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.

 

 

 

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The Total Tamar

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Cormorant drying out

From Gunnislake weir it’s a twenty mile paddle down the entire length of the tidal reaches of the River Tamar. If you finish at Devil’s Point where it opens out into Plymouth Sound it’s more like nineteen but you really have to take a slingshot around Drake’s island to provide a satisfactory turning point for the trip.

It was such a nice sunny end-of-March day that I set out to paddle the whole length and back again, but because of the tide times I would have to start at Calstock and go downstream first and finish with the section upstream afterwards. The very high Spring tides would be a big help and power me along, especially in the middle section. Even so, a BIG day out and a good way to get fit for the Summer. Or collapse.

Definitely a job for my long and sleek Cobra Expedition SOT kayak.

I slipped beneath the never-ceases-to-amaze-me Calstock viaduct through the early morning mist before sunrise. Chilly enough to make me thankful I had remembered to bring gloves. Singing Blackbirds and Chiffchaffs injected a Spring boost into my cold musculature.IMG_0143

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Early morning Calstock

The water was absolutely glassy as I cruised along absolutely silently past sleeping Cotehele Quay.

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Cotehele Quay

The river then widens significantly for the long straight past Halton Quay prior to the huge loop starting at Pentillie and finishing at Weir quay.IMG_0159

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Pentillie

Incidentally, there are good slipways to put in at Calstock and Cotehele although these are very muddy and tricky at low tide, and an excellent all-stage-of-the-tide gravel slipway at Weir Quay.

The next four miles to the Tamar Bridge is a bit uninteresting and potentially unpleasant if the wind is blowing. After Cargreen on the Cornwall side the River Tavy joins from the left and the branch line train clatters over the metal bridge at its neck.

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Tamar Bridge

I was very pleased that as I approached the vast Tamar Bridge the wind was still non existent, and the outgoing tide whipped me along.

The moderate easterly wind which had so far lain dormant inland started to make itself felt as Devonport dockyard came into view. I always feel a bit small and vulnerable here as there is a lot of boat activity with navy boats shuttling about all over the place, and the Marine Police always watching, and no doubt wondering what on earth I am doing out in the middle of the wide river, all by myself, battling through the chop.

Four submarines and a couple of frigates on the left, a supply ship on the right, and then you have to time your passage correctly to dodge between the three Torpoint chain ferries. Not quite as straighhtforward as it seems as their movements seem a bit random, although I’m sure they aren’t.

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Torpoint Ferry

Round the corner towards Devil’s point I hugged the Devon shore and although kept out of the wind found myself paddling against a stiff eddy current flowing upstream. I diverted into Mayflower marina for a breather and a cup of coffee. A seal popped up beside me and as I fumbled for my camera it disappeared and was gone.

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King Billy (overlooking Devil’s Point)

As I emerged into Plymouth sound the wind really started to bite, but I was determined to get to Drake’s island as it provides such a good target and also the carrot of a sandy beach to stretch the legs. Although I’m pretty sure you are not allowed to land on Drake’s island I think there is some rule to say it’s OK if you are below the high water mark. This might be a load of tosh but I don’t want to find out because I am going to stop there anyway.

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Lunch Break Drake’s Island

As I hauled up on the beach and levered myself out of the seat , a pair of Sandwich terns floated past with their grating call….Spring is here.

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Sandwich Tern

I loafed about for the best part of an hour waiting for the tide to turn, very conscious of the marine police control tower half a mile away in Plymouth, watching me like the eye of Sauron in the Dark Tower.

As usual I set off too early and spent the next hour paddling against the last gasp of the ebbing tide, which as usual didn’t turn till way after it was supposed to. I think it is down to inertia; even though the tide is rising it takes a while to reverse the current in a large body of moving water.

I successfully dodged two of the Torpoint ferries but fell foul of the police boats when I ventured too close to the submarines. The officers were very polite and I diverted a bit further out.

The huge lake upstream of the bridge was a bit of a haul with wave chop coming over the deck but at least the tide was kicking in. I was surprised to see five Shoveler ducks flying over.

As the twists and turns of the river arrived the wind eased off. I was thrilled to see a pair of Barnacle Geese swimming beside the mud of the Devon bank at Halton Quay.  If this was a single bird it would probably have been an ‘escape’, but the fact that it was a pair makes wild birds seem more likely. If so, the first I have seen since I saw skeins migrating in across the Outer Hebrides (being harried by Golden Eagles!) decades ago.

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Barnacle Geese (and Shelduck)

Only other birds of interest were five Common Sandpipers and a single Green Sandpiper on the corner just below Calstock.

Arriving back at Calstock with thirty-one miles under my belt, it was a bit of a struggle to set off for another five miles upstream. But the sun was out and pleasantly warm, and the water smooth.

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Morwellham

Half a pizza at Morwellham Quay fuelled me for the final push to Gunnislake weir. The riverside tree that I had noticed had been gnawed by a Beaver last time I was here had fallen down. No other signs of any chewed trees, but I’m sure it was a beaver as you can see the teeth marks quite clearly.IMG_0279

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Tree chewed by Beaver
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Gunnislake Weir

I didn’t hang around at the weir as I was just about spent, and cruised back to Calstock on completely smooth water and a current that was just starting to ebb.

Three Kingfishers in the upper section.

Forty-one miles paddled. Total trip time twelve hours.IMG_0282

Biggest milage yet.