August Wildlife: Up the Creek to Open Sea

The encounter with the Humpback  (on 2nd Aug) is the most exciting wildlife spectacle I have witnessed from my kayak, by quite a long way.

Explosive drama.

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Humpback Whale

The scene is rather more serene at the upper tidal limit of the River Torridge. In fact not a lot could be more serene.

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Torridge Swans

The Swan family are thriving and drift about in the complete silence of a late summer morning.

 

 

 

 

Unfortunately the family with three cygnets on the River Tamar is not doing so well.

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Morwellham Swans

They are now down to one youngster as I passed the corpses of the other two cygnets yesterday floating at the surface, over a mile apart. ????

Most birds stopped singing at the end of June when their breeding season came to an end, but swallows are an exception and are not only still singing, there are still young in the nest. Some pairs will rear a third brood which may not fledge until early October.

The soundtrack  of the summer.

 

The top of the tidal estuaries are fresh water and are the home of Dippers who just can’t resist bobbing.

 

 

 

 

One of the bonuses of choosing Devon and Cornwall as a kayaking destination is the hundreds of miles of sheltered creek to explore when the exposed coast and open sea is lashed by wind, as it has been on and off for the last couple of weeks.

 

 

 

 

It’s great to see the pretty little Mandarin Ducks that seem to have made the Upper Torridge their home. They originate from escapes from collections and have only been in this area for a few years.

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Mandarin Duck

Heading down towards the sea Curlews demonstrate how to spruce oneself up despite an enormous bill, and Little Egrets spear little fish in the shallows.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The flock of Black-headed gulls is irresistible to a passing Peregrine that slices through the middle of them. You will see it cut through the flock from right to left. Unsuccessfully, on this occasion. It looks brownish so it is probably a this year’s youngster.

 

 

 

 

This next clip is a bit depressing. A Herring gull with a plastic bag wrapped round its leg. I don’t fancy its chances.

 

 

 

Seals sometimes venture far up the estuaries because there is the potential for good fishing. Even if salmon and sea trout are not as numerous as they used to be, there’s plenty of mullet that follow the tide in.

This is a Harbour Seal well up the Fowey estuary. It clearly wants to take a mid-morning nap  but is unfortunately spooked by the approach of a rowing scull.

 

 

I have sneaked out along the coast during the very few spells of lighter wind during the last few weeks. The Turnstones have returned to the barnacle encrusted rocks. Here one is still in full summer plumage (the smarter-looking bird) while the other is in the less smart winter plumage.

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Turnstones, Mevagissey

It was a bit of a surprise to see a Redshank out on the rocky coast…they usually prefer the mud of estuaries. On migration, no doubt.

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Torbay Redshank (looking a bit knock-kneed)

The problem with wearing Crocs for kayaking is that when you stop for a cup of coffee and a Crunch Cream and walk across a beach they have an almost magnetic attraction for the most painful and spiky stones and shells to get inside and poke the soles of your feet.

It’s a common occurrence, but this is the first one to have been alive.

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Hermit Crab in Croc

At Mevagissey this is the first Crystal jellyfish I have seen this year…didn’t they star in Avatar, by the Tree of Life?

 

 

Grey Seals always make me chuckle when they are ‘bottling’ i.e. sleeping vertically in the water. They can be really deep asleep and I have actually accidentally bumped into them before.

This one at Mevagissey was certainly fairly well gone and you can hear it snoring. Fortunately I didn’t disturb it at all and managed to depart the scene without it apparently waking.

 

 

I came across more seals in Torbay; a woolly-looking bull Grey Seal and a perky Harbour Seal. Harbour seals used to be rare in SW England but they seem to be slowly invading.

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Grey Seal bull, Thatcher Rock
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Harbour Seal, Thatcher Rock

There has been a single window of opportunity for an offshore paddle during the last couple of weeks, lasting only a few hours and early in the morning. The Cornish Riviera at Mevagissey was my destination and I was very pleased to see half-a-dozen Porpoises and a little pod of four Common Dolphins.

Way beyond my expectations on a choppy day.

As usual a couple of adults came over to assess the threat I posed to the juvenile that they were escorting. Fortunately I was quickly deemed to be safe and they carried on feeding close to the kayak. I sometimes half-wish that they would hesitate for a split second before making up their minds, as if they had mistaken me for an impressive creature such as an Orca or a Great white. But they don’t. One glimpse and they have got me pigeonholed alongside floating logs and marine detritus.

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Gorran Haven Common Dolphin

 

 

 

 

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Common Dolphin and Tectona (sail-training ship)

For the next week or so the dolphins wont have to worry whether I am a Killer Whale or piece of flotsam, because I will not be out there in the strong wind. The weather is currently so poor and all other paddling venues so chopped-up, or with unfavourable tides, that the only suitable location is the good-old Bude Canal.

 

Summer in Full Swing

Oh dear. The traditional style of English summer seems to have had a bit of a revival.

 

At least the sea’s nice and warm.

Here’s a selection of pics and clips of all the sea and beach lovers doing their stuff around the coast of Devon and Cornwall, defying the uninspiring August weather. Despite gloom overhead nearly everyone I meet during my paddling expeditions is smiling and enthusiastic….it’s the magic of the sea.

And it’s not just people on holiday.

Pete the Teignmouth lobster fisherman is just as cheerful.

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Pete with a decent brace of Lobster

The Teignmouth seals are not fussed about the coasteerers (or their rosy language):

 

 

Many fishermen at Mevagissey  now take tourists for a spin around the bay:

 

 

 

 

 

How excellent is this?….

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Morning Swim/float, Gorran Haven

 

What on earth is the matter with the children on this beach? Have they no souls? They should be staring at this stunning locomotive with their jaws hanging open in awe and wonderment ( and maybe noting the number). But instead they are wandering about like zombies. They should be taught trainspotting at school.

 

 

 

 

 

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Paul, Teignmouth
Grand Hotel
Grand Hotel, Torquay
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Dogs, dogs, dogs.
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Babbacombe
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lunchtime tipplers
Gorran Haven
Gorran Haven
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Paul again
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Daphne du Maurier
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Fabulous Fowey

Just one class of boat makes me grind my teeth…..

 

Oh no, they’re coming back.

 

…….but everyone is essentially happy and smiling.

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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).

video:

 

 

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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