Amazing….when I went to bed the forecast for the following day was wet and foggy for the whole of Devon and Cornwall. When I checked again at 5am it was rain in Plymouth, drizzle in Looe, ghastly in Fowey and……sunny and still in Penzance….wwhat?
My picnic was packed in superquick time (no chance to layer mayonnaise in the sandwiches) and I got my first glimpse of Mount’s Bay at about 7.30. It was so glass calm and I was so keen to get on the water I parked beside the sea at Marazion to save a ten minute drive to Penzance harbour. As a bonus the car park ticket machine was broken.
And the next seven hours were not only a feast for the eyeballs, they were a fest for the eardrums.
It consolidated my firmly held view that watching marine wildlife is best from a kayak.
The view from the seat of the kayak is second to none. An uninterrupted vista. This might seem like a statement of the obvious, but with any other craft there are distractions. Screens to check, bits of equipment to look at. Always the danger of looking in, and looking down. When you should be looking up and out. Looking for that fin.
A sailing boat has much of the view obstructed by the sail, and there is always the temptation of slipping below, clicking the kettle and sneaking a chunk of battenberg.
In a kayak the very fact that you have to paddle means you HAVE to spend the whole time looking up, and looking ahead. There is nothing else to do.
I have droned on about how the complete silence of a kayak means you can hear absolutely everything that dares to squeak within a mile radius, and today was the perfect example of how excellent a kayak is for listening to, and watching, the current boom of magical marine megafauna. Because it was staggeringly still.
In fact of the hundred or so big creatures I saw today, all but a few I heard before I saw. Puffs, splishes, splashes, sploshes, roars (of water), breaths, blasts.
Seven different sounds from the surface of the lake-like sea.
So, here they are:
1. The thoomph of a diving Gannet
Gannets are big birds, with a six foot wingspan.They dive onto shoals of surface fish from an extraordinary height and hit the surface hard. Despite assuming the shape of a missile as they strike the water, they send up quite a plume of spray and make quite a noise.
2. The slappy splash of a Sunfish.
Here is the normal view of a Sunfish. A sharp fin corkscrewing across the surface. But every so often they will dredge themselves out of apparent torpor and hurl themselves from the water and land back with a slap. It is a characteristic noise because they always land on their side so it lacks the depth of sound of all the other splashing creatures. I can now recognise it from quite a distance. I have never managed to photograph one breaching, although I was very close today.
3. The puff of a Porpoise.
Harbour Porpoises are the cetacean I encounter most often. They are outnumbered by Common Dolphins because dolphins go around in larger pods, but I see porpoises on many more days.
The majority I hear first, because they have a characteristic explosive breath. That’s why they used to be called Puffing Pigs off eastern USA.
4. The blow of a Common Dolphin
I REALLY like Common Dolphins, and a day with a dolphin encounter is very special day indeed. In fact everybody loves dolphins, and the recent seasonal surge in numbers around the coast has sparked off a huge demand for boat trips to go and see them. Certainly a bit of pestering by jetskis, some of whom have not been adhering to the rules about approaching wild creatures in the sea, and who have the manoeuvrability and speed to chase, and potentially really harass, the dolphins.
They (dolphins, not jetskis) feature in this list twice, for two different sounds. The first is their blow, which although is quieter than a porpoise (although the first breath after a dive is quite noisy), is somehow full of character. And because they go around in gangs there is a lot of characterful puffs going on!
Here’s today’s dolphins:
5. The crazy raking splash of a Giant Bluefin Tuna.
The noise is quite characteristic, and totally astonishing. Although I have heard it a lot recently, every time it generates a “what the heck was that?” response in my brain, and I have cricked my neck more often than reccommended.
It is an explosion of sound because the fish are travelling at such incredibly speed when they ambush their small fish prey from below. On this trip to Mount’s Bay I heard and saw about a hundred tuna splashes, but actually saw only about ten fish.
I have seen more Atlantic Bluefin Tuna exploding from the surface along the south coast of Cornwall and Devon in the last two weeks than ever before. This includes some really big fish that definitely cross the threshold (150kgs) to qualify them for the tag of GIANT Bluefin tuna.
Here’s a really big one. The Manx Shearwaters in the pic have a wingspan of just less than three feet, so that is some hefty fish!
6. The controlled and polite splashing of a Common Dolphin.
Although I like the crazed manner of Giant Tuna erupting from the surface, the splash of the dolphins appeals to me just a bit more, because dolphins are more interactive with kayakers than the amazing, but personality-less, tuna.
These dolphins below are being about as splashy as they ever get, but are still less wild and thrashing than the ultra high speed tuna.
There’s a bonus sound in this video clip if you listen closely….one of the dolphins has got a bit of a squeak when it breathes.
7. The prolonged blasting blow of a Minke Whale.
Hearing the blow of a whale, in SW England, has got to be the most thrilling sound a wildlife-watching kayaker can hear, by quite a long way.
It was my ambition for many years to hear and see one, and it took many years before I did. It’s all so wonderfully ludicrous…..who on earth goes looking for whales in a kayak in Devon and Cornwall. I don’t think there are many fellow kayakers in the whale club.
Today’s whale was, not unusually, very elusive. It was beyond my paddling limit as I already had a ten mile paddle back to Marazion (and was three miles offshore). This seems to happen to me a lot…I stop for a coffee break before paddling back and hear a whale blow another mile further out.
I heard it six or seven times and just glimpsed the long back surfacing twice. This is the only pic I could manage…the tip of a fin and a swirl of water.
To hear the blow a bit more clearly here’s a clip from one off Plymouth three weeks ago.
That sound is a bit special. It’s also very addictive.