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

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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.

 

 

 

December Dolphins

Much as I love footling about miles from the shore on a calm summer’s day with shearwaters and maybe the odd Storm Petrel zipping past, there are some cracking birds to encounter in SW England that arrive from the far north to spent the colder months around the coast. Ducks, divers, grebes and scoters. The shearwaters and petrels have gone.

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Offshore Paddling (me in Cobra Expedition just right of middle)

And these winter ducks  tend not to be quite so far offshore as the summer seabirds, which is handy because when the weather and water are cold I find offshore paddling a bit more intimidating. Even better, they seem to prefer sheltered bays as I suspect they dislike being battered by wind and waves as much as I do.

I just about managed to get my camera out of my dry bag as a couple of Long-tailed Ducks flew directly past me during a jaunt to Teignmouth. Not particularly spectacular to look at (although they are when in breeding plumage) but a favourite amongst birders as they are quite rare.

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Long-tailed Ducks

I encountered some of my favourite coastal birds at the tip of Nare Head in Southern Cornwall. Purple Sandpipers. Funnily enough they are only at home skipping about on barnacle-encrusted wave-pounded rocks, generally in fully exposed locations, so they buck the shelter-seeking trend. They are incredibly easy to overlook and I very nearly missed them despite paddling past only a few feet away.

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Purple Sandpipers

The birdworld winter king of the coast must be the Great Northern Diver (bad name). Called the Common Loon (good name) in America. They are the most widespread visiting Diver and probably the commonest. Their penchant for flatfish and crabs means they are often close to the shore. But it was a bit of a surprise to find one right outside the entrance to Padstow.harbour.

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Reluctant Loon

This was the tamest Loon out of many hundred I have observed from a kayak. It busily fished in the strong tidal current as I drifted around watching. Absolutely fantastic. It had to dodge out of the way of the Padstow to Rock ferry but didn’t seem at all fussed.

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Great Northern Diver

I thought cetacean watching was just about finished for the season.It’s definitely what REALLY gives me a buzz from a kayak but quite a challenge to achieve because not only is the season quite short, conditions suitable for heading out to see them on a flimsy sliver of plastic are patchy.Especially on the swell exposed North Cornwall coast.

I have had my eye on a paddle around Padstow bay and its offshore islands all year because I know it is quite productive for marine life, but have so far been put off by the relentlessly  lumpy sea conditions. To make it non-worrying and fun, and to make spotting the fins of cetaceans easier, I would be looking for a swell of less than two foot and a wind of less than 10 mph. Bingo! The forecast for both the 30 Nov and 1 Dec were perfect. Blooming cold but pure sunshine and little wind or swell.

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Mouth of the River Camel

On the first day chum Dave and I paddled the coast between Rock and Trevone past several miles of vertical black exposed cliff which managed to be quite bumpy even in the calm conditions.

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Gunver Head

My son Henry who was observing from a clifftop at Stepper point reported seeing a couple of ‘big splashes’ a mile offshore towards Gulland Rock. Mmmmm, what on earth might they be…dolphins? whales?

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Hezzer on lookout at Stepper point

My curiosity was ignited so on the second day I planned a thirteen mile circuit around Padstow Bay from Harlyn up to the mouth of the River Camel, then around Gulland Rock and straight down to the ‘Quies’ rocks off Trevose Head, then back to Harlyn. Using my Cobra Expedition kayak.

This would involve eight or nine miles of offshore paddling so I was hopeful of meeting up with one of the splashy things.

It was below freezing as I paddled out but the sun soon got to work to thaw out my toes. A grey seal was fast asleep ‘bottling’ a couple of miles out and clearly not expecting to be disturbed…it crash-dived with a mighty splash.

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Snoozy seal

A couple of miles north of Gulland Rock three fast-moving fins slashed the surface. I think I glimpsed the yellow side of a Common Dolphin but was not certain…they could just have been porpoises on a hunting ‘surge’.

It was calm enough for me to hear the characteristic ‘piff’ of a group of nine Puffing Pigs (aka Harbour Porpoises) long before I saw them. A good prolonged view as they swam away and then came back.

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Padstow Porpoise

I assumed another ‘puff’ behind me was also a porpoise, but was very pleased to see a largish looking solo dolphin passing at a leisurely speed. I tore after it but although I was paddling like a demon in a flurry of white water, the dolphin increased the distance between us even though it looked as though it was having the cetacean equivalent of a Sunday afternoon stroll. Of course I always keep well away so as not to disturb any of these superb creatures, but this is often academic as they frequently come over to check you out (although this one didn’t).

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Common Dolphin

The photograph I took of this dolphin confused me a bit as it seemed to show a pale flank patch and I started to get excited about the possibility of a White-sided Dolphin, but guidance from the folk at Seawatch confirm it as a Common Dolphin.

Anyway, dolphins and porpoises from a kayak in December. Fab.

The tide helped with crossing the open water to the fangs of rock off Trevose Head. This really is a sinister place and I got the impression it is not friendly to kayaks very often. In fact I would go so far as to say it is even more ‘exposed feeling’ than Land’s End. I have only ever paddled past here twice before.

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Trevose head
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Lifeboat Sation

I was quite pleased to get round into the shelter of Mother Ivey’s Bay, and the very impressive lifeboat station, before the easy paddle back to Harlyn.

I was sorry to miss out on Henry’s remarkable cetacean sighting while he was perched on top of the cliffs photographing peregrine falcons at Morwenstowe in North Cornwall. He observed a harbour porpoise which was entirely white!

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White Porpoise

This is apparently ultra rare and there have only been fifteen or so such sightings in the last century. The porpoise-loving fraternity got very excited. My attempts to go and see it by kayak were thwarted by strong winds (surprise,surprise). Another entry for my bucket list for next year!