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……..
The South-east of England is very different to the South-west. People really do use personal trainers for a bit of fisticuffs in the park beside the river. I thought that only happened on the telly.
On an exceptionally warm and sunny day in early May Becky and I paddled the Tonbridge ‘circuit’ of the River Medway in Kent, setting off from the slipway at the edge of the swimming pool car park, and then paddled downstream as far as East Lock. I was going to go further and catch the train back to Tonbridge but it was such a pleasant day I didn’t fancy being cooped up with a load of sweaty people so we paddled back. More time under the lovely sun.
The wildlife was all about the birds, and birdsong. Additions to the Dawn Chorus list from my previous post were Whitethroat, Linnet, Turtle Dove (heard crooning but not seen), and the legendary song of the Nightingale (which we also didn’t see). I know it was some distance away and the notes were muffled by the density of the bush in which it lurked, but I personally think the Nightingale is hard-pushed as the nation’s number one songster by the Blackbird.
The tops of the bushes were surrounded by a blurr of those strange black flies with dangling legs that you always get at this time of year….St.Mark’s Flies. One was being squared up for a snack by this Whitethroat which was wanting to regain a bit of weight after burning off a load of blubber during its recent migration from Africa.
From a photographic perspective it was a bit of a pity that the river was still brown from the recent heavy rain, although the extraordinary yellowness of a field of rape did something to brighten things up.
The river is very kayak-friendly with all the locks having a ‘canoe pass’ which is a little water chute that prevents the need for a portage. Unfortunately for us all but one were closed due to high water levels, so we had to portage (which is always a bit of a drag).
By far the most entertaining bird encounter was a busy family of Grey Wagtails, with both parents struggling to satisfy the demands of their three recently fledged offspring that were loafing about amongst the waterside vegetation.
The mother brought in beakfuls of mayflies at an impressive rate and just about kept pace with the appetite of two youngsters, whereas the father seemed very inactive and struggled to feed the remaining fledgling. In fact he looked very fluffed-up and sick and I wouldn’t fancy his chances. Maybe this is not surprising given some of the plastic pollution in the river (although despite this picture the river was generally very clean).
The south-east of England is certainly a busy place….even the sky is congested:
But if you have a kayak and can find a little bit of water, you can escape the rush and enjoy your own little world of wildlife and wilderness.
At last, after nearly 20,000 miles on the paddling odometer, The Lone Kayaker has discovered the little red video button on his camera. Before now he has only pressed it by accident.
However in a supreme effort to extricate himself from the sort of era when voles ruled the planet, he is now video-enabled (love the jargon) so he can embed (there it is again) movies into his blog.
So now your favourite reading and viewing can be even more favouriter.
Here’s a handful of the older videos to get things started:
Common Dolphins off Fowey Aug 2016. A total and utter thrill, how could it ever be anything else?:
Otter on River Torridge 2016. A typically wet, ottery type day:
Slapton Porpoise 2017…..listen for the ‘piff ‘as it breathes. That is why they had the old name of ‘Puffing Pig’ in Newfoundland (they were called ‘Herring Hogs’ in England)
And finally, for the time-being, no apologies for a nod to the hundreds of hours I spent taking down train numbers on platform 4 of Reading station as a little lad. As the ancient Chinese proverb says “Once a trainspotter, always a trainspotter”. Actually it might not have been the Chinese, it might have been my friend Neil from the platform, but never mind.
Here’s the superb China Clay train at Fowey. Number 66 187,in case you want to put it in your little book. Just listen to those air brakes!
Note: these videos are taken with old cameras and of a dodgy quality……from now on they will be 4K quality. Not sure what that is but they are going to be pretty pin sharp!
I really like Porpoises, and have named both my inflatable kayaks after their Newfoundland name ‘Puffing Pig’. Their Old English name of ‘Herring Hog’ is equally as offbeat and excellent, and in my view only adds to their personality.
I feel they are very much a speciality of kayaking, because the complete silence as you paddle along makes the characteristic ‘puff’ of a porpoise easy to hear. On a calm day it carries far over the water and is usually the first hint a porpoise is around. They are so unobtrusive and small that they must be hugely overlooked by people like me (and other observers in ‘normal’ boats) , but even so are by far the most common cetacean around the southwest coast and the one I encounter most regularly during offshore jaunts.
Gannet behaviour can also be a help if you are on the lookout for porpoises. All a wandering Gannet has to do is circle around just once, and more often than not there will be a porpoise fishing below. I know this may sound completely daft and exaggerated, but the last four times I have seen a hunting Gannet circle around while cruising in my kayak, there has been a Porpoise below (and presumably a few fish suitable for a Gannet snack).
Porpoises are very aloof and unlike most cetaceans are not inclined to come over to a kayak to investigate. They just carry on with going about their daily business. This makes porpoise photography quite challenging, and it is further complicated by their constant change of direction and only rare appearances of anything more than back and fin above the surface.
So up till now all my porpoise photos consist of a body and fin rolling at the surface. probably my best so far is this atmospheric-style arty-type shot.
So I was very pleased to be in the epicentre of a group of eight very busy and active porpoises in perfect calm conditions off Berry Head with the early morning April sun behind me. Absolutely excellent, all the more so because calm offshore conditions are so rare. And at last a photo of a porpoise’s head and eye (which actually looks a bit weird without a dolphin’s ‘beak’). Definitely my best porpoise image yet.
There were similar sort of conditions in Falmouth Bay a few days later, very flukey because the light winds were right in the centre of a low pressure system. I half expected to see dolphins (or possibly a whale) because viewing conditions were so good, but had to settle for half a dozen porpoises instead. Not too much of a hardship.
thelonekayaker I may be, but it’s always more fun with family and friends. Here’s a gallery of my fellow paddlers for the year. Most, like me, love every minute of it. Only one said “that’s the most frightening thing I have ever done!”
Chum of the year award must go to Mike Scheu who is used to the more predictable, and almost always sunny, weather conditions of his hometown of Flagstaff, Arizona. Yet he still claimed to enjoy the two or three hours we spent battling rain and winds on one mid September afternoon.
When no Homo Sapiens are available to join me for a paddle, I have to settle on this sort of thing for company…….