I was looking forward to a nice relaxed paddle around the sheltered waters of Poole Harbour as I hadn’t ‘done’ the islands for many years.
Even better the wind was forecast very light, but by the time I got on the water my fingers had been nipped by the breeze straight out of the north, so the gloves went on.
The sun arose hopefully behind the Sandbanks ferry but then disappeared behind a sheet of cloud.
I crossed the channel to the south side of Brownsea island which was supper-sheltered from the wind.
I looked hard for a Red Squirrel (which I have seen once as I paddled past here, long ago), but the movement that caught my eye turned out to be a herd of five Sika Deer, who seemed so surprised to see me slipping past in the early morning mid-January half-light, they couldn’t resist coming a bit closer for a good snoop.
Lovely to see them so close. Like seals, it doesn’t seem to have taken them many years to lose their fear of people when they don’t appear in the sights of a rifle as often as they used to. (seals are now completely protected, deer are culled in a specific season).
I did a figure of eight loop around Fursey Island and Green Island, with the top of a big spring tide allowing to get in good and close. At low tide there is an awful lot of mud exposed. I could hardly believe the industrial hum coming from the middle of the pine trees on Fursey Island was an oil well. It was staggeringly well concealed.
Then I crossed over to paddle round the back of Round Island and Long Island via the Wych Channel. A drake Red-Breasted Merganser was fishing here.
I kept well out from the mouth of Arne bay beacause I knew it would be stuffed full of resting birds (because it is an RSPB reserve), but was surprised to see a splurge
of white was a roosting flock of about thirty Spoonbills. These birds were an extreme rarity until very recently.
As I crossed the mile and-a-half of open water back to Brownsea the surface glassed of completely.
A piping posse of Oystercatchers performed a close fly-past.
I looped right around the eastern end of Brownsea island but instead of crossing back to my start point couldn’t resist another paddle up the flat calm water of the island’s southern shore.
This time I had a close encounter with a pair of Brent Geese, winter visitors from the arctic Tundra. Their chattering contact call is the soundtrack of the winter around here.
So it was worth the extra effort, but was then it was DEFINITELY time for lunch (and my toes were starting to freeze).
The deer could carry on doing their thing without worrying about what on earth the idiot in the little yellow boat was up to. They had that look in their eye.
It was another cold and windy day so a river trip was really the only possibility for kayaking. I hadn’t paddled the Taw for a year or two because it is not quite as scenic as the Rivers Torridge and Tamar, and it’s a bit further away.
However the incredible convenience of being able to get back to your starting point by catching a Tarka Line train is a huge plus point for paddling the River Taw. Leaving a car at either end is much more of a logistics nightmare than you would ever imagine and it’s amazing how often essential items such as roofrack straps and car keys end up in the wrong place. I seem to remember long ago that we once arrived at our destination and all our cars were at the other end.
It’s even more convenient if you are using an inflatable kayak which can fold up into a rucksack and be carried on your back. The only downside is the suspicious and sometimes disapproving looks from fellow train passengers if you are still dripping.
My Gumotex Safari inflatable kayak was soon inflated and ready to go beside the River Taw at Eggesford, just as the sun was peeping up. It was only just above freezing and the water level was worryingly low so I was prepared for a bit of a bumpy trip. The river here is really quite small but what it lacked in depth it made up for in the clarity of the water. It’s never quite so much fun paddling muddy brown rivers after rain.
Paddling off I was immediately absorbed in the mini-wilderness of the river and its wooded banks, with the berry bushes being picked clean by all five species of British Thrush….the resident Blackbirds, Song and Mistle Thrushes, and their cousins visiting from Scandinavia…Redwings (with their characteristic high-pitched whistle) and Fieldfares (with their trademark chatter).
More scenic stuff:
My tracking fin constantly bumped over the rocks but I only had to get out to drag the kayak once. About a mile below Eggesford is a small weir which I could easily have ‘shot’ but because it was cold and I didn’t want to get my kit (especially camera) wet, so I opted for a portage.
The Little Dart River converges from the right and helps the flow a bit, but not a lot. Weir number two is not shootable and quite a tricky one to portage, but the flow was light enough for me to carry the kayak over the face of the weir.
After a couple of hours and about six miles below Eggesford is the confluence with the (even clearer) River Mole, which today had more water flowing in it than the Taw itself.
From now on it’s a relaxing paddle as you don’t have to spend so much time picking a line through the riffles to avoid bottoming out. So there is more time to admire the excellent wildlife, and a speciality of the River Taw is the superb Dipper, because there seem to be more of this busy little waterbird along its banks than any other river I have paddled. Dippers are always on the move, either bobbing on a branch on the bank or stone in midstream, flying past with their ‘jink’ call-note, or singing an astonishingly tuneful (and loud) song to a nearby mate. Even on a cold November day like today I heard this song three or four times. It surprises me it never ‘rates’ in the best of British Bird song.
Dippers are moderately shy so very difficult to photograph from a kayak, but here’s my best effort of the day.
On several occasions today I saw a Dipper swimming out in midstream like a miniature duck, diving down to hunt for caddisfly larvae (or whatever) with the adeptness of a grebe. Take a look at this (pretty rubbish)video:
I ate lunch while drifting along because I can never find a place on the bank as comfortable as the seat of my Gumotex Safari. This is, incidentally, another huge advantage of an inflatable. The days of struggling between rest stops to ease an aching (or numb) backside are, as far as I am concerned, over.
For my after-lunch calorie boost I was thrilled to have rediscovered Raisin and Biscuit Yorkies in my local Co-op. I thought they had been discontinued and gone the way of Aztec bars and Frys Five Centres. Even better, they come as duos. Best lunch break ever!
The Taw excecutes a scenic sweep beneath a pinewood before the run in to Umberleigh:
The bridge at Umberleigh is 13.6 miles from Eggesford. As with all river paddles where to get out is a problem. There are an awful lot of ‘private, no entry’ signs around, and piles of discarded brushwood placed apparently to discourage kayakers. I can sort of see the point from a private landowners point of view…they don’t want lorry loads of kayakers tramping across their land and they might be liable if their was an injury.
Anyway, I succeeded in getting out and avoided any ‘scenes’. Next stop…the station only a few hundred yards away. Good planning!
It’s good to see Umberleigh station car park making full use of its large acreage with a bit of diversification:
I hopped on the Exeter bound clicketty-clack train,
and a short while later (and £4.20 less well off) , hopped off at Eggesford.
Four and-a-half hours down by kayak, sixteen minutes by train back up. Fab, as always.
I’m starting to head back up the creeks now the open sea is becoming more disturbed with autumn storms not far away.
I had actually planned an offshore trip out of Fowey but when I nosed my kayak out of the mouth of the estuary I didn’t like the look of the surface which was more chopped up than I thought it would be by combination of moderate swell and light wind. I knew I could be paddling up the estuary on glass-calm waters and have guaranteed enjoyment, so turned round and did precisely that.
Penquite quay, Fowey
As usual I was soon completely absorbed in the sensurround sound of calling flocks of small birds in the waterside trees, and waterbirds scattered about on the banks and in the water. Sensurround sight as well, of course.
Quite a few Little Grebes had arrived for the winter.
My friend Alan Hornall from platform 4 at Reading Station used to say ” Once a trainspotter always a trainspotter” and although I dislike these kind of snappy convenience phrases, I think he might have been right. You just can’t shake it off.
Whenever I glimpse a thundering locomotive it causes my head to turn whether I want it to or not, and yes, I always see if I can get the number. Extraordinary I know, but having spent thousands of hours watching trains and recording their identification when I was a little lad , it’s ingrained in my DNA.
I’m not quite sure why being a trainspotter is supposed to be so embarrassing. Our black plastic shoes we used to wear were cutting edge at the time because plastic had only just been developed, and I’m pretty sure we invented the lunch box. There was no better sight than parkas and ankle-swingers flapping and billowing in the draught created by a passing train…..they were like sails in an autumn breeze. There was no greater camaraderie than a cluster of eager spotters huddled at the end of a platform, straining eyes to be the first to spot the rare loco appear through the heat haze, and diesel fumes, when it first came into view around the corner past the gasworks.
Just to prove my credentials, here’s my Loco Log Books ( and a trainspotting platform ticket) dating back to 1967:
Even though I used to be more of a diesel locomotive enthusiast, the Flying Scotsman coming to Devon and Cornwall was a temptation I could not resist. Of course I had to observe it from the comfort of a kayak seat and established that the sheltered waters of the Teign estuary would suit the bill nicely in terms of a steady platform for photography and nice long view.
As usual I arrived far too early but while twiddling my thumbs waiting on the water I was treated to a couple of diesel locos, one of which was probably as old as I was. It was just like old times. Amazing, as I thought that this type had been scrapped ages ago. I’m sure they struggle to pass emissions tests.
A couple of minutes before the ‘Scotsman’ appeared, one of its (relatively) modern counterparts, the (iconic) 125, swept past.
The shore was dotted with very excited ‘Scotsman’ watchers. A photographer within talking distance of me had driven all the way down from Yorkshire to see it. He was thrilled when the sun emerged from behind a cloud just before the train was due as the light would have been absolutely perfect, but unfortunately the sunlight had disappeared again when the smoke of the engines appeared above the distant houses of Teignmouth.
There was a prolonged, and much louder than I had expected, cheer from the scattered throng as the two steam engines appeared beside the water….The Flying Scotsman backed up by a ‘Black Five’ locomotive. Wow! What a sight!
A couple of days later the Scotsman ventured across the Royal Albert Bridge into Cornwall for the first time EVER.
On the Cornish shore Mr Brunel seemed to be standing (despite being cast of bronze) very tall and proud in anticipation of this legendary locomotive about to cross his 159 year old bridge for the very first time. And the number of people who had turned out to watch would have given him goose bumps.
Unfortunately for those observing from kayaks (er….it was actually only me) it was an appallingly cold day with savage northerly wind and rain and the only way I could get a steady platform for photography was by reversing my kayak up onto a mud bank.
Despite this, the Scotsman announced its arrival into Cornwall with gusto.
The steam engines are now gone so it’s back to a bit of wildlife watching in the wilderness, at least until the China Clay train rumbles into the docks at Fowey when I happen to be passing:
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.
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:
Back in the harbour everyone and everything was getting going. All very interesting, but the dolphins take the biscuit.
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……..