Notchy the Porpoise…Again!!

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yours truly plus a couple of porpoisey friends (photo: Henry Kirkwood)

You might think it’s no big deal to photograph the same Harbour Porpoise in more or less the same place three times in a month. Unlike dolphins which are highly mobile and could be dozens of miles away the next day, porpoises seem to be regular at certain sites around southwest England, particular headlands, and nowhere I have paddled holds a more reliable pod of porpoises than Berry Head.

It is certainly the best spot to see a porpoise from a kayak because of its proximity to an excellent launch spot at Brixham and its relatively sheltered location which results in a smooth sea surface (essential for porpoise-spotting) more often than headlands further west. Further west generally means a more disturbed sea state with more wind, swell, and tidal flow.

Berry Head also has a very well-defined tideline along which the porpoises, if they are around, love to forage.

video:

 

 

So why am I so excited about Notchy?

For a start Notchy is the first identifiable (because of the notch at the base of his/her dorsal fin) cetacean I have seen on more than one occasion. Apart from Horace the Humpback whale that is (which was rather more easy to spot).

Secondly it is a window into the population dynamics of Harbour Porpoises. Is  the same group here all the time? Or is there a hard core with a mobile population that comes and goes? Is there a seasonal pattern or is availability of fish more of an influence?

The possible answers to all of these questions are tremendously blurred by the difficulty of observing porpoises in anything apart from calm conditions. As soon as there are any breaking whitecaps the chances of seeing a fin reduce considerably. This is certainly the case from kayak and I would only consider venturing offshore in absolutely calm conditions. It is maybe not quite so critical if watching from a telescope from Berry Head.

The overall impression I get from observing porpoises from my kayak all round SW England is that there is a peak of numbers in August which falls away till early in the year, then very few about in April to June before numbers rapidly build. This is skewed by the sea conditions which are smoother in summer which encourage me to go out to where the porpoises hang out more, but it is interesting that I usually see numbers into double figures (max 24 this year) in August and September, but only ones and twos in May.

I think that availability of their favourite food has a lot to do with this apparent seasonality, with the appearance of mackerel accounting for the late summer surge, with herring and pilchard appearing in early winter, and a noticeable gap in these tasty fish in the Spring.

Socialisation might have something to do with it, with the main ‘rutting’ season for porpoises known to be in late summer, maybe contributing to increased group size (like a sort of porpoise Magaluf).

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My son Henry had to good fortune to snap this pic of an ultra-rare white porpoise off the North coast of Cornwall, and to the best of my knowledge it hasn’t been seen since, but it would be quite easy for a five foot long porpoise to get lost in the swells of the north coast as there aren’t many observers or boats about up there (and I’m not very well ‘connected’). But this would suggest that porpoises do travel.

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Henry’s White Porpoise, Morwenstowe

Coming back to the Berry Head porpoise pod, I would guess that there is a nucleus which is added to, and thins out, according to seasonality of their baitfish.

If you like hunting along a tideline you will not find one more pronounced than Berry Head. It must be like being permanently camped in the carpark of MacDonalds, if you are partial to a Big Mac.

So back to ‘Notchy’. here he/she is on three dates in December. Characteristic notch at the back of the fin clearly visible in each pic.

 

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Notchy 4 Dec
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Notchy 26 Dec
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Notchy 31 Dec

Photographing porpoises is incredibly difficult, and doubly so from a kayak. After you see them surface for the first time you must predict where they will next appear. This is easy for a dolphin because they usually progress in a straight line, but porpoises will zigzag about all over the place underwater  and could pop up anywhere. Add in the small size of the fin and the movement of the kayak, and that the porpoise could surface directly behind you or disappear completely, and it can get a tad frustrating.

I don’t have any idea of whether I have got any photos in focus, let alone any distinguishing features, until I get back to the stability of the shore.

So to picture the same one three times is a bit of a surprise.

Porpoises hardly ever breach but during my last visit there was one which was extremely pumped up and leapt clear of the water on a couple of occasions. Unfortunately I was a split second too late with the shutter.

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Breaching Porpoise

I also observed one resting at the surface, a behaviour I have only rarely seen before, and only when the sea is completely smooth (although I suppose I wouldn’t  see it if was choppy anyway). Video:

 

 

Far out to sea I caught a split second glimpse of a jumping beast so paddled out to investigate, and was pleased to see a couple of Common Dolphins cruising along at a speed which I could only match by paddling flat out.

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Common Dolphin

With a bit of luck 2019 will be equally as enthralling, and maybe Notchy will still be around.

Boxing Day Blast at Brixham

The weather gods were in a considerate mood when we were planning a bit of a post-Christmas, calorie-burning, fustiness-removing paddle.

Light winds meant a coastal trip was on the cards so Brixham seemed like a good bet. This of course means a quick snoop at the superbly action-packed (in terms of wildlife) waters off Berry Head, so Jake and I cornered the end of the breakwater and  made straight for the end of the headland.

There were a lot of Gannets cruising about, including a large extended fishing flock in the heart of Torbay. The last of the incoming tide was flowing north past the headland and the tideline between the offshore current and the static water of the bay formed a focus for a handful of circling Gannets and, I hoped, some cetaceans.

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Gannet

We nudged out towards the birds and sure enough a couple of porpoises surfaced nearby with a puff. These were the first cetaceans Jake had seen in the UK so we hung around hoping for a better view. Although porpoises are not attracted to boats and tend to be a bit haphazard in their movements, there were enough around (approximately ten) to make the chance of one surfacing nearby quite high.

One did indeed surface with a loud puff only a few metres away from Jake’s kayak. Perfect. This porpoise had a distinctive notch at the back of its dorsal fin, and looks like the same one I photographed a few weeks ago.

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Harbour Porpoise (Notchy seems like a good name)

I think I photographed the same porpoise in the same place on 4 Dec.You might think that this is not that remarkable because porpoises seem to be resident at Berry Head, but they are difficult to spot because they are so small and inconspicuous, and very difficult to photograph, and of all the porpoises around Berry Head (approx 15-20?) I was unlikely to snap the same one twice in two visits.

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Porpoise photographed on 4 Dec

This is the first cetacean that I have ever re-photographed, as far as I am aware.

After half an hour watching porpoises, and chasing after distant unexplained splashes which appeared to be jumping porpoises although could have been tuna or dolphins (porpoises only jump when they are really fired up and chasing fish, and these splashes seemed a bit ‘big’ for that), we headed back into Torbay.

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Jake in Torbay

The gannets were thumping in all over the place and put on a great show as we passed the centre of Torbay. There were a few Loons dotted about as we neared the shore. I don’t know why I find these birds so charismatic as their plumage is not particularly remarkable, but they are big and robust and knowledge of how far they have come to spend the winter here, and how they transform into one of the most beautifully marked of all seabirds in the Spring, no doubt adds to their appeal.

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Torbay Loon (Great Northern Diver)

We followed the coast back to Brixham and were spotted by some of the rest of the family (and chums, and pets) who were on the end of the breakwater.P1210551

The Torbay lifeboat looked impressive in the winter sun as it sped back to its base, and was appallingly photobombed by a jetski.

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Jetski photobomb

Fortunately I had time for an uncluttered pic before it eased off on the throttle.

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Torbay Lifeboat

It was a bit of a surprise to hear Brixham harbour echoing to the bawl of seals , who turned out to be resting on a pontoon on the edge of the marina, all ten of them!

We finished with a tour of the inner harbour.

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Brixham

We calculated the ten miles paddled was the calorie equivalent of about a third of a mince pie. Looks like we’ll just have to go out more often to burn off the rest of the packet  (and half a tin of Quality Street). Tough.

Puffing and Chuffing

I am always looking to paddle out into the open sea whenever there is a lull in the autumn winds, but this is currently very difficult because the quiet gaps between weather systems only last a couple of hours.

With the forecast of a morning of calm conditions I went scampering off down to Torbay hoping to find a smooth sea, and knowing that this east-facing bit of coast offers good shelter from the hefty swell which was thumping the bits which look out to the west.

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Torbay dawn

I had planned to be on the water as the sun popped up and was quietly smug that it had only just surfaced as I rounded the end of Brixham breakwater, after a 90 minute drive including the traffic chaos of the Torbay hinterland (we don’t really ‘do’ traffic chaos in Holsworthy).

As I approached Berry Head I could see circling Gannets and the odd splash at the surface and glimpse of a dark sea creature, but I was too far off to see what was herding the baitball….dolphins, tuna, or porpoises.

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Nice and calm off Berry Head

As usual by the time I arrived on the scene the mini feeding-frenzy was over and the Gannets had completely disappeared. It always amazes me that although they are big birds with a six foot wingspan they can apparently disappear in an instant. They just dip a wing and they speed off.

All that was left of the action was a couple of porpoises rolling lazily at the surface, the first I had seen since the end of October.

Porpoises are small (four to five foot long) and very easy to overlook because they generally make no splash when they surface to breath, and tend to go around alone or very small groups. This is in contrast to dolphins that usually go around in a pod and do a lot of splashing and jumping.

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Harbour porpoise

There were actually a minimum of half-a-dozen porpoises off the headland, as usual hunting along the smooth line on the surface where the offshore tidal current shears against the static waters of Torbay.

I sat around and enjoyed a cup of coffee while watching, and listening to the porpoises. In this video clip it is quite obvious why the Newfoundland whalers used to call porpoises ‘Puffing Pigs’.

 

Today’s sideshow consisted of Fulmars zipping past a few feet away, a handful of flypast Great Northern Divers, a (probable) Red-throated Diver , and a pack of Common Scoter.

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Fulmar

The tide was fairly rapidly sucking me down the coast towards Dartmouth so I tucked in close to the shore and paddled back into Torbay. Annoyingly the predicted ‘glass-off’ when the wind dropped away completely occurred when I was in the depths of Torbay, not out beyond Berry Head as I had planned. It would have made porpoise spotting even easier…and maybe something else.

I was pleased to see a rare Red-necked Grebe just round the corner from Brixham:

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Red-necked Grebe

and a youngish-looking seal was taking time out on a quiet beach. I always steer well away from these resting seals to avoid frightening them into the water, because they may just have been on the go for a very long time and be in much need of a rest.

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Grey seal

Brixham was buzzing with fishing boat activity (although it looks fairly sleepy in this pic).

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Brixham

So if it was the porpoise that was doing the puffing, what was doing the chuffing?…..

 

 

Berry Head Porpoisefest

Paul and I were very excited about today. The winds in Torbay were forecast to be very light  and temperature due to top twenty degrees (not bad for the end of September) so we were planning to paddle offshore to hopefully eyeball a few cetaceans, while sitting on a lovely smooth sea (which doesn’t happen that often).

Brixham harbour was calm and blue……perfection. And the lifeboat looked poised for action, which was reassuring.

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Brixham Harbour

Berry Head is a great place to see porpoises and just as I was explaining (droning on) to Paul that they like to hunt the edge of the tidal currents, one surfaced with a puff only a few yards directly in front of him. What a way to encounter your first porpoise! A couple more surfaced and put on a bit of a show for us.

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Berry Head Porpoise

Good start…we had only been paddling for twenty minutes. We felt the omens were good so headed directly out to sea from the headland. A handful of Balearic Shearwaters zipped past and we saw, and heard a further scattering of Porpoises, and saw a few of them.

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leaving the ‘bustle’ behind

Four miles from Berry Head we stopped to take in the surroundings. For about as far as we could see in all directions were circling and milling gulls and Kittiwakes, clearly intent on catching something at the surface. Every so often they would splash into the water and more often than not come out with a sprat in their beak. There seemed to be no specific concentration of baitfish, it was just spread over a vast area of sea. I also noticed a Garfish leap out of the water a couple of times.

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Paul in hunting mode (Berry head in background)

We were rather hopeful this massive food source might lure in some big eaters but unfortunately nothing bigger than porpoises appeared, and the occasional Gannet sploshed in. There was however a reasonably-sized car transporter which we did our best to avoid.P1170896

There was so much action going on we were reluctant to head back to the shore because we both felt something dramatic was about to happen. However we were now being sucked along the coast towards Dartmouth on the big ebbing Spring tide so if we didn’t strike for the shore now it would be a very long haul back to Brixham.

While still two miles offshore we were distracted by a superb double wildlife encounter. As we ran into a whole load of porpoises which were puffing all around us, I saw a tern sitting on the water. I crept up quietly with camera clicking and was thrilled to see it was a ‘this year’s’ Common Tern. A beautiful little bird, not common at all around here and only the second I have ever seen sat on the water.

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Common Tern (first winter)
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Common Tern

We then focused on the porpoises which seemed to have us surrounded. One torpedoed directly towards Paul and he watched it swim just underneath his kayak.

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Harbour Porpoise
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Paul and Friend

The porpoises, which frequently are too far away to see even though you can hear their ‘puffs/piffs’ seemed to appreciate that Paul was a porpoise rooky and wanted to give a really good demonstration of their aquatic skills. With a splash a sizable fish broke the surface with a pair of porpoise in even more splashy hot pursuit.

They came almost TOO close for a suitable video…..but you can hear their ‘Puffing Pig’ blow very nicely in this clip:

We were so engrossed we didn’t realised we were being conveyed down the coast by the tide at over one knot, so had to engage fast cruise gear and make for the shore, and a four mile coastal paddle back to Brixham. With a deep blue sky, dropping sun behind and very pleasant cliffy scenery, this wasn’t too much of a hardship.

And if you like your boats, there are always plenty to admire along this section of coast.

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Bloat boat
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Brixham trawler
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photogenic Sailboat

I think I’m more of a scenery person.

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note jetskier. Unfortunately they avoided colliding with the rock.

 

More Fantastic Dolphins

A steady deterioration in the weather threatened to mess up any plans I had for offshore paddling to see extreme sea creatures. Whales and Giant Tuna have appeared around Cornwall and I would like to join in the fun. However the promise of a snippet of a calm few hours in Torbay lured me out of bed appallingly early and on the water by seven.(yes I know Torbay is Devon and not Cornwall, but Cornwall was too windy today

The headlands around Torbay always seem to be very productive for marine wildlife with their lively currents and a small group of circling Gannets alerted me to a scattered group of porpoises. Despite one of the biggest Spring tides of the year, the offshore waters were calm so I headed out to see what was about. Little packs of Manx Shearwaters, which will soon have disappeared on migration, zipped past, as did a handful of smoky brown Balearic Shearwaters. One looked bigger…was that a Sooty Shearwater? With binoculars impossible to use on a kayak (due to movement) and the fact that it was soon gone, I will never know.

As I was ploughing my way through a bowl of muesli I glimpsed a black shape, for an instant, far out to sea. Then more….jumping dolphins! Rest of muesli overboard, I headed out to look and as I cautiously approached the group of about twenty which had now slowed down, they veered over to check me out.

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Common Dolphin

There was one very small calf in the group which leapt out of the water with as much vigour as any of its elders. Some of the group came over for a bit of bow-riding:

 

I was a bit concerned about the forecast increase in wind so started to paddle back to the headland, but the dolphins were not finished with me and came along.

 

When they looked as though they were going to stay for a while I set up the GoPro on its headmount and set off again:

 

At last they seemed to lose interest as my speed dropped when fatigue kicked in. Maybe I shouldn’t have jettisoned those last few mouthfuls of muesli. You really do have to paddle flat out to generate enough of a pressure wave to keep dolphins interested. It’s a lot easier in a boat with a huge outboard motor.

Maybe they were off hunting an unsuspecting shoal of mackerel.

They looped round in front of me providing quite a satisfactory ‘grandstand’ view as a finale. You can see a few youngsters jumping around in the pod.

 

En route to calmer waters in the shelter of the bay I passed a flock of about 300 Kittiwakes resting on the surface, the largest group I think I have ever seen. As I watched, a passing large gull made them all take off, and upon scrutiny of the photographs later I noticed that two had coloured rings on their legs:

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Kittiwakes

Back in the harbour everyone and everything was getting going. All very interesting, but the dolphins take the biscuit.P1160870

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The Sensational South-West Coast (part 1)

Photo montage of assorted pics that have not appeared in any of this year’s blogs. Browse and enjoy.

But first listen to the spooky, deathly, grim reaper-type bell on the excellently named Udder Rock buoy off Lansallos in South Cornwall:

Prinsendam cruise ship in Fowey in May,

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Prinsendam

and an even bigger one, the Europa 2, in early September.

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Europa 2

Superb beach for a tea break. Great Perhaver near Gorran Haven:

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Great Perhaver beach

Gorran Haven, picture perfect Cornish fishing village

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Gorran Haven

but with hot competition only a few miles away in the shape of Mevagissey:

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Mevagissey

Charlie and James speeding in the Gumotex Solar at Maidencombe,

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Charlie and James

while Peggy and Becky cruise under the Torridge bridge:

 

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Peggy and Becky

Paul is a bit further upstream by the Old Bideford Bridge:

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Paul in Bideford

The south Cornwall seals put on a fantastic show:seal 17

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but it’s great to see the less obvious wildlife gems from the kayak seat too:

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Ringed Plover
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Hat-trick of Dunlin

The Eddystone light lures me offshore,

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Eddystone

while the seas down at Land’s End are forever restless:

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Gwennap Head

A rare swell-free spell allowed a bit of exploration along the (usually) savage Hartland heritage coast in North Cornwall.

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Duckpool
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Lower Sharpnose Point
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Hartland Cliffs

Now autumn is knocking on the door, it’s easy to forget how warm and sunny summer was, and how exceptionally clear the sea was this year:

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Tabby seems to be flying

Don’t forget the dazzling dolphins:

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Common dolphins Torbay (in Feb!)

That’s it for now. Part 2 soon.

 

 

 

 

Where’s the Blinking Spring Thing?

It’s half-way to the longest day and Spring is struggling to put in an appearance. The Daffodils have been flattened by the recent blizzard and the Blackbird which dared to start singing outside the loo window about  three weeks ago hasn’t uttered a note since.

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Hostile Sea

Although it would be nice for it to warm up a bit so I could wash my thermal base layer, I can cope with the rain and the cold. It’s the wind I don’t like. Paddling into a headwind is not only very hard work, it’s appallingly demoralising, and the subsequent downwind run doesn’t compensate for the upwind struggle. Watching and photographing wildlife is almost impossible while the kayak is being thrown about and splashed with spray, and basically no fun.

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Tragic Weather

The open sea and exposed coast are no-go zones. At least there are a few sheltered estuaries which are doable if you have read your tide tables correctly. The wintering waders provide a bit of entertainment with their cheerful piping calls, especially the ‘shanks’, both Red and Green.

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Paul, Torridge, Bideford
Penquite quay
Penquite Quay, Fowey estuary
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Redshank

However I did manage to squeeze in a coastal jaunt during the briefest lull in the relentless blow, with temperature just about survivable in full thermal gear and drysuit. And gloves and balaclava. (fuel today was Raisin and Biscuit Yorkie….DUO)

I couldn’t resist a visit to Torbay in the (unlikely) hope of seeing the dolphins again, even though the traffic round the back of Paignton on the road to Brixham is enough to make me go  (even more) grey and bald (again).

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Paignton

Brixham on the southern side of Torbay is a sensational place to launch, with the paddle out of the busy fishing port providing all the sights, sound and smells necessary to sharpen up the senses (especially if you are a fan of fish).

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Brixham

I was initially drawn to Berry Head because the swirling currents concentrate sealife activity. As I approached the headland and stared hard at the patch of sea beneath half-a-dozen circling Gannets, I could hardly believe my luck because a dolphin breached clear of the water. I cranked up the speed and as I drew close to the dolphins changed to cautious mode in an effort not to frighten them. A splinter group sped right past me and then joined up with the main pod of about twenty and sped off southwards.

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Common Dolphin (in a hurry)

I followed but as usual had difficulty keeping up, just about staying in touch at fast cruising pace. As we sped past St. Mary’s Bay they suddenly completely disappeared and I decided to continue down the coast towards Dartmouth, even though I had originally planned to go the other way.

Good move, as I had only paddled this bit of coast a couple of times before and had forgotten how stunning it was. Cliffs interspersed with some excellent beaches, the most scenic of which is Scabbacombe, backed by sweeping green hills.

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Superb Scabbacombe

The seabirds clearly hadn’t been told that Spring had been put on hold. Oystercatchers were piping excitedly and all along the cliffs Fulmars were settled on their nesting ledges and cackling in their very primeval way. Seabirds do seem to hint at a link with reptiles from long ago because the call of Fulmars, Guillemots, Razorbills and Gannets would not seem out of place in a colony of Pterodactyls, although I’m not old enough to  confirm (quite).

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Extrovert and noisy Oystercatcher
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Cackling Fulmars
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(Shag and) Cormorant in Breeding Plumage

A flock of Common Scoters were disturbed by a passing jetski and did a couple of circuits of the bay before pitching in.

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Common Scoters

Gloom. One of a pair of Great Black-backed Gulls that were sitting on a headland had a trace from a fishing line sticking out of its beak. I would think a hook was stuck in its throat so almost certainly it was doomed.

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Poor blooming Gull

The Mew Stone, sitting like a mini-fortress at the mouth of the Dart estuary, provided a suitable turning point for my trip, and the slumbering seals barely bothered to wake up as I slipped silently past.

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Mew Stone and Froward point
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Lazing Lump of Lard

For the sake of completeness I made the effort to paddle round the back of the fang-like Eastern Black rock before returning, and my efforts paid off with a brief sighting of a couple of Porpoises and a handful of Purple Sandpipers picking  amongst the barnacles on the rocky islet.

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Turnstone and purple Sandpiper

Berry Head was a bit more lively on the return leg with a strengthening Southerly wind and I was quite pleased to get back to the quieter waters of Torbay.

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Berry Head

Back in Brixham harbour I had an entertaining prolonged encounter with a large bull Grey Seal which had clearly seen so many boats and kayakers it was devoid of any fear, and finished off with a paddle tour around the inner harbour.

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Idiotically Tame Seal

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For now it’s back to a near white-out and challenging conditions for watersports enthusiasts.

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Yours truly looking fed up, and with sizeable snowflake about to go up nose.

However every cloud has a silver (Starling-flavoured) lining if you are a top predator like this Sparrowhawk:

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Sparrowhawk with lunch
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Is it possible for eyes to be more piercing?