For much of July Devon and Cornwall have been under blue skies so the dress code for kayaking is as minimal as possible. Just enough clothes to avoid sunburn, and embarrassment as you stroll up the beach for lunchbreak. For some reason people sitting on beaches always stare at kayakers.
There were a few dodgy and cool days to begin with, but they now seem long ago.
I’ve been getting about a bit this month. From the top of creeks twenty miles ‘inland’ to far, far offshore.
Enjoy the photogallery:
The cost of parking a car beside the sea is a source of grumblement. So it’s nice when the machines blow a fuse:
What better way to keep cool on the hottest day of the year?
Next blog coming soon:
Sizzling Summer Part 2: The Sensational Wildlife of the Southwest Coast.
featuring dolphins, porpoise, seals, jellyfish, peregrines, beaver, water vole and more.
It’s a great place to go kayaking, and in my opinion the most scenic and paddle-friendly estuary/ria in SW England.
Providing you can clench your teeth hard enough to handle the savage price for parking your car, it provides quick access to the open sea via a very pleasant one-mile paddle between Polruan and Fowey.
I was surprised to see the small cruise ship ‘Hebridean Princess’ moored-up in mid river. My last encounter was on a very wet day in Loch Sunart in 2014 during my month-long kayak trip up the west coast of Scotland.
Once out of the mouth of the estuary I headed directly out to see but not before I heard a couple of Whimbrel ‘tittering’ on a rocky shore. They are migratory waders, very similar to Curlew but slightly smaller and with that distinctive monotone ‘seven-whistle’ call.
The sea was lovely and flat with little wind so it wasn’t long before I heard my first porpoise ‘piffing’, although it was minutes before I was actually close enough to see it.
I swung round a couple of miles off Gribbin Head and met up with two bigger pods of Porpoises, about ten in each. I just sat and watched as they surfaced all around, but always frustrating from a photography point of view because they constantly change direction and pop up where you least expect them to do so (like directly behind).
You can here the characteristic piff quite well in this video, as they pass in front of distant Mevagissey:
Porpoises are small and very easy to overlook and I’m pretty sure none of the many passing boats noticed this little posse going about its business.
There was at least one juvenile amongst the group which was probably only two foot long….no wonder they don’t get seen.
I think there must be a reef stretching out well offshore from Gribbin Head, because it does seem to focus the feeding activity of a mixture of sea creatures. A handful of tiny Storm Petrels, always a thrill to see from a kayak, (because they are only seen far offshore as well as being diminutive…the size of a sparrow) zipped past.
Their name is accurate because they always fly a bit closer to the shore during poor weather. Today was drizzly but fortunately not windy:
Also off Gribbin Head I saw the fin of a small Ocean Sunfish flopping at the surface. I was hoping to get close for an underwater shot but it spooked surprisingly early.
The grand wildlife finale was a mini feeding frenzy of Gannets off the headland. I could see little white dots circling and dropping into the sea a mile, possibly two, in front of me. They are big birds with a six foot wingspan so can be seen from a huge distance (a bit different to Storm petrels). I have learnt from (bitter) experience that even if I crank the kayak up to its top cruising speed of five to six mph, the feeding event will probably have finished by the time I roll up.
This nicely summarises the extreme challenge of trying to observe offshore wildlife from a kayak, and is probably the reason why nobody else does it. Another Gannet seeing the ‘work-up’ from afar (which is precisely what they look out for when cruising about) can cover the distance in a couple of minutes. They just dip a wing and disappear off at staggering speed. A wildlife-watching speedboat could cover the distance a little slower than a Gannet but in time to see what is going on. The Lone Kayaker generally arrives on scene when all that is left is a few fish scales rotating about in the swirled-up water.
Despite all this I stoked up a head of steam because the circling birds were on my way back anyway, and arrived twenty minutes later to just in time to witness the end of the action. In fact it was definitely the end because there was only one mackerel of the baitball left, and the last two Gannets to dive in ended up fighting over it. Both had their beaks locked around the same fish as they flapped about in a melee at the surface. See it for yourself in this video…..I’ve slowed down the action because it’s all a bit of a blurr otherwise. You will notice the porpoises are still busy looking for any escapee fish.
Here’s another pair of diving gannets at normal speed. It’s great to hear their cackles of excitement which they only utter when they are involved in feeding…they are completely silent the rest of the time.
Back nearer to Fowey the profusion of wildlife was replaced with a plethora of sailing boats as the annual regatta was in full swing. A tremendous sight despite the grey conditions.
The sea in front of the town was heaving with action and I had to weave amonst entrants of the gig race, which seemed very competitive.
The water around the slipway was similarly choc-a-bloc with water enthusiasts in the style of fellow kayakers.
For the lone kayaker the most impressive performance of the day was by the porpoises.
After my spectacular failure to see a single cetacean during last year’s National Whale and Dolphin Week, I was keen to make amends. It’s a great event, an intensive effort to record as many whales and dolphins (and porpoises) as possible from right around the UK, between 29 July and 5 August. It raises awareness of the superb marine life on our doorstep and gets people’s enthusiasm going because everybody absolutely loves this stuff. Especially me.
Ultra close scrutiny of the weather forecast suggested the wind was going to be lightest in South Cornwall to the east of Falmouth. A smooth sea surface means maximum chance of seeing that fin…..even the slightest ripple reducing the chances significantly. So that’s where I went.
As usual I got out of bed TOO early (4.30am) and was ready to paddle out from Carne Beach FAR too early. It was misty and quite cool and there was a bit of a breeze making the sea look grey and unwelcoming. Having looked at the forecast my upper half was clad only in a vest (and lifejacket), and the suncream seemed a bit unnecessary at this stage. I got a bit cold and felt morale starting to dip. (This over early thing is quite normal for me)
There was nobody about but a few really hardcore dog-walkers.
As I paddled out around Nare Head there were a few whitecaps sloshing the side of the kayak and I was not happy. I was hoping it was just the early morning offshore wind that you sometimes get in the summer. So I persisted with the original plan and headed offshore towards Dodman Point, just about within my comfort zone. I rang up Portscatho NCI (coastwatch) to inform them of my plans. Actually I tried three times because they hadn’t opened up shop on the first two attempts.
Yippee! I glimpsed a fin away to my right and paddled over to investigate…..it was a pod of about five Common Dolphins but they sped away before I was anywhere near close.
A couple of miles off Dodman Point the wind suddenly dropped and the sun came out. And dead ahead I saw a LOAD of fins break the surface:
I could hear a load of puffing and sound of surging water as a tightly packed pod of about fifty Common Dolphins surfaced repeatedly. Wow. I took a big loop around the pod to get up-sun and then just sat and watched at a good distance to avoid any possible disturbance. And the whole lot came straight towards me:
Just in case I hadn’t appreciated the show they then swam past again, only even closer:
The sort of wildlife experience I have only ever dreamed about.
There were several interesting things about this pod. One is that there were a few calves in amongst the throng. There was such a mass of action it was impossible to see how many, but I think was was a maternal group of dolphins and the reason it was so compact and slow moving was to nurse the calves along (yes, this might be complete rubbish).
Secondly one adult dolphin had a severely damaged fin, almost certainly an injury caused by a boat propeller.
After sitting amongst the action for twenty minutes I looped back for the ten mile paddle back to Carne Beach, but it was so lovely and warm and relaxing I wasn’t in any hurry. However I did crank up the speed when I was suddenly joined by another small group of dolphins, who wanted to get a ride on my pathetically inadequate bow wave.
I stayed several miles offshore because that is where the sea seemed most busy with wildlife. I could hear the dolphins splashing in the distance long after I lost sight of them, and several small groups of porpoises popped up as I was paddling past.
In fact it was one of those special days where rarely a minute went by without the sound of a dolphin splashing or a porpoise breathing or the ‘thoomph’ of a Gannet hitting the water at speed.
There was a constant trickle of Manx Shearwaters zipping past and I had a coffee break in the company of a resting raft of Shearwaters. I was also thrilled to see a couple of tiny Storm Petrels twisting their way past low over the surface….this sighting alone would have made my day a success.
Beneath the surface there was a supporting cast of jellyfish….mainly Compass jellyfish but also Moon and Blue.
Back into Gerrans Bay I ran into yet more dolphins. A group sped past at distance and then a pod of about fifteen approached. These looked very big and at first I thought they were Bottlenose, but as they passed I could see the characteristic yellow sides of Common Dolphins. But they certainly were all hefty and I think this was a pod of male dolphins (once again, this could be tosh).
My last dolphin of the day was unusual. I heard a clear, short, explosive puff which I was sure sounded like a porpoise, but when a fin surfaced at its next breath it looked tall and sharp, more like a Common Dolphin. I doubted this because it was all alone (very undolphin-like) so set off in pursuit. I thought maybe it was a rare species of dolphin but eventually caught a glimpse of its yellow side….so just a ‘Common’ after all.
As I made my way back inshore some very large lines of Gannets cruised lazily past, one line consisting of upwards of fifty birds.
Nare Head looked rather more attractive in the afternoon sunshine, compared to the cold grey of dawn.
So my cetacean tally for the day was approx eighty Common Dolphins (50+15+5+5+4+1) and sixteen porpoises in small groups. Maybe a Minke Whale next time……..
Mola Mola is the scientific name of the incredibly weird Ocean Sunfish. It’s a really good name because it has a tropical flavour, and it is from warmer waters that the Sunfish originates before its wanderings to the North Atlantic,and elsewhere, in the summer.
My most recent Sunfish encounter was not in the UK however. A week in Spain seemed like the perfect way to escape the exceptionally rubbish weather in the UK. It was an extreme irony therefore that we left the warmest April day yet recorded in the UK behind us in the vapour trail as we jetted out from Exeter to indifferent conditions in Southern Spain.
Upon arrival at the beach at the Costa del Sol kayaking was on hold because of the huge surf that would have done a North Cornish beach proud.
Fortunately the Mediterranean reverted to its more typical benign state after a few days so I wasted no time in heading offshore.
A mile or two offshore I spotted a large triangular-shaped fin waving about at the surface and was pretty certain it was of a Basking Shark, especially when a great blunt nose just broke the surface about four foot in front of it. However no sign of a tail left me a bit puzzled.
All other Sunfish fins I had previously seen (from smaller specimens) had been tall and spiky, so I didn’t think it was one of those.
I sneaked up to the creature in absolute silence and was pretty gobsmacked to see the bits belonged to a really huge Sunfish. The biggest I have ever seen, although they actually can get very much bigger. Sunfish are the heaviest bony fish in the world, and this would be the be the third biggest sort of fish I had met up with from my kayak, after Basking Sharks and Giant Bluefin Tuna (although because it is circular and it was difficult to estimate its length it might just nudge the Tuna into third place).
In typical sunfish style it was wallowing about just below the surface, a circular disc with a large fin at the top and bottom.
I got to a couple of feet from it, and could see its glaring eye and permanently open mouth which makes it look both startled and gormless, before it sank into the depths and disappeared.
The next morning, in glass calm conditions, I came across a staggering number of mackerel splashing at the surface, attended only by gulls which swept over the shoals and hoped to be able to grab a fish in passing. I stayed around to watch and was sure some other sea creature would be interested in the potential feast, and was just about to give up when a single dolphin showed up.
I carefully paddled after it and it was soon joined by a calf which had been adventuring off by itself. I enjoyed watching them quietly surfacing in the calm water and warm sunshine, and then they suddenly sped off to join up with a larger scattered group of about twenty more Common Dolphins.
A mini feeding frenzy of dolphins and gulls started up about a mile away so I sped towards the action but as usual it had all finished by the time I got close, and then also as usual, the dolphins all sped off to where I had just come paddled from.
The Sunfish and the Dolphins were supported by a cast of some of my favourite offshore seabirds: half a dozen ‘Bonxie’ Great Skuas, a handful of Balearic Shearwaters and a couple of Storm Petrels. Even though this is the Mediterranean these are birds you would expect to see in the Atlantic and off the coast of South West England in a couple of months time.
The only land birds coming across the sea to Southern Spain from Africa were a scattering of swallows, and surprisingly, a couple of Goshawks.