A sparkling, still, clear morning lured me down to the River Camel for a predawn start. It had to be that early so I could get up to Wadebridge for the turn of the tide, and although my kayak was encrusted in frost I was hopeful, as usual, to have some special wildlife encounters as the sun peeped up.
The beach at Rock was deserted apart from a few slavering mongrels dashing about with their owners frantically blowing whistles and the dogs taking absolutely no notice at all.
It was superb to head off up the estuary with my kayak silently knifing across the glass-calm surface.
The soundtrack to my trip was classic winter wetland birds: the rippling call of Curlew, piping of Oystercatchers, clear call of Redshank and a handful of Greenshank, and mewing of Lapwing.
I kept away from the shore to avoid disturbing the roosting flock of over a hundred oystercatchers at the foot of Cant Hill, and as I approached Cant Cove saw a disturbance on the completely smooth water a hundred yards ahead that didn’t look like a duck.
I engaged ‘stealth mode’ and paddled on in absolute silence and soon realised the ‘v’ on the surface was caused by an otter. It was heading straight towards me so I readied my camera and sat absolutely still. It dived a couple of times but continued on its collision course before glancing off at the last second, passing without apparently being too alarmed by my presence (or smell). Actually it seemed most concerned about the noise my camera made as the ‘burst mode’ clattered away.
A fantastic view in the post-dawn sun, smooth water and nice green backdrop to the image from the reflection of the trees behind.
I followed it along the shore as it continued to hunt, leaving a tell-tale trail of bubbles every time it dived. One dive was long and it covered a surprisingly long distance underwater, before getting out into a mini cave for a bit of a sniff around. I was expecting another good view when it took to the water again but it inexplicably completely disappeared even though there was apparently very few places for it to hide along the open shore.
This is only the third time I have seen an otter in salt water from my kayak in an open estuarine location around SW England. I saw one close to this same spot on the Camel last year, and one on the Fowey estuary many years ago. All the rest have been in the rivers.
There was a lot of waterbird action around the Amble Marshes a bit further upstream and the wind remained non-existent to make the paddling experience as good as it could be on a chilly winter morning. The sun ensured all the birds were looking at their best.
As I quietly slipped along I heard the plinking of a load of pebbles being flipped over along the shoreline and came upon a busy little gang of Turnstones doing just what their name suggests they ought to do. Interestingly I noticed that they flip the stones over by opening their beaks to act like a lever.
The best sighting was a pair of Whooper Swans far off across the saltmarsh but the supporting cast wasn’t to be sneezed at:
After sticking the nose of my kayak beneath the A39 flyover, I sped back down to Padstow on the outgoing tide and my morning of excellent wildlife watching was nicely rounded off by a thumping great Glaucous Gull, a rare winter visitor from the arctic, taking a rest on the sandbar in the middle of the river.
I arrived back at Rock and just about escaped from the car park before I was hemmed in by a convoy of shiny 4x4s with personal numberplates.
100 along Rivers in England (Thames and two Avons)
500+ miles of offshore paddling (more than a mile from the coast) in Devon and Cornwall.
6 trips out to the Eddystone Lighthouse
1 Interception by the UK Border Force
Wildlife seen from my kayak in 2017:
1 Humpback whale seen. Horace, aka Doris, hung around the sheltered waters of Slapton sands in South Devon for an incredible six weeks in the Spring. I saw him (her) twice from my kayak, although the first time shouldn’t really count because he (she) was tangled up in a lobster pot rope.
33 days with Harbour Porpoises seen, a total of approx 177 individuals. Porpoises are very small and very unsplashy and easily overlooked unless the sea is flat calm. For every one I saw, I missed an equal number when all I heard was there ‘piff’ as they breathed, the sound of their breathing carrying long distances over the water.
11 days with Common Dolphins, totally approx 171 individuals. Another 175ish in Spain. Several fantastic close encounters with groups bow riding when I could muster up the power to paddle at top speed. I need to eat more pasties.
Seeing Common Dolphins is extremely unpredictable and random as they range far and wide and usually keep well offshore. However the pods in Torbay around Brixham at the end of the year and running into early 2018, were the closest in, and most regular, I have known.
3 days with Bottlenose Dolphins, totalling 50-80 individuals. Plus 8-10 at Chanonry point in the Moray Firth in Scotland, probably the best dolphin watching location in the UK.
A huge thrill on 18 Dec a couple of miles off Lamorna Cove when a proper ‘stampede’ of 30+ Bottlenosers charged directly towards me in a line all jumping out of the water simultaneously. An unforgettable image.
2017 was by far my best year yet for number of dolphin sightings.
7 Giant Bluefin Tuna sightings, all after 13 Nov. Amazing. I have glimpsed them on occasion before and seen the odd random splash but there seems to have been an invasion of them this autumn. Hopefully it means the baitfish are making a bit of a comeback which will mean more mega sightings of large fish-eating sea creatures.
Four days with tuna at Fowey, with one extraordinary day with scores of splashes and fish jumping right out, one at Mevagissey (double splash), one at Berry Head (double splash), and brief intense feeding frenzy off Lamorna Cove near Penzance.
Loads of seals. All Grey seals in SW England apart from one Harbour Seal near Portscatho.
11 Otters in Devon and Cornwall, plus 6 (before 6am on one day!) in Shetland. A poor year overall for otter sightings; there don’t seem to be so many on the River Torridge. ???
I saw otters on the Rivers Tamar, Taw, Camel and Torridge.
2 Mink. Nasty, nasty little creatures which have almost exterminated Water Voles. Maybe this is a bit unfair because if you are a Mink you do what Minks do and can’t really help it (although leaving Water Voles off the menu would help the public image).
One on the Torridge, one beside the Thames in Marlow!
1 Sunfish at Fowey. There were quite a lot around this year, I just didn’t seem to bump into many by shear random luck (or lack of).
Also one off Gibraltar (also from kayak) on 10 March. A real whopper.
5 days with Portugese Man-of-War sightings, totalling over 50. A good year for jellyfish in general with nine or ten species seen, including the not so common, and unpleasantly named, Mauve Stingers.
Technically Portugese Man o’Wars are not jellyfish, they are Siphonophores. Likewise By-the-wind Sailors (another excellent name) are not jellyfish, they are Hydrozoa. However because I am a bit of a simpleton it seems sensible to lump them all together in one group because they are all jellylike and do what is expected of a jellyfish (i.e. float about and look like they might give you a bit of a sting).
6 Sooty Shearwaters, on four days. A true ocean-wandering seabird which nests on islands in the Southern Ocean. My first ever kayak-seen Sooty ‘Shears’ were the result of my concentrated efforts to paddle offshore this year. 5 seen near Eddystone, 1 near Land’s End.
37 Balearic Shearwaters, on six days. Scattered amongst the much more common Manx Shearwater, usually well offshore.
43 Storm Petrels, on six days from mid June to the end of August. 29 at Eddystone, 1 at Porthcurno and 13, several very close, on a rainy but fortunately fairly windless day off Fowey.
Storm Petrels are probably my favourite pelagic seabird I have seen from my kayak because they look impossibly small and vulnerable when fluttering low over the waves, yet spend all their time when not involved with nesting at sea scattered over the oceans of the world.
They are indeed vulnerable because they seem to be a favourite snack of Peregrines. I have seen a Peregrine snatch a Storm Petrel from just above the surface of a stormy sea off Hartland Point (not from my kayak). Probably a good reason why they usually keep well offshore.
5 ‘Bonxie’ Great Skuas. Another of my favourites, and a sensational encounter with one off Fowey on a calm and sunny day, only a few feet from my kayak. By far my best view in SW England.
6 Arctic Skuas . All near Torbay and no decent photos.
6 Puffins. All around Eddystone. The usual gang of dirty-faced immature birds in late Spring , and one (very unusual sighting, I think) juvenile on 21 Aug. A Puffling.
1 Black Tern In Mevagissey Bay with a load of Common Terns. Only my second ever from a kayak, and first ever half decent pic.
8 Long-tailed Ducks. An exceptionally good year and (yet) another of my favourites. The males are one of the most attractive sea ducks. This year I was treated not only to a superb pair at Porthpean, but also a hugely unusual drake in summer plumage on the Taw estuary on 29 Sept.
1 Pink-footed Goose Another kayaking first , and actually I can’t remember the last time I saw a ‘Pink-foot’, even from dry land. Superb close view, in amongst some Canada Geese, on the upper reaches of the Fowey River.
Several pairs of Black-throated Divers in Scotland. The most beautifully marked UK bird?
Kingfishers on 21 days. Everybody’s favourite waterbird.
1 WILSON’S PETREL. I can still hardly believe this. The chances of seeing one of these from a kayak in England are as remote as Captain Sensible becoming Prime Minister. Ironically they are one of the most numerous birds in the world, nesting in the Southern Hemisphere and visiting the northern oceans in our summer. A lot of birdwatchers spend a lot of time staring out to sea through telescopes hoping to see one but hardly any ever do. It’s only during storms that they are likely to be driven close enough to the shore to be seen, so when the sea is calm enough to venture far out in a kayak the petrels will usually be long gone.
So I was pretty lucky to see one a couple of miles from the Eddystone lighthouse, bringing back memories of the first one I ever saw with my father from the deck of the RMS St.Helena off the coast of South Africa, in 1989.
Finally, 3 Favourite Scenes from the year. All great to look at from the depths of winter and give prospective kayakers hope that at least a few days next year might be warm, sunny and still.
I’m not sure why I like the Thames so much, when my favourite sort of paddling is the open sea. It’s probably because I spent quite a lot of time messing about on the river at Sonning in craft ranging from canvas canoes to tippy marathon racers, in days when I had hair and used to go trainspotting.
Paddling the Thames is about as relaxed as you are going to get in a kayak. The water is flat and the flow is barely perceptible.The only slightly turbulent water is when you are sitting in the locks. Everyone is very friendly because life on the water is a great leveller. And there’s loads of Kingfishers.
I was dropped off at Donnington Bridge in Oxford and had soon inflated Puffing Pig II, my Gumotex Seawave kayak, which was to be my transport for the sixty-five miles down to Cookham. The Seawave is a pretty large craft but I wanted to take all my provisions with me as I have found before that there are not as many convenience shops along the river as you might think. This is actually seems to be true for most of the places I go kayaking.
So I was laden with food, and although I love camping I’m not that hard-core so take along a good thick self-inflating mattress, which also takes up a lot of space. Plus a load of spare clothes in case of disaster. And a fat book….Lord of the Rings (again) in fact, so you can see why I needed a big boat.
Up until Iffley Lock the river was chaos with a rowing race, but below the lock it was pretty much deserted. Just a handful of hire boats (with everyone on board, without exception, clutching a bottle), and a few big River Cruisers which announced their approach with the thump of a bassline from an eighties disco classic long before they came into view. Party goers lurched about on their deck (also clutching bottles). They were pretty pleased when I twirled my paddled in time with ‘Tragedy’ but I nearly dislocated my wrist when the blade snagged the water. Fortunately it happened at exactly at the same moment as Barry Gibb was doing his warbly bit when the whole song grinds to a halt before before the final triumphant (tragic) chorus, and I just about managed to make it look like it was all part of the routine.
Mid September is about as late as I enjoy wild camping in the UK as it is starting to get cold and it is pretty dark by seven. It is also frequently wet and my first day was no exception. I found a decent place to camp before Culham cut but as I was setting up my tent, while simultaneously trying to shoo away a herd of Aberdeen Angus bullocks which were slavering over my bag of pegs, the heavens opened. I dived into the tent and was pretty soon in my sleeping bag as there was really nothing else to do. Except have supper. I unwrapped my (limited edition) Ginsters Beef and Tribute Ale pasty but was horrified to find it was still frozen even though I had taken it out of the freezer at home twelve hours previously.
Was I going to extract myself from my cosy bag and venture out across the stair-rod rain to get a packet of biscuits instead? No way. So I ate the frozen pasty. I just imagined I was eating some type of novelty pastry and meat ice cream and sort of enjoyed it. Actually I didn’t, it was disgusting. Luckily I found a Double Decker tucked away in my lifejacket to have for afters.
I had the Jetboil on for a cup of tea the next morning at the first whiff of light at six, and was on the water long before anyone else, having to operate the first couple of locks myself before the lockkeepers came on duty. The rest of Day 2 was uneventful and very pleasant and peaceful, if a bit cool and cloudy. I had a good view of a Muntjac deer which was grazing beneath the bushes close to the bank. Nice to see because we don’t get them as far down as West Devon.
I camped at my ‘favourite’ spot beside a little sandy beach just beyond Goring lock. At midnight I was awoken by a lot of splashing and chattering noises with quite a few high pitched squeaks. Otters! I shone my pathetic torch out across the river but the snivelling beam never illuminated them, although the noises continued for an hour. I think there were at least two cubs because the squeaks came from two places fifty yards apart. A perfect location for otters with several islands covered in a tangle of bushes and trees. In the morning I found ottery footprints on the beach yards from my tent. Although it was a pity I didn’t see them it is absolutely excellent to know otters are thriving on the Thames.
On Day 3 I paddled through Reading and through a familiar Sonning, although everything looked a lot smaller than when I was ten. I took a prolonged diversion off the main river down the St Patrick’s Stream, which bypasses Shiplake lock, and then the Hennerton Backwater.
Henley was fairly busy with rowing sculls as usual, and drunken fools in zigzagging hire boats, but my attention was suddenly captured by a tussle between a Great-crested Grebe and a whopping fish. The fish was so large that initially it wasn’t entirely clear who was trying to eat who.
The drama which then unfolded over the next ten minutes is the sort of extraordinary wildlife encounter that makes me pick up my paddle time and time (and time and time) again. It was absolutely gripping stuff, and all the more remarkable that it was played out within a stone’s throw from Henley bridge, with nobody else in any of the boats or the buzzing Angel’s Arms having the vaguest notion of what was going on. They were far too busy looking at screens and discussing Bake Off.
The Grebe held a twelve inch Pike in its beak. I would have thought it would have been a bit risky to mess with a Pike half that size, but to tangle with a top predator of that proportion is surely asking for trouble.
The bird kept changing its grasp on the fish and then tried to line it up to get the pike’s head in its mouth. This was initially unsuccessful and I assumed there was no way that the fish would fit down that neck. Wrong. Many minutes later all that was sticking out of the grebe’s beak was the tip of a tail fin, and soon that too disappeared. Absolutely amazing.
Even the local Cormorants were impressed.
I camped at the end of the regatta course and didn’t put up my tent till it started to get dark to avoid detection. Alas, as I was in my sleeping bag, reading about Bilbo’s eleventy- first birthday party, an official-looking launch pulled up and told me I couldn’t camp there. When I groaned in dismay he conceded to let me camp but pay the £10 mooring fee. I’m not sure that this was a good deal but it would have been a drag to move.
Next morning was stunning. No wind and a mist hanging over the water. The rowers were out early and I was scorned by a sculler in a GB team t-shirt who muttered that I was paddling on the wrong side of the river. As I switched sides I was nearly bisected by a coxless four who suddenly appeared out of the mist.
I had a relaxed run through Marlow and was approaching my destination at Cookham when I saw a small lithe black beast scampering along a pontoon. A mink, in the middle of Bourne End! It had a fish in its mouth and scurried into a bush. I stopped and waited and it soon reappeared and stared me out, with those beady black eyes. I have been scrutinised by quite a few mink before and they have such evil intent that it makes you feel a bit uneasy and want to cover up your jugulars.
In wildlife terms they are public enemy number one and it is mink that have exterminated the endearing little Water Vole that used to be so common along the Thames when I was growing up. The characteristic ‘plop’ of a vole jumping into the water was a familiar sound. On this trip I didn’t see a single vole.
I watched the mink for fifteen minutes as it scurried about, eventually emerging out of the bushes with the tattered fish in its mouth. I got the impression it (the Mink) was a youngster as it acted in a sort of teenagery manner.
I hadn’t been expecting that much wildlife action in the tail end of the year, so the grebe and the Mink were an unexpected surprise.
After four days on the water, the sight of a Red Kite floaing over the river hardly made me look up. There were absolutely loads of them and the rather weedy mewing call from this years offspring could be heard more or less continuously during my trip down the river.. I still can’t believe they can all find enough to eat. A major success story as a few decades ago there were none in this area.
Thames trip over.
p.s. A couple of my Grebe-eating-the-pike pics were printed in The Sunday People newspaper, with a suitably over-the-top headline:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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).
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
So otters very definitely get the thumbs up from me. Mink don’t.
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.
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.
A few seals splashed about in the mouth of the Percuil River.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
A 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.
The Tamar is one of my favourites as it is very sheltered and always offers Kingfishers and a few Dippers up near Gunnislake weir.
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.
Good view of a fox, a young looking one, on the edge of Roadford Lake.