay; a woolly-looking bull Grey Seal and a perky Harbour Seal. Harbour seals used to be rare in SW England but they seem to be slowly invading.

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Grey Seal bull, Thatcher Rock
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Harbour Seal, Thatcher Rock

There has been a single window of opportunity for an offshore paddle during the last couple of weeks, lasting only a few hours and early in the morning. The Cornish Riviera at Mevagissey was my destination and I was very pleased to see half-a-dozen Porpoises and a little pod of four Common Dolphins.

Way beyond my expectations on a choppy day.

As usual a couple of adults came over to assess the threat I posed to the juvenile that they were escorting. Fortunately I was quickly deemed to be safe and they carried on feeding close to the kayak. I sometimes half-wish that they would hesitate for a split second before making up their minds, as if they had mistaken me for an impressive creature such as an Orca or a Great white. But they don’t. One glimpse and they have got me pigeonholed alongside floating logs and marine detritus.

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Gorran Haven Common Dolphin

 

 

 

 

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Common Dolphin and Tectona (sail-training ship)

For the next week or so the dolphins wont have to worry whether I am a Killer Whale or piece of flotsam, because I will not be out there in the strong wind. The weather is currently so poor and all other paddling venues so chopped-up, or with unfavourable tides, that the only suitable location is the good-old Bude Canal.

 

Sizzling Summer Part Two: The Sensational Wildlife of Southwest England

 

We’ll start off below the surface and work upwards, culminating in an encounter to match anything you will see in the natural world, anywhere.

High summer means a jellyfish boom in the waters around Devon and Cornwall. The lack of rain and calm conditions has made the water crystal clear, so the jellyfish look even better than usual.

Following record numbers during the spring, there are still plenty of Barrel Jellyfish around, up to about four foot long.

 

 

 

 

Compass jellies are my favourite, because of there intricate colour scheme and the fact that they are ‘proper’ jellies because, unlike Barrel jellies, they have a sting.

 

 

 

 

New kids on the block for July are Moon Jellies. How appropriate for the anniversary of the lunar landings. They occur in huge numbers and concentrate around the current lines.

 

 

 

 

As usual there are plenty of seals dotted along the coast, concentrating in their favourite rocky haulouts. There is no doubt they are increasingly tolerant of humans, it’s dogs they really don’t like. They have very acute hearing and a dog barking half-a-mile away can make them more agitated than a kayaker bobbing about a few feet away.

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They show only a passing interest in waterskiers……..P1340660

and are quite happy to be the stars of the show:P1340663

A big hazard for seals is fast moving craft. This injury is probably caused by an impact with a boat, although it could conceivably be the result of a fight.

 

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I was thrilled to meet up with this Harbour Seal along the south Cornwall coast. Harbour Seals are rare in SW England, the majority are the bigger, and arguably less attractive Grey Seals.

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Harbour Seal

 

 

 

 

Cetacean viewing from my kayak is my favourite occupation, because it is so challenging. Most porpoises, dolphins and whales hunt miles from the shore so just getting out to where they might be is not easy, and when eventually a day comes along which is calm enough for you to make the considerable effort to get out there, they are so widely scattered that you almost certainly won’t see them.

A smooth surface is the key to success and this month I have been lucky enough to see three different species: Harbour Porpoise, Common Dolphin and Risso’s Dolphin. I might even call it three and-a-half because a glimpse of a big back disappearing below the water followed by a big swirl while down at Penzance was almost certainly a Minke Whale. If only I had looked round a quarter of a second earlier…….

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Porpoise in a rush, Portscatho
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Common Dolphin in even more of a rush, Looe
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Risso’s Dolphin taking a look, Sennen

Guillemots and Razorbills have completed their breeding on the sea cliffs and have now headed far out to sea. Just a few stragglers are reluctant to depart.

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Bude Guillemot

Manx Shearwaters are constant companions offshore, zipping past the kayak in compact groups, or resting on the surface.

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Manx Shearwater

I have been very pleased to have seen several Oystercatcher chicks along the coast this year. Like other waders, which are all declining, they are ground-nesting and so disturbance by dogs is a big issue.

This pair chose a little rocky promontory to raise their two youngsters.

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Oystercatcher plus chick

We are going to take a jaunt inland up the rivers now, before returning to the coast for my grand finale.

I am very excited to have seen this next little wildlife gem recently. I was very familiar with Water Voles when I was a teenager in Berkshire, as you can see from my entries in my wildlife diary 1975. In those days I sported a luxuriant (but greasy) mop of hair and my knees were composed of bone, not titanium. You could guarantee a handful of water vole sightings during a short visit to the Thames or one of its tributaries.

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Entry in my wildlife book….from 44 years ago (gulp..that’s nearly half a century)

Then Mink came along and ate nearly all of them.

This is the first Water Vole I have seen for decades. It was beside the very upper reaches of the Thames, so just about (or very nearly) qualifies for SW England. Even if it doesn’t quite qualify it is GREAT to see.

 

 

 

 

I took this next video clip, of a very similar-looking, but very much larger herbivore beside the upper reaches of an estuary which was definitely in Southwest England.

A Beaver enjoying breakfast. 

 

 

 

 

We now float off downstream, back to the open coast.

Peregrine falcons are not uncommon, but to actually see one making a kill is exceptional. If you see one in hunting mode, or just starting a stoop, it will probably be out of sight (either round a headland or disappeared into the distance) by the time it strikes its prey. Even if you see the final moments of the plunge, they frequently miss.

I had only picked Jed up from the station in Exeter a couple of hours previously, so I was very pleased to be able to show him a Peregrine, as a fledgling snickered at its passing parent. I told him to watch that passing pigeon closely, just in case the  falcons had a ‘go’ at it.

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Jed aghast

They certainly did. The adult and young Peregrine stooped in a shallow dive at the pigeon, there was a mid-air scuffle of wings for a split second, and then the struggling pigeon was just about scrambled to the rocks on the shore, secured in the talons of the peregrine that was losing height fast with the weight.

All in a few seconds, and a hundred yards away, and as usual I was hoping for an action replay to work out exactly what just happened. Looking at my pics later helped.

It is a juvenile Peregrine holding the pigeon (streaked breast, not barred). It looks as though the pigeon is a youngster as well (no white flashes on its neck), so was maybe easier to catch.

I’m pretty sure the young Peregrine actually caught the pigeon itself, although I might have expected the adult bird to have made the catch, and then passed it to its offspring as part of its training. I think the young bird had already progressed on to making its own ‘kills’, or perhaps this was its very first, and amazingly successful, effort!

I’m also pretty sure I saw the adult actually herd the pigeon in the direction of the young falcon because it was flying in the opposite direction a few seconds before the stoop.

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Juvenile Peregrine clasping Woodpigeon

Peregrines have a notch in their upper mandible to nip the spinal cord of their avian victims to kill them outright. This young bird didn’t do that (probably hadn’t had that lesson yet) so the unfortunate pigeon was still very much alive, and still flapping, as the Peregrine takes it behind a rock and out of sight to deal with it.

 

 

 

 

Here is the action again slowed down even further.

 

 

 

 

Fantastic. One of the great spectacles of the natural world. In my opinion right up there with things like seeing a Lion taking an antelope. Maybe even better, because it happened right here on our ‘doorstep’ and I suspect fewer people have seen a peregrine make a kill than a lion. All played out as we watched from the comfort of a kayak seat. And a completely random sight that only comes from putting in the hours of paddling. In my case, many thousands of hours. In Jed’s case, an hour and-a-half. Lucky.

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Eddystone. Dolphins,Porpoises, and a Whole Load of Fish.

My first trip out to the legendary lighthouse of 2019.

As is typical of me I arrived beach too early, and it was far too breezy. I paddled out from Cawsand in a steady force 4 NE wind and started to get very cold feet about heading out to the Eddystone. Fortunately I had sneaked a final look at the wind forecast before I left home and was as confident as I could be that this was just a flow of cool air off the land that would ease off as the sun got to work. Much of the day was supposed to be just about windless.

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Cawsand

Even so, I hugged the coast round to Rame Head and checked in with the NCI lookout on the headland above before gingerly starting on the ten mile crossing to Eddystone.

The Queen Elizabeth was still at anchor in the outer sound:

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Queen Elizabeth

The wind dropped only slowly and the first five miles were quite bouncy. Manx Shearwaters flicked past, and a few sat about on the sea.

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Manx Shearwaters

I started to relax as the sun warmed my back and the surface smoothed off.

There were quite a variety of jellyfish today: a handful of Barrel Jellies, lots of Compass jellies and one or two Moon and Blue.

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Compass jellyfish
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Barrel Jellyfish

Breakfast was taken on board. Not another soul for many miles around.20170111_034117Of course I wanted to see some fins breaking the water and my hopes were raised by the slightly larger number of patrolling Gannets than I had seen offshore recently. As usual they came over and checked me out. Large objects at the surface tend to eat fish so can mean a meal to a Gannet. Unfortunately for them , I don’t . Not for breakfast anyway.

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Patrolling Gannet (2nd or 3rd year)

However by the time I arrived at the Eddystone reef I had seen no large marine creatures. However I was amazed to see huge numbers of silvery-coloured fish over the reef. I thought these were Mullet but close inspection of the pics later showed they were Bass. Probably thousands of them!

 

 

 

 

I don’t think I’ve ever seen a single Bass under the water before (which wasn’t on the end of a hook). Fortunately for them they were managing to outwit the several boatloads of sport fishermen around (who had not observed them below the surface).

Time to head back towards terra firma…after a quick selfie of course;

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Eddystone reef

The four hour paddle back was absolutely superb, and my absolute favourite type of sea kayaking. Cloudless sky, sun behind, ten miles offshore, completely smooth surface and no wind so that if anything appeared broke the surface within half a mile I was going to see it, and if anything splashed or blew within two miles I was going to hear it.

The excitement started steadily. Three porpoises.

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Eddystone Porpoise
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Eddystone porpoise

 

 

This bit of sea a mile or two north of Eddystone seems to be a cetacean hotspot, because four dolphins appeared straight in front of me….two adults and two juveniles. In superb conditions and nicely illuminated by the sun.P1330410

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Common Dolphins

 

 

I dragged myself away and stopped for lunch a few miles further on, and was caught on the horns of a dilemma when I heard splashing far far behind me (where I had paddled half an hour before). Surely dolphins, but should I go back, and add on another three miles to an already hefty trip?

Of course I had to, they might be an ultra rare species. Needless to say they weren’t, it was about ten more Common Dolphins, with a handful of energetic juveniles in amongst the pod.

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Common Dolphin

Added to this was another porpoise and a single speeding dolphin, and then it all went quiet after the half-way reef.

Apart from the odd Guillemot,

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Guillemot

a Common Scoter drake that was trying to conceal itself in amongst a raft of Manx Shearwaters,

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Manx and Common Scoter

and the oil-tanker ‘Emma’ (not the name that would come immediately to mind for an oil tanker)  thundering past on its way out of Plymouth sound.P1330546.jpg

The Queen Elizabeth had left in early afternoon too, with blasts on its horn so loud it made my ribcage vibrate and fillings rattle at a distance of nearly ten miles.

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Armorique vs Queen Elizabeth