Superb Sealife on the Costa del Sol

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Costa del Sol

If you were thinking that a flat calm, scorching hot Mediterranean beach heaving with paddleboarders and buzzing with jetskis would be a wildlife desert, you would need to think again.

This sea along this section of coast, six miles east of Estepona and within sight of Gibraltar, seems to be particularly fertile. Although on this occasion Gibraltar, thirty miles away, was hidden in mist for the whole six days of our visit. Apart for about five minutes when just the top was visible.

I think it is because the tide sucks the Atlantic into the neck of the Mediterranean to just about here, and the meeting of the warm and cold waters provide a bit of a plankton bloom.

The sea state was perfect for kayaking. Virtually no wind and hardly any swell for the whole time. Just the occasional patch of fog which prompted me to always carry my GPS while paddling offshore.

On the first day I was thrilled to encounter half-a-dozen Cory’s Shearwaters carving around low over the water with their effortless almost bat-like flight. And a kayak in their path didn’t seem to worry them…they just sliced past a few feet away from me with a very slight ‘whoosh’ of their feathers. Absolutely fantastic. Every so often they would shallow plunge-dive into the sea from only a few feet up.

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Cory’s Shearwater
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Cory’s Shearwater

They  shared the sea with groups of Balearic Shearwaters that were passing with a bit more purpose to get somewhere particular. And was that a Sooty Shearwater? Not easy to establish that it was all-brown because I was looking into the sun; maybe it was just a dark Balearic.

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Balearic Shearwater
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Balearic Shearwater

I came across a resting flock of Cory’s and Balearics  a couple of miles offshore, and the five bigger shearwaters seemed to be quite happy as I drifted within yards of them.

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Group of Cory’s Shearwaters
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Beautiful Cory’s Shearwater

Next morning I was out early and headed way offshore again. More shearwaters and I was very surprised to see a Bonxie getting involved with the action. (it was actually no surprise to see a Bonxie ‘in the thick of it’, because that is what Bonxies do best). I was just amazed to see one in The Mediterranean in early July when they should be up north in Scotland or Iceland. Maybe a youngster that hadn’t bothered to migrate.

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Unseasonal Mediterranean Bonxie

While sitting about on glassy water absorbed by the seabird action  I heard a series of ‘splashes’ approaching. A large number of dolphins scattered over a wide area of sea were heading towards me. They were travelling very fast and spent such a short time at the surface I really couldn’t see any markings and didn’t have a hope of a photograph. But surely Common Dolphins. At least thirty or forty, but probably a lot more.

After lunch I went for a paddle along the coast with Becky and we had soon spotted another group of dolphins, this time a lot slower, and feeding ,judging by the attendant gulls and shearwaters.IMG_6750

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Mother and calf Common Dolphin

As we paddled at top speed to see them a gin-palace powerboat also saw them and adjusted course, as did a jetski…groan!

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Jetski pursuing dolphin
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Common Dolphins, jetski, Becky

The reason they were slow is that there were a lot of calves in the group, and they were sticking like glue beside their mothers. They changed direction and swam right past us. In kayaks we represented very little threat to the dolphins but the jetski was far to keen to get his photos and chased them far too vigorously. Becky managed to scowl at the driver and, credit to him, he did back off.

We watched and had a pretty reasonable view for about fifteen minutes. The pod of about 15 then swam directly offshore, pursued by the jetski at a slightly more respectable distance. Still not good, however, because some of the calves were very small and so understandably slow.

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Mother and calf Common Dolphin

Incredibly, we had another dolphin encounter the next day, no doubt helped by the completely smooth surface which makes seeing fins that much easier. Jake and Christina reported seeing a lone dolphin in the morning, and scanning the sea from the shore with binoculars later I saw a big-looking fin a couple of miles away. I powered towards it in the Tribord Kayak which has a pretty decent top speed (about 5 mph). However it took ages to get within naked eyeball range of the dolphin, and it was heading away from me. I watched it surface a couple of times several hundred yards ahead of me and then gave up. Fatigue.

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Distant ?Bottlenose Dolphin

It was a big dolphin with a prominent dorsal fin. I would think a Bottlenose but I just wondered about a Risso’s, especially as I had seen a couple of gulls finishing off some dead cuttlefish which are Risso’s dolphins favourite snack. It didn’t look grey or pale so Bottlenose looks most likely.

On the last day I glimpsed a large streamlined creature, the size of a dolphin, jumping out of the water once only. Just for a fraction of a second. Then nothing more, and nothing surfaced to breathe. I’m pretty sure it was a giant Tuna. I need to get a photo of one of these soon as this is the second time I have seen one in Spain, in addition to a similarly fleeting view of a group in Falmouth bay last autumn.

All these creatures shared the busy Mediterranean waters with numerous pleasure boats and commercial fishing boats, including large offshore trawlers whose throbbing engines provided the constant sound backdrop to the superb viewing.

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Typical Mediterranean Scene
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Not so typical Mediterranean Scene

Costa del Bonxie

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Puerto Banus

We spent four days on the Costa del Sol,  based halfway between Estepona and Puerto Banus. From the beach the extraordinary Rock of Gibraltar is usually visible thirty miles away to the southwest sticking out like a sole molar from the gappy gum of Andalucia.

The weather forecast for the first couple of days was exceptional for mid March, even for Spain. Sunny, hot, and most importantly for a kayaker, hardly a breath of wind. Perfect for the paddle to Gibraltar.

I was using a RTM Disco kayak, a really excellent sit-on-top that is quite narrow (26″) so licks along and is effectively a mini sea kayak. It cuts through the water a bit better than the slightly fatter sit-on-tops, and with no ‘hull-slap’.

It was completely dark when I set off at 6.30 (Spanish time). I stopped for breakfast on the beach at Estepona soon after sunrise and ladled on the factor 50 suncream. And then ladled on a load more.

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Sunrise Spanish-style

The sea was so calm and flat and benign that I decided to cut directly across the bay to Gibraltar 23 miles away, which would take me several miles offshore so hopefully meet up with a sea creature or two.

I was nearly too far out to see a small school of Common dolphins between me and the coast. I adjusted course slightly to intercept and then paddled along beside them for about a mile, only just able to keep up as their cruising speed is four to five mph.

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Common Dolphins and Gibraltar

It was a school of about a dozen , with a couple of small calves sticking very close to their mother’s side the whole time, and breathing when they did. The water was oily calm and with the slab of Gibraltar as a backdrop it was quite an experience. Eventually they swung offshore and I resumed my course.

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Mother and calf Common Dolphin

The kayak-fishermen off the headlands were not particularly friendly, saying, in perfect English, that they did not speak English. I think they considered me a threat to their fishing even though I quite clearly had no rods.

I had my passport tucked away in a drybag just in case I was stopped by one of the many customs/police boats zipping about.

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Lunch break

As I crossed from Spanish water into Gibraltar a dark shape at the surface several hundred metres away caught my eye. I initially thought it was inanimate and nearly didn’t bother with it until it flopped half-heartedly. It turned out to be a fin belonging to a really big Sunfish, by far the biggest I have ever seen.

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First glimpse of thumping great Sunfish

Sunfish are the biggest bony fish in the world (so excluding sharks and rays, which are cartilaginous), and it wasn’t quite a record breaker, but must have been four foot across. I sneaked up on it silently and managed a few underwater pics as it very slowly and reluctantly sunk into the depths. They really are the most bizarre design.

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Ocean Sunfish

After 31 miles and ten hours paddling I rolled up at Catalan beach , Gibraltar.Feeling fairly pooped, and a bit burnt where the copious quantities of suncream didn’t reach.

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Arrival at Catalan beach

Back along the coast near Estepona, the next day was equally sunny and still ,so I headed offshore. I was a bit surprised to come across half a dozen Great Skuas (aka Bonxies)which really do not seem to be suited to the calm waters and busy, built-up coast of Southern Spain. They are surely more suited to a windblasted patch of bogland above a wavetorn Scottish coast.

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Bonxie on the Costa

Some were cruising about with that alarming sense of purpose, and enormous potential power. Some were resting on the water.

I saw half a dozen more the next day, and wonder whether they actually winter here as they seemed quite at home and not just passing through (although I’m not sure quite how they would look different if they WERE just passing through). Maybe, like us, they were on holiday.

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Bonxie and the Sierras

I really like Bonxies and they might just be my favourite seabird. I’m not sure why as their plumage is sludge brown and they always look a bit scruffy. But they are never boring and to see them accelerate in to intercept a tern or a kittiwake or a gannet to make it disgorge is breathtaking.

The birding was complemented by a dozen or so Balearic Shearwaters zipping past, and a couple of Adouin’s gulls to dilute the monopoly of the hefty Yellow-legged Gulls (that are the size of a Greater Black-back).

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Adouin’s Gull

The final day  in Spain was absolutely awful: rain, wind and cold. Couldn’t have been more British. Time to head home.

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Gannet