Before the ‘Beast from the East’ weather system snarled in, brandishing its Siberian temperatures, snow and savage wind, I managed a handful of very pleasant trips. The first was a bit of an offshore paddle in St.Austell Bay from Fowey , and to my complete jaw-dropping amazement (and entertainment), I yet again stumbled upon a pod of Common Dolphins.
It’s always a thrill to see them because it really doesn’t happen very often. Over the last fifteen years I have only seen dolphins about once every 500 miles paddled, but in the last four months have come across ten pods. Maybe this is random chance but maybe it means that there are more dolphins, and more dolphin food, about. If this is the case it is excellent news considering it is the polluted and littered nature of the sea that usually makes the headlines. It is possible I am getting to know the best places to see them but their highly mobile nature makes sightings extremely unpredictable, which for me is all part of the fun, and challenge. Success in spotting dolphins is a reflection of the number of miles paddled.
The Cornish Riviera, like its Devon counterpart in Torbay, is east-facing and so fairly protected from the winter swells that usually come from the west. It’s more attractive than Torbay and a lot less built-up and generally more of a wilderness experience, with much less chance of running into, or being mown down by, a jetski.
As I emerged from the shelter of Fowey estuary I was a bit disappointed the sea was so lumpy, and took a few waves over the front. No danger but just not so much fun as carving over flat water. I was hoping it was a residual chop from the southerly wind that had now changed direction but it was looking like offshore paddling was out. However I stuck with it and hugged the shore, stopping for breakfast onboard (bowlful of muesli) in the shelter of Gribbin Head.
As I crunched granola, I caught sight of a load of Gannets plunging vertically into the sea just round the corner of the headland. I couldn’t resist sticking my nose in, so rounded Gribbin Head and followed the circling pack of Gannets as it headed out across the bay towards Mevagissey. And hey presto, the sea had miraculously smoothed off.
I was back in my comfort zone and powered after the gannets although stupidly, in all the excitement, forgot to ‘check in’ with Polruan or Charlestown NCI (coastwatch) which I usually do. My radio batteries were flat anyway…oops.
Suddenly a dolphin surfaced a few yards in front of me and gave me quite a jump. It looked very big. Nothing else happened for a minute and just when I thought that was all I was going to see, a whole load more appeared and started to splash, puff, snort and surge all around the place.
Twelve to fifteen in total and at least one juvenile amongst them.
Yet another fantastic dolphin experience and only the second time I have seen them in February, the first being a couple of weeks ago!
After half an hour in their company I took a big swing around Gribbin Head before heading back to Fowey and was rewarded with the brief sight of four ‘Puffing Pigs’ (porpoises), a pair and two singletons, that were hunting beneath a circling gannet. Always incredibly elusive and difficult to see because they are so small, but a speciality from a kayak because you can hear their loud ‘piff’ from quite a disatnce, which you would never hear above the engine if a boat (or even the ‘noise’ of a yacht).
I completed my day at Fowey with a quick blast up the river to admire the Class 66 loco heading the China Clay train up to Lostwithiel, and a well-earned cup of tea at Penquite Quay. As they say: once a trainspotter always a trainspotter. I might add: once a tea-drinker always a tea-drinker. The two seem to go together quite nicely.
There are quite a few Little Grebes (aka Dabchicks) wintering up these sheltered creeks at the minute; their numbers increase further during cold snaps when their freshwater haunts freeze over.
The Herons are sporting a fancy array of plumes around their necks in preparation for creating a bit of an impression for the start of the breeding season.
My next little jaunt was to the Cornish coast at Mevagissey (the other side of the bay from where I saw the dolphins) where I was very pleased to observe half a dozen rare gulls visiting from the arctic. It’s unusual to see just one of these ‘white-winged’ gulls, but to see four Glaucous and two Iceland Gulls in one trip is, for me, unprecedented.
Glaucous Gulls are great big bruisers the size of the more familiar Great Black-backs, Iceland Gulls are smaller and finer but telling them apart requires a bit of ornithological expertise, because their plumage is almost identical.
Finally I managed a paddle up the beautiful Camel estuary from Rock with Dave before the weather became too kayak unfriendly. It was only a couple of degrees above freezing and there was a bit of a sneaky wind from the east but the winter sun made our trip feel a little warmer.
As usual there was lots of birdlife to admire, including a handful of perfectly camouflaged Ringed Plovers roosting amongst the pebbles on the tideline.
It’s now time to ‘batten down the hatches’ till the Beast has blown itself out.
It’s taken a long time. Tens of thousands of miles paddled and thousands of hours on the water. But today I feel I have passed my apprenticeship as a member of the sea beast society. They seem to have taken me as one of their own.
I was hugging the coast to keep out of the wind (as usual) approaching Pentewan beach in South Cornwall when a seal burst out of the water with a loud snort a couple of feet behind me. As usual it made me jump out of my skin and as usual I cricked my neck while turning round to have a look. It was a buff-coloured adolescent grey seal.
I wasn’t that surprised when it shadowed me, constantly diving and surfacing close nearby, but wasn’t expecting it to keep it up for over a mile.
I presumed it would lose interest as I weaved in and out of the bathers, speedboats, paddleboards, jetskis and kayaks along the beachfront at Pentewan, but was gobsmacked when it ignored all these other distractions and swam along beside my kayak like a puppy on a lead. Even more remarkable was that only a handful of the hundreds of people on the beach noticed it.
It was still there twenty minutes later as I approached Mevagissey, surfacing , splashing and hurling itself about without a care in the world. It was noticed by a boatful of (unsuccessful) fishermen and a couple of kayakers, who took snaps as the two of us sped past.
Why was I selected? Was it an unseen bond between two finely-tuned marine marvels, or was it that my wetsuit trousers were overdue for a rinse?
The seal kept displaying its fine set of teeth so I threw it a wedge of my Waggonwheel (superb value at £1 for six in Holsworthy Coop, using my new Coop card), but it wasn’t interested. Clearly no appreciation of a good deal.
By the time I had arrived at the entrance to Mevagissey harbour the seal and I were firm friends and I expected the large crowd of onlookers to be staggered by the man meets wild creature sort of thing, but unfortunately it suddenly disappeared and I was left bereft. I didn’t see it again.
So I finished off my Waggonwheel, sat around the harbour for a bit, and paddled back.
The ten mile stretch of open coast between Porthpean, St. Austell and Dodman Point is undoubtedly one of the best paddles in Cornwall.
It’s got everything. Sandy beaches, coves only accessible by kayak, cliffs, headlands, rocky areas to dodge in and out, and two super quaint coastal villages.
Even better for the paddler that relishes knifing across calm water (like me), it is east facing so immune to much of the wind and swell from the west. So it is often one of the only stretches of paddleable sea during the winter.
Paul and I picked a beautiful early April day for a fifteen mile jaunt from Porthpean to Gorran Haven and back.
Mevagissey bay looked very calm and inviting when we rounded Black Head so we cut directly across to the offshore rocks on the other side called The Gwinges (excellent name). There are nearly always seals hanging about here but today there were none.
A mile further south we had a leg stretch and a bite at Gorran Haven which is about as perfect a sheltered Cornish harbour as you could ever hope to find, and it was looking particularly appealing in the Spring sunshine. Families sat around, dogs yipped, children shrieked with excitement, frisbees flew.
With the deliberate aim to make it as much of a circular paddle as possible, we ‘coast-hugged’ on the way back, after staying offshore on the outward leg.
Of course we couldn’t resist investigating Mevagissey with its outer and inner harbour. It was heaving with visitors sauntering along at a holiday pace.
Mevagissey is almost too quaint to be real. I have visited by kayak on dozens of occasions but only once by car when I collided with a wall. I intend to visit again by kayak and never to go near the place again in a vehicle.
The final few miles past the long sandy beach of Pentewan and around Black head were uneventful but enjoyable. A pair of Peregrines sat motionless at the back of their usual cove, and we were stalked by a couple of seals when we were nearly back at Porthpean. One was an absolute whopper and I don’t think I have ever seen a bull seal with a more prominent nose.
This is a fantastic bit of coast and justifiably popular with the sit-on-top brigade, especially the very sheltered bay containing Porthpean and Charlestown , and its many inviting beaches.
Rare gulls of a bit of a birdwatching speciality, and a lot of them I wouldn’t recognise. However after thousands of miles of coastal paddling I am steadily getting my eye in.
Mediterranean gulls used to be an unusual sight but are now regular around the southwest. They appear in late summer and there are quite a few still around now. I think they disappear off to breed on the continent in the Spring.
They look like a large Black-headed gull but with very white wings. And very bright red feet.
More exciting gull encounters occurred during a paddle along the coast to Mevagissey last week. (Threshold of ‘excitement’ is certainly lowered in the winter……gulls get overlooked for much more exciting stuff in the summer).
I was pretty pleased to see fifteen Great Northern Divers and a Slavonian Grebe in the open sea of Mevagissey bay, and then took a circuit around super-quaint Mevagissey harbour before the two hour paddle back to Porthpean.
Sitting on a moored boat in the outer harbour was the considerable bulk of a Glaucous Gull. The same size as a Great Black-backed but completely creamy white. Terrific….I have only seen one of these from my kayak before and only a handful ever. They breed in the arctic and a few stragglers arrive in UK in late winter, usually after Christmas.
I would say quite a charismatic bird but others might say it is only a seagull, which it is.
Much more remarkable is that about two minutes later , just outside the harbour, was a virtually identical pale gull, but a bit smaller, equal in size to a young Herring Gull it was chummy with. This was an Iceland Gull, a fare bit more unusual than a Glaucous. But in appearance virtually identical.
Either one of these would be pretty exciting on its own but to see both within a few minutes of each other was about as good as gulls can get.
Two ‘white-wingers’ in as many minutes.
Despite their name Iceland gulls only breed in Greenland.