Seabird Frenzy

Sitting amongst a flock of thousands of offshore seabirds as they sleep and preen and croon is a magical experience. I have mentioned before that creatures of the open sea, whether below or above the water, tend to show little fear so when you are in a kayak you literally can sit right in the middle of them and they just get on with what they are doing. Out in the open sea everyone and everything is equal and the animals seem to know that. Of course me in my little kayak is by far the most inept creature for miles around, but I do my best to act big.

 

 

I encountered this huge flock of Manx Shearwaters during a recent circuit of Mount’s Bay, setting out from Penzance. Where the tidal current starts to kick in between Mousehole and Lamorna the availability of fish or sandeels (or whatever is on the menu)  increases and the sea creatures gather.

I had an early start and was well offshore by the time the Scillonian III passed en route to St.Mary’s, Isles of Scilly.

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Scillonian III past Mousehole

Just about the first seabird I encountered was this solo Puffin, with another five zipping past my ear later.

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Mousehole Puffin

The bird numbers steadily increased with cackling parties of Guillemots and Razorbills full of the joys of Spring.

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Guillemots
Razorbill pair
Razorbill pair (having a bit of a chat)

During a coffee break I saw what looked like a dark cloud in the distance further out, so I paddled over to investigate. The blurr eventually resolved into a milling mass of hundreds (probably thousands) of Manx Shearwaters. They would swirl about, large groups would shallow plunge into the water onto a shoal of sprats (or something similar) and then they would circle off and repeat the performance over a different patch of sea. And all around were further large groups just chilling out.

 

 

Manx Shearwaters aren’t particularly impressive to look at if you are a non-birder. Compared to a Puffin for example, although if you took away a Puffins brightly coloured beak it too would look rather more anonymous….like this juvenile I photographed a couple of years ago (near Eddystone).

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Juvenile Puffin

However their characters become very much more colourful if you know a bit about their natural history. They spend the winter off the coast of Brazil and in early Spring make the 7,000 mile journey back to their nesting burrows in islands off the coast of the UK. Today’s birds probably nest on the welsh islands of Skomer and Skokholm which are home to almost 100,000 pairs, or maybe from the increasing (thanks to rat eradication) number on Lundy, where several thousand pairs now nest.

They only return to their burrows under cover of darkness because if they came back during the day they might end up as lunch for a Great Black-backed Gull. They are so slow and ungainly on land they are a sitting duck.

At dawn they set off on a multi-hundred mile circuit which takes them down the north coast of Cornwall and to feeding grounds like the one where I was currently sitting.

The daily flypast of hundreds of thousands of these fantastic seabirds along the coast of southwest England is one of the UK’s greatest wildlife spectacles, but hardly anyone ever sees it. Probably because it occurs early in the morning and is usually miles out to sea. And who now bothers to make the effort to stare out to sea in the hope of seeing something which could well be out of sight (or at best a mass of tiny dots through binoculars) , when there is something much more here and now on  a screen in front of them?

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Manx Shearwater

If you want to get a proper insight into the character of this remarkable species, sitting amongst them and in a kayak, and just watching and listening, is the way to do it.

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Shearwater catching forty

I dropped in to Mousehole harbour to eat my catastrophically dull sandwiches. It’s desperately difficult to be creative during confectionary construction at 5am and taste buds are doomed to be disappointed. The struggle through the doorsteps of bread was offset by vista…Mousehole has got to be the most perfect mini-harbour in Cornwall.

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Mousehole

One more interesting item of trivia about Manx Shearwaters which could mean you avoid the wooden spoon at the next pub quiz ….their scientific name is Puffinus puffinus!

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Manx Shearwater… hugely overlooked and understated

 

 

Beaches, Birds, Chums and Cherry Bakewells

 

Here’s a selection of assorted pics from trips during the fantastic weather of the last ten days:

 

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Razorbills changing into breeding plumage . Veryan Bay
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Lansallos Beach
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Polperro
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Guillemot, St Austell Bay
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Gribbin Head
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Lantic Bay , Fowey
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Great Northern Diver (Common Loon), Mevagissey
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Dave and Simon, Rumps Point, Polzeath
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Dave and Simon, Newlands, Polzeath
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Perfectly synchronised Guillemots, Polzeath
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Dave ‘n Cave, Portquin
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Puffin, The Mouls, Polzeath
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Peregrine peering
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Simon and Dave, Rumps Point, Polzeath
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Guillemot reluctant to change out of winter clothes, Portquin
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Dave and sushi. Healthy stuff.
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Cherry Bakewell. No natural ingredient within miles.
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Looe
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Eric the lone Eider, Looe
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Hang on !!!! Eric’s found a mate……Erica, Looe
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Duchess the (half blind) Grey Seal (thanks for the id, Sue)
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Oystercatcher, Looe
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Cormorants with nestlings, Looe
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Little rattly train , Looe
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Dave, Looe
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Filming with BBC Spotlight (thanks for the pic, Dave)
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Dave up the creek, Looe
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Barrel Jelly

Don’t try to tell me that SW England is not a world class sort of place.

 

 

Bored of Dolphins? I’m not , so here’s a Load More

The residual swell from the storms was subsiding….

 

and the wind disappeared completely, so I didn’t need any further encouragement to head far offshore. First I paddled round Veryan Bay to the west of (usually) gnarly Dodman Point. Even two miles offshore it was flat as a millpond and pleasantly warm…not bad for the end of March. This time last year it was snowing.

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Razorbills and Dodman point

I am very wary about heading offshore at this time of year because water temperature is only about ten degrees C. Not good if you go for a swim. So I call in with the local NCI Coastwatch to tell them of my plans, but most importantly I only go out if the sea is absolutely smooth, and I feel completely safe and secure. Also I bristle with communication technology: two phones, radio, GPS, Personal Locator Beacon.

There was very little bird activity on this day so I was expecting to see nothing, but then a single Gannet far ahead circled once, and I directly beneath it I saw the sun glint off a distant fin.

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Circling Gannet

Dolphins!

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Veryan Common Dolphin

As I quietly approached they came over to investigate.

 

It was a pod of about fifteen individuals containing a handful of calves. This seems to be the usual make-up of the groups I come across, with females and adolescents and youngsters together. I think the males go round in a sort of blokey gang by themselves (but I may be completely wrong here). I have occasionally seen groups of big beefy Common Dolphins with tall fins.

Whatever the technicalities, it was, as always, a thrilling sight made even better by the calm water and blue sea and sky.P1270088

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just too late with the shutter (as usual)

They finished off with a final close pass before tearing off into the distance.

 

A couple of days later I paddled out from fantastic Fowey Harbour for another offshore exploration in equally perfect paddling conditions.

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Fabulous Fowey

The open sea was completely quiet, just a handful of Guillemots dotted about and about as few Gannets as it is possible to see. It is very interesting that I would normally have expected to see quite a few porpoises out here (and out at Veryan the other day). The calm conditions were perfect for porpoise spotting because you can here them puff, and glimpse their small fins, from quite a distance away. In the late summer on a day like this it is actually unusual not to here the sound of a blow of a nearby porpoise every time you stop paddling and sit quietly.

So they have disappeared off somewhere else….maybe they don’t like all the barrel jellyfish that are still around.

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Barrel Jelly

I stopped for coffee exactly five miles out from Fowey and was about to head back. But there was a glint of sun at the surface further out. There were no waves to cause it, so it must have been the light glinting off a fin.

It turned out to be three juvenile Common Dolphins, being shadowed by a trio of adults a few hundred yards away.

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juvenile Common Dolphin

 

 

There are really only a handful of days a year when the offshore sea is this smooth, and it’s really something you don’t expect in mad March. I even tried a little bit of underwater GoPro stuff, but don’t think it would quite make the cut for Blue Planet live.

 

The weather is now on the turn with wind picking up, so that’s it for watching dolphins offshore for a while, I suspect.

 

 

 

Foggy Fowey Dolphins and Porpoises

A couple of days of superb paddling in light winds…..yesterday was an exploration of the Dart estuary from Totnes to Dartmouth and back with Dave, and today was a solo offshore paddle from Fowey, with wildlife sightings (once again) way beyond my expectations for March.

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Dart estuary

The Dart paddle was a fairly hefty nineteen miles but cunning tidal planning worked in our favour and even allowed a very civilised tea break at Dittisham.

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Dave and tea shop

The sun did its best to put in an appearance as we neared Dartmouth, resulting in dangerously high humidity levels in our drysuits.

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Decent Dartmouth

Of course we allowed time for a wee bit of trainspotting (it was just coincidence we arrived at Kingswear at exactly as the same time as the train…honest.)

 

Heading back up the river we had to frequently evade the tourist boats who tend to ignore inconsequential craft such as ours.P1260473

Wildlife highlight of the day was this exceptional sighting of three Harbour Seals hauled out on a pontoon. Harbour seals are rare in SW England with just one or two hanging about up some of the creeks, and I have only ever come across a handful, and  never seen more than one at a time. The familiar seal in the area is the much bigger Atlantic Grey seal. Harbour seals live along the east coast of England and around Scotland, but maybe this little cluster means they are now spreading this way.

There was actually more than three because I saw what I thought were a couple of Harbour seals in the water, as well as a couple of Greys.

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Dart Harbour Seal trio

This morning I started idiotically early in the morning because the wind forecast was exceptionally light and I might just be able to do an offshore paddle out of Fowey, an unusual occurrence in March.

It was misty and murky with intermittent drizzle, but the marine wildlife was buzzing. Fulmars zipped past my earholes…

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Fulmar

and Guillemots and Razorbills sat about and dived for sprats…

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Razorbill (nearly in breeding plumage)

Below the surface lurked the spooky ghostly white shape of a Barrel Jellyfish.

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Barrel Jelly

Gannets filed past and I watched each one closely. I have mentioned before that in places like this if a Gannet circles around it is probable that there is a Porpoise swimming below. Today, it was certainly the case…..with Gannets thumping into the water beside the feeding Porpoises. Watch this slomo carefully..(Fowey behind)

 

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Incoming Gannet!

One porpoise passed by very close. Unlike dolphins they are not inquisitive and pay no attention at all to boats and kayaks. They just get on with what they are doing and if that happens to mean they come close to where you are sitting, so be it.

 

As I watched the porpoise, the first flock of Manx Shearwaters that I have seen this year winged past a bit further out:

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Pack of Shearwaters

I stopped for a cup of coffee and essential nutrient supplementation in the shape of two chunks of Raisin and Biscuit Yorkie, and had a final scan (with eyeballs only) out to sea. The grey skies and smooth water were the perfect combination for seeing a black fin break the water. I was just on the point of turning back when I thought I might have glimpsed a couple of black specs, which then disappeared. I paddle towards the area for five minutes and saw nothing more. I was turning for home once again when the same thing happened so I once again paddled out to investigate.

Amazingly I came across a little pod of five or six Common Dolphins that were swimming along very quietly, more in the manner of Porpoises. However, being Common Dolphins one had to hurl itself out of the water and land with a bit of a splash, because that is what Common Dolphins do best.

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Common Dolphin

They cruised past the front of my kayak without a second glance, maybe because there was one small calf in the pod, and they don’t seem to be so investigative when there is a very young dolphin to look after, or maybe protect.

 

After the group of half a dozen had past, another pair came past….both adults, and one with a very pronounced dark moustache stripe (or should it be called a beard?)

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Adult Common Dolphins

Today’s excellent variety of wildlife was nicely rounded off by this beautifully lilac Sea urchin at the mouth of Fowey estuary, exposed by the exceptionally low tide.

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Sea Urchin

Spring has got off to a flying start.

 

 

There She Blows! Minke Whale (and dolphins and porpoises) at Fowey.

Two days of light winds were forecast so it was time to head offshore again. The first trip was to Penzance with Dave and I was under pressure to deliver some cetacean sightings. We had a good thirteen mile paddle out of Mount’s Bay and along the coast to Lamorna, and managed fifteen porpoises which put on a very good puffing show, but I was just a little disappointed (and surprised) that we didn’t see any dolphins because spotting conditions were ideal.

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Dave (porpoise-spotting) in front of St. Michael’s Mount

There was a nice scattering of seabirds however: Razorbills, Guillemots, Eddie the Eider, a passing Great Northern Diver (my first of the autumn), and lots of Kittiwakes.

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Kittiwake (juv)

The next day was a stunner with clear blue skies and virtually no wind. I was on the water at Fowey as the sun had just peeped over the horizon, and paddled directly out to sea once out of the estuary.

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Fowey

Almost immediately I saw a large milling mass of seabirds circling low over the surface about a mile out, with a dozen Gannets intermittently dropping in. A very active ‘work up’ and there was going to be some big fish-eaters beneath, for sure.  As I steamed at full speed towards the action I could see dolphins jumping clear of the water, but as usual the frenzy had tempered a bit when I eventually rolled up. The gannets had moved on but there seemed to be plenty of fish left over for the dolphins, and gulls,to pick off at a leisurely pace.

 

I just sat still in my kayak taking in the scene. Dolphins passed within inches.

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Common Dolphin

I was sure my attempt at underwater footage with the GoPro would be a success, but the clarity of the water wasn’t great so the result was a bit disappointing. However it’s interesting to hear the dolphin clicks and squeaks in this video clip:

 

Suddenly all twenty-five (ish) dolphins were off at top speed, lured away by a China Clay ship which had emerged from Fowey docks and was starting to crank up the speed. The dolphins sprinted towards it and I could just see them leaping out of its bow wave as it receded into the distance.

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Dolphins sprinting off to see the ‘Ventura’

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A good start to the morning….and it wasn’t even nine o’clock.

I was just settling into my usual breakfast of 50% muesli, 50% Jordans Country Crisp (with raspberries), when I caught sight on an even bigger ‘work up’ at the limits of vision with hundreds of circling white dots of Gannets which every so often plunged into the sea en masse. Wow, this was a biggy.

Putting my muesli/country crisp on hold I paddled hard towards the action, but knew it was going to take at least twenty minutes to get there as it was probably two miles away, and knew I was going to be on the point of meltdown because I was already hot in my waterproof coat in the windless and sunny conditions. However if this was going to be my first big Gannet feeding frenzy I had observed up close, being a liquefied sack of sweat was the price I was willing to pay.

From long distance I could once again see large creatures jumping clean out of the water. I got the impression that some of these looked a bit like giant Tuna as I fancied I saw some spiky fins, but it was just too far away to tell and they might have been dolphins.

From what I have observed, these feeding frenzies evolve very rapidly. A pod of dolphins  herds fish into a baitball and pins it against the surface, reducing the fish’s options of escape. Passing Gannets don’t hesitate to seize the chance of a meal and dive in onto the larger baitfish (probably mackerel). The flash of white wings draws in other Gannets from afar, while below the surface the dolphins strike the baitball from below and frequently burst from the surface, as do the Tuna (if they were there!).

 

 

One reliable feature of these events is that the main action finishes just before I arrive on the scene. I think the Gannets (and maybe Tuna) move off when all the bigger fish have been eaten, leaving the dolphins and gulls to concentrate on the bits and pieces. Such was the case, again, as I rolled up with temperature gauge well into the red.

But today there was a bit of a treat in store because a rather larger predator had been attracted in to all the commotion. As I sat still watching all the splashing action as dolphins criss-crossed around and the juvenile gulls were squealing, there was a big prolonged breath and a much larger fin appeared at the surface….a Minke Whale. It disappeared in towards Fowey and then turned to come back. I was hopeful of a very close pass but it came to no nearer than about a hundred metres, and as usual very difficult to photograph because you really don’t know where it is going to appear next, and they cover large distance between breaths. They are in fact very like a giant porpoise in that they roll surprisingly quietly at the surface, and keep changing direction.

Anyway, I was quite pleased to get this clip of it as it surfaced, with Fowey five miles away in the background.

 

Ironically the closest it surfaced was when I was struggling to take off my jacket and drop my core temperature out of the critical range, and my face was covered in sweaty goretex.

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Minke Whale, Fowey
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Minke Whale , fowey

For a final push I paddled just a little bit further out, and was joined by another (or maybe the same ones as earlier) pod of dolphins as I headed into the sun. When they disappeared it went quiet enough for me to finish my breakfast which was  not surprisingly quite soggy.

 

The paddle back in was moderately uneventful (in comparison to the paddle out) although the sea had smoothed off even further which allowed me to hear, and then observe, ten porpoises which were dotted about in ones and twos as they usually are.

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Fowey porpoise

My final ‘encounter’ was at the mouth of the estuary where I had a chat with a kayak fisherman who was in an extremely well-equipped craft.P1190434

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mousehole Magic

WHALE,DOLPHINS,PORPOISES AND EDDIE

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Penzance Harbour

A couple of recent trips to Mount’s Bay have been sensational. They both got off to a good start with views of Eddie the Eider who seems to have made Penzance Harbour his home. He has just completed his autumn moult. When I saw him on 24 Sept he still had blotches of brown transitional plumage and looked a bit scruffy, but by 7 Oct he was looking very smart and ready to impress for the winter:

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Dowdy Eddie 24 Sept
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Immaculate Eddie 7 Oct

Mount’s bay is a very exciting place and I am always full of expectation as I head out into the open sea beyond St.Michael’s Mount.

Gannets appear after a mile or so where the offshore current shears past the still waters of the bay.

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Sub adult Gannet

On my September trip a large flock of Kittiwake that had been resting on the surface all took off in a panic as a couple of Great Skuas (Bonxies) piled in to the group to cause a bit of trouble, which is what Bonxies do best.

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Bonxie

On both these trips I have seen a Minke Whale, but only fleeting views when the whale’s exhalation draws my attention. They travel so fast that they can be almost out of sight when they surface again, especially if the surface is a bit choppy. No photos, unfortunately.

I saw a handful of porpoises on the second trip because the surface went so flat for an hour or so I could hear them puffing from a long distance away.

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Porpoise in front of Praa

On my second trip I got very excited because I could see a wheeling group of about a hundred Gannets a mile or two ahead of me and every so often a they peel off and plunge into the sea. This could be my first close encounter with a major Gannet feeding frenzy although I knew from previous (dismal) experience that during the twenty minutes it was going to take to get there the action might be over. However, the bigger the frenzy, the longer it will last…..

As I approached I could see big creatures jumping out of the water beneath the Gannets. I was too far off to see whether these were Bluefin Tuna or dolphins, but I suspect they were probably both. And….groan….I couldn’t believe my bad luck when the Gannets suddenly wheeled away just as I was drawing close enough to get a pic….blooming typical. I suspect the bigger fish had been hoovered up, there were just sprats left. However there was a nice school of Common Dolphins remaining to provide a bit of a spectacle. They were busy milling about feeding so for an hour I just sat about and watched.

 

 

 

 

 

I was joined by the Marine Discovery yacht from Penzance who had presumably, like me, seen the feeding frenzy from afar.

 

 

Every so often some dolphins would speed off and put in some fantastic leaps. This one would have ended up amongst the enthralled guests aboard Shearwater II if it had put in one more jump.

 

 

After coffee break I paddled slowly off along the coast, but kept a mile or so from the shore, which is where the action seems to happen. Another pod of about twenty dolphins crossed my path and one really started to leap about. By enormous good fortune it jumped right in front of the circular hole in the cliff which gives the coastal village of Mousehole its name. The perfect image.

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Mousehole dolphin

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Then, just in case I had missed its first performance, it did a slightly less energetic leap with Mousehole itself as the backdrop.P1190049

The dolphins then dispersed and I was left to admire the supporting cast of characters and views. However every so often I would see a sizeable splash which was not followed by a show of dolphin’s fins. Tuna for certain, but I never actually saw the fish.

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Reluctant Razorbill
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Mighty Tanker
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Another mighty tanker
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View down the coast to Logan rock

Yet another astonishing day, with every second filled with excitement or anticipation. No more offshore paddling for the foreseeable because the wind is on the up (BIG time).P1190021

 

 

Cardigan Bay Jumpers

video:

The Lone Kayaker is on a mission to bring you the best of the UK’s water-based wildlife, as seen from his kayak, and is quietly smug about his latest adventure. Put Love Island on pause. See what is going on in the REAL world.

The relentlessly tropical weather was continuing although a stiff easterly breeze was forecast for SW England (which didn’t actually materialise). On the spur of the moment I shoved a load of camping stuff in the car and headed off to a  tiny beach  in the middle of Cardigan Bay in west Wales. It was supposed to be still, sunny, and hot.

My main aim was to see some of the Cardigan Bay Bottlenose Dolphins. It was unlikely to happen as an encounter with dolphins is always hit-and-miss, but it was worth a go.

It was indeed blisteringly hot and the sky a deep blue upon arrival and I was soon on the water (lots of people on beach and overwhelming stench of perfume mixed with suncream,  with whiff of barbecued sausage). Disappointingly there was quite a surface chop  and combined with a stiff tidal flow this made for quite a lumpy ride, especially going past a huge Guillemot colony on the cliff.

The adult Guillemots had their wings partly open to protect their downy offspring from the heat.

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Guillemots crammed onto the ledges at Bird Rock
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Hot Guillemots keeping their chicks cool

The scale of the colony is not only an assault on the eyeballs but the eardrums as well. Quite a cacophony. Take a listen to this: (video)

 

 

I unfortunately witnessed one of those incidents which always upsets people watching programs like Blue Planet, even though we know it all happens and is a normal part of nature at this kind of place.

A Herring Gull swiped an unguarded Guillemot chick from the ledge and proceeded to try to swallow it whole on the rocks below. I certainly wasn’t too happy about the (understandably) distressed noise coming from the chick. I tried to man up but I wished I hadn’t seen it and the gull had stolen someone’s pasty instead.

Skip this next pic if you don’t like this kind of stuff:                                     (I certainly don’t)

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Gull with Guillemot chick

The sea was a lot calmer around the corner in the bay and I glimpsed a pod of about eight dolphins in the distance. One jumped high out of the water, just once, and then they were gone. So I paddled back to the car and admired the sunset while chatting to a Welsh chap who used to be a coalminer in the Rhondda. We both boiled up our coffee on the wall at the back of the carpark, me using my jetboil, him and his wife using his Kelly Kettle. (Jetboil faster, Kelly Kettle bigger)

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Cardigan Bay sunset

I slept like a log stretched out in the back of the car, until 3.05am, precisely. That is when a very noisy diesel car pulled up beside mine, containing a man with a  loud and sonorous voice, and a woman who easily outclassed him in words per minute and volume. They were parked very close and their windows were open, and at one stage man said to wife, so boomingly that it made the upholstery shake, that someone appeared to be asleep in the car next door because the windows were down. In the car…yes. Asleep….you’ve got to be joking.

They chatted non stop till I turfed out at about 6, when I bid them good morning and asked if they ever bothered with sleep. The man looked at me like I was the weird one.

Needless to say I was on the water good and early and heading back up the coast full of expectation because the sea was super-smooth, the sky was clear blue, and it was already hot. In the even smoother waters of the bay I spotted the prominent fin and surprisingly large bulk of a Bottlenose Dolphin quite close to the shore. I approached cautiously and waited, some distance away, very careful not to cause any disturbance.

Soon the dolphin surfaced, breathed three times, flipped up its tail, and headed for the bottom again. And even better it had a calf with it, sticking to its side like glue.

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Bottlenose Dolphin and calf

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The next couple of hours were pretty magical. Sitting in my kayak in shorts and vest and PFD (lifejacket) under a cloudless sky in twenty-five degrees, with no wind and no tidal current to move me around. I watched the pair surfacing, taking one to four breaths and then disappearing for three or four minutes.

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Bottlenose Dolphin and calf

I just happened to be sitting in the epicentre of their feeding activity and they kept appearing so close that the blast of their exhalation gave me quite a jump. |I’m sure they were hunting shellfish in the sand below because any school of fish with any sort of brains would move away from the area pretty smartish. The dolphins stayed more or less in the same place for the whole time.

video:

 

 

For long periods the calf stayed absolutely tight to the side of its mother (I’m presuming that) but just occasionally during a prolonged dive had to come up for an extra breath of air, and just occasionally went off on a bit of a solo exploration.P1120686

But these forays never lasted long and it was soon back in the security of Mum’s side:dolphin2

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I took a breakfast break on the adjacent beach and when I paddled back they were still feeding strong. Another couple of dolphins cam over to join them for a brief while.

(video)

 

At last I dragged myself away and started to paddle back down the coast, further offshore this time. I admired the fishing Guillemots and Razorbills as I went past. There was so much going on that I didn’t have time to admire the ghostly shape of a couple of Barrel jellyfish just beneath the surface, or my first Compass jellyfish of the the year with their very long tentacles.

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Guillemot
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Razorbill

After such a fantastic couple of hours I could hardly believe my luck when I saw another group of dolphins heading directly towards me. I stopped paddling and waited to see what would happen, hardly expecting an improvement on what I had already seen. And then a pretty hefty dolphin jumped clean out of the water.P1130019

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Could it oblige and do one more leap for me with camera in movie mode? No, it couldn’t.

It did four instead. (video)