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

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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.

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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:

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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.

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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.

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Razorbill pair
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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.

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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.

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Risso’s Dolphin
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Risso’s Dolphin and the Brisons
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Risso’s Dolphin
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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!

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Sennen Puffin

 

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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.

 

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Spyhopping

 

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Breaching Risso’s
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Breaching Risso’s
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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.

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Cornish Coast at Sennen

 

 

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.

Risso’s and Jelly

Risso’s and Jelly

Charlie and Jelly

Where on earth do Barrel Jellyfish think they are going? And where on earth have they come from? And why on earth do they like to congregate off headlands where their unbelievably weak and slow swimming action is even less effective at getting them where they want to go because headlands are always the places where tidal currents are strongest. They will end up going with the flow whether they like it or not.

Barrel Jelly

But however casual and frilly their approach to life, they seem to have hit upon a winning formula as this Spring they are around the coast in vast numbers.Maybe they do know what they are doing despite apparent frailty and vulnerability. They are big (3ft long) and a bit ghostly and very weird. And great to see as you cruise silently above in your kayak.

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And how excellent is it that the most successful creature around at the minute does not even have a brain. It confirms that life is sustainable without an i-phone (and having a casual and frilly approach to life is not necessarily a bad thing).

In Mount’s Bay the other day just beyond St. Michael’s Mount there was a swarm of Barrel Jellyfish.Many hundreds of them. Taking random photos underwater from the edge of my kayak would show up to five jellies on screen at any one time. Amazing. I wonder if it means that the sea creatures that feast on jellyfish, Sunfish and Leatherback turtles, will also put in a big appearance this year.Hopefully.

Jelly Trio

May’s weather has, as usual, been a bit catchy especially, as usual, down here in the South west with strong winds making the sea out of bounds to kayaks for much of the time.

But being forced to head inland for a bit of kayaking action is not necessarily a bad thing. The Tamar estuary upstream of Calstock is always a favourite.

Kayaking the Tamar near Gunnislake

And a two -day trip to the Upper Thames provides an unexpected ribbon of wilderness within a shout of Swindon. Trilling Curlews, cuckoos , screaming swifts and bushes full of a variety of singing warblers. And  as many ducklings, goslings and cygnets as you would care to see.P1080015

P1080032Locks and lockkeepers cottages remained unchanged for centuries.P1080004

The canoe pass at Radcot lock is inspirational. More please.

Radcot lock canoe pass

Only one thing split the sound of nature, and it kept going round and round as it practised landing at RAF Fairford.About as unfeasible as a Barrel Jellyfish.

Globemaster transport

Nice camp spot with a decent view along the river:

Tent window with a view

I have ventured out for one brief fishing session off the south coast during a window of quieter weather. My first mackerel of the season was followed by half a dozen pollack, a couple of whiting and a grey gurnard. All caught on a string of silver foil feathers. All small. All put back. While in fishing mode I took a spin round Newlyn harbour to see how the ‘big boys’ do it.

Grey Gurnard

Busy Newlyn Harbour

My most recent visit to Penzance provided BIG excitement. Not just for the vast numbers of jellyfish and the scenic backdrop of St. Michael’s Mount jutting out into the middle of the bay.

St.Michael's Mount

Launching from Marazion I ventured out offshore in the hope of encountering some sea creatures. I soon saw a big fin at the surface, but too sickle-shaped for a shark and too big for a common dolphin. In fact too big for a bottle-nose dolphin as well, I thought. I got my camera ready and of course did not see it again. For a while anyway.

Ten minutes later a different big fin surfaced quite close beside me and I floundered to get my camera poised in the choppy conditions. It surfaced briefly four times then once again was gone. I was pretty sure this was a Risso’s dolphin considering the size and shape of the fin but was keen to get a better view.

Risso's dolphin

Over the next few hours I saw the big fins about ten more times. Usually a single, big, dolphin but also one or two small groups. And in the far distance beyond St. Michaels’s mount a wild splashing that must have been of dolphin origin. I paddled over to have a look, saw nothing, paddled a mile back to the middle of the bay, and glanced back to see the exact splashing again where I had just been. So I paddled back,waited around for half an hour, nothing appeared, so I paddled back to the middle of the bay again, and unbelievably the splashing once again appeared in the far distance, in the same place. Maybe they just didn’t like me.

As I pondered over a ham sandwich (with lettuce and coleslaw), another big fin sliced the water in front of me, this one looking very bleached..surely a Risso’s. As I was waiting for it to resurface a school of very active but not particularly friendly common dolphins appeared and surged all around. Very much smaller than the Risso’s and much more dashing. Impossible to photograph. I suspect the wildlife watchers on Shearwater II had a better and more stable view than I had.

Wildlife watchers on shearwater II

Before I headed for home I caught two very brief glimpses of Risso’s dolphins breaching. One had a lot of white on it and the other was greyer but showed the characteristic blunt head. I didn’t get to see the ‘classic’ scarring marks that Risso’s are supposed to have on their bodies. They didn’t seem to be inquisitive like bottle-nose dolphins and were intent on feeding, apparently on cuttlefish.

The local gulls were very pleased to clear up the pieces. This Greater Black-back puffed himself (herself) up to look even bigger and even more threatening than normal.

Greedy Gull

So very pleased with a new dolphin species seen from kayak. Just got to see that whale now!

Another Risso's fin