Seabird Frenzy

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.

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Scillonian III past Mousehole

Just about the first seabird I encountered was this solo Puffin, with another five zipping past my ear later.

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Mousehole Puffin

The bird numbers steadily increased with cackling parties of Guillemots and Razorbills full of the joys of Spring.

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Guillemots
Razorbill pair
Razorbill pair (having a bit of a chat)

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).

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Juvenile Puffin

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?

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Manx Shearwater

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.

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Shearwater catching forty

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.

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Mousehole

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 Puffinus puffinus!

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Manx Shearwater… hugely overlooked and understated

 

 

Foggy Fowey Dolphins and Porpoises

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.

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Dart estuary

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.

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Dave and tea shop

The sun did its best to put in an appearance as we neared Dartmouth, resulting in dangerously high humidity levels in our drysuits.

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Decent Dartmouth

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.P1260473

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.

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Dart Harbour Seal trio

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…

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Fulmar

and Guillemots and Razorbills sat about and dived for sprats…

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Razorbill (nearly in breeding plumage)

Below the surface lurked the spooky ghostly white shape of a Barrel Jellyfish.

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Barrel Jelly

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)

 

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Incoming Gannet!

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:

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Pack of Shearwaters

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.

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Common Dolphin

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?)

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Adult Common Dolphins

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.

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Sea Urchin

Spring has got off to a flying start.

 

 

The Sensational South-West Coast (part 2)

My second series of assorted images taken from the kayak seat from all around Devon and Cornwall.

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Gig boat race at Fowey
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Starfish, Fowey
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Autumnal Calstock on Tamar estuary

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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:

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Manx (top) and Balearic Shearwater
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Sooty (top) and Manx Shearwater
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Dipper

….listen to the electrifying call of the fastest creature on the planet, the Peregrine Falcon.

 

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Kingfisher
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Oystercatcher
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Flying Scotsman, Teignmouth
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Common Dolphins and St.Michael’s Mount
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Common Dolphin calf
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Minke Whale, Mount’s Bay

 

Autumn is definitely upon us, so offshore paddling is replaced by exploration of the rivers. Tough.

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River Tamar
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River Tamar

 

 

 

Mousehole Whale

After a long drive to Penzance I was thrilled to see Mount’s Bay was much smoother than the wind forecast had predicted. However knowing it was probably just the calm of the early morning I was on the water in double-quick time.

Within a minute of exiting Penzance Harbour the omens for a good day of wildlife-watching were favourable… several dark patches at the surface were shoals of sprats or sandeels, and Eddie the resident Eider duck was half way through a crab-shaped breakfast.

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Eider plus (legless) crab

As I paddled quietly passed the rocks by Jubilee Pool a little posse of Dunlin were catching forty on their migration south.

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Dunlin trio

I paddled directly offshore at quite a lick because I knew it was probable that sea conditions would only be favourable for an hour or two. A hat-trick of swans which would probably be more at home on the Thames at Henley looked a bit incongruous in the middle of the bay.

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Penzance bay

A couple of miles out where the offshore tidal current shears past the more static waters of Mount’s bay the action started to hot up. Flocks of Manx Shearwaters cruised around while some were resting on the surface.

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Manx Shearwaters

 

Amongst the throng was a single Balearic Shearwater which at one stage flew directly towards me, zipping past a few feet away.

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Balearic Shearwater

Had I turned for home these sightings alone would have made my day worthwhile. It was a good thing I didn’t. A couple of miles off St. Michael’s Mount I saw a sparkle as the sun glinted off the fins of a pod of cetaceans. Common Dolphins, which I carefully approached. A lone porpoise popped up once and puffed as I drew close to the dolphins

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Common Dolphins and St. Michael’s Mount

As usual they came over to investigate and I saw it was a nursery group of about twenty in total with quite a few calves and juveniles sticking close to mum as usual.

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Dolphin and youngster

 

Two interesting observations were that one was very pale grey, and one adult had a moderately mangled fin which was probably caused by a boat injury or being caught in a net.

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Pale dolphin
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Dolphin with damaged fin

It was superbly relaxed conditions for viewing with smooth sea and hardly any wind so I just watched the action. Every so often the whole lot would speed off and a couple jumped really high but as usual I missed the action with the camera. This is the best I could manage:

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Semi-jumping dolphins

As I ate my breakfast (muesli and granola mix) in the company of the dolphins I kept glimpsing what looked like wafting black smoke further out to sea, and then realised it was vast numbers of shearwaters circling about low over the water. More than I had ever seen before in one place.

So I stoked up the boilers and set off out to investigate at high speed, because usually the feeding event has finished by the time I arrive on the scene. I was very flattered when the dolphin pod came over to benefit from my pathetic bow wave. I fumbled the GoPro onto my head as quickly as possible:

 

 

 

Exciting stuff, especially as the calves seemed to be jumping and surging as enthusiastically as their parents. Look at this slomo, are those dolphin twins?

 

 

 

Incredibly, en route to the seabird feeding frenzy I passed another pod of common dolphins consisting of fifteen sturdy looking individuals which I think were a pack of male dolphins. Even more interestingly, several did the bellyflopping breathing action which is maybe just so they can have a bit more of a look around above the surface. As visibility in the water wasn’t great today it certainly would have provided them with a bit more of a view.

 

 

 

I had my first effort at underwater photography of the dolphins but I wouldn’t say it was a raging success.

 

 

 

Phew, excitement overload. But I could sense better was yet to come because the vast numbers of feeding seabirds meant large amounts of baitfish which would also bring in other predators. In fact I thought it was tuna splashing at the surface as I drew near to the action, but it turned out to be the shearwaters shallow diving onto the baitfish from a few feet up.

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Quite a lot of shearwaters

A couple of miles off Mousehole I passed a stationary yellow boat containing a load of fishermen, and started to converge with Shearwater II,  a catamaran yacht owned by Marine Discovery who run wildlife watching trips from Penzance, as it was heading further offshore.

As I was watching the yacht there was a great breathy blast and a fullgrown (it seemed pretty big anyway) Minke Whale surfaced between the two of us. Blinking heck. It surfaced again in the distance towards Penzance and then looked like it had turned to come back.

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Minke whale and Penzance

It duly obliged and surfaced again just behind Shearwater II, scenically passing in front of the circular cave in the background from which the village of Mousehole gets its name.

 

 

 

The it came back again. You can hear its breath in this video clip:

 

 

 

Of course I was hoping for it to surface  right beside (ideally not on top of) my kayak but it appeared to have moved on. They cover a lot of distance between breaths and there is absolutely no point in chasing after them  in a kayak because they move so fast and are just about out of sight after surfacing a couple of times.

There was plenty of other wildlife to hold my attention. The thousands of Manx Shearwaters intermittently rested on the surface and were conveniently settled  in a long line so I could paddle along in front trying to pick out any rarer species, in the manner of an inspection at a military parade.

About one in two hundred were the smoky-brown coloured Balearic Shearwaters. Not that impressive to look at if you are not a ‘birder,’ but if you are you will know it is always fantastic to see one because they are a globally threatened species.

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Balearic Shearwater

I hit the jackpot when I spotted a larger chocolate-coloured shearwater trying to be inconspicuous amongst its smaller relatives. A Sooty Shearwater! This is a proper offshore species that I had never seen from my kayak till last year, and have never seen sitting on the water around the UK. (the last one I saw like this was off New Zealand):

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Sooty Shearwater

As I was sat enjoying the seabird flock supping a cup of coffee a couple of miles out to sea, the cloud drifted over and the wind suddenly started to lift. Fortunately I had allowed for this in my action plan, which is precisely why I had come to this particular stretch of coast today. It seems to be about the best place to see deepwater species relatively close to the shore, as well as being relatively protected from wind and swell. I think there is also a good interface between currents about one and a half to two miles from the coast here which provides a good concentration of baitfish.

I had not seen the last of the whale, as it was working its way up and down the current interface. I thought it was still about because the shearwaters kept getting very excited. Interestingly it was only shearwaters and not Gannets because the baitfish involved were very small and Gannets prefer larger individual fish to target.

 

 

 

It then disappeared and I paddled a bit faster towards Mousehole as the wind steadily increased. The whale then appeared in amongst the shearwaters.

 

 

 

and to finish off with surfaced a couple of times relatively close by when the sea was beginning to look a bit less friendly. No boats or anyone else within a mile.

 

 

 

Buzzing with adenaline I scorched back past St. Clement’s Isle and got a sort of resigned look from the resident seals who assumed I was another idiotic kayaker who was going to frighten them in to the sea. Idiotic maybe, but I make an effort to keep well away from resting seals.

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Mousehole seal

On the final stretch back to Penzance harbour the wildlife eased off a bit giving me time to appreciate a bit of scenery. Just the cheerful ‘kirrick’ call of migrating Sandwich terns.

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Newlyn harbour
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Penzance

This was my sixth whale seen from kayak in SW England. Four Minkes, one Humpback, one possible Sei. Autumnal weather with gales are now forecast so it’s back to creek paddling for the foreseeable. Hopefully there will be a few more windows of calm weather while the sea is still bursting with baitfish so I can enjoy a bit more of this kind of stuff:

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Common Dolphins
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Common Dolphin with small calf
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Common Dolphin with ?twins (maybe just nursery chums)
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Minke Whale

 

 

 

Blue Sharks at the Eddystone

From a kayaking perspective the Eddystone has got it all: remoteness, wilderness, isolation, challenge, mysteriousness and the possibility of a sensational wildlife encounter. This is where I met my BIG whale two years ago:

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(probable) Sei Whale

and an ultra-rare Wilson’s Petrel last year:

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Wilson’s Petrel

and the only place I have ever seen any superb White-beaked dolphins.

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White-beaked Dolphins.

It’s not just wildlife that grab’s the attention….. on my first trip for 2018 out to Eddystone a few weeks ago I wasn’t aware that Thursday morning is wargames day and the passing frigates don’t seem to be too happy about a little yellow kayak messing up their planned path of attack.

 

 

I think I’ll stick to other days of the week from now on.

Interestingly I saw absolutely no cetaceans on this particular day (the first time in fifteen visits to Eddystone by kayak), and I have no doubt it was because of the loud pings of the sonar from the warships which I could hear emanating from the water sounding like a stone bouncing across the ice of a frozen pond. At one stage there were whistles as well….all a bit spooky. I could still hear all this noise pollution going on when the ships were a good five miles away, although I suppose they could have been coming from a submarine lurking only a few feet below me.

I doubt if there were any dolphins or porpoises within twenty miles of that racket.

At least I had a fantastic encounter with a couple of Puffins on this first trip, one of which was extraordinarily tame and paddled right up to the front of my kayak for a bit of a look.

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Eddystone Puffins
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Eddystone Puffin close encounter

The weather was stunning on my most recent trip a couple of days ago. Sunny and still and warm enough to just be wearing a vest beneath my lifejacket.

As usual virtually every Gannet I passed, and there must have been several hundred, diverted from their flight path and circled around me once before giving up on me as a source of a fishy snack.

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Gannet

Hundreds of Manx Shearwaters flashed past at eye level, some only feet away, and amongst the rafts of resting birds were one or two of the very much more uncommon Balearic Shearwaters, the first I had seen this summer.

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Balearic Shearwater

It’s a twelve mile paddle out from Plymouth sound to the Eddystone lighthouse, so quite a commitment. I do my homework thoroughly and know precisely what the tidal currents and the weather, particularly the wind, are doing. I will only go if the wind is forecast to be less than seven or eight mph all day. In fact today looked perfect because the wind was going to be light northerly in the morning, so helping me on my way out, before turning southwesterly to aid my paddle back. Perfect.

Today I called in with Rame Head NCI to report my journey plan and did a radio check with them.

I couldn’t see the lighthouse initially because the visibility was only about five miles so I had to keep on course using my GPS, but it soon cleared so I could navigate using eyeballs.

On the way out I saw and heard, a lot of Porpoises. In fact the total for the day was twenty-two, the majority on the outward trip. It’s funny how all wildlife seems to be more active in the morning and goes a bit quiet after lunch, when everything seems to go a bit sleepy .

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Porpoise

A sturdy fishing boat from Penzance passed close in front of me as I approached the lighthouse.P1150175

As usual the last couple of miles were interminable and I kept having to check the speedometer on my GPS to make sure I was still actually moving.

But after four and a half hours of paddling I was beneath the enigmatic lighthouse:

 

 

I didn’t stop for a rest because there were a lot of recreational fishing boats around, but aimed to get back to less cluttered waters in the middle of nowhere to stop for lunch. I wonder how many people would consider the Eddystone lighthouse with half-a-dozen boats nearby to be a bit claustrophobic.

As I settled in to chew my way through a couple of dried out ham sandwiches, I saw a fin sweeping at the surface only a few yards away. Two or three feet in front of the moving fin was another cut the surface which was presumably a dorsal fin.

 

OK it wasn’t that big and wasn’t that dramatic but this was clearly a small shark (about five foot long), and a close look at the caudal fin shows that it is clearly blue, so I’m pretty sure that this is a Blue Shark.

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Blue Shark caudal fin

Nearby was another, about the same size. I’ve seen this sort of thing way offshore before but never got a definite diagnosis on the species before. This is the first Blue Shark I have seen from my kayak.

The (very) long paddle back was quite quiet although my interest was just about maintained by a lot of Compass Jellyfish just below the surface. The most attractive of the UK jellyfish.

 

Seawatch National Whale and Dolphin Week 2018

After my spectacular failure to see a single cetacean during last year’s National Whale and Dolphin Week, I was keen to make amends. It’s a great event, an intensive effort to record as many whales and dolphins (and porpoises) as possible from right around the UK, between 29 July and 5 August. It raises awareness of the superb marine life on our doorstep and gets people’s enthusiasm going because everybody absolutely loves this stuff. Especially me.P1140726

Ultra close scrutiny of the weather forecast suggested the wind was going to be lightest in South Cornwall to the east of Falmouth. A smooth sea surface means maximum chance of seeing that fin…..even the slightest ripple reducing the chances significantly. So that’s where I went.

As usual I got out of bed TOO early (4.30am) and was ready to paddle out from Carne Beach FAR too early. It was misty and quite cool and there was a bit of a breeze making the sea look grey and unwelcoming. Having looked at the forecast my upper half was clad only in a vest (and lifejacket), and the suncream seemed a bit unnecessary at this stage. I got a bit cold and felt morale starting to dip. (This over early thing is quite normal for me)

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Carne Beach launch

There was nobody about but a few really hardcore dog-walkers.

As I paddled out around Nare Head there were a few whitecaps sloshing the side of the kayak and I was not happy. I was hoping it was just the early morning offshore wind that you sometimes get in the summer. So I persisted with the original plan and headed offshore towards Dodman Point, just about within my comfort zone. I rang up Portscatho NCI (coastwatch) to inform them of my plans. Actually I tried three times because they hadn’t opened up shop on the first two attempts.

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Distant Dodman Point

Yippee! I glimpsed a fin away to my right and paddled over to investigate…..it was a pod of about five Common Dolphins but they sped away before I was anywhere near close.

A couple of miles off Dodman Point the wind suddenly dropped and the sun came out. And dead ahead I saw a LOAD of fins break the surface:dolphin2

I could hear a load of puffing and sound of surging water as a tightly packed pod of about fifty Common Dolphins surfaced repeatedly. Wow. I took a big loop around the pod to get up-sun and then just sat and watched at a good distance to avoid any possible disturbance. And the whole lot came straight towards me:

Just in case I hadn’t appreciated the show they then swam past again, only even closer:

The sort of wildlife experience I have only ever dreamed about.

There were several interesting things about this pod. One is that there were a few calves in amongst the throng. There was such a mass of action it was impossible to see how many, but I think was was a maternal group of dolphins and the reason it was so compact and slow moving was to nurse the calves along (yes, this might be complete rubbish).

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Common Dolphin calf

Secondly one adult dolphin had a severely damaged fin, almost certainly an injury caused by a boat propeller.

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Dolphin with chunk of fin missing

After sitting amongst the action for twenty minutes I looped back for the ten mile paddle back to Carne Beach, but it was so lovely and warm and relaxing I wasn’t in any hurry. However I did crank up the speed when I was suddenly joined by another small group of dolphins, who wanted to get a ride on my pathetically inadequate bow wave.

I stayed several miles offshore because that is where the sea seemed most busy with wildlife. I could hear the dolphins splashing in the distance long after I lost sight of them, and several small groups of porpoises popped up as I was paddling past.

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Porpoise pair

In fact it was one of those special days where rarely a minute went by without the sound of a dolphin splashing or a porpoise breathing or the ‘thoomph’ of a Gannet hitting the water at speed.

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Hunting Gannet

There was a constant trickle of Manx Shearwaters zipping past and I had a coffee break in the company of a resting raft of Shearwaters. I was also thrilled to see a couple of tiny Storm Petrels twisting their way past low over the surface….this sighting alone would have made my day a success.

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Manx Shearwater

Beneath the surface there was a supporting cast of jellyfish….mainly Compass jellyfish but also Moon and Blue.

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Compass jellyfish

Back into Gerrans Bay I ran into yet more dolphins. A group sped past at distance and then a pod of about fifteen approached. These looked very big and at first I thought they were Bottlenose, but as they passed I could see the characteristic yellow sides of Common Dolphins. But they certainly were all hefty and I think this was a pod of male dolphins (once again, this could be tosh).

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BIG Common Dolphin

My last dolphin of the day was unusual. I heard a clear, short, explosive puff which I was sure sounded like a porpoise, but when a fin surfaced at its next breath it looked tall and sharp, more like a Common Dolphin. I doubted this because it was all alone (very undolphin-like) so set off in pursuit. I thought maybe it was a rare species of dolphin but eventually caught a glimpse of its yellow side….so just a ‘Common’ after all.

As I made my way back inshore some very large lines of Gannets cruised lazily past, one line consisting of upwards of fifty birds.

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Squadron of Gannets approaching under the radar

Nare Head looked rather more attractive in the afternoon sunshine, compared to the cold grey of dawn.P1150050.JPG

So my cetacean tally for the day was approx eighty Common Dolphins (50+15+5+5+4+1) and sixteen porpoises in small groups. Maybe a Minke Whale next time……..dolphin 1

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Common Dolphins off Nare Head