Day Trip to Lundy

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Lundy Puffin

Wow, what a world-class adventure. Hard to believe it’s only half an hour’s drive from where I live.

Finding a day suitable for a kayak trip to Lundy, twelve miles off the coast of North Devon, is very difficult. It is at the mouth of the Bristol Channel so there are big tides and big, swirly currents. It is also generally windy and is fully exposed to groundswell from the Atlantic.

Planning a one-way trip is challenging enough, but sea conditions suitable for paddling there and back in a day are very rare indeed. If you like a smooth ride, there has got to be virtually no wind, virtually no swell, and tides should be neap. It’s just a handful of days a year.If you like being thrown about a bit, there’s a few more.

It’s a thirty-mile trip but because you have to paddle at an angle across the tide the distance equivalent is quite a lot more.

So all in all it’s a pretty daft thing to do. And therefore irresistible to our motley posse of paddlers, who were not without a bit of experience of the sea. Simon, ex world champion surf kayaker. Jack, current runner-up junior world champion surf kayaker. Austen, seasoned paddler and sailor. Me, good at spotting seabirds.

Austen, Jack and Simon were in sea kayaks. I was in (on) my plastic recreational sit-on-top. Not as fast as a sea kayak but boy, is it comfortable. Very important on a very long trip.

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left to right; Simon, yours truly, Jack, Austen

We were on the water at Hartland Quay at 0630 (as planned!). Clear skies, light wind, not really any other sign of humanity. Apart from Hartland Quay Hotel, there are very few houses along the notoriously savage Hartland Heritage coast. No vapour trails, no boats or ships (not many ships go past here, either). Good, good and good.

We headed out past Hartland Point lighthouse, where there is usually an impressive/ terrifying tide race.

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Passing Hartland Point

We soon had Manx Sheawaters zipping past our kayaks, en route from their breeding islands off the Pembrokeshire coast (and also Lundy now) to feed somewhere off Land’s End, before returning to their nesting burrows at dusk.

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Manx Shearwater

Next on the wildlife list was the puff of a Porpoise, which was, as usual, difficult to spot. It’s quite a small creature in a very big sea.

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Porpoise

Unlike Austen’s and my first (and only other) trip to Lundy thirteen years ago, visibilty was very good. On the previous occasion we became enveloped in thick fog and nearly run down by a ship. We could hear the thud of its engine and the blast of its foghorn, but all we ever saw of it was its bow wave.

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Lundy, the distant target

This sort of offshore paddling is not everyone’s cup of tea, but I absolutely love it. The wilderness experience combined with the anticipation of seeing some extreme wildlife is quite a thrill. Not to mention the benefits of a wee spot of exercise, I suppose.

Several miles out from Lundy we eyeballed our first Puffin. Looking good in bright sun and blue sea.

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Puffin number one.

As we neared the island after three hours of paddling, we had to increase the paddling rate and battle through the Rat island tide race before we reached the flat sheltered water beneath the cliffs.

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Jack and Lundy cliff

A few seals gave us the look. Perhaps they don’t see many kayakers out here. I’ve just noticed that this one has a red tag in its tail, so is probably a rescued seal from Cornwall Seal sanctuary. I’ll find out.

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Lundy seal (with tag)

We hauled up on a shingle beach beside the slipway, and although it was only just after ten, we demolished lunch. I generally will not entertain the idea of lunch before midday, but these were exceptional circumstances. Here’s the spread….

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lunch is served

Sharp-eyed blog readers amongst you may have just noticed, like me, that there are five lunchboxes laid out, but only four paddlers. The feet in the background give the game away. Hobbits need a second breakfast.

We wandered up the hill to the village and rehydrated with a shandy at the Marisco tavern, but it was time for the return leg.

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fish out of water

Despite a solid forecast of virtually zero wind, we were all a bit edgy about the return leg (apart from Jack and Simon). Maybe it’s because we got caught in the Hartland Point tide race last time.

No need to worry, for the whole four-and-a-half hour trip back the surface was about as smooth as this stretch of water has ever been. Incredible.

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Heading back

And we came across Puffins. Fifteen total. How fantastic to see these charismatic little seabirds in such ideal conditions. The reflections are almost as perfect as the original above the surface.

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Lundy Puffin
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Lundy Puffin
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Lundy Puffin

Superlatives all round. The name Lundy is derived from the Norse word ‘Lundi’, meaning Puffin. Unfortunately Puffin numbers had crashed (down to thirteen pairs), until rats were eradicated from the island about fifteen years ago. The number of breeding seabirds, including Puffins, has increased exponentially since then. A fantastic conservation success story.

Smiles, and camera clicks, all round from the kayak team.P1150826

I struggled to drag myself away from Puffinfest and got a bit left behind.

The others plodded on towards the distant Devon coast.

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Hartland Point lighthouse…..seven miles to go!

We briefly stopped for a breather half way back. Land six miles in front, and six miles behind.

There is the potential for boredom on this sort of a trip, but only if you are not in tune with wildlife. The call went up from Austen….’Sunfish!’. Two Sunfish were flicking their way just beneath the surface, with dorsal fins waving about in typical fashion. Strange, strange fish…visitors from warmer waters.

I was starting to get greedy and muttered about how nice it would be to finish off the day with a pod of dolphins. As I spoke I saw Simon, who was away off to the south, looking hard to his right. A dolphin suddenly leapt clear of the water right behind him. Muscle fatigue disappeared instantly as we powered over towards them.

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Common Dolphin

At least a dozen, probably double that number, were scattered over a wide area and we were surrounded by the sound of splashing.

Wow, yet again.

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Common Dolphin
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Common Dolphin and Lundy

Once through the tail end of the Hartland tidal current we had a lake-like paddle back to the slipway at Hartland Quay for the final mile.

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Austen eases achy back/backside
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Stoke church and Simon
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Fatigued, but buzzing. Life in the old geezer yet.

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The end. I’ve exhausted my quota of wow’s.20170628_124346

Epic Exmoor

Wow.

I’ve said that a lot recently. But this time it wasn’t just the superb calm weather. How often is the sea this flat three miles off the coast of Exmoor?

It was the gobsmacking scenery as well.

I’ve paddled this bit of coast three or four times before, but always as a fallback when the swell on the west facing coast is too big. I didn’t realise that big swell further west means that close investigation of this fascinating bit of coast, with all the caves and gullies, is not possible due to the waves. Also in winter more or less the whole of the Bristol Channel, as an extension of the Severn estuary, is brown.

Today was completely different to my previous experiences. The sea was flat and the water was clear.

So I couldn’t resist heading straight offshore to see if I could find some of the Porpoises that frequent this bit of the North Devon coast. I think they are resident here.

If it hadn’t been glass calm I would have missed the first one. Just a glisten off a fin a half-mile ahead, and when I arrived upon the scene a single porpoise puffed past, surfacing four or five times, and was gone on its way.

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Harbour Porpoise

The next two hours were quiet, apart from Guillemots and Razorbills zipping past, many with fish poking out of their beaks, brunch for expectant offspring on the cliffs ahead.

I stopped for a coffee break before I headed in. And as is often the case when I stop for a slurp, I heard a porpoise puff. Clearly although kayaking is silent, the slight splashing of the paddle can mask a distant puff. A thousand times better than a boat with an engine, however.

For the next half-hour I was completely absorbed in watching mother and calf porpoise doing their stuff. They would surface together, then Mum might speed off to look for some fish; junior would get left behind and race to catch up. Or Mum might do a deep dive and the youngster would have to surface for some extra breaths before the adult resurfaced.

Here’s the best of the show. The clips show all the characteristics of the porpoise nicely. The triangular fin, the roll at the surface without a splash, the loud puff, and sudden change of direction (which can catch out the unwary lensman…..I was clearly ‘on it’ today).

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Mother and calf Porpoise

I paddled inshore and soaked up the sensurround experience of the next natural wonder, the extensive seabird colony on the cliffs. Cackling Guillemots and Razorbills, a whirr of wings overhead as parents commute back and forth, and most excitingly, the laugh of Kittiwakes. The name describes the call perfectly.

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Kittiwakes

Kittiwakes are the neatest-looking of the resident UK ‘gulls’, but are loyal to the sea (and sea coast), and the few colonies around the coast of Southwest England seem to be in decline.

Listen to the call, the name ‘Kittiwake describes it perfectly.

However today the whole colony seemed to be bursting with life and the impression that was created was that all was well. Large numbers of small fish were being delivered to the unseen chicks on the ledges, and everyone (?!) seemed happy.

This Razorbill has a couple of what look like Herring in its beak. I don’t think they are sandeels, which is their staple diet.

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Razorbill plus babyfood

One more clip for you, it is a sight to be savoured. Masses of seabirds in a spectacular location.

I was so full of excitement about this trip, I came back the next day with Dave and Simon.

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Simon
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Simon and Dave beneath the highest cliff on mainland Britain (approx 1,000ft)

The Oystercatchers were doubly unhappy about the intrusion than the day before, they will have a chick nearby, without doubt.

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Oystercatcher

There were loads of caves and gulches which required close investigation.

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neverending gulch

Then we literally stumbled upon a seal (as much as you can ‘stumble’ in a kayak), which was just in front of me as I was drifting along taking photos of jellyfish.. It was lying absolutely motionless at the surface. Fast asleep, small stream of bubbles coming from her nose.

There were more seals hauled out, which we passed at a socially acceptable distance so they were not disturbed.Grey seal

Lunch was taken at Heddon’s Mouth.

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Lunch stop. Heddon’s Mouth

There was just the little issue of a seven mile paddle back. And the threat of a drop of rain.

More Mighty scenes….

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Dave and the mighty Exmoor coast

Plenty more wildlife above the water….

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Razorbills

And plenty of wildlife below the water…. (I’ll do a jellyfish ‘special’ blog soon)

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Compass jelly

Yet another top trip. This is getting boring.

 

 

 

 

Torbay Delivers the Fins!

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Tortuous track…..whatever could be the reason?

For those who go seeking wildlife from the seat of the kayak (like you know who), there is nothing more exciting than seeing a fin slice through the surface of a flat calm sea on a sunny summer’s day.

Today’s trip, with Dave and Paul, was full of the usual banter about ‘seeing dolphins’ as we paddled out from Brixham harbour. This has been going on for many years, and although both have seen porpoises, neither have had the pleasure of witnessing the splashiness of dolphins.

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Brixham harbour

It was going to be a good paddle anyway, because the sun was shining and wind was light.

My cunning plan was to keep well offshore to the north of Berry Head, to hopefully see some porpoises which would be hunting along the shearline between the static water of Torbay and the incoming (north flowing) tidal current after it had passed the headland.

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Brixham breakwater

Sure enough some porpoises, which are as predictable here as anywhere in SW England, appeared exactly on cue, puffing away merrily. Such a great sound, when there hasn’t seemed to be a lot of action in the open sea recently. Not many Gannets around, and Gannets are not stupid. Not many Gannets means not many fish at the surface, so probably not many cetaceans.

It was excellent watching the porpoises puff past under such calm conditions, after only half an hour of paddling. Cup of coffee in hand…superb.

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Porpoise pair

Then I caught a glimpse of a the sun glinting off something a mile further out. Intense scrutiny…..yes….I could just make out a cluster of fins….dolphins. Yippee. We headed out to investigate, but soon throttled back because the pod of about fifteen dolphins were heading straight towards us.

They passed by right in front….

Paul was pretty thrilled with all this, and as if to enhance his excitement further a breakaway group swam within a few feet of him and Dave.

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Paul and friend
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Dave waits for THE pic

There were another couple of pods further out, so I paddled out to investigate. I was very flattered that my pressure wave, while maintaining my top speed of about six mph, had anough ooomph for the dolphins to do a bit of bowriding.

We were treated quite a show, four or five groups totally forty to fifty individuals (that’s nearly a superpod!). In totally relaxing conditions only a mile off Berry Head.

Another breakaway minipod swam right beneath Dave and Paul, including a real big ‘un. I wonder if it was the dominant male (could equally have been female) of the pod.

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Big (and small) dolphin
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Big dolphin

I was ready with camera poised when a trawler cam surging past. No way could the dolphins resist riding THAT pressure wave.

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About an hour of dolphin action, with five or so porpoises as a side show. They are really not as dynamic as the dolphins, but as Dave said ‘they’ve got a really great puff’.

A Chinook that came whop-whopping around the coast couldn’t steal the show from the cetaceans. But as usual jaws dropped,  because they are the opposite of what you might consider to be aerodynamic (or airworthy).

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Chinook and Berry head

We finished up with a tour around the bay behind Berry Head (keeping well away from the Guillemot colony), and stopped for lunch to pass an opinion on today’s paddle.

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Berry Head

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The day of the dolphin.

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Eddy and St.Michael

Wow, what a way to shake off the shackles of lockdown. My two favourite iconic landmarks of the south Cornish coast, on consecutive days of unbroken sunshine, paddling under deep blue skies.

The trip out to the Eddystone lighthouse, which lies ten miles southwest of the mouth of Plymouth sound, is my favourite big offshore paddle. It’s a minimum of twenty-four miles there and back (launching from Cawsand), but more when you have chased around after a few sea creatures.

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Yours truly at Eddystone.

This was my nineteenth expedition out to the lighthouse, eleven years after my first. I was a little bit nervous that I still had the power and endurance in the bag, given that I have recently tiptoed across the threshold into my seventh decade.

It lures me back because of its sense of adventure, and the lure of the fantastic wildlife that one might expect to bump into en route. I’ve seen a couple of Minke Whales, Common, Bottlenose and even White-beaked dolphins, Porpoise, Basking Shark, Blue Shark, Sunfish, Seals, and one of only two Wilson’s Petrels ever recorded in Devon.

So, as usual, I was full of expectation.

The forecast was flat calm until ten o’clock, then a light southerly. Perfect , a bit of assistance on the way back. I was too early to get on the water (nothing new there) and there was a cool breeze flowing like a river out of the mouth of the Tamar. This combined  with an incoming Spring tide created more of a chop than I had expected. Nothing hairy, just a bumpy ride, which wasn’t great for wildlife watching. It was compounded by a small groundswell, and the constant wash from fishing boats en route from Plymouth to the Eddystone reef.

However I did manage to spot a small pod of Common Dolphins thanks to one youngster repeatedly breaching directly in front of me. Although I engaged top gear and sped after them I failed to close the gap enough to take a photo.

It took in excess of four hours to reach the Eddystone, as the tide was about as unhelpful as it could have been. I knew this to be the case, but the only other option was not to go, which clearly wasn’t an option.

I nearly leapt out of my skin when a multiple booming blast made my entire kayak vibrate. It came from the Queen Elizabeth aircraft carrier ten miles away, that had decided it was time to cruise on. What a cacophony.

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Queen Elizabeth

It was too lumpy around the back of the lighthouse for a relaxing break so I just headed straight back. It’s not often not lumpy here.

I nearly ran straight into a pair of Porpoises soon after leaving the light, and then a Puffin popped up right in front of me. Photography was not at all easy because the kayak was bouncing about but I couldn’t resist risking a few shots of this immature (probably last year’s fledgling) Puffin.

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Immature Puffin

Suddenly the wind dropped (and I think the flow changed direction….not always easy to predict here) and the last five miles back to the mainland were like a lake.

I dropped in to the lovely sandy beach in the armpit of Rame Head for a leg stretch (after over eight hours in the kayak seat) but it was heaving with Bank Holiday boaters so I ditched that idea and carried on. My pleasant wilderness bubble was further dented, if not burst, by the roar of jetskis coming out of the sound.

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Dreaded jetskis

It was suddenly time to get home. 25.9 miles, nine and a quarter hours total.

St. Michael’s Mount is rather more relaxing because it is less than half a mile offshore. What it lacks in remoteness and starkness, it makes up with eyecatching beauty and drama. You just can’t help looking up at those little windows on the sheer wall above the craggy cliff.

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what a great place
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scenic overload (and Dave)

I bumped into a couple of paddling chums as I left Penzance harbour, and we formed a loose convoy, with approved sort of distancing, for a circuit around the Mount.

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Simon

The sea, as forecast, was flat enough for the three and-a-half mile crossing to Mousehole, and of course I scoured the surface for fins. Was that a distant puff I heard? Yes, a couple of Porpoises popped up right beside Dave as he devoured a Twix. They were very camera shy (the porpoises, not Dave and confectionery) but I just managed to capture this fleeting fin.

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fleeting Porpoise

A few Guillemots were dotted about, and a flypast Razorbill.

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Guillemots

Mousehole was echoing to the sound of laughing and chattering of splashing children, perhaps appropriate for the picture-perfect little coastal village that time seems to have  forgotten about, and hopefully so has Covid 19.

Back at Penzance I was surprised to see three Purple Sandpipers hanging on, still loathe to move north. Perhaps they have a taste for bright sunshine. They were not keen to perform for the lens however (initially at least).

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lens-shy Purple Sandpiper
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Purple Sandpiper (that’s better)

It’s a funny time of year for oceanic sealife, because offshore it often goes very quiet in May and June. There are hardly any Gannets around, which generally means not much cetacean activity. Gannets have superb eyesight and will spot fins at the surface from a huge distance. I havn’t seen one circling, which means action below, for a while. Apart from over me, that is. In fact judging by the way they sprint over to check me out as if I am the only interesting feature on the surface for miles around, the sea everywhere else must be quite quiet at the moment.

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Gannet on the prowl

So not may cetaceans, but fortunately for wildlife-watching kayakers there are the birds, the coastal scenery looking at its best, and the wall -to- wall deep blue sky to enjoy.

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a more leisurely scene at St.Michael’s Mount

 

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.

 

 

 

Isolation

It is fortunate that nature is not affected by corona chaos. It just steadily gets on with doing its stuff, slowly adjusting to the seasons. Spring is trying its best to appear….the primroses in the bank, the occasional bumble bee and butterfly in a sunny corner, a chiffchaff singing from a copse and the superb blackbird singing outside the bedroom window at the first hint of dawn (it piped up at 5.43 this morning).

Coronavirus can’t mess up the coastal scenery either. In fact, unbelievably, it has made it a bit better, because there are no vapour trails in the sky. It is an extraordinary coincidence that only a month ago I was saying that the cherry on top of the iced bun that is the remoteness of Antarctica was that there were no vapour trails overhead, which kept the absence of human influence absolutely complete.

And here it was (or wasn’t). Right here on our doorstep in Cornwall. not a plane in sight. You would normally expect to see up to a dozen trails lined across a morning vista such as this.

No vapour trails here…..

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Portmellon Dawn

No vapour trails there……..

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Vault Beach

No vapour trails anywhere……

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Chapel Point

Not having the exhaust fumes from 100,000 flights per day around the globe can only be of benefit to the inhabitants therein (or thereon).

Enough of the heavy stuff, let’s go for a bit of a paddle and see what we can find!

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C’mon Everybody

Oystercatchers are always good. Everything about them is extrovert and full on. They make absolutely no attempt at camouflage or being quiet and unnoticed. They kick up an enormous racket. And they are common enough to liven up virtually every trip I do.

This one is obligingly perched with a waterfall in the background, making the image even more easy on the eye.

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Oystercatcher and waterfall
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Oystercatcher

Further offshore (and opportunities to paddle out have been few and far between due to wind) it’s quite quiet. There are not many hunting Gannets around, and few hunting Gannets tends to mean few dolphins or porpoises.

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Gannet looking for fish

So to find some cetaceans I had to make a bit of an effort to paddle out beyond one of the most notoriously hairy headlands of the south coast…Dodman Point. It has a reputation for wild seas, which get thrown up when the wind and the tide race have a disagreement. However, with a bit of cunning planning, and a windless morning, I managed to find three Harbour porpoises rolling very quietly at the surface at the tideline, where the water moving past the end of the point shears past the more static water of Mevagissey bay.

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Dodman Point
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Harbour Porpoise (Portloe behind)

Of course I had to take a bit of a spin around Mevagissey’s inner harbour….its charm seems to increase each time I drop by.

Back out in the open sea the Guillemots are just deciding that it’s time to put on their summer outfits. The one on the left is still in non-breeding (winter) plumage, the one on the right is in full breeding (summer) colours.

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Guillemots

You can see why these members of the auk family have the nickname of ‘northern penguins’ *. They are remarkably similar to penguins such as the Gentoos I watched a month or two ago. Guillemots use their wings to propel themselves underwater in exactly the same way penguins do. See the similarity yourself.

*if they haven’t, they should

I was joined by a very smart looking Fulmar Petrel off Polperro. Like most birds of the open sea, they can’t resist coming over to have a look.

These are part of the ‘tubenose’ group of seabirds that have a salt extraction gland located on top of their beak to enable them to survive using the sea as their only source of water.

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Fulmar

Here’s a close up of the tube. And study at that beak; it looks as though it’s been air-brushed and polished like a car at a vintage rally.

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Eric the Eider isn’t so curious however. He’s doing his best to go unnoticed.

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Eider

Grey Seals are a constant source of fascination. They too are inherently inquisitive but some are very much more shy than others. This one could be either. It is fast asleep (bottling) with just the tip of its nose above the water. My main job is to not wake it up. That would be unfair (and completely unacceptable). Observe the wildlife, don’t frighten it.

Grey seals come in all sorts of shapes and sizes. This (I think) is a this-year’s pup. It puts on a good show with a perfect three-point turn. (And you can hear a Dunnock (aka Hedge Sparrow) singing in the background)

In major contrast to the fine features of the juvenile seal, this is a grizzled old bull. I think this could have been the largest seal I have ever seen in the UK. When it rolled at the surface its back was more like a small whale. It also had a very nasty-looking scar on the end of its nose.P1060166

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Huge bull Grey Seal

And I didn’t come within ten metres of another person (apart from passing cars) all day.

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Polperro

2019.The Year of THE Whale

Here’s my top twelve wildlife sightings (all from the kayak seat, of course) for 2019. The cream of 2,444 miles of paddling.

There’s so much action to pack in that the coastal scenery, which has a claim to be as world class as the marine wildlife, doesn’t even get a mention (apart from this one pic).

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So here we go, in reverse order.

12. Fowey Osprey

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Osprey

This beautiful juvenile Osprey was an end of year bonus, stopping off for a rest (and no doubt refuelling on a mullet or two) near the mouth of the Fowey estuary. It had probably hatched out in Scotland or the north of England, and was on its way to the main Osprey wintering ground in West Africa. I look forward to seeing it again next year (hopefully).

I usually see one or two Ospreys around the estuaries of Devon and Cornwall in the autumn, but this is by far and away my best view….and I so nearly overlooked it as it was sat completely still near the top of a tall waterside tree.

11. Barrel Jellyfish

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Barrel Jellyfish

2019 has been a spectacular year for Barrel Jellyfish. They have been around in vast numbers, and for a long time. From early March to the end of October. On one day I saw more than the previous five years put together.

They are really great creatures….big and mysterious.

10. Boscastle Puffins

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Puffin Pair, Boscastle

There’s a handful of breeding colonies of everybody’s favourite seabird dotted around SW England, and nowhere is more dramatic than the rocky islets off the craggy and hostile coast of North Cornwall just up from Tintagel.

There’s only a couple of pairs of Puffins at Boscastle, and there’s only a couple of days a month when sea conditions are suitable for attempting to go and see them by kayak.

9. Torridge Otter.

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This is our only venture into fresh water in this review, into the home of Tarka the otter in North Devon. A superb prolonged view in early January of a dog otter fishing.

An encounter matched by it’s cousin on the other side of the pond, or more technically the OTHER pond, because this is a Pacific Sea Otter which Becky and I watched from a kayak during a trip to California in February.

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Californian Sea Otter

I saw a total of six river otters in 2019…..three in the Torridge, three in the Tamar. (plus one on the Wye)

8. Harbour Porpoise

mother and calf porpoise
mother and calf porpoise

I really like porpoises. They are a kayak speciality, because the majority I see I have heard puffing first, a noise that would be drowned out by any sort of engine. There is no doubt they are hugely overlooked, because they are small (only four to five foot long), and they appear at the surface without a splash. Also they tend to go around in very small groups which makes them even easier to miss.

This year I have seen a total of 275 porpoises on 38 days. Down from last year ( 327 on 44 days) but I don’t get the impression there are any fewer around. If you paddle a couple of miles offshore almost anywhere around the coast of Devon and Cornwall in August, you will probably hear one puffing.

 

7. Micky the Harbour Seal

It is rare to see a Harbour Seal in Cornwall, and even more unusual (and probably unprecedented) to see a pup that has swum all the way from Holland and is still only five months old. Another success story for the seal rescue and rehabilitation centres.

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Micky the (Dutch) Harbour Seal

6. Beaver

A handful of  trips up an estuary through the patchy mist of dawn in July were rewarded with several encounters with Beavers. I had heard they were about, but I had no idea they were in this particular location, didn’t realise that they inhabited saltwater estuaries, and anyway didn’t think I would see one in daylight.

Another good example of the benefits of paddling along in complete silence (and early in the morning).

Five beaver sightings on three days.

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Beaver

 

5. Common Dolphin

My Common Dolphin year started off in grand style with a prolonged encounter with a pod of about twenty off Penzance. It was early January but the flat calm sea and warm sun made it feel, and look, like summer.

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Penzance dolphin

I will never ever get bored of seeing a dolphin from my kayak. In fact the excitement will never dip below the 100% level. Partly because it is so very difficult to do…..Common Dolphins don’t often come within sight of the shore so you’ve really got to be a long way out, and sea conditions suitable for this are infrequent even in the summer.

It’s a good news story for SW England and the efforts of the marine conservation groups that Common Dolphins seem to be increasing, no doubt because there are more fish around. This is reflected in my total for the year of 564 individuals on 23 days. (it’s actually probably a lot more than this but estimating the number of dolphins in an active and splashy pod is very difficult).This compares to 432 on 17 days last year, and 148 on 11 days in 2017.

This includes a couple of ‘superpods’ (over 50 individuals) on consecutive days at the end of August…one in Devon and the other in Cornwall.

 

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Interestingly I only saw an average of one pod per year when I kayaked along the coast; the increase only occurred when I took to offshore paddling. I now average about 500 miles a year more than a mile from the shore specifically looking for ‘fins’.

Only one or two of this year’s pods would have been visible to a kayaker paddling close to the shore.

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I can’t think of any other situation where such a large number of completely wild creatures voluntarily come so close to an observer. Even better for the dolphins, they remain completely undisturbed and unspooked because I have no engine, and a kayak is about as threatening as a floating log.

 

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4. Bottlenose Dolphins

My first sighting of these big and charismatic dolphins for several years was in Mount’s Bay, and three miles offshore. Bottlenose Dolphins usually prefer to stay close in because they like to hunt fish that live on the seabed, but these were thought to be part of an offshore pod that live in the open sea (and feed on shoaling fish).

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Bottlenose Dolphins

 

3. Risso’s Dolphin

This was a really extraordinary encounter on one of the most beautiful days of the year. It was hot, sunny and windless. Even the relentless swell along the north coast of Cornwall had abated allowing a relaxed twenty-mile paddle from St.Ives to Sennen. I couldn’t resist a jaunt offshore around the Brisons rocks for the final section, and was rewarded with an extended sight of a pod of eight Risso’s Dolphins.

They are big and dynamic and ran through just about every trick in the dolphin book: spyhopping, fin-clapping, lobtailing, breaching as well as  a bit of logging at the surface.

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Risso’s dolphin spyhopping

I was thrilled when one swam past a few feet away because they are usually quite shy, and I personally have only seen them at a distance before.

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Risso’s

 

2. Minke Whale

Ever since I first sat in a kayak (about fifty years ago) I have dreamt about seeing a whale from the kayak seat. Because I never thought it would happen in Devon or Cornwall I have been to Greenland, USA and Mexico to try and see one, and failed.

In the last four years I have discovered that if you grind out the miles, as far offshore as you dare, you will eventually see a whale.

In fact prior to this year I have seen ten whales in SW England. Fantastic, but August 2nd 2019 was to blast any other previous sighting clean out of the water, and I still can’t quite believe it happened.

Because I saw two species of whale in the same place at the same time, without paddling a single stroke. (as well as Common Dolphin, Porpoise, Giant Bluefin Tuna).

While I was waiting for the ‘other’ whale to surface, this Minke Whale appeared close enough to give me my best ever photograph of the species. If you consider whales as a whole, Minkes are not the biggest (about thirty foot) and not the most exciting, because they roll at the surface like a giant porpoise. But heck, they are a whale, and who would believe you can see a whale from a kayak in UK.

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Minke Whale

1. HUMPBACK WHALE!!!!!

This once-in-a-lifetime drama was played out in a location that I usually  avoid  because of the tidal currents and confused and choppy water. But conditions for cetacean viewing AND photography were absolutely perfect…flat water, and cloudless blue sky.

It was the perfect un-storm.

Even so, the chances of me being three to four miles offshore in precisely the right place at precisely the same time as a Humpback whale appears, make a win on the lottery look easy. It was the first Humpback seen in the area since the Spring, and it was only around for a few hours.

I would have been over the moon just to have a fleeting view of it like this:

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Humpback

And to see the flukes come up as it deep dived was something I had always wanted to capture on film…..even better with St.Michael’s Mount behind (seven miles away!).

 

Humpback in front of St Michaels Mount
Humpback and St.Michael’s Mount

Waving its enormous pectoral fin about was  an unexpected bonus…..

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Humpback flipper

But to be sitting right in the middle of its feeding area, as it proceeded to gulp down the baitballs of sandeels and other small fish just a few yards away, was something I hadn’t anticipated.

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Humpback gulp
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Humpback splash

To see this sort of sight from a whale-watching boat in California or Hawaii would be the thrilling enough, but to ‘stumble’ across it in my kayak while randomly paddling around far offshore, right here on our doorstep in Southwest England, is total excitement overload.

It will be hard to top in 2020.

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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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Hairy Hartland

“From Hartland Point to Padstow Light, ’tis a Watery Grave by Day or Night”

Having this cheerful old mariner’s sonnet lurking in the back of my mind always makes me a bit apprehensive about a paddle out from Hartland Quay. It is so totally and utterly exposed and there is nothing resembling a town or port or seaside village within sight. From Hartland point south the coast is  absolutely dead straight and points directly out to the west so catches every bit of Atlantic groundswell and is usually blasted by the wind from the same direction. Not a hint of a sheltering headland to moderate the beefy tidal current either.

When out on the water the only sign that humans have ever existed is the lighthouse at Hartland, another on Lundy fifteen miles away, the bizarre Hartland Quay hotel and the odd vapour trail.

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Hartland Point Lighthouse

Just to make it even more fun, there is no phone signal and the nearest other floating craft who might hear a shout from your two-way radio are the occasional ship passing ten miles out which is just peeping the top of it’s funnel over the horizon. There are very few fishing boats here.

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not a lot but sea and sky

But this was the part of Devon with least wind forecast today, a light easterly. So I was hopeful. And when I came over the brow of the hill the sea was like a millpond, ridged with only a two to three foot swell. Excellent.

I trolleyed my kayak through the middle of Hartland Quay Hotel, which is an ironic start to such a remote-feeling paddle, and paddled straight offshore.

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Trolley through Hartland Quay Hotel
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Hartland Quay beach

I kept up a fairly fast cruise speed because I was sure the windless conditions wouldn’t last, and even the slightest wind combined with the lively currents around here would rapidly cause quite choppy conditions.

I passed a couple of Porpoises two miles out with their fins glinting in the bright sunshine, but didn’t pause because I had my eye on a handful of circling Gannets a mile further out, which occasionally dived into the water.

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Cruising Gannet

By the time I appeared on location the Gannets had drifted off but my efforts were rewarded when a pod of about eight Common Dolphins (which the Gannets had been shadowing) came over to say hello.

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Common Dolphin pair exhaling
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Common Dolphin pair

This is the first time I have seen Common Dolphins on this bit of coast from my kayak.It’s usually been from the top of a headland through  pair of binoculars as the dolphins enjoy the typically wild sea state which is more normal for round here.

 

 

 

 

I drifted south, watching the dolphins, with the increasingly strong ebb tide and got to about four miles offshore which I thought was far enough, especially as I could see swirls in the water from the current, and a line of dark approaching which was the start of the wind. I have enormous respect for this wild stretch of coast and felt a bit small, so paddled shoreward, fast.

On the way back in I passed several more porpoises, in fact could hear one puff nearly every time I halted. Also the flopping fin of a Sunfish which spooked and dived when I was still many metres away from it, with camera poised.

Other wildlife interest today was a couple of posses of Guillemots and Razorbills, a handful of passing Red Admiral butterflies and a dozen or so swallows, far out to sea. On migration south from Wales presumably.

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Guillemots and Razorbills

As I neared the savage coast with multiple toothy reefs reaching far offshore I came across a tide race with whitecaps and standing waves which sloshed all over the deck. As I lurched over the waves I realised the body of water I was in was moving AGAINST the flow of the tide. It was part of a huge eddy current that was surging back towards Hartland Point as the main ebbing tide pours south around the corner and out to sea. Blooming heck, it’s all a bit hairy round here.

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Fangs of Hartland Heritage coast.

I can’t believe I once paddled out to Lundy from here (and back, after a chicken-flavoured pot noodle on the slipway).

Back on dry land I trolleyed my kayak back through the tables of tourists enjoying a lunchtime pint in the warm sunshine, several of which gave me a bemused look (not unusual).

My coastal trip south from Bude the next day was a bit more leisurely. It was great to meet local kayak fisherman Eric, who is one of very few kayakers who have seen a Leatherback Turtle. He encountered one just half a mile from the shore a few weeks ago. What a supreme sighting.

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Eric
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Bude

August Wildlife: Up the Creek to Open Sea

The encounter with the Humpback  (on 2nd Aug) is the most exciting wildlife spectacle I have witnessed from my kayak, by quite a long way.

Explosive drama.

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Humpback Whale

The scene is rather more serene at the upper tidal limit of the River Torridge. In fact not a lot could be more serene.

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Torridge Swans

The Swan family are thriving and drift about in the complete silence of a late summer morning.

 

 

 

 

Unfortunately the family with three cygnets on the River Tamar is not doing so well.

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Morwellham Swans

They are now down to one youngster as I passed the corpses of the other two cygnets yesterday floating at the surface, over a mile apart. ????

Most birds stopped singing at the end of June when their breeding season came to an end, but swallows are an exception and are not only still singing, there are still young in the nest. Some pairs will rear a third brood which may not fledge until early October.

The soundtrack  of the summer.

 

The top of the tidal estuaries are fresh water and are the home of Dippers who just can’t resist bobbing.

 

 

 

 

One of the bonuses of choosing Devon and Cornwall as a kayaking destination is the hundreds of miles of sheltered creek to explore when the exposed coast and open sea is lashed by wind, as it has been on and off for the last couple of weeks.

 

 

 

 

It’s great to see the pretty little Mandarin Ducks that seem to have made the Upper Torridge their home. They originate from escapes from collections and have only been in this area for a few years.

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Mandarin Duck

Heading down towards the sea Curlews demonstrate how to spruce oneself up despite an enormous bill, and Little Egrets spear little fish in the shallows.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The flock of Black-headed gulls is irresistible to a passing Peregrine that slices through the middle of them. You will see it cut through the flock from right to left. Unsuccessfully, on this occasion. It looks brownish so it is probably a this year’s youngster.

 

 

 

 

This next clip is a bit depressing. A Herring gull with a plastic bag wrapped round its leg. I don’t fancy its chances.

 

 

 

Seals sometimes venture far up the estuaries because there is the potential for good fishing. Even if salmon and sea trout are not as numerous as they used to be, there’s plenty of mullet that follow the tide in.

This is a Harbour Seal well up the Fowey estuary. It clearly wants to take a mid-morning nap  but is unfortunately spooked by the approach of a rowing scull.

 

 

I have sneaked out along the coast during the very few spells of lighter wind during the last few weeks. The Turnstones have returned to the barnacle encrusted rocks. Here one is still in full summer plumage (the smarter-looking bird) while the other is in the less smart winter plumage.

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Turnstones, Mevagissey

It was a bit of a surprise to see a Redshank out on the rocky coast…they usually prefer the mud of estuaries. On migration, no doubt.

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Torbay Redshank (looking a bit knock-kneed)

The problem with wearing Crocs for kayaking is that when you stop for a cup of coffee and a Crunch Cream and walk across a beach they have an almost magnetic attraction for the most painful and spiky stones and shells to get inside and poke the soles of your feet.

It’s a common occurrence, but this is the first one to have been alive.

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Hermit Crab in Croc

At Mevagissey this is the first Crystal jellyfish I have seen this year…didn’t they star in Avatar, by the Tree of Life?

 

 

Grey Seals always make me chuckle when they are ‘bottling’ i.e. sleeping vertically in the water. They can be really deep asleep and I have actually accidentally bumped into them before.

This one at Mevagissey was certainly fairly well gone and you can hear it snoring. Fortunately I didn’t disturb it at all and managed to depart the scene without it apparently waking.

 

 

I came across more seals in Torbay; a woolly-looking bull Grey Seal and a perky Harbour Seal. Harbour seals used to be rare in SW England but they seem to be slowly invading.

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Grey Seal bull, Thatcher Rock
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Harbour Seal, Thatcher Rock

There has been a single window of opportunity for an offshore paddle during the last couple of weeks, lasting only a few hours and early in the morning. The Cornish Riviera at Mevagissey was my destination and I was very pleased to see half-a-dozen Porpoises and a little pod of four Common Dolphins.

Way beyond my expectations on a choppy day.

As usual a couple of adults came over to assess the threat I posed to the juvenile that they were escorting. Fortunately I was quickly deemed to be safe and they carried on feeding close to the kayak. I sometimes half-wish that they would hesitate for a split second before making up their minds, as if they had mistaken me for an impressive creature such as an Orca or a Great white. But they don’t. One glimpse and they have got me pigeonholed alongside floating logs and marine detritus.

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Gorran Haven Common Dolphin

 

 

 

 

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Common Dolphin and Tectona (sail-training ship)

For the next week or so the dolphins wont have to worry whether I am a Killer Whale or piece of flotsam, because I will not be out there in the strong wind. The weather is currently so poor and all other paddling venues so chopped-up, or with unfavourable tides, that the only suitable location is the good-old Bude Canal.