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.

 

 

 

Magical March Morning at Mevagissey

A succession of storms running in from the Atlantic have limited kayak trips to the most sheltered tidal creeks. These are well protected from the worst of the wind….but not the rain:

 

The deluge is currently so relentless that even the ducks seem fed up.

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Dripping Drake (Mallard)

But just before the unsettled weather arrived I managed to sneak out for a morning on the open coast along the Cornish Riviera.

It was ironic that after travelling half way round the world in the hope of seeing a whale (I as hoping for a ‘Blue’) from my kayak, I had a better view of a pod of dolphins a couple of days after we got back.

Also we somehow managed to miss the record-breaking February temperatures here in the UK, enduring some very mixed weather in the USA and Mexico. We touched down at Heathrow in sunshine and eighteen degrees, but by the time we were back in Devon it had started to rain.

I thought the best way to combat jetlag and the stickiness of airports and travelling, was to go for a bit of a paddle and the sheltered open coast at Mevagissey was beckoning, and temperatures were back to normal (i.e. quite chilly).

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Mevagissey light

Rounding Black Head to the north of Pentewan I was surprised to see Mevagissey Bay looking so flat, so I headed directly for the Gwinges (aka Gwineas) rocks on the far side of the bay. This would take me far enough offshore to give me the chance of seeing a porpoise, or maybe a dolphin.

A couple of handfuls of Gannets were circling and I was moderstely confident there would be porpoises underneath, but the had dispersed by the time I rolled up.

However suddenly half a dozen Gannets plunged in directly in front of me (I’ve got no idea how such a large bird can just instantly appear out of nowhere) and I saw a fin break the surface beside them. I was absolutely thrilled to see half-a-dozen Common Dolphins feeding on a baitball of fish which were just beneath the surface creating a sizeable ‘stippled’ area.

Conditions for dolphin-spotting weren’t great because there was a bit of a swell and an increasing wind which makes seeing fins a bit tricky, especially with the bouncing movement of the kayak.  

 

 

There were a couple of juveniles in the group and one small calf. The calf can be seen surfacing just after its mother submerges in this video.

 

 

 

They suddenly disappeared and I wasted no time in getting to the shore as the swell was picking up and cloud building ominously from the south. I couldn’t resist a quick slingshot around the Gwineas cardinal buoy however, because I don’t think I’ve paddled around it before.

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Gwineas cardinal buoy

Mevagissey was as quiet and quaint as ever:

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Mevagissey

Just a single Purple Sandpiper was poking about the rocks in the company of a handful of Turnstones, just outside the harbour mouth.

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Purple Sandpiper

I did a bit of a double-take when I glimpsed a ghostly white shape under the water beneath me, and was very surprised to see a Barrel Jellyfish, about three foot long, going slowly on its way. The earliest one I have ever seen, by quite a few weeks.

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Barrel jellyfish

A pair of Peregrines were very excited about something on the way back…..

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Peregrine

And to finish off an unexpectedly varied and successful morning of wildlife viewing from the kayak, the nesting Shags were looking smart in their bottle green breeding plumage and punked-up headgear.

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Shag
Shag
Shag

Are There More Dolphins Around?

I have had the great good fortune to come across another couple of pods of Common Dolphins recently. The first was a very unobtrusive group of four juveniles in the middle of Torbay. I just happened to have a pair of binoculars in the car and gave the sea a quick scan when I arrived in the car park, and could just make out a few fins breaking the surface well over a mile away. The chances of me being able to locate these were very slim as it would take me twenty minutes to get out there, and there was a three foot swell running which makes seeing stuff on the surface difficult because half the time it is hidden by a wave.

However, one leaped clear of the water so I was in luck. I was actually looking UP at the dolphin as it rose out of the top of a swell. That’s one of the benefits of sitting at water level in a kayak….you can never get that kind of unique perspective from a (normal) boat.

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Jumping juvenile Common Dolphin

They weren’t in a particularly sociable mood, but no less than I might have expected from a quartet of aloof adolescents. Even so, they half-heartedly swam along side in my pathetic pressure-wave for a few moments.

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The wall-to-wall cloud was briefly interrupted by a burst of sunshine that instantly transformed the steel-grey scene to one of pleasant colour;

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Common Dolphin and early morning fogged English Riviera

Yesterday I ventured out into Plymouth Sound to inspect the Breakwater. Another grey and drizzly day but I knew the wind was not due to pick up till midday, allowing me a few hours of safe offshore paddling.

It was a big tide and the breakwater was being used as a roost for many hundreds of Dunlin, that feed on the mud of the Tamar estuary when the water drops.

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Dunlin plus micro-snack

Half a dozen Purple Sandpipers were dodging the swells as they surged over the top of the breakwater.

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Purple Sandpiper

I really like Purple Sandpipers. They are ridiculously tame and are difficult to spot because they are only ever found on exposed bits of rocky coast that have plenty of wave action.

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(super-plump) Purple Sandpiper

As I was watching the birds I glanced round and did a huge double-take (which cricked my neck) when I saw, through the mist, a dozen fins cruising past a hundred yards away.

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Dolphins in the murk (plus calf, at the back)

Astonishing, not just because I had never seen dolphins within the Sound before (although I only paddle here a few times a year), but because of the poor visibility. As I sat and watched they did a satisfactorily close ‘flypast’:

And as if trying to make the point that it really WAS worth my effort coming all this way to paddle at this location on such a dreary January day, the back marker surfaced just a few feet away.

As usual watching these dolphins was an absolute thrill, and it was good to see a couple of calves in amongst the group of twenty or so, which included some really big individuals.

I have been very lucky to see three pods of Common Dolphins in three separate locations in the last two weeks. So….. are there more dolphins around?

Are There More Dolphins Around?

I have been ploughing through all my old diaries in an effort to establish some detail about the numbers of dolphins I have seen. This is thunderously tedious and I have fallen asleep more than once. So I will be as succinct as possible with my findings.

I have been sea-kayaking for thirteen years. For the first seven or eight years I did a lot of fishing so had my head down and didn’t do the miles. Since then I have ditched the fishing and look out for, and hopefully photograph, wildlife.

In the first ten years I saw about a dozen pods of Common Dolphins. In 2016 I set my sights on seeing a whale so clocked up about 500 miles of offshore (more than a mile from the coast) paddling. I have done the same in 2017 and 2018.

This greatly increased my ‘hit’ rate for Common Dolphins because they favour deeper, offshore water. My records for the last three years are:

Common Dolphins:                               2016                    2017                  2018

Number of days seen:                             7                           11                      17

Total number of Dolphins:                    81                         148                    432

So quite a dramatic increase in numbers, approx 100% up year on year.

My porpoise observations have increased as well:

Harbour Porpoise:                                2016                    2017                  2018

Number of days seen:                             16                        33                      44

Total number of Porpoises                     88                       177                    327

Again, a  roughly 100% increase year on year.

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Porpoises

Other Cetaceans

In 2016 I saw an incredible seven different species of cetacean from my kayak around Devon and Cornwall: Common, Bottlenose, Risso’s and Whitebeaked Dolphins, Harbour Porpoise, Minke and (probable) Sei Whale. In 2017 it was four and in 2018, despite the large numbers, only three species.

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White-beaked Dolphins

Why the increase in numbers?

So it would appear that it is only Common Dolphins and Porpoises that have increased dramatically, and the reason for this has got to be food. Both these species feed mainly on shoaling fish, and abundance of prey such as herring has increased following historic overfishing. Also in both Common Dolphins and Porpoises there doesn’t need to be an actual increase in numbers of individuals because there is plenty of them around in the local seas, they are just changing their distribution and following the food source, which luckily for dolphin watchers is close to the coast of SW England.

It’s like throwing more bird seed out onto the lawn….it brings in more birds from the local area.

This is not the case for whales which also feed on shoaling fish, because there aren’t a load of whales nearby ready to move in on the fish-fest, because they have a slow rate of reproduction and will take time to recover from their depletion of numbers. Having said that, I saw five Minke Whales this year (and have only ever see two before, in 2016), so hopefully this reflects an increase in that species. Minke Whales breed faster than any other whale so have the potential to ‘come back’ quicker than any other.

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Minke Whale

 

The very recent spike in reported sightings of dolphins (which, I think are all Common Dolphins) is almost certainly because there are more about, and more closer in to shore, since the New Year. It will also be influenced by  the relatively quiet weather in January which means flatter seas and not only encourages more people to be out and about, but makes seeing fins easier. Not many dolphins are going to be seen during a storm. Everyone’s indoors watching Strictly on catchup.

The weather has certainly influenced my recent sightings. I am very wary about paddling far offshore during the winter and at the slightest hint of a wind disappear off up a sheltered creek.

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Sheltered Creek Perfection

Further influences are that when dolphins are reported more people are looking out for them (especially in relatively sheltered places such as Plymouth Sound ), more observers have got cameras, and there are more drone pilots around (which provide some very watchable dolphin images).

Is global warming involved? I personally say no.. I would think that levels of fishing influence the number of shoaling fish far more than any other factor.

Whatever the reasons, the apparent increase in numbers is good news all round, because everyone agrees that dolphins have a feelgood factor that is OFF THE SCALE.

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Plymouth Sound Dolphin…the antidote to a drizzly day.

Brilliant Boscastle

There can’t be a more scenic coastal paddle around SW England. You might even be pushed to find a better one in the whole of the UK.

I have said before that, for Boscastle to be enjoyable, the wind must be light and swell less than two foot. On the exposed North Cornwall coast this doesn’t happen very often so it is very special when it does, and even better when the sky is as cloudless and deep blue as it was today.

My plan for today was to paddle up the coast to the north, head offshore and catch a ride on the ebbing tide down to Tintagel, and then coast-hop back to Boscastle Harbour.

The wildlife watching got off to a good start with my first Purple Sandpiper of the autumn resting on the rocks, looking very plump. Excellent little birds…their niche is wave-pounded, barnacle-encrusted, coastal rocks.

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Purple Sandpiper

I couldn’t resist investigation a few of the many caves, but felt very nervous as I was by myself and I am not at all comfortable in the dripping, dank, darkness. I have never been hot on speliology. Even so, it would have been unacceptable to pass by the enormous cavern of Seal’ Hole Cave.

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Seal’s Hole Cave (aka the Cathedral)

Much more my style was the escort of seals that accompanied me for the next mile or so. I was careful not to disturb the seals hauled out on the small beaches, which included a few fat, white pups which resembled monster maggots, as well as one which looked newborn. (Photos taken with 10x lens at over 200 yards).

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Seal pups. These could be twins.
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Newborn pup.

Diverting well offshore I was, as usual, hopeful of a dolphin/porpoise encounter but the open sea was completely quiet today. Virtually nothing. Just this Guillemot.

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Guillemot (in winter outfit)

A couple of seals, however, were intent on ensuring I didn’t get bored. They followed me for the best part of an hour. I  glimpsed a tag on the flipper of one which means it had been rescued by Gweek seal sanctuary further down in Cornwall.

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Shadowing seal
Bull Grey Seal
Shadowing seal number 2 (a sizeable bull)

In every direction here the scenery is BIG.

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View south: Tintagel Head and Gull Rock
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View North: High Cliff (the highest in Cornwall), Short Island, Long Island.

I stopped for lunch at a rocky beach in Bossiney Bay. My kind of place….not a hint of human existence (apart from the caravans you can just make out on the top of the hill on the right).

After rounding Long island, which was looking more precipitous and craggy than ever, I ran into the only other group of kayakers I have ever met along this section of coast, apart from my own paddling companions.

I was also surprised to catch a glimpse of a ghostly white Barrel Jellyfish floating past beneath me, the first I have seen for several months. They are mainly a Spring species.

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Long Island
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Passing Sea Kayakers

Just before re-entering the haven of Boscastle Harbour I enjoyed watching a young Herring Gull whose persistence at hunting the low water mark had paid off in the shape of a starfish (even though it looked a bit knobbly, and chewy).

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Gull with Starfish platter.

And appropriately, to finish of a day with a lot of seals, this slumbering pup did not so much as open an eye as I slipped silently past. It was the picture of relaxation.

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Snoozing seal pup

 

Nice Spot of Weather

I’ve been getting about a bit recently because the weather, which I constantly groan about, has been absolutely stunning. More or less sunny, as warm as you would want and often light winds.

The biggest limiting factor in the kayaking department is my ageing musculoskeletal system, despite some parts being replaced and others removed. When I aim it in the direction of a headland barely visible on the horizon I can almost hear the mutters of mutinous dissent from biceps to buttock (notice I left out brain..that jumped overboard long ago).

I coax it along with frequent stops for coffee and Viennese Whorls and for the time being it is still just about serviceable.

Having said that, I seem to have strained my elbow which I think was the result of chasing a cruise ship in Fowey very early yesterday morning.

 

This was the Prinsendam and I didn’t really need to get out of bed quite so early because when I paddled out of the mouth of the Fowey estuary it was only just visible on the horizon. I then waited around getting cold while it ever so slowly approached.

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Princendam approaching
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Twenty minutes late!
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Prinsendam settled into Fowey for the day

Although I’ve ventured out to sea a bit, it’s been hard work spotting cetaceans and I’ve only come across the odd porpoise. I had a decent view of this one off Teignmouth, though.

 

They often seem to disappear at this time of year when the water goes clear for a while before the plankton really gets going.

Fortunately there’s always the seabirds to keep me entertained. Out to sea are Razorbills, Guillemots and Manx Shearwaters:

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Razorbills
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Guillemot (with brush marks of winter plumage left)
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Manx Shearwater off Berry Head

And along the coast are some beautiful, but difficult to see, waders. Needless to say, a kayak is (in my predictable opinion)the best way to observe these little beauties.

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Turnstones at Looe Island
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Dunlin at Looe Island

And there are still one or two winter visitors hanging about, seemingly reluctant to head north. This Purple Sandpiper, in its breeding plumage, for example.

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Purple Sandpiper

Oystercatchers, however, are not only not difficult to see, they are excessively loud, although I very much like their maniacal piping because sometimes, on a wet and windy winter’s day, it is sometimes the only nugget of wildlife around.

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Oystercatchers

The gulls sitting on eggs are currently finding it very hot:

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Panting Gull

although probably not as hot as this parent will soon be, trying to keep its newly hatched offspring entertained and fed, and protected.

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Herring Gull and chicks

I’ve visited the fantastic North Cornwall coast with Becky, Jeremy and Jane:

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Long Island, Boscastle

 

 

And even found a rare flat calm day along the Hartland heritage coast north of Bude. I paddled with Paul who found some new beaches, accessible only by kayak, to clear of plastic. He was thrilled with this discarded fishing net, his first ‘load’ from one particular beach.P1090513

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Paul and Higher Sharpnose Point

And finally one of the very best of Cornish bays at Porthcurno near land’s End:

 

My car must feel almost as pooped as I do.

 

 

 

Where’s the Blinking Spring Thing?

It’s half-way to the longest day and Spring is struggling to put in an appearance. The Daffodils have been flattened by the recent blizzard and the Blackbird which dared to start singing outside the loo window about  three weeks ago hasn’t uttered a note since.

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Hostile Sea

Although it would be nice for it to warm up a bit so I could wash my thermal base layer, I can cope with the rain and the cold. It’s the wind I don’t like. Paddling into a headwind is not only very hard work, it’s appallingly demoralising, and the subsequent downwind run doesn’t compensate for the upwind struggle. Watching and photographing wildlife is almost impossible while the kayak is being thrown about and splashed with spray, and basically no fun.

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Tragic Weather

The open sea and exposed coast are no-go zones. At least there are a few sheltered estuaries which are doable if you have read your tide tables correctly. The wintering waders provide a bit of entertainment with their cheerful piping calls, especially the ‘shanks’, both Red and Green.

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Paul, Torridge, Bideford
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Penquite Quay, Fowey estuary
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Redshank

However I did manage to squeeze in a coastal jaunt during the briefest lull in the relentless blow, with temperature just about survivable in full thermal gear and drysuit. And gloves and balaclava. (fuel today was Raisin and Biscuit Yorkie….DUO)

I couldn’t resist a visit to Torbay in the (unlikely) hope of seeing the dolphins again, even though the traffic round the back of Paignton on the road to Brixham is enough to make me go  (even more) grey and bald (again).

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Paignton

Brixham on the southern side of Torbay is a sensational place to launch, with the paddle out of the busy fishing port providing all the sights, sound and smells necessary to sharpen up the senses (especially if you are a fan of fish).

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Brixham

I was initially drawn to Berry Head because the swirling currents concentrate sealife activity. As I approached the headland and stared hard at the patch of sea beneath half-a-dozen circling Gannets, I could hardly believe my luck because a dolphin breached clear of the water. I cranked up the speed and as I drew close to the dolphins changed to cautious mode in an effort not to frighten them. A splinter group sped right past me and then joined up with the main pod of about twenty and sped off southwards.

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Common Dolphin (in a hurry)

I followed but as usual had difficulty keeping up, just about staying in touch at fast cruising pace. As we sped past St. Mary’s Bay they suddenly completely disappeared and I decided to continue down the coast towards Dartmouth, even though I had originally planned to go the other way.

Good move, as I had only paddled this bit of coast a couple of times before and had forgotten how stunning it was. Cliffs interspersed with some excellent beaches, the most scenic of which is Scabbacombe, backed by sweeping green hills.

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Superb Scabbacombe

The seabirds clearly hadn’t been told that Spring had been put on hold. Oystercatchers were piping excitedly and all along the cliffs Fulmars were settled on their nesting ledges and cackling in their very primeval way. Seabirds do seem to hint at a link with reptiles from long ago because the call of Fulmars, Guillemots, Razorbills and Gannets would not seem out of place in a colony of Pterodactyls, although I’m not old enough to  confirm (quite).

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Extrovert and noisy Oystercatcher
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Cackling Fulmars
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(Shag and) Cormorant in Breeding Plumage

A flock of Common Scoters were disturbed by a passing jetski and did a couple of circuits of the bay before pitching in.

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Common Scoters

Gloom. One of a pair of Great Black-backed Gulls that were sitting on a headland had a trace from a fishing line sticking out of its beak. I would think a hook was stuck in its throat so almost certainly it was doomed.

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Poor blooming Gull

The Mew Stone, sitting like a mini-fortress at the mouth of the Dart estuary, provided a suitable turning point for my trip, and the slumbering seals barely bothered to wake up as I slipped silently past.

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Mew Stone and Froward point
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Lazing Lump of Lard

For the sake of completeness I made the effort to paddle round the back of the fang-like Eastern Black rock before returning, and my efforts paid off with a brief sighting of a couple of Porpoises and a handful of Purple Sandpipers picking  amongst the barnacles on the rocky islet.

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Turnstone and purple Sandpiper

Berry Head was a bit more lively on the return leg with a strengthening Southerly wind and I was quite pleased to get back to the quieter waters of Torbay.

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Berry Head

Back in Brixham harbour I had an entertaining prolonged encounter with a large bull Grey Seal which had clearly seen so many boats and kayakers it was devoid of any fear, and finished off with a paddle tour around the inner harbour.

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Idiotically Tame Seal

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For now it’s back to a near white-out and challenging conditions for watersports enthusiasts.

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Yours truly looking fed up, and with sizeable snowflake about to go up nose.

However every cloud has a silver (Starling-flavoured) lining if you are a top predator like this Sparrowhawk:

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Sparrowhawk with lunch
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Is it possible for eyes to be more piercing?

 

Christmas Bonus. Dolphins, Porpoises and Seals.

Still a few weeks to go to Christmas I know, but I just couldn’t resist the title.

The winter storms, which bludgeon me into submission and send me cowering up a creek, have been kept at bay for a further couple of days by a nose of high pressure. Not only light winds but also very little groundswell which is unusual at this time of the year, making offshore paddling irresistible.

Fowey was my destination on Day 1. Fowey is not only an exceptionally beautiful place, paddling always seems to be more relaxing here as the tidal currents seem to be less than around the corner past Dodman Point. Even the slightest current working against the wind chops up the surface significantly.

And following my recent encounters with the Giant Tuna and dolphins and porpoises here, I was full of expectation.

I called in my ‘passage plan’ on the radio with Charlestown NCI because there was nobody at home in Polruan NCI probably because I was a bit early, as usual.

I got the impression that there was not a lot going on in the sea in terms of wildlife but was kept interested by the little parties of Guillemots I passed. First photo with my new camera!

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Guillemot (in winter outfit)

I watched the handful of passing Gannets closely as they filed past. All they have to do is circle round once and show an interest in a particular patch of sea, and my eyeballs are locked on to the surface, because the fish that attracts a Gannet will also lure in other sea creatures. I’ve often located porpoises in this way, but for every one I have seen there will be twenty that I have missed, not only because porpoises are so small and unobtrusive, but because by the time I have arrived at the scene the action, if there has been any, has finished. Chasing down feeding ‘events’ in a kayak is a slow process. It’s a lot easier with a 200 horsepower outboard. Even two hp would be quicker than me.

Encouraged by a light tailwind I wandered about three miles offshore, and suddenly found myself on the edge of a group of twenty circling Gannets which seemed to have appeared out of nowhere. Sure enough, there were fins below. Three Common Dolphins. Fab. As I quietly approached, five more dolphins joined the gang and they all came over to  say hello. Just for fun I piled on the speed (can’t go more than 6-7mph flat out) and the dolphins responded with a load of splashing and surging in my excuse for a pressure wave.

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Dolphin and the Dodman

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Common Dolphin, Fowey

The dolphins hung around for five minutes then moved off. It all went a bit quiet after that so I paddled in for a leg stretch at superb Lantic Bay. As I was approaching the beach I heard the haunting querulous call of a Loon and observed a family of three fishing in the bay. Great Northern Divers (aka Common Loon across the pond) often go around in threes and I’m pretty sure these are Mum, Dad and this year’s offspring. Just by the way they act, and look, and communicate to each other in a family sort of way. Amazing that they can stick together on their migration from the arctic.

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Lantic Bay Loon

My enjoyable day was soured a bit as I arrived back in Fowey. A Dory which I had seen leaving the estuary at the same time as me six hours earlier overtook me on the way in and it was full up to the gunwhales, and beyond, with Sea Urchins. I had a chat with the three crew and they said they had picked up over six hundred (!) urchins by shallow diving along the local coast, and were going to sell them on to souvenir and craft shops. Blimey. They must have had nearly the lot.

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Sea Urchin (one that got away)

Day 2  involved a fifteen mile circuit of one of my favourite sheltered bays in South Cornwall, initially heading three miles offshore and then coming back along the coast.

I set off just as it was getting light and my systems (e.g eyes and ears) were far from fully operational when a small duck, which I initially presumed to be a Guillemot, pitched onto the surface with quite a splash in front of me.  Because it was half dark I was only ten yards away when I realised it was a Long-tailed Duck. I scrambled my new camera out of its dry bag and just managed a few shots before the duck paddled off into the gloom. My fourth L-T Duck of the autumn….pleased with that.

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Long-tailed Duck

Incidentally, no long tail because it’s a female.

My offshore jaunt was rather dull and was rescued by the appearance of a couple of porpoises which surfaced only a few yards away. In typical aloof porpoise style they popped up, piffed, and then completely disappeared.

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Harbour Porpoises

From a couple of miles offshore I could hear the weird wailing ‘song’ of a seal drifting out from a sheltered cove. At one stage it droned on for about a minute without a breath. A bit like Leonard Cohen, but more tuneful.

After coffee ‘at sea’ I cautiously paddled towards the seals who were hauled out on the rocks. I am acutely aware that seals can feel very vulnerable when out of the water and kayakers can, and do, cause real disturbance to colonies, so I kept my distance and was subjected only to a disapproving stare.

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Six-eyed Stare
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Large and Little

One seal, which had a nasty-looking fresh injury on its back, was mottled like a granite-style kitchen surface. A Harbour (or Common) Seal. Not Common at all in SW England, only the second I have seen in Cornwall. Maybe it’s because they get beaten up by the Grey Seals, as seemed to have happened to this one.

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Common (Harbour) seal

The Spring tide was just about low as I came round the headland to Portscatho. The local gulls were very busy and very noisy as they hunted through the exposed kelp for their favourite delicacy. Flicking over the fronds with their beaks and shallow-diving from the surface. If one caught a starfish it was immediately hounded by half-a-dozen friends who were keen to have an ‘arm’ or two. Dramas like this that are played out as you paddle along unobtrusively and silently are what I like most about kayaking (as well as all the other stuff).

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Gull plus seafood lunch. Rick Stein would approve.

I consumed my cheese and pickle sandwiches on the foreshore at Portscatho. The weather wasn’t bad for December 5th…..it was completely windless and warm enough for me not to have cold feet, even though I was wearing two pairs of socks. My photos would have looked better if the sun was shining, however. A turquoise sea is always better than one which is battleship grey.

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Portscatho

My ornithologically outstanding day was nicely rounded off with a close encounter with two Purple Sandpipers, distant views of a couple of Slavonian Grebes and a Red-necked Grebe, and another dozen Loons.

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Purple Sandpiper with purfect camouflage.
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Great Northern Diver (Loon)

It’s not just the marine environment that provides the best wildlife encounters from a kayak. It’s nice to get close views of some of the commoner, but no less attractive, species that seem only to be tame enough for close approach in city parks. Like this Moorhen with its incongruously large, and green, feet.

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Oxford Moorhen

I snapped this squirrel in the middle of Oxford (from my kayak of course). I’m not entirely sure that the tree to which it was clinging wasn’t some sort of creature from Middle Earth. Those look like faces in its bark.

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Secret Squirrel
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That’s got to be an Ent from Fangorn, surely

 

The Amazing Caves of Boscastle

IMG_2183At last! Yippee. The sea promised to be quiet enough on the north coast of Cornwall to allow terror-free exploration of the many caves of Boscastle. Hardly any wind and one foot of swell. Perfect. Days like this are rarer than an unpleasant McFlurry.

The Magnificent (motley) Six paddlers convened in the main car park of Boscastle and trolleyed down the High Street to the harbour. This is all part of the build up. It’s a lot easier, but less fun, to offload on the quayside and drive back to the carpark. And if you do that you don’t get to see the Museum of Witchcraft.

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Tackling Boscastle High Street

It was ultra low tide so we also had to trolley down the weed laden river which wasn’t quite so entertaining.

We were off! Beep, Mark, Luke, Paul, Kevin and yours truly. Slicing in complete silence (apart from the chit-chat) through crystal clear turquoise water under a cloudless blue sky.

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Our posse of kayakers in Pentargon Bay

Within minutes we had stopped to admire a couple of Barrel Jellyfish below us, ghostly-white and almost luminescent. Absolutely extraordinary creatures but I can never work out quite what they think they are doing or where they think they are going. The answer is probably along the lines of ‘not alot’ and ‘nowhere in particular’.

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Barrel jellyfish

Before we reached Pentargon Strand we were lured into a gigantic cave, a good hundred yards long. I bravely followed Luke and Paul (who had decent torches) into the blackness. I wasn’t at all happy about the roar of waves trapped in a sucky bit which sounded like a dragon.IMG_2042

Incredibly there was a sandy beach at the end of the cave which needed a bit of exploring, but the best bit for me was getting back out into the sunshine.

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Mark and Beep

We passed under an archway, paddled across Pentargon Bay, checked out several smaller caves, and then found a real whopper. Plus a few seals in there for company. We went in around the corner and then into total blackness. Luke went further into the narrowing gap but I was a bit wary in case that unexpected large wave came that squashed us against the ceiling. I paid the penalty for my pathetic overcaution when the only unexpected large wave of the entire day came when we were back out into the sunshine and broke on a reef just as I was crossing it. Typical. Fortunately my damp patch was rapidly forgotten when we saw a couple of Purple Sandpipers poking about on the rocks.

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Monumental Cave

Round past Fire Beacon point there were seals spread around all over the Beeny Sisters rocks, providing some superb viewing in millpond-like conditions. Then more seals, like giant maggots, on the beaches at Beeny which we did our best not to disturb.

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Three seals and Mark (on the right)

One particular adolescent seal was extremely curious and came very close as we shovelled in some food. I think it was my chocolate Hobnobs that drew its attention although it could have been Kevin’s eyecatching, and capacious, spray-skirt.IMG_2105

We cut directly back across the bay to the mouth of Boscastle harbour and couldn’t resist exploring the coast further south. There might not be another kayak-friendly day here for many months.

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Luke and Paul

Despite loafing about off Short Island for a tea break we failed to spot any of its Puffins. A loop around the never-ceasing-to-amaze, eroded and craggy and precipitous Long Island brought us into Bossiney Bay. The sandy beaches were covered by the high tide so getting out for a leg stretch wasn’t easy.

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Kevin ‘the kayak’ Stevens
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Another amazing cave

We turned north for the two miles back to Boscastle and investigated every nook and cranny and gulch and, of course, every cave. Every time a black hole appeared in the cliff Luke wasted no time in darting in followed rapidly by Paul. And the caves just kept on coming. Just one huge long cave would be absolutely remarkable, but we must have ventured into a dozen in this six mile length of coast. Some just narrowed down to nothing but others opened out to great big chambers, one with quite an impressive stalagmite (ot was it ____tite?). I got completely wedged trying to turn my kayak around in the cold inky depths of one chasm. The only possible explanation was that my kayak was longer than anyone else’s, it couldn’t possibly have been anything to do with bungling incompetence.

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Another amazing cliff
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Another amazing gap
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Another amazing ‘Zawn’

Even the enormous ‘zawn’ just outside the harbour mouth at Boscastle was impressive today. It’s usually too lumpy to enter.

That was it. An easy exit straight onto the slipway thanks to the high tide, and a hike back up the High Street to the carpark.

Yet another TOP trip. Although I know why I am a kayaker and lover of wide open spaces, and not a caver. IMG_2185IMG_2197

Looking for Humpbacks

After my encounter with the suspected Fin whale near the Eddystone rocks last August, and a couple of brief sightings of Minkes, I thought that would put a pause on adventures with large cetaceans, at least until late summer.

It is still completely pretty amazing that a Humpback would appear in South Devon at all, and beyond belief that it would spend over six weeks cruising about the sheltered waters of Start Bay, wowing the crowd of assembled whale watchers with some unbelievably close passes to the beach at Slapton. The very fact that the carparks at Slapton Sands are so convenient and close to the steep shelving shingle beach (and therefore in close proximity to deep water), and usually swell-free because it is east facing, is a remarkable coincidence. Its about as perfect a place for whale-watching as you are going to get.

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Slapton Sands

If you were to put a pin in the map for the best pace for a whale to turn up for the maximum number if people to enjoy viewing it, you would choose Slapton sands. Even the bus stop is only yards away.

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The View down to Torcross

Needless to say I wanted to see the whale from my kayak. My first view from my Gumotex Inflatable was when the whale was trapped in a lobster pot rope. Hardly very memorable.

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First Slapton whale encounter

Ten days ago the sea at Slapton was just about flat calm and there was no ‘dumpy’ waves on the beach which can make launching here interesting/embarrassing/entertaining for the crowd. Apparently the whale was still around.

In my Scupper Pro kayak, which I had brought because it drags over the shingle well, I paddled a mile or two offshore. Lots of small parties of Guillemots whose guttural call could be heard for amazing distances over the millpond sea, a few Gannets and a pair of porpoises.

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Guillemot
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Harbour Porpoise

But no whale…yet.

I hadn’t really expected to see it because yet another remarkable feature of this remarkable whale is its habit of coming close inshore late in the day. Many seem to think this is tide-related but it can’t be because in the space of two weeks the tide has gone through its complete cycle, yet the whale still turns up at roughly the same time.

I slid my kayak into the water and sat around fifty metres from the shore, on a surface so calm I could have been in a lake.

To my toe tingling astonishment I heard the whale blowing half a mile away towards Torcross, and saw the bushy cloud of spray slowly disperse. Good grief, it seemed to be heading straight towards me. I fumbled for my camera but already my hands were trembling with excitement.

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The Blow

It surfaced and dived once more. I then saw patches of smooth water appearing in a line like giant footprints coming towards me at the surface as the whale approached….fluke prints caused by the whale swimming along just below the surface! Amazing!

It surfaced and blew only twenty yards away and I got a very unsatisfactory photo. Like a complete idiot I thought the action had finished when the bulk of its body disappeared and I lowered my camera, but then the tail flukes came up in perfect humpback-style as it deep dived. Moron…would have been a pic to remember.

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Slapton Humpback

However it was an absolutely extraordinary encounter. Who would have believed you could see a whale like this within a stone’s throw from the shore in South Devon. I had spent a fair amount of time during the winter researching where in the world you could see Humpback’s from a kayak, as it has been number one on my kayaking wishlist for some time. Hawaii or British Columbia were on the  shortlist.

Wherever it was going to be, I hadn’t expected it would only require about ten strokes of the paddle to get far enough from the shore to achieve the ideal position for viewing! Thinking about it, there probably isn’t anywhere else in the entire world when you can be loafing about  eating a Bakewell tart on the beach one minute, and having a Humpback swim more or less dirctly underneath your kayak less than five minutes later.

Four days ago a wildlife viewing boat (AK Wildlife Cruises) had absolutely incredible views of a Humpback breaching in the middle of Falmouth Bay right beside their boat. Crystal clear pictures and video, you couldn’t hope for better.

So a couple of days later I set off in my Cobra Expedition Kayak for a twenty-five mile paddle around Falmouth Bay, cutting right across the middle to the Manacles rocks, and then following the coast back. Tremendously exciting, calm waters, huge expectation, but no whale.

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St Mawes

I had a reasonable consolation prize. About three miles offshore I sped towards a mini feeding frenzy of gulls which had attracted a handful of Gannets which appeared from nowhere and wasted no time in plunging in. As I approached I could see fins of dolphins slashing at speed across the surface, and the pale patch behind the fin to show they were Common Dolphons. Superb. They appeared a couple of times more but were only momentarily visible in a burst of spray. And suddenly they were gone, the gannets drifted off, and the gulls settled on the water. The lone Manx Shearwater also winged away. Feeding frenzy over.

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Feeding frenzy participants including gannet and Manx Shearwater

This is not the first time this has happened. It is quite difficult to get to a feeding frenzy before it finishes. One of my objectives for this year is to see a big frenzy. The only time I have ever achieved this was off Bude over ten years ago, when I threw out some mackerel for the gannets and they dived in beside my kayak to catch them.

Other wildlife highlights were five Sandwich Terns, four Great Northern Divers, a Whimbrel, six Purple Sandpipers on the Manacles and several swallows coming in off the sea.

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Purple Sandpiper on the Manacles

And an excellent Barrel Jellyfish in the clear waters off Swanpool beach.

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Barrel Jellyfish

Nipped in for nice lunch at Porthallow and met up with former work colleague Andrew who is training for Lands End- John o’ Groats ! (by bike, not kayak)

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Kayaker meets Cyclist

Looking closely at photographs of the Slapton and Falmouth Humpbacks, it would seem they are different whales. This seems even more likely because the Slapton whale has been seen in its usual area since the Falmouth whale has been sighted, and it is unlikely the whale would backtrack sixty or seventy miles when it is supposed to be on migration.

So, probably two Humpbacks. Even more amazing. And on my ‘local’ patch. Thank goodness I hadn’t booked a whale watching by kayak trip somewhere on the other side of the world, which would never have been so much fun. (actually it might have been, but I’m a huge fan of wildlife in the UK, so it would have had to have been exceptional).

More please.