It had to be Looe. Friends Krysia and Stefan were down to stay and I spent a long time ruminating where would be the best place to take them kayaking, with wildlife sightings top of the wish list.
Of course if the nature was a bit thin on the ground it would be helpful to find somewhere with jaw-dropping scenery and a sandy beach on which to take lunch. So it had to be Looe.
Oh yes, it would be helpful if the weather was in a cooperative mood as well.
Not only was the trip perfect climatologically, Looe seemed to do its absolute utmost to deliver a constant stream of wildlife nuggets, which started only a few yards from the slipway with a Little Egret stalking minnows,
and the local Housemartins collecting mud from the estuary (at low tide) for their nests. It’s been very dry so their usual freshwater collection sites will be dried out and rock hard.
Looe island is a really excellent place, maintained as a nature reserve by Cornwall Wildlife trust. This means restricted access to people and much, much, much more importantly no dogs. No dogs means ground nesting birds are not disturbed.
That doesn’t mean to say there is no harassment:
Everybody loves watching the seals (thanks for the video clip, Stefan):
This one was ‘bottling’, resting vertically in the water.
This smaller female seal came over to check us out and then sat on the seabed and studied us from a different angle.
While going through my pics later I saw it had a tag in its tail.
I sent my pics to Sue Sayer from Cornwall Seal Group Research Trust and she very excitedly replied that this was Prudie aka Freckles. Prudie was rescued by the BDMLR (British Diver Marine Life Rescue) as a storm-battered three day-old pup from Boscastle harbour on 4 September 2017. She was fed and nursed back to health at the Cornish Seal Sanctuary in Gweek, and then released along with six other rehabilitated seals at Porthtowan on the north Cornwall coast on 18 Dec 2017. (thanks for the detailed info, Sue)
A fantastic success story. Confirmation that the enormous efforts of the Cornish Seal Sanctuary at returning abandoned and malnourished seals to the wild is successful.
Prudie was looking to be in perfect health.
One of the bull Grey Seals appeared to have been in a bit of a bust-up, with a healing scar on his shoulder. Unless it was caused by a boat eg jetski.
Next up on the action list was a bit of peregrine spotting along the coast, before a well-earned nutrition break on a flat calm beach. More seals, a handful of tittering Whimbrels, and plenty of Oystercatchers on the way back.
We completed our day out with a jaunt up the West Looe river estuary to get a bit of a broad-leaved woodland type view of things.
My day of kayaking started off like any other….absolutely fantastic. Cunning scrutiny of the weather forecast led me to the picture-perfect Percuil creek near St.Mawes, where, as I had planned, the wind fell light and the sun came out just as I arrived at 8am.(more like sheer luck, in reality)
Slicing across a sheet of glass-smooth water in absolute silence in this sort of place is kayaking at its best. Nothing to hear but the piping of Oystercatchers, Green- and Redshanks, the kraark of Herons, the whistle of a speeding Kingfisher and cackling chatter of Shelduck. Even the seven-note call of an unseasonal Whimbrel.
This Greenshank seemed to be as thrilled as I was with a bit of December sun.
Paddling back down the creek towards St.Mawes was directly into the sun but very scenic in a monochrome sort of a way.
Just before I came round the final bend in the river I heard a snort and saw a disturbance on the smooth surface. I assumed it was a seal but to my incredulity a couple of dolphins surfaced. In over 21,000 miles of paddling I have never seen dolphins this far up a creek.
I sat tight in an effort not to disturb them, and watched.
I was even more surprised to see the yellow patch on the side which showed that these were Common Dolphins, and not Bottlenose as I had initially thought. Bottlenose Dolphins are at home in shallow water as they sometimes like to eat shellfish and crabs, whereas Common Dolphins are creatures of the open sea, and probably not wired-up for navigation along a narrow creek which was rapidly getting narrower as the tide went out.
However they seemed to be quite happy and swimming strongly, although when |I left them they were heading upstream which was not a good plan.
To make my trip complete I intended to paddle out around Black Rock in the middle of Carrick Roads where it opens up into the sea, and although there was quite a swell running, and the tide was going out, the wind remained light and the sun was still out so the sea looked pretty benign.
Of course I was hoping to see some ‘open sea’ wildlife, and was rewarded with a couple of Loons out near Black Rock.
I looped around Black Rock and let the current suck me out towards the lighthouse at St.Anthony Head before heading back up the shoreline.
All the time I was looking out for the pair of dolphins, hoping that they were making their way back out to open waters. I stopped for lunch overlooking Falmouth as a Merlin helicopter was being very noisy:
I wound my way back up the Percuil river between all the mooring buoys, and as I passed the entrance to Porth creek saw the fins of the dolphins zigzagging about like a couple of sharks. Not a good idea to be in such a shallow creek as low water was approaching. This is the domain of egrets, not dolphins.
I watched them from a safe distance for a good half-an-hour, and then things started to go wrong.
They moved close to the northern bank of the creek and the smaller dolphin halted, apparently grounded on a mud bank, but still submerged apart from fin and blowhole. The larger dolphin swam a hundred yards further up the creek and deliberately started to beach itself on the mud.
I paddled towards the scene as I saw members of the British Divers Marine Life Rescue (BDMLR) (who had obviously been tipped off by an astute observer and had been watching from the shore), moving down to the water’s edge to help.
One heroic medic waded into the muddy water to try to divert the dolphin back into the channel:
This was temporarily successful but the dolphin swam round in a big loop and started to run aground again. I offered my assistance and attempted to steer the dolphin away from the shallow water.
Unfortunately my efforts too were only briefly successful and the dolphin ran itself aground.
This initiated a full rescue operation by the four BDMLR volunteers present, and for the next three plus hours they worked tirelessly to maintain the dolphins during the critical time they were out of the water.
Under the instruction of BDMLR vet Natalie, the dolphins were covered in sheets and/or seaweed and had seawater poured over them constantly to stop their skin from drying out. Natalie assessed their health and decided to move the dolphins together. Definitely a good idea but moving 100kg of struggling dolphin about on a plastic sheet over slippery seaweed is not a straightforward procedure. Fortunately another two BDMLR members arrived to ease the lumbago.
The initial plan was to put the dolphins onto a boat and take them a couple of miles out into the deeper water of Carrick Roads although failing light would have made this very challenging, so it was relief all round when the incoming tide came to the rescue and refloated the dolphins.
Unfortunately I had departed at this stage because it was nearly dark, but I hear that both dolphins were seen swimming strongly out into deeper water and hopefully made it safely back into their more familiar oceanic environment.
Their is a lot of mystery surrounding cetacean strandings but it seems likely that these pair had made a navigational error. Common Dolphins spend most of their time well offshore and range widely , and these may have ventured into the (exceptionally) deep water of the outer part of Carrick Roads, and accidentally headed into the mouth of the Percuil River when they meant to head east in the open sea. Maybe they were lured in by the easy feast of lots of Grey Mullet which I saw as I was paddling and which they seemed to be chasing.
And once into the very shallow water of Porth Creek it would be very easy to become disorientated and confused, especially with a dropping tide……but who knows???
Whatever, today was a triumph for the BDMLR volunteers. They responded quickly enough to be on hand when the dolphins beached and had all the expertise, experience and equipment (and muscle power) to deal with the situation and care for the dolphins and get them back into deep water. Good job!
My second series of assorted images taken from the kayak seat from all around Devon and Cornwall.
Am I getting paranoid or did this Newlyn trawler really pile on the power as it approached me to throw up as big a wash as possible for me to negotiate? It certainly throttled right back after it had gone past:
A few offshore seabirds for the serious ornithologists:
….listen to the electrifying call of the fastest creature on the planet, the Peregrine Falcon.
Autumn is definitely upon us, so offshore paddling is replaced by exploration of the rivers. Tough.
After several major offshore paddles recently, to Eddystone, Dodman Point and Tintagel, a downturn in the weather forced The Lone Kayaker to a return to coastal paddling.
Although I find being far out to sea the most exciting environment for paddling, with the possibility of a whale appearing at any second, following the shore is more interesting from a scenery point of view. Also there are more boats and people to look at, if that is your thing. Maybe even 007 himself……
Or watching some poor devil getting a ticket because he was parked slightly on the grass because the carpark was completely full.
Out along the coast there is always something to maintain the attention in the ornithological department. For example, incessantly piping Oystercatchers,
stands of reptilian-looking shags resting on the offshore rocks,
and a handful of very confiding Turnstones creeping about amongst the barnacles. Beautiful little birds, but extraordinarily difficult to spot amongst the acres of rocks exposed at low tide.
As I was watching the Turnstone a seal popped up beside me with a snort. I was pretty sure it was the same individual that had climbed onto my kayak a couple of weeks ago…a smallish Grey Seal with the look and behaviour of a youngster. It wasted no time in checking me out and then starting to sniff the deck of my kayak, probably looking for a snack. You will see from this video that it once again appears to be excited and playful and throws its head about a bit while working out what to do.
(p.s ignore the date stamp….havn’t got to grips with GoPro fully.)
In anticipation of its next move I paddled alongside a rock and hung on tight, and sure enough the seal decided to hop on board. Hardcore science types would say that this action is purely motivated by food, and indeed the seal did do a lot of sniffing about and close inspection of my dry bag on the back deck, which contained nothing more stimulating to the appetite than some moderately stale Custard Creams. However watching the seal’s behaviour closely, I am sure that a bit of horsing about was involved.
It finished off with an inverted swimpast.
It was then joined by a pale-coloured friend and they had a bit of an introductory twirl.
Other larger and maybe wiser members of the group watched from a distance, and I made sure I didn’t approach too close to frighten them into the water, so took a long loop around the reef out to sea when I moved on.
Only the friendly seal came along to accompany me, porpoising along beside the kayak and bumping into the rudder regularly. At one stage a gull flew over about six foot above the seal’s head and the seal playfully snapped at the bird.
It got even more excited when a local tourist boat appeared round the corner and it benefited from a handout in the shape of a mackerel.
As I paddled across the bay the seal eventually disappeared and I reverted to admiring the shore-based wildlife. A juvenile Buzzard on top of the cliff was constantly whining at it’s unseen parents. This is the main soundtrack of the countryside at this time of the year when all other birds have largely fallen silent.
I pulled up on a tiny beach for a coffee break and as I did so a Kingfisher flashed past with a whistle, and a flash of orange and brilliant turquoise. This was the first one I have seen on the open coast this summer, presumably a bit of post-breeding dispersal as they nest in holes along river banks. It was a typical fleeting view, summed up quite nicely by this indistinct photo:
And so back to something resembling civilisation, and the buzz of the beach.
The last nugget of wildlife before I got back to the slipway was a Little Egret hunting little fish as the tide surged in.
Whilst scouring the coastline and surface of the sea with my eyeballs looking for those magical sea creatures, it is very easy to overlook what most kayakers are there to see: the sensational scenery.
I never do take it for granted, because when paddling alone there is plenty of time to take in the surroundings as well as sharpen up your eyes and ears for those nuggets of natural history. There is actually more chance of missing out if you are in company, because you may be engrossed in discussing who said what to who and why. Here’s a good example:
After five or six days in the wilderness I do find that all the senses are sharpened. This is great with regard to eyes and ears, but not so good, after five warm and sweaty days of paddling, when it comes to smell.
From a mile away I can hear the constant yelling of Oystercatchers, Wrens and the occasional Yellowhammer singing form the hillside, song flights of the Rock pipits the call of Cuckoos carrying even further. The only human-made sound is the far distant chuffing of the Jacobite steam train as it climbs out of Arisaig, and the odd Dreamliner six miles overhead.
Finely-tuned long vision isn’t necessarily all good. On my final day I was paddling towards my car on the lochside a good mile away. I could see a figure walking along the road beside the water with two large dogs racing about, one of which halted beside my car and I could tell by its aura, even at that range, precisely what it was doing. The owner assumed a sheepish and guilty sort of body language and glanced up and down the road to make sure nobody was in sight to observe what his canine companion was depositing. He then looked directly at me but quickly decided I was far too far away to have noticed what his dog was up to.
By the time I arrived by the quay he, and his enlightened dogs, were long gone, but I had to be very careful where I stood.
Loch Sunart dawn
I had an early start on a twenty mile day trip around Lochs Sunart and Teacuis, so I had to take breakfast on board.
I stopped for a coffee break on a pink carpet of Thrift beside loch Teacuis.
Next day I paddled Loch Moidart. I got to know it well because I had to backtrack a couple of miles when I discovered that the ‘North Channel’ around Eilean Shona island dried out at low tide. I should have known this because this is the access route to the handful of houses on the island. It was worth the diversion however, because I briefly saw another otter.
So I exited into the sea using the South Channel and had a brief chat with kayak guide Ali Mcghee and his group from Ocean Alba. Out into the open sea a Loon was in the process of swallowing a small flatfish:
with a fine backdrop of the hills of Moidart.
By great good fortune it was exactly lunchtime when I arrived at the unbelievably stunning white sands of Smirisary, backed by an area of short turf perfect for a bit of a lounge about and a cup of tea. (video)
Not surprisingly, the Ocean Alba group thought the same and soon arrived as well.
I spent three days paddling around the Arisaig and Ardnish peninsulars, finding a couple of decent places to camp above sandy beaches.
There was a tremendous all-round scene because out to sea were the Small Isles providing an impressive distant backdrop.
And the vista inland wasn’t to be sniffed at either.
Progress was slow as there is no way I was going to paddle past a beach like this without a bit of investigation on foot.
It wasn’t just the views that were Caribbean. The weather was largely sunny with temperature up to the low twenties. And not a drop of rain for the whole week. Not bad for Western Scotland.
Although the otter catching and eating the crab was by far my best wildlife encounter during my five days in the Arisaig area of Western Scotland, there was plenty else going on in the natural history section.
Not least the five trillion midges that came over to pester me one still and warm evening. What sort of a creature is it that deliberately flies into your eyeball and voluntarily gets blinked to death? In their thousands. Their friends in the itch depatment are ticks several of which, despite my best efforts to avoid them, managed to find their way into various cracks and crevices about my person.
More of a threat to wildlife was the two Mink I briefly saw. Despite being very fluffy and floating high on the water they are adept swimmers and seem to dive as well as an otter.
I would have been disappointed not to see an Eagle and ended up with two. Sea Eagles are so incredibly huge that if one is around you really have to be pretty daft not to see it (or eyes down on your phone…..again). One was being pestered by Gulls on the south side of the Arisaig peninsular, the second sat in a tree at loch Moidart.
The half dozen or so Great Northern Divers I saw were all nearly in full summer plumage. I’m not sure whether these are non-breeding birds that spend the summer here or that they are winter visitors that still havn’t headed north. I suspect most will soon depart.
A pair of Red-throated Divers were fishing in the sea in front of my tent at Peanmeanach beach and flew back to their loch in the hills calling in classic, honking, ‘Rain Goose’ (their Shetland name) style. There was no rain in the forecast however, and I suspect they got this name in Shetland because it rains much of the time and there are a lot of breeding Red-throats there.
Trying hard to compete with the divers for snappiness of plumage were the Black Guillemots. I really like these busy little birds (although their movements verge on frantic) and unlike their southern cousins they have an extraordinary high-pitched whistle as a call note. A good sound for carrying distance on a windy day. In the video the second bird hasn’t quite finished moulting out of its winter plumage. (video)
The islands in Loch na Ceal near Arisaig hosted a lot of birds and the still and sunny weather enhanced the atmosphere. The main soundtrack came from the Oystercatchers. If they didn’t have such charisma I might be tempted to say what an appalling din. (video)
A pair of Common Terns looked like they were checking out somewhere to nest,
and a rather smart looking Common Gull was busy incubating her eggs beside a bouquet of Sea Pink. (could be a ‘he’ I suppose). Incidentally ‘Common Gull’ is a very bad name for what is NOT the most Common gull and is in fact an extremely neat and attractive bird.
I know it’s ‘only’ a seagull but I had to insert this video because I love the way the Gull settles back down to incubate its eggs so proudly and cosily with a contented shuffle and waggle of its tail. (video)
A pair of Ringed Plovers were a bit agitated as I passed so I guess they were nesting as well. They got a lot more stressed when a Great Black-backed Gull turned up with bird’s eggs on the menu for lunch.
Arisaig’s most prominent residents are the Harbour Seals. There are a lot of them and they drape themselves about on low flat islets and their bawls and grunts carry far over the water. They enjoy nothing more than following kayakers in large numbers and diving with a splash. They are rather more photogenic than Cornwall’s Grey Seals, and have a more dished cat-like face. (video)
I saw one Grey Seal in amongst a colony at the mouth of Loch Moidart. It had a whitish blaze across its head.
A trip to Scotland would not be complete without a Red Deer and I would have been surprised not to see one…..
but I certainly wasn’t expecting to see quite so many (tens of thousands) Moon jellyfish wafting about in the clear waters of Loch Sunart. Accompanied by a few Lion’s mane and small white jellies with very long tentacles.
The other wildlife highlight of my early morning paddle on the smooth waters of Lochs Sunart and Teacuis was the sound of birds with the songs of Blackcaps, Willow and Wood Warblers drifting down from the deciduous woods on the bank. Plus the occasional Tree Pipit and ‘zip, zip’ of a Spotted Flycatcher. Didn’t see any of them . Plus the odd Cuckoo, which I did see. I could hear one calling from over a mile away.
The rarest bird I saw was not the most glamorous and a bit specialist to the ornithologist. This iceland Gull was hanging around the fish farm on Sunart.
It was so still most of the time that I could here the ‘coos’ of these Eiders long before I could see them.
It was time to head for home, a mere 650 miles away.