Thick mist with visibility of about a hundred yards looked like it was going to mess up my day of wildlife viewing around Veryan Bay in South Cornwall. However I wasn’t going to be put off, so set off anyway,keeping close to the coast. The dog walkers on the beach gave me that ‘we think you’re barmy’ look. More worryingly, so did the dogs. But to my surprise, and relief, after a couple of hours the visibility slowly started to improve.
A peregrine was perched motionless at the top of the cliff, its mate nearby still on eggs probably.
Closer to the shore an Oystercatcher was hunkered down. It too probably had a partner on a nest a bit further up the cliff.
As if by magic the mist thinned out further and the wind dropped completely, making a bit of offshore paddling for the return trip irresistible. It was definitely worth the effort.
My first encounter was a Great Northern Diver (Great Northern Loon, Common Loon) which was still in winter plumage. Probably a youngster from last years brood. Even so a very imposing bird and I wouldn’t fancy being a fish within fifty metres of that dagger of a beak.
Out beyond the loon a couple of Manx Shearwaters were splashing about at the surface, shallow diving for sprats or sandeels.
I passed multiple small groups of Guillemots which were cackling to each other, and the odd Razorbill, and then to my astonishment found myself paddling straight towards a group of a dozen Puffins.
I have never seen so many away from their breeding sites (the nearest of which, I think, is Scilly over sixty miles away). I have come across the odd immature bird out at sea at this time of year but this was quite a crowd. To make the scene even better the sun came out to brighten up the Puffin’s bills even further, and transform the sea from slate grey to vivid blue.
Craggy Gull island provided a suitably dramatic backdrop.
Absolutely excellent…..so far the wildlife, and weather, this May has far exceeded my expectations.
To top off another top trip, a Sea Urchin exposed by the low tide on the way back to the beach. The (prickly) cherry on top of the cake.
Common Dolphins are usually quite a challenge to watch from a kayak because they spend most of their time a long way offshore. I have clocked up nearly 500 miles this year paddling more than a mile offshore in the hope of running into a school or two, and some of their pelagic partners.
So it was a bit of a surprise when, on the shortest day of the year, I saw a host of fins breaking the surface within five minutes of paddling out from the slipway at the root of Brixham breakwater. I followed the school of about twenty-five Common Dolphins as they cruised and splashed their way towards Berry head, with several coming over to bowride my rather weak pressure wave.
They teamed up with another group of a dozen or so for a bit of a cavort about a mile off the headland. I had to paddle just about flat out to keep up with the pace, and several times gave up as they disappeared off, but then was ‘pursuaded’ to have one more sprint when they slowed down a bit.
Absolutely fantastic. I had the best ringside seat you could wish for and watched the dolphins for almost an hour. There were several juveniles and calves amongst the group and as usual these stuck to their mother’s side like glue.
The scattered group disappeared off out to sea to the south and I continued offshore on a very calm sea to Sharkham Point. Beneath a couple of plunging Gannets rolled a handful of Harbour Porpoises. In contrast to the habitually boisterous and splashy nature of the dolphins, porpoises roll at the surface with hardly any disturbance to the water as if they are attached to an underwater wheel. I have seen them breach on occasion when they get really fired up about a shoal of fish, but this is rare (and even rarer on a flat calm day).
I turned back at Mansands where a Peregrine watched from above. En route back to Berry Head I passed Guillemots, Fulmars and Kittiwakes dotted about on the surface, and a few more porpoises quite close in off the headland.
As I was having a brief word with a fisherman who was casting out from a tiny cove right at the tip of the headland I glanced out to sea and observed quite a splash. My initial thought was jumping dolphin but a second later another spray of water was accompanied by the silvery flash and spiky fins of a Giant Tuna! Only about 100m off the headland (if that). Blooming heck!
Two days later I returned for (hopefully) more dolphin action, with son Henry who positioned himself on the end of Brixham breakwater with his camera and huge lens on a tripod. It was a bit windier and was quite choppy as I ventured off the end of Berry Head. I had brief views of a couple of porpoises before I saw the more active fins of some dolphins further out.
I arrived on the scene at the same time as a small boat containing father, son and daughter of the Smerdon family. As usual the dolphins found the larger craft rather more interesting than my own and I didn’t get a great view, although did observe one dolphin who had the curious habit of surfacing with a bit of a belly flop every time it came up for breath.
I battled back to the headland through the wind chop and got a call from Hezzer (Henry) that there was another pod of dolphins off the breakwater. I eventually arrived on the scene and the dolphins came over to greet me. I absolutely piled on the steam to try to get them to bow ride, and a handful obliged providing some thrilling views through the clear water as they swam directly beneath me before bursting out of the water inches in front of my kayak.
Once again they deserted me in favour of a passing vessel, this time a yacht, and my attempted humorous comment shouted across the water of “you’ve nicked my dolphins!” was partly lost on the wind and, judging by the unsmiling expression on the crew’s faces, didn’t convey in as friendly or humorous manner as it was intended.
The dolphin with the funny belly flop breathing action appeared in the bay with its group and I had one more good view before it was time for lunch and time to go home.
One distressing observation today. As I munched a sandwich discussing the day’s excitement with Hezzer while sitting in my kayak at the tip of Brixham breakwater, a Turnstone was close by on the shore pecking frantically at its foot. We could see something was wrapped around it, probably fishing line, and during the time it took me to eat two sandwiches, it hadn’t made any progress in freeing it up. Poor thing.
Apart from that, not a bad way to spend the shortest day of the year.
Final open sea fling of the year was a sunny post Christmas afternoon at Teignmouth with Simon and Jake. Low sun, superb colours, and a big flock of Common Scoters providing a bit of wildlife interest.
Having clocked up twenty miles the day before, and fifteen the day before that, I was contemplating an easy day. Fowey seemed to fit the bill for a bit of laid-back paddling , and I could stick my nose out into the open sea in case I case I fancied a bit of an offshore jaunt.
Fowey is always great. Whichever way you decide to go at the mouth of the ria, you’ve had an excellent ‘warm up’ paddle through the harbour, dodging the Polruan ferry and all the other boat traffic.
I spontaneously decided to turn left and head east once out into open water, because that was where the wind was coming from, and I always paddle into the wind to start off with because it makes coming back easier. My planned coffee break on the sand at beautiful Lantic Bay didn’t happen because the waves were a bit ‘dumpy’ and getting out wouldn’t have been that easy.. So I carried on round to Lantivet beach which was a bit more sheltered, but not before I severely scrunched the bottom of my kayak over a savagely coarse barnacle-encrusted rock when I cut a corner a bit fine just before a wave was about to break . What an idiot, why didn’t i just paddle a few yards further out? Lucky my boat is plastic and not fibreglass.
I disturbed a Peregrine having its breakfast on a grassy knoll as I paddled past, and downed all three segments of a Bounty Trio while being scrutinised hard by a young family on Lantivet beach. By the way they were staring I got the impression that the image that their eyeballs was transferring to their cerebral cortex was not one that had been relayed before. It might have been the Bounty Trio that drew their gaze, but I think it was just me generally . Such was their unswerving eye contact I opted to have the rest of my coffee break far out to sea and took to the water again.
Considering what happened next they had unwittingly done me a huge favour. Just for the hell of it I paddled half a mile out around the excellently named ‘Udder Rock’ buoy and was going to take a slingshot around it and head back. However another half a mile further out was a scattered group of Kittiwakes feeding at the surface. I was lured out to investigate and was pleased to encounter a singleton porpoise who ‘piffed’ past a few feet from me.
I was just about to crack open my thermos when, about as far out as I could see with my naked eye, my attention was drawn by a more compact and more vigorously feeding group of gulls. Out came the binoculars and I looked hard at the surface for several minutes. Just as I was about to give up, there was the splash of a dolphin. I instantly engaged warp drive and paddled flat out for twenty minutes or so towards the action.
I thought I was too late but was suddenly accompanied by four or five Common Dolphins who came in to ride my bow wave. Absolutely thrilling. Waves from dolphins surging beside me sloshed over the deck. For half an hour they played and puffed and looked and splashed all around. About a dozen in total with, I think, just a single juvenile.
One adult dolphin had a significant injury on its back behind the dorsal fin which looked as though it was healing and certainly didn’t compromise its ability. Another also seemed to have some sort of old scar on its flank. Are these injuries from being caught in nets, or maybe boat injuries? My money would be on the net thing. At least I don’t think it’s Great Whites.
Although the action took place two and-a-half miles off Pencarrow Head ,the wind had dropped completely, the sea was smooth, there was no tidal current an it was all so relaxing and enjoyable I supped my cup of coffee while being entertained by the dolphin troup.
They finally lost interest in me and headed off, and I lazily paddled back towards Fowey, passing about ten Portugese Men-of -War on the way.
The sun came out and it was all very warm and pleasant as I paddled back up the ‘urban’ section of water to Caffa Mill Car Park. There were lots of other sit-on-top kayaks about, not all piloted by homo sapiens.
What is going on? Yet another sunny day on the North Cornwall coast with no incoming swell. Not good if you are a surfer, but absolutely brilliant if you are a sea kayaker who has a penchant for cetaceans and likes to venture as far offshore as possible.
The sandy Camel estuary between Rock and Padstow was looking stunning in the sunshine of the late April morning. And the water was as clear as I have ever seen, no doubt due to the virtual absence of rain over the last month, and helped by the fact that the sea life hasn’t ‘got going’ yet. The plankton bloom is yet to kick off, resulting in increased cloudiness known as ‘ May Water’ (or so I have been told).
Having said that, the plankton IS already evident on the south Cornwall coast and a couple of Basking Sharks have been sighted in the Falmouth area hoovering it all up.
The two mile paddle to the mouth of the Camel estuary was a treat. It is over a shallow sandy bottom so the sea look positively Caribbean. The shoreline was dotted with early morning dog-walkers and their rampaging pets. Migrating shorebirds such as Whimbrels have a tough time finding a secluded beach on which to gather themselves for their onward journey, as every available patch of sand seems to come with a marauding dog.
This is the Whimbrel time of year. Whimbrels have the tremendous (if a bit unimaginative) old name of ‘Seven Whistler.’ Its characteristic piping call consisting of seven identical notes is one of the sounds of Spring on the open coast. There is a doomladen old saying which relates to the call of Whimbrel migrating overhead in the dark. It describes the ‘six birds of fate’ which fly about at night seeking their lost companion. When all seven are united, according to the story, the world will end.
Why can’t the ending describe them all being thrilled to get together again and going off for an all-night party?
Daymer Bay was absolute glass which made gliding over the turquoise water even more of a thrill.
It was marginally less smooth after I had crossed the Doom Bar and passed into the open sea around Stepper Point. I couldn’t resist a photo of the moon behind the chimney at the point. I made directly for Gulland rock a couple of miles offshore towards Trevose Head.
My intention was to slingshot around the island of Gulland Rock and then paddle north around the back of Newlands Rock and then on around ‘the Mouls’, before returning back past Rumps point and Pentire Head to Polzeath Bay.
I have never done this circuit involving all the three islands of Padstow Bay. Its the usual problem of wind and swell on theNorth Cornish coast not making for favourable paddling conditions on the day I would like to go.
But not so today! It was perfect.
The stench of guano from Gulland Rock assailed my nostrils half-a-mile before I got close, and I started to pass little groups of Razorbills and Guillemots as I rounded the southern tip of the rock.
I was a bit surprised at the very large rafts of auks floating about off the western side of Gulland Rock however; there must have been many hundred, with dozens more cackling from their nest sites on the cliffs. I drifted close enough for some decent photos and then paddled away before I caused a disturbance.
The three mile transit to Newlands was uneventful until I stopped for a coffee break on an exceptionally smooth patch of sea. I heard the piff of a porpoise but had difficulty in observing it because it was a lot further away than I had thought. It moved past to the south followed by a chum shortly after.
A few Manx Shearwaters zipped past and a few Gannets cruised overhead. Around the final island, The Mouls, I looked hard for the Puffins which are supposed to nest here, but didn’t see any. Just a very orange-looking seal basking on a rock. Last year’s pup?
I slid across the tidal current to get up close and personal with the dramatic, cliffy and highly convoluted coast at Rumps point. The flat conditions allowed me to paddle within inches of every nook and cranny. A Peregrine whinnied from its rocky promontory high above.
Round the corner into the relatively busy Polzeath Bay I brushed past a few paddleboarders that were spilling out from the beach where a few surfers bobbed in the disappointing (for them) swell.
I was paddling against the tide coming out of the Camel estuary but with a bit of cunning coast-hugging I managed to avoid most of the current. If there is no swell running so that you can get right in against the shore, I have found that when paddling against a current there are almost as many eddies working in your favour as there are flows of water against you. Another very specific advantage of a kayak!
Rock was absolutely buzzing with humanity when I got back. The queue for the ferry to Padstow was long (no doubt heading for fish ‘n chips at Rick Stein’s) and the car park full.
After my amazing hour spent watching the Bottlenose Dolphins I thought that the wildlife excitement was over for the day. I couldn’t have been more wrong.
The sea was so unusually smooth, with virtually no swell coming in from the Atlantic. I kept well offshore in the hope of seeing some Common Dolphins. One and-a-half miles from the coast. It was absolutely silent apart from the sporadic cackle of scattered groups of auks, and the ‘piff’ of a pod of four porpoises. It was so still that although the sound of their blows was quite loud they were so far away I could only just see their fins breaking the surface.
Half way between Mousehole and Lamorna Cove there was a loud ripping sound coming from somewhere overhead, as though the sky was being torn. A small dark shape hurtled down towards the sea and suddenly twisted and turned. At the same time I heard a faint whistle which sounded like a sandpiper, although it was the sandpiper equivalent of a desperate shriek.
I saw a brief splash as something hit the water, and the pursuing peregrine circled around for a second attempt to catch its victim. I rapidly dug out my camera and started snapping. The peregrine dropped to sea level and to my astonishment dipped its feet into the water to try to retrieve the sandpiper which had at this stage disappeared from the surface. It must have dived to avoid the peregrine.
The peregrine circled around again and again hovered briefly over the spot where the sandpiper floundered. No success so it circled around another couple of times. I could see the sandpiper’s head poking above the surface, which is just visible in one of the photos with the peregrine marauding above.
After four or five circuits the peregrine, which looked like a tiercel, gave up and made for the coast. I immediately paddled over to rescue the sandpiper which I thought must be in some kind of trouble. Even if it wasn’t , sandpipers are not designed to go swimming in the open sea (although funnily enough I saw a Grey phalarope swimming in almost exactly this place last September) so it probably needed some kind of help.
As I approached it understandably started swimming away, but I wasn’t expecting it to take flight when I was about six foot away. It seemed absolutely fine, alternating flapping with a brief glide on bowed wings in classic Common Sandpiper fashion. And was gone.
I was still trying to process what I had just witnessed. It’s always like that after a peregrine attack. The action is so unexpected and so fast and so exciting it’s a bit tricky for a doughbrain to process.
I still can’t quite believe that two of the most spectacular wildlife sightings I have had in over 17,000 miles paddled in my kayak occurred within an hour of each other.
The ten mile stretch of open coast between Porthpean, St. Austell and Dodman Point is undoubtedly one of the best paddles in Cornwall.
It’s got everything. Sandy beaches, coves only accessible by kayak, cliffs, headlands, rocky areas to dodge in and out, and two super quaint coastal villages.
Even better for the paddler that relishes knifing across calm water (like me), it is east facing so immune to much of the wind and swell from the west. So it is often one of the only stretches of paddleable sea during the winter.
Paul and I picked a beautiful early April day for a fifteen mile jaunt from Porthpean to Gorran Haven and back.
Mevagissey bay looked very calm and inviting when we rounded Black Head so we cut directly across to the offshore rocks on the other side called The Gwinges (excellent name). There are nearly always seals hanging about here but today there were none.
A mile further south we had a leg stretch and a bite at Gorran Haven which is about as perfect a sheltered Cornish harbour as you could ever hope to find, and it was looking particularly appealing in the Spring sunshine. Families sat around, dogs yipped, children shrieked with excitement, frisbees flew.
With the deliberate aim to make it as much of a circular paddle as possible, we ‘coast-hugged’ on the way back, after staying offshore on the outward leg.
Of course we couldn’t resist investigating Mevagissey with its outer and inner harbour. It was heaving with visitors sauntering along at a holiday pace.
Mevagissey is almost too quaint to be real. I have visited by kayak on dozens of occasions but only once by car when I collided with a wall. I intend to visit again by kayak and never to go near the place again in a vehicle.
The final few miles past the long sandy beach of Pentewan and around Black head were uneventful but enjoyable. A pair of Peregrines sat motionless at the back of their usual cove, and we were stalked by a couple of seals when we were nearly back at Porthpean. One was an absolute whopper and I don’t think I have ever seen a bull seal with a more prominent nose.
This is a fantastic bit of coast and justifiably popular with the sit-on-top brigade, especially the very sheltered bay containing Porthpean and Charlestown , and its many inviting beaches.
I don’t paddle the ‘middle’ section of the River Tamar Estuary very often. It’s further for me to drive and doesn’t offer much more than the the upper bit between Calstock and Gunnislake, which is exceptional.
It’s also a bit less scenic than the upper bit, more exposed to the wind with its wider valley, and quite a lot more mud exposed as the tide drops. Mudflats aren’t everyone’s idea of a beautiful paddle.
However it was time for a change of scenery so we set off to do this stretch again, starting at the superb ‘all stage of the tide’ slipway at Weir Quay and paddling six miles upstream to Calstock, with careful tidal planning hopefully working in our favour. The tide really zips past at Weir Quay and I was relieved to see it heading in the right direction to give us a bit of a kick start.
My paddling companion Paul was trying out his recently purchased Prowler 13, I was in my super comfortable Gumotex Safari inflatable kayak, and vulnerable to guffaws from any other person afloat who thinks inflatables are not serious watercraft. I was pretty certain we were not going to meet any other paddlers, being January 7th and not a very pleasant day ,so I was probably safe.
The wide muddy shores made fertile by the billions of leaves and other organic matter that come down with the river are a waterfowl heaven. We were only just getting absorbed into the surroundings , being serenaded by piping Redshank and bubbling Curlew, when we put up a flight of Wigeon from the shore. As they circled back round over our heads a Peregrine knifed across the sky and attacked the little group. It was unsuccessful so then pursued an individual bird as it twisted and turned virtually down to water level, but departed empty-handed (-footed) and cruised back to an exposed bough of a tree high above the wide sweeping bend of the river.
Pity, I havn’t seen a successful Peregrine kill for many years.Plenty of near misses though.
That was our first treat of the day.
We had the tidal flow in our favour for the whole six miles to Calstock although it did seem to stop every so often, well before the tide was full. Cotehele Quay draws the eye as it is set in a very scenic bit of valley and seems to be beautifully well-preserved and groomed by the National Trust. Just round the corner is the familiar, but always astonishing (as it is so high), Calstock viaduct. We stopped for lunch on the slipway and had a chat with the Muscovy ducks.
The tide turned and assisted our progress back down. Treat number two came in the elegant form of ten or so Avocets that were doing what they do on the mud on the Devon side of the river. I well remember the excitement of seeing my first Avocet at Arne in Dorset nearly half a century ago (!).
‘Peregrine’ corner was completely sheltered from the wind so we just drifted along with the current supping a cup of tea(me)/coffee(Paul). We watched a couple of Cormorants fishing the smooth water. Remarkably, both surfaced with flatfish in their beaks within a minute of each other. And both fish looked too big to swallow. The first was reluctantly ditched by its captor, the second looked as if it was going to be swallowed no matter what. The equivalent of a human downing a laptop whole. I think I got a bit too close in my efforts to take ‘that’ photo…the Cormorant dropped the fish and cleared off.
Treat number two and-a-half, not quite qualifying for a whole.
A head just popping above the surface a hundred yards away lured us over to investigate…..although I thought it was a seal it just could have been an otter.
Just when I was beginning to think whatever-it-was was not going to surface, a seal appeared directly behind Paul’s kayak and then started to rub its nose, quite vigorously, on the plastic. We were both gob-smacked by its sudden appearance and apparent lack of bashfulness and watched as it swam about close to our kayaks before submerging and disappearing. Treat number three.
The hugely hugely entertaining trip was soured somewhat when Paul discovered the hull of his e-bay purchased Prowler was sloshing with water. Lucky we hadn’t gone off to the Eddystone. It would have sunk.
The source of the leak was a worn through skid-plate from being dragged around too much by its previous owner.. This is a common problem with Prowlers as their hull tapers to quite a narrow point at the back of the boat, but easy to prevent if you don’t drag it around too much. Use a kayak trolley.