A hundred years ago there were many thousands of Puffins breeding around the Cornish coast, and prior to that even more. In the fourteenth and fifteenth century some of the islands of the Isles of Scilly paid their rent in Puffins, and there were a hundred thousand birds on the island of Annet (where they still breed) in the early 1900s.
Nowadays there are probably no more than a few dozen Puffins nesting around the edge of Cornwall (although there are now a lot more just over the border into Devon, on Lundy, following eradication of the rats). In late Spring and early Summer there are more scattered around the coast generally, probably non-breeding birds or last year’s chicks. I usually come across a few, well offshore, in May and June. The youngsters aren’t quite as smart looking as the adults without the brightly coloured beak and they have grubby dark markings on their face (like they’ve had their head in a bin).
I came across this one near Eddystone last week.
Apart from Scilly, all the colonies are on islands off the North Cornish coast. So they are not only fully exposed to wind and tide, they also catch the full force of the groundswell. And, because they are off headlands, the effects of all of the above are exaggerated, making a visit by kayak quite a challenge.
The islands are also pretty remote, and are two or three miles paddle from the nearest ‘safe haven’ and launch point. It all adds to the excitement.
Suitable calm conditions, as I have said on many occasions before, are rare at Boscastle. If you want to really enjoy this bit of coast the wind has got to be light and from the south or south-east, and the swell has got to be small (less than one foot). Any bigger and you will not feel happy to go in those amazing caves and ‘zawns’ (steep-sided clefts).
The north Cornish coast has a relentless swell which rarely eases:
However one day, as close to perfect as it could be, came along on Saturday. Boscastle at its best. Deep blue sky, light winds, toasty temperature. Moon jellyfish below,
and my first Barrel Jellyfish of the year (compared to many hundreds by this time last year)
and plenty of Razorbills and Guillemots above.
I looked hard for the Puffins that nest on Short island, and just caught a glimpse of a pair scorch past on their way out to sea. At least it means that the tiny ‘colony’ here is still hanging on.
Boscastle has more than its fair share of gobsmacking scenery, that is of course best appreciated by kayak. The only possible downside is that the scenery is so BIG, it makes you feel very small.
We carried on down the coast for a paddle right through the neck of Tintagel island…the legendary Merlin’s Cave. Listen for Dave’s seal impression. Very realistic.
On the way back we stopped to watch the auk action at Lye Rock, which long ago was home to Cornwall’s biggest Puffin colony. No Puffins here now (that we saw) but I managed to catch an underwater clip of Razorbills ‘flying’ underwater. You would be forgiven if you thought they were penguins.
This ultra-brief glimpse of the Puffin pair made me extra keen to head a bit further down the coast, just past Port Isaac, the next day. I had seen Puffins on one of the islands off Rumps Point, Polzeath, on the few occasions I had paddled there before.
There was only one problem….the easterly wind had picked up, and the tides were now Springs so the currents would be more swirly than usual.
Fortunately another deep blue sky day made the sea look as benign as possible, and a perfect little sandy beach for a coffee break was a very acceptable start.
I was mobbed so enthusiastically by an Oystercatcher that I looked hard on the rocks for any sign of movement of a chick, not easy as my kayak was bouncing around all over the place in the chop. However, there was a tiny little fluffball, a chick a few days old.
I made the short crossing from the headland to the island with waves sloshing over the bow as tidal current fought against windchop, but my efforts paid off straightaway with a couple of adult Puffins bobbing about close to the island shore. Fab. I fired off loads of pics but it was at the limits of practicality as the image was lurching about all over the place, especially when zoomed in. No chance to check to see whether any pics were in focus.
I was lured round the back of the island by a gull feeding frenzy in the shearline between tide race and static water, with a couple of opportunist Gannets hanging overhead. I was hoping for a fin to break the surface but no luck.
I sped back to coffee break beach, had a look at the pics and, hey presto, the wind had dropped a notch. So I went paddled back to the Puffins, and a whole load more had appeared…a dozen in total including a pack of five. I rattled off vast numbers of pics, and attempted some sort of video. You can see how bouncy the conditions were in this clip…
Here’s a gallery of the best of the stills, starting off with a particularly camera shy individual:
The very few days a year when it is possible to venture out to these Puffin breeding colonies in a kayak, in anything approaching relaxing conditions, makes the challenge of going to see them even more fulfilling and enjoyable.
I’m glad I went when I did because, looking at the forecast for the next week and beyond, the Puffins will be safe from disturbance by kayak. The open coast will be far too lumpy.
While we are talking about Puffins, I can’t resist giving this pic another airing…taken off Sennen Cove last July. Two iconic Cornish species in the same frame: Risso’s Dolphins and Puffins.
Everybody’s favourite seabird. Right here in Cornwall. Photographed from my kayak. Hard to beat.