Eddy and St.Michael

Wow, what a way to shake off the shackles of lockdown. My two favourite iconic landmarks of the south Cornish coast, on consecutive days of unbroken sunshine, paddling under deep blue skies.

The trip out to the Eddystone lighthouse, which lies ten miles southwest of the mouth of Plymouth sound, is my favourite big offshore paddle. It’s a minimum of twenty-four miles there and back (launching from Cawsand), but more when you have chased around after a few sea creatures.

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Yours truly at Eddystone.

This was my nineteenth expedition out to the lighthouse, eleven years after my first. I was a little bit nervous that I still had the power and endurance in the bag, given that I have recently tiptoed across the threshold into my seventh decade.

It lures me back because of its sense of adventure, and the lure of the fantastic wildlife that one might expect to bump into en route. I’ve seen a couple of Minke Whales, Common, Bottlenose and even White-beaked dolphins, Porpoise, Basking Shark, Blue Shark, Sunfish, Seals, and one of only two Wilson’s Petrels ever recorded in Devon.

So, as usual, I was full of expectation.

The forecast was flat calm until ten o’clock, then a light southerly. Perfect , a bit of assistance on the way back. I was too early to get on the water (nothing new there) and there was a cool breeze flowing like a river out of the mouth of the Tamar. This combined  with an incoming Spring tide created more of a chop than I had expected. Nothing hairy, just a bumpy ride, which wasn’t great for wildlife watching. It was compounded by a small groundswell, and the constant wash from fishing boats en route from Plymouth to the Eddystone reef.

However I did manage to spot a small pod of Common Dolphins thanks to one youngster repeatedly breaching directly in front of me. Although I engaged top gear and sped after them I failed to close the gap enough to take a photo.

It took in excess of four hours to reach the Eddystone, as the tide was about as unhelpful as it could have been. I knew this to be the case, but the only other option was not to go, which clearly wasn’t an option.

I nearly leapt out of my skin when a multiple booming blast made my entire kayak vibrate. It came from the Queen Elizabeth aircraft carrier ten miles away, that had decided it was time to cruise on. What a cacophony.

Queen Elizabeth
Queen Elizabeth

It was too lumpy around the back of the lighthouse for a relaxing break so I just headed straight back. It’s not often not lumpy here.

I nearly ran straight into a pair of Porpoises soon after leaving the light, and then a Puffin popped up right in front of me. Photography was not at all easy because the kayak was bouncing about but I couldn’t resist risking a few shots of this immature (probably last year’s fledgling) Puffin.

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Immature Puffin

Suddenly the wind dropped (and I think the flow changed direction….not always easy to predict here) and the last five miles back to the mainland were like a lake.

I dropped in to the lovely sandy beach in the armpit of Rame Head for a leg stretch (after over eight hours in the kayak seat) but it was heaving with Bank Holiday boaters so I ditched that idea and carried on. My pleasant wilderness bubble was further dented, if not burst, by the roar of jetskis coming out of the sound.

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Dreaded jetskis

It was suddenly time to get home. 25.9 miles, nine and a quarter hours total.

St. Michael’s Mount is rather more relaxing because it is less than half a mile offshore. What it lacks in remoteness and starkness, it makes up with eyecatching beauty and drama. You just can’t help looking up at those little windows on the sheer wall above the craggy cliff.

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what a great place
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scenic overload (and Dave)

I bumped into a couple of paddling chums as I left Penzance harbour, and we formed a loose convoy, with approved sort of distancing, for a circuit around the Mount.

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Simon

The sea, as forecast, was flat enough for the three and-a-half mile crossing to Mousehole, and of course I scoured the surface for fins. Was that a distant puff I heard? Yes, a couple of Porpoises popped up right beside Dave as he devoured a Twix. They were very camera shy (the porpoises, not Dave and confectionery) but I just managed to capture this fleeting fin.

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fleeting Porpoise

A few Guillemots were dotted about, and a flypast Razorbill.

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Guillemots

Mousehole was echoing to the sound of laughing and chattering of splashing children, perhaps appropriate for the picture-perfect little coastal village that time seems to have  forgotten about, and hopefully so has Covid 19.

Back at Penzance I was surprised to see three Purple Sandpipers hanging on, still loathe to move north. Perhaps they have a taste for bright sunshine. They were not keen to perform for the lens however (initially at least).

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lens-shy Purple Sandpiper
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Purple Sandpiper (that’s better)

It’s a funny time of year for oceanic sealife, because offshore it often goes very quiet in May and June. There are hardly any Gannets around, which generally means not much cetacean activity. Gannets have superb eyesight and will spot fins at the surface from a huge distance. I havn’t seen one circling, which means action below, for a while. Apart from over me, that is. In fact judging by the way they sprint over to check me out as if I am the only interesting feature on the surface for miles around, the sea everywhere else must be quite quiet at the moment.

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Gannet on the prowl

So not may cetaceans, but fortunately for wildlife-watching kayakers there are the birds, the coastal scenery looking at its best, and the wall -to- wall deep blue sky to enjoy.

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a more leisurely scene at St.Michael’s Mount

 

Unlocked.Unleashed.

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Covid-free zone

Phew, lockdown has eased just in time get out and enjoy the REALLY sunny weather. My chum Paul always says that the third week in May is the best week of the year and I think he’s just about spot-on…..wildflowers in full bloom and birds as busy as they can possibly be with raising their families.

The Guillemots on Gull Rock are lined up like ten-pins on their tiny ledges and jostling for position. I love their primeval cackle….

They are looking at their very best at the moment, all chocolately brown and white, and I spotted a rare bridled version (a plumage variation, not a separate species) amongst the throng.

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Bridled Guillemot

I didn’t get too close to the breeding ledges…..making them  ‘stampede’ is completely unacceptable and can cause eggs, which are just placed on the narrow ledges with no nest to hold them in place, to fall off.

I opted for admiring them on the water instead.

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Gang of Guillemots

Also nesting on Gull Rock (apart from Gulls, of course) are Razorbills, but in much fewer numbers than the Guillemots. I think they look even better than their auk cousins, decked out in velvety-black with a perfectly positioned white designer streak in front of the eye.

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Razorbill

Here’s one trying to ensure it’s impeccable image is maintained….

I was a bit surprised to come across this little posse resting on a tiny islet half a mile offshore.

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Sanderling snoozing (plus Dunlin, top left)

A group of Sanderling and Dunlin, moulting into their breeding plumage, no doubt en route to their breeding grounds in the arctic. Sanderlings, perhaps not surprisingly, are most at home on a sandy beach, running in and out with the waves.

Other arctic breeders that winter around the coast of Cornwall are also still around. This pair of Great Northern Divers in Gerrans Bay are reluctant to cast off their winter dress,

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Great Northern Diver

whereas this one in Penzance is in full breeding plumage. Bad pic I know, but it shows off the ‘necklace’ well.

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Great Northern Diver breeding plumage.

Purple Sandpipers, which specifically like to winter on wave battered barnacle-encrusted rocks in exposed locations, also have not all departed for the north.

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Purple Sandpiper

Fin-tastic

OK, let’s ramp up the post-lockdown kayaking excitement a notch or two.

Seeing a fin slicing through the clear waters of the open sea is one of the greatest wildlife sightings you can have from a kayak, in my opinion. Not least because it is quite an achievement in terms of planning, and physical effort, to get out to where they might be….usually far offshore.

The last one I saw was attached to the back of a porpoise off Dodman Point on 16 March. Because I am a bit of a fin addict, I was pretty keen to find a few more, and as soon as the wind forecast for Mounts Bay, Penzance , was suitable, I was off down the A30 for my dose of extended, and legal, exercise.

Launching from Penzance harbour at low tide is currently rather tricky because there is a ship parked in the channel, the Scillonian III.

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Penzance Harbour

Heading offshore I was lucky enough to hear a couple of Porpoises puffing before I had stopped for breakfast. Excellent. I didn’t watch them for long because I had moved on to the next ‘thing’…..what else might be about? I had to keep paddling out before the wind picked up (it wasn’t forecast to increase, and didn’t, but I always maintain a sense of urgency in case it does. Quite exhausting, really).

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Porpoise, Penzance

Good call, another fin ahead, and this one was slightly bigger and accompanied by a little splash…..Dolphin!

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Common Dolphin

It got better……the dolphin’s calf then popped up beside it.common dolphins

I settled in (as much as you can in a kayak on the open sea), ate my breakfast, had a cup of coffee, and enjoyed the show.

And then I paddled on. I saw very little for the next few hours, although paddled over to investigate a small group of Kittiwakes dipping down to the surface snatching small fish. Far out to sea small fish at the surface is good news for Kittiwakes, good news for me, but bad news for small fish.

They are there because predators from below have herded them into a baitball and pinned them up against the surface to make them easier to catch. Last autumn, in exactly this place, baitballs of sprats and sandeels were being engulfed by dolphins, porpoises, giant tuna, a Minke Whale and a Humpback whale.

Today wasn’t quite so dramatic, but it was the first time I had seen this particular predator doing the herding. Sea Bass. The first one I glimpsed just below me was so big it gave me a bit of a start. Big for a Bass anyway…must have been 5lbs plus (danger of exaggeration here…it’s a fishy story).

On the way back, amazingly, I bumped into the dolphin pair again, three miles away from our first encounter. Like finding the needle in the haystack, twice.

I took lunch at Mousehole. Looking good, as always (Mousehole, not me).

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Mousehole

And as usual a few seals were lounging about on the island. Including this rather glistening youngster….last year’s pup?

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The Beadiest of Eyes

Although I would describe the cheese sandwiches I had hastily constructed at 4.30am as forgettable, they didn’t go unnoticed by the local gulls, some of whom might tend towards a scavenging sort of approach to life. They came close enough to allow unusually close scrutiny of their features.

How amazing is this eye? The iris looks more like a map of the moon than a map of the moon.

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Eyeball that eyeball

It belongs to the local avian bully-boy and public enemy number one, a Great Black-backed Gull. Gulls in seaside towns have an appalling public image, but I personally like them very much, not least because their eyes are filled with character. The call of a Herring Gull is the sound of the seaside.

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Great Black-back

Although, having said that, the sound of a Great Black-back is a rather intimidating ‘gulp’.

 

And finally…back to the (semi-lockdown) garden

To further uplift the spirits, here’s a couple of recent specials to round things off.

The first snake I have ever seen in the garden (in 25 years).

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Grass Snake

And a Willow Warbler doing it’s best to maintain the tail end of the dawn chorus, despite being audio-bombed by a wren during its second verse.

 

 

 

2019.The Year of THE Whale

Here’s my top twelve wildlife sightings (all from the kayak seat, of course) for 2019. The cream of 2,444 miles of paddling.

There’s so much action to pack in that the coastal scenery, which has a claim to be as world class as the marine wildlife, doesn’t even get a mention (apart from this one pic).

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So here we go, in reverse order.

12. Fowey Osprey

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Osprey

This beautiful juvenile Osprey was an end of year bonus, stopping off for a rest (and no doubt refuelling on a mullet or two) near the mouth of the Fowey estuary. It had probably hatched out in Scotland or the north of England, and was on its way to the main Osprey wintering ground in West Africa. I look forward to seeing it again next year (hopefully).

I usually see one or two Ospreys around the estuaries of Devon and Cornwall in the autumn, but this is by far and away my best view….and I so nearly overlooked it as it was sat completely still near the top of a tall waterside tree.

11. Barrel Jellyfish

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Barrel Jellyfish

2019 has been a spectacular year for Barrel Jellyfish. They have been around in vast numbers, and for a long time. From early March to the end of October. On one day I saw more than the previous five years put together.

They are really great creatures….big and mysterious.

10. Boscastle Puffins

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Puffin Pair, Boscastle

There’s a handful of breeding colonies of everybody’s favourite seabird dotted around SW England, and nowhere is more dramatic than the rocky islets off the craggy and hostile coast of North Cornwall just up from Tintagel.

There’s only a couple of pairs of Puffins at Boscastle, and there’s only a couple of days a month when sea conditions are suitable for attempting to go and see them by kayak.

9. Torridge Otter.

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This is our only venture into fresh water in this review, into the home of Tarka the otter in North Devon. A superb prolonged view in early January of a dog otter fishing.

An encounter matched by it’s cousin on the other side of the pond, or more technically the OTHER pond, because this is a Pacific Sea Otter which Becky and I watched from a kayak during a trip to California in February.

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Californian Sea Otter

I saw a total of six river otters in 2019…..three in the Torridge, three in the Tamar. (plus one on the Wye)

8. Harbour Porpoise

mother and calf porpoise
mother and calf porpoise

I really like porpoises. They are a kayak speciality, because the majority I see I have heard puffing first, a noise that would be drowned out by any sort of engine. There is no doubt they are hugely overlooked, because they are small (only four to five foot long), and they appear at the surface without a splash. Also they tend to go around in very small groups which makes them even easier to miss.

This year I have seen a total of 275 porpoises on 38 days. Down from last year ( 327 on 44 days) but I don’t get the impression there are any fewer around. If you paddle a couple of miles offshore almost anywhere around the coast of Devon and Cornwall in August, you will probably hear one puffing.

 

7. Micky the Harbour Seal

It is rare to see a Harbour Seal in Cornwall, and even more unusual (and probably unprecedented) to see a pup that has swum all the way from Holland and is still only five months old. Another success story for the seal rescue and rehabilitation centres.

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Micky the (Dutch) Harbour Seal

6. Beaver

A handful of  trips up an estuary through the patchy mist of dawn in July were rewarded with several encounters with Beavers. I had heard they were about, but I had no idea they were in this particular location, didn’t realise that they inhabited saltwater estuaries, and anyway didn’t think I would see one in daylight.

Another good example of the benefits of paddling along in complete silence (and early in the morning).

Five beaver sightings on three days.

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Beaver

 

5. Common Dolphin

My Common Dolphin year started off in grand style with a prolonged encounter with a pod of about twenty off Penzance. It was early January but the flat calm sea and warm sun made it feel, and look, like summer.

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Penzance dolphin

I will never ever get bored of seeing a dolphin from my kayak. In fact the excitement will never dip below the 100% level. Partly because it is so very difficult to do…..Common Dolphins don’t often come within sight of the shore so you’ve really got to be a long way out, and sea conditions suitable for this are infrequent even in the summer.

It’s a good news story for SW England and the efforts of the marine conservation groups that Common Dolphins seem to be increasing, no doubt because there are more fish around. This is reflected in my total for the year of 564 individuals on 23 days. (it’s actually probably a lot more than this but estimating the number of dolphins in an active and splashy pod is very difficult).This compares to 432 on 17 days last year, and 148 on 11 days in 2017.

This includes a couple of ‘superpods’ (over 50 individuals) on consecutive days at the end of August…one in Devon and the other in Cornwall.

 

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Interestingly I only saw an average of one pod per year when I kayaked along the coast; the increase only occurred when I took to offshore paddling. I now average about 500 miles a year more than a mile from the shore specifically looking for ‘fins’.

Only one or two of this year’s pods would have been visible to a kayaker paddling close to the shore.

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I can’t think of any other situation where such a large number of completely wild creatures voluntarily come so close to an observer. Even better for the dolphins, they remain completely undisturbed and unspooked because I have no engine, and a kayak is about as threatening as a floating log.

 

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4. Bottlenose Dolphins

My first sighting of these big and charismatic dolphins for several years was in Mount’s Bay, and three miles offshore. Bottlenose Dolphins usually prefer to stay close in because they like to hunt fish that live on the seabed, but these were thought to be part of an offshore pod that live in the open sea (and feed on shoaling fish).

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Bottlenose Dolphins

 

3. Risso’s Dolphin

This was a really extraordinary encounter on one of the most beautiful days of the year. It was hot, sunny and windless. Even the relentless swell along the north coast of Cornwall had abated allowing a relaxed twenty-mile paddle from St.Ives to Sennen. I couldn’t resist a jaunt offshore around the Brisons rocks for the final section, and was rewarded with an extended sight of a pod of eight Risso’s Dolphins.

They are big and dynamic and ran through just about every trick in the dolphin book: spyhopping, fin-clapping, lobtailing, breaching as well as  a bit of logging at the surface.

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Risso’s dolphin spyhopping

I was thrilled when one swam past a few feet away because they are usually quite shy, and I personally have only seen them at a distance before.

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Risso’s

 

2. Minke Whale

Ever since I first sat in a kayak (about fifty years ago) I have dreamt about seeing a whale from the kayak seat. Because I never thought it would happen in Devon or Cornwall I have been to Greenland, USA and Mexico to try and see one, and failed.

In the last four years I have discovered that if you grind out the miles, as far offshore as you dare, you will eventually see a whale.

In fact prior to this year I have seen ten whales in SW England. Fantastic, but August 2nd 2019 was to blast any other previous sighting clean out of the water, and I still can’t quite believe it happened.

Because I saw two species of whale in the same place at the same time, without paddling a single stroke. (as well as Common Dolphin, Porpoise, Giant Bluefin Tuna).

While I was waiting for the ‘other’ whale to surface, this Minke Whale appeared close enough to give me my best ever photograph of the species. If you consider whales as a whole, Minkes are not the biggest (about thirty foot) and not the most exciting, because they roll at the surface like a giant porpoise. But heck, they are a whale, and who would believe you can see a whale from a kayak in UK.

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Minke Whale

1. HUMPBACK WHALE!!!!!

This once-in-a-lifetime drama was played out in a location that I usually  avoid  because of the tidal currents and confused and choppy water. But conditions for cetacean viewing AND photography were absolutely perfect…flat water, and cloudless blue sky.

It was the perfect un-storm.

Even so, the chances of me being three to four miles offshore in precisely the right place at precisely the same time as a Humpback whale appears, make a win on the lottery look easy. It was the first Humpback seen in the area since the Spring, and it was only around for a few hours.

I would have been over the moon just to have a fleeting view of it like this:

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Humpback

And to see the flukes come up as it deep dived was something I had always wanted to capture on film…..even better with St.Michael’s Mount behind (seven miles away!).

 

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Humpback and St.Michael’s Mount

Waving its enormous pectoral fin about was  an unexpected bonus…..

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Humpback flipper

But to be sitting right in the middle of its feeding area, as it proceeded to gulp down the baitballs of sandeels and other small fish just a few yards away, was something I hadn’t anticipated.

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Humpback gulp
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Humpback splash

To see this sort of sight from a whale-watching boat in California or Hawaii would be the thrilling enough, but to ‘stumble’ across it in my kayak while randomly paddling around far offshore, right here on our doorstep in Southwest England, is total excitement overload.

It will be hard to top in 2020.

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Sensational Cetaceans

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It is maybe not surprising that Mount’s Bay is such a good place for looking for porpoises, dolphins….and whales…from my kayak. They are ocean wanderers that generally prefer to be far out to sea, and Cornwall is the last bit of land to stick out into the Atlantic where they live. Marine creatures on migration from north to south (or vice versa) may also drop by for a refuel because the confused currents, reefs and upwellings around Land’s End are rich in fish.

It is also a great location for kayaking because the Land’s End peninsular provides protection from Atlantic swell, and there are a lot of sheltered, and super-scenic locations to get on the water. All under the gaze of amazing St.Michaels’ Mount.

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St. Michael’s Mount

Also if the weather is not conducive to offshore paddling, the coast is exceptionally interesting and varied in terms of scenery and human habitation, and the near-shore holds a lot of seabirds during the winter. Most impressive of which are the Loons ( the North American name, aka Great Northern Diver in the UK), this one is in transition from summer to winter plumage. It also has a slightly wonky beak with the end crossing over.

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Great Northern Diver

There are plenty of Guillemots and Razorbills:

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Guillemot
Razorbill
Razorbill

And Eddie the resident Eider duck is usually in evidence somewhere around Penzance harbour, sometimes with some friends, sometimes not.

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Eddie the Eider

After a long, long period of stormy weather, the sea has at last settled down and I have ventured out into Mount’s Bay on a couple of occasions in the last week. Both trips in excess of fifteen miles and keeping well offshore.

During the second trip I came across two large pods of Harbour Porpoises between St.Michael’s Mount and Mousehole. Porpoises usually go around singly or twos and threes, but these two pods contained in excess of ten each. You can hear why they used to be called ‘Puffing Pigs’ by Newfoundland fishermen. (in England they were known as ‘Herring Hogs’). Unfortunately you can also hear my drysuit creaking as I pan round.

One porpoise halted at the surface to enjoy the calm conditions and maybe a little bit of warm winter sun. They don’t do this very often, probably because the sea isn’t this smooth very often.

Any sort of bird activity which is focused on the surface of the sea attracts my interest when I am offshore paddling. I have mentioned before that more often than not there is a porpoise beneath a circling Gannet, but on this occasion it was a large milling group of gulls that kept dipping down to the surface that lured me over for a closer inspection. They were scattered over a wide area with several Kittiwakes amongst them. When a couple of Gannets arrived and dived I increased pace because I was sure there would be ‘fins’ about.

Sure enough a couple of dolphins splashed in front of me.

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Common Dolphin

I approached the group cautiously to avoid spooking them, but they were in a very sociable mood and came over to see what as going on.P1000136

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As I cruised on they were quite happy to act as an escort.

As usual there were a handful of juveniles mixed in amongst the pod, and as usual they stuck like glue to their mother’s side.

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Juvenile and adult Common Dolphin

On the second day the dolphin watching was even better because the surface was oily smooth, enabling the dolphins to get as good a look at me as I was getting of them.close dolphins 3

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This is a big thrill, and the excitement of this sort of encounter never seems to diminish. There cannot be many situations where a couple of completely wild creatures of this size (seven foot long) voluntarily come within touching distance of a human being. And for me it is all the more compelling because getting several miles offshore, and locating a pod of dolphins, is really quite a challenge.

This particular group seemed quite happy to hang around as I just floated and watched, so I got out the Gopro for some underwater action. I love this (very brief) clip as this dolphin glides by on its side.

Although the water isn’t as clear as it is in the summer, the dolphins came so close I was able to get the best underwater shots I have yet achieved.

This individual takes a good look at the Gopro as it cruises past. A proper dolphin mugshot.

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Common Dolphin

Absolutely excellent, and the fact that it is December makes the whole experience even more remarkable.

I had a good lesson in how to push things too far (or not) on my way back to Marazion. Before the two hour paddle back to my launch site, I could just make out a group of Gannets circling and diving far out to sea. Of course I couldn’t resist heading out to take a look, but  half an hour of paddling and nearly two miles later I still hadn’t arrived upon the scene.

Then, contrary to the forecast which had predicted flat calm all day, a steady north wind picked up. Probably only 10mph but it made the paddle back very long indeed, with a relentless cold breeze in my face and waves slapping over the front slowing me down considerably. The feeding frenzy turned out to be disappointing too, just a couple of distant dolphins and no sign of anything larger (which of course I always hope for).

I arrived back at Marazion, after seven hours on the water and 17.5 miles paddled, fairly pooped. But worth it, with over twenty dolphins and thirty porpoises to enjoy.P1000372

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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.

Guillemot pair
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.

dripping flukes

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…..

until now. gulp 8

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