Awesome Humpback

It’s Seawatch National Whale and Dolphin Watch this week, and I was keen to match, or improve upon,  my last year’s total of 96 (80 Common Dolphins and 16 Porpoises).

Two days of windless conditions were forecast so I was well fired-up for a couple of big offshore trips. Early starts, of course, early is always better.

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Veryan Bay

On the first day I paddled 22 miles round Veryan and Gerrans bay to the east of the Roseland peninsular. Normally I would have been thrilled with the forty porpoises I saw, with a lot more heard puffing but not seen, but when I practically leapt out of my kayak seat as a whale surfaced and breathed behind me, but I never actually saw it, I was a little deflated.

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Veryan Bay Porpoises

At least I had the consolation of my first Ocean Sunfish of the year…..

 

 

 

 

 

and a reluctant to be photographed Red-necked Grebe in breeding plumage.

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Red-necked Grebe

I was absolutely focused on trying to see a whale on Day 2. I haven’t yet seen one for certain this year despite two close encounters. My plan was a trip to the Eddystone but when I checked the wind forecast before I left the house (at 4.30am) Mount’s Bay looked the best bet…more or less smooth all day. So off I went to Penzance.

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Dawn Patrol at Penzance

I was on the water just after sunrise and the sea was like a pond. No wind, no chop, no swell. Absolutely perfect. Any fin or disturbance at the surface for up to half-a-mile away I was going to see. Although the best guide were the Gannets. They only have to circle round once to make me paddle over to check for porpoises, or even better, dolphins.

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Roving Gannets

First up were a couple of porpoises, a mother and a calf. Always great to see as they go about their business in an unobtrusive manner, and a speciality to see from a kayak because their loud puff can be heard from quite a distance as you slide along in complete silence. Any sort of engine noise would drown them out (so to speak).

 

 

 

 

 

Fantastic….. there were slightly bigger fins ahead. A little pod of Common Dolphins, including a couple of youngsters. Then a couple more small groups of about half-a-dozen.My Seawatch survey was gathering pace.

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Common Dolphins in front of Mousehole

I kept two to three miles offshore after Mousehole as I was hoping for the big stuff, and sea conditions were exceptionally relaxing. It was still and sunny and I was beginning to regret wearing wetsuit trousers….humidity overload!

Just after Lamorna the sea was suddenly boiling with life. The surface was stippled with shoals of little fish which covered areas the size of tennis courts, all over the place. I found myself in the middle of several compact shoals and I could see through the crystal clear water that they looked like sandeels.

Manx Shearwaters hunted the eels by diving from the surface, and some little posses loafed about at the surface doing a bit of preening.

 

 

 

 

 

Just listening was extraordinary. There was the puff of porpoises everywhere, the thoomph of diving Gannets, and the splash of shearwaters. Then an almighty, powerful slashing, splash right in front of me that can only have been a Giant Tuna, although I never saw the fish. It must have been way bigger than a Common Dolphin. Blooming heck.

I was drifting past Tater Du lighthouse, two miles offshore. I knew that it was a very big Spring tide today and the current was up to two miles per hour dragging down towards Land’s End. I already had an eight mile paddle back to Penzance, and with my cruising speed of three miles per hour, it could be a long paddle back. Especially after yesterday’s twenty plus miles.

Any sort of wind would have chopped the surface up significantly and I would have turned back, and I would have missed what was coming next. It was however completely still….the perfect un-storm.

Then I heard what sounded like an extended breath, but far far away. Could have been a prolonged tuna splash, but I hoped it was a whales breath. I sat and had a cup of coffee and a think about what to do, and listened. There it was again. Then nothing more. I turned to head back to Penzance but just couldn’t drag myself away. I was just about to start paddling when I heard the breathy noise again, and then another in a different place. So can’t have been a whale…..unless there were two!

Total excitement overload, I couldn’t resist it. I was off in pursuit.

Half-a-mile ahead a great grey bulk emerged from the water and disappeared in a huge splash. What?!? Must have been a lunge-feeding Minke Whale…wow.

I powered on and I saw a whale’s blow! So no Minke because they don’t show a blow, so even more amazing.

By coincidence Duncan and Hannah Jones from Marine Discovery had just arrived in Shearwater II to watch the action, having also seen the whale’s splashes from afar.

I stopped and waited and the whale came a bit closer. This is my first decent sight and it is heading directly towards me. You can hear my shaky excitement breath…must get my heart checked out some time.

 

 

 

 

 

It was a blinking Humpback!

Then the REAL excitement started. It lunged at a patch of sandeels close by and I started the video. As I waited for it to surface a dark patch of sandeels came steadily closer , which was a bit (in retrospect, VERY) worrying. I could clearly see two large patches of sandeels at the surface, and I was sitting right in the middle of one of them.I knew the whale was about to engulf one of the shoals so when the sandeels started to leap out of the water all around me I peered down into the water to see if the whale was on the way up! You can see in the video I hang a leg over the side o the kayak to provide a bit more stability in case of a tidal wave, (and hear me catch my breath). Unfortunately the whale chose the other shoal.

 

 

 

 

 

How can this be happening just off the coast of Cornwall? I would have pinched myself if there had been a gap in the action.

Next up it lunged directly towards me.

 

 

 

 

 

Unbelievably a Minke Whale then appeared on the scene, right beside Shearwater II. My closest and best ever view of a Minke, and what I was really hoping to see today, but it was a sideshow compared to the Humpback. At one stage they both surfaced together in the same eyeball-bite.

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Minke Whale

 

 

 

 

 

It was then time for a bit of fin-slapping. Yes, that white thing is the Humpback’s pectoral fin.

 

 

 

 

 

Next a pod of about ten Common Dolphins appeared on the scene and shadowed the whale in search of an easy bite. The whale played up to the crowd.

 

 

 

 

 

The last time I saw a Humpback (a couple of years ago in South Devon) I was a bit disappointed not to capture the classic image of the tail flukes coming up when the whale does a deep dive. That was corrected today…big time:

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Flukes in front of Porthcurno
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Humpback flukes and Porthcurno

and how convenient, it dived with legendary St. Michael’s Mount as a backdrop.

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Humpback in front of St. Michael’s Mount

I was getting a bit twitchy as I had now drifted as far as Porthcurno, and the current was only going to get stronger in the build-up to Gwennap Head. Four hour paddle back, hope they havn’t run out of Raspberry Flake McFlurries at MacDonalds.

So the humpback put on its final display, Common Dolphins as a support act.

 

 

 

 

 

Lots of superlatives today. Not least that I saw four species of cetacean within half an hour (Humpback, Minke, Common Dolphin, Porpoise). Last year it was only three species. And a Giant Bluefin Tuna leapt clean out of the water right in front of me as I was just starting to paddle back.

And today’s total was 1 Humpback, 1 Minke, 36 Common Dolphins, 25 porpoise bringing my week’s total and contribution to National whale and dolphin watch to 105 individual cetaceans.

Phew. Wow, Blinking Heck.

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Blow

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gulp 6

gulp 8

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Oh, I forgot about the other stuff like scenery……P1350361

£3 Billion Boat

Destination Eddystone, but I didn’t get there. I set off from Cawsand in thick mist, so followed the coast round to Rame Head to review my plans, hoping the visiblity would clear. It did, but only slowly, as I breakfasted on the tiny beach.

A big gnarled old bull seal watched me munch.

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Bull Grey Seal

It had a huge scar on its back which must have been a very nasty injury when it happened, probably from a boat propeller.

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Ouch

As the murk cleared a great grey shape merged out of the mist. HMS Queen Elizabeth.

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Queen Elizabeth Aircraft Carrier

I opted not to paddle all the way out to Eddystone, but craftily reconfigured my route to include a close pass of the mighty ship. I paddled five miles offshore to the Halfway Reef marker buoy to check out the offshore wildlife scene. It was still a bit disappointing with hardly a Gannet to be seen, no fins and only a handful of shearwaters and a single Bonxie to liven things up.

The most interesting creature was floating motionless on the surface, four miles from the shore. A Painted Lady butterfly which had clearly failed to make the crossing from France. I scooped it up and to my astonishment it was still alive.

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Lucky Painted Lady

It spent a couple of hours drying out on my deck and then (amazingly) it flew on its way. About a dozen of its compatriates flew past during the morning, miles out to sea. Remarkable because it was a cloudy morning, and also because I know that this little army of winged invaders started their journey in the deserts of the Middle East earlier in the year…..because I saw them there, in their thousands. They swarm northwards and  a few months later they (or their immediate offspring) are flying across the English channel to arrive in the UK, providing the weather conditions are favourable. Hopefully these immigrants will give rise to a good number of offspring which will be flitting round our gardens in six week’s time.

My focus then shifted from back from wildlife to hardware.

I looped around the Half-Way Buoy and headed east to slingshot around the Mew Stone, swinging back west towards the carrier that was at anchor outside Plymouth breakwater.

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HMS Queen Elizabeth and Rame Head

 

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HMS Queen Elizabeth   

My approach precipitated an interception by the prowling police launch. I don’t think the Merlin helicopter was scrambled as my presence was detected, it just happened to be going for a bit of a jaunt as I passed.

As I completed the final leg of my 22 mile paddle back to Cawsand the helicopters continued to buzz.

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And even as I trolleyed my kayak back up the ramp at Cawsand, the hefty ship completely dominated the view.

 

 

Stream in the Sky

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Pontcysyllite aqueduct

We were venturing to the other side of Offa’s Dyke to attend Guy and Lynn’s wedding, so decided to check out the Llangollen canal the day before. It had qualified for Unesco World Heritage status so must be worth a visit, and from a kayaking point of view the lure of paddling over the highest aqueduct in the world was hard to resist.

All the local rivers were in flood anyway so there wasn’t a lot of option.

We started off at Chirk, which is actually in England.

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LLangollen canal at Chirk

Becky walked as I paddled along. Fortunately our cruising speeds were just about the same. It was all pleasantly scenic and quiet and peaceful, and very green.

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Llangollen canal at Chirk

First up, on the remarkable feats of canal engineering, was the Chirk aqueduct, which at only seventy foot high was trifling compared to what was to come.

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Chirk aqueduct and Railway viaduct

 

Chirk tunnel followed immediately after the aqueduct. 460 yards long and a bit creepy in the middle where it is so dark you can’t even see your paddle.chirk tunnel.jpg

Although I had a pathetic little torch I wouldn’t trust a narrowboat entering the other end to notice it. Fortunately one didn’t appear.

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Tunnel exit

Not surprisingly because of all the boat activity wildlife was a bit thin on the ground today, but it was great to see several families of Mandarin duck on the canal.

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Mandarin duck

My timing for the passage past a swing bridge was perfect because a narrowboat was approaching and a very cheerful Canadian gentleman was working the hand winch.

 

The increasing number of sightseers bulging out of the canal boats hinted that something remarkable was just around the corner.P1320173

Of course they would all have preferred to be travelling by kayak, or at least that’s what they said.20190613_102540

It was time for the BIG viaduct. Pontcysyllite…..the Stream in the Sky. With less than a foot of parapet to protect you from a 126 foot drop it is not for the faint-hearted. Peering over giddy ledges usually makes my head spin but if I’m sitting in the seat of a kayak it doesn’t seem to be a problem. And if  Thomas Telford’s creation had stood firm without losing a drop of water for 214 years then it was probable it would see me to the other side and back (twice, because I couldn’t resist going over it again).20190613_103415P1320283

 

 

 

The canal somehow managed to maintain a very high level of visual appeal over the next five miles to Llangollen.

Sweeping through green fields,

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past a cliffy bit,

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and through neatly pruned gardens. As a bonus at one stage the sun almost threatened to come out, but then it started drizzling again.

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We stopped for lunch at Llangollen wharf and consumed tuna and sweetcorn sandwiches. Unfortunately they were a bit fizzy because I had made them yesterday morning before we left Devon.

The canal side was busy with tourists spilling out of the town for a boat trip. Both conventional and horse-drawn were on offer.

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Llangollen wharf
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Horse drawn canal boat

Following refuelling ( on the high octane sandwiches) the nine mile paddle back was relatively easy for me because there was a significant flow of water in the canal, but not so easy for Becky because the towpath remained motionless.

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and the afternoon swelled the number of visitors to the viaduct, many of whom were more interested in phone screens than the staggering view or mindboggling feat of engineering.P1320247

Time for one last sweep of the Gopro to take in the dizzying height.

 

For the final four miles to Chirk I was sucked along in the wake of a narrowboat. 20190613_104320

 

 

 

 

Blinking Cold

Blooming heck. It was warmer in February! Relentless rain and cold is not only hard work for a kayaker who was looking forward to easing in to a nicely ironed (Joke) pair of swimming shorts, it is also very bad news for nesting birds. The Sand Martins and Kingfishers that I saw beside the river Wye a couple of weeks ago will have had their nest holes flooded by the exceptionally high water  levels.

This little family of Mallard can at least find their own food as they paddle along, but they are very vulnerable to the cold and wet. They definitely know the best pace to avoid the rain, although getting there isn’t so straightforward.

 

Further down the Fowey estuary I witnessed what was nearly a family catastrophe as a mother Mallard was leading her brood down to the water for the first time. The nest had been in the foliage at the top of the bank, far above high tide level. An opportunist crow had spotted the posse and was looking to take advantage of their exposure as they made for the (relative) safety of the water. Only the awareness and courage of the mother saves the duckling that ends up momentarily floundering on its back, which the crow was just about to whisk away.

 

On this particular day I nosed out of the estuary for a good look at the open sea, but once again their didn’t seem to be a lot going on so I reverted to watching the wildlife of the creek. Even Lantic Bay beach, one of the best strands in Cornwall, didn’t look particularly welcoming. It was steely and grey. Not only did it look cold, it WAS cold.

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Lantic Bay

Back up the estuary Herons were doing their thing:

 

and I got the impression that this Gull had ‘dealt’ with crabs of this size before. It avoids the (very large) claws and knows how to flip the crab over to expose the underside before hammering it with its beak.

 

The rain has eased and the temperature is getting back to where it should be for mid June. Time to get moving…..

 

 

Jelly, Babies

 

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Above the surface the open sea remains very quiet with hardly a circling Gannet in sight. There are just a few Guillemots, which nest on the local cliffs,  sitting about doing a bit of fishing.  They are sometimes very inquisitive about kayaks and paddle right up close for a bit of a look.

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Guillemot

This one all but climbed in my kayak. So close you can see the refection of me (plus boat) in its eyeball!P1300308-1

Below the surface it’s a different story, with large numbers of Barrel Jellyfish still wafting about, concentrating along the tidelines. They always give me a bit of a start when they are close to the surface because not only are they a bit ghostly but they are very BIG.

 

 

The marine wildlife has been so thin on the ground I have even had to resort to looking at the scenery, like a normal person. Tough.

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Gorran Haven
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St. Michael’s Mount

Along the shore I came across an ornithological treat near Marazion….this little pack of Sanderlings, rushing in and out with the waves, which is what Sanderlings do. You can see why; this one has just caught a snack-sized sand shrimp exposed by the waves:

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Sanderling with Shrimp

This is them in action:

 

 

These Sanderlings were sporting a variety of colours because they were in transit from grey winter plumage to very smart buff breeding plumage. Although you might think it was getting a bit late in the season for this, they nest above the arctic circle so are not in any particular rush because their nesting area is still probably frozen solid.

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Sanderlings (and Dunlin, back left))

Although these little birds are only on the cusp of smartening themselves up for the breeding season in the land of the summer sun, birds local to Devon and Cornwall are in full swing.

I did a bit of a double-take when I saw this Shelduck on the river Torridge. I assumed it was an adult because it could fly well and had classic Shelduck plumage apart from a bit of a white face, although it was significantly smaller than its parent.

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Shelduck adult and juvenile

It must have been this year’s chick and a combination of cunning sleuth and smart mathematical calculation (incubation is 28 days and the young fly at 45 days) would suggest that it was the abnormally mild weather in late February that prompted the duck to lay her eggs three months earlier than usual.

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juv Shelduck

 

A more seasonal brood of Shelduck was a bit further upstream:

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Shelduck family

All along the coast as well New life is bursting forth. These are the first Herring gull chicks I have seen this year.

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Herring Gull Family

And nearby the nestling Shags are swaying about in the nest in a very reptilian way.

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Family Shag

 

 

Similar to the Shag the parent Canada Goose has a ‘yellow alert’ warning to its offspring (and me) when they perceive I am a bit close for comfort. The Goose does a bit of head-bobbing as well.

 

The youngsters don’t tend to take much notice of their parents (not a surprise) and anyway I always back away because it is unfair to worry them.

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Unphased goslings
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Large and Little

The Swans on the Torridge are still sitting on eggs. Although swans on the water cut a classic image of grace, elegance, and whiteness, they are quite cumbersome when on land. And a bit clumsy…this one makes a bit of a horlicks of the housework and actually falls out of the nest. The husband, no doubt.

 

The breeding cycle for birds is challenged by problems and threatened by danger from start to finish. These Housemartins from Bideford, like the ones down at Looe, have been forced to use estuarine mud to build their nests because there is no freshwater alternative as all the puddles have dried up due to lack of rain. I have never seen them using this source before, and hope the salty mud from brackish water is a good enough building brick.

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Housemartin plus nest material

Lovely to see, but suddenly the whole lot took off at speed amid a clamour of trilling alarm notes as a Hobby falcon (which catch and eat Housemartins) raked overhead.

 

Life as a family of Mallard isn’t all fun and games either, as both mother and newly-hatched ducklings seem to attract unwanted attention. This little posse are lucky not to end up as dinner for a crow as they are left exposed when their mother is nearly mugged by a group of lairy males, and takes a while to get back to protect them.

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You can clearly hear (and see) the angst from Mrs.Mallard as the family are pursued by unwanted suitors, and the casual-looking crow on the bank which is thinking of a duckling-sized lunch.

 

The drakes force the mother to leave the little family vulnerable to attack from the prowling corvid.

 

 

Fortunately she soon returned and managed to guide them away from the aggressors and they found somewhere to chillax and process in the Spring sunshine. Happy ending. Phew.

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Everywhere you look is a baby bird-fest at the minute. And drifting along in complete unobtrusive silence in a kayak is the best way to enjoy it.

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Robin plus fledgling (photo taken from kayak, of course)

 

 

 

 

Start and Prawle Point

These two exposed headlands on the south Devon coast spend much of their time being battered by wind and waves, so are no-go to kayaks for long periods.

Our convoy of five, Dave, Simon, Richard, Martin and myself, chose our day carefully, and although we knew it would be almost windless all day we hadn’t expected 100% sunshine as well.

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Richard, Dave, Martin and Simon

We set off from the ghost village of Hallsands and were soon being zipped around the tip of Start Point by the ebbing tide, which was more like paddling in a river.

This is a great place for a kayaker and has a wild and remote feel about it. Because it is.

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Start Point

A handful of seals watched us paddle past and they gave the impression that they don’t come across many kayaks.

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Start Point Grey Seal

I was not surprised to see seals but I was taken aback when I saw three tiny newly-hatched Shelduck chicks bobbing about along the open coast just half-a-mile past the point. Tiny little balls of fluff in a BIG BIG place. Probably the most exposed spot in the whole of Devon….most Shelducks nest up a sheltered estuary which would seem like a more sensible place to me.

Their  parents were around but very spooky which is typical of all Shelduck. They are over-wary of people.

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Shelduck chicks

The section of coast along to Prawle is excellent, with some great cliffy bits interspersed with sandy beaches.

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Martin in his Nordkapp
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Rockhopping
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Dramatic stuff (including the skyscape)

Prawle Point is Devon’s most southerly bit of land and we could feel the binoculared eyeballs of the coastwatch volunteers in their little hut at the top of the cliff staring down at us. I hope they were impressed with our professional paddling style and olympic rate of progress, and not hovering their fingers over the speeddial button for the helicopter.

Prawle Point
Prawle Point

Macely Cove was the perfect place to stop for lunch. It was about as idyllic as it could possibly have been for the middle of May.

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We swung into the entrance of the Kingsbridge estuary just as the incoming tide was kicking in…perfect. We just HAD to stop for an icecream to celebrate. There were (quite) a few raised eyebrows as we slapped along the narrow streets in full kayaking gear, brushing past designer fashion and wafts of hairspray (or whatever the fancy smell was). It reinforced my plan to give my drysuit a bit of a rinse out anyway, which I have been meaning to do since Christmas.

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Salcombe

It was a leisurely lope up the flat waters of the estuary to Kingsbridge. The Shags seemed used to a lot of boat traffic and didn’t bat an eyelid as we slipped past:

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Relaxed-looking Shag

Our arrival at the slipway at Kingsbridge after a fifteen mile paddle was likewise timed to perfection, just as the water was covering the shoe-slurping mud. Just a case of a taxi ride back to Hallsands to get the cars.

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Arrival in Kingsbridge

 

 

Dart at Dawn

I was keen to see whether the (not so common) harbour seals were still present in the Dart estuary, and because I wanted to catch a ride on the tide I had to set off just after dawn. It was finger-numbing chilly and visibility for seal-spotting wasn’t great (and it was blinking early) :

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Early on the Dart

I heard the snort of a seal behind me but could see nothing but murk. As the sun rose the mist slowly thinned and the birdsong started to kick in. Loudest was the explosive short sequence of a Cetti’s warbler, which have only spread across the UK in the last twenty years or so.

After a couple of hours the sun eventually broke through and I slid across the glassy surface as I approached Dittisham and the most scenic part of the estuary. The narrower estuary makes the water a bit more active as the tide squeezes through, so this is a popular place for seals. Incidentally, the appalling creaking noise during this video is my drysuit as I pan the camera….apologies. I know it doesn’t really enhance the tranquility.

A seal popped up and I was very pleased to see it had the dished face of a Harbour (alias Common) seal. I just managed to get a snap before it disappeared for good. Harbour seals don’t seem to be as inquisitive as the usual Grey seals around here.

Harbour Seal
Harbour seal

I felt I had to ‘do’ the touristy side of Dartmouth as I waited for the tide to turn. From the kayak seat, of course.

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Dartmouth ferry
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Dartmouth Naval College
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Dartmouth sailing barge

The ten mile paddle back was peaceful and uneventful. For the last couple of miles I just about kept pace with a bull Grey seal who was clearly on a mission to get to the head of the estuary for high tide. Perhaps it had a penchant for Grey Mullet. I was paddling at fast cruising speed (4mph) and the seal came up for a breath every three minutes (or so) a hundred yards in front of me. It certainly covered the ground (water).

This is a good comparison pic of the Grey seal compared to the Harbour Seal. The Grey is much bigger ( so looks chunkier) and has that Roman nose which is more or less a straight line from its forehead to its nostrils. And the clincher is that those nostrils are almost vertical compared to the harbour seals whose air intakes are at 45 degrees.

Bull grey seal
Bull grey seal

One more pic of today….. a swan with a couple of admirers.

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