BIG Bottlenoses

I had forgotten just how big Bottlenose Dolphins were because I haven’t seen any in Cornwall for nearly two years. My last encounter was a pod of about fifty that came charging past when I was paddling off Mousehole, just when my camera decided to have a seizure. Prior to that I have just occasionally come across the inshore pod that roams around the bays of Devon and Cornwall, but it hasn’t been very often.

Today’s encounter was a complete surprise, because (as usual) I was several miles offshore in Mount’s Bay and so beyond the range of the coastal group. I had paddled out from Lamorna Cove, after grinding a bit more enamel off my teeth as I paid the excessive car park charge, and was going to do a big offshore loop down to Porthcurno(ish). Looking for fins wasn’t easy because the light wind blowing against the outgoing tide threw up wavelets which made listening and looking for splashes not easy. Choppy conditions also makes holding a camera steady very difficult (especially when zoomed in). And it tends to get wet…not a good idea because it ain’t waterproof.

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Guillemot pair

I had been paddling for over two hours and had only seen a handful of porpoises so was very pleased to see a larger fin break the surface when I was parallelling the coast about three miles out. I assumed it was a Common Dolphin because it didn’t look very big, but was thrilled when another much bigger appeared nearby, and this was a real whopper.

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First encounter…juvenile Bottlenose Dolphin
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Adult Bottlenose Dolphin

I was then overtaken by the main group and was greeted with a double jump.

 

 

The pod of about ten (could easily have been more…I get so wrapped up in the moment I find it very difficult to count) escorted me for twenty minutes or so.

These are really big powerful creatures, three times the weight of a Common Dolphin, and over six times as big as a Porpoise. And approaching twelve foot long. Yet still completely sleek and agile and nothing lumbering about them at all.

It’s great to be sitting in a kayak at water level and be looking UP at the top of a fin.

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I could hear a high-pitched whistling as they swerved about in the clear water beneath me, you can hear it on this GoPro clip (which is in slomo):

 

 

Absolutely superb.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

On the paddle back to Lamorna I passed another three Bottlenose dolphins trailing the first group by over a mile. This was a bit of a surprise as they usually stick quite close together. Marine Discovery, who also saw these dolphins, say it was a fragmented pod of ‘offshore’ Bottlenose dolphins that were scattered along that bit of coast, about three miles out.

For me in my kayak it is tremendously exciting to see this classic species of dolphin, and even better that they are the ‘offshore’ variety because these are real ocean wanderers and rarely seen.

A bonus ball on the way back (when the sea suddenly smoothed off…typical), was this grizzled old Grey Seal that was ‘bottling’. I’m pretty sure it knew I was only a few feet away but really didn’t care.

 

Today’s dolphins brings my cetacean species up to six for the year:

Humpback Whale, Minke Whale, Bottlenose Dolphin, Risso’s Dolphin, Common Dolphin, Harbour Porpoise.

When I started out I thought I would only ever see a couple of seals….

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Humpback. Complete Fluke.

Apologies for the pun. Couldn’t resist it.

I’ve clearly been influenced by the tabloids:

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Daily Mail
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The Sun

I still can’t quite believe my luck with this staggering encounter. This was my seventh trip of the year around Mount’s Bay from Penzance. The inner bay (inside a line from St.Michaels Mount to Mousehole) is relatively sheltered and tidal flows are weak. Further along the coast towards Gwennap Head the tidal rate increases, with a potentially fizzy area off Tater Du lighthouse where currents converge and there is an underwater ridge.

Swirling currents mean fish which in turn mean dolphins (and whales) but if there is any wind at all it is not at all great for offshore kayaking because the sea chops up dramatically. So I am very wary off paddling miles out to sea in this particular location.

So it was incredibly fortunate that on this remarkable day there was no wind at all and the sea was essentially smooth…just a small swell rolling through.

The timing of my arrival was sheer luck as well. I had paddled fourteen miles out from Penzance in a big offshore loop and had been going for five hours. I heard the whale blowing about at least half an hour before I saw it and I think it had only just arrived in the area. I watched it for well over an hour and I left it working its way west towards Land’s End, where it was seen later in the day.

So it was only there for a couple of hours, just when I happened to roll up.

Extreme fluke.

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I’ve actually been focused on looking for whales from my kayak for over five years. This means heading far from the shore and I have clocked up about five hundred miles of offshore paddling (more than a mile from the coast) for each of the last four years.

I am very fortunate in having the time and living in a location to be able to do this, because days suitable for offshore kayaking (unless you are a hard-core type) are few and far between.

I only venture out if the wind is less than five mph all day. In SW England this is unusual. A wind any stronger than this makes the kayak bounce around and photography becomes even more challenging, and as soon as there are any splashy waves the chances of seeing a fin diminishes and the chances of hearing a cetacean breathing also goes down. And its just not so much fun.

Photography from a kayak with a camera that is not waterproof is tricky at the best of times. It lives in a dry bag behind my seat and is promoted to my lap when action is imminent.

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Camera stowed safely (in grey/black drybag)
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camera poised for action

The next few weeks are ‘out’ as far as offshore kayaking is concerned, because the wind is going to be too strong. Just look at the forecast for today, for instance:

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savage winds across S England

Before this big encounter I have had ten whale sightings in Devon and Cornwall. Mostly fleeting glimpses of a passing Minke Whale, frequently only one blow and it is gone. This video is fairly typical (including the slate grey sea)

 

Also a very dramatic sighting of a large whale, thought to be an incredibly rare Sei Whale, lunge fishing near the Eddystone lighthouse, three years ago.

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Probable Sei Whale, Eddystone

My only previous encounter with a Humpback was Horace (aka Doris) off South Devon in 2017. This photo looks great but when you consider that Horace was tangled up in a lobster pot line and so going nowhere, it’s not so good.

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Horace and thelonekayaker

Fortunately he/she was released successfully by the BDMLR team.

I have been so keen to improve my whale-from-kayak chances, I have ventured on trips to Greenland…..

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Greenland kayak-camping

and the world’s greatest ocean-aquarium, the Sea of Cortez in Mexico….

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Sea of Cortez

Fantastic experiences both, a few glimpses of distant whales, but the search for that magical encounter continued…..

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I still can’t quite believe that the sort of sight that I had specifically gone to both Greenland and Mexico to see, happened right here on my doorstep. It’s all the more personally satisfying for me that I came upon the Humpback completely unexpectedly, completely randomly, completely unguided, and powered only by my own grunt. I have always been a huge supporter of observing and celebrating the natural history on your home patch, even though it might be harder to find, and require more effort (and enduring some dubious weather) than hopping on a plane to where the wildlife might be handed to you on a plate (so to speak).

I’ve also always quite liked doing stuff where the end result is extremely unlikely to happen and only comes about by putting in huge amounts of hours of trying. I think I am the only individual daft enough to go looking for whales from a kayak in England.

So here we are….everybody’s favourite species of whale putting in a spectacular show of lunge-feeding, fin-slapping and raising the tail flukes (but no singing….as far as I could hear, above my pounding heart).

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Humpback, Gwennap Head behind

Played out on a calm blue sea under a cloudless blue sky with a backdrop of the stunning Cornish coast. How good is that?

Everybody loves a Humpback…this next video has had well over one million views. That’s more than Happy Talk (singalong version) by Captain Sensible on Youtube. Sorry, Capt.

 

 

Just seeing this next image is exciting enough for me. It was all I was ever hoping to see. Six views so far. All by myself.

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Humpback back

I might struggle to match the excitement of this astonishing sight in subsequent blog posts, but if I can convey the enjoyment of slicing through the water completely silently and unobtrusively, whether it is far offshore or miles inland up a creek, observing and enjoying the huge variety of wild creatures that inhabit the southwest of England, then all is good.

It is great to welcome a whole load of new readers on board.

 

 

 

 

 

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

 

 

Penzance Puffin

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Loe Beach

To get a bit of shelter from the moderate SW wind, but still have the feel of the open coast, Dave, Simon and I set out from Loe Beach at the neck of Carrick Roads for a saunter down to Falmouth and back.

The sun did its best to shine:

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Carrick Roads, open water

We stopped off at Flushing for lunch of stale sandwiches, followed by an unexpectedly delicious bar of Galaxy Cookie Crumble. A new one on me, and only £1 in Holsworthy Co-op.

We took an easy circuit around Falmouth and Penryn estuary before the much anticipated easy downwind return leg (as it had been a bit of a struggle against the wind).

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Simon and Dave

Wildlife highlight of this particular day was a most extraordinary one, and something I have never seen before, and may not even have been anything to do with wildlife. It was the lowest low tide for several years so some bits of shore were exposed that hadn’t seen fresh air for a very long time. As usual I was scrutinising the beach as we slid silently past, and every so often saw a squirt of water come up out of the shore. Completely random, but from all sorts of different locations. Weird.

Simon went ashore to investigate while Dave and I bravely sat in our kayaks a safe distance from the dry land, because for all we knew it could have been a delegation from a galaxy far far away.

You can see for or five jets of water randomly squirting up as Simon searches for the source:

 

Although Simon found an eel, the consensus of our combined scientific wisdom was that it was cockles that sent up a squirt of water as they slammed shut.

Highlights of the trip back were a close up investigation of HMS Argus, and a tea break at Penarrow point (the headland of drowned bodies, so we didn’t stay long)

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HMS Argus and Dave
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Penarrow Point

The day before I was very excited about a possible offshore paddle around Mounts Bay from Penzance, but when I arrived at 10am, the whole coast was fogbound, drizzly and very cheerless.

So I coast-hugged and hope the mist would clear. As usual the wildlife brightened up the scene, first of all it was a couple of Eiders (imm drakes):

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Eiders

The local gulls were very busy hunting along the shoreline for starfish exposed by the exceptionally low low tide. They were being very successful.

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Starfish lunch number 1
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Starfish lunch number 2

Mousehole was stranded by several hundred yards of exposed kelp forest, and I struggled to find somewhere to get out for a cup of coffee and half a Double Decker Duo. Desperate times!

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Kelp and Mousehole

As I supped I had a chat with a man picking up sea lettuce which he was going to sell to the local restaurants to use as a ‘wrap’ for their tasty seafood morsels. A knowledgable  and informed chap who gave a good overview of everything marine. And with a sound insight into the local wildlife as well…even better.20170531_150831

As I paddled out from Mousehole the mist miraculously dispersed and even better (and unexpectedly) the wind dropped completely. So timed to perfection for me to take a huge swing offshore to arc back to Penzance, with a chance of a BIG wildlife encounter.

It’s not very often as smooth as this two miles off Mousehole:

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Mount’s Bay Glass-off.

It wasn’t long before I heard the puff of a Porpoise, and in fact I heard them more or less constantly for the next couple of hours, because it was so calm the sound carried far over the surface. I saw only seven or eight:

 

Most of the auks dotted about were Guillemots, but I saw one was noticeably smaller from a long way off..a Puffin!

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Penzance Puffin
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Penzance Puffin

I’m pretty sure this is the first one I have ever seen in March from my kayak.

 

It briefly teamed up with a passing Guillemot giving a good size comparison.

I looped around the big tanker moored in the bay,

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St.Michael’s Mount and Tanker

and passed a load more Guillemots in various stages of transition from winter into their breeding plumage.

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Guillemots

 

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Absolutely Unbelievable Dolphins

When I started all this watching-wildlife-from-a-kayak lark I never thought in a million years I would have an encounter like I did today. Certainly not in the UK, and in early January.

I very nearly DIDN’T have the encounter because I had difficulty dredging myself out of bed at 6am, with every unoccupied cavity and crevice in my head full of mucus following my man-cold.

However the wind forecast for Mount’s Bay, Penzance, was too much of a lure. Light wind all day and total glass off between 9 and midday. As an added bonus there was hardly any swell diffracting round the corner from Land’s End, and the predicted ‘light cloud’ didn’t materialise, so I set off from Penzance harbour under completely blue skies.

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Mount’s Bay

I headed directly out to sea, towards a tanker moored three miles out in the bay. Not a great start in terms of wildlife….I passed a couple of loons and the odd Guillemot on the water, and one or two kittiwake and Gannet roaming about aimlessly.

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St. Michael’s Mount and an exceptionally calm Mount’s Bay

However I was full of expectation as the surface was so smooth, and atmosphere so still, that if anything surfaced within a mile of me I would either see or hear it. A lone porpoise swam past far off, but that was it for an hour or so.

Closer in to the shore near Mousehole I could see a flurry of gulls which I initially thought were following a little fishing boat. As I angled towards the coast did I see the distant fin in amongst the blur of wings? I cranked up the speed to investigate and a distant dolphin leapt clear of the water. Excellent.

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Dolphins first appearance…mother and calf

The next two hours were simply extraordinary. I sat and watched a pod of 20-25 Common Dolphins cruising about and herding and attacking a baitball of herring. I hardly had to paddle a single stroke during the whole time, because the fish kept trying to take refuge underneath my kayak.

Initially two others boats were enjoying the spectacle….the small fishing boat I had seen earlier, and Mermaid II out of Penzance.

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Fellow Dolphin Watchers

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Every so often a dolphin would lunge at the fish and herring would spray from the surface, something I have only ever seen before on the telly (or maybe not even there, come to think of it).

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Dolphin lunging at fish just feet away!
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Blinking Heck…that was close!

If you like dolphins you will absolutely love all these video clips, if you don’t you might find them a bit long and boring (and need to get a life):

 

 

 

 

 

 

The two boats departed so it was just me and the dolphins (and several thousand fish), and an awful lot of flat calm sea. Tough.

I always bring my GoPro, just in case, but never imagined being able to use it for underwater shots during the winter. Not only is the sea usually too choppy ( to be able to use it from a kayak), but the water is usually too murky because there has usually been recent storms and/or rain.

However I could see the dolphins zipping about beneath me (video):

 

 

so tried my luck at some underwater shots.

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Baitball of Herring
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Dolphin and baitball

 

 

 

 

It was great to see a mother and calf come past so close. The youngsters stick like glue to mum’s side most of the time, but occasional shoot off to worry the fish, or hurl themselves out of the water.

 

 

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As usually capturing that magical shot of a dolphin clean out of the water managed to elude me, but I did manage to picture what was undoubtedly the highest flying herring in Cornwall.

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High Flying Herring

And the sensational action, in perfect light, and perfect conditions, just went on and on:

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Pinpoint sharp Common Dolphin

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Dolphin doing passable ICBM impression

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Just the tip of the dolphin’s nose visible!

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wow, that one’s really shifting!

It was very interesting that this little ‘feeding’ group were essentially harassing the same baitball for over two hours. I have written many times before that most dolphin frenzies I have previously seen have dispersed by the time I roll in up my kayak, say twenty minutes to half an hour after I have sighted it. But this one was still going strong after at least two hours.

I think these dolphins were ‘playing’ with these fish as I’m sure they could have demolished the baitball in a few minutes if they were really hungry. Or more likely they were using the baitball to teach the youngsters of the group how to hunt. There were three or four calves in the pod and they were often the ones who would slash through the fish as they burst from the surface.

It was time to leave. As had been precisely forecast, a NW wind was just about to pick up, because I could see a dark line approaching across Mount’s Bay from Penzance. Only a gentle breeze but enough to make it feel a lot colder, especially with the building cloud. I kept warm with a steady pace for the five miles back to the harbour, enjoying the little posse of Purple Sandpipers that are seasonal visitors to Penzance during the winter.

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Purple Sandpipers

Fantastic, and I am a real champion of the little creatures, but today was all about the dolphins.

 

 

 

 

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

 

 

 

There She Blows! Minke Whale (and dolphins and porpoises) at Fowey.

Two days of light winds were forecast so it was time to head offshore again. The first trip was to Penzance with Dave and I was under pressure to deliver some cetacean sightings. We had a good thirteen mile paddle out of Mount’s Bay and along the coast to Lamorna, and managed fifteen porpoises which put on a very good puffing show, but I was just a little disappointed (and surprised) that we didn’t see any dolphins because spotting conditions were ideal.

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Dave (porpoise-spotting) in front of St. Michael’s Mount

There was a nice scattering of seabirds however: Razorbills, Guillemots, Eddie the Eider, a passing Great Northern Diver (my first of the autumn), and lots of Kittiwakes.

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Kittiwake (juv)

The next day was a stunner with clear blue skies and virtually no wind. I was on the water at Fowey as the sun had just peeped over the horizon, and paddled directly out to sea once out of the estuary.

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Fowey

Almost immediately I saw a large milling mass of seabirds circling low over the surface about a mile out, with a dozen Gannets intermittently dropping in. A very active ‘work up’ and there was going to be some big fish-eaters beneath, for sure.  As I steamed at full speed towards the action I could see dolphins jumping clear of the water, but as usual the frenzy had tempered a bit when I eventually rolled up. The gannets had moved on but there seemed to be plenty of fish left over for the dolphins, and gulls,to pick off at a leisurely pace.

 

I just sat still in my kayak taking in the scene. Dolphins passed within inches.

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Common Dolphin

I was sure my attempt at underwater footage with the GoPro would be a success, but the clarity of the water wasn’t great so the result was a bit disappointing. However it’s interesting to hear the dolphin clicks and squeaks in this video clip:

 

Suddenly all twenty-five (ish) dolphins were off at top speed, lured away by a China Clay ship which had emerged from Fowey docks and was starting to crank up the speed. The dolphins sprinted towards it and I could just see them leaping out of its bow wave as it receded into the distance.

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Dolphins sprinting off to see the ‘Ventura’

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A good start to the morning….and it wasn’t even nine o’clock.

I was just settling into my usual breakfast of 50% muesli, 50% Jordans Country Crisp (with raspberries), when I caught sight on an even bigger ‘work up’ at the limits of vision with hundreds of circling white dots of Gannets which every so often plunged into the sea en masse. Wow, this was a biggy.

Putting my muesli/country crisp on hold I paddled hard towards the action, but knew it was going to take at least twenty minutes to get there as it was probably two miles away, and knew I was going to be on the point of meltdown because I was already hot in my waterproof coat in the windless and sunny conditions. However if this was going to be my first big Gannet feeding frenzy I had observed up close, being a liquefied sack of sweat was the price I was willing to pay.

From long distance I could once again see large creatures jumping clean out of the water. I got the impression that some of these looked a bit like giant Tuna as I fancied I saw some spiky fins, but it was just too far away to tell and they might have been dolphins.

From what I have observed, these feeding frenzies evolve very rapidly. A pod of dolphins  herds fish into a baitball and pins it against the surface, reducing the fish’s options of escape. Passing Gannets don’t hesitate to seize the chance of a meal and dive in onto the larger baitfish (probably mackerel). The flash of white wings draws in other Gannets from afar, while below the surface the dolphins strike the baitball from below and frequently burst from the surface, as do the Tuna (if they were there!).

 

 

One reliable feature of these events is that the main action finishes just before I arrive on the scene. I think the Gannets (and maybe Tuna) move off when all the bigger fish have been eaten, leaving the dolphins and gulls to concentrate on the bits and pieces. Such was the case, again, as I rolled up with temperature gauge well into the red.

But today there was a bit of a treat in store because a rather larger predator had been attracted in to all the commotion. As I sat still watching all the splashing action as dolphins criss-crossed around and the juvenile gulls were squealing, there was a big prolonged breath and a much larger fin appeared at the surface….a Minke Whale. It disappeared in towards Fowey and then turned to come back. I was hopeful of a very close pass but it came to no nearer than about a hundred metres, and as usual very difficult to photograph because you really don’t know where it is going to appear next, and they cover large distance between breaths. They are in fact very like a giant porpoise in that they roll surprisingly quietly at the surface, and keep changing direction.

Anyway, I was quite pleased to get this clip of it as it surfaced, with Fowey five miles away in the background.

 

Ironically the closest it surfaced was when I was struggling to take off my jacket and drop my core temperature out of the critical range, and my face was covered in sweaty goretex.

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Minke Whale, Fowey
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Minke Whale , fowey

For a final push I paddled just a little bit further out, and was joined by another (or maybe the same ones as earlier) pod of dolphins as I headed into the sun. When they disappeared it went quiet enough for me to finish my breakfast which was  not surprisingly quite soggy.

 

The paddle back in was moderately uneventful (in comparison to the paddle out) although the sea had smoothed off even further which allowed me to hear, and then observe, ten porpoises which were dotted about in ones and twos as they usually are.

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Fowey porpoise

My final ‘encounter’ was at the mouth of the estuary where I had a chat with a kayak fisherman who was in an extremely well-equipped craft.P1190434