2017. The Year of the Dolphin

2017 IN FIGURES

2814 miles paddled in total.

2400 in Devon and Cornwall

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Winter Dawn on the Torridge estuary

183 in Spain (Costa del Sol)

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Gibraltar (from Spain)

133 in Scotland

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Loch Arkaig

100 along Rivers in England (Thames and two Avons)

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September Thames

500+ miles of offshore paddling (more than a mile from the coast) in Devon and Cornwall.

6 trips out to the Eddystone Lighthouse

The author at the Eddystone
Yours Truly at Eddystone

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.

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Horace the Humpback takes a puff

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.

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Harbour porpoises

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.

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Common Dolphin (youngster)

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.

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Bottlenose Dolphins

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.

Jumping Giant Bluefin Tuna
Giant Bluefin Tuna

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.

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Grey Seal pup
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Harbour Seal, south Cornwall

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. ???

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Otter

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).

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Mink (trying not to look too evil)

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.

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Gibraltar Sunfish

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.

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Portugese Man o’War

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.

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Sooty Shearwater

37 Balearic Shearwaters, on six days. Scattered amongst the much more common Manx Shearwater, usually well offshore.

Manx and Balearic Shearwater
Manx and Balearic Shearwater

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.

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Storm Petrel

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.

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Great Skua

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.

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Juvenile Puffin

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.

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Black Tern

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.

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Drake Long-tailed Duck in Summer plumage
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Drake (and duck) Long-tailed Duck in Winter plumage

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.

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Pink-footed Goose

Several pairs of Black-throated Divers in Scotland. The most beautifully marked UK bird?

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Black-throated Divers

 

Kingfishers on 21 days. Everybody’s favourite waterbird.

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Kingfisher

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.

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Wilson’s Petrel

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.

1 Hartland Point

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Hartland Point

Looe

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Looe

3 Kynance Cove

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Kynance Cove

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.

 

 

 

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