A single day with light winds was forecast . It was a gap between ex-hurricane Ophelia and approaching Storm Brian (I’m sure weather never used to be like this!). I was tempted offshore in an effort to see cetaceans. Although I have had a couple of really excellent prolonged encounters with inquisitive and friendly dolphins this year, it doesn’t look as though I will match last year’s tally of seven cetacean species (two whale, four dolphin and porpoise).
It must be one of the windiest years on record and the opportunities for offshore kayaking have been very limited. I’m sure I have said before that I prefer the sea to have no whitecaps which means I have worry-free paddling and makes spotting fins easier. Any sort of chop means you are much less likely to see a fin, and unlikely to be able to hold a camera steady enough to take a photo. Even if the sea is smooth any sort of groundswell can hide the horizon for a significant proportion of time because your eyeballs are only three foot above the surface.
Veryan bay in South Cornwall seemed to fit the bill. A lovely launch at sandy Carne Beach (with the bonus of FREE parking…gasp), direct access to the open sea, and not too strong a tidal current.
It was lucky I was wearing my drysuit top when paddling out from the beach because the only sizeable wave of the entire morning broke across my chest as I got the timing through the surf completely wrong, as usual. That was the last wave I saw the entire day and in fact the sea surface was unusually smooth…..absolutely perfect for gliding along in complete silence and getting completely absorbed (lost) in the marine wilderness.
It was so still I could hear the slight rustle of Gannet’s wings as they came over to inspect me as usual, and the noise of boat engines carrying so far I could only just see the source.
I skirted Nare Head and Gull Rock and headed out into the open sea. It’s rare to be able to use binoculars from a kayak on the sea but today was different because it was so flat. I watched my first Great-Northern Diver (Common Loon) of the season fly past in front of me, and noticed a large circling gang of gulls busy feeding about about a mile ahead.
Mmmm. I would be surprised if they were not accompanied by some other sea creatures, so upped the pace and closed in on the action. I hadn’t gone far when I saw some fins converging on the same spot. A school of Common Dolphins! They were travelling at exactly the same pace as me (4-5 mph) and I didn’t want to disturb them so kept well away. I thought they would move off but as I neared the feeding frenzy of gulls noticed a couple more dolphins feeding and jumping about. When they met up they all stopped for a bit of a feed and a bit of a splash, and then the whole lot came over to check me out.
There followed an absolutely incredible ten minutes. I could see the dolphins approaching just under the surface, and some swam along beside me just inches away. They popped up in front of me then sped off, did some jumping, and then all came back over to inspect me further, or maybe to check out what score I gave their performance.
There were a couple of youngsters in the group who didn’t want to miss out on all the excitement.
Eventually they lost interest in me and moved off. I couldn’t resist paddling further out and passed another eight or so dolphins. I eventually ended up at Dodman A buoy, about six miles south of Dodman Point, and decided that was far enough.
There were quite a few small parties of Guillemots and Razorbills dotted about, often in threes. I suspect these were mother, father and this year’s offspring.
The nine-mile paddle back to the beach was a bit of a haul as paddling back often is. However virtually every time I stopped for a break I could hear the ‘piff’ of a porpoise. The sea was so very flat and the air so still the sound was carrying probably a mile over the surface, so I only saw a few of them. This is maybe not surprising as they represent a very small eyeball target because they are the world’s smallest cetacean (four to five foot long) and their fin is less than six inches tall.
I like jellyfish and feel we have something in common. Not so much that they are exotic and mysterious, but because they have no brain.
Up till now I have come across six different species:
Common, or Moon jellyfish.
Lion’s Mane Jellyfish
Barrel Jellyfish. These are the first ones to appear in April and are up to the size of a dustbin!
Crystal Jellyfish. These are supposed to be very rare, or have been up till very recently, and are like something out of Avatar.
This autumn I have heard about some Cornish beaches being closed because Portugese Men of War jellyfish had been washed up, but I wasn’t expecting to see one while out paddling because typically only a handful turn up each year.
I was hopeful for an encounter when I did a circuit of Mount’s Bay starting at Marazion. It was a bit choppy but I still went straight across to Mousehole. I had a brief view of a couple of porpoises and was very lucky to see a handful of Common Dolphins which passed just in front of me and stayed alongside for a couple of minutes. There were a couple of silvery-coloured youngsters in the group. Photography was very difficult and this is the only half-decent shot I managed:
Spotting cetaceans in choppy conditions, let alone photographing them, is quite a challenge.
As I was watching the dolphins I drifted towards a floating translucent bladder with a mauve tinge….a Portugese Man of War jelly. I was actually a bit disappointed because it struggles to live up to it’s very dramatic name and I thought at first it was a discarded plastic bag. However I treated it with respect as I knew the dangling blue tentacles can pack a nasty sting, and recoiled in horror as it seemed to suddenly come towards me although it had probably just been caught by a gust of wind.
Over the next six hours I came across fifteen Men of War, up to about ten inches long and some without ‘tentacles’.
And my encounters with ‘Floating Terrors’ (another of it’s superb names) didn’t stop there. A couple of days later while kayaking between Looe and Polperro, Dave, Paul and myself passed another twenty or so of the much-feared siphonophore (technically the Portugese Man of War is not a jellyfish but a siphonophore consisting of three types of medusoid and four types of polypoid grouped into cormidia beneath the pneumatophore. Jelly would be so much easier).
To be honest some looked more like a shortcrust top-crimped Cornish pasty.
Portugese Man of War in Full Sail
The sea was quite lumpy again but it didn’t interfere with our jellyfish spotting and, as usual, a good time was had by all.
The ultra-sheltered narrow harbour of Polperro provided a bit of a break before the paddle back to Looe.
Incidentally, the unluckiest jellyfish I have ever seen is this one that was in the wrong place at the wrong time and was accidentally inhaled by a Basking Shark who usually prefer a diet of plankton. Maybe it was having the jelly for afters.
This strange, windblown visitor from the subtropics is probably the most dangerous sea creature I have yet encountered. I have had a few tussles with quite large fish with impressive teeth while doing a spot of fishing, but I think the Man of War just about takes the biscuit in terms of health hazard.
Fired up by my encounter with the ultra rare Wilson’s Petrel, I was dead keen to get offshore again to taste more wildlife action. A week later conditions for the Eddystone were just about OK for another jaunt out to the lighthouse. I make sure that the mean windspeed, and more importantly, the gusts, are forecast to blow at no more than 10mph for the whole eight or nine hours of the trip. Any more than this makes it a bit less relaxing, and the chances of seeing a cetacean’s fin decreases dramatically. Windspeed doesn’t matter so much for seabirds, but taking a photo becomes very much more difficult as the kayak moves around a lot more.
Despite careful planning I was caught out by the strong current at the mouth of Plymouth sound which was throwing up quite a chop. It was caused by the very big Spring tide which was flowing out into a light SW wind. I nearly turned back but every often I could see the patch of calmer water some distance ahead, so battled on across the flow until I reached the quieter area.
Quite a few more Balearic Shearwaters and a scattering of Storm Petrels further out. A single fin flashed past in front of me with a bit of a puff…it looked like a lone Common Dolphin-far too fast for a porpoise.
As I neared the lighthouse a flurry of splashing in the calm water to my left made me power towards it to investigate. I found myself in amongst a pod of about ten Common Dolphins, and they seemed as though they wanted to play as they all came over to surround me and splash about. As they swum underneath the kayak they turned on their side and looked up. I piled on the speed and they sped alongside-one of the very few times I have had dolphins bowriding my kayak.
They surged around me very close and splashed me several times. I snapped away with the camera but always seemed to just miss the best action.
I continued on my route to the lighthouse and for five minutes they continued along in a chaotic splashing escort. Absolutely excellent.
Finally they peeled off and very rapidly disappeared.
At one stage as I was stationary taking in the excitement of the dolphins, a Sooty Shearwater flew past close, followed by a Balearic Shearwater and a Storm petrel ,all within a minute of each other.
To round off the exceptional wildlife sightings of the day I ran into a juvenile Puffin on the way back, not quite as striking as in their adult breeding plumage!
And had to dodge a tanker coming out of Plymouth.
As usual I pushed my luck too far and paddled once more to the Eddystone a few days later and encountered only a pair of porpoises. However they came very close to the kayak and puffed in a very loud manner when they took breath. I’m not surprised one of their local names is ‘Puffing Pig’.
On this particular trip I was very pleased I was able to rescue a sub-adult Gannet that had a long length of rope wrapped around its lower jaw. I was unable to yank it free from distance so ended up grabbing the gannet by the back of the neck and teasing the strands of rope from its beak, while it tried to nip my hand. Quite a risky procedure to carry out nine miles from the nearest land, but it turned out successfully, although the Gannet was a bit fatigued, and dishevelled.
My next, very brief, dolphin encounter was on a very rare calm day on the North Cornish coast a couple of miles off Bude. A fleeting view of two Common Dolphins.
Then it was down to the far west of Cornwall in an effort to see one of the whales which have been reported down there.
A twelve mile paddle from Pothgwarra back to Marazion, and again I was disappointed with the sparsity of wildlife. Just one Sooty Shearwater and one Balearic although there was a constant stream of Manx Shearwaters zipping past my kayak that stopped me from getting bored.
By shear luck, as I was only a mile or so from my destination, I caught a fraction of a second glimpse of a dolphin leaping clear of the water, about a quarter of a mile away. I surged towards it and thought I had missed them but then saw a group of fins moving very quietly at the surface. They disappeared then exploded into action with a good display. There was a very young calf jumping perfectly alongside his Mum.
As I was waiting for a dolphin to surface with camera poised, it popped up only a couple of feet away, too big to fully fit in the picture!
Trying to find dolphins from a kayak is very difficult. You really can’t use binoculars so you are left with searching with your bare eyeballs.
Using a telescope or binoculars from a headland foreshortens the distance so you can see everything in an instant that would take up to two hours to paddle across in a kayak!
When I came back from the Eddystone the other day, having failed to see any dolphins during nine hours of paddling, I cast my binoculars out over a glassy flat Whitsand Bay during my drive home, and immediately spotted a pod of twenty dolphins a couple of miles offshore. Almost too easy.
But strangely for me having the odds impossibly stacked up is part of the appeal, and the results are certainly worth the wait.
Getting to the top of the UK from Holsworthy represents seven hundred miles of driving and a twelve hour ferry trip from Aberdeen to Lerwick. Just about worth it provided it was wall-to-wall wildlife action and excitement for the entire time we were there. And ideally some good conditions for kayaking so that I could experience paddling in a new location.
Remarkably Unst, Shetland’s most northerly island, is almost exactly the same latitude as southern Greenland where Hezzer and I went on a sea kayaking expedition last year. Just above 60 degrees North. No icebergs around Shetland though.
Driving up the M6 was the usual tedious and stressful challenge (bear in mind we have no traffic queues and only one set of traffic lights in Holsworthy), possibly made worse by the poor weather forecast for Shetland….strong winds and…groan…FOG.
I picked up Hezzer and Sharpy en route and by 7pm we were on the deck of the ferry scanning for sea creatures. Glimpses of porpoises and the odd Puffin, that’s all.
First day on Shetland was a bit of a struggle, especially as southern England was basking in 30 degrees and sunshine. It was windy, cold, wet and sometimes misty, sometimes foggy. But I was determined to camp. My amateurish festival-style tent might well collapse or blow away, but we were going to give it a go. We pitched it at a sort of official campsite at the marina at Brae and although it bent and distorted alarmingly it looked like it would just about survive.
We took a stroll to a sandy beach on the adjacent island of Muckle Roe and while hunkered down out of the wind an otter appeared around the headland and started to swim towards us. The wind was in our face so it would not catch our scent (if it was downwind it wouldn’t have come within sight). Hezzer got ready with his camera but before I had time to get mine out of its waterproof bag the otter appeared in the waves breaking on the shore just in front of us. It emerged from the water and without hesitation strode directly towards Hezzer who was settled on the foreshore, with a sort of ‘what are you doing on my patch?’ type attitude (the otter, not Hezzer).
It marched forward, hesitated, then continued its approach, finally stopping when it was only five paces in front of Hezzer. When it clicked what was going on it fairly rapidly, but not panickly, returned to the sea, and carried on fishing. It emerged onto the beach again a bit further on, sniffed about a bit, and then swam back to the point where it had come from.
The next couple of days involved trying not to get battered or crushed by the wind, and working our way north to the island of Unst, the most northerly part of the UK. We witnessed some superb wildlife action between Arctic Skuas and Arctic terns as the former tried to steal the latter’s lunch. Sometimes four skuas to one tern.
We camped wild one night on the west coast of Yell, and in the grounds of Gardisfauld Hostel on Unst for the remaining three. It’s got a superb view out over the sound where we saw otters, seals and all manner of seabirds. And a rainbow.
Hermaness nature reserve overlooking Muckle Flugga lighthouse is as far north as you can get in the UK. And it is staggering because of its wild west-facing coast with offshore stacks whit-topped with Gannets, as well as vast areas of moorland dotted with numerous pairs of ‘Bonxie’ Great Skuas, which were either cruising about looking for trouble (as Bonxies do) or standing about displaying by throwing their wings back and uttering a primeval gulping call that sends a shiver up your spine (in a horror movie type way).
But I do like Bonxies, they are one of my favourite seabirds. Non-birders hardly notice them because they look so scruffy.
At last, after three days, the wind dropped. It was due to stay fairly calm till lunchtime the next day, which just happened to be 21 June, the longest day of the year. I have always made an extra special effort to get up extra early on the longest day so I didn’t need much persuasion to set my alarm clock for 4am, as I was itching to go for a paddle. My Cobra Expedition kayak had travelled the best part of one thousand miles on the roof of the car to get here; it would be a pity to take it back without it getting wet (with sea water).
In fact the alarm clock was surplus to requirements because a Blackbird, which had made one of only about three bushes on the entire island its home, decided to have a bit of a sing-song to welcome in the dawn at 2.30. It did well to spot the difference between night and day because at this latitude there is not a lot of difference and you can still just about read a book in the darkest part of the night.
I was all packed up and on the water by 3.40am. My earliest start ever on a kayaking trip. And was very excited because early means otters.
Less than a minute of paddling along the glass calm water in front of Gardisfauld Hostel I heard a cat yowling from the undergrowth and saw an otter hopping about amongst the rocks. Obviously not the cat’s best chum. This was followed a couple of minutes later by another (otter, not cat), also on the shore, which was an unusually pale individual.
I crossed the sound over to the island of Uyea as a couple of Red-throated Divers (Rain Geese as they are called in Shetland) arrived from their freshwater loch for breakfast in the sea, striking the water at speed breast-first with quite a splash. The sound of their honking calls as birds shuttled backwards and forwards to their breeding areas in the hills, was more or less continuous all morning.
There was a lot of honking which apparently means there is going to be a lot of rain. ‘They’ were right.
Another singleton otter as I arrived at the shore of Uyea and then I heard a piercing otter ‘whistle’ followed by a bit of a chatter as an otter on a rock communicated to its mate which was following some distance behind. All a bit too dark for photos as it wasn’t even four o’clock!
As it brightened I had an excellent prolonged view of an otter fishing in front of me. I followed it along at a safe distance and watched as it emerged onto a rock to munch its way through a butterfish in a typical noisy, mouth open, crunchy otter way. And a half decent photograph.
As I emerged out of the shelter of the island around the more exposed east-facing shore of Uyea the otters were replaced by Grey Seals and a few small groups of Black Guillemots which were uttering their high-pitched whistling calls, one of which sounded more like a Great Tit.
As I rounded a headland the golden sandy beach of Sand Wick came into view, but before stretching my legs on the sand, I took a diversion up the narrow inlet of the Ham of Muness. A bottling seal, noisy Arctic tern colony and Fulmars nesting on an old building kept me entertained, but as soon as I saw an otter swimming directly towards me I took evasive action before it detected me and paddled round in a huge circle and tucked in to the shore, hoping it would swim right past. I held on to a flat rock on the shore and got my camera ready. The otter appeared, swimming quite happily, and then dived. The trail of bubbles approached, went under the front of my kayak, and the otter momentarily climbed out of the water onto the flat rock, close enough to touch. In an instant and a splash of water it was gone.
I felt a built guilty about upsetting this otter but I was actually stationary and the otter came to me, I wasn’t chasing it around.
At the headland I had the briefest view of a porpoise surfacing once, the only cetacean I was to see in Shetland.
I downed a king-sized Bakewell Tart (from Baltasound Bakery) on Sand Wick while a trio of Red-Throated Divers came close into the shallows.
After my pit-stop just as I was leaving the beach Hezzer and Sharpy appeared over the horizon so I stopped to have a word with them, watching the terns fishing in the bay.
Then it was back the way I had come, this time including a circuit of the small island of Half Gruney in the itinerary. I was a bit surprised to pass a lone Sanderling on the exposed rocks; they are usually faithful to beaches.
After an excellent encounter with three incredibly approachabl Arctic Terns on the way back, I arrived back at Gardisfauld at midday after an eight hour 20 plus mile paddle…my first in Shetland. And six otters….five before 5am…..that’s another first!
The rain, and wind, arrived later in the day and the tent buckled and tent poles splintered. During the night I frequently got a faceful of canvas but we all kept dry and the tent stayed essentially tent-shaped (thanks to a roll of Gorilla tape).
Our final day was spent with a steady drive back down the island chain to the ferry terminal at Lerwick, and a warm (!) sunny afternoon seawatching at Sumburgh Head, hoping for the Orca pack to appear. Needless to say it didn’t, but we had superb views of Puffins and both species of skua. Hezzer glimpsed a Minke Whale far,far out but I failed to spot it.
That was it. Fairwell to Shetland.
It was such a pleasant evening as the ferry crept across Lerwick harbour, the kayakers and paddleboarders were out in their boardshorts.
Despite the windchill from the speed of the ferry I stayed out on deck for several hours. A big swirl at the surface close by was confirmed to be a Minke whale by the only other few people left on the deck who saw it before it dived. I must have missed seeing the actual creature by less than a hundredth of a second. Probably the same one Hezzer had seen from the shore, as we were passing Sumburgh Head.
That would have been the icing on what was already a pretty good cake.
One of my personal rules about kayaking is that I spend at least as long on the water as the car journey it took to get there.
This is the first time I think I have failed, and failed in a spectacular fashion. Twenty-five to thirty hours in the car for eight hours on the water. Crikey.
Time to get back to Devon and put in some hours on my local patch.
What is going on? Yet another sunny day on the North Cornwall coast with no incoming swell. Not good if you are a surfer, but absolutely brilliant if you are a sea kayaker who has a penchant for cetaceans and likes to venture as far offshore as possible.
The sandy Camel estuary between Rock and Padstow was looking stunning in the sunshine of the late April morning. And the water was as clear as I have ever seen, no doubt due to the virtual absence of rain over the last month, and helped by the fact that the sea life hasn’t ‘got going’ yet. The plankton bloom is yet to kick off, resulting in increased cloudiness known as ‘ May Water’ (or so I have been told).
Having said that, the plankton IS already evident on the south Cornwall coast and a couple of Basking Sharks have been sighted in the Falmouth area hoovering it all up.
The two mile paddle to the mouth of the Camel estuary was a treat. It is over a shallow sandy bottom so the sea look positively Caribbean. The shoreline was dotted with early morning dog-walkers and their rampaging pets. Migrating shorebirds such as Whimbrels have a tough time finding a secluded beach on which to gather themselves for their onward journey, as every available patch of sand seems to come with a marauding dog.
This is the Whimbrel time of year. Whimbrels have the tremendous (if a bit unimaginative) old name of ‘Seven Whistler.’ Its characteristic piping call consisting of seven identical notes is one of the sounds of Spring on the open coast. There is a doomladen old saying which relates to the call of Whimbrel migrating overhead in the dark. It describes the ‘six birds of fate’ which fly about at night seeking their lost companion. When all seven are united, according to the story, the world will end.
Why can’t the ending describe them all being thrilled to get together again and going off for an all-night party?
Daymer Bay was absolute glass which made gliding over the turquoise water even more of a thrill.
It was marginally less smooth after I had crossed the Doom Bar and passed into the open sea around Stepper Point. I couldn’t resist a photo of the moon behind the chimney at the point. I made directly for Gulland rock a couple of miles offshore towards Trevose Head.
My intention was to slingshot around the island of Gulland Rock and then paddle north around the back of Newlands Rock and then on around ‘the Mouls’, before returning back past Rumps point and Pentire Head to Polzeath Bay.
I have never done this circuit involving all the three islands of Padstow Bay. Its the usual problem of wind and swell on theNorth Cornish coast not making for favourable paddling conditions on the day I would like to go.
But not so today! It was perfect.
The stench of guano from Gulland Rock assailed my nostrils half-a-mile before I got close, and I started to pass little groups of Razorbills and Guillemots as I rounded the southern tip of the rock.
I was a bit surprised at the very large rafts of auks floating about off the western side of Gulland Rock however; there must have been many hundred, with dozens more cackling from their nest sites on the cliffs. I drifted close enough for some decent photos and then paddled away before I caused a disturbance.
The three mile transit to Newlands was uneventful until I stopped for a coffee break on an exceptionally smooth patch of sea. I heard the piff of a porpoise but had difficulty in observing it because it was a lot further away than I had thought. It moved past to the south followed by a chum shortly after.
A few Manx Shearwaters zipped past and a few Gannets cruised overhead. Around the final island, The Mouls, I looked hard for the Puffins which are supposed to nest here, but didn’t see any. Just a very orange-looking seal basking on a rock. Last year’s pup?
I slid across the tidal current to get up close and personal with the dramatic, cliffy and highly convoluted coast at Rumps point. The flat conditions allowed me to paddle within inches of every nook and cranny. A Peregrine whinnied from its rocky promontory high above.
Round the corner into the relatively busy Polzeath Bay I brushed past a few paddleboarders that were spilling out from the beach where a few surfers bobbed in the disappointing (for them) swell.
I was paddling against the tide coming out of the Camel estuary but with a bit of cunning coast-hugging I managed to avoid most of the current. If there is no swell running so that you can get right in against the shore, I have found that when paddling against a current there are almost as many eddies working in your favour as there are flows of water against you. Another very specific advantage of a kayak!
Rock was absolutely buzzing with humanity when I got back. The queue for the ferry to Padstow was long (no doubt heading for fish ‘n chips at Rick Stein’s) and the car park full.
This was forecast to be the last day of the cam weather in SW England before the high pressure moved away. In fact today was a bonus day because the winds were originally supposed to pick up overnight.
Despite spending virtually all day on the water yesterday I thought I’d better make the effort to go somewhere special and maybe do a bit of offshore paddling. Mount’s Bay should fit the bill nicely, with hopefully some cetacean sightings.
I arrived at Sandy Bay beside Newlyn harbour a bit later than I had intended. Although it’s not at all sandy it’s got a great view across the bay so I was going to have breakfast in a relaxed manner (muesli) before paddling off, while looking for marine wildlife through my binoculars.
No chance of relaxation. Within five seconds of lifting the binoculars to my eyes and focusing on the sea a mile away off Penlee point, I was watching a large pod of Bottlenose Dolphins moving steadily across the bay towards St. Michael’s Mount. Aaargh, if only I had arrived ten minutes earlier I would have been beside them.
I got all my kayaking stuff together in a record time (including packing muesli and milk) and went tearing off across the completely smooth water at Olympic pace. But the dolphins were gone so I throttled back and made a bee-line for St Michael’s Mount anyway. They might just be hanging around feeding somewhere.
I stopped for (late) breakfast in the middle of the bay and then cruised on. The briefest flash of sun reflected off the surface, which shouldn’t have happened because there were no waves. Just maybe it was a dolphin’s fin. There it was again, and this time it was followed by a splash. Yes!
I cranked the speed back up to over 5 mph, and soon started to see quite a few fins appearing, together with puffs of spray. I could hear the blows. The dolphins were now heading back towards me, so I drifted to a halt and waited. As they approached I could hear the engine of the Marine Discovery catamaran coming up behind me from Penzance harbour.
They put on a superb show right in front of us, surging about all over the place and occasionally hurling themselves right out of the water or just splashing on their sides. It was totally enthralling as there were quite a lot of them ( 15-20) and they are quite big creatures. In a kayak there is a feeling of uncertainty when they come really close.
After a brief chat with the Marine Discovery folk, and hearing the dolphins clicking on their hydrophone, they (Marine Dicovery) continued on their way, but I stayed to see more. This is the sort of excitement that fuels my paddling muscles. (as well as the muesli)
I spent over an hour watching them. Just me and the dolphins. They worked their way across the bay nearly to Penzance, and then came all the way back again. They accelerated past the end of St. Michael’s Mount and that is where I peeled off.
There were clearly two calves which were not only much smaller but also much paler than the rest. They led the way with the acrobatics and jumped clear of the water on several occasions. They stuck pretty close to Mum and seemed to remain in the middle of the group.
Two big dolphins with tall blackish fins, which I would presume to be males, patrolled around the outside of the pod like security guards.
I kept a good distance so as not to cause any disturbance, although I was expecting a posse to come over to have a look at me as Bottlenose dolphins have done in the past. A group did approach but then suddenly the whole lot disappeared, left a load of fluke prints all around my kayak, and then popped up a long way away. Maybe they saw me as some sort of threat and were protecting the calves.
I took loads of photos, most with the unexciting backdrop of Penzance industrial estate behind, but then the two bouncers appeared in front of the church (slightly better) before the whole lot passed in front of St. Michael’s Mount (a lot better).
After the dolphin encounter, I paddled across the bay past Mousehole keeping a mile offshore , saw a summer plumaged Great Northern Diver, heard a group of four porpoises puffing before I saw them, then popped in for a nose around Mousehole harbour before heading back around the corner to Sandy Bay.
Maybe the best thing about Bottlenose Dolphins is their permanent smile.
After my encounter with the suspected Fin whale near the Eddystone rocks last August, and a couple of brief sightings of Minkes, I thought that would put a pause on adventures with large cetaceans, at least until late summer.
It is still completely pretty amazing that a Humpback would appear in South Devon at all, and beyond belief that it would spend over six weeks cruising about the sheltered waters of Start Bay, wowing the crowd of assembled whale watchers with some unbelievably close passes to the beach at Slapton. The very fact that the carparks at Slapton Sands are so convenient and close to the steep shelving shingle beach (and therefore in close proximity to deep water), and usually swell-free because it is east facing, is a remarkable coincidence. Its about as perfect a place for whale-watching as you are going to get.
If you were to put a pin in the map for the best pace for a whale to turn up for the maximum number if people to enjoy viewing it, you would choose Slapton sands. Even the bus stop is only yards away.
Needless to say I wanted to see the whale from my kayak. My first view from my Gumotex Inflatable was when the whale was trapped in a lobster pot rope. Hardly very memorable.
Ten days ago the sea at Slapton was just about flat calm and there was no ‘dumpy’ waves on the beach which can make launching here interesting/embarrassing/entertaining for the crowd. Apparently the whale was still around.
In my Scupper Pro kayak, which I had brought because it drags over the shingle well, I paddled a mile or two offshore. Lots of small parties of Guillemots whose guttural call could be heard for amazing distances over the millpond sea, a few Gannets and a pair of porpoises.
But no whale…yet.
I hadn’t really expected to see it because yet another remarkable feature of this remarkable whale is its habit of coming close inshore late in the day. Many seem to think this is tide-related but it can’t be because in the space of two weeks the tide has gone through its complete cycle, yet the whale still turns up at roughly the same time.
I slid my kayak into the water and sat around fifty metres from the shore, on a surface so calm I could have been in a lake.
To my toe tingling astonishment I heard the whale blowing half a mile away towards Torcross, and saw the bushy cloud of spray slowly disperse. Good grief, it seemed to be heading straight towards me. I fumbled for my camera but already my hands were trembling with excitement.
It surfaced and dived once more. I then saw patches of smooth water appearing in a line like giant footprints coming towards me at the surface as the whale approached….fluke prints caused by the whale swimming along just below the surface! Amazing!
It surfaced and blew only twenty yards away and I got a very unsatisfactory photo. Like a complete idiot I thought the action had finished when the bulk of its body disappeared and I lowered my camera, but then the tail flukes came up in perfect humpback-style as it deep dived. Moron…would have been a pic to remember.
However it was an absolutely extraordinary encounter. Who would have believed you could see a whale like this within a stone’s throw from the shore in South Devon. I had spent a fair amount of time during the winter researching where in the world you could see Humpback’s from a kayak, as it has been number one on my kayaking wishlist for some time. Hawaii or British Columbia were on the shortlist.
Wherever it was going to be, I hadn’t expected it would only require about ten strokes of the paddle to get far enough from the shore to achieve the ideal position for viewing! Thinking about it, there probably isn’t anywhere else in the entire world when you can be loafing about eating a Bakewell tart on the beach one minute, and having a Humpback swim more or less dirctly underneath your kayak less than five minutes later.
Four days ago a wildlife viewing boat (AK Wildlife Cruises) had absolutely incredible views of a Humpback breaching in the middle of Falmouth Bay right beside their boat. Crystal clear pictures and video, you couldn’t hope for better.
So a couple of days later I set off in my Cobra Expedition Kayak for a twenty-five mile paddle around Falmouth Bay, cutting right across the middle to the Manacles rocks, and then following the coast back. Tremendously exciting, calm waters, huge expectation, but no whale.
I had a reasonable consolation prize. About three miles offshore I sped towards a mini feeding frenzy of gulls which had attracted a handful of Gannets which appeared from nowhere and wasted no time in plunging in. As I approached I could see fins of dolphins slashing at speed across the surface, and the pale patch behind the fin to show they were Common Dolphons. Superb. They appeared a couple of times more but were only momentarily visible in a burst of spray. And suddenly they were gone, the gannets drifted off, and the gulls settled on the water. The lone Manx Shearwater also winged away. Feeding frenzy over.
This is not the first time this has happened. It is quite difficult to get to a feeding frenzy before it finishes. One of my objectives for this year is to see a big frenzy. The only time I have ever achieved this was off Bude over ten years ago, when I threw out some mackerel for the gannets and they dived in beside my kayak to catch them.
Other wildlife highlights were five Sandwich Terns, four Great Northern Divers, a Whimbrel, six Purple Sandpipers on the Manacles and several swallows coming in off the sea.
And an excellent Barrel Jellyfish in the clear waters off Swanpool beach.
Nipped in for nice lunch at Porthallow and met up with former work colleague Andrew who is training for Lands End- John o’ Groats ! (by bike, not kayak)
Looking closely at photographs of the Slapton and Falmouth Humpbacks, it would seem they are different whales. This seems even more likely because the Slapton whale has been seen in its usual area since the Falmouth whale has been sighted, and it is unlikely the whale would backtrack sixty or seventy miles when it is supposed to be on migration.
So, probably two Humpbacks. Even more amazing. And on my ‘local’ patch. Thank goodness I hadn’t booked a whale watching by kayak trip somewhere on the other side of the world, which would never have been so much fun. (actually it might have been, but I’m a huge fan of wildlife in the UK, so it would have had to have been exceptional).