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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Up the Creek…Autumn Gold, Winter Grey

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Mevagissey

We are actually going to start today’s adventure with a rare recent coastal trip which included a circuit round Mevagissey’s inner harbour, serenaded by a male voice choir! The even rarer appearance of the sun makes the super-quaint coastal town look even more scintillating than usual.

 

Turnstones are regular winter visitors to the harbour walls and quaysides of all the coastal towns, and are often very tame. They are particularly tolerant of kayakers, but it’s unfair to get so close you disturb their catnap. So I don’t.

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Turnstone

Overlooking Mevagissey bay the autumn showers provide a hint of colour to the grey tones of the china clay country behind St.Austell.

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Clay country rainbow

I also had the briefest of paddles along the north coast of Cornwall at Bude during a lull in the swell. That’s certainly the last time this bit of coast will be suitable for a kayak for the next few weeks, the surf is going to be huge.

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‘Kayak-only’ beach near Bude

Up the creeks the mists of autumn add a mysterious flavour to the early mornings. It’s hard to be stealth with all the Canada Geese about, they are very vocal guard dogs and it’s impossible to sneak past without being noticed.

It’s amazing how the winding estuaries can be completely glassy when the open coast, only a few miles away, is seriously blowy.

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Every creek echoes to the flutey piping of Redshank

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and the call of the Curlew which is one of the classic sounds of the winter water.

Beady eyes are always watching.

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Grey Heron

This pic shows thelonekayaker demonstrating nice straight arms for the perfect paddling technique (although they only straightened from the usual slovenly position when the camera was noticed):

 

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Mike from Bideford kayak club shows how it is done without having to worry about what you do with your arms. His Hobie kayak, powered by pedal power that drives a pair of flippers beneath the kayak, speeds along faster than most conventional kayaks. I tried to keep up with him and was left behind rather pathetically.

The weather has been very autumnal and is now very wintry in a southwest England sort of a way. That is wet, windy, and although not particularly cold, feeling pretty miserable and not conducive to outdoor activities.P1400159

Now winter is upon us the colours in the rainbows are still as vivid, but they have leached out of the surrounding countryside which has assumed a more monochrome grey.P1000585

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The grey of winter

However there is a different spectrum of wildlife trying to keep a low profile around the edges of the creeks. Especially good if you have an ornithological bias, because most of them are birds.

Little Grebes (aka Dabchicks) have arrived for the winter up the estuaries. They keep close to the edge and are easy to overlook because they are very small and very elusive.P1000573

And stay stock still:

I like to get ‘in the zone’ as I paddle along, getting completely absorbed in the natural environment, and I have often thought that my senses become enhanced as I strain to see and hear everything that moves.

Anyway, my habit of scrutinising every inch of shoreline as I paddle along in complete silence certainly helped me spot this perfectly camouflaged Snipe hunkered down beside the estuary.

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Snipe

Common Sandpipers used to winter on the continent but increasingly they find the mild climes of SW England satisfy their needs (they obviously don’t mind the rain).

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Common Sandpiper

I find their flutey piping quite charming, but when it comes to decibels they are knocked into second place by the large and in-your-face Oystercatchers.

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Oystercatcher

I am not complaining though, on a drab winters day the clamour of a little group of Oystercatchers might be the only sound you hear, so it is always welcome.

On the mammal front I came across a Harbour Seal in the early morning mist up the Fowey estuary recently.

Once again I have to thank Sue Sayer from the Cornwall Seal Group (and her prompt replies and unending enthusiasm) for an individual id on this seal.

This is Serena Lowen, who I last saw at Looe island in July and who was last recorded up this estuary over two years ago.

There are only a handful of Harbour Seals around Cornwall, the vast majority are the much bigger Grey Seals.

Down at the estuary mouth I at first couldn’t work out what the regularly ‘plinking’ noise was coming from a rocky shore. It turned out to be a Crow who was repeatedly dropping a stone, with a limpet attached, onto the rocks to try to crack open the shell.

It was successful after about the fifth attempt, as was its mate who feasted on a mussel using precisely the same technique. They are worryingly clever birds. I wonder what else they know.

So the leaves and the colour are now gone. So is the sun,

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If it wasn’t for the hint of colour in my kayak, you’d swear this was a black-and-white pic.

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Mickey’s Incredible Journey

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Micky enjoying the sun

I came across Micky far, far up a Cornish creek, six miles from the open sea. In fact so far up he was resting beside fresh water, because he had swum up just about to the tidal limit of the estuary.

I did a bit of a double-take when I first caught sight of a golden-coloured creature the size of a large dog enjoying the warmth of the early November sun. I paddled quietly upstream beside the opposite bank to avoid giving it a fright, and was very surprised to see it was a small seal. I was even more surprised to see it was a Harbour seal (aka Common Seal), and still more (but now a bit confused as well) to see that it looked like a pup.

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Micky enjoying the winter warmth of Cornwall

Harbour seals are rare in Cornwall (there are just a handful scattered around the coast), and they don’t breed in the county. In fact there are no breeding colonies within a hundred miles.

So it was all a bit puzzling, but excellent to watch this little seal stretching and snoozing, while keeping half-an -eye on what I was up to on the other side of the river.

 

I helped prolong his rest by ensuring, with a series of cunningly crafted gesticulations, that a fleet of canoeists passed by silently and at a respectful distance. They were only too happy to oblige, and thrilled to see the seal.

Just as I was about to paddle back downstream I noticed a yellow tag in the seal’s tail as he was waving it about. This was lucky because up till now it had been hidden by a fold of skin. My photo clearly showed the number: NL 672. From the Netherlands?….surely not.IMG_0300

Back at home I sent my photos to Sue Sayer of Cornwall Seal Group and she quickly, and very enthusiastically, replied that this seal was called Micky and that he had indeed come from the Netherlands.

He had been brought in to a rescue centre  ( called ‘A Seal’) on 31 July when just a few days old and in a bit of a sorry state, weighing only 10.8kgs.

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Micky upon arrival at Dutch rescue centre

He had been nursed back to health and released onto a beach beside the North Sea on 3rd October, weighing 30kgs.

And exactly a month later (I first saw him on 3rd November), he has arrived in Cornwall over four hundred miles away!

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Micky’s mega journey

Thanks to Sue Sayer (Cornwall Seal Group Research Trust) and Vincent Serbruyns (A Seal, Holland) for the background information on Micky.

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