Looking for Humpbacks

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.

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Slapton Sands

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.

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The View down to Torcross

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.

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First Slapton whale encounter

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.

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Guillemot
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Harbour Porpoise

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.

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The Blow

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.

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Slapton Humpback

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.

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St Mawes

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.

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Feeding frenzy participants including gannet and Manx Shearwater

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.

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Purple Sandpiper on the Manacles

And an excellent Barrel Jellyfish in the clear waters off Swanpool beach.

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Barrel Jellyfish

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)

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Kayaker meets Cyclist

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).

More please.

 

 

 

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Another Extraordinary Whale Tale

Yet another trip down to South Devon to try to see the Humpback Whale that has been hanging around in Start Bay.

The first day bought a howling southwesterly wind so kayaking was off. It was also very cold. Hezzer and I  had superb views of a handful of Sandwich Terns working their way along the beach and frequently diving in for sandeels, as well as a couple of subadult Pomarine skuas harrying the gulls further offshore.

On the cetacean front we managed to see a small number of porpoises despite the choppy conditions, and the whale finally appeared in the late afternoon and worked its way past to the south, keeping well offshore and not giving anything more than a glimpse of its body, and just a hint of tail flukes.If it hadn’t been for the blows we would probably have never seen it.

The second day promised lighter winds and sunny skies, so I was very disappointed to be greeted by a hefty swell creating a nasty shore ‘dump’ whipped up by strong overnight winds,which once again ruled out any kayaking. Hopefully it would drop later in the day. Gannets and porpoises provided the only viewing through the morning, and then Hezzer got news via twitter that the whale was tangled by fishing nets over towards Blackpool sands. Oh no.

Through binoculars we could see a couple of fishing boats close together of Blackpool a couple of miles away, and then saw the whale blow close to them. And then it blew again in exactly the same place so it looked like it was stuck.

We drove round to Blackpool Sands as the RNLI inshore rescue boat was arriving to transfer members of the British Divers Marine Life Rescue (BDMLR) out to the scene. I thought that I might just be some use as an extra pair of hands so I inflated Puffing Pig, my Gumotex Safari kayak, and waited on the shore for a suitable gap in the waves to get out onto the sea. The growing crowd would have smirked if I had been caught by a hefty wave breaking violently onto the shingle. There was the briefest lull in the swell and I was away.Just.

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Paddling out

The RNLI crew sped over to warn me to keep away from the whale and although I hinted that I might have been able to help but they didn’t seem convinced (they were absolutely correct as it turned out).

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Thumbs up from the RNLI

I was soon out near the attendant fishing boat ‘Maverick’ and the whale kept surfacing and trying to dive away. Surface conditions were more lumpy than I was expecting and combined with the underlying swell I realised I wasn’t going to be of any use to anyone, or any whale.

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Lumpy sea conditions, and whale

So I paddled quickly back to the shore and glanced over my shoulder as I heard the whale blowing, rather desperately it seemed, behind me. I just got out onto the shingle before a mighty set of waves arrived, which would have minced me.

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Blowing Humpback
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It’s behind you (me)

Watching from the shore numerous rescuers were ferried out to the fishing boat with various gear for cutting the lobster pot rope wrapped around the whale’s body and tail.

The Salcombe offshore lifeboat arrived to support.

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Salcombe lifeboat arrives

The hundred plus onlookers held their breath as the operation reached a critical point. Six crew members on the fishing boat hauled on the rope to bring the whale alongside, while a diver from the BDMLR leaned precariously over the edge of the boat to cut the whale free.

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The critical cut

Success.The whale was suddenly released and it swam away, surfacing several times nearby as though nothing had happened. It headed back towards its favourite feeding ground towards Slapton.

The action happened too far offshore to hear any whoops of joy from the rescuers, but I’m sure there were  some. They certainly, and deservedly, seemed elated when they got back to the shore.4I2A9475

What a fantastic job they did. Carefully weighing up the situation, getting the right people and right equipment out to the whale (which wasn’t easy because they had to swim off the shore to the inshore lifeboat due to the heavy swell), and then the climax of the operation which looked to be a risky procedure for the diver hanging over the edge of the boat, inches above the whale.

Everyone on the beach was thrilled. Even the dogs seemed happy.

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Smiling dog

Incidentally, you can see why many observers think the whale has a calf. There are a lot of porpoises about (although they would be about twenty times smaller than a newborn Humpback!)

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Harbour Porpoise in the thick of it

All of todays photos taken by Henry Kirkwood. Thanks Hezzer.

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Hezzer and his mighty lens

Epic Fail Whale

There has been a Humpback Whale close in to the coast of South Devon for the last three weeks. It has entertained huge numbers of super-enthusiastic whale-watchers by cruising up and down the sheltered beach of Slapton Sands so close you could throw a stone at it. it’s absolutely amazing that it has come in so close and stayed around for so long. I’m pretty sure this is unprecedented in this part of the world.

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The Humpback (taken from the shore)

It got even better for the growing group of Humpback lovers when it moved a short distance along the coast to Torbay. Here it dramatically upped its game ,which so far had involved a blow followed by a leisurely roll at the surface and a shallow dive which occasionally showed its flukes. In Torbay it hurled itself about, breaching  and generally putting on an impressive Humpback-style display. Best of all was for the watchers on Berry Head on a sunny Monday lunchtime, when it appeared directly below them in clear turquoise water, before slowly moving away breaching an incredible thirteen times successively.

I was thrilled to see it at unbelievably close range at Slapton. From the shore.But it would have been a lot better to see it from my kayak. That particularly day was too windy and hostile for kayaking so I returned a couple of days later and of course the whale didn’t show. Actually it did, but an hour after I had left.

I then  went to Berry head and paddled twenty miles around in a flat calm sea expecting the whale to burst out of the water at any minute. My heart was in my throat for the whole six hours I was on the water.Son Henry joined the throng of expectant watchers on the cliff top at Berry head and watched me cruise past on the silky smooth water. Fast heading south with the tide, very slow north against it.No whale, it had gone back to Slapton. Groan.

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Whale watchers at Berry Head
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Offshore paddling at Berry head

So the next day I went back to Slapton and paddled around around for a further twelve miles, and the whale was at the mouth of the River Dart and then turned up at Slapton a couple of hours after I had left.

Maybe it’s justice, as you are not supposed to chase around after any whales, or any other sea creature, in any craft, and there has been much publicity to this effect relating to this particular whale. With the threat of prosecution.

But paddling along at three mph in complete silence in a kayak is hardly going to make a whale jump out of its skin.The whale is more likely to snigger at your insignificance. It would be a lot worse if I was on a Jetski.

kayak and jetski 2However rules are rules and I wouldn’t deliberately approach any such creature closer than the recommended two hundred metres.

Anyway, in a kayak you really don’t need to, as the sea creature will often come to you to see what you are all about. This certainly applies to seals, Bottlenose Dolphins, and rather surprisingly (and worryingly) Basking Sharks.

I launched four specific trips in my kayak to where the whale was supposed to be, paddled fifty miles,  and I didn’t see it.

So thank goodness for all the porpoises. I have never seen so many so early in the year before. They seem to be resident year round at major headlands such as Hartland Point and Berry Head, but in other areas numbers only build up as the sea gets warmer. Maybe I am wrong about that, and it’s just that I tend not to venture too far offshore in my kayak during the colder months, and the porpoises are always there.

I have seen over forty porpoises over the last couple of weeks while looking for the whale. They are not attracted to kayaks but just keep doing their stuff and seem indifferent to my presence. Having said that , if they get too close they will just disappear. One feature of porpoises is their constant changes of direction, first surfacing that way ,then next breath pointing in another direction. Dolphins tend to progress with a definite purpose but porpoises roll as if they are attached to the top of a wheel.

The water was so calm off the end of Berry Head I could see  ten porpoises at once and was thrilled to hear them ‘piffing’ all around. Hearing the blow of porpoises and dolphins is special to kayaks as most other craft make too much noise to hear the animals, and  sailing boats on days calm enough to hear the breaths have an engine running.

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Berry Head Porpoises

I noticed a couple of porpoises  lie horizontally at the surface for a period of several seconds with their fins showing. I’m not sure whether they were looking above the surface, or briefly resting.

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Resting harbour Porpoise

Some of my best and closest porpoise encounters yet.

They may be the UK’s commonest cetacean, and the world’s smallest (and certainly a lot smaller than the one I was hoping to meet) , but they are always a thrill to encounter, and I love their alternative title of ‘Puffing Pig’.

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Harbour porpoise, Slapton