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

Kynance Cove
Kynance Cove
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Christmas Bonus. Dolphins, Porpoises and Seals.

Still a few weeks to go to Christmas I know, but I just couldn’t resist the title.

The winter storms, which bludgeon me into submission and send me cowering up a creek, have been kept at bay for a further couple of days by a nose of high pressure. Not only light winds but also very little groundswell which is unusual at this time of the year, making offshore paddling irresistible.

Fowey was my destination on Day 1. Fowey is not only an exceptionally beautiful place, paddling always seems to be more relaxing here as the tidal currents seem to be less than around the corner past Dodman Point. Even the slightest current working against the wind chops up the surface significantly.

And following my recent encounters with the Giant Tuna and dolphins and porpoises here, I was full of expectation.

I called in my ‘passage plan’ on the radio with Charlestown NCI because there was nobody at home in Polruan NCI probably because I was a bit early, as usual.

I got the impression that there was not a lot going on in the sea in terms of wildlife but was kept interested by the little parties of Guillemots I passed. First photo with my new camera!

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Guillemot (in winter outfit)

I watched the handful of passing Gannets closely as they filed past. All they have to do is circle round once and show an interest in a particular patch of sea, and my eyeballs are locked on to the surface, because the fish that attracts a Gannet will also lure in other sea creatures. I’ve often located porpoises in this way, but for every one I have seen there will be twenty that I have missed, not only because porpoises are so small and unobtrusive, but because by the time I have arrived at the scene the action, if there has been any, has finished. Chasing down feeding ‘events’ in a kayak is a slow process. It’s a lot easier with a 200 horsepower outboard. Even two hp would be quicker than me.

Encouraged by a light tailwind I wandered about three miles offshore, and suddenly found myself on the edge of a group of twenty circling Gannets which seemed to have appeared out of nowhere. Sure enough, there were fins below. Three Common Dolphins. Fab. As I quietly approached, five more dolphins joined the gang and they all came over to  say hello. Just for fun I piled on the speed (can’t go more than 6-7mph flat out) and the dolphins responded with a load of splashing and surging in my excuse for a pressure wave.

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Dolphin and the Dodman

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Common Dolphin, Fowey

The dolphins hung around for five minutes then moved off. It all went a bit quiet after that so I paddled in for a leg stretch at superb Lantic Bay. As I was approaching the beach I heard the haunting querulous call of a Loon and observed a family of three fishing in the bay. Great Northern Divers (aka Common Loon across the pond) often go around in threes and I’m pretty sure these are Mum, Dad and this year’s offspring. Just by the way they act, and look, and communicate to each other in a family sort of way. Amazing that they can stick together on their migration from the arctic.

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Lantic Bay Loon

My enjoyable day was soured a bit as I arrived back in Fowey. A Dory which I had seen leaving the estuary at the same time as me six hours earlier overtook me on the way in and it was full up to the gunwhales, and beyond, with Sea Urchins. I had a chat with the three crew and they said they had picked up over six hundred (!) urchins by shallow diving along the local coast, and were going to sell them on to souvenir and craft shops. Blimey. They must have had nearly the lot.

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Sea Urchin (one that got away)

Day 2  involved a fifteen mile circuit of one of my favourite sheltered bays in South Cornwall, initially heading three miles offshore and then coming back along the coast.

I set off just as it was getting light and my systems (e.g eyes and ears) were far from fully operational when a small duck, which I initially presumed to be a Guillemot, pitched onto the surface with quite a splash in front of me.  Because it was half dark I was only ten yards away when I realised it was a Long-tailed Duck. I scrambled my new camera out of its dry bag and just managed a few shots before the duck paddled off into the gloom. My fourth L-T Duck of the autumn….pleased with that.

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Long-tailed Duck

Incidentally, no long tail because it’s a female.

My offshore jaunt was rather dull and was rescued by the appearance of a couple of porpoises which surfaced only a few yards away. In typical aloof porpoise style they popped up, piffed, and then completely disappeared.

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Harbour Porpoises

From a couple of miles offshore I could hear the weird wailing ‘song’ of a seal drifting out from a sheltered cove. At one stage it droned on for about a minute without a breath. A bit like Leonard Cohen, but more tuneful.

After coffee ‘at sea’ I cautiously paddled towards the seals who were hauled out on the rocks. I am acutely aware that seals can feel very vulnerable when out of the water and kayakers can, and do, cause real disturbance to colonies, so I kept my distance and was subjected only to a disapproving stare.

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Six-eyed Stare
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Large and Little

One seal, which had a nasty-looking fresh injury on its back, was mottled like a granite-style kitchen surface. A Harbour (or Common) Seal. Not Common at all in SW England, only the second I have seen in Cornwall. Maybe it’s because they get beaten up by the Grey Seals, as seemed to have happened to this one.

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Common (Harbour) seal

The Spring tide was just about low as I came round the headland to Portscatho. The local gulls were very busy and very noisy as they hunted through the exposed kelp for their favourite delicacy. Flicking over the fronds with their beaks and shallow-diving from the surface. If one caught a starfish it was immediately hounded by half-a-dozen friends who were keen to have an ‘arm’ or two. Dramas like this that are played out as you paddle along unobtrusively and silently are what I like most about kayaking (as well as all the other stuff).

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Gull plus seafood lunch. Rick Stein would approve.

I consumed my cheese and pickle sandwiches on the foreshore at Portscatho. The weather wasn’t bad for December 5th…..it was completely windless and warm enough for me not to have cold feet, even though I was wearing two pairs of socks. My photos would have looked better if the sun was shining, however. A turquoise sea is always better than one which is battleship grey.

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Portscatho

My ornithologically outstanding day was nicely rounded off with a close encounter with two Purple Sandpipers, distant views of a couple of Slavonian Grebes and a Red-necked Grebe, and another dozen Loons.

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Purple Sandpiper with purfect camouflage.
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Great Northern Diver (Loon)

It’s not just the marine environment that provides the best wildlife encounters from a kayak. It’s nice to get close views of some of the commoner, but no less attractive, species that seem only to be tame enough for close approach in city parks. Like this Moorhen with its incongruously large, and green, feet.

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Oxford Moorhen

I snapped this squirrel in the middle of Oxford (from my kayak of course). I’m not entirely sure that the tree to which it was clinging wasn’t some sort of creature from Middle Earth. Those look like faces in its bark.

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Secret Squirrel
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That’s got to be an Ent from Fangorn, surely

 

December Dolphins

Much as I love footling about miles from the shore on a calm summer’s day with shearwaters and maybe the odd Storm Petrel zipping past, there are some cracking birds to encounter in SW England that arrive from the far north to spent the colder months around the coast. Ducks, divers, grebes and scoters. The shearwaters and petrels have gone.

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Offshore Paddling (me in Cobra Expedition just right of middle)

And these winter ducks  tend not to be quite so far offshore as the summer seabirds, which is handy because when the weather and water are cold I find offshore paddling a bit more intimidating. Even better, they seem to prefer sheltered bays as I suspect they dislike being battered by wind and waves as much as I do.

I just about managed to get my camera out of my dry bag as a couple of Long-tailed Ducks flew directly past me during a jaunt to Teignmouth. Not particularly spectacular to look at (although they are when in breeding plumage) but a favourite amongst birders as they are quite rare.

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Long-tailed Ducks

I encountered some of my favourite coastal birds at the tip of Nare Head in Southern Cornwall. Purple Sandpipers. Funnily enough they are only at home skipping about on barnacle-encrusted wave-pounded rocks, generally in fully exposed locations, so they buck the shelter-seeking trend. They are incredibly easy to overlook and I very nearly missed them despite paddling past only a few feet away.

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Purple Sandpipers

The birdworld winter king of the coast must be the Great Northern Diver (bad name). Called the Common Loon (good name) in America. They are the most widespread visiting Diver and probably the commonest. Their penchant for flatfish and crabs means they are often close to the shore. But it was a bit of a surprise to find one right outside the entrance to Padstow.harbour.

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Reluctant Loon

This was the tamest Loon out of many hundred I have observed from a kayak. It busily fished in the strong tidal current as I drifted around watching. Absolutely fantastic. It had to dodge out of the way of the Padstow to Rock ferry but didn’t seem at all fussed.

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Great Northern Diver

I thought cetacean watching was just about finished for the season.It’s definitely what REALLY gives me a buzz from a kayak but quite a challenge to achieve because not only is the season quite short, conditions suitable for heading out to see them on a flimsy sliver of plastic are patchy.Especially on the swell exposed North Cornwall coast.

I have had my eye on a paddle around Padstow bay and its offshore islands all year because I know it is quite productive for marine life, but have so far been put off by the relentlessly  lumpy sea conditions. To make it non-worrying and fun, and to make spotting the fins of cetaceans easier, I would be looking for a swell of less than two foot and a wind of less than 10 mph. Bingo! The forecast for both the 30 Nov and 1 Dec were perfect. Blooming cold but pure sunshine and little wind or swell.

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Mouth of the River Camel

On the first day chum Dave and I paddled the coast between Rock and Trevone past several miles of vertical black exposed cliff which managed to be quite bumpy even in the calm conditions.

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Gunver Head

My son Henry who was observing from a clifftop at Stepper point reported seeing a couple of ‘big splashes’ a mile offshore towards Gulland Rock. Mmmmm, what on earth might they be…dolphins? whales?

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Hezzer on lookout at Stepper point

My curiosity was ignited so on the second day I planned a thirteen mile circuit around Padstow Bay from Harlyn up to the mouth of the River Camel, then around Gulland Rock and straight down to the ‘Quies’ rocks off Trevose Head, then back to Harlyn. Using my Cobra Expedition kayak.

This would involve eight or nine miles of offshore paddling so I was hopeful of meeting up with one of the splashy things.

It was below freezing as I paddled out but the sun soon got to work to thaw out my toes. A grey seal was fast asleep ‘bottling’ a couple of miles out and clearly not expecting to be disturbed…it crash-dived with a mighty splash.

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Snoozy seal

A couple of miles north of Gulland Rock three fast-moving fins slashed the surface. I think I glimpsed the yellow side of a Common Dolphin but was not certain…they could just have been porpoises on a hunting ‘surge’.

It was calm enough for me to hear the characteristic ‘piff’ of a group of nine Puffing Pigs (aka Harbour Porpoises) long before I saw them. A good prolonged view as they swam away and then came back.

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Padstow Porpoise

I assumed another ‘puff’ behind me was also a porpoise, but was very pleased to see a largish looking solo dolphin passing at a leisurely speed. I tore after it but although I was paddling like a demon in a flurry of white water, the dolphin increased the distance between us even though it looked as though it was having the cetacean equivalent of a Sunday afternoon stroll. Of course I always keep well away so as not to disturb any of these superb creatures, but this is often academic as they frequently come over to check you out (although this one didn’t).

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Common Dolphin

The photograph I took of this dolphin confused me a bit as it seemed to show a pale flank patch and I started to get excited about the possibility of a White-sided Dolphin, but guidance from the folk at Seawatch confirm it as a Common Dolphin.

Anyway, dolphins and porpoises from a kayak in December. Fab.

The tide helped with crossing the open water to the fangs of rock off Trevose Head. This really is a sinister place and I got the impression it is not friendly to kayaks very often. In fact I would go so far as to say it is even more ‘exposed feeling’ than Land’s End. I have only ever paddled past here twice before.

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Trevose head
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Lifeboat Sation

I was quite pleased to get round into the shelter of Mother Ivey’s Bay, and the very impressive lifeboat station, before the easy paddle back to Harlyn.

I was sorry to miss out on Henry’s remarkable cetacean sighting while he was perched on top of the cliffs photographing peregrine falcons at Morwenstowe in North Cornwall. He observed a harbour porpoise which was entirely white!

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White Porpoise

This is apparently ultra rare and there have only been fifteen or so such sightings in the last century. The porpoise-loving fraternity got very excited. My attempts to go and see it by kayak were thwarted by strong winds (surprise,surprise). Another entry for my bucket list for next year!