Since the first phase of lockdown in the early Spring the horizon off the south Devon coast has been broken up by a load of gigantic ships. They draw the gaze because they are just so BIG….like the side of a cliff.
Although I would sooner be looking at a nugget of nature, these mothballed monsters provide a good target for a bit of an offshore paddle. They are at anchor two to three miles offshore, so perfect for a nice leisurely trip with a good chance of seeing some deep water wildlife.
Back in the late summer this Manx Shearwater flock chose the smooth water in the lee of the Marella Explorer to have a bit of a rest, a bit of a social, and a bit of a preen.
In amongst the hundreds of Manx was a single Balearic shearwater, a visitor from the Mediterranean. Not easy to spot with its rather unremarkable plumage, which is a variety of shades of brown (more like you might expect a British bird be). Nonetheless if you are a birder you will know that this is a very special creature.
There have been about ten of these mighty ships moored along the coast from Dartmouth to Teignmouth over the last six months.
Recent arrivals in Torbay are a fleet of four modestly proportioned cruise liners owned by Holland America Lines. The Niew Statendam hiding behind Brixham breakwater…….
And its slightly smaller sister ships Zaandam and Volendam sheltering a bit further into Torbay.
Around the northern rim of Torbay, past Hope’s Nose into Teignmouth Bay, a couple of real whoppers lie at rest.
This great slab of luxurious liner could accommodate the entire population of Holsworthy.
Ventura is big…….116,000 tons and nearly 300 metres long.
But not as big, and as grand, as the one behind.
The Queen Mary 2 is my favourite of all these moored-up monster ships. Not just because it is the biggest (nearly 150,000 tons and 350m long), but because it is owned by Cunard and has classic lines, looking a bit like a giant Titanic. So all a bit iconic.
It also has a bit of poke underneath the bonnet……it can slice through the sea at 30 knots….amazing.
These ships provide an unlikely backdrop to the normal sort of activities that go on a long this bit of coast…….
So although I’d sooner be absorbed in the thrill of watching a pod of splashing dolphins, these big boats provide a bit of eyeball entertainment.
Amazing….when I went to bed the forecast for the following day was wet and foggy for the whole of Devon and Cornwall. When I checked again at 5am it was rain in Plymouth, drizzle in Looe, ghastly in Fowey and……sunny and still in Penzance….wwhat?
My picnic was packed in superquick time (no chance to layer mayonnaise in the sandwiches) and I got my first glimpse of Mount’s Bay at about 7.30. It was so glass calm and I was so keen to get on the water I parked beside the sea at Marazion to save a ten minute drive to Penzance harbour. As a bonus the car park ticket machine was broken.
And the next seven hours were not only a feast for the eyeballs, they were a fest for the eardrums.
It consolidated my firmly held view that watching marine wildlife is best from a kayak.
The view from the seat of the kayak is second to none. An uninterrupted vista. This might seem like a statement of the obvious, but with any other craft there are distractions. Screens to check, bits of equipment to look at. Always the danger of looking in, and looking down. When you should be looking up and out. Looking for that fin.
A sailing boat has much of the view obstructed by the sail, and there is always the temptation of slipping below, clicking the kettle and sneaking a chunk of battenberg.
In a kayak the very fact that you have to paddle means you HAVE to spend the whole time looking up, and looking ahead. There is nothing else to do.
I have droned on about how the complete silence of a kayak means you can hear absolutely everything that dares to squeak within a mile radius, and today was the perfect example of how excellent a kayak is for listening to, and watching, the current boom of magical marine megafauna. Because it was staggeringly still.
In fact of the hundred or so big creatures I saw today, all but a few I heard before I saw. Puffs, splishes, splashes, sploshes, roars (of water), breaths, blasts.
Seven different sounds from the surface of the lake-like sea.
So, here they are:
1. The thoomph of a diving Gannet
Gannets are big birds, with a six foot wingspan.They dive onto shoals of surface fish from an extraordinary height and hit the surface hard. Despite assuming the shape of a missile as they strike the water, they send up quite a plume of spray and make quite a noise.
2. The slappy splash of a Sunfish.
Here is the normal view of a Sunfish. A sharp fin corkscrewing across the surface. But every so often they will dredge themselves out of apparent torpor and hurl themselves from the water and land back with a slap. It is a characteristic noise because they always land on their side so it lacks the depth of sound of all the other splashing creatures. I can now recognise it from quite a distance. I have never managed to photograph one breaching, although I was very close today.
3. The puff of a Porpoise.
Harbour Porpoises are the cetacean I encounter most often. They are outnumbered by Common Dolphins because dolphins go around in larger pods, but I see porpoises on many more days.
The majority I hear first, because they have a characteristic explosive breath. That’s why they used to be called Puffing Pigs off eastern USA.
4. The blow of a Common Dolphin
I REALLY like Common Dolphins, and a day with a dolphin encounter is very special day indeed. In fact everybody loves dolphins, and the recent seasonal surge in numbers around the coast has sparked off a huge demand for boat trips to go and see them. Certainly a bit of pestering by jetskis, some of whom have not been adhering to the rules about approaching wild creatures in the sea, and who have the manoeuvrability and speed to chase, and potentially really harass, the dolphins.
They (dolphins, not jetskis) feature in this list twice, for two different sounds. The first is their blow, which although is quieter than a porpoise (although the first breath after a dive is quite noisy), is somehow full of character. And because they go around in gangs there is a lot of characterful puffs going on!
Here’s today’s dolphins:
5. The crazy raking splash of a Giant Bluefin Tuna.
The noise is quite characteristic, and totally astonishing. Although I have heard it a lot recently, every time it generates a “what the heck was that?” response in my brain, and I have cricked my neck more often than reccommended.
It is an explosion of sound because the fish are travelling at such incredibly speed when they ambush their small fish prey from below. On this trip to Mount’s Bay I heard and saw about a hundred tuna splashes, but actually saw only about ten fish.
I have seen more Atlantic Bluefin Tuna exploding from the surface along the south coast of Cornwall and Devon in the last two weeks than ever before. This includes some really big fish that definitely cross the threshold (150kgs) to qualify them for the tag of GIANT Bluefin tuna.
Here’s a really big one. The Manx Shearwaters in the pic have a wingspan of just less than three feet, so that is some hefty fish!
6. The controlled and polite splashing of a Common Dolphin.
Although I like the crazed manner of Giant Tuna erupting from the surface, the splash of the dolphins appeals to me just a bit more, because dolphins are more interactive with kayakers than the amazing, but personality-less, tuna.
These dolphins below are being about as splashy as they ever get, but are still less wild and thrashing than the ultra high speed tuna.
There’s a bonus sound in this video clip if you listen closely….one of the dolphins has got a bit of a squeak when it breathes.
7. The prolonged blasting blow of a Minke Whale.
Hearing the blow of a whale, in SW England, has got to be the most thrilling sound a wildlife-watching kayaker can hear, by quite a long way.
It was my ambition for many years to hear and see one, and it took many years before I did. It’s all so wonderfully ludicrous…..who on earth goes looking for whales in a kayak in Devon and Cornwall. I don’t think there are many fellow kayakers in the whale club.
Today’s whale was, not unusually, very elusive. It was beyond my paddling limit as I already had a ten mile paddle back to Marazion (and was three miles offshore). This seems to happen to me a lot…I stop for a coffee break before paddling back and hear a whale blow another mile further out.
I heard it six or seven times and just glimpsed the long back surfacing twice. This is the only pic I could manage…the tip of a fin and a swirl of water.
To hear the blow a bit more clearly here’s a clip from one off Plymouth three weeks ago.
That sound is a bit special. It’s also very addictive.
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…….
Wow, what a world-class adventure. Hard to believe it’s only half an hour’s drive from where I live.
Finding a day suitable for a kayak trip to Lundy, twelve miles off the coast of North Devon, is very difficult. It is at the mouth of the Bristol Channel so there are big tides and big, swirly currents. It is also generally windy and is fully exposed to groundswell from the Atlantic.
Planning a one-way trip is challenging enough, but sea conditions suitable for paddling there and back in a day are very rare indeed. If you like a smooth ride, there has got to be virtually no wind, virtually no swell, and tides should be neap. Just a handful of days a year are suitable. If you like being thrown about a bit, there’s a few more.
It’s a thirty-mile trip but because you have to paddle at an angle across the tide the distance equivalent is quite a lot more.
So all in all, a pretty daft thing to do. And therefore irresistible to our motley posse of paddlers, who were not without a bit of experience of the sea. Simon, ex world champion surf kayaker. Jack, current runner-up junior world champion surf kayaker. Austen, seasoned paddler and sailor. Me, good at spotting seabirds.
Austen, Jack and Simon were in sea kayaks. I was in (on) my plastic recreational sit-on-top. Not as fast as a sea kayak but boy, is it comfortable. Very important on a very long trip.
We were on the water at Hartland Quay at 0630 (as planned!). Clear skies, light wind, not really any other sign of humanity. Apart from Hartland Quay Hotel, there are very few houses along the notoriously savage Hartland Heritage coast. No vapour trails, no boats or ships. No sign of a jetski. Good, good and good.
We headed out past Hartland Point lighthouse, where there is usually an impressive/ terrifying tide race.
We soon had Manx Sheawaters zipping past our kayaks, en route from their breeding islands off the Pembrokeshire coast (and also Lundy now) to feed somewhere off Land’s End, before returning to their nesting burrows at dusk.
Next on the wildlife list was the puff of a Porpoise, which was, as usual, difficult to spot. It’s quite a small creature in a very big sea.
Unlike Austen’s and my first (and only other) trip to Lundy thirteen years ago, visibility was very good. On the previous occasion we became enveloped in thick fog and nearly run down by a ship. We could hear the thud of its engine and the blast of its foghorn, but all we ever saw of it was its bow wave.
This sort of offshore paddling is not everyone’s cup of tea, but I absolutely love it. The wilderness experience combined with the anticipation of seeing some extreme wildlife is quite a thrill. Not to mention the benefits of a wee spot of exercise, I suppose.
Several miles out from Lundy we eyeballed our first Puffin. Looking good in bright sun and blue sea.
As we neared the island after three hours of paddling, we had to increase the paddling rate and battle through the Rat island tide race before we reached the flat sheltered water beneath the cliffs.
A few seals gave us the look. Perhaps they don’t see many kayakers out here. I’ve just noticed that this one has a red tag in its tail, so is probably a rescue seal from Cornwall Seal sanctuary. I’ll find out.
We hauled up on a shingle beach beside the slipway, and although it was only just after ten, we demolished lunch. I generally will not entertain the idea of lunch before midday, but these were exceptional circumstances. Here’s the spread….
Sharp-eyed blog readers amongst you may have just noticed, like me, that there are five lunchboxes laid out, but only four paddlers. The feet in the background give the game away. Hobbits need a second breakfast.
We wandered up the hill to the village and rehydrated with a shandy at the Marisco tavern, but it was soon time for the return leg.
Despite a solid forecast of virtually zero wind, we were all a bit edgy about the return leg (apart from Jack and Simon). Maybe it’s because we got caught in the Hartland Point tide race last time.
No need to worry, for the whole four-and-a-half hour trip back the surface was about as smooth as this stretch of water has ever been. Incredible.
And we came across more Puffins. Fifteen total. How fantastic to see these charismatic little seabirds in such ideal conditions. The reflections are almost as perfect as the original article above the surface.
Superlatives all round. The name Lundy is derived from the Norse word ‘Lundi’, meaning Puffin. Unfortunately Puffin numbers had crashed (down to thirteen pairs), until rats were eradicated from the island about fifteen years ago. The number of breeding seabirds, including Puffins, has increased exponentially since then. A fantastic conservation success story.
Smiles, and camera clicks, all round from the kayak team.
I struggled to drag myself away from Puffinfest and got a bit left behind.
The others plodded on towards the distant Devon coast.
We briefly stopped for a breather half way back. Land six miles in front, and six miles behind.
There is the potential for boredom on this sort of a trip, but only if you are not in tune with wildlife. The call went up from Austen….’Sunfish!’. Two Sunfish were flicking their way just beneath the surface, with dorsal fins waving about in typical fashion. Strange, strange fish…visitors from warmer waters.
I was starting to get greedy and muttered about how nice it would be to finish off the day with a pod of dolphins. As I spoke I saw Simon, who was away off to the south, looking hard to his right. A dolphin suddenly leapt clear of the water right behind him. Muscle fatigue disappeared instantly as we powered over towards them.
At least a dozen, probably double that number, were scattered over a wide area and we were surrounded by the sound of splashing.
Wow, yet again.
Once through the tail end of the Hartland tidal current we had a lake-like paddle back to the slipway at Hartland Quay for the final mile.
Two consecutive days of full-on Dolphin action, including two large groups which may have qualified as superpods. It is very difficult to estimate the number of individuals in a confused mass of water, especially when one’s grey matter is on the verge of blowing a fuse with all the fizzing excitement.
This sort of stuff was way beyond my wildest dreams when I started offshore sea kayaking, but if you can be bothered to paddle miles and miles offshore for hours and hours, sooner or later you are going to come across some action.
Most likely a quiet little Porpoise puffing its way quietly along….
but every so often, especially in late summer, you are in for a bit of a treat.
DAY 1: Berry Head, Brixham
My offshore paddle beyond Berry Head was initially halted by a bank of fog that rolled in when I was a mile off the headland. I had just seen a small pod of dolphins but they were suddenly consumed in the murk, and I had to navigate back to the headland using the GPS. Being out of sight of land is always a bit unsettling, but the greatest danger is being run over by some moron in a speedboat (or jetski).
The mist dispersed so I headed off again, directly out from Berry Head.
The surface was initially a bit choppy, but smoothed off as the mist thinned, and I heard splashing behind me that came from a small pod of Common Dolphins. One had an unusually pale dorsal fin:
Sights such as this ensure that you will be planning your next kayaking trip the minute you get home.
I was ‘checked out’ by four ‘Bonxie’ Great Skuas. Migrating seabirds always fly a bit closer to the coast during conditions of poor visibility, and these are on their way to spend the winter in the Atlantic after (probably) breeding in Scotland.
Although the activity went quiet my aim was to paddle exactly five miles from Berry Head. When my GPS got precisely to 5.00 miles I stopped for a coffee and crunch cream. And heard a distant continuous splashy roar that was like surf breaking on a beach, coming from further out to sea. At the limit of vision I could just see a mass of dark shapes appearing at the surface.
Fifteen minutes of flat-out paddling later……..
I estimated 50-70 in the group and the general rule is that the actual number of dolphins is twice what you think. So probably 100+, and 100 qualifies as a superpod. Another first for thelonekayaker.
Two relaxed hours of paddling later, and another small pod of dolphins and a porpoise or two, I was back amongst (sort of) civilisation.
Tombstoners and a busy bank-holiday Brixham Breakwater beach.
DAY 2: Mount’s Bay, Penzance
I was meeting Henry’s friend Josh at Penzance at 7.30am. He was dead keen to see dolphins, so the pressure was on. I generally don’t go far offshore unless the wind forecast is less than 5mph. Any more and the kayak bounces around too much, you can’t hear blows and splashes above the sound of the breaking wavelets, and you can’t see a fin so well when the surface is not smooth.
I am also wary in taking anyone out far offshore in a kayak for a trip which could easily be twenty miles and seven to eight hours long. Not just because of safety, but it’s not everyone’s cup of tea, especially if you don’t see any dolphins, which is very possible because they are so wide-ranging.
Anyway, Josh seemed up for it, and we got off to a good start by seeing Eddie the resident Eider duck (in eclipse plumage), about a minute after getting on the water. The first one Josh had seen in UK.
Over the next two hours we swung three miles offshore past Mousehole and saw just one porpoise. The sea was choppy, with small whitecaps, and was steely grey under cloudy skies. Not great, especially as the wind was behind us which would make the long paddle back even longer.
But everything changed in an instant.
Half-a-mile ahead ten Gannets were circling and diving from a huge height. I knew that with such intense activity there would almost certainly be dolphins involved so we powered forward. Fins at the surface. Phew. Pressure off. Even better the sea suddenly smoothed off and the sun came out!
Josh was as enthralled and as excited I thought he would be. Listen to this clip carefully.
As the pod moved off we heard a persistent distant splashing a lot further out, so of course could not resist a bit of investigation…… it was a huge pod of dolphins spread over a large area, with hundreds of Manx Shearwaters zipping past and loafing about on the surface. Offshore kayak wildlife heaven. The shearwaters alone would have probably made the whole trip worthwhile.
We spent a long time watching and enjoying, basically sat right in the middle of the action. It was a feast for the ears as much as the eyes, surrounded by a permanent sloshing and splashing and puffing. Common Dolphins are my favourite cetacean for that precise reason…they are so energetic and active.
And then we heard the blow of a whale. Loud and long and a blast that sounds like it is coming out of a very wide tube. It was not easy to work out precisely where the noise came from, so we stared in the general direction, and wished the dolphins would quieten down a bit (how amazing is that….not being able to hear a whale for the sound of splashing dolphins!). Nothing more for a long while, then another non-directional blast of breath and that was it….we never saw it, although Josh thinks he saw a long back in front of a curved fin for an instant.
But come on, Josh, it’s a bit much to see a whale on your first ever offshore wildlife kayak trip.
So he had to settle for a dolphin superpod instead. Tough.
I had been watching a very black-looking thunderstorm gathering in the south. We were ninety minutes paddling time from the shore and it is not a great idea to be stuck out in the middle of the sea holding a carbon-fibre paddle if there is lightning around.
We started to head in as the first drops of rain started to fall (so a bit late, probably), but the dolphins hadn’t finished with us.
The biggest dolphin of the pod swum right in between us….
and it then escorted us away by riding our bow wave for a few minutes as we sped towards the shore.
More distraction when we were a couple of miles from the security of Mousehole. An unusually large pod of Harbour Porpoises, probably in excess of twenty. Same routine, we just quietly approached and sat completely still and the action ( quiet and porpoisey, unlike the animated dolphins) happened around us…..often behind us!
We rolled into Mousehole for lunch (sandwiches) on the harbour wall in the rain, and headed back to Penzance as it eased off, narrowly avoiding getting tombstoned.
One more wildlife nugget awaited us as we arrived back at Penzance Harbour after our seventeen mile, seven hour trip. Tucked in amongst the Turnstones roosting at high tide was this cracking Knot, still with a wash of orange summer plumage. A migrant from the high arctic.
So, two very large pods of dolphins on two consecutive days in two different counties, both probably exceeding the magical number of a hundred to make them superpods.
We’ll start off below the surface and work upwards, culminating in an encounter to match anything you will see in the natural world, anywhere.
High summer means a jellyfish boom in the waters around Devon and Cornwall. The lack of rain and calm conditions has made the water crystal clear, so the jellyfish look even better than usual.
Following record numbers during the spring, there are still plenty of Barrel Jellyfish around, up to about four foot long.
Compass jellies are my favourite, because of there intricate colour scheme and the fact that they are ‘proper’ jellies because, unlike Barrel jellies, they have a sting.
New kids on the block for July are Moon Jellies. How appropriate for the anniversary of the lunar landings. They occur in huge numbers and concentrate around the current lines.
As usual there are plenty of seals dotted along the coast, concentrating in their favourite rocky haulouts. There is no doubt they are increasingly tolerant of humans, it’s dogs they really don’t like. They have very acute hearing and a dog barking half-a-mile away can make them more agitated than a kayaker bobbing about a few feet away.
They show only a passing interest in waterskiers……..
and are quite happy to be the stars of the show:
A big hazard for seals is fast moving craft. This injury is probably caused by an impact with a boat, although it could conceivably be the result of a fight.
I was thrilled to meet up with this Harbour Seal along the south Cornwall coast. Harbour Seals are rare in SW England, the majority are the bigger, and arguably less attractive Grey Seals.
Cetacean viewing from my kayak is my favourite occupation, because it is so challenging. Most porpoises, dolphins and whales hunt miles from the shore so just getting out to where they might be is not easy, and when eventually a day comes along which is calm enough for you to make the considerable effort to get out there, they are so widely scattered that you almost certainly won’t see them.
A smooth surface is the key to success and this month I have been lucky enough to see three different species: Harbour Porpoise, Common Dolphin and Risso’s Dolphin. I might even call it three and-a-half because a glimpse of a big back disappearing below the water followed by a big swirl while down at Penzance was almost certainly a Minke Whale. If only I had looked round a quarter of a second earlier…….
Guillemots and Razorbills have completed their breeding on the sea cliffs and have now headed far out to sea. Just a few stragglers are reluctant to depart.
Manx Shearwaters are constant companions offshore, zipping past the kayak in compact groups, or resting on the surface.
I have been very pleased to have seen several Oystercatcher chicks along the coast this year. Like other waders, which are all declining, they are ground-nesting and so disturbance by dogs is a big issue.
This pair chose a little rocky promontory to raise their two youngsters.
We are going to take a jaunt inland up the rivers now, before returning to the coast for my grand finale.
I am very excited to have seen this next little wildlife gem recently. I was very familiar with Water Voles when I was a teenager in Berkshire, as you can see from my entries in my wildlife diary 1975. In those days I sported a luxuriant (but greasy) mop of hair and my knees were composed of bone, not titanium. You could guarantee a handful of water vole sightings during a short visit to the Thames or one of its tributaries.
Then Mink came along and ate nearly all of them.
This is the first Water Vole I have seen for decades. It was beside the very upper reaches of the Thames, so just about (or very nearly) qualifies for SW England. Even if it doesn’t quite qualify it is GREAT to see.
I took this next video clip, of a very similar-looking, but very much larger herbivore beside the upper reaches of an estuary which was definitely in Southwest England.
A Beaver enjoying breakfast.
We now float off downstream, back to the open coast.
Peregrine falcons are not uncommon, but to actually see one making a kill is exceptional. If you see one in hunting mode, or just starting a stoop, it will probably be out of sight (either round a headland or disappeared into the distance) by the time it strikes its prey. Even if you see the final moments of the plunge, they frequently miss.
I had only picked Jed up from the station in Exeter a couple of hours previously, so I was very pleased to be able to show him a Peregrine, as a fledgling snickered at its passing parent. I told him to watch that passing pigeon closely, just in case the falcons had a ‘go’ at it.
They certainly did. The adult and young Peregrine stooped in a shallow dive at the pigeon, there was a mid-air scuffle of wings for a split second, and then the struggling pigeon was just about scrambled to the rocks on the shore, secured in the talons of the peregrine that was losing height fast with the weight.
All in a few seconds, and a hundred yards away, and as usual I was hoping for an action replay to work out exactly what just happened. Looking at my pics later helped.
It is a juvenile Peregrine holding the pigeon (streaked breast, not barred). It looks as though the pigeon is a youngster as well (no white flashes on its neck), so was maybe easier to catch.
I’m pretty sure the young Peregrine actually caught the pigeon itself, although I might have expected the adult bird to have made the catch, and then passed it to its offspring as part of its training. I think the young bird had already progressed on to making its own ‘kills’, or perhaps this was its very first, and amazingly successful, effort!
I’m also pretty sure I saw the adult actually herd the pigeon in the direction of the young falcon because it was flying in the opposite direction a few seconds before the stoop.
Peregrines have a notch in their upper mandible to nip the spinal cord of their avian victims to kill them outright. This young bird didn’t do that (probably hadn’t had that lesson yet) so the unfortunate pigeon was still very much alive, and still flapping, as the Peregrine takes it behind a rock and out of sight to deal with it.
Here is the action again slowed down even further.
Fantastic. One of the great spectacles of the natural world. In my opinion right up there with things like seeing a Lion taking an antelope. Maybe even better, because it happened right here on our ‘doorstep’ and I suspect fewer people have seen a peregrine make a kill than a lion. All played out as we watched from the comfort of a kayak seat. And a completely random sight that only comes from putting in the hours of paddling. In my case, many thousands of hours. In Jed’s case, an hour and-a-half. Lucky.
My first trip out to the legendary lighthouse of 2019.
As is typical of me I arrived beach too early, and it was far too breezy. I paddled out from Cawsand in a steady force 4 NE wind and started to get very cold feet about heading out to the Eddystone. Fortunately I had sneaked a final look at the wind forecast before I left home and was as confident as I could be that this was just a flow of cool air off the land that would ease off as the sun got to work. Much of the day was supposed to be just about windless.
Even so, I hugged the coast round to Rame Head and checked in with the NCI lookout on the headland above before gingerly starting on the ten mile crossing to Eddystone.
The Queen Elizabeth was still at anchor in the outer sound:
The wind dropped only slowly and the first five miles were quite bouncy. Manx Shearwaters flicked past, and a few sat about on the sea.
I started to relax as the sun warmed my back and the surface smoothed off.
There were quite a variety of jellyfish today: a handful of Barrel Jellies, lots of Compass jellies and one or two Moon and Blue.
Breakfast was taken on board. Not another soul for many miles around.Of course I wanted to see some fins breaking the water and my hopes were raised by the slightly larger number of patrolling Gannets than I had seen offshore recently. As usual they came over and checked me out. Large objects at the surface tend to eat fish so can mean a meal to a Gannet. Unfortunately for them , I don’t . Not for breakfast anyway.
However by the time I arrived at the Eddystone reef I had seen no large marine creatures. However I was amazed to see huge numbers of silvery-coloured fish over the reef. I thought these were Mullet but close inspection of the pics later showed they were Bass. Probably thousands of them!
I don’t think I’ve ever seen a single Bass under the water before (which wasn’t on the end of a hook). Fortunately for them they were managing to outwit the several boatloads of sport fishermen around (who had not observed them below the surface).
Time to head back towards terra firma…after a quick selfie of course;
The four hour paddle back was absolutely superb, and my absolute favourite type of sea kayaking. Cloudless sky, sun behind, ten miles offshore, completely smooth surface and no wind so that if anything appeared broke the surface within half a mile I was going to see it, and if anything splashed or blew within two miles I was going to hear it.
The excitement started steadily. Three porpoises.
This bit of sea a mile or two north of Eddystone seems to be a cetacean hotspot, because four dolphins appeared straight in front of me….two adults and two juveniles. In superb conditions and nicely illuminated by the sun.
I dragged myself away and stopped for lunch a few miles further on, and was caught on the horns of a dilemma when I heard splashing far far behind me (where I had paddled half an hour before). Surely dolphins, but should I go back, and add on another three miles to an already hefty trip?
Of course I had to, they might be an ultra rare species. Needless to say they weren’t, it was about ten more Common Dolphins, with a handful of energetic juveniles in amongst the pod.
Added to this was another porpoise and a single speeding dolphin, and then it all went quiet after the half-way reef.
Apart from the odd Guillemot,
a Common Scoter drake that was trying to conceal itself in amongst a raft of Manx Shearwaters,
and the oil-tanker ‘Emma’ (not the name that would come immediately to mind for an oil tanker) thundering past on its way out of Plymouth sound.
The Queen Elizabeth had left in early afternoon too, with blasts on its horn so loud it made my ribcage vibrate and fillings rattle at a distance of nearly ten miles.
Sitting amongst a flock of thousands of offshore seabirds as they sleep and preen and croon is a magical experience. I have mentioned before that creatures of the open sea, whether below or above the water, tend to show little fear so when you are in a kayak you literally can sit right in the middle of them and they just get on with what they are doing. Out in the open sea everyone and everything is equal and the animals seem to know that. Of course me in my little kayak is by far the most inept creature for miles around, but I do my best to act big.
I encountered this huge flock of Manx Shearwaters during a recent circuit of Mount’s Bay, setting out from Penzance. Where the tidal current starts to kick in between Mousehole and Lamorna the availability of fish or sandeels (or whatever is on the menu) increases and the sea creatures gather.
I had an early start and was well offshore by the time the Scillonian III passed en route to St.Mary’s, Isles of Scilly.
Just about the first seabird I encountered was this solo Puffin, with another five zipping past my ear later.
The bird numbers steadily increased with cackling parties of Guillemots and Razorbills full of the joys of Spring.
During a coffee break I saw what looked like a dark cloud in the distance further out, so I paddled over to investigate. The blurr eventually resolved into a milling mass of hundreds (probably thousands) of Manx Shearwaters. They would swirl about, large groups would shallow plunge into the water onto a shoal of sprats (or something similar) and then they would circle off and repeat the performance over a different patch of sea. And all around were further large groups just chilling out.
Manx Shearwaters aren’t particularly impressive to look at if you are a non-birder. Compared to a Puffin for example, although if you took away a Puffins brightly coloured beak it too would look rather more anonymous….like this juvenile I photographed a couple of years ago (near Eddystone).
However their characters become very much more colourful if you know a bit about their natural history. They spend the winter off the coast of Brazil and in early Spring make the 7,000 mile journey back to their nesting burrows in islands off the coast of the UK. Today’s birds probably nest on the welsh islands of Skomer and Skokholm which are home to almost 100,000 pairs, or maybe from the increasing (thanks to rat eradication) number on Lundy, where several thousand pairs now nest.
They only return to their burrows under cover of darkness because if they came back during the day they might end up as lunch for a Great Black-backed Gull. They are so slow and ungainly on land they are a sitting duck.
At dawn they set off on a multi-hundred mile circuit which takes them down the north coast of Cornwall and to feeding grounds like the one where I was currently sitting.
The daily flypast of hundreds of thousands of these fantastic seabirds along the coast of southwest England is one of the UK’s greatest wildlife spectacles, but hardly anyone ever sees it. Probably because it occurs early in the morning and is usually miles out to sea. And who now bothers to make the effort to stare out to sea in the hope of seeing something which could well be out of sight (or at best a mass of tiny dots through binoculars) , when there is something much more here and now on a screen in front of them?
If you want to get a proper insight into the character of this remarkable species, sitting amongst them and in a kayak, and just watching and listening, is the way to do it.
I dropped in to Mousehole harbour to eat my catastrophically dull sandwiches. It’s desperately difficult to be creative during confectionary construction at 5am and taste buds are doomed to be disappointed. The struggle through the doorsteps of bread was offset by vista…Mousehole has got to be the most perfect mini-harbour in Cornwall.
One more interesting item of trivia about Manx Shearwaters which could mean you avoid the wooden spoon at the next pub quiz ….their scientific name is Puffinuspuffinus!
A couple of days of superb paddling in light winds…..yesterday was an exploration of the Dart estuary from Totnes to Dartmouth and back with Dave, and today was a solo offshore paddle from Fowey, with wildlife sightings (once again) way beyond my expectations for March.
The Dart paddle was a fairly hefty nineteen miles but cunning tidal planning worked in our favour and even allowed a very civilised tea break at Dittisham.
The sun did its best to put in an appearance as we neared Dartmouth, resulting in dangerously high humidity levels in our drysuits.
Of course we allowed time for a wee bit of trainspotting (it was just coincidence we arrived at Kingswear at exactly as the same time as the train…honest.)
Heading back up the river we had to frequently evade the tourist boats who tend to ignore inconsequential craft such as ours.
Wildlife highlight of the day was this exceptional sighting of three Harbour Seals hauled out on a pontoon. Harbour seals are rare in SW England with just one or two hanging about up some of the creeks, and I have only ever come across a handful, and never seen more than one at a time. The familiar seal in the area is the much bigger Atlantic Grey seal. Harbour seals live along the east coast of England and around Scotland, but maybe this little cluster means they are now spreading this way.
There was actually more than three because I saw what I thought were a couple of Harbour seals in the water, as well as a couple of Greys.
This morning I started idiotically early in the morning because the wind forecast was exceptionally light and I might just be able to do an offshore paddle out of Fowey, an unusual occurrence in March.
It was misty and murky with intermittent drizzle, but the marine wildlife was buzzing. Fulmars zipped past my earholes…
and Guillemots and Razorbills sat about and dived for sprats…
Below the surface lurked the spooky ghostly white shape of a Barrel Jellyfish.
Gannets filed past and I watched each one closely. I have mentioned before that in places like this if a Gannet circles around it is probable that there is a Porpoise swimming below. Today, it was certainly the case…..with Gannets thumping into the water beside the feeding Porpoises. Watch this slomo carefully..(Fowey behind)
One porpoise passed by very close. Unlike dolphins they are not inquisitive and pay no attention at all to boats and kayaks. They just get on with what they are doing and if that happens to mean they come close to where you are sitting, so be it.
As I watched the porpoise, the first flock of Manx Shearwaters that I have seen this year winged past a bit further out:
I stopped for a cup of coffee and essential nutrient supplementation in the shape of two chunks of Raisin and Biscuit Yorkie, and had a final scan (with eyeballs only) out to sea. The grey skies and smooth water were the perfect combination for seeing a black fin break the water. I was just on the point of turning back when I thought I might have glimpsed a couple of black specs, which then disappeared. I paddle towards the area for five minutes and saw nothing more. I was turning for home once again when the same thing happened so I once again paddled out to investigate.
Amazingly I came across a little pod of five or six Common Dolphins that were swimming along very quietly, more in the manner of Porpoises. However, being Common Dolphins one had to hurl itself out of the water and land with a bit of a splash, because that is what Common Dolphins do best.
They cruised past the front of my kayak without a second glance, maybe because there was one small calf in the pod, and they don’t seem to be so investigative when there is a very young dolphin to look after, or maybe protect.
After the group of half a dozen had past, another pair came past….both adults, and one with a very pronounced dark moustache stripe (or should it be called a beard?)
Today’s excellent variety of wildlife was nicely rounded off by this beautifully lilac Sea urchin at the mouth of Fowey estuary, exposed by the exceptionally low tide.
My second series of assorted images taken from the kayak seat from all around Devon and Cornwall.
Am I getting paranoid or did this Newlyn trawler really pile on the power as it approached me to throw up as big a wash as possible for me to negotiate? It certainly throttled right back after it had gone past:
A few offshore seabirds for the serious ornithologists:
….listen to the electrifying call of the fastest creature on the planet, the Peregrine Falcon.
Autumn is definitely upon us, so offshore paddling is replaced by exploration of the rivers. Tough.