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.
Just about the first seabird I encountered was this solo Puffin, with another five zipping past my ear later.
The bird numbers steadily increased with cackling parties of Guillemots and Razorbills full of the joys of Spring.
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).
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?
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.
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.
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 Puffinuspuffinus!
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:
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).
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)
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):
The local gulls were very busy hunting along the shoreline for starfish exposed by the exceptionally low low tide. They were being very successful.
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!
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.
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:
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!
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,
and passed a load more Guillemots in various stages of transition from winter into their breeding plumage.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
And the sensational action, in perfect light, and perfect conditions, just went on and on:
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.
Fantastic, and I am a real champion of the little creatures, but today was all about the dolphins.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
Then, just in case I had missed its first performance, it did a slightly less energetic leap with Mousehole itself as the backdrop.
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.
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).
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.
As I paddled quietly passed the rocks by Jubilee Pool a little posse of Dunlin were catching forty on their migration south.
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.
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.
Amongst the throng was a single Balearic Shearwater which at one stage flew directly towards me, zipping past a few feet away.
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
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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):
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.
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.
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: