Unlocked.Unleashed.

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Covid-free zone

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

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

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

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Bridled Guillemot

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

I opted for admiring them on the water instead.

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Gang of Guillemots

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

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Razorbill

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

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

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Sanderling snoozing (plus Dunlin, top left)

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

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

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Great Northern Diver

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

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Great Northern Diver breeding plumage.

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

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Purple Sandpiper

Fin-tastic

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

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

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

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

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Penzance Harbour

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

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Porpoise, Penzance

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

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Common Dolphin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Mousehole

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

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The Beadiest of Eyes

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

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

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Eyeball that eyeball

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

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Great Black-back

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

 

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

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

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

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Grass Snake

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

 

 

 

Sensational Cetaceans

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

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

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St. Michael’s Mount

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

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Great Northern Diver

There are plenty of Guillemots and Razorbills:

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Guillemot
Razorbill
Razorbill

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

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Eddie the Eider

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

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

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

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

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

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Common Dolphin

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

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

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

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Juvenile and adult Common Dolphin

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

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

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

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

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

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Common Dolphin

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

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

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

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

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Sizzling Summer part one: The Scenery

For much of July Devon and Cornwall have been under blue skies so the dress code for kayaking is as minimal as possible. Just enough clothes to avoid sunburn, and embarrassment as you stroll up the beach for lunchbreak. For some reason people sitting on beaches always stare at kayakers.

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Lantic Bay

There were a few dodgy and cool days to begin with, but they now seem long ago.

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Simon at Polperro.

I’ve been getting about a bit this month.  From the top of creeks twenty miles ‘inland’ to far, far offshore.

Enjoy the photogallery:

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The curse of the coast
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Early start on Camel Estuary
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Upper Camel
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Mid Camel
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Lower Camel
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Scillonian Penzance
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Dave and St.Mawes
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St. Michael’s Mount
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St. Anthony Head
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Jed and Yours Truly
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Jed, Fowey docks
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Eddystone
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Mark and Paul, Crackington
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Strangles Beach
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Beeny
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Boscastle Cave
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Torridge
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St. Ives
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Dave and Place House, St.Anthony
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Looe island (not Love island)
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Jed and the Lone Kayaker, Looe
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Mark and Boscastle zawn
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Pencarrow Head and Jed
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Teignmouth
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Fowey

 

 

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Strangles Beach
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Padstow Bay Lifeboat station

The cost of parking a car beside the sea is a source of grumblement. So it’s nice when the machines blow a fuse:

 

What better way to keep cool on the hottest day of the year?

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River Torridge

Next blog coming soon:

Sizzling Summer Part 2: The Sensational Wildlife of the Southwest Coast.

featuring dolphins, porpoise, seals, jellyfish, peregrines, beaver, water vole and more.

 

 

 

Seabird Frenzy

Sitting amongst a flock of thousands of offshore seabirds as they sleep and preen and croon is a magical experience. I have mentioned before that creatures of the open sea, whether below or above the water, tend to show little fear so when you are in a kayak you literally can sit right in the middle of them and they just get on with what they are doing. Out in the open sea everyone and everything is equal and the animals seem to know that. Of course me in my little kayak is by far the most inept creature for miles around, but I do my best to act big.

 

 

I encountered this huge flock of Manx Shearwaters during a recent circuit of Mount’s Bay, setting out from Penzance. Where the tidal current starts to kick in between Mousehole and Lamorna the availability of fish or sandeels (or whatever is on the menu)  increases and the sea creatures gather.

I had an early start and was well offshore by the time the Scillonian III passed en route to St.Mary’s, Isles of Scilly.

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Scillonian III past Mousehole

Just about the first seabird I encountered was this solo Puffin, with another five zipping past my ear later.

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Mousehole Puffin

The bird numbers steadily increased with cackling parties of Guillemots and Razorbills full of the joys of Spring.

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Guillemots
Razorbill pair
Razorbill pair (having a bit of a chat)

During a coffee break I saw what looked like a dark cloud in the distance further out, so I paddled over to investigate. The blurr eventually resolved into a milling mass of hundreds (probably thousands) of Manx Shearwaters. They would swirl about, large groups would shallow plunge into the water onto a shoal of sprats (or something similar) and then they would circle off and repeat the performance over a different patch of sea. And all around were further large groups just chilling out.

 

 

Manx Shearwaters aren’t particularly impressive to look at if you are a non-birder. Compared to a Puffin for example, although if you took away a Puffins brightly coloured beak it too would look rather more anonymous….like this juvenile I photographed a couple of years ago (near Eddystone).

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Juvenile Puffin

However their characters become very much more colourful if you know a bit about their natural history. They spend the winter off the coast of Brazil and in early Spring make the 7,000 mile journey back to their nesting burrows in islands off the coast of the UK. Today’s birds probably nest on the welsh islands of Skomer and Skokholm which are home to almost 100,000 pairs, or maybe from the increasing (thanks to rat eradication) number on Lundy, where several thousand pairs now nest.

They only return to their burrows under cover of darkness because if they came back during the day they might end up as lunch for a Great Black-backed Gull. They are so slow and ungainly on land they are a sitting duck.

At dawn they set off on a multi-hundred mile circuit which takes them down the north coast of Cornwall and to feeding grounds like the one where I was currently sitting.

The daily flypast of hundreds of thousands of these fantastic seabirds along the coast of southwest England is one of the UK’s greatest wildlife spectacles, but hardly anyone ever sees it. Probably because it occurs early in the morning and is usually miles out to sea. And who now bothers to make the effort to stare out to sea in the hope of seeing something which could well be out of sight (or at best a mass of tiny dots through binoculars) , when there is something much more here and now on  a screen in front of them?

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Manx Shearwater

If you want to get a proper insight into the character of this remarkable species, sitting amongst them and in a kayak, and just watching and listening, is the way to do it.

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Shearwater catching forty

I dropped in to Mousehole harbour to eat my catastrophically dull sandwiches. It’s desperately difficult to be creative during confectionary construction at 5am and taste buds are doomed to be disappointed. The struggle through the doorsteps of bread was offset by vista…Mousehole has got to be the most perfect mini-harbour in Cornwall.

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Mousehole

One more interesting item of trivia about Manx Shearwaters which could mean you avoid the wooden spoon at the next pub quiz ….their scientific name is Puffinus puffinus!

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Manx Shearwater… hugely overlooked and understated

 

 

Penzance Puffin

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Loe Beach

To get a bit of shelter from the moderate SW wind, but still have the feel of the open coast, Dave, Simon and I set out from Loe Beach at the neck of Carrick Roads for a saunter down to Falmouth and back.

The sun did its best to shine:

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Carrick Roads, open water

We stopped off at Flushing for lunch of stale sandwiches, followed by an unexpectedly delicious bar of Galaxy Cookie Crumble. A new one on me, and only £1 in Holsworthy Co-op.

We took an easy circuit around Falmouth and Penryn estuary before the much anticipated easy downwind return leg (as it had been a bit of a struggle against the wind).

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Simon and Dave

Wildlife highlight of this particular day was a most extraordinary one, and something I have never seen before, and may not even have been anything to do with wildlife. It was the lowest low tide for several years so some bits of shore were exposed that hadn’t seen fresh air for a very long time. As usual I was scrutinising the beach as we slid silently past, and every so often saw a squirt of water come up out of the shore. Completely random, but from all sorts of different locations. Weird.

Simon went ashore to investigate while Dave and I bravely sat in our kayaks a safe distance from the dry land, because for all we knew it could have been a delegation from a galaxy far far away.

You can see for or five jets of water randomly squirting up as Simon searches for the source:

 

Although Simon found an eel, the consensus of our combined scientific wisdom was that it was cockles that sent up a squirt of water as they slammed shut.

Highlights of the trip back were a close up investigation of HMS Argus, and a tea break at Penarrow point (the headland of drowned bodies, so we didn’t stay long)

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HMS Argus and Dave
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Penarrow Point

The day before I was very excited about a possible offshore paddle around Mounts Bay from Penzance, but when I arrived at 10am, the whole coast was fogbound, drizzly and very cheerless.

So I coast-hugged and hope the mist would clear. As usual the wildlife brightened up the scene, first of all it was a couple of Eiders (imm drakes):

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Eiders

The local gulls were very busy hunting along the shoreline for starfish exposed by the exceptionally low low tide. They were being very successful.

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Starfish lunch number 1
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Starfish lunch number 2

Mousehole was stranded by several hundred yards of exposed kelp forest, and I struggled to find somewhere to get out for a cup of coffee and half a Double Decker Duo. Desperate times!

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Kelp and Mousehole

As I supped I had a chat with a man picking up sea lettuce which he was going to sell to the local restaurants to use as a ‘wrap’ for their tasty seafood morsels. A knowledgable  and informed chap who gave a good overview of everything marine. And with a sound insight into the local wildlife as well…even better.20170531_150831

As I paddled out from Mousehole the mist miraculously dispersed and even better (and unexpectedly) the wind dropped completely. So timed to perfection for me to take a huge swing offshore to arc back to Penzance, with a chance of a BIG wildlife encounter.

It’s not very often as smooth as this two miles off Mousehole:

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Mount’s Bay Glass-off.

It wasn’t long before I heard the puff of a Porpoise, and in fact I heard them more or less constantly for the next couple of hours, because it was so calm the sound carried far over the surface. I saw only seven or eight:

 

Most of the auks dotted about were Guillemots, but I saw one was noticeably smaller from a long way off..a Puffin!

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Penzance Puffin
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Penzance Puffin

I’m pretty sure this is the first one I have ever seen in March from my kayak.

 

It briefly teamed up with a passing Guillemot giving a good size comparison.

I looped around the big tanker moored in the bay,

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St.Michael’s Mount and Tanker

and passed a load more Guillemots in various stages of transition from winter into their breeding plumage.

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Guillemots

 

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Absolutely Unbelievable Dolphins

When I started all this watching-wildlife-from-a-kayak lark I never thought in a million years I would have an encounter like I did today. Certainly not in the UK, and in early January.

I very nearly DIDN’T have the encounter because I had difficulty dredging myself out of bed at 6am, with every unoccupied cavity and crevice in my head full of mucus following my man-cold.

However the wind forecast for Mount’s Bay, Penzance, was too much of a lure. Light wind all day and total glass off between 9 and midday. As an added bonus there was hardly any swell diffracting round the corner from Land’s End, and the predicted ‘light cloud’ didn’t materialise, so I set off from Penzance harbour under completely blue skies.

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Mount’s Bay

I headed directly out to sea, towards a tanker moored three miles out in the bay. Not a great start in terms of wildlife….I passed a couple of loons and the odd Guillemot on the water, and one or two kittiwake and Gannet roaming about aimlessly.

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St. Michael’s Mount and an exceptionally calm Mount’s Bay

However I was full of expectation as the surface was so smooth, and atmosphere so still, that if anything surfaced within a mile of me I would either see or hear it. A lone porpoise swam past far off, but that was it for an hour or so.

Closer in to the shore near Mousehole I could see a flurry of gulls which I initially thought were following a little fishing boat. As I angled towards the coast did I see the distant fin in amongst the blur of wings? I cranked up the speed to investigate and a distant dolphin leapt clear of the water. Excellent.

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Dolphins first appearance…mother and calf

The next two hours were simply extraordinary. I sat and watched a pod of 20-25 Common Dolphins cruising about and herding and attacking a baitball of herring. I hardly had to paddle a single stroke during the whole time, because the fish kept trying to take refuge underneath my kayak.

Initially two others boats were enjoying the spectacle….the small fishing boat I had seen earlier, and Mermaid II out of Penzance.

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Fellow Dolphin Watchers

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Every so often a dolphin would lunge at the fish and herring would spray from the surface, something I have only ever seen before on the telly (or maybe not even there, come to think of it).

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Dolphin lunging at fish just feet away!
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Blinking Heck…that was close!

If you like dolphins you will absolutely love all these video clips, if you don’t you might find them a bit long and boring (and need to get a life):

 

 

 

 

 

 

The two boats departed so it was just me and the dolphins (and several thousand fish), and an awful lot of flat calm sea. Tough.

I always bring my GoPro, just in case, but never imagined being able to use it for underwater shots during the winter. Not only is the sea usually too choppy ( to be able to use it from a kayak), but the water is usually too murky because there has usually been recent storms and/or rain.

However I could see the dolphins zipping about beneath me (video):

 

 

so tried my luck at some underwater shots.

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Baitball of Herring
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Dolphin and baitball

 

 

 

 

It was great to see a mother and calf come past so close. The youngsters stick like glue to mum’s side most of the time, but occasional shoot off to worry the fish, or hurl themselves out of the water.

 

 

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As usually capturing that magical shot of a dolphin clean out of the water managed to elude me, but I did manage to picture what was undoubtedly the highest flying herring in Cornwall.

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High Flying Herring

And the sensational action, in perfect light, and perfect conditions, just went on and on:

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Pinpoint sharp Common Dolphin

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Dolphin doing passable ICBM impression

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Just the tip of the dolphin’s nose visible!

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wow, that one’s really shifting!

It was very interesting that this little ‘feeding’ group were essentially harassing the same baitball for over two hours. I have written many times before that most dolphin frenzies I have previously seen have dispersed by the time I roll in up my kayak, say twenty minutes to half an hour after I have sighted it. But this one was still going strong after at least two hours.

I think these dolphins were ‘playing’ with these fish as I’m sure they could have demolished the baitball in a few minutes if they were really hungry. Or more likely they were using the baitball to teach the youngsters of the group how to hunt. There were three or four calves in the pod and they were often the ones who would slash through the fish as they burst from the surface.

It was time to leave. As had been precisely forecast, a NW wind was just about to pick up, because I could see a dark line approaching across Mount’s Bay from Penzance. Only a gentle breeze but enough to make it feel a lot colder, especially with the building cloud. I kept warm with a steady pace for the five miles back to the harbour, enjoying the little posse of Purple Sandpipers that are seasonal visitors to Penzance during the winter.

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Purple Sandpipers

Fantastic, and I am a real champion of the little creatures, but today was all about the dolphins.

 

 

 

 

The Sensational South-West Coast (part 2)

My second series of assorted images taken from the kayak seat from all around Devon and Cornwall.

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Gig boat race at Fowey
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Starfish, Fowey
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Autumnal Calstock on Tamar estuary

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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:

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Manx (top) and Balearic Shearwater
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Sooty (top) and Manx Shearwater
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Dipper

….listen to the electrifying call of the fastest creature on the planet, the Peregrine Falcon.

 

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Kingfisher
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Oystercatcher
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Flying Scotsman, Teignmouth
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Common Dolphins and St.Michael’s Mount
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Common Dolphin calf
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Minke Whale, Mount’s Bay

 

Autumn is definitely upon us, so offshore paddling is replaced by exploration of the rivers. Tough.

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River Tamar
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River Tamar

 

 

 

There She Blows! Minke Whale (and dolphins and porpoises) at Fowey.

Two days of light winds were forecast so it was time to head offshore again. The first trip was to Penzance with Dave and I was under pressure to deliver some cetacean sightings. We had a good thirteen mile paddle out of Mount’s Bay and along the coast to Lamorna, and managed fifteen porpoises which put on a very good puffing show, but I was just a little disappointed (and surprised) that we didn’t see any dolphins because spotting conditions were ideal.

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Dave (porpoise-spotting) in front of St. Michael’s Mount

There was a nice scattering of seabirds however: Razorbills, Guillemots, Eddie the Eider, a passing Great Northern Diver (my first of the autumn), and lots of Kittiwakes.

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Kittiwake (juv)

The next day was a stunner with clear blue skies and virtually no wind. I was on the water at Fowey as the sun had just peeped over the horizon, and paddled directly out to sea once out of the estuary.

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Fowey

Almost immediately I saw a large milling mass of seabirds circling low over the surface about a mile out, with a dozen Gannets intermittently dropping in. A very active ‘work up’ and there was going to be some big fish-eaters beneath, for sure.  As I steamed at full speed towards the action I could see dolphins jumping clear of the water, but as usual the frenzy had tempered a bit when I eventually rolled up. The gannets had moved on but there seemed to be plenty of fish left over for the dolphins, and gulls,to pick off at a leisurely pace.

 

I just sat still in my kayak taking in the scene. Dolphins passed within inches.

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Common Dolphin

I was sure my attempt at underwater footage with the GoPro would be a success, but the clarity of the water wasn’t great so the result was a bit disappointing. However it’s interesting to hear the dolphin clicks and squeaks in this video clip:

 

Suddenly all twenty-five (ish) dolphins were off at top speed, lured away by a China Clay ship which had emerged from Fowey docks and was starting to crank up the speed. The dolphins sprinted towards it and I could just see them leaping out of its bow wave as it receded into the distance.

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Dolphins sprinting off to see the ‘Ventura’

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A good start to the morning….and it wasn’t even nine o’clock.

I was just settling into my usual breakfast of 50% muesli, 50% Jordans Country Crisp (with raspberries), when I caught sight on an even bigger ‘work up’ at the limits of vision with hundreds of circling white dots of Gannets which every so often plunged into the sea en masse. Wow, this was a biggy.

Putting my muesli/country crisp on hold I paddled hard towards the action, but knew it was going to take at least twenty minutes to get there as it was probably two miles away, and knew I was going to be on the point of meltdown because I was already hot in my waterproof coat in the windless and sunny conditions. However if this was going to be my first big Gannet feeding frenzy I had observed up close, being a liquefied sack of sweat was the price I was willing to pay.

From long distance I could once again see large creatures jumping clean out of the water. I got the impression that some of these looked a bit like giant Tuna as I fancied I saw some spiky fins, but it was just too far away to tell and they might have been dolphins.

From what I have observed, these feeding frenzies evolve very rapidly. A pod of dolphins  herds fish into a baitball and pins it against the surface, reducing the fish’s options of escape. Passing Gannets don’t hesitate to seize the chance of a meal and dive in onto the larger baitfish (probably mackerel). The flash of white wings draws in other Gannets from afar, while below the surface the dolphins strike the baitball from below and frequently burst from the surface, as do the Tuna (if they were there!).

 

 

One reliable feature of these events is that the main action finishes just before I arrive on the scene. I think the Gannets (and maybe Tuna) move off when all the bigger fish have been eaten, leaving the dolphins and gulls to concentrate on the bits and pieces. Such was the case, again, as I rolled up with temperature gauge well into the red.

But today there was a bit of a treat in store because a rather larger predator had been attracted in to all the commotion. As I sat still watching all the splashing action as dolphins criss-crossed around and the juvenile gulls were squealing, there was a big prolonged breath and a much larger fin appeared at the surface….a Minke Whale. It disappeared in towards Fowey and then turned to come back. I was hopeful of a very close pass but it came to no nearer than about a hundred metres, and as usual very difficult to photograph because you really don’t know where it is going to appear next, and they cover large distance between breaths. They are in fact very like a giant porpoise in that they roll surprisingly quietly at the surface, and keep changing direction.

Anyway, I was quite pleased to get this clip of it as it surfaced, with Fowey five miles away in the background.

 

Ironically the closest it surfaced was when I was struggling to take off my jacket and drop my core temperature out of the critical range, and my face was covered in sweaty goretex.

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Minke Whale, Fowey
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Minke Whale , fowey

For a final push I paddled just a little bit further out, and was joined by another (or maybe the same ones as earlier) pod of dolphins as I headed into the sun. When they disappeared it went quiet enough for me to finish my breakfast which was  not surprisingly quite soggy.

 

The paddle back in was moderately uneventful (in comparison to the paddle out) although the sea had smoothed off even further which allowed me to hear, and then observe, ten porpoises which were dotted about in ones and twos as they usually are.

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Fowey porpoise

My final ‘encounter’ was at the mouth of the estuary where I had a chat with a kayak fisherman who was in an extremely well-equipped craft.P1190434

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mousehole Magic

WHALE,DOLPHINS,PORPOISES AND EDDIE

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Penzance Harbour

A couple of recent trips to Mount’s Bay have been sensational. They both got off to a good start with views of Eddie the Eider who seems to have made Penzance Harbour his home. He has just completed his autumn moult. When I saw him on 24 Sept he still had blotches of brown transitional plumage and looked a bit scruffy, but by 7 Oct he was looking very smart and ready to impress for the winter:

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Dowdy Eddie 24 Sept
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Immaculate Eddie 7 Oct

Mount’s bay is a very exciting place and I am always full of expectation as I head out into the open sea beyond St.Michael’s Mount.

Gannets appear after a mile or so where the offshore current shears past the still waters of the bay.

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Sub adult Gannet

On my September trip a large flock of Kittiwake that had been resting on the surface all took off in a panic as a couple of Great Skuas (Bonxies) piled in to the group to cause a bit of trouble, which is what Bonxies do best.

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Bonxie

On both these trips I have seen a Minke Whale, but only fleeting views when the whale’s exhalation draws my attention. They travel so fast that they can be almost out of sight when they surface again, especially if the surface is a bit choppy. No photos, unfortunately.

I saw a handful of porpoises on the second trip because the surface went so flat for an hour or so I could hear them puffing from a long distance away.

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Porpoise in front of Praa

On my second trip I got very excited because I could see a wheeling group of about a hundred Gannets a mile or two ahead of me and every so often a they peel off and plunge into the sea. This could be my first close encounter with a major Gannet feeding frenzy although I knew from previous (dismal) experience that during the twenty minutes it was going to take to get there the action might be over. However, the bigger the frenzy, the longer it will last…..

As I approached I could see big creatures jumping out of the water beneath the Gannets. I was too far off to see whether these were Bluefin Tuna or dolphins, but I suspect they were probably both. And….groan….I couldn’t believe my bad luck when the Gannets suddenly wheeled away just as I was drawing close enough to get a pic….blooming typical. I suspect the bigger fish had been hoovered up, there were just sprats left. However there was a nice school of Common Dolphins remaining to provide a bit of a spectacle. They were busy milling about feeding so for an hour I just sat about and watched.

 

 

 

 

 

I was joined by the Marine Discovery yacht from Penzance who had presumably, like me, seen the feeding frenzy from afar.

 

 

Every so often some dolphins would speed off and put in some fantastic leaps. This one would have ended up amongst the enthralled guests aboard Shearwater II if it had put in one more jump.

 

 

After coffee break I paddled slowly off along the coast, but kept a mile or so from the shore, which is where the action seems to happen. Another pod of about twenty dolphins crossed my path and one really started to leap about. By enormous good fortune it jumped right in front of the circular hole in the cliff which gives the coastal village of Mousehole its name. The perfect image.

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Mousehole dolphin

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Then, just in case I had missed its first performance, it did a slightly less energetic leap with Mousehole itself as the backdrop.P1190049

The dolphins then dispersed and I was left to admire the supporting cast of characters and views. However every so often I would see a sizeable splash which was not followed by a show of dolphin’s fins. Tuna for certain, but I never actually saw the fish.

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Reluctant Razorbill
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Mighty Tanker
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Another mighty tanker
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View down the coast to Logan rock

Yet another astonishing day, with every second filled with excitement or anticipation. No more offshore paddling for the foreseeable because the wind is on the up (BIG time).P1190021

 

 

Mousehole Whale

After a long drive to Penzance I was thrilled to see Mount’s Bay was much smoother than the wind forecast had predicted. However knowing it was probably just the calm of the early morning I was on the water in double-quick time.

Within a minute of exiting Penzance Harbour the omens for a good day of wildlife-watching were favourable… several dark patches at the surface were shoals of sprats or sandeels, and Eddie the resident Eider duck was half way through a crab-shaped breakfast.

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Eider plus (legless) crab

As I paddled quietly passed the rocks by Jubilee Pool a little posse of Dunlin were catching forty on their migration south.

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Dunlin trio

I paddled directly offshore at quite a lick because I knew it was probable that sea conditions would only be favourable for an hour or two. A hat-trick of swans which would probably be more at home on the Thames at Henley looked a bit incongruous in the middle of the bay.

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Penzance bay

A couple of miles out where the offshore tidal current shears past the more static waters of Mount’s bay the action started to hot up. Flocks of Manx Shearwaters cruised around while some were resting on the surface.

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Manx Shearwaters

 

Amongst the throng was a single Balearic Shearwater which at one stage flew directly towards me, zipping past a few feet away.

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Balearic Shearwater

Had I turned for home these sightings alone would have made my day worthwhile. It was a good thing I didn’t. A couple of miles off St. Michael’s Mount I saw a sparkle as the sun glinted off the fins of a pod of cetaceans. Common Dolphins, which I carefully approached. A lone porpoise popped up once and puffed as I drew close to the dolphins

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Common Dolphins and St. Michael’s Mount

As usual they came over to investigate and I saw it was a nursery group of about twenty in total with quite a few calves and juveniles sticking close to mum as usual.

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Dolphin and youngster

 

Two interesting observations were that one was very pale grey, and one adult had a moderately mangled fin which was probably caused by a boat injury or being caught in a net.

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Pale dolphin
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Dolphin with damaged fin

It was superbly relaxed conditions for viewing with smooth sea and hardly any wind so I just watched the action. Every so often the whole lot would speed off and a couple jumped really high but as usual I missed the action with the camera. This is the best I could manage:

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Semi-jumping dolphins

As I ate my breakfast (muesli and granola mix) in the company of the dolphins I kept glimpsing what looked like wafting black smoke further out to sea, and then realised it was vast numbers of shearwaters circling about low over the water. More than I had ever seen before in one place.

So I stoked up the boilers and set off out to investigate at high speed, because usually the feeding event has finished by the time I arrive on the scene. I was very flattered when the dolphin pod came over to benefit from my pathetic bow wave. I fumbled the GoPro onto my head as quickly as possible:

 

 

 

Exciting stuff, especially as the calves seemed to be jumping and surging as enthusiastically as their parents. Look at this slomo, are those dolphin twins?

 

 

 

Incredibly, en route to the seabird feeding frenzy I passed another pod of common dolphins consisting of fifteen sturdy looking individuals which I think were a pack of male dolphins. Even more interestingly, several did the bellyflopping breathing action which is maybe just so they can have a bit more of a look around above the surface. As visibility in the water wasn’t great today it certainly would have provided them with a bit more of a view.

 

 

 

I had my first effort at underwater photography of the dolphins but I wouldn’t say it was a raging success.

 

 

 

Phew, excitement overload. But I could sense better was yet to come because the vast numbers of feeding seabirds meant large amounts of baitfish which would also bring in other predators. In fact I thought it was tuna splashing at the surface as I drew near to the action, but it turned out to be the shearwaters shallow diving onto the baitfish from a few feet up.

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Quite a lot of shearwaters

A couple of miles off Mousehole I passed a stationary yellow boat containing a load of fishermen, and started to converge with Shearwater II,  a catamaran yacht owned by Marine Discovery who run wildlife watching trips from Penzance, as it was heading further offshore.

As I was watching the yacht there was a great breathy blast and a fullgrown (it seemed pretty big anyway) Minke Whale surfaced between the two of us. Blinking heck. It surfaced again in the distance towards Penzance and then looked like it had turned to come back.

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Minke whale and Penzance

It duly obliged and surfaced again just behind Shearwater II, scenically passing in front of the circular cave in the background from which the village of Mousehole gets its name.

 

 

 

The it came back again. You can hear its breath in this video clip:

 

 

 

Of course I was hoping for it to surface  right beside (ideally not on top of) my kayak but it appeared to have moved on. They cover a lot of distance between breaths and there is absolutely no point in chasing after them  in a kayak because they move so fast and are just about out of sight after surfacing a couple of times.

There was plenty of other wildlife to hold my attention. The thousands of Manx Shearwaters intermittently rested on the surface and were conveniently settled  in a long line so I could paddle along in front trying to pick out any rarer species, in the manner of an inspection at a military parade.

About one in two hundred were the smoky-brown coloured Balearic Shearwaters. Not that impressive to look at if you are not a ‘birder,’ but if you are you will know it is always fantastic to see one because they are a globally threatened species.

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Balearic Shearwater

I hit the jackpot when I spotted a larger chocolate-coloured shearwater trying to be inconspicuous amongst its smaller relatives. A Sooty Shearwater! This is a proper offshore species that I had never seen from my kayak till last year, and have never seen sitting on the water around the UK. (the last one I saw like this was off New Zealand):

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Sooty Shearwater

As I was sat enjoying the seabird flock supping a cup of coffee a couple of miles out to sea, the cloud drifted over and the wind suddenly started to lift. Fortunately I had allowed for this in my action plan, which is precisely why I had come to this particular stretch of coast today. It seems to be about the best place to see deepwater species relatively close to the shore, as well as being relatively protected from wind and swell. I think there is also a good interface between currents about one and a half to two miles from the coast here which provides a good concentration of baitfish.

I had not seen the last of the whale, as it was working its way up and down the current interface. I thought it was still about because the shearwaters kept getting very excited. Interestingly it was only shearwaters and not Gannets because the baitfish involved were very small and Gannets prefer larger individual fish to target.

 

 

 

It then disappeared and I paddled a bit faster towards Mousehole as the wind steadily increased. The whale then appeared in amongst the shearwaters.

 

 

 

and to finish off with surfaced a couple of times relatively close by when the sea was beginning to look a bit less friendly. No boats or anyone else within a mile.

 

 

 

Buzzing with adenaline I scorched back past St. Clement’s Isle and got a sort of resigned look from the resident seals who assumed I was another idiotic kayaker who was going to frighten them in to the sea. Idiotic maybe, but I make an effort to keep well away from resting seals.

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Mousehole seal

On the final stretch back to Penzance harbour the wildlife eased off a bit giving me time to appreciate a bit of scenery. Just the cheerful ‘kirrick’ call of migrating Sandwich terns.

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Newlyn harbour
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Penzance

This was my sixth whale seen from kayak in SW England. Four Minkes, one Humpback, one possible Sei. Autumnal weather with gales are now forecast so it’s back to creek paddling for the foreseeable. Hopefully there will be a few more windows of calm weather while the sea is still bursting with baitfish so I can enjoy a bit more of this kind of stuff:

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Common Dolphins
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Common Dolphin with small calf
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Common Dolphin with ?twins (maybe just nursery chums)
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Minke Whale