The Portugese Armada

I like jellyfish  and feel we have something in common. Not so much that they are exotic and mysterious, but because they have no brain.

Up till now I have come across six different species:

Common, or Moon jellyfish.

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Common Jelly

Blue Jellyfish.

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Blue jelly

Lion’s Mane Jellyfish

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lion’s Mane Jelly

Compass Jellyfish.

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Compass Jellyfish

Barrel Jellyfish. These are the first ones to appear in April and are up to the size of a dustbin!

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Barrel Jellyfish

Crystal Jellyfish. These are supposed to be very rare, or have been up till very recently, and are like something out of Avatar.

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Crystal Jelly

This autumn I have heard about some Cornish beaches being closed  because Portugese Men of War jellyfish had been washed up, but  I wasn’t expecting to see one while out paddling because typically only a handful turn up each year.

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Mount’s Bay

I was hopeful for an encounter when I did a circuit of Mount’s Bay starting at Marazion. It was a bit choppy but I still went straight across to Mousehole. I had a brief view of a couple of porpoises and was very lucky to see a handful of Common Dolphins which passed just in front of me and stayed alongside for a couple of minutes. There were a couple of silvery-coloured youngsters in the group. Photography was very difficult and this is the only half-decent shot I  managed:

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Juvenile Common Dolphin (I think)

Spotting cetaceans in choppy conditions, let alone photographing them, is quite a challenge.

As I was watching the dolphins I drifted towards a floating translucent bladder with a mauve tinge….a Portugese Man of War jelly. I was actually a bit disappointed because it struggles to live up to it’s very dramatic name and I thought at first it was a discarded plastic bag. However I treated it with respect as I knew the dangling blue tentacles can pack a nasty sting, and recoiled in horror as it seemed to suddenly come towards me although it had probably just been caught by a gust of wind.

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Portugese Man of War Jellyfish

Over the next six hours I came across fifteen Men of War, up to about ten inches long and some without ‘tentacles’.

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Portugese Man of War

And my encounters with ‘Floating Terrors’ (another of it’s superb names) didn’t stop there. A couple of days later while kayaking between Looe and Polperro, Dave, Paul and myself  passed another twenty or so of the much-feared siphonophore (technically the Portugese Man of War is not a jellyfish but a siphonophore consisting of three types of medusoid and four types of polypoid grouped into cormidia beneath the pneumatophore. Jelly would be so much easier).

To be honest some looked more like a shortcrust top-crimped Cornish pasty.

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Portugese Man of War in Full Sail

The sea was quite lumpy again but it didn’t interfere with our jellyfish spotting and, as usual, a good time was had by all.

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Paul, Dave and lumpy sea

The ultra-sheltered narrow harbour of Polperro provided a bit of a break before the paddle back to Looe.

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Polperro
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Looe Harbour

Incidentally, the unluckiest jellyfish I have ever seen is this one that was in the wrong place at the wrong time and was accidentally inhaled by a Basking Shark who usually prefer a diet of plankton. Maybe it was having the jelly for afters.

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Basking Shark and the unluckiest jellyfish in Cornwall

This strange, windblown visitor from the subtropics is probably the most dangerous sea creature I have yet encountered. I have had a few tussles with quite large fish with impressive teeth while doing a spot of fishing, but I think the Man of War just about takes the biscuit in terms of health hazard.

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shark…piece of cake
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Portugese Man of War…takes the biscuit

 

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Destination: Dolphins

IMG_0953Fired up by my encounter with the ultra rare Wilson’s Petrel, I was dead keen to get offshore again to taste more wildlife action. A week later conditions for the Eddystone were just about OK for another jaunt out to the lighthouse. I make sure that the mean windspeed, and more importantly, the gusts, are forecast to blow at no more than 10mph for the whole eight or nine hours of the trip. Any more than this makes it a bit less relaxing, and the chances of seeing a cetacean’s fin decreases dramatically. Windspeed doesn’t matter so much for seabirds, but taking a photo becomes very much more difficult as the kayak moves around a lot more.

Despite careful planning I was caught out by the strong current at the mouth of Plymouth sound which was throwing up quite a chop. It was caused by the very big Spring tide which was flowing out into a light SW wind. I nearly turned back but every often I could see the patch of calmer water some distance ahead, so battled on across the flow until I reached the quieter area.

Quite a few more Balearic Shearwaters  and a scattering of Storm Petrels further out. A single fin flashed past in front of me with a bit of a puff…it looked like a lone Common Dolphin-far too fast for a porpoise.

As I neared the lighthouse a flurry of splashing in the calm water to my left made me power towards it to investigate. I found myself in amongst a pod of about ten Common Dolphins, and they seemed as though they wanted to play as they all came over to surround me and splash about. As they swum underneath the kayak they turned on their side and looked up. I piled on the speed and they sped alongside-one of the very few times I have had dolphins bowriding my kayak.

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Common Dolphin
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Common Dolphins from kayak
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Common Dolphin

They surged around me very close and splashed me several times. I snapped away with the camera but always seemed to just miss the best action.

I continued on my route to the lighthouse and for five minutes they continued along in a chaotic splashing escort. Absolutely excellent.

Finally they peeled off and very rapidly disappeared.

At one stage as I was stationary taking in the excitement of the dolphins, a Sooty Shearwater flew past close, followed by a Balearic Shearwater and a Storm petrel ,all within a minute of each other.

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Sooty Shearwater

To round off the exceptional wildlife sightings of the day I ran into a juvenile Puffin on the way back, not quite as striking as in their adult breeding plumage!

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Juvenile Puffin

And had to dodge a tanker coming out of Plymouth.IMG_8340

As usual I pushed my luck too far and paddled once more to the Eddystone a few days later and encountered only a pair of porpoises. However they came very close to the kayak and puffed in a very loud manner when they took breath. I’m not surprised one of their local names is ‘Puffing Pig’.

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Harbour Porpoise
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Harbour porpoise off Plymouth

On this particular trip I was very pleased I was able to rescue a sub-adult Gannet that had a long length of rope wrapped around its lower jaw. I was unable to yank it free from distance so ended up grabbing the gannet by the back of the neck and teasing the strands of rope from its beak, while it tried to nip my hand. Quite a risky procedure to carry out nine miles from the nearest land, but it turned out successfully, although the Gannet was a bit fatigued, and dishevelled.

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Rescued Gannet

My next, very brief, dolphin encounter was on a very rare calm day on the North Cornish coast a couple of miles off Bude. A fleeting view of two Common Dolphins.

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Bude Common Dolphins

Then it was down to the far west of Cornwall in an effort to see one of the whales which have been reported down there.

A twelve mile paddle from Pothgwarra back to Marazion, and again I was disappointed with the sparsity of wildlife. Just one Sooty Shearwater and one Balearic although there was a constant stream of Manx Shearwaters zipping past my kayak that stopped me from getting bored.

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Balearic Shearwater

By shear luck, as I was only a mile or so from my destination, I caught a fraction of a second glimpse of a dolphin leaping clear of the water, about a quarter of a mile away. I surged towards it and thought I had missed them but then saw a group of fins moving very quietly at the surface. They disappeared then exploded into action with a good display. There was a very young calf jumping perfectly alongside his Mum.

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Common Dolphins
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Common Dolphins

As I was waiting for a dolphin to surface with camera poised, it popped up only a couple of feet away, too big to fully fit in the picture!IMG_8849

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Trying to find dolphins from a kayak is very difficult. You really can’t use binoculars so you are left with searching with your bare  eyeballs.

Using a telescope or binoculars from a headland foreshortens the distance so you can see everything in an instant that would take up to two hours to paddle across in a kayak!

When I came back from the Eddystone the other day, having failed to see any dolphins during nine hours of paddling, I cast my binoculars out over a glassy flat Whitsand Bay during my drive home, and immediately spotted a pod of twenty dolphins a couple of miles offshore. Almost too easy.

But strangely for me having the odds impossibly stacked up is part of the appeal, and the results are certainly worth the wait.IMG_8147

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Arrival at Marazion

 

Incredible Peregrine Attack

After my amazing hour spent watching the Bottlenose Dolphins I thought that the wildlife excitement was over for the day. I couldn’t have been more wrong.

The sea was so unusually smooth, with virtually no swell coming in from the Atlantic.  I kept well offshore in the hope of seeing some Common Dolphins. One and-a-half miles from the coast. It was absolutely silent apart from the sporadic cackle of scattered groups of auks, and the ‘piff’ of a pod of four porpoises. It was so still that although the sound of their blows was quite loud they were so far away I could only just see their fins breaking the surface.

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Guillemots and Tater Du lighthouse

Half way between Mousehole and Lamorna Cove there was a loud ripping sound coming from somewhere overhead, as though the sky was being torn. A small dark shape hurtled down towards the sea and suddenly twisted and turned. At the same time I heard a faint whistle which sounded like a sandpiper, although it was the sandpiper equivalent of a desperate shriek.

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Peregrine dropping to surface

I saw a brief splash as something hit the water, and the pursuing peregrine circled around for a second attempt to catch its victim. I rapidly dug out my camera and started snapping. The peregrine dropped to sea level and to my astonishment dipped its feet into the water to try to retrieve the sandpiper which had at this stage disappeared from the surface. It must have dived to avoid the peregrine.

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peregrine dipping its feet underwater
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Unsuccessful

The peregrine circled around again and again hovered briefly over the spot where the sandpiper floundered. No success so it circled around another couple of times. I could see the sandpiper’s head  poking above the surface, which is just visible in one of the photos with the peregrine marauding above.

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Peregrine circling. Sandpiper’s head just visible below peregrine’s left wing.

After four or five circuits the peregrine, which looked like a tiercel, gave up and made for the coast. I immediately paddled over to rescue the sandpiper which I thought must be in some kind of trouble. Even if it wasn’t , sandpipers are not designed to go swimming in the open sea (although funnily enough I saw a Grey phalarope swimming in almost exactly this place last September) so it probably needed some kind of help.

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Floundering, but relieved, Sandpiper

As I approached it understandably started swimming away, but I wasn’t expecting it to take flight when I was about six foot away. It seemed absolutely fine, alternating flapping with a brief glide on bowed wings in classic Common Sandpiper fashion. And was gone.

I was still trying to process what I had just witnessed. It’s always like that after a peregrine attack. The action is so unexpected and so fast and so exciting it’s a bit tricky for a doughbrain to process.

I still can’t quite believe that two of the most spectacular wildlife sightings I have had in over 17,000 miles paddled in my kayak occurred within an hour of each other.

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Still Hungry

Dolphins!

This was forecast to be the last day of the cam weather in SW England before the high pressure moved away. In fact today was a bonus day because the winds were originally supposed to pick up overnight.

Despite spending virtually all day on the water yesterday I thought I’d better make the effort to go somewhere special and maybe do a bit of offshore paddling. Mount’s Bay should fit the bill nicely, with hopefully some cetacean sightings.

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Arrival at Sandy Bay

I arrived at Sandy Bay beside Newlyn harbour a bit later than I had intended. Although it’s not at all sandy it’s got a great view across the bay so I was going to have breakfast in a relaxed manner (muesli) before paddling off, while looking for marine wildlife through my binoculars.

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Sandy Bay…it’s not sandy

No chance of relaxation. Within five seconds of lifting the binoculars to my eyes and focusing on the sea a mile away off Penlee point, I was watching a large pod of Bottlenose Dolphins moving steadily across the bay towards St. Michael’s Mount. Aaargh, if only I had arrived ten minutes earlier I would have been beside them.

I got all my kayaking  stuff together in a record time (including packing muesli and milk) and went tearing off across the completely smooth water at Olympic pace. But the dolphins were gone so I throttled back and made a bee-line for St Michael’s Mount anyway. They might just be hanging around feeding somewhere.

I stopped for (late) breakfast in the middle of the bay and then cruised on. The briefest flash of sun reflected off the surface, which shouldn’t have happened because there were no waves. Just maybe it was a dolphin’s fin.  There it was again, and this time it was followed by a splash. Yes!

I cranked the speed back up to over 5 mph, and soon started to see quite a few fins appearing, together with puffs of spray. I could hear the blows. The dolphins were now heading back towards me, so I drifted to a halt and waited. As they approached I could hear the engine of the Marine Discovery catamaran coming up behind me from Penzance harbour.

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Marine Discovery Yacht

They put on a superb show right in front of us, surging about all over the place and occasionally hurling themselves right out of the water or just splashing on their sides. It was totally enthralling as there were quite a lot of them ( 15-20) and they are quite big creatures. In a kayak there is a feeling of uncertainty when they come really close.

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Bottlenose Dolphins

After a brief chat with the Marine Discovery folk, and hearing the dolphins clicking on their hydrophone, they (Marine Dicovery) continued on their way, but I stayed to see more. This is the sort of excitement that fuels my paddling muscles. (as well as the muesli)

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Bottlenose Dolphins

I spent over an hour watching them. Just me and the dolphins. They worked their way across the bay nearly to Penzance, and then came all the way back again. They accelerated past the end of St. Michael’s Mount and that is where I peeled off.

There were clearly two calves which were not only much smaller but also much paler than the rest. They led the way with the acrobatics and jumped clear of the water on several occasions. They stuck pretty close to Mum and seemed to remain in the middle of the group.

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Acrobatic adolescent dolphin

IMG_2556Two big dolphins with tall blackish fins, which I would presume to be males, patrolled around the outside of the pod like security guards.

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the ‘Security Guards’

I kept a good distance so as not to cause any disturbance, although I was expecting a posse to come over to have a look at me as Bottlenose dolphins have done in the past. A group did approach but then suddenly the whole lot disappeared, left a load of fluke prints all around my kayak, and then popped up a long way away. Maybe they saw me as some sort of threat and were protecting the calves.

I took loads of photos, most with the unexciting backdrop of Penzance industrial estate behind, but then the two bouncers appeared in front of the church (slightly better) before the whole lot passed in front of St. Michael’s Mount (a lot better).

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Bottlenose Dolphin and St. Michael’s Mount

After the dolphin encounter, I paddled across the bay past Mousehole keeping a mile offshore , saw a summer plumaged Great Northern Diver, heard a group of four porpoises puffing before I saw them, then popped in for a nose around Mousehole harbour before heading back around the corner to Sandy Bay.

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Mousehole

Maybe the best thing about Bottlenose Dolphins is their permanent smile.

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Bottlenose Dolphin

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