Six Days of Summer on Shetland

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Shetland puffin

Getting to the top of the UK from Holsworthy represents seven hundred miles of driving and a twelve hour ferry trip from Aberdeen to Lerwick. Just about worth it provided it was wall-to-wall wildlife action and excitement for the entire time we were there. And ideally some good conditions for kayaking so that I could experience paddling in a new location.

Remarkably Unst, Shetland’s most northerly island, is almost exactly the same latitude as southern Greenland where Hezzer and I went on a sea kayaking expedition last year. Just above 60 degrees North. No icebergs around Shetland though.

Driving up the M6 was the usual tedious and stressful challenge (bear in mind we have no traffic queues and only one set of traffic lights in Holsworthy), possibly made worse by the poor weather forecast for Shetland….strong winds and…groan…FOG.

I picked up Hezzer and Sharpy en route and by 7pm we were on the deck of the ferry scanning for sea creatures. Glimpses of porpoises and the odd Puffin, that’s all.

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Hezzer and Sharpy

First day on Shetland was a bit of a struggle, especially as southern England was basking in 30 degrees and sunshine. It was windy, cold, wet and sometimes misty, sometimes foggy. But I was determined to camp. My amateurish festival-style tent might well collapse or blow away, but we were going to give it a go. We pitched it at a sort of official campsite at the marina at Brae and although it bent and distorted alarmingly it looked like it would just about survive.

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Orca in the Fog (the only one we saw)

We took a stroll to a sandy beach on the adjacent island of Muckle Roe and while hunkered down out of the wind an otter appeared around the headland and started to swim towards us. The wind was in our face so it would not catch our scent (if it was downwind it wouldn’t have come within sight). Hezzer got ready with his camera but before I had time to get mine out of its waterproof bag the otter appeared in the waves breaking on the shore just in front of us. It emerged from the water and without hesitation strode directly towards Hezzer who was settled on the foreshore, with a sort of ‘what are you doing on my patch?’ type attitude (the otter, not Hezzer).

It marched forward, hesitated, then continued its approach, finally stopping when it was only five paces in front of Hezzer. When it clicked what was going on it fairly rapidly, but not panickly, returned to the sea, and carried on fishing. It emerged onto the beach again a bit further on, sniffed about a bit, and then swam back to the point where it had come from.

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Hezzer and his Otter

The next couple of days involved trying not to get battered or crushed by the wind, and working our way north to the island of Unst, the most northerly part of the UK. We witnessed some superb wildlife action between Arctic Skuas and Arctic terns as the former tried to steal the latter’s lunch. Sometimes four skuas to one tern.

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Hezzer plus Arctic Tern friend

We camped wild one night on the west coast of Yell, and in the grounds of Gardisfauld Hostel on Unst for the remaining three. It’s got  a superb view out over the sound where we saw otters, seals and all manner of seabirds. And a rainbow.IMG_5318

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Hezzer and Yours truly at Gardisfauld

Hermaness nature reserve overlooking Muckle Flugga lighthouse is as far north as you can get in the UK. And it is staggering because of its wild west-facing coast with offshore stacks whit-topped with Gannets, as well as vast areas of moorland dotted with numerous pairs of ‘Bonxie’ Great Skuas, which were either cruising about looking for trouble (as Bonxies do) or standing about displaying by throwing their wings back and uttering a primeval gulping call that sends a shiver up your spine (in a horror movie type way).

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Bonxies Displaying

But I do like Bonxies, they are one of my favourite seabirds. Non-birders hardly notice them because they look so scruffy.

At last, after three days, the wind dropped. It was due to stay fairly calm till lunchtime the next day, which just happened to be 21 June, the longest day of the year. I have always made an extra special effort to get up extra early on the longest day so I didn’t need much persuasion to set my alarm clock for 4am, as I was itching to go for a paddle. My Cobra Expedition kayak had travelled the best part of one thousand miles on the roof of the car to get here; it would be a pity to take it back without it getting wet (with sea water).

In fact the alarm clock was surplus to requirements because a Blackbird, which had made one of only about three bushes on the entire island its home, decided to have a bit of a sing-song to welcome in the dawn at 2.30. It did well to spot the difference between night and day because at this latitude there is not a lot of difference and you can still just about read a book in the darkest part of the night.

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Early Start (note incorrect date)

I was all packed up and on the water by 3.40am. My earliest start ever on a kayaking trip. And was very excited because early means otters.

Less than a minute of paddling along the glass calm water in front of Gardisfauld Hostel I heard a cat yowling from the undergrowth and saw an otter hopping about amongst the rocks. Obviously not the cat’s best chum. This was followed a couple of minutes later by another (otter, not cat), also on the shore, which was an unusually pale individual.

I crossed the sound over to the island of Uyea as a couple of Red-throated Divers (Rain Geese as they are called in Shetland) arrived from their freshwater loch for breakfast in the sea, striking the water at speed breast-first with quite a splash. The sound of their honking calls as birds shuttled backwards and forwards to their breeding areas in the hills, was more or less continuous all morning.

There was a lot of honking which apparently means there is going to be a lot of rain. ‘They’ were right.

Another singleton otter as I arrived at the shore of Uyea and then I heard a piercing otter ‘whistle’ followed by a bit of a chatter as an otter on a rock communicated to its mate which was following some distance behind. All a bit too dark for photos as it wasn’t even four o’clock!

As it brightened I had an excellent prolonged view of an otter fishing in front of me. I followed it along at a safe distance and watched as it emerged onto a rock to munch its way through a butterfish in a typical noisy, mouth open, crunchy otter way. And a half decent photograph.

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Otter on Uyea Island

As I emerged out of the shelter of the island around the more exposed east-facing shore of Uyea the otters were replaced by Grey Seals and a few small groups of Black Guillemots which were uttering their high-pitched whistling calls, one of which sounded more like a Great Tit.

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Black Guillemots

As I rounded a headland the golden sandy beach of Sand Wick came into view, but before stretching my legs on the sand, I took a diversion up the narrow inlet of the Ham of Muness. A bottling seal, noisy Arctic tern colony and Fulmars nesting on an old building kept me entertained, but as soon as I saw an otter swimming directly towards me I took evasive action before it detected me and paddled round in a huge circle and tucked in to the shore, hoping it would swim right past. I held on to a flat rock on the shore and got my camera ready. The otter appeared, swimming quite happily, and then dived. The trail of bubbles approached, went under the front of my kayak, and the otter momentarily climbed out of the water onto the flat rock, close enough to touch. In an instant and a splash of water it was gone.

I felt a built guilty about upsetting this otter but I was actually stationary and the otter came to me, I wasn’t chasing it around.

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Grey Seal (bottling)

At the headland I had the briefest view of a porpoise surfacing once, the only cetacean I was to see in Shetland.

I downed a king-sized Bakewell Tart (from Baltasound Bakery) on Sand Wick while a trio of Red-Throated Divers came close into the shallows.

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Red-Throated Divers

After my pit-stop just as I was leaving the beach Hezzer and Sharpy appeared over the horizon so I stopped to have a word with them, watching the terns fishing in the bay.

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Sand Wick, Unst
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Fulmar

Then it was back the way I had come, this time including a circuit of the small island of Half Gruney in the itinerary. I was a bit surprised to pass a lone Sanderling on the exposed rocks; they are usually faithful to beaches.

After an excellent encounter with three incredibly approachabl Arctic Terns on the way back, I arrived back at Gardisfauld at midday after an eight hour 20 plus mile paddle…my first in Shetland. And six otters….five before 5am…..that’s another first!

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Arctic Tern
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Beautiful Arctic Tern

The rain, and wind, arrived later in the day and the tent buckled and tent poles splintered. During the night I frequently got a faceful of canvas but we all kept dry and the tent stayed essentially tent-shaped (thanks to a roll of Gorilla tape).

Our final day was spent with a steady drive back down the island chain to the ferry terminal at Lerwick, and a warm (!) sunny afternoon seawatching at Sumburgh Head, hoping for the Orca pack to appear. Needless to say it didn’t, but we had superb views of Puffins and both species of skua. Hezzer glimpsed a Minke Whale far,far out but I failed to spot it.

That was it. Fairwell to Shetland.

It was such a pleasant evening as the ferry crept across Lerwick harbour, the kayakers and paddleboarders were out in their boardshorts.

Despite the windchill from the speed of the ferry I stayed out on deck for several hours. A big swirl at the surface close by was confirmed to be a Minke whale by the only other few people left on the deck who saw it before it dived. I must have missed seeing the actual creature by less than  a hundredth of a second. Probably the same one Hezzer had seen from the shore, as we were passing Sumburgh Head.

That would have been the icing on what was already a pretty good cake.

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Gannet

One of my personal rules about kayaking is that I spend at least as long on the water as the car journey it took to get there.

Oops.

This is the first time I think I have failed, and failed in a spectacular fashion. Twenty-five to thirty hours in the car for eight hours on the water. Crikey.

Time to get back to Devon and put in some hours on my local patch.

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Typical Shetland Scenery (although it’s not usually sunny)

 

 

The Upper Reaches. The Camel and Truro River.

I really enjoy exploring the extreme upper tidal limit of rivers on a big Spring tide. You can investigate all sorts of places you wouldn’t have a hope of getting to in anything but a kayak. They are also more or less immune to bad weather as they tend to be in sheltered wooded valleys.

In South West England the big Spring tide always occur at about 6am and 6pm (high tides in the middle of the day are always neap). this suits me just fine because I love paddling at first light because there is never anyone else around, you don’t have trouble finding a place in the carpark, and you might just be lucky enough to see some special wildlife that is essentially nocturnal and hasn’t quite gone to bed yet.

That is precisely what happened when I set off up the River Camel from Wadebridge recently just as it was getting light and on a massive tide. In my Gumotex Safari Inflatable. There was a pretty decent current flowing upstream through the town but this was soon balanced by the river flowing in the opposite direction.

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Wadebridge

I hadn’t been up here for several years but was soon enjoying it immensely as the river twisted and turned through thick woodland,  every so often brushing up against the old railway track which is the Camel trail cycle path.

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Upper tidal Camel River

I could sense otters so I paddled slowly in almost complete silence , and was thrilled to see the back of a dog otter as it dived in mid river just as I came round the corner. I slunk off to the bank and watched it fishing for a few more minutes before it disappeared under the overhanging bank. Superb.

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Otter

Only half-a-mile further on I encountered a smaller otter, probably his mate, fishing in exactly the same manner in the clear waters of the freshwater river. I just managed to creep past without frightening it when it went to the shore. Not easy as the river was only about ten metres wide but I was pretty determined not to spook it.

The Truro river at the head of the Carrick Roads complex of rias is a bit different. Very different in fact because you end up paddling through the middle of a city , but still a lot of fun especially as this was another bit of water I hadn’t paddled for many years.

I paddled upstream with the tide from Loe Beach near Restronguet and thought I would have an easy ride past King Harry Ferry and the junction with the Fal River. But no, there was a stiff northerly wind blowing and this far outweighed any tidal benefit. Pulling the paddle through the water was more like dragging it through treacle.

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King Harry Ferry

Past the line of very smart riverside properties at Malpas,  Truro cathedral swings into view a couple of miles away to lure you in. The approach to the impressive edifice is very much smeared by an enormous pile of scrap metal on the quayside , and banging and crashing and metallic scrunching noises emanating from the vehicles shovelling it around.

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Truro Scrapyard

The enjoyment of this particular trip is that you can paddle up into Truro past Tesco and a loads of offices, under the A39 and then up a culvert right into the bowels of the Cathedral. I’m not sure why it appeals to me, as there is not a lot of hope of seeing any otters. Maybe its just that it is a jaunt exclusive to kayaks. Any other craft would have got snagged on the semi-submerged shopping trolleys long before they got to the Cathedral.

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Truro Cathedral

If you have a penchant for big country estate houses then you will not be disappointed on the way back (or the way up, for that matter) as you can admire the sweeping green lawns of Tresillian House overlooking the length of Carrick Roads, or the more elusive Tregothnan Estate peeping over the top of the trees, and redundant ships, at the Fal/Truro junction.

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Tregothnan
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Tresillian

The sheltered creeks of the Carrick road complex provide fantastic  paddling which is usually protected from wind and is essentally flat water. There are a host of side creeks to keep you entertained all day, or maybe two or three.

There is no swell apart from where the Fal River opens out into the broad waters of the Roads itself, and here conditions can get a bit lumpy when there is a southerly wind as it is exposed to a five mile fetch of   pretty open water to Falmouth.

For me the most exciting part about kayaking up these sort of secret hidden places is the wildlife. It provides the opportunity to encounter freshwater species which you don’t see much during the summer because the rivers are no-go with the fishing season. Kingfishers, Dippers, Grey wagtails, not to mention the explosion of spring flowers….bluebells and wild garlic (THE smell of mid Spring) to name but a couple.

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Upper reaches of tidal River Camel

You never know what you might see…

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Swimming Roe Deer

 

Otters

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Otter at Applecross, Scotland

Otters really ‘do it’ for me. Watching an otter is always an absolute thrill, as they are unbelievably difficult to see and are nearly always in an extreme wilderness environment. And kayaking along long stretches of coast or riverbank in complete silence has got to be the best way to see them.

They are largely nocturnal and so the best time to see them is very early in the morning when some are still larking about after a late night out. This suits me just fine as I really like the early mornings.

It is only in the remotest and least disturbed places that otters can be encountered throughout the day. I would estimate that 90% of all the otters I have seen from my kayak have been before 9am. I get the impression that dull damp days encourage them to get out a bit more, and I have rarely seen them in sunshine.

Dogs are otter’s number one enemy, and it is amazing that otter-hunting was only banned in the UK in 1979, although ironically it was the otter-hunters who noticed the catastrophic crash in numbers, due to pesticides, during that era.

Since then the population appears to have recovered, allowing otter watchers like me to have a pretty decent chance of an encounter.

I have been very fortunate to have seen may dozens of otters in the sea off the west coast of Scotland and a handful in the Scottish rivers.

My one kayak trip to the Norfolk Broads proved successful with a decent encounter in Barton Broad.

And down here in Devon and Cornwall the otter population is very healthy. Appropriately the Torridge, made famous by Henry Williamson’s Tarka, seems to have the greatest numbers. It is just perfect for them, with clean water away from any significant town to clutter it up or pollute it , and fifty plus miles of wooded bank and very little access to the public, and their dogs.

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Perfect otter habitat on River Torridge

Torrington is about the only town and that seems to be nice and clean. I have seen an otter quite happily fishing  just below the outflow from its sewage works.In fact the bridges over the Torridge at Torrington and their brickwork and large blocks beside the river seem to attract otters and maybe provide homes for them.

The weirs on the lower Torridge are a magnet for otters and I have seen them eating eels which I suppose are concentrated around the obstacles, as are other migratory fish such as salmon. Beam weir beneath the Tarka trail cycle path is reckoned to be one of the best locations in the country to observe otters.

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Weir on Torridge…..otter heaven

I have also encountered otters fishing in the upper tidal reaches of the Torridge when I have paddled up with the tide from Bideford. Never further than a mile or so downstream of the absolute tidal limit, and never yet in the muddy estuarine area.

The same applies to the river Tamar where I have regularly seen otters, always early in the morning, in the upper tidal section of the river below Gunnislake weir. I have only once seen a dog otter below Morwellham quay a couple of miles downstream of Gunnislake weir (the tidal limit).

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Fat Tamar Otter

I have watched a pair of otters on the river Taw and come across a single dog otter on the River Tone east of Taunton.This was particularly memorable because I silently drifted into a bush beside the bank as soon as I saw it, and then discovered that the otter had done exactly the same thing and was snorting warning calls from the depths of the bush only a few feet away from me.

Only twice have I seen an otter in a proper estuary around the southwest. Recently on the Camel half way between Wadebridge and Padstow, and several years ago near the china clay terminal at Fowey (as usual at dawn).

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Otter on Camel estuary

I have yet to see one in the open sea in Devon and Cornwall but it does occasionally happen and I have seen otter tracks on open exposed beached near Boscastle.

Although guilty of trying to get too close for that classic photograph in the past, my number one aim when I see an otter now is to try to watch it without causing any disturbance to it, and to ‘get past’ without it knowing I was there. Not easy on a narrow river. If an otter detects your presence it will disappear immediately and you will not see it again, apart from the occasional one in Scotland that comes up underneath the seaweed, thinking it is invisible.

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Otter attempting concealment (unsuccessfully)

Otters have an excellent sense of smell and hearing but poor eyesight. Or maybe their eyesight is good but they are not too worried about what they see until their smell or hearing send out alarm bells.

I watched one munching its way through a salmon on the bank of the Torridge as I was sitting in my kayak tucked in on the opposite bank, twenty yards away. The otter was quite happy until I reviewed the photos I had so far taken, and the very faint ‘peep’ the camera made as i scrolled through the images caused it to look up and stare hard at me,  even above the roar of the rapids. Fortunately I was downwind, otherwise it could have had a REALLY nasty shock.

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Torridge otter with salmon

Amazingly, and possibly irritatingly, my best and most clear otter photograph wasn’t taken by me at all.

Mid December 2009, and I was sprinting along the canal in Bude in my racing sea kayak. It was just getting light. I thought I was going at quite an impressive lick so was a bit surprised to be overtaken by a string of bubbles at the surface. An otter popped up in front of me and swam to the lock gates to munch a fish it had just caught.

On the spur of the moment I turned my kayak around and sprinted back to my car, left the kayak on the bank, drove 10 miles back to my house Holsworthy, and dashed indoors to wake up my son, Henry, to tell him to come and see the otter and maybe get a photo. Not easy, but he was bundled into the car and we drove back to Bude. I dropped him at the far end of the canal and told him to walk along the towpath to meet me paddling towards him from the other end, so if the otter was still in the canal we would pincer it somewhere between us.

I then drove back to my kayak and paddled off towards Henry, this time definitely going at Olympic speed because I was so excited. After 2 miles flat out, and 2 portages, I found Henry standing on the towpath a few yards from where I had dropped him off. Exasperated that he hadn’t walked along to meet me, he explained that the otter was just where I had dropped him off, and he showed me the photographs. Stunning. Clear and perfect.

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Henry’s otter on Bude Canal

He then wanted me to take him home. All I had to do was paddle 2 miles back to pick up the car…..

I havn’t really got a better photo in the rivers of SW England since. Otters tend to be seen in conditions of poor light and under dark riverbanks, so it’s always a struggle with aperture, shutterspeed and sharpness of image. It’s a bit easier in the open air of the Scottish coast (but not much).

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Dog Otter on Mull

For me seeing an otter from my kayak is just about as exciting as seeing a dolphin way offshore in the summer.

Even catching a glimpse of one is a huge challenge, and for every decent view I have had, I have had many more of a tail disappearing below the surface…and no more.

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Typical view of vanishing otter

However if you are lucky you can see one diving and fishing in the open river a long way ahead, and they are so active that they cause a fair amount of disturbance at the surface, which can be seen from afar. They literally slither through the water and can move amazingly fast. My most recent encounter on the River Torridge involved three otters that were porpoising along in mid river. As they headed off downstream it was all I could do to keep up with them, paddling flat out a couple of hundred yards behind them so I wasn’t detected. I eventually overtook them as they took time out in a riverside bush. they didn’t notice me. Excellent.

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Trio of porpoising otters on River Torridge

When groups are involved, especially families with cubs, my attention has sometimes been drawn to otters by explosive high-pitched squeaks which I think are calls from the adults, and quieter squeaks from the cubs. In Scotland I have heard otters bark a sort of snuffling call when they are uncomfortable about you being there.

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Otter cub

I am never quite so excited to see Mink, although they are significantly rarer than otters. I would guess I see one Mink to every ten otters. Hopefully they will all be trapped and soon be gone as they eat anything that moves, and have single-handedly caused the near extinction of the likeable little Water Vole.

Since escaping, or being released, from fur farms Mink have spread the entire length of the country. I saw a couple in the most remote part of Western Scotland, fishing in the sea (the Mink, not me). When disturbed they have the gall to actually swim towards you to get a better look at who or what is interfering with their routine, staring you out with beady little black eyes.

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Silver Mink
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Brown Mink

So otters very definitely get the thumbs up from me. Mink don’t.

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Close encounter, Kylesku Scotland

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Pelican!

As autumn progresses the opportunities for offshore paddling in search of cetaceans diminish. Both wind and swell increase and the sea generally becomes less friendly and also I just don’t fancy paddling around miles offshore when it is cold. It’s fine when you are clad in a vest and it’s nice and hot and sunny. Falling in wouldn’t be a problem; in fact it would be a good way to cool off.p1040427

And anyway the cetaceans thin out as the season wears on.

Possibly my final offshore jaunt of the year was to Falmouth bay on a calm October morning. A couple of Sandwich terns hunting in Carrick Roads showed that winter was not here yet. One joined a roost of Mediterranean Gulls for a bit of a breather. Mediterranean gulls used to be rare but now there is a significant influx every year from mid summer onwards.

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Sandwich Tern
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Mediterranean Gulls

A few seals splashed about in the mouth of the Percuil River.

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Nice eyebrows

Passing the lighthouse at St Anthony the bay looked calm and welcoming so I headed out. It was still enough to hear a couple of schools of porpoises ‘piffing’ long before I saw them. And I would have missed a small school of Common Dolphins had I not been looking directly at them as one leaped half out of the water. They sped past and were remarkably difficult to observe, and were soon gone. All I could see were the spurts of water at the surfaces as their fins emerged, I couldn’t actually see the fins.

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St Anthony head

A sudden major splash drew my attention to several large dolphin sized creatures breaching clear of the water. They looked completely silvery and I wasn’t really concentrating and it all happened in the blink of an eye (maybe I was blinking as well). So I’m not really sure what they were but I think they were Tuna! Yes, Tuna! Blinking heck! They did not reappear so I’m even more certain they weren’t dolphins, as I would have expected them to surface for a breath somewhere within sight.

I know that Bluefin Tuna are around but this is the first time I have seen them from my kayak in the UK. Funnily enough I did see one jumping in exactly the same way in Southern Spain in March. Getting a better view (and hopefully a photo) will be one of my targets for next year.

While loafing about three miles offshore I noticed that one of the tankers moored up in Falmouth bay had completely disappeared…..fog! It was rolling in like a blanket.

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Foggy St Anthony Head

Although I had my GPS with me I felt a bit vulnerable as the mist rolled towards me and regretted not having a compass as a back up. It wouldn’t be too good if the batteries in the GPS went. I pushed for the rocky coast quite hard and as it was I never quite lost sight of it. Interestingly the sea fog that day was not forecast. Good lesson. Always be prepared.

There are plenty of estuaries and sheltered inlets around south west England to provide entertainment when the open sea is no go. I hadn’t ‘done’ the Camel estuary for a few years so set off from Wadebridge and drifted downstream on the outgoing tide. It was a cold and wet day and I could hardly believe my eyes when an otter appeared fishing in the open estuary in front of me. Of the hundred or so otters I have seen around Devon and Cornwall in the last decade this is only the second one I have seen in a proper marine environment, and I have yet to encounter one in the open coast.

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Otter on Camel

I gave it a wide berth in an effort not to disturb it, but as I got upwind it definitely got a wiff of me. And clearly didn’t like it too much. It slipped into the water and disappeared.

I was completely absorbed by the hoards of wading birds including Spotted Redshank, Greenshank and Black-tailed Godwits as I paddled slowly down towards Padstow. With that classic winter soundtrack of the estuary…..the bubble of Curlew, the mew of Lapwing, the whistle of Wigeon and the ping of Teal.

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Lapwing

I did a double-take on a huge white bird in flight when I realised it wasn’t a swan. a quick fumble for my binoculars with cold hands…..it’s a Pelican! And it was quite a lot bigger than a swan.

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Dalmatian Pelican

dalmatian-pelican-2A Dalmatian Pelican, and the first one to be seen in the UK for over a hundred years. I was aware it had been ‘doing the rounds ‘ of the estuaries of Cornwall and had even ventured up to the Taw estuary in Devon, before coming back to its apparent favourite place, the Camel. So I was half expecting to see it, but it was still a bit of a thrill.

Even when there is not a lot of wildlife to see, the broad-leaved woodland that clads the hills around many of the inlets of the south-west provide a very scenic backdrop to an autumnal paddle.

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Tamar estuary
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Tamar at Morwellham

The Tamar is one of my favourites as it is very sheltered and always offers Kingfishers and a few Dippers up near Gunnislake weir.

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Kingfisher

Kayaking around the coast has its unexpected moments. I have rescued several inflatables plus occupants being blown offshore, but never before a diver with cramp. I towed him half a mile into Port Mellon bay near Mevagissey. Hard work and unbelievably slow but it warmed me up. A lot.p1020849p1020850

Good view of a fox, a young looking one, on the edge of Roadford Lake.

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Roadford Fox
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Early morning on the Torridge