It’s that time of year again. The most exciting month for observers of cetaceans, because the sea seems to suddenly explode with marine megafauna coming to feast on the seasonal abundance of shoaling fish.
For those of us motivated (daft) enough to paddle out to witness the spectacle from the seat of a kayak, the rewards are great. The kayak not only provides the greatest visual experience of watching sea creatures because you are sitting at water level, but also the greatest audio experience because you are moving along in absolute silence. So, on a clam day, you can hear everything. The cackle of a Gannet, the snickering of a juvenile Peregrine from the cliffs a couple of miles away, the puff of a porpoise, the splash of a dolphin, and if you are really, really lucky, the blast of a whale.
All these sounds are drowned out by any sort of engine.
There are so many other benefits of whale-watching from a kayak. Like the challenge of the extreme planning which is necessary for offshore paddling…..wind, swell, tides, currents. If you are on a boat with an engine and have got a 200hp Evinrude at the end of your arm, moving against a three knot tidal current is a piece of cake. If you are relying upon a pair of shrivelled sixty-year old guns, fuelled by some dried out cheese and chorizo sandwiches (not recommended by the way, if you are tempted), it is a significant problem. Potentially a very long problem, if your max cruising speed is three knots.
Maybe why that is why there are so few kayakers who venture out around Devon and Cornwall looking for whales….possibly only one.
National Whale and Dolphin Watch (NWDW) is run by Seawatch Foundation and is an excellent project because it raises awareness of the cetaceans around the shores of the UK, and stimulates interest and excitement, because everybody loves dolphins and whales. And it encourages everyone to contribute their sightings.
After my success with the three Minke Whales at Eddystone last week, which unfortunately fell outside the window of the NWDW, I thought I would take another paddle out to the most famous lighthouse in the UK on the next calm day.
The omens for a good day were favourable when I set foot outside the house at the first sniff of dawn. Mars glowed red overhead, Venus was brilliant in the northeast, and the swallow was singing away happily in the old stable.
I was on the water at Cawsand even earlier than before, just as the sun was rising behind the lighthouse on the breakwater.
Three Common Dolphins raced past in front of me a mile out from the sound, and then another three small pods, all in a hurry, as I covered the twelve miles out to the lighthouse.
A mile short of Eddystone there was a sudden violent splashing, which only lasted a second, and I caught out of the corner of my eye. No fins appeared subsequently, so I was thinking Bluefin Tuna. Then another single splash (out of the corner of the other eye!), punctuated by a sharp looking fin. All over in a split second, but I think this really must have been a Tuna.
As usual I didn’t loiter long round the back of the lighthouse, it’s all a bit busy with recreational fishing boats. I paddled back towards the mainland for half an hour and had my lunch while bobbing about there, because this seems to be a bit of a wildlife hotspot. I think it marks the northern edge of the Eddystone reef, and this is precisely where I saw a Minke whale last week, and also precisely where I had a close encounter with a large whale, thought to be a Sei but I now think Minke, five years ago.
And as I chewed my way through my incredibly tasteless butties, I heard that incredibly thrilling sound again, a prolonged breath of a whale. Far away to the west, but unmistakably a whale. Sandwiches were jettisoned as I set off to investigate, and after fifteen minutes or so there was the long dark back of a Minke rolling at the surface.
Not as good a view as last week, and I only saw it surface a handful of times because it was frequently hidden behind the moderate swell. But I’ve got no complaints, a whale is the pinnacle of the expectations.
Interestingly, it seems to be a different whale from the three I saw last week. I might have expected it to be the same one still hunting in the same place. But the tip of the fin of this one is more rounded than any of last week’s whales. Compare today’s with last week’s:
For the long haul back the sea was spookily quiet, in fact I kept doing the yawny thing to unblock my ears, although there was the drone of boats quite a lot of the time. Just a few seabirds to maintain the interest levels:
And one porpoise surfaced, once.
A southerly wind picked up so I sought the more sheltered water of the North Devon coast. During the two hour window of light wind I managed to find three porpoises, including a mother and calf.
I was sure it was five until I looked at my photos. One individual with a very definite notch in its fin surfaced beside me several times on two occasions…..three miles apart. That’s finding the same needle in the haystack…twice.
It was great to meet a trio of real-life adventurers on the beach at Heddon’s mouth during a coffee break. Alan Watson and his two sons, Alex and Aled, had just camped the night on the beach having kayak-sailed all the way from Swansea on the other side of the Bristol Channel, about thirty miles away. It ended nearly all kayaking, because the wind dropped. Good effort (especially by Aled, who is thirteen).
So, the contribution to NWDW so far from thelonekayaker is 1 Minke Whale, 15 Common Dolphins and 4 Harbour Porpoise.
I might struggle to match the mega Humpback encounter from the NWDW last year. But there’s still a couple of days left…….
Watching and Photographing Wildlife from the Kayak Seat
If you want the best front row seat in the stadium to see water-based wildlife, a kayak is what you need. It is not just exhilarating, fun and everybody’s favourite mode of transport. It is completely silent, very unobtrusive and offers the best perspective for observation and photography because you are sitting at water level.
Compare these two dolphin pics. The first is a Dusky Dolphin I took from the deck of a boat, the second is a Common Dolphin snapped from my kayak.
You can look right into the eye of the dolphin at the same level and get much more of a feel of their (big) personality and (considerable) charisma. Audio input isn’t confused by the noise of an engine…you can hear every puff, every splash and the full range of squeaks and clicks. Have a listen to this. Bottlenose Dolphins.
I carry around two cameras when I go out paddling. One is as simple as a camera can be and so fits in as well with my minimalistic approach to gadgets as it does in my lifejacket pocket.
It is an AKASO V50 PRO which is a cheaper version of the legendary GoPro sports camera. It is a point and shoot and delivers very acceptable stills and excellent 4K videos. It has a very wide angle lens so is great for scenery shots…..
and big wildlife up very close. When inside its waterproof case it is perfect for underwater stuff. Like this….
My previous underwater camera was not to be sneezed at either. It captured some great shots of this enormous Basking Shark as it cruised underneath my kayak. This was taken ten (gulp) years ago with an Olympus Tough compact camera. It was lucky I saw these when I did…a Basking Shark is now a rare sight.
My main camera is the superb PANASONIC LUMIX FZ2000. I have been using it for two and-a-half years, having upgraded from a couple of superzoom bridge cameras over the previous decade. The Lumix FZ2000 is also a bridge camera (so NOT a SLR) but gives a superior image quality to most others of similar design because it has a larger (1″) sensor.
It has a 24-480 zoom lens so can skip in a couple of seconds from a decent wide angle for scenes and close, large creatures to a respectable telephoto shot of a bird. This is where it REALLY has the edge over a DSLR for me. To get the same range of focal length with a DSLR I would have to carry at least two lens, and changing lens while out on a kayak is really not easy. Worse still it takes time and spontaneity is the key when trying to photograph wildlife that spends most of its time underwater.
Also DSLRs are very heavy (although the very latest are much lighter), and more expensive than the LUMIX FZ2000. Yes, they give an image with better resolution but, in good light particularly, the bridge camera comes close.
I use the Lumix FZ2000 for videos as well. The quality is HD or 4k and it is great to be able to use the 20X zoom while videoing.
It is a really great camera and has recorded some memorable images. It has only two drawbacks, one major and one minor. The less important issue is that the lens cap doesn’t attach very firmly and keeps falling off when I put the camera in its bag, which is quite irritating when I am a bit tired.
The major issue is that the camera doesn’t have any weatherproofing at all. It is about as unwaterproof as it is possible to be. So it is pretty remarkable it is still going strong having accompanied me for over 5,000 miles. It’s vulnerability makes me all the more careful about looking after it, which I would have to do, but maybe not so diligently, with any camera.
Following my ‘keep it simple’ rule, the Lumix stays tucked away in a dry bag until I want to take a pic, when I bring it out and then put it straight away or sit it on my lap and hope it doesn’t fall overboard. Nothing more fancy than that…..no waterproof case or special mounting.
The trouble is, when I see something like an otter I am going to take a pic whatever the weather, and just hope it doesn’t wreck the camera. I always carry around a couple of sheets of kitchen towel in the drybag to wipe off a bit of drizzle. (I also use the kitchen towel to clean the lens…there is less likely to be a bit of sand in the paper than a fancy lens cleaning cloth from your grubby pocket.)
Taking this video, with no water protection for the camera, was really pushing my luck.
Camera Setup. A bit of technical stuff.
Simple, simple, simple is the way to go. And think ahead. I always have the Lumix set up so that I can whip it out of its drybag in super quick time, point and shoot. If you start fiddling about with settings you will probably be too late.
Water-based wildlife such as otters and dolphins do not hang around and are incredibly challenging to photograph from a kayak, quite apart from the constant threat of splashes from waves, the paddle or your permanently wet hands.
It’s essential you have your camera set up and ready for the conditions, all the time. Spontaneity is the key. It’ll be a long time before another pod of White-beaked Dolphins swims past.
The kayak is rarely still, especially when you are in the open sea so I use a minimum shutterspeed of one thousandth of a second. If it is sunny I will use 1/1300 which will freeze most dolphin splashes. For stills I always use burst, set at a medium rate because I can’t be bothered to search through too many images later. For videos, I just press the little red button. No other gadgets.
One useful tip I have recently learnt. On a bright overcast day the surface of the sea is white so the subject (e.g seabird/dolphin), will be dark. So I make an aperture adjustment and ‘stop it up’ one or two points. Beneath a dark river bank (e.g photographing an otter) the reverse is true and the subject will be too light, so I stop the aperture down a couple of pips. And I always do it before I set off because in the heat of the moment you forget, and miss that special shot.
This is a good example. I came across this Stoat trying to mesmerise these ducks, so it could est one for lunch, beside the river Fowey one gloomy November day, so the background was quite dark. If I had stopped the aperture down and been prepared, the stoat and the ducks would not have looked so pale.
I carry a spare battery and spare SD card in the dry bag….just in case.
Planning a Wildlife Kayak Trip. Watch the Weather, especially the Wind
If you want to have the best possible day out you have really got to know exactly what the tide, swell and wind are doing.
For tide I use tides4fishing website because you can see how big the tide is (tidal coefficient) and get a good overview of what is going on, on a single page.
For swell I use Magic Seaweed surf forecast. This is really important, especially if you are planning a beach launch somewhere like the North Cornish coast. It’s a bit of a blow when you have chosen a dead calm, scorching hot day without a cloud in the sky, and you get completely flattened by a crashing six foot wave as you paddle out…..all because you didn’t check the surf forecast.
Wind is by far the most important factor, especially if you plan to paddle open coast or head offshore. I use two forecasts. The best (I think) is XCWeather. This gives a live wind reading and a very accurate wind and gust forecast, and you can hunt around the map to find the most sheltered spot. It’s a much better overview than if you only check out the forecast for one place. It’s very helpful to know , for example, whether the forecast slack winds are in the middle of a high, or low, pressure system. The light winds in the anticyclone are more reliable than those in the middle of a ‘Low’, especially when planning a few days ahead. Having said that, the XCWeather forecast is incredibly accurate, and if it is wrong it is because winds are lighter than forecast, such as the calm of early morning. This is not a problem!
Here’s today’s forecast on XCWeather. Looks absolutely perfect for offshore kayaking, hardly a breath of wind around Cornwall….grrrr!
I also like to look at BBC Weather because it gives a good written summary of the day’s weather. Cloud increasing, wind falling light, feeling cold…that sort of thing. I have been caught out once or twice by a forecast of 100% cloud 9on other forecast sites) and not taken suncream, It turned out that the cloud was a layer of thin high cloud so the UV and heat was hardly tempered at all and I just about fried, or would have done had I not wrapped my vest around my head. The written forecast would have made all that clear.
The sea state reflects the wind gust speed rather than the mean wind speed, so it’s very important to know.
I am very wary about paddling offshore solo, although I enjoy it very much and if you want to maximise your chance of seeing porpoises, dolphins and maybe even a whale or a Leatherback, that’s what you’ve got to do. This Leatherback turtle was ten miles off Land’s End (en route back from Scilly), and the only one I have ever seen.
I make sure I know EXACTLY what the tide is doing and which way the current is flowing (which doesn’t necessarily change at the same time as the tide, especially along the south coast and Land’s End), and EXACTLY what the swell and wind (including gusts) are forecast to do.
I aim to head out to sea only if the surface is like a lake. The maximum windspeed must not exceed five knots all day, or maybe just a bit more if it is going to be behind me on the way back. I find it no fun if there are any whitecaps, because photography becomes impossible with the movement of the kayak, and you are much less likely to see anything anyway because in choppy sea fins are much more difficult to spot.
Needless to say, the stronger the wind the more the risks increase.
Amongst my mass of safety equipment is my handheld Garmin GPS 72H. I have all the local headlands and ports plumbed in so I can see at a glance how far each one is away, and know how long it will take me to get there using the GPS speedometer. The speedo is very handy because it is easy to think you are making no headway at all when you are far offshore and a bit fatigued. Only once has this actually been the case ( and yes…it was a bit of a nasty shock); but there are actually only a few tidal currents around SW England which flow faster than cruising kayak speed. All off the most prominent headlands, or estuary mouths. Start Point, for example.
1. Keep it simple, simple, simple. More clutter means less time on the water and more time looking down not up, and more to go wrong.
2. In the image, excitement factor rules over pixels. This pic of a lunging Humpback is a pathetic 174kb (a still from the video clip above) and would be laughed off court by the average camera buff (who wouldn’t consider putting out a photo with anything less than 10MB), but it was considered thrilling enough to get a half page spread in the Daily Mail.
3. Don’t take any notice of anything I have said. I am a kayaker who takes photographs, not a photographer. That would imply having a flair for art and being creative. I point, I shoot, and I hope for the best.
We had one more superb kayak trip through the misty stillness of Graham passage. Once again the silence was so intense that I kept doing the yawny thing to try to unblock my ears. There was just the occasional cheerful chatter of a passing Antarctic Tern, and the gentle splish of kayak paddles, to convince me that I hadn’t gone deaf overnight.
The snow covered rocky mountains gave way to full-blown ice walls every so often.
We were becoming a bit spoilt, because we were now EXPECTING to hear the blow of a whale cracking the quietness. This time the great blast came from very close to the cliff. I am still programmed to think that the whales will favour the deeper water in the middle of the channel, but here they seem quite at home close to the edge…..wherever there is food (krill) I suppose.
It was another pair of Humpbacks, mother and calf again I suspect.
Everything about Humpbacks is thrilling, especially their habit of throwing those enormous tail flukes up when they do a deep dive. It is a popular misconception that all whales do this, but in fact only a handful of species do (although they are the most well-known). Humpbacks and Sperm Whales.
These two gave us a great send-off with both throwing up their tails in a suitably snowy and icy Antarctic setting. We did glimpse another Humpback and a Minke whale as we were leaving a mini-beach after taking a break, but that was the last of the whales seen from the kayak seat. No complaints from me, we had seen as many in six days and forty-four miles of paddling, as I had seen in fifteen years and twenty-four thousand miles previously.
The icebergs havn’t really had much of a mention yet….the hole in this one made a convenient perch for a prowling skua. Up to no good for certain (as usual).
Our last kayak trip was a circuit of Half-moon island. As usual the penguins just got on with their daily routine as the kayak flotilla slipped quietly past in the background.
The Weddell seals showed marginally more, but still only a passing, interest in us.
So that was it, our last paddle in Antarctica. It was time to get out on the pontoon at the back of the ship. The weather was suitably antarctic as a light snow started to fall.
It was farewell to the Chinstraps, the most characterful of the penguins..
We watched the last of the snowy crags of Antarctica fading into the distance as the ship headed north and started to roll in the swell of the open sea of the fabled Drake passage. But there was no time to relax because Drake passage is chock full of marine marvels, including the most charismatic bird in the entire world (which just happens to have the longest wingspan as well)…the Wandering Albatross.
Here’s a pictorial summary of what we saw from the back of the ship during the two day crossing back to Ushuaia. No written commentary because it was not seen, or photographed, from a kayak.
These next two are the ‘Great’ Albatrosses, with the greatest wingspan of any bird on the planet…..a mere 11-12ft.
The Black-browed Albatrosses in Drake’s passage nicely demonstrated how they use even small waves (such as this, the bow wave generated by our ship) to ‘surf’ along.
A few final pics from Ushuaia and Iguazu (North Argentina/Brazil) on our way back north.
We have arrived back in the UK and been battered by wind and rain ever since. The wettest and windiest February on record. So opportunities for kayaking have been few and far between, but there has been plenty of time to reflect on the enormity of our short time spent in the enormity of Antarctica.
Its size is indeed one of its superlatives. If the Antarctic continent was the size of your house, the three hundred miles we ventured into it wouldn’t get us much past the front doormat.
It is quite impressive that such a desolate place, without a hint of vegetation, could have stimulated our sensory centres so much that every kilo, mega and terabyte of capacity within our whirring craniums was stuffed to max capacity.
There’s so much we didn’t see that makes it even more remarkable. No litter, not a hint of any plastic pollution in the sea, and hardly any sign that humans exist, or have ever existed. The occasional other ship, one or two yachts, a few scientific bases and tumbledown whaling stations.
For me personally it was the whales that made it so very, very special. The huge tail rising far out of the water is jawdropping enough, but it is the blow that is the signature sound of the Antarctic. It perfectly complements the limitless vista of rock, snow, and ice. It is hard to believe that only half-a-century ago there were hardly any Humpbacks here, in fact during the previous fifty years the numbers got so low that they very, very nearly didn’t bounce back. The population was virtually annihilated when whaling stations were set up in the area in the early 1900s. They came as close to the brink as it is possible to get.
That made our close encounters even more thrilling. How fantastic is it that this pair of Humpbacks just swam round and round us (blowing an amazing THIRTEEN times on the video…and the hairs stand up on the back of my neck every time), obviously taking a look at us. You can see them slowing down and doing some tight turns to stay in amongst the group of three kayaks. Real gentle giants.
Whales are BIG in so many ways.
This is the standout clip. Taken from the kayak seat, of course.
The assault on the senses was relentless. The endless expanse of snow and rock, devoid of any vegetation, apart from the odd patch of pink algae, and the extraordinary silence. There are really no humans to mess it up (apart from on our ship), in fact no sign that humans have ever existed. There aren’t even any vapour trails in the sky. Antarctica is en route to nowhere.
OMG….there’s another ship! Claustrophobia.
Our ship, the Greg Mortimer, slipped silently to a halt deep inside a fjord flanked by hefty mountains and a lot of glaciers. We (I) were (was) bursting with excitement as we waited to get into our kayak.
This was precisely what I had been waiting for, and hoped the Antarctic would be like. Dead still, smooth sea, mountains and icebergs reflected in the water, total and utter remoteness and wildness as far as the eye could see. And still nothing far, far beyond, you could just tell that.
I always love paddling over glassy water because it is so effortless. But in this enormous place it is the silence that really makes it special. It definitely qualifies for a thumbs up (in this clip you can hear a penguin squawk and the slight ‘quip’ of a tern)
We soon got completely absorbed, and pleasantly lost, amongst the mass of floating ice.
But it wasn’t completely quiet. There was the regular cheerful chatter of Antarctic terns, and intermittent cackle of Gentoo Penguins.
Every so often there was a seismic echoing boom coming from one of the surrounding ice sheets, as the entire face of the mountain inched closer towards the sea. As loud, and sounding very much like, thunder.
Next tick on the bucket-list was a Snow Petrel. These completely white little gems live their entire lives down here and are never so happy as when they are carving about around an iceberg. I had really hoped to see one (but didn’t think I would).
We just kept on paddling. Today was the day. Not sure what of, but I had a feeling something big was going to happen.
On, on, and on. Looking, looking, always looking.
If you don’t look, you don’t see.
I mentioned to Becky that seeing a Humpback in this astonishing place would very much be the cherry on top of the icing on top of the cake. To hear that great blow breaking the icy silence would be really something. But that was probably being a bit greedy, and we hadn’t seen a single blow during the hour the ship was quietly entering the fjord, despite a thorough (as usual) look. So we weren’t very hopeful.
We just carried on enjoying ourselves, as did our fellow paddlers…
Then word came over Alex (the guide) ‘s radio that the other kayak group, about a mile away, had seen a whale. Becky and I were off out of the blocks faster than Katarina Johnson-Thompson. And as we approached the location expecting to see a great dark back hunching at the surface every so often, or some flukes being raised, we were a bit surprised to see two very large ‘logs’, floating completely stationary, in front of us. Completely quiet. I initially thought they were bergs of dark ice.
Wow, two sleeping Humpback whales, the one on the left clearly bigger, so probably a mother and her well-grown calf. How absolutely superb,and in about as compelling a location as it is possible to find here on planet earth.
Every so often the larger whale would rock a bit, showing the top of her lumpy jawline.
It was a very long wait for that sensational blow, and of course I was watching the wrong whale every time one took a mighty breath. The photographer’s curse.
I have included every inch of video footage here, and am not even going to mention the word apology. There cannot be very many better natural sights while sitting in a kayak seat, and in such a monumental location.
We were told by the expedition leaders prior to departure that the Antarctic would get under our skin. It has. But what they didn’t tell us was that blast of a breathing whale shattering the silence of a frosty Antarctic afternoon would bypass our skin completely and skewer right through to our inner self. (They probably knew that but didn’t like to say in case we didn’t see one…quite understandable).
That blast has got to be the most amazing sound in the natural world.
One thing I really like about dolphins and whales is their ability to elicit a shriek response from people who don’t generally shriek. I remember watching a pod of dolphins doing their stuff in the turquoise waters off Land’s End in Cornwall, right in front of the Minack Theatre perched on top of the cliff ( I was in kayak, of course). The theatre was packed and a play was ongoing, and every jump or splash of a dolphin was greeted with a spontaneous, and very loud, cheer from the onlookers. It was much much louder than the applause for the play itself.
And similarly on this trip, every time the Humpback flukes go up there is a wave of appreciation, cheers and smiles all round. From kayakers, people on the boat, hardened mariners. Even from the passengers who quite clearly were not into nature or outdoor stuff , or for shouting out loud at a whale. It’s all good healthy stuff.
The pair appeared to be getting a bit ready to move, but still I managed to miss the one making the blow..
At last the big female let out a breath through her double blowhole, and then took it easy again. No hurry to get going….for us or the whales. This was the best front row seat ever.
Eventually Mum clearly thought it was time to get going.
Dave is ‘on the money’ with his whale pic….
They dived and the rest of the kayak group headed back towards the ship. Supper calling. But Becky and I, and Danny the very patient kayak guide, stayed behind to see if the whales were going to hang around. They did. (you can see the mothership, the Greg Mortimer, in the background in this clip).
It was really difficult to drag ourselves away. How about one more farewell megaview of these two magnificent creatures…..
Here it is again, a bit slower.
Smiles all round….yet again.
The day finished with a rarely witnessed drama, also involving Humpbacks. It was lucky it was after the nine o’clock watershed, because it did involve violence. As the Antarctic evening (very) slowly drew in, we saw several whale blows far ahead of the ship as we watched from the observation deck. As the ship drew closer, the occasional bigger ‘puff’ was matched by a succession of smaller puffs. It was a pair of Humpback whales surrounded by a pod of Orcas. A fluke would go up, all would go quiet, then the larger whale would surface again and the Orcas would move in. Right close against the Humpbacks. It all happened at quite long range, and visibility wasn’t great as it was starting to get dark, but there is no doubt the Orcas were intent on getting one of the Humpbacks, presumably a calf (defended by its mother).
The relentless harassment went on for over an hour as the ship was moving only just faster than the whales. Splashing, flukes, fins, Orcas surging about. Eventually we lost sight of them as they slipped behind the ship, but there was no sign of a letup in the Orca’s purpose. Only one outcome, I suspect.
An eventful day, and one we won’t forget in a hurry.
Here’s my top twelve wildlife sightings (all from the kayak seat, of course) for 2019. The cream of 2,444 miles of paddling.
There’s so much action to pack in that the coastal scenery, which has a claim to be as world class as the marine wildlife, doesn’t even get a mention (apart from this one pic).
So here we go, in reverse order.
12. Fowey Osprey
This beautiful juvenile Osprey was an end of year bonus, stopping off for a rest (and no doubt refuelling on a mullet or two) near the mouth of the Fowey estuary. It had probably hatched out in Scotland or the north of England, and was on its way to the main Osprey wintering ground in West Africa. I look forward to seeing it again next year (hopefully).
I usually see one or two Ospreys around the estuaries of Devon and Cornwall in the autumn, but this is by far and away my best view….and I so nearly overlooked it as it was sat completely still near the top of a tall waterside tree.
11. Barrel Jellyfish
2019 has been a spectacular year for Barrel Jellyfish. They have been around in vast numbers, and for a long time. From early March to the end of October. On one day I saw more than the previous five years put together.
They are really great creatures….big and mysterious.
10. Boscastle Puffins
There’s a handful of breeding colonies of everybody’s favourite seabird dotted around SW England, and nowhere is more dramatic than the rocky islets off the craggy and hostile coast of North Cornwall just up from Tintagel.
There’s only a couple of pairs of Puffins at Boscastle, and there’s only a couple of days a month when sea conditions are suitable for attempting to go and see them by kayak.
9. Torridge Otter.
This is our only venture into fresh water in this review, into the home of Tarka the otter in North Devon. A superb prolonged view in early January of a dog otter fishing.
An encounter matched by it’s cousin on the other side of the pond, or more technically the OTHER pond, because this is a Pacific Sea Otter which Becky and I watched from a kayak during a trip to California in February.
I saw a total of six river otters in 2019…..three in the Torridge, three in the Tamar. (plus one on the Wye)
8. Harbour Porpoise
I really like porpoises. They are a kayak speciality, because the majority I see I have heard puffing first, a noise that would be drowned out by any sort of engine. There is no doubt they are hugely overlooked, because they are small (only four to five foot long), and they appear at the surface without a splash. Also they tend to go around in very small groups which makes them even easier to miss.
This year I have seen a total of 275 porpoises on 38 days. Down from last year ( 327 on 44 days) but I don’t get the impression there are any fewer around. If you paddle a couple of miles offshore almost anywhere around the coast of Devon and Cornwall in August, you will probably hear one puffing.
7. Micky the HarbourSeal
It is rare to see a Harbour Seal in Cornwall, and even more unusual (and probably unprecedented) to see a pup that has swum all the way from Holland and is still only five months old. Another success story for the seal rescue and rehabilitation centres.
A handful of trips up an estuary through the patchy mist of dawn in July were rewarded with several encounters with Beavers. I had heard they were about, but I had no idea they were in this particular location, didn’t realise that they inhabited saltwater estuaries, and anyway didn’t think I would see one in daylight.
Another good example of the benefits of paddling along in complete silence (and early in the morning).
Five beaver sightings on three days.
5. Common Dolphin
My Common Dolphin year started off in grand style with a prolonged encounter with a pod of about twenty off Penzance. It was early January but the flat calm sea and warm sun made it feel, and look, like summer.
I will never ever get bored of seeing a dolphin from my kayak. In fact the excitement will never dip below the 100% level. Partly because it is so very difficult to do…..Common Dolphins don’t often come within sight of the shore so you’ve really got to be a long way out, and sea conditions suitable for this are infrequent even in the summer.
It’s a good news story for SW England and the efforts of the marine conservation groups that Common Dolphins seem to be increasing, no doubt because there are more fish around. This is reflected in my total for the year of 564 individuals on 23 days. (it’s actually probably a lot more than this but estimating the number of dolphins in an active and splashy pod is very difficult).This compares to 432 on 17 days last year, and 148 on 11 days in 2017.
This includes a couple of ‘superpods’ (over 50 individuals) on consecutive days at the end of August…one in Devon and the other in Cornwall.
Interestingly I only saw an average of one pod per year when I kayaked along the coast; the increase only occurred when I took to offshore paddling. I now average about 500 miles a year more than a mile from the shore specifically looking for ‘fins’.
Only one or two of this year’s pods would have been visible to a kayaker paddling close to the shore.
I can’t think of any other situation where such a large number of completely wild creatures voluntarily come so close to an observer. Even better for the dolphins, they remain completely undisturbed and unspooked because I have no engine, and a kayak is about as threatening as a floating log.
4. Bottlenose Dolphins
My first sighting of these big and charismatic dolphins for several years was in Mount’s Bay, and three miles offshore. Bottlenose Dolphins usually prefer to stay close in because they like to hunt fish that live on the seabed, but these were thought to be part of an offshore pod that live in the open sea (and feed on shoaling fish).
3. Risso’s Dolphin
This was a really extraordinary encounter on one of the most beautiful days of the year. It was hot, sunny and windless. Even the relentless swell along the north coast of Cornwall had abated allowing a relaxed twenty-mile paddle from St.Ives to Sennen. I couldn’t resist a jaunt offshore around the Brisons rocks for the final section, and was rewarded with an extended sight of a pod of eight Risso’s Dolphins.
They are big and dynamic and ran through just about every trick in the dolphin book: spyhopping, fin-clapping, lobtailing, breaching as well as a bit of logging at the surface.
I was thrilled when one swam past a few feet away because they are usually quite shy, and I personally have only seen them at a distance before.
2. Minke Whale
Ever since I first sat in a kayak (about fifty years ago) I have dreamt about seeing a whale from the kayak seat. Because I never thought it would happen in Devon or Cornwall I have been to Greenland, USA and Mexico to try and see one, and failed.
In the last four years I have discovered that if you grind out the miles, as far offshore as you dare, you will eventually see a whale.
In fact prior to this year I have seen ten whales in SW England. Fantastic, but August 2nd 2019 was to blast any other previous sighting clean out of the water, and I still can’t quite believe it happened.
Because I saw two species of whale in the same place at the same time, without paddling a single stroke. (as well as Common Dolphin, Porpoise, Giant Bluefin Tuna).
While I was waiting for the ‘other’ whale to surface, this Minke Whale appeared close enough to give me my best ever photograph of the species. If you consider whales as a whole, Minkes are not the biggest (about thirty foot) and not the most exciting, because they roll at the surface like a giant porpoise. But heck, they are a whale, and who would believe you can see a whale from a kayak in UK.
1. HUMPBACK WHALE!!!!!
This once-in-a-lifetime drama was played out in a location that I usually avoid because of the tidal currents and confused and choppy water. But conditions for cetacean viewing AND photography were absolutely perfect…flat water, and cloudless blue sky.
It was the perfect un-storm.
Even so, the chances of me being three to four miles offshore in precisely the right place at precisely the same time as a Humpback whale appears, make a win on the lottery look easy. It was the first Humpback seen in the area since the Spring, and it was only around for a few hours.
I would have been over the moon just to have a fleeting view of it like this:
And to see the flukes come up as it deep dived was something I had always wanted to capture on film…..even better with St.Michael’s Mount behind (seven miles away!).
Waving its enormous pectoral fin about was an unexpected bonus…..
But to be sitting right in the middle of its feeding area, as it proceeded to gulp down the baitballs of sandeels and other small fish just a few yards away, was something I hadn’t anticipated.
To see this sort of sight from a whale-watching boat in California or Hawaii would be the thrilling enough, but to ‘stumble’ across it in my kayak while randomly paddling around far offshore, right here on our doorstep in Southwest England, is total excitement overload.
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.
The scene is rather more serene at the upper tidal limit of the River Torridge. In fact not a lot could be more serene.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
I still can’t quite believe my luck with this staggering encounter. This was my seventh trip of the year around Mount’s Bay from Penzance. The inner bay (inside a line from St.Michaels Mount to Mousehole) is relatively sheltered and tidal flows are weak. Further along the coast towards Gwennap Head the tidal rate increases, with a potentially fizzy area off Tater Du lighthouse where currents converge and there is an underwater ridge.
Swirling currents mean fish which in turn mean dolphins (and whales) but if there is any wind at all it is not at all great for offshore kayaking because the sea chops up dramatically. So I am very wary off paddling miles out to sea in this particular location.
So it was incredibly fortunate that on this remarkable day there was no wind at all and the sea was essentially smooth…just a small swell rolling through.
The timing of my arrival was sheer luck as well. I had paddled fourteen miles out from Penzance in a big offshore loop and had been going for five hours. I heard the whale blowing about at least half an hour before I saw it and I think it had only just arrived in the area. I watched it for well over an hour and I left it working its way west towards Land’s End, where it was seen later in the day.
So it was only there for a couple of hours, just when I happened to roll up.
I’ve actually been focused on looking for whales from my kayak for over five years. This means heading far from the shore and I have clocked up about five hundred miles of offshore paddling (more than a mile from the coast) for each of the last four years.
I am very fortunate in having the time and living in a location to be able to do this, because days suitable for offshore kayaking (unless you are a hard-core type) are few and far between.
I only venture out if the wind is less than five mph all day. In SW England this is unusual. A wind any stronger than this makes the kayak bounce around and photography becomes even more challenging, and as soon as there are any splashy waves the chances of seeing a fin diminishes and the chances of hearing a cetacean breathing also goes down. And its just not so much fun.
Photography from a kayak with a camera that is not waterproof is tricky at the best of times. It lives in a dry bag behind my seat and is promoted to my lap when action is imminent.
The next few weeks are ‘out’ as far as offshore kayaking is concerned, because the wind is going to be too strong. Just look at the forecast for today, for instance:
Before this big encounter I have had ten whale sightings in Devon and Cornwall. Mostly fleeting glimpses of a passing Minke Whale, frequently only one blow and it is gone. This video is fairly typical (including the slate grey sea)
Also a very dramatic sighting of a large whale, thought to be an incredibly rare Sei Whale, lunge fishing near the Eddystone lighthouse, three years ago.
My only previous encounter with a Humpback was Horace (aka Doris) off South Devon in 2017. This photo looks great but when you consider that Horace was tangled up in a lobster pot line and so going nowhere, it’s not so good.
Fortunately he/she was released successfully by the BDMLR team.
I have been so keen to improve my whale-from-kayak chances, I have ventured on trips to Greenland…..
and the world’s greatest ocean-aquarium, the Sea of Cortez in Mexico….
Fantastic experiences both, a few glimpses of distant whales, but the search for that magical encounter continued…..
I still can’t quite believe that the sort of sight that I had specifically gone to both Greenland and Mexico to see, happened right here on my doorstep. It’s all the more personally satisfying for me that I came upon the Humpback completely unexpectedly, completely randomly, completely unguided, and powered only by my own grunt. I have always been a huge supporter of observing and celebrating the natural history on your home patch, even though it might be harder to find, and require more effort (and enduring some dubious weather) than hopping on a plane to where the wildlife might be handed to you on a plate (so to speak).
I’ve also always quite liked doing stuff where the end result is extremely unlikely to happen and only comes about by putting in huge amounts of hours of trying. I think I am the only individual daft enough to go looking for whales from a kayak in England.
So here we are….everybody’s favourite species of whale putting in a spectacular show of lunge-feeding, fin-slapping and raising the tail flukes (but no singing….as far as I could hear, above my pounding heart).
Played out on a calm blue sea under a cloudless blue sky with a backdrop of the stunning Cornish coast. How good is that?
Everybody loves a Humpback…this next video has had well over one million views. That’s more than Happy Talk (singalong version) by Captain Sensible on Youtube. Sorry, Capt.
Just seeing this next image is exciting enough for me. It was all I was ever hoping to see. Six views so far. All by myself.
I might struggle to match the excitement of this astonishing sight in subsequent blog posts, but if I can convey the enjoyment of slicing through the water completely silently and unobtrusively, whether it is far offshore or miles inland up a creek, observing and enjoying the huge variety of wild creatures that inhabit the southwest of England, then all is good.
It is great to welcome a whole load of new readers on board.
After a long drive to Penzance I was thrilled to see Mount’s Bay was much smoother than the wind forecast had predicted. However knowing it was probably just the calm of the early morning I was on the water in double-quick time.
Within a minute of exiting Penzance Harbour the omens for a good day of wildlife-watching were favourable… several dark patches at the surface were shoals of sprats or sandeels, and Eddie the resident Eider duck was half way through a crab-shaped breakfast.
As I paddled quietly passed the rocks by Jubilee Pool a little posse of Dunlin were catching forty on their migration south.
I paddled directly offshore at quite a lick because I knew it was probable that sea conditions would only be favourable for an hour or two. A hat-trick of swans which would probably be more at home on the Thames at Henley looked a bit incongruous in the middle of the bay.
A couple of miles out where the offshore tidal current shears past the more static waters of Mount’s bay the action started to hot up. Flocks of Manx Shearwaters cruised around while some were resting on the surface.
Amongst the throng was a single Balearic Shearwater which at one stage flew directly towards me, zipping past a few feet away.
Had I turned for home these sightings alone would have made my day worthwhile. It was a good thing I didn’t. A couple of miles off St. Michael’s Mount I saw a sparkle as the sun glinted off the fins of a pod of cetaceans. Common Dolphins, which I carefully approached. A lone porpoise popped up once and puffed as I drew close to the dolphins
As usual they came over to investigate and I saw it was a nursery group of about twenty in total with quite a few calves and juveniles sticking close to mum as usual.
Two interesting observations were that one was very pale grey, and one adult had a moderately mangled fin which was probably caused by a boat injury or being caught in a net.
It was superbly relaxed conditions for viewing with smooth sea and hardly any wind so I just watched the action. Every so often the whole lot would speed off and a couple jumped really high but as usual I missed the action with the camera. This is the best I could manage:
As I ate my breakfast (muesli and granola mix) in the company of the dolphins I kept glimpsing what looked like wafting black smoke further out to sea, and then realised it was vast numbers of shearwaters circling about low over the water. More than I had ever seen before in one place.
So I stoked up the boilers and set off out to investigate at high speed, because usually the feeding event has finished by the time I arrive on the scene. I was very flattered when the dolphin pod came over to benefit from my pathetic bow wave. I fumbled the GoPro onto my head as quickly as possible:
Exciting stuff, especially as the calves seemed to be jumping and surging as enthusiastically as their parents. Look at this slomo, are those dolphin twins?
Incredibly, en route to the seabird feeding frenzy I passed another pod of common dolphins consisting of fifteen sturdy looking individuals which I think were a pack of male dolphins. Even more interestingly, several did the bellyflopping breathing action which is maybe just so they can have a bit more of a look around above the surface. As visibility in the water wasn’t great today it certainly would have provided them with a bit more of a view.
I had my first effort at underwater photography of the dolphins but I wouldn’t say it was a raging success.
Phew, excitement overload. But I could sense better was yet to come because the vast numbers of feeding seabirds meant large amounts of baitfish which would also bring in other predators. In fact I thought it was tuna splashing at the surface as I drew near to the action, but it turned out to be the shearwaters shallow diving onto the baitfish from a few feet up.
A couple of miles off Mousehole I passed a stationary yellow boat containing a load of fishermen, and started to converge with Shearwater II, a catamaran yacht owned by Marine Discovery who run wildlife watching trips from Penzance, as it was heading further offshore.
As I was watching the yacht there was a great breathy blast and a fullgrown (it seemed pretty big anyway) Minke Whale surfaced between the two of us. Blinking heck. It surfaced again in the distance towards Penzance and then looked like it had turned to come back.
It duly obliged and surfaced again just behind Shearwater II, scenically passing in front of the circular cave in the background from which the village of Mousehole gets its name.
The it came back again. You can hear its breath in this video clip:
Of course I was hoping for it to surface right beside (ideally not on top of) my kayak but it appeared to have moved on. They cover a lot of distance between breaths and there is absolutely no point in chasing after them in a kayak because they move so fast and are just about out of sight after surfacing a couple of times.
There was plenty of other wildlife to hold my attention. The thousands of Manx Shearwaters intermittently rested on the surface and were conveniently settled in a long line so I could paddle along in front trying to pick out any rarer species, in the manner of an inspection at a military parade.
About one in two hundred were the smoky-brown coloured Balearic Shearwaters. Not that impressive to look at if you are not a ‘birder,’ but if you are you will know it is always fantastic to see one because they are a globally threatened species.
I hit the jackpot when I spotted a larger chocolate-coloured shearwater trying to be inconspicuous amongst its smaller relatives. A Sooty Shearwater! This is a proper offshore species that I had never seen from my kayak till last year, and have never seen sitting on the water around the UK. (the last one I saw like this was off New Zealand):
As I was sat enjoying the seabird flock supping a cup of coffee a couple of miles out to sea, the cloud drifted over and the wind suddenly started to lift. Fortunately I had allowed for this in my action plan, which is precisely why I had come to this particular stretch of coast today. It seems to be about the best place to see deepwater species relatively close to the shore, as well as being relatively protected from wind and swell. I think there is also a good interface between currents about one and a half to two miles from the coast here which provides a good concentration of baitfish.
I had not seen the last of the whale, as it was working its way up and down the current interface. I thought it was still about because the shearwaters kept getting very excited. Interestingly it was only shearwaters and not Gannets because the baitfish involved were very small and Gannets prefer larger individual fish to target.
It then disappeared and I paddled a bit faster towards Mousehole as the wind steadily increased. The whale then appeared in amongst the shearwaters.
and to finish off with surfaced a couple of times relatively close by when the sea was beginning to look a bit less friendly. No boats or anyone else within a mile.
Buzzing with adenaline I scorched back past St. Clement’s Isle and got a sort of resigned look from the resident seals who assumed I was another idiotic kayaker who was going to frighten them in to the sea. Idiotic maybe, but I make an effort to keep well away from resting seals.
On the final stretch back to Penzance harbour the wildlife eased off a bit giving me time to appreciate a bit of scenery. Just the cheerful ‘kirrick’ call of migrating Sandwich terns.
This was my sixth whale seen from kayak in SW England. Four Minkes, one Humpback, one possible Sei. Autumnal weather with gales are now forecast so it’s back to creek paddling for the foreseeable. Hopefully there will be a few more windows of calm weather while the sea is still bursting with baitfish so I can enjoy a bit more of this kind of stuff:
100 along Rivers in England (Thames and two Avons)
500+ miles of offshore paddling (more than a mile from the coast) in Devon and Cornwall.
6 trips out to the Eddystone Lighthouse
1 Interception by the UK Border Force
Wildlife seen from my kayak in 2017:
1 Humpback whale seen. Horace, aka Doris, hung around the sheltered waters of Slapton sands in South Devon for an incredible six weeks in the Spring. I saw him (her) twice from my kayak, although the first time shouldn’t really count because he (she) was tangled up in a lobster pot rope.
33 days with Harbour Porpoises seen, a total of approx 177 individuals. Porpoises are very small and very unsplashy and easily overlooked unless the sea is flat calm. For every one I saw, I missed an equal number when all I heard was there ‘piff’ as they breathed, the sound of their breathing carrying long distances over the water.
11 days with Common Dolphins, totally approx 171 individuals. Another 175ish in Spain. Several fantastic close encounters with groups bow riding when I could muster up the power to paddle at top speed. I need to eat more pasties.
Seeing Common Dolphins is extremely unpredictable and random as they range far and wide and usually keep well offshore. However the pods in Torbay around Brixham at the end of the year and running into early 2018, were the closest in, and most regular, I have known.
3 days with Bottlenose Dolphins, totalling 50-80 individuals. Plus 8-10 at Chanonry point in the Moray Firth in Scotland, probably the best dolphin watching location in the UK.
A huge thrill on 18 Dec a couple of miles off Lamorna Cove when a proper ‘stampede’ of 30+ Bottlenosers charged directly towards me in a line all jumping out of the water simultaneously. An unforgettable image.
2017 was by far my best year yet for number of dolphin sightings.
7 Giant Bluefin Tuna sightings, all after 13 Nov. Amazing. I have glimpsed them on occasion before and seen the odd random splash but there seems to have been an invasion of them this autumn. Hopefully it means the baitfish are making a bit of a comeback which will mean more mega sightings of large fish-eating sea creatures.
Four days with tuna at Fowey, with one extraordinary day with scores of splashes and fish jumping right out, one at Mevagissey (double splash), one at Berry Head (double splash), and brief intense feeding frenzy off Lamorna Cove near Penzance.
Loads of seals. All Grey seals in SW England apart from one Harbour Seal near Portscatho.
11 Otters in Devon and Cornwall, plus 6 (before 6am on one day!) in Shetland. A poor year overall for otter sightings; there don’t seem to be so many on the River Torridge. ???
I saw otters on the Rivers Tamar, Taw, Camel and Torridge.
2 Mink. Nasty, nasty little creatures which have almost exterminated Water Voles. Maybe this is a bit unfair because if you are a Mink you do what Minks do and can’t really help it (although leaving Water Voles off the menu would help the public image).
One on the Torridge, one beside the Thames in Marlow!
1 Sunfish at Fowey. There were quite a lot around this year, I just didn’t seem to bump into many by shear random luck (or lack of).
Also one off Gibraltar (also from kayak) on 10 March. A real whopper.
5 days with Portugese Man-of-War sightings, totalling over 50. A good year for jellyfish in general with nine or ten species seen, including the not so common, and unpleasantly named, Mauve Stingers.
Technically Portugese Man o’Wars are not jellyfish, they are Siphonophores. Likewise By-the-wind Sailors (another excellent name) are not jellyfish, they are Hydrozoa. However because I am a bit of a simpleton it seems sensible to lump them all together in one group because they are all jellylike and do what is expected of a jellyfish (i.e. float about and look like they might give you a bit of a sting).
6 Sooty Shearwaters, on four days. A true ocean-wandering seabird which nests on islands in the Southern Ocean. My first ever kayak-seen Sooty ‘Shears’ were the result of my concentrated efforts to paddle offshore this year. 5 seen near Eddystone, 1 near Land’s End.
37 Balearic Shearwaters, on six days. Scattered amongst the much more common Manx Shearwater, usually well offshore.
43 Storm Petrels, on six days from mid June to the end of August. 29 at Eddystone, 1 at Porthcurno and 13, several very close, on a rainy but fortunately fairly windless day off Fowey.
Storm Petrels are probably my favourite pelagic seabird I have seen from my kayak because they look impossibly small and vulnerable when fluttering low over the waves, yet spend all their time when not involved with nesting at sea scattered over the oceans of the world.
They are indeed vulnerable because they seem to be a favourite snack of Peregrines. I have seen a Peregrine snatch a Storm Petrel from just above the surface of a stormy sea off Hartland Point (not from my kayak). Probably a good reason why they usually keep well offshore.
5 ‘Bonxie’ Great Skuas. Another of my favourites, and a sensational encounter with one off Fowey on a calm and sunny day, only a few feet from my kayak. By far my best view in SW England.
6 Arctic Skuas . All near Torbay and no decent photos.
6 Puffins. All around Eddystone. The usual gang of dirty-faced immature birds in late Spring , and one (very unusual sighting, I think) juvenile on 21 Aug. A Puffling.
1 Black Tern In Mevagissey Bay with a load of Common Terns. Only my second ever from a kayak, and first ever half decent pic.
8 Long-tailed Ducks. An exceptionally good year and (yet) another of my favourites. The males are one of the most attractive sea ducks. This year I was treated not only to a superb pair at Porthpean, but also a hugely unusual drake in summer plumage on the Taw estuary on 29 Sept.
1 Pink-footed Goose Another kayaking first , and actually I can’t remember the last time I saw a ‘Pink-foot’, even from dry land. Superb close view, in amongst some Canada Geese, on the upper reaches of the Fowey River.
Several pairs of Black-throated Divers in Scotland. The most beautifully marked UK bird?
Kingfishers on 21 days. Everybody’s favourite waterbird.
1 WILSON’S PETREL. I can still hardly believe this. The chances of seeing one of these from a kayak in England are as remote as Captain Sensible becoming Prime Minister. Ironically they are one of the most numerous birds in the world, nesting in the Southern Hemisphere and visiting the northern oceans in our summer. A lot of birdwatchers spend a lot of time staring out to sea through telescopes hoping to see one but hardly any ever do. It’s only during storms that they are likely to be driven close enough to the shore to be seen, so when the sea is calm enough to venture far out in a kayak the petrels will usually be long gone.
So I was pretty lucky to see one a couple of miles from the Eddystone lighthouse, bringing back memories of the first one I ever saw with my father from the deck of the RMS St.Helena off the coast of South Africa, in 1989.
Finally, 3 Favourite Scenes from the year. All great to look at from the depths of winter and give prospective kayakers hope that at least a few days next year might be warm, sunny and still.
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).