Sensational Cetaceans

20191202_105636

It is maybe not surprising that Mount’s Bay is such a good place for looking for porpoises, dolphins….and whales…from my kayak. They are ocean wanderers that generally prefer to be far out to sea, and Cornwall is the last bit of land to stick out into the Atlantic where they live. Marine creatures on migration from north to south (or vice versa) may also drop by for a refuel because the confused currents, reefs and upwellings around Land’s End are rich in fish.

It is also a great location for kayaking because the Land’s End peninsular provides protection from Atlantic swell, and there are a lot of sheltered, and super-scenic locations to get on the water. All under the gaze of amazing St.Michaels’ Mount.

20191202_110422
St. Michael’s Mount

Also if the weather is not conducive to offshore paddling, the coast is exceptionally interesting and varied in terms of scenery and human habitation, and the near-shore holds a lot of seabirds during the winter. Most impressive of which are the Loons ( the North American name, aka Great Northern Diver in the UK), this one is in transition from summer to winter plumage. It also has a slightly wonky beak with the end crossing over.

P1000224
Great Northern Diver

There are plenty of Guillemots and Razorbills:

Guillemot
Guillemot
Razorbill
Razorbill

And Eddie the resident Eider duck is usually in evidence somewhere around Penzance harbour, sometimes with some friends, sometimes not.

Eider
Eddie the Eider

After a long, long period of stormy weather, the sea has at last settled down and I have ventured out into Mount’s Bay on a couple of occasions in the last week. Both trips in excess of fifteen miles and keeping well offshore.

During the second trip I came across two large pods of Harbour Porpoises between St.Michael’s Mount and Mousehole. Porpoises usually go around singly or twos and threes, but these two pods contained in excess of ten each. You can hear why they used to be called ‘Puffing Pigs’ by Newfoundland fishermen. (in England they were known as ‘Herring Hogs’). Unfortunately you can also hear my drysuit creaking as I pan round.

One porpoise halted at the surface to enjoy the calm conditions and maybe a little bit of warm winter sun. They don’t do this very often, probably because the sea isn’t this smooth very often.

Any sort of bird activity which is focused on the surface of the sea attracts my interest when I am offshore paddling. I have mentioned before that more often than not there is a porpoise beneath a circling Gannet, but on this occasion it was a large milling group of gulls that kept dipping down to the surface that lured me over for a closer inspection. They were scattered over a wide area with several Kittiwakes amongst them. When a couple of Gannets arrived and dived I increased pace because I was sure there would be ‘fins’ about.

Sure enough a couple of dolphins splashed in front of me.

P1000401
Common Dolphin

I approached the group cautiously to avoid spooking them, but they were in a very sociable mood and came over to see what as going on.P1000136

P1000158

As I cruised on they were quite happy to act as an escort.

As usual there were a handful of juveniles mixed in amongst the pod, and as usual they stuck like glue to their mother’s side.

P1000125
Juvenile and adult Common Dolphin

On the second day the dolphin watching was even better because the surface was oily smooth, enabling the dolphins to get as good a look at me as I was getting of them.close dolphins 3

P1000380

This is a big thrill, and the excitement of this sort of encounter never seems to diminish. There cannot be many situations where a couple of completely wild creatures of this size (seven foot long) voluntarily come within touching distance of a human being. And for me it is all the more compelling because getting several miles offshore, and locating a pod of dolphins, is really quite a challenge.

This particular group seemed quite happy to hang around as I just floated and watched, so I got out the Gopro for some underwater action. I love this (very brief) clip as this dolphin glides by on its side.

Although the water isn’t as clear as it is in the summer, the dolphins came so close I was able to get the best underwater shots I have yet achieved.

This individual takes a good look at the Gopro as it cruises past. A proper dolphin mugshot.

20191202_133236_Slomo_4
Common Dolphin

Absolutely excellent, and the fact that it is December makes the whole experience even more remarkable.

I had a good lesson in how to push things too far (or not) on my way back to Marazion. Before the two hour paddle back to my launch site, I could just make out a group of Gannets circling and diving far out to sea. Of course I couldn’t resist heading out to take a look, but  half an hour of paddling and nearly two miles later I still hadn’t arrived upon the scene.

Then, contrary to the forecast which had predicted flat calm all day, a steady north wind picked up. Probably only 10mph but it made the paddle back very long indeed, with a relentless cold breeze in my face and waves slapping over the front slowing me down considerably. The feeding frenzy turned out to be disappointing too, just a couple of distant dolphins and no sign of anything larger (which of course I always hope for).

I arrived back at Marazion, after seven hours on the water and 17.5 miles paddled, fairly pooped. But worth it, with over twenty dolphins and thirty porpoises to enjoy.P1000372

20191202_133236_Slomo3

Hairy Hartland

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

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

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

P1380496
Hartland Point Lighthouse

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

20190919_100736
not a lot but sea and sky

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

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

20190919_125742
Trolley through Hartland Quay Hotel
20190919_124751
Hartland Quay beach

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

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

P1380478
Cruising Gannet

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

P1380445
Common Dolphin pair exhaling
P1380447
Common Dolphin pair

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

 

 

 

 

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

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

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

P1380470
Guillemots and Razorbills

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

20190919_122003
Fangs of Hartland Heritage coast.

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

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

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

20190920_095902
Eric
20190920_100905
Bude

Off-the-scale Dolphin Encounter at the end of a Superb Day’s Paddle

20170115_023429
St. Ives

8 am departure from St. Ives harbour. Destination Sennen Cove, twenty miles down the coast. Becky and Cush were picking me up at the other end so I didn’t have to work out how to do the shuttle (which would have gone badly wrong). Thanks to them.

20170115_102024
Cush and Becky

The most committing paddle in SW England, with nowhere to land for fifteen miles. But today it was about as calm as it could be with no wind and small swell, so it was completely and utterly relaxing. Loads of seals:

P1330616
Big Bull Seal

And some BIG scenery, including England’s only Cape. Cape CornwallP1340039.jpg

I did actually find a tiny beach on which I supped coffee and crunched a custard cream (or two).20170115_042601

The old Tin Mining Engine Houses of Levant mines draw the eye.

P1330679
Levant Mines

As do the chimneys:P1330675

There were just a few pairs of Guillemots and Razorbills scattered about on the cliffs, and I passed a couple of Mediterranean Gulls (one of which was ringed) and saw three Choughs fly along the cliffs with their animated calls.

P1330651
Razorbill pair
P1330634
Mediterranean Gull (ringed HJR4)

Under the surface this Compass Jellyfish was accompanied by a little fish that sought refuge amongst the jelly’s long stinging tentacles.

 

I wasn’t expecting to see dolphins because I was following the coast fairly closely, but as I rounded Cape Cornwall I couldn’t resist the temptation to paddle around the Brison’s rocks half-a-mile offshore, especially as the surface conditions were so benign. I could then stay well out to sea for the remaining three miles to Sennen Cove.

I could not believe my luck when, far ahead, I saw a couple of big fins slowly slicing across the surface. My first thought was basking shark, but as I drew closer they were clearly big dolphins…probably Bottlenose. I was absolutely thrilled to see one was almost completely white….Rissos Dolphins! A pod of about eight.

P1340015
Risso’s Dolphins

 

I cautiously approached and was rather surprised at the bulk of these dolphins, roughly four times the weight of the more familiar (to me) Common Dolphins and up to fourteen foot long. Some have very long thin dorsal fins.

P1340010
Risso’s Dolphin
P1330821
Risso’s Dolphin and the Brisons
P1330790
Risso’s Dolphin
P1330760
Risso’s Dolphin and Longships

I am usually thrilled to see a pair of Puffins alone. But to have two Puffins and two Risso’s dolphins in the same image is a first for me!

P1330758
Sennen Puffin

 

P1330746
Risso’s photobombing the Puffin Pair

This was an exceptional encounter on an exceptionally calm day. There are not many times you can loaf about in such a relaxed manner a mile off Land’s End. Over the course of about an hour the Risso’s Dolphins ran through just about their entire repertoire: logging at the surface staring at me, spyhopping, clapping (lying on their backs just under the surface and clapping their pectoral fins together), breaching and lobtailing.

 

P1330728
Spyhopping

 

P1330711
Breaching Risso’s
P1330712
Breaching Risso’s
P1330715
Hefty re-entry

 

I felt very sheepish when my phone rang during the lobtailing. It’s as bad as it going off during the cinema. Apologies to the dolphin.

 

One thing I wasn’t expecting was for them to swim over and have a look at me. I know that Risso’s are quite shy and don’t usually approach boats, unlike most other dolphin species. However I was in for a bit of a surprise.

 

Wow, Right up there with my best ever cetacean-from-kayak encounters. If you factor in the beautiful sunshine, windless conditions, azure sea, crystal clear water and beautiful Cornish coast….it probably WAS the best ever.

P1340021
Cornish Coast at Sennen

 

 

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.

P1280397
Scillonian III past Mousehole

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

puffin
Mousehole Puffin

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

P1280447
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).

IMG_8321_01
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?

P1280525
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.

sleeping shearwater
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.

20190428_124925
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!

Mx Shear
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:

 

P1270165
Razorbills changing into breeding plumage . Veryan Bay
20170603_124928
Lansallos Beach
20170603_142612
Polperro
P1270257
Guillemot, St Austell Bay
20170606_131433
Gribbin Head
20170607_112602
Lantic Bay , Fowey
P1270277
Great Northern Diver (Common Loon), Mevagissey
P1270422
Dave and Simon, Rumps Point, Polzeath
P1270449
Dave and Simon, Newlands, Polzeath
P1270437
Perfectly synchronised Guillemots, Polzeath
P1270417
Dave ‘n Cave, Portquin
P1270518
Puffin, The Mouls, Polzeath
P1270399
Peregrine peering
P1270458
Simon and Dave, Rumps Point, Polzeath
P1270550
Guillemot reluctant to change out of winter clothes, Portquin
20170608_140431
Dave and sushi. Healthy stuff.
20170606_133810
Cherry Bakewell. No natural ingredient within miles.
20170609_113736
Looe
P1270574
Eric the lone Eider, Looe
P1270571
Hang on !!!! Eric’s found a mate……Erica, Looe
P1270656
Duchess the (half blind) Grey Seal (thanks for the id, Sue)
P1270621
Oystercatcher, Looe
P1270649
Cormorants with nestlings, Looe
P1270664
Little rattly train , Looe
20170611_144509
Dave, Looe
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
Filming with BBC Spotlight (thanks for the pic, Dave)
20170611_182736
Dave up the creek, Looe
20170607_123204
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.

P1270163
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.

P1270246
Circling Gannet

Dolphins!

P1270074-1
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

P1270190
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.

20170603_175925
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.

Barrel Jelly
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.

P1270324
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.

20170529_130145
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.

20170529_152254
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.

20170529_142250
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.

P1260474
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…

P1260490
Fulmar

and Guillemots and Razorbills sat about and dived for sprats…

P1260626
Razorbill (nearly in breeding plumage)

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

20170530_123312
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)

 

P1260663
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:

P1260502
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.

P1260548
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?)

P1260602
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.

urchin
Sea Urchin

Spring has got off to a flying start.