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.

 

 

 

 

Notchy the Porpoise…Again!!

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yours truly plus a couple of porpoisey friends (photo: Henry Kirkwood)

You might think it’s no big deal to photograph the same Harbour Porpoise in more or less the same place three times in a month. Unlike dolphins which are highly mobile and could be dozens of miles away the next day, porpoises seem to be regular at certain sites around southwest England, particular headlands, and nowhere I have paddled holds a more reliable pod of porpoises than Berry Head.

It is certainly the best spot to see a porpoise from a kayak because of its proximity to an excellent launch spot at Brixham and its relatively sheltered location which results in a smooth sea surface (essential for porpoise-spotting) more often than headlands further west. Further west generally means a more disturbed sea state with more wind, swell, and tidal flow.

Berry Head also has a very well-defined tideline along which the porpoises, if they are around, love to forage.

video:

 

 

So why am I so excited about Notchy?

For a start Notchy is the first identifiable (because of the notch at the base of his/her dorsal fin) cetacean I have seen on more than one occasion. Apart from Horace the Humpback whale that is (which was rather more easy to spot).

Secondly it is a window into the population dynamics of Harbour Porpoises. Is  the same group here all the time? Or is there a hard core with a mobile population that comes and goes? Is there a seasonal pattern or is availability of fish more of an influence?

The possible answers to all of these questions are tremendously blurred by the difficulty of observing porpoises in anything apart from calm conditions. As soon as there are any breaking whitecaps the chances of seeing a fin reduce considerably. This is certainly the case from kayak and I would only consider venturing offshore in absolutely calm conditions. It is maybe not quite so critical if watching from a telescope from Berry Head.

The overall impression I get from observing porpoises from my kayak all round SW England is that there is a peak of numbers in August which falls away till early in the year, then very few about in April to June before numbers rapidly build. This is skewed by the sea conditions which are smoother in summer which encourage me to go out to where the porpoises hang out more, but it is interesting that I usually see numbers into double figures (max 24 this year) in August and September, but only ones and twos in May.

I think that availability of their favourite food has a lot to do with this apparent seasonality, with the appearance of mackerel accounting for the late summer surge, with herring and pilchard appearing in early winter, and a noticeable gap in these tasty fish in the Spring.

Socialisation might have something to do with it, with the main ‘rutting’ season for porpoises known to be in late summer, maybe contributing to increased group size (like a sort of porpoise Magaluf).

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My son Henry had to good fortune to snap this pic of an ultra-rare white porpoise off the North coast of Cornwall, and to the best of my knowledge it hasn’t been seen since, but it would be quite easy for a five foot long porpoise to get lost in the swells of the north coast as there aren’t many observers or boats about up there (and I’m not very well ‘connected’). But this would suggest that porpoises do travel.

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Henry’s White Porpoise, Morwenstowe

Coming back to the Berry Head porpoise pod, I would guess that there is a nucleus which is added to, and thins out, according to seasonality of their baitfish.

If you like hunting along a tideline you will not find one more pronounced than Berry Head. It must be like being permanently camped in the carpark of MacDonalds, if you are partial to a Big Mac.

So back to ‘Notchy’. here he/she is on three dates in December. Characteristic notch at the back of the fin clearly visible in each pic.

 

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Notchy 4 Dec
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Notchy 26 Dec
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Notchy 31 Dec

Photographing porpoises is incredibly difficult, and doubly so from a kayak. After you see them surface for the first time you must predict where they will next appear. This is easy for a dolphin because they usually progress in a straight line, but porpoises will zigzag about all over the place underwater  and could pop up anywhere. Add in the small size of the fin and the movement of the kayak, and that the porpoise could surface directly behind you or disappear completely, and it can get a tad frustrating.

I don’t have any idea of whether I have got any photos in focus, let alone any distinguishing features, until I get back to the stability of the shore.

So to picture the same one three times is a bit of a surprise.

Porpoises hardly ever breach but during my last visit there was one which was extremely pumped up and leapt clear of the water on a couple of occasions. Unfortunately I was a split second too late with the shutter.

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Breaching Porpoise

I also observed one resting at the surface, a behaviour I have only rarely seen before, and only when the sea is completely smooth (although I suppose I wouldn’t  see it if was choppy anyway). Video:

 

 

Far out to sea I caught a split second glimpse of a jumping beast so paddled out to investigate, and was pleased to see a couple of Common Dolphins cruising along at a speed which I could only match by paddling flat out.

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Common Dolphin

With a bit of luck 2019 will be equally as enthralling, and maybe Notchy will still be around.

Chillaxed New Year’s Day

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It’s not very often the first day of the year is so conducive to a paddle along the open coast. I didn’t start off in a particularly relaxed fashion however, because the mile or so from Brixham to Berry Head was a bit lumpy in the NW wind, and the cloud cover made the sea look grey and unfriendly.

However around the headland we were sheltered from the wind and the surface smoothed off nicely. I was hopeful for a view of the porpoises so we drifted out with the current along the tideline along which the porpoises hunt. We were pretty pleased when a trio of porpoises puffed and surfaced for a few minutes right in amongst our motley group of four kayaks, especially as this was a kayaking ‘first’ for Suzanne.

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Harbour Porpoise

As we drifted south on the tide the sun came out and instantly transformed the monochrome grey sea into a vibrant blue. With the warmth of the sun the temperature would have done justice to a day in March, not the first day of January.

We angled in towards a ‘kayak only’ beach for an early lunch, passing little groups of fishing Guillemots and Razorbills.P1220049

We tucked in to the coast for a very warm paddle back toward Berry Head.

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Dave and Cliff
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Suzanne and Paul
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Dave and Arch

I was surprised to see some Guillemots already lined up along their nesting ledges and already in their smart breeding plumage, apparently enjoying the spring-like conditions as much as we were.

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Guillemots

Strangely, as we rounded Berry Head and knuckled down to flog into the wind and chop, the cloud came over again and the summery colours reverted to wintery gloom. P1220098

However our spirits were not to be quashed by the whims of the weather, and we finished  off the first trip of 2019 with the sight of a dozen Grey Seals hauled out on the pontoon, which Paul had smelled (!) as we had paddled past.

 

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Grey Seals showing how it should be done on New Year’s Day

My search for the calmest waters to paddle usually leads to the shelter of one of the estuaries at this time of year, with the open sea usually battered by windchop or groundswell, or both.

A recent jaunt to the Fowey River from Golant is more typical of this time of year, but demonstrates how paddling along in absolute silence (apart from a bit of merry banter) always seem to deliver some exceptional wildlife sightings. On this occasion it was one of only a handful of Harbour Seals in SW England.20170314_130121

 

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Dave explains how to Paul and Mark during coffee break at Lostwithiel.
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Ent Moot
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Drake Mandarin

Puffing and Chuffing

I am always looking to paddle out into the open sea whenever there is a lull in the autumn winds, but this is currently very difficult because the quiet gaps between weather systems only last a couple of hours.

With the forecast of a morning of calm conditions I went scampering off down to Torbay hoping to find a smooth sea, and knowing that this east-facing bit of coast offers good shelter from the hefty swell which was thumping the bits which look out to the west.

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Torbay dawn

I had planned to be on the water as the sun popped up and was quietly smug that it had only just surfaced as I rounded the end of Brixham breakwater, after a 90 minute drive including the traffic chaos of the Torbay hinterland (we don’t really ‘do’ traffic chaos in Holsworthy).

As I approached Berry Head I could see circling Gannets and the odd splash at the surface and glimpse of a dark sea creature, but I was too far off to see what was herding the baitball….dolphins, tuna, or porpoises.

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Nice and calm off Berry Head

As usual by the time I arrived on the scene the mini feeding-frenzy was over and the Gannets had completely disappeared. It always amazes me that although they are big birds with a six foot wingspan they can apparently disappear in an instant. They just dip a wing and they speed off.

All that was left of the action was a couple of porpoises rolling lazily at the surface, the first I had seen since the end of October.

Porpoises are small (four to five foot long) and very easy to overlook because they generally make no splash when they surface to breath, and tend to go around alone or very small groups. This is in contrast to dolphins that usually go around in a pod and do a lot of splashing and jumping.

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Harbour porpoise

There were actually a minimum of half-a-dozen porpoises off the headland, as usual hunting along the smooth line on the surface where the offshore tidal current shears against the static waters of Torbay.

I sat around and enjoyed a cup of coffee while watching, and listening to the porpoises. In this video clip it is quite obvious why the Newfoundland whalers used to call porpoises ‘Puffing Pigs’.

 

Today’s sideshow consisted of Fulmars zipping past a few feet away, a handful of flypast Great Northern Divers, a (probable) Red-throated Diver , and a pack of Common Scoter.

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Fulmar

The tide was fairly rapidly sucking me down the coast towards Dartmouth so I tucked in close to the shore and paddled back into Torbay. Annoyingly the predicted ‘glass-off’ when the wind dropped away completely occurred when I was in the depths of Torbay, not out beyond Berry Head as I had planned. It would have made porpoise spotting even easier…and maybe something else.

I was pleased to see a rare Red-necked Grebe just round the corner from Brixham:

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Red-necked Grebe

and a youngish-looking seal was taking time out on a quiet beach. I always steer well away from these resting seals to avoid frightening them into the water, because they may just have been on the go for a very long time and be in much need of a rest.

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Grey seal

Brixham was buzzing with fishing boat activity (although it looks fairly sleepy in this pic).

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Brixham

So if it was the porpoise that was doing the puffing, what was doing the chuffing?…..

 

 

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

 

 

Nudger

A long-arranged day’s kayaking with Jeremy and Jane was looking good with very light wind and decent temperature for early October, so the open sea coast was our destination.

We started off at Looe.

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Looe Harbour

Out into the open sea we headed directly offshore, stopping to take in the glass smooth surface and clear water…….and up popped Nudger the seal between our two kayaks.

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Nudger

We didn’t go to him. he came to us. So for a little while, we enjoyed the extraordinary encounter.

 

He worked his way round all four of us kayakers, clearly hoping for a fishy handout. nudger 8

 

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It was smiles all round (although maybe not from Nudger who failed to get any seal-type  snacks) but we eventually dragged ourselves away and paddled off at top speed. However Nudger had not finished with us and followed in our slipstream, tugging at the skeg on Becky’s and my kayak and pulling at the toggle on Jeremy and Jane’s.

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Nudger pulling at the toggle.

 

It was only when we came into the territory of a big bull seal that Nudger suddenly disappeared.

Wow, a good start to our wildlife watching trip.

We paddled out to sea in a big arc with Polperro our destination for lunch. A single Balearic Shearwater was an unexpected bonus although you probably have to be a bit of a birder to fully appreciate them, as to the non-birder they are disappointingly smudgy brown, and usually distant, and easy to overlook.

Just before we swung into Polperro, about a mile and-a-half offshore, there were a handful of Gannets circling and occasionally plunging. I was certain there would be a porpoise around and one duly appeared with a very satisfactory ‘piff’. It put on a fantastic show as we just sat and watched surfacing so close we could hear it inhaling as well as the main exhalation blast. A kayaking first for Becky and Jane.

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Polperro Porpoise

We scorched into Polperro as all the wildlife excitement had seriously delayed our lunch. As fast as you can go in an inflatable double kayak (with a bit of a leak) anyway.polperro lunch.jpg

 

Lunch was taken on the wall of the super-quaint village of Polperro.

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Polperro-lunch on the wall

The day of wildlife was nicely rounded off with a distant peregrine scorching across the horzon, and a couple of Kingfishers fishing up the hidden creeks of the Looe estuary.

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Looe Kingfisher

(yet to get a good Kingfisher pic from kayak).

Today belonged to Nudger:

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