2017. The Year of the Dolphin

2017 IN FIGURES

2814 miles paddled in total.

2400 in Devon and Cornwall

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Winter Dawn on the Torridge estuary

183 in Spain (Costa del Sol)

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Gibraltar (from Spain)

133 in Scotland

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Loch Arkaig

100 along Rivers in England (Thames and two Avons)

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September Thames

500+ miles of offshore paddling (more than a mile from the coast) in Devon and Cornwall.

6 trips out to the Eddystone Lighthouse

The author at the Eddystone
Yours Truly at Eddystone

1 Interception by the UK Border Force

Wildlife seen from my kayak in 2017:

1 Humpback whale seen. Horace, aka Doris, hung around the sheltered waters of Slapton sands in South Devon for an incredible six weeks in the Spring. I saw him (her) twice from my kayak, although the first time shouldn’t really count because he (she) was tangled up in a lobster pot rope.

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Horace the Humpback takes a puff

33 days with Harbour Porpoises seen, a total of approx 177 individuals. Porpoises are very small and very unsplashy and easily overlooked unless the sea is flat calm. For every one I saw, I missed an equal number when all I heard was there ‘piff’ as they breathed, the sound of their breathing carrying long distances over the water.

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Harbour porpoises

11 days with Common Dolphins, totally approx 171 individuals. Another 175ish in Spain. Several fantastic close encounters with groups bow riding when I could muster up the power to paddle at top speed. I need to eat more pasties.

Seeing Common Dolphins is extremely unpredictable and random as they range far and wide and usually keep well offshore. However the pods in Torbay around Brixham at the end of the year and running into early 2018, were the closest in, and most regular, I have known.

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Common Dolphin (youngster)

3 days with Bottlenose Dolphins, totalling 50-80 individuals. Plus 8-10 at Chanonry point in the Moray Firth in Scotland, probably the best dolphin watching location in the UK.

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Bottlenose Dolphins

A huge thrill on 18 Dec a couple of miles off Lamorna Cove when a proper ‘stampede’ of 30+ Bottlenosers charged directly towards me in a line all jumping out of the water simultaneously. An unforgettable image.

2017 was by far my best year yet for number of dolphin sightings.

7 Giant Bluefin Tuna sightings, all after 13 Nov. Amazing. I have glimpsed them on occasion before and seen the odd random splash but there seems to have been an invasion of them this autumn. Hopefully it means the baitfish are making a bit of a comeback which will mean more mega sightings of large fish-eating sea creatures.

Jumping Giant Bluefin Tuna
Giant Bluefin Tuna

Four days with tuna at Fowey, with one extraordinary day with scores of splashes and fish jumping right out, one at Mevagissey  (double splash), one at Berry Head (double splash), and brief intense feeding frenzy off Lamorna Cove near Penzance.

Loads of seals. All Grey seals in SW England apart from one Harbour Seal near Portscatho.

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Grey Seal pup
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Harbour Seal, south Cornwall

11 Otters in Devon and Cornwall, plus 6 (before 6am on one day!) in Shetland. A poor year overall for otter sightings; there don’t seem to be so many on the River Torridge. ???

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Otter

I saw otters on the Rivers Tamar, Taw, Camel and Torridge.

2 Mink. Nasty, nasty little creatures which have almost exterminated  Water Voles. Maybe this is a bit unfair because if you are a Mink you do what Minks do and can’t really help it (although leaving Water Voles off the menu would help the public image).

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Mink (trying not to look too evil)

One on the Torridge, one beside the Thames in Marlow!

1 Sunfish at Fowey. There were quite a lot around this year, I just didn’t seem to bump into many by shear random luck (or lack of).

Also one off Gibraltar (also from kayak) on 10 March. A real whopper.

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Gibraltar Sunfish

5 days with Portugese Man-of-War sightings, totalling over 50. A good year for jellyfish in general with nine or ten species seen, including the not so common, and unpleasantly named, Mauve Stingers.

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Portugese Man o’War

Technically Portugese Man o’Wars are not jellyfish, they are Siphonophores. Likewise By-the-wind Sailors (another excellent name) are not jellyfish, they are Hydrozoa. However because I am a bit of a simpleton it seems sensible to lump them all together in one group because they are all jellylike and do what is expected of a jellyfish (i.e. float about and look like they might give you a bit of a sting).

6 Sooty Shearwaters, on four days. A true ocean-wandering seabird which nests on islands in the Southern Ocean. My first ever kayak-seen Sooty ‘Shears’ were the result of my concentrated efforts to paddle offshore this year. 5 seen near Eddystone, 1 near Land’s End.

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Sooty Shearwater

37 Balearic Shearwaters, on six days. Scattered amongst the much more common Manx Shearwater, usually well offshore.

Manx and Balearic Shearwater
Manx and Balearic Shearwater

43 Storm Petrels, on six days from mid June to the end of August. 29 at Eddystone, 1 at Porthcurno and 13, several very close, on a rainy but fortunately fairly windless day off Fowey.

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Storm Petrel

Storm Petrels are probably my favourite pelagic seabird I have seen from my kayak because they look impossibly small and vulnerable when fluttering low over the waves, yet spend all their time when not involved with nesting at sea scattered over the oceans of the world.

They are indeed vulnerable because they seem to be a favourite snack of Peregrines. I have seen a Peregrine snatch a Storm Petrel from just above the surface of a stormy sea off Hartland Point (not from my kayak). Probably a good reason why they usually keep well offshore.

5 ‘Bonxie’ Great Skuas. Another of my favourites, and a sensational encounter with one off Fowey on a calm and sunny day, only a few feet from my kayak. By far my best view in SW England.

Great Skua, Fowey
Great Skua

6 Arctic Skuas . All near Torbay and no decent photos.

6 Puffins. All around Eddystone. The usual gang of dirty-faced immature birds in late Spring , and one (very unusual sighting, I think) juvenile on 21 Aug. A Puffling.

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Juvenile Puffin

1 Black Tern In Mevagissey Bay with a load of Common Terns. Only my second ever from a kayak, and first ever half decent pic.

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Black Tern

8 Long-tailed Ducks. An exceptionally good year and (yet) another of my favourites. The males are one of the most attractive sea ducks. This year I was treated not only to a superb pair at Porthpean, but also a hugely unusual drake in summer plumage on the Taw estuary on 29 Sept.

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Drake Long-tailed Duck in Summer plumage
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Drake (and duck) Long-tailed Duck in Winter plumage

1 Pink-footed Goose Another kayaking first , and actually I can’t remember the last time I saw a ‘Pink-foot’, even from dry land. Superb close view, in amongst some Canada Geese, on the upper reaches of the Fowey River.

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Pink-footed Goose

Several pairs of Black-throated Divers in Scotland. The most beautifully marked UK bird?

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Black-throated Divers

 

Kingfishers on 21 days. Everybody’s favourite waterbird.

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Kingfisher

1 WILSON’S PETREL. I can still hardly believe this. The chances of seeing one of these from a kayak in England are as remote as Captain Sensible becoming Prime Minister. Ironically they are one of the most numerous birds in the world, nesting in the Southern Hemisphere and visiting the northern oceans in our summer.  A lot of birdwatchers spend a lot of time staring out to sea through telescopes hoping to see one but hardly any ever do. It’s only during storms that they are likely to be driven close enough to the shore to be seen, so when the sea is calm enough to venture far out in a kayak the petrels will usually be long gone.

So I was pretty lucky to see one a couple of miles from the Eddystone lighthouse, bringing back memories of the first one I ever saw with my father from the deck of the RMS St.Helena off the coast of South Africa, in 1989.

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Wilson’s Petrel

Finally, 3 Favourite Scenes from the year. All great to look at from the depths of winter and give prospective kayakers hope that at least a few days next year might be warm, sunny and still.

1 Hartland Point

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Hartland Point

Looe

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Looe

3 Kynance Cove

Kynance Cove
Kynance Cove
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Destination: Dolphins

IMG_0953Fired up by my encounter with the ultra rare Wilson’s Petrel, I was dead keen to get offshore again to taste more wildlife action. A week later conditions for the Eddystone were just about OK for another jaunt out to the lighthouse. I make sure that the mean windspeed, and more importantly, the gusts, are forecast to blow at no more than 10mph for the whole eight or nine hours of the trip. Any more than this makes it a bit less relaxing, and the chances of seeing a cetacean’s fin decreases dramatically. Windspeed doesn’t matter so much for seabirds, but taking a photo becomes very much more difficult as the kayak moves around a lot more.

Despite careful planning I was caught out by the strong current at the mouth of Plymouth sound which was throwing up quite a chop. It was caused by the very big Spring tide which was flowing out into a light SW wind. I nearly turned back but every often I could see the patch of calmer water some distance ahead, so battled on across the flow until I reached the quieter area.

Quite a few more Balearic Shearwaters  and a scattering of Storm Petrels further out. A single fin flashed past in front of me with a bit of a puff…it looked like a lone Common Dolphin-far too fast for a porpoise.

As I neared the lighthouse a flurry of splashing in the calm water to my left made me power towards it to investigate. I found myself in amongst a pod of about ten Common Dolphins, and they seemed as though they wanted to play as they all came over to surround me and splash about. As they swum underneath the kayak they turned on their side and looked up. I piled on the speed and they sped alongside-one of the very few times I have had dolphins bowriding my kayak.

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Common Dolphin
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Common Dolphins from kayak
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Common Dolphin

They surged around me very close and splashed me several times. I snapped away with the camera but always seemed to just miss the best action.

I continued on my route to the lighthouse and for five minutes they continued along in a chaotic splashing escort. Absolutely excellent.

Finally they peeled off and very rapidly disappeared.

At one stage as I was stationary taking in the excitement of the dolphins, a Sooty Shearwater flew past close, followed by a Balearic Shearwater and a Storm petrel ,all within a minute of each other.

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Sooty Shearwater

To round off the exceptional wildlife sightings of the day I ran into a juvenile Puffin on the way back, not quite as striking as in their adult breeding plumage!

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Juvenile Puffin

And had to dodge a tanker coming out of Plymouth.IMG_8340

As usual I pushed my luck too far and paddled once more to the Eddystone a few days later and encountered only a pair of porpoises. However they came very close to the kayak and puffed in a very loud manner when they took breath. I’m not surprised one of their local names is ‘Puffing Pig’.

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Harbour Porpoise
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Harbour porpoise off Plymouth

On this particular trip I was very pleased I was able to rescue a sub-adult Gannet that had a long length of rope wrapped around its lower jaw. I was unable to yank it free from distance so ended up grabbing the gannet by the back of the neck and teasing the strands of rope from its beak, while it tried to nip my hand. Quite a risky procedure to carry out nine miles from the nearest land, but it turned out successfully, although the Gannet was a bit fatigued, and dishevelled.

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Rescued Gannet

My next, very brief, dolphin encounter was on a very rare calm day on the North Cornish coast a couple of miles off Bude. A fleeting view of two Common Dolphins.

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Bude Common Dolphins

Then it was down to the far west of Cornwall in an effort to see one of the whales which have been reported down there.

A twelve mile paddle from Pothgwarra back to Marazion, and again I was disappointed with the sparsity of wildlife. Just one Sooty Shearwater and one Balearic although there was a constant stream of Manx Shearwaters zipping past my kayak that stopped me from getting bored.

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Balearic Shearwater

By shear luck, as I was only a mile or so from my destination, I caught a fraction of a second glimpse of a dolphin leaping clear of the water, about a quarter of a mile away. I surged towards it and thought I had missed them but then saw a group of fins moving very quietly at the surface. They disappeared then exploded into action with a good display. There was a very young calf jumping perfectly alongside his Mum.

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Common Dolphins
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Common Dolphins

As I was waiting for a dolphin to surface with camera poised, it popped up only a couple of feet away, too big to fully fit in the picture!IMG_8849

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Trying to find dolphins from a kayak is very difficult. You really can’t use binoculars so you are left with searching with your bare  eyeballs.

Using a telescope or binoculars from a headland foreshortens the distance so you can see everything in an instant that would take up to two hours to paddle across in a kayak!

When I came back from the Eddystone the other day, having failed to see any dolphins during nine hours of paddling, I cast my binoculars out over a glassy flat Whitsand Bay during my drive home, and immediately spotted a pod of twenty dolphins a couple of miles offshore. Almost too easy.

But strangely for me having the odds impossibly stacked up is part of the appeal, and the results are certainly worth the wait.IMG_8147

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Arrival at Marazion

 

Six Days of Summer on Shetland

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Shetland puffin

Getting to the top of the UK from Holsworthy represents seven hundred miles of driving and a twelve hour ferry trip from Aberdeen to Lerwick. Just about worth it provided it was wall-to-wall wildlife action and excitement for the entire time we were there. And ideally some good conditions for kayaking so that I could experience paddling in a new location.

Remarkably Unst, Shetland’s most northerly island, is almost exactly the same latitude as southern Greenland where Hezzer and I went on a sea kayaking expedition last year. Just above 60 degrees North. No icebergs around Shetland though.

Driving up the M6 was the usual tedious and stressful challenge (bear in mind we have no traffic queues and only one set of traffic lights in Holsworthy), possibly made worse by the poor weather forecast for Shetland….strong winds and…groan…FOG.

I picked up Hezzer and Sharpy en route and by 7pm we were on the deck of the ferry scanning for sea creatures. Glimpses of porpoises and the odd Puffin, that’s all.

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Hezzer and Sharpy

First day on Shetland was a bit of a struggle, especially as southern England was basking in 30 degrees and sunshine. It was windy, cold, wet and sometimes misty, sometimes foggy. But I was determined to camp. My amateurish festival-style tent might well collapse or blow away, but we were going to give it a go. We pitched it at a sort of official campsite at the marina at Brae and although it bent and distorted alarmingly it looked like it would just about survive.

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Orca in the Fog (the only one we saw)

We took a stroll to a sandy beach on the adjacent island of Muckle Roe and while hunkered down out of the wind an otter appeared around the headland and started to swim towards us. The wind was in our face so it would not catch our scent (if it was downwind it wouldn’t have come within sight). Hezzer got ready with his camera but before I had time to get mine out of its waterproof bag the otter appeared in the waves breaking on the shore just in front of us. It emerged from the water and without hesitation strode directly towards Hezzer who was settled on the foreshore, with a sort of ‘what are you doing on my patch?’ type attitude (the otter, not Hezzer).

It marched forward, hesitated, then continued its approach, finally stopping when it was only five paces in front of Hezzer. When it clicked what was going on it fairly rapidly, but not panickly, returned to the sea, and carried on fishing. It emerged onto the beach again a bit further on, sniffed about a bit, and then swam back to the point where it had come from.

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Hezzer and his Otter

The next couple of days involved trying not to get battered or crushed by the wind, and working our way north to the island of Unst, the most northerly part of the UK. We witnessed some superb wildlife action between Arctic Skuas and Arctic terns as the former tried to steal the latter’s lunch. Sometimes four skuas to one tern.

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Hezzer plus Arctic Tern friend

We camped wild one night on the west coast of Yell, and in the grounds of Gardisfauld Hostel on Unst for the remaining three. It’s got  a superb view out over the sound where we saw otters, seals and all manner of seabirds. And a rainbow.IMG_5318

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Hezzer and Yours truly at Gardisfauld

Hermaness nature reserve overlooking Muckle Flugga lighthouse is as far north as you can get in the UK. And it is staggering because of its wild west-facing coast with offshore stacks whit-topped with Gannets, as well as vast areas of moorland dotted with numerous pairs of ‘Bonxie’ Great Skuas, which were either cruising about looking for trouble (as Bonxies do) or standing about displaying by throwing their wings back and uttering a primeval gulping call that sends a shiver up your spine (in a horror movie type way).

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Bonxies Displaying

But I do like Bonxies, they are one of my favourite seabirds. Non-birders hardly notice them because they look so scruffy.

At last, after three days, the wind dropped. It was due to stay fairly calm till lunchtime the next day, which just happened to be 21 June, the longest day of the year. I have always made an extra special effort to get up extra early on the longest day so I didn’t need much persuasion to set my alarm clock for 4am, as I was itching to go for a paddle. My Cobra Expedition kayak had travelled the best part of one thousand miles on the roof of the car to get here; it would be a pity to take it back without it getting wet (with sea water).

In fact the alarm clock was surplus to requirements because a Blackbird, which had made one of only about three bushes on the entire island its home, decided to have a bit of a sing-song to welcome in the dawn at 2.30. It did well to spot the difference between night and day because at this latitude there is not a lot of difference and you can still just about read a book in the darkest part of the night.

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Early Start (note incorrect date)

I was all packed up and on the water by 3.40am. My earliest start ever on a kayaking trip. And was very excited because early means otters.

Less than a minute of paddling along the glass calm water in front of Gardisfauld Hostel I heard a cat yowling from the undergrowth and saw an otter hopping about amongst the rocks. Obviously not the cat’s best chum. This was followed a couple of minutes later by another (otter, not cat), also on the shore, which was an unusually pale individual.

I crossed the sound over to the island of Uyea as a couple of Red-throated Divers (Rain Geese as they are called in Shetland) arrived from their freshwater loch for breakfast in the sea, striking the water at speed breast-first with quite a splash. The sound of their honking calls as birds shuttled backwards and forwards to their breeding areas in the hills, was more or less continuous all morning.

There was a lot of honking which apparently means there is going to be a lot of rain. ‘They’ were right.

Another singleton otter as I arrived at the shore of Uyea and then I heard a piercing otter ‘whistle’ followed by a bit of a chatter as an otter on a rock communicated to its mate which was following some distance behind. All a bit too dark for photos as it wasn’t even four o’clock!

As it brightened I had an excellent prolonged view of an otter fishing in front of me. I followed it along at a safe distance and watched as it emerged onto a rock to munch its way through a butterfish in a typical noisy, mouth open, crunchy otter way. And a half decent photograph.

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Otter on Uyea Island

As I emerged out of the shelter of the island around the more exposed east-facing shore of Uyea the otters were replaced by Grey Seals and a few small groups of Black Guillemots which were uttering their high-pitched whistling calls, one of which sounded more like a Great Tit.

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Black Guillemots

As I rounded a headland the golden sandy beach of Sand Wick came into view, but before stretching my legs on the sand, I took a diversion up the narrow inlet of the Ham of Muness. A bottling seal, noisy Arctic tern colony and Fulmars nesting on an old building kept me entertained, but as soon as I saw an otter swimming directly towards me I took evasive action before it detected me and paddled round in a huge circle and tucked in to the shore, hoping it would swim right past. I held on to a flat rock on the shore and got my camera ready. The otter appeared, swimming quite happily, and then dived. The trail of bubbles approached, went under the front of my kayak, and the otter momentarily climbed out of the water onto the flat rock, close enough to touch. In an instant and a splash of water it was gone.

I felt a built guilty about upsetting this otter but I was actually stationary and the otter came to me, I wasn’t chasing it around.

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Grey Seal (bottling)

At the headland I had the briefest view of a porpoise surfacing once, the only cetacean I was to see in Shetland.

I downed a king-sized Bakewell Tart (from Baltasound Bakery) on Sand Wick while a trio of Red-Throated Divers came close into the shallows.

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Red-Throated Divers

After my pit-stop just as I was leaving the beach Hezzer and Sharpy appeared over the horizon so I stopped to have a word with them, watching the terns fishing in the bay.

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Sand Wick, Unst
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Fulmar

Then it was back the way I had come, this time including a circuit of the small island of Half Gruney in the itinerary. I was a bit surprised to pass a lone Sanderling on the exposed rocks; they are usually faithful to beaches.

After an excellent encounter with three incredibly approachabl Arctic Terns on the way back, I arrived back at Gardisfauld at midday after an eight hour 20 plus mile paddle…my first in Shetland. And six otters….five before 5am…..that’s another first!

Arctic Tern
Arctic Tern
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Beautiful Arctic Tern

The rain, and wind, arrived later in the day and the tent buckled and tent poles splintered. During the night I frequently got a faceful of canvas but we all kept dry and the tent stayed essentially tent-shaped (thanks to a roll of Gorilla tape).

Our final day was spent with a steady drive back down the island chain to the ferry terminal at Lerwick, and a warm (!) sunny afternoon seawatching at Sumburgh Head, hoping for the Orca pack to appear. Needless to say it didn’t, but we had superb views of Puffins and both species of skua. Hezzer glimpsed a Minke Whale far,far out but I failed to spot it.

That was it. Fairwell to Shetland.

It was such a pleasant evening as the ferry crept across Lerwick harbour, the kayakers and paddleboarders were out in their boardshorts.

Despite the windchill from the speed of the ferry I stayed out on deck for several hours. A big swirl at the surface close by was confirmed to be a Minke whale by the only other few people left on the deck who saw it before it dived. I must have missed seeing the actual creature by less than  a hundredth of a second. Probably the same one Hezzer had seen from the shore, as we were passing Sumburgh Head.

That would have been the icing on what was already a pretty good cake.

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Gannet

One of my personal rules about kayaking is that I spend at least as long on the water as the car journey it took to get there.

Oops.

This is the first time I think I have failed, and failed in a spectacular fashion. Twenty-five to thirty hours in the car for eight hours on the water. Crikey.

Time to get back to Devon and put in some hours on my local patch.

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Typical Shetland Scenery (although it’s not usually sunny)