Top Tips for Top Pics

Watching and Photographing Wildlife from the Kayak Seat

P1200521-1
Kingfisher (taken from kayak…of course)

If you want the best front row seat in the stadium to see water-based wildlife, a kayak is what you need. It is not just exhilarating, fun and everybody’s favourite mode of transport. It is completely silent, very unobtrusive and offers the best perspective for observation and photography because you are sitting at water level.

Compare these two dolphin pics. The first is a Dusky Dolphin I took from the deck of a boat, the second is a Common Dolphin snapped from my kayak.

dusky d 3
Dusky Dolphin from boat
P1230061-1
Common dolphin from kayak

 

 

You can look right into the eye of the dolphin at the same level and get much more of a feel of their (big) personality and (considerable) charisma. Audio input isn’t confused by the noise of an engine…you can hear every puff, every splash and the full range of squeaks and clicks. Have a listen to this. Bottlenose Dolphins.

 

What Camera?

I carry around two cameras when I go out paddling. One is as simple as a camera can be and so fits in as well with my minimalistic approach to gadgets as it does in my lifejacket pocket.

Akaso V50 pro
Akaso V50 Pro and waterproof case.

It is an AKASO V50 PRO which is a cheaper version of the legendary GoPro sports camera. It is a point and shoot and delivers very acceptable stills and excellent 4K videos. It has a very wide angle lens so is great for scenery shots…..

20170130_052905
wide-angle Looe

and big wildlife up very close. When inside its waterproof case it is perfect for underwater stuff. Like this….

20191202_133236_Slomo_2
common dolphin

and this..

My previous underwater camera was not to be sneezed at either. It captured some great shots of this enormous Basking Shark as it cruised underneath my kayak. This was taken ten (gulp) years ago with an Olympus Tough compact camera. It was lucky I saw these when I did…a Basking Shark is now a rare sight.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
Basking Shark, Land’s End

 

My main camera is the superb PANASONIC LUMIX FZ2000. I have been using it for two and-a-half years, having upgraded from a couple of superzoom bridge cameras over the previous decade. The Lumix FZ2000 is also a bridge camera (so NOT a SLR) but gives a superior image quality to most others of similar design because it has a larger (1″) sensor.

yours truly and nudger
Panasonic Lumix FZ 2000

It has a 24-480 zoom lens so can skip in a couple of seconds from a decent wide angle for scenes and close, large creatures to a respectable telephoto shot of a bird. This is where it REALLY has the edge over a DSLR for me. To get the same range of focal length with a DSLR I would have to carry at least two lens, and changing lens while out on a kayak is really not easy. Worse still it takes time and spontaneity is the key when trying to photograph wildlife that spends most of its time underwater.

Also DSLRs are very heavy (although the very latest are much lighter), and more expensive than the LUMIX FZ2000. Yes, they give an image with better resolution but, in good light particularly, the bridge camera comes close.

Bude Guillemot
Guillemot, taken with Lumix FZ2000

I use the Lumix FZ2000 for videos as well. The quality is HD or 4k and it is great to be able to use the 20X zoom while videoing.

 

It is a really great camera and has recorded some memorable images. It has only two drawbacks, one major and one minor. The less important issue is that the lens cap doesn’t attach very firmly and keeps falling off when I put the camera in its bag, which is quite irritating when I am a bit tired.

The major issue is that the camera doesn’t have any weatherproofing at all. It is about as unwaterproof as it is possible to be. So it is pretty remarkable it is still going strong having accompanied me for over 5,000 miles. It’s vulnerability makes me all the more careful about looking after it, which I would have to do, but maybe not so diligently, with any camera.

Following my ‘keep it simple’ rule, the Lumix stays tucked away in a dry bag until I want to take a pic, when I bring it out and then put it straight away or sit it on my lap and hope it doesn’t fall overboard. Nothing more fancy than that…..no waterproof case or special mounting.

The trouble is, when I see something like an otter I am going to take a pic whatever the weather, and just hope it doesn’t wreck the camera. I always carry around a couple of sheets of kitchen towel in the drybag to wipe off a bit of drizzle. (I also use the kitchen towel to clean the lens…there is less likely to be a bit of sand in the paper than a fancy lens cleaning cloth from your grubby pocket.)

Taking this video, with no water protection for the camera, was really pushing my luck.

 

Camera Setup. A bit of technical stuff.

Simple, simple, simple is the way to go. And think ahead. I always have the Lumix set up so that I can whip it out of its drybag in super quick time, point and shoot. If you start fiddling about with settings you will probably be too late.

Water-based wildlife such as otters and dolphins do not hang around and are incredibly challenging to photograph from a kayak, quite apart from the constant threat of splashes from waves, the paddle or your permanently wet hands.

It’s essential you have your camera set up and ready for the conditions, all the time. Spontaneity is the key. It’ll be a long time before another pod of White-beaked Dolphins swims past.White-beaked Dolphins

The kayak is rarely still, especially when you are in the open sea so I use a minimum shutterspeed of one thousandth of a second. If it is sunny I will use 1/1300 which will freeze most dolphin splashes. For stills I always use burst, set at a medium rate because I can’t be bothered to search through too many images later. For videos, I just press the little red button. No other gadgets.

One useful tip I have recently learnt. On a bright overcast day the surface of the sea is white so the subject (e.g seabird/dolphin), will be dark. So I make an aperture adjustment and ‘stop it up’ one or two points. Beneath a dark river bank (e.g photographing an otter) the reverse is true and the subject will be too light, so I stop the aperture down a couple of pips. And I always do it before I set off because in the heat of the moment you forget, and miss that special shot.

This is a good example. I came across this Stoat trying to mesmerise these ducks, so it could est one for lunch, beside the river Fowey one gloomy November day, so the background was quite dark. If I had stopped the aperture down and been prepared, the stoat and the ducks would not have looked so pale.

I carry a spare battery and spare SD card in the dry bag….just in case.

Planning a Wildlife Kayak Trip. Watch the Weather, especially the Wind

If you want to have the best possible day out you have really got to know exactly what the tide, swell and wind are doing.

For tide I use tides4fishing website because you can see how big the tide is (tidal coefficient) and get a good overview of what is going on, on a single page.

Screenshot (62)

For swell I use Magic Seaweed surf forecast. This is really important, especially if you are planning a beach launch somewhere like the North Cornish coast. It’s a bit of a blow when you have chosen a dead calm, scorching hot day without a cloud in the sky, and you get completely flattened by a crashing six foot wave as you paddle out…..all because you didn’t check the surf forecast.

Wind is by far the most important factor, especially if you plan to paddle open coast or head offshore. I use two forecasts. The best (I think) is XCWeather. This gives a live wind reading and a very accurate wind and gust forecast, and you can hunt around the map to find the most sheltered spot. It’s a much better overview than if you only check out the forecast for one place. It’s very helpful to know , for example, whether the forecast slack winds are in the middle of a high, or low, pressure system. The light winds in the anticyclone are more reliable than those in the middle of a ‘Low’, especially when planning a few days ahead. Having said that, the XCWeather forecast is incredibly accurate, and if it is wrong it is because winds are lighter than forecast, such as the calm of early morning. This is not a problem!

Here’s today’s forecast on XCWeather. Looks absolutely perfect for offshore kayaking, hardly a breath of wind around Cornwall….grrrr!

Screenshot (63)

I also like to look at BBC Weather because it gives a good written summary of the day’s weather. Cloud increasing, wind falling light, feeling cold…that sort of thing. I have been caught out once or twice by a forecast of 100% cloud 9on other forecast sites) and not taken suncream, It turned out that the cloud was a layer of thin high cloud so the UV and heat was hardly tempered at all and I just about fried, or would have done had I not wrapped my vest around my head. The written forecast would have made all that clear.

P1010403
Extreme UV protection (so I got sunburnt shoulders instead)

The sea state reflects the wind gust speed rather than the mean wind speed, so it’s very important to know.

I am very wary about paddling offshore solo, although I enjoy it very much and if you want to maximise your chance of seeing porpoises, dolphins and maybe even a whale or a Leatherback, that’s what you’ve got to do. This Leatherback turtle was ten miles off Land’s End (en route back from Scilly), and the only one I have ever seen.

Leatherback turtle
My only Leatherback ever, it dived before I could get a photo at the surface.

I make sure I know EXACTLY what the tide is doing and which way the current is flowing (which doesn’t necessarily change at the same time as the tide, especially along the south coast and Land’s End), and EXACTLY what the swell and wind (including gusts) are forecast to do.

I aim to head out to sea only if the surface is like a lake. The maximum windspeed must not exceed five knots all day, or maybe just a bit more if it is going to be behind me on the way back. I find it no fun if there are any whitecaps, because photography becomes impossible with the movement of the kayak, and you are much less likely to see anything anyway because in choppy sea fins are much more difficult to spot.

whale 10
Minke Whale on a choppy grey day…marginal for offshore kayaking

Needless to say, the stronger the wind the more the risks increase.

Amongst my mass of safety equipment is my handheld Garmin GPS 72H. I have all the local headlands and ports plumbed in so I can see at a glance how far each one is away, and know how long it will take me to get there using the GPS speedometer. The speedo is very handy because it is easy to think you are making no headway at all when you are far offshore and a bit fatigued. Only once has this actually been the case ( and yes…it was a bit of a nasty shock); but there are actually only a few tidal currents around SW England which flow faster than cruising kayak speed. All off the most prominent headlands, or estuary mouths. Start Point, for example.

Start point
Start Point

Final Fling

1. Keep it simple, simple, simple. More clutter means less time on the water and more time looking down not up, and more to go wrong.

2. In the image, excitement factor rules over pixels. This pic of a lunging Humpback is a pathetic 174kb (a still from the video clip above) and would be laughed off court by the average camera buff (who wouldn’t consider putting out a photo with anything less than 10MB), but it was considered thrilling enough to get a half page spread in the Daily Mail.

daily mail
Daily Mail Whale Tale

3. Don’t take any notice of anything I have said. I am a kayaker who takes photographs, not a photographer. That would imply having a flair for art and being creative. I point, I shoot, and I hope for the best.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
Brock takes a dip

4. Get out there and do it.

Antarctica. A Fond Farewell.

20170116_123513

We had one more superb kayak trip through the misty stillness of Graham passage. Once again the silence was so intense that I kept doing the yawny thing to try to unblock my ears. There was just the occasional cheerful chatter of a passing Antarctic Tern, and the gentle splish of kayak paddles, to convince me that I hadn’t gone deaf overnight.

The snow covered rocky mountains gave way to full-blown ice walls every so often.

 

We were becoming a bit spoilt, because we were now EXPECTING to hear the blow of a whale cracking the quietness. This time the great blast came from very close to the cliff. I am still programmed to think that the whales will favour the deeper water in the middle of the channel, but here they seem quite at home close to the edge…..wherever there is food (krill) I suppose.

It was another pair of Humpbacks, mother and calf again I suspect.

 

Everything about Humpbacks is thrilling, especially their habit of throwing those enormous tail flukes up when they do a deep dive. It is a popular misconception that all whales do this, but in fact only a handful of species do (although they are the most well-known). Humpbacks and Sperm Whales.

These two gave us a great send-off with both throwing up their tails in a suitably snowy and icy Antarctic setting. We did glimpse another Humpback and a Minke whale as we were leaving a mini-beach after taking a break, but that was the last of the whales seen from the kayak seat. No complaints from me, we had seen as many in six days and forty-four miles of paddling, as I had seen in fifteen years and twenty-four thousand miles previously.

P1040241

The icebergs havn’t really had much of a mention yet….the hole in this one made a convenient perch for a prowling skua. Up to no good for certain (as usual).P1040270

Our last kayak trip was a circuit of Half-moon island. As usual the penguins just got on with their daily routine as the kayak flotilla slipped quietly past in the background.

The Weddell seals showed marginally more, but still only a passing, interest in us.

 

So that was it, our last paddle in Antarctica. It was time to get out on the pontoon at the back of the ship. The weather was suitably antarctic as a light snow started to fall.

It was farewell to the Chinstraps, the most characterful of the penguins..chinstrap 2

We watched the last of the snowy crags of Antarctica fading into the distance as the ship headed north and started to roll in the swell of the open sea of the fabled Drake passage. But there was no time to relax because Drake passage is chock full of marine marvels, including the most charismatic bird in the entire world (which just happens to have the longest wingspan as well)…the Wandering Albatross.

Here’s a pictorial summary of what we saw from the back of the ship during the two day crossing back to Ushuaia. No written commentary because it was not seen, or photographed, from a kayak.

sgp
Southern Giant petrel
P1040771
Black-browed Albatross

These next two are the ‘Great’ Albatrosses, with the greatest wingspan of any bird on the planet…..a mere 11-12ft.

Royal
Royal Albatross
wanderer
Wandering Albatross
Antipodean maybe 1
(possible) Antipodean Albatross
Antipodean maybe 2
(possible) Antipodean Albatross
Antipodean maybe 5
(possible) Antipodean Albatross
Antipodean maybe 4
(possible) Antipodean Albatross
Hourglass dolphins
Hourglass Dolphins
pilot whales
Pilot Whales
sei
Sei Whales

The Black-browed Albatrosses in Drake’s passage nicely demonstrated how they use even small waves (such as this, the bow wave generated by our ship) to ‘surf’ along.

A few final pics from Ushuaia and Iguazu (North Argentina/Brazil) on our way back north.

magellanic woodp
Magellanic Woodpecker

P1050276

P1050530

iguazu vultures
Black Vultures, Iguazu
P1050467
Toco Toucan
P1050684
Toco Toucan

We have arrived back in the UK and been battered by wind and rain ever since. The wettest and windiest February on record. So opportunities for kayaking have been few and far between, but there has been plenty of time to reflect on the enormity of our short time spent in the enormity of Antarctica.

Its size is indeed one of its superlatives. If the Antarctic continent was the size of your house, the three hundred miles we ventured into it wouldn’t get us much past the front doormat.

It is quite impressive that such a desolate place, without a hint of vegetation, could have stimulated our sensory centres so much that every kilo, mega and terabyte of capacity within our whirring craniums was stuffed to max capacity.

There’s so much we didn’t see that makes it even more remarkable. No litter, not a hint of any plastic pollution in the sea, and hardly any sign that humans exist, or have ever existed. The occasional other ship, one or two yachts, a few scientific bases and tumbledown whaling stations.

For me personally it was the whales that made it so very, very special. The huge tail rising far out of the water is jawdropping enough, but it is the blow that is the signature sound of the Antarctic. It perfectly complements the limitless vista of rock, snow, and ice. It is hard to believe that only half-a-century ago there were hardly any Humpbacks here, in fact during the previous fifty years the numbers got so low that they very, very nearly didn’t bounce back. The population was virtually annihilated when whaling stations were set up in the area in the early 1900s. They came as close to the brink as it is possible to get.

That made our close encounters even more thrilling. How fantastic is it that this pair of Humpbacks just swam round and round us (blowing an amazing THIRTEEN times on the video…and the hairs stand up on the back of my neck every time), obviously taking a look at us. You can see them slowing down and doing some tight turns to stay in amongst the group of three kayaks. Real gentle giants.

Whales are BIG in so many ways.

This is the standout clip. Taken from the kayak seat, of course.

Antarctica. The Sleeping Giants

 

The assault on the senses was relentless. The endless expanse of snow and rock, devoid of any vegetation, apart from the odd patch of pink algae, and the extraordinary silence. There are really no humans to mess it up (apart from on our ship), in fact no sign that humans have ever existed. There aren’t even any vapour trails in the sky. Antarctica is en route to nowhere.

OMG….there’s another ship! Claustrophobia.P1040027

Our ship, the Greg Mortimer, slipped silently to a halt deep inside a fjord flanked by hefty mountains and a lot of glaciers. We (I) were (was) bursting with excitement as we waited to get into our kayak.

greg mortimer
Greg Mortimer

This was precisely what I had been waiting for, and hoped the Antarctic would be like. Dead still, smooth sea, mountains and icebergs reflected in the water, total and utter remoteness and wildness as far as the eye could see. And still nothing far, far beyond, you could just tell that.

20170116_115256
On the water
20170115_202636
We’re off!

I always love paddling over glassy water because it is so effortless. But in this enormous place it is the silence that really makes it special. It definitely qualifies for a thumbs up (in this clip you can hear a penguin squawk and the slight ‘quip’ of a tern)

We soon got completely absorbed, and pleasantly lost, amongst the mass of floating ice.

P1040111
tabletop berg
geoff and tom
Geoff and Tom beneath a big berg

But it wasn’t completely quiet. There was the regular cheerful chatter of Antarctic terns, and intermittent cackle of Gentoo Penguins.

Every so often there was a seismic echoing boom coming from one of the surrounding ice sheets, as the entire face of the mountain inched closer towards the sea. As loud, and sounding very much like, thunder.

P1040019
Hefty hill

Icefall…..

Next tick on the bucket-list was a Snow Petrel. These completely white little gems live their entire lives down here and are never so happy as when they are carving about around an iceberg. I had really hoped to see one (but didn’t think I would).

snow petrel
Snow Petrel

We just kept on paddling. Today was the day. Not sure what of, but I had a feeling something big was going to happen.

On, on, and on. Looking, looking, always looking.

If you don’t look, you don’t see.

P1040109

I mentioned to Becky that seeing a Humpback in this astonishing place would very much be the cherry on top of the icing on top of the cake. To hear that great blow breaking the icy silence would be really something. But that was probably being a bit greedy, and we hadn’t seen a single blow during the hour the ship was quietly entering the fjord, despite a thorough (as usual) look. So we weren’t very hopeful.

We just carried on enjoying ourselves, as did our fellow paddlers…

leanne and carl
Leanne and Carl looking about as epic as it is possible to be (better than a jetski, eh Carl?)

Then word came over Alex (the guide) ‘s radio that the other kayak group, about a mile away, had seen a whale. Becky and I were off out of the blocks faster than Katarina Johnson-Thompson. And as we approached the location expecting to see a great dark back hunching at the surface every so often, or some flukes being raised, we were a bit surprised to see two very large ‘logs’, floating completely stationary, in front of us. Completely quiet. I initially thought they were bergs of dark ice.

Wow, two sleeping Humpback whales, the one on the left clearly bigger, so probably a mother and her well-grown calf. How absolutely superb,and in about as compelling a location as it is possible to find here on planet earth.

sleeping giant
‘Logging’ Humpback

Every so often the larger whale would rock a bit, showing the top of her lumpy jawline.P1040150

It was a very long wait for that sensational blow, and of course I was watching the wrong whale every time one took a mighty breath. The photographer’s curse.

I have included every inch of video footage here, and am not even going to mention the word apology. There cannot be very many better natural sights while sitting in a kayak seat, and in such a monumental location.

We were told by the expedition leaders prior to departure that the Antarctic would get under our skin. It has. But what they didn’t tell us was that blast of a breathing whale shattering the silence of a frosty Antarctic afternoon would bypass our skin completely and skewer right through to our inner self. (They probably knew that but didn’t like to say in case we didn’t see one…quite understandable).

That blast has got to be the most amazing sound in the natural world.

One thing I really like about dolphins and whales is their ability to elicit a shriek response from people who don’t generally shriek. I remember watching a pod of dolphins doing their stuff in the turquoise waters off Land’s End in Cornwall, right in front of the Minack Theatre perched on top of the cliff ( I was in kayak, of course). The theatre was packed and a play was ongoing, and every jump or splash of a dolphin was greeted with a spontaneous, and very loud, cheer from the onlookers. It was much much louder than the applause for the play itself.

And similarly on this trip, every time the Humpback flukes go up there is a wave of appreciation, cheers and smiles all round. From kayakers, people on the boat, hardened mariners. Even from the passengers who quite clearly were not into nature or outdoor stuff , or for shouting out loud at a whale. It’s all good healthy stuff.

The pair appeared to be getting a bit ready to move, but still I managed to miss the one making the blow..

At last the big female let out a breath through her double blowhole, and then took it easy again. No hurry to get going….for us or the whales. This was the best front row seat ever.

Eventually Mum clearly thought it was time to get going.

Dave is ‘on the money’ with his whale pic….P1040158

They dived and the rest of the kayak group headed back towards the ship. Supper calling. But Becky and I, and Danny the very patient kayak guide, stayed behind to see if the whales were going to hang around. They did. (you can see the mothership, the Greg Mortimer, in the background in this clip).

 

It was really difficult to drag ourselves away. How about one more farewell megaview of these two magnificent creatures…..

Here it is again, a bit slower.

Smiles all round….yet again.

sioux and dave
Sioux and Dave

The day finished with a rarely witnessed drama, also involving Humpbacks. It was lucky it was after the nine o’clock watershed, because it did involve violence. As the Antarctic evening (very) slowly drew in, we saw several whale blows far ahead of the ship as we watched from the observation deck. As the ship drew closer, the occasional bigger ‘puff’ was matched by a succession of smaller puffs. It was a pair of Humpback whales surrounded by a pod of Orcas. A fluke would go up, all would go quiet, then the larger whale would surface again and the Orcas would move in. Right close against the Humpbacks. It all happened at quite long range, and visibility wasn’t great as it was starting to get dark, but there is no doubt the Orcas were intent on getting one of the Humpbacks, presumably a calf (defended by its mother).

The relentless harassment went on for over an hour as the ship was moving only just faster than the whales. Splashing, flukes, fins, Orcas surging about. Eventually we lost sight of them as they slipped behind the ship, but there was no sign of a letup in the Orca’s purpose. Only one outcome, I suspect.

An eventful day, and one we won’t forget in a hurry.20170115_201114

blowhole 3

2019.The Year of THE Whale

Here’s my top twelve wildlife sightings (all from the kayak seat, of course) for 2019. The cream of 2,444 miles of paddling.

There’s so much action to pack in that the coastal scenery, which has a claim to be as world class as the marine wildlife, doesn’t even get a mention (apart from this one pic).

20170127_122013

So here we go, in reverse order.

12. Fowey Osprey

P1400017
Osprey

This beautiful juvenile Osprey was an end of year bonus, stopping off for a rest (and no doubt refuelling on a mullet or two) near the mouth of the Fowey estuary. It had probably hatched out in Scotland or the north of England, and was on its way to the main Osprey wintering ground in West Africa. I look forward to seeing it again next year (hopefully).

I usually see one or two Ospreys around the estuaries of Devon and Cornwall in the autumn, but this is by far and away my best view….and I so nearly overlooked it as it was sat completely still near the top of a tall waterside tree.

11. Barrel Jellyfish

20190521_123817
Barrel Jellyfish

2019 has been a spectacular year for Barrel Jellyfish. They have been around in vast numbers, and for a long time. From early March to the end of October. On one day I saw more than the previous five years put together.

They are really great creatures….big and mysterious.

10. Boscastle Puffins

P1070502_01
Puffin Pair, Boscastle

There’s a handful of breeding colonies of everybody’s favourite seabird dotted around SW England, and nowhere is more dramatic than the rocky islets off the craggy and hostile coast of North Cornwall just up from Tintagel.

There’s only a couple of pairs of Puffins at Boscastle, and there’s only a couple of days a month when sea conditions are suitable for attempting to go and see them by kayak.

9. Torridge Otter.

otter 2

This is our only venture into fresh water in this review, into the home of Tarka the otter in North Devon. A superb prolonged view in early January of a dog otter fishing.

An encounter matched by it’s cousin on the other side of the pond, or more technically the OTHER pond, because this is a Pacific Sea Otter which Becky and I watched from a kayak during a trip to California in February.

P1240552
Californian Sea Otter

I saw a total of six river otters in 2019…..three in the Torridge, three in the Tamar. (plus one on the Wye)

8. Harbour Porpoise

mother and calf porpoise
mother and calf porpoise

I really like porpoises. They are a kayak speciality, because the majority I see I have heard puffing first, a noise that would be drowned out by any sort of engine. There is no doubt they are hugely overlooked, because they are small (only four to five foot long), and they appear at the surface without a splash. Also they tend to go around in very small groups which makes them even easier to miss.

This year I have seen a total of 275 porpoises on 38 days. Down from last year ( 327 on 44 days) but I don’t get the impression there are any fewer around. If you paddle a couple of miles offshore almost anywhere around the coast of Devon and Cornwall in August, you will probably hear one puffing.

 

7. Micky the Harbour Seal

It is rare to see a Harbour Seal in Cornwall, and even more unusual (and probably unprecedented) to see a pup that has swum all the way from Holland and is still only five months old. Another success story for the seal rescue and rehabilitation centres.

Micky 2
Micky the (Dutch) Harbour Seal

6. Beaver

A handful of  trips up an estuary through the patchy mist of dawn in July were rewarded with several encounters with Beavers. I had heard they were about, but I had no idea they were in this particular location, didn’t realise that they inhabited saltwater estuaries, and anyway didn’t think I would see one in daylight.

Another good example of the benefits of paddling along in complete silence (and early in the morning).

Five beaver sightings on three days.

P1330276_Moment
Beaver

 

5. Common Dolphin

My Common Dolphin year started off in grand style with a prolonged encounter with a pod of about twenty off Penzance. It was early January but the flat calm sea and warm sun made it feel, and look, like summer.

P1220784
Penzance dolphin

I will never ever get bored of seeing a dolphin from my kayak. In fact the excitement will never dip below the 100% level. Partly because it is so very difficult to do…..Common Dolphins don’t often come within sight of the shore so you’ve really got to be a long way out, and sea conditions suitable for this are infrequent even in the summer.

It’s a good news story for SW England and the efforts of the marine conservation groups that Common Dolphins seem to be increasing, no doubt because there are more fish around. This is reflected in my total for the year of 564 individuals on 23 days. (it’s actually probably a lot more than this but estimating the number of dolphins in an active and splashy pod is very difficult).This compares to 432 on 17 days last year, and 148 on 11 days in 2017.

This includes a couple of ‘superpods’ (over 50 individuals) on consecutive days at the end of August…one in Devon and the other in Cornwall.

 

P1360712

Interestingly I only saw an average of one pod per year when I kayaked along the coast; the increase only occurred when I took to offshore paddling. I now average about 500 miles a year more than a mile from the shore specifically looking for ‘fins’.

Only one or two of this year’s pods would have been visible to a kayaker paddling close to the shore.

josh dolphins 10

I can’t think of any other situation where such a large number of completely wild creatures voluntarily come so close to an observer. Even better for the dolphins, they remain completely undisturbed and unspooked because I have no engine, and a kayak is about as threatening as a floating log.

 

P1360262

4. Bottlenose Dolphins

My first sighting of these big and charismatic dolphins for several years was in Mount’s Bay, and three miles offshore. Bottlenose Dolphins usually prefer to stay close in because they like to hunt fish that live on the seabed, but these were thought to be part of an offshore pod that live in the open sea (and feed on shoaling fish).

close surface _Moment
Bottlenose Dolphins

 

3. Risso’s Dolphin

This was a really extraordinary encounter on one of the most beautiful days of the year. It was hot, sunny and windless. Even the relentless swell along the north coast of Cornwall had abated allowing a relaxed twenty-mile paddle from St.Ives to Sennen. I couldn’t resist a jaunt offshore around the Brisons rocks for the final section, and was rewarded with an extended sight of a pod of eight Risso’s Dolphins.

They are big and dynamic and ran through just about every trick in the dolphin book: spyhopping, fin-clapping, lobtailing, breaching as well as  a bit of logging at the surface.

Risso's Dolphin
Risso’s dolphin spyhopping

I was thrilled when one swam past a few feet away because they are usually quite shy, and I personally have only seen them at a distance before.

risso's underwater
Risso’s

 

2. Minke Whale

Ever since I first sat in a kayak (about fifty years ago) I have dreamt about seeing a whale from the kayak seat. Because I never thought it would happen in Devon or Cornwall I have been to Greenland, USA and Mexico to try and see one, and failed.

In the last four years I have discovered that if you grind out the miles, as far offshore as you dare, you will eventually see a whale.

In fact prior to this year I have seen ten whales in SW England. Fantastic, but August 2nd 2019 was to blast any other previous sighting clean out of the water, and I still can’t quite believe it happened.

Because I saw two species of whale in the same place at the same time, without paddling a single stroke. (as well as Common Dolphin, Porpoise, Giant Bluefin Tuna).

While I was waiting for the ‘other’ whale to surface, this Minke Whale appeared close enough to give me my best ever photograph of the species. If you consider whales as a whole, Minkes are not the biggest (about thirty foot) and not the most exciting, because they roll at the surface like a giant porpoise. But heck, they are a whale, and who would believe you can see a whale from a kayak in UK.

Minke Whale 1
Minke Whale

1. HUMPBACK WHALE!!!!!

This once-in-a-lifetime drama was played out in a location that I usually  avoid  because of the tidal currents and confused and choppy water. But conditions for cetacean viewing AND photography were absolutely perfect…flat water, and cloudless blue sky.

It was the perfect un-storm.

Even so, the chances of me being three to four miles offshore in precisely the right place at precisely the same time as a Humpback whale appears, make a win on the lottery look easy. It was the first Humpback seen in the area since the Spring, and it was only around for a few hours.

I would have been over the moon just to have a fleeting view of it like this:

dorsal fin 2
Humpback

And to see the flukes come up as it deep dived was something I had always wanted to capture on film…..even better with St.Michael’s Mount behind (seven miles away!).

 

Humpback in front of St Michaels Mount
Humpback and St.Michael’s Mount

Waving its enormous pectoral fin about was  an unexpected bonus…..

Humpback flipper
Humpback flipper

But to be sitting right in the middle of its feeding area, as it proceeded to gulp down the baitballs of sandeels and other small fish just a few yards away, was something I hadn’t anticipated.

gulp 2
Humpback gulp
gulp 11
Humpback splash

To see this sort of sight from a whale-watching boat in California or Hawaii would be the thrilling enough, but to ‘stumble’ across it in my kayak while randomly paddling around far offshore, right here on our doorstep in Southwest England, is total excitement overload.

It will be hard to top in 2020.

P1220247-1

 

 

 

 

Humpback. Complete Fluke.

Apologies for the pun. Couldn’t resist it.

I’ve clearly been influenced by the tabloids:

daily mail
Daily Mail
P1350457
The Sun

I still can’t quite believe my luck with this staggering encounter. This was my seventh trip of the year around Mount’s Bay from Penzance. The inner bay (inside a line from St.Michaels Mount to Mousehole) is relatively sheltered and tidal flows are weak. Further along the coast towards Gwennap Head the tidal rate increases, with a potentially fizzy area off Tater Du lighthouse where currents converge and there is an underwater ridge.

Swirling currents mean fish which in turn mean dolphins (and whales) but if there is any wind at all it is not at all great for offshore kayaking because the sea chops up dramatically. So I am very wary off paddling miles out to sea in this particular location.

So it was incredibly fortunate that on this remarkable day there was no wind at all and the sea was essentially smooth…just a small swell rolling through.

The timing of my arrival was sheer luck as well. I had paddled fourteen miles out from Penzance in a big offshore loop and had been going for five hours. I heard the whale blowing about at least half an hour before I saw it and I think it had only just arrived in the area. I watched it for well over an hour and I left it working its way west towards Land’s End, where it was seen later in the day.

So it was only there for a couple of hours, just when I happened to roll up.

Extreme fluke.

dripping flukes

I’ve actually been focused on looking for whales from my kayak for over five years. This means heading far from the shore and I have clocked up about five hundred miles of offshore paddling (more than a mile from the coast) for each of the last four years.

I am very fortunate in having the time and living in a location to be able to do this, because days suitable for offshore kayaking (unless you are a hard-core type) are few and far between.

I only venture out if the wind is less than five mph all day. In SW England this is unusual. A wind any stronger than this makes the kayak bounce around and photography becomes even more challenging, and as soon as there are any splashy waves the chances of seeing a fin diminishes and the chances of hearing a cetacean breathing also goes down. And its just not so much fun.

Photography from a kayak with a camera that is not waterproof is tricky at the best of times. It lives in a dry bag behind my seat and is promoted to my lap when action is imminent.

20190807_120119
Camera stowed safely (in grey/black drybag)
20190807_120242
camera poised for action

The next few weeks are ‘out’ as far as offshore kayaking is concerned, because the wind is going to be too strong. Just look at the forecast for today, for instance:

Screenshot (37)
savage winds across S England

Before this big encounter I have had ten whale sightings in Devon and Cornwall. Mostly fleeting glimpses of a passing Minke Whale, frequently only one blow and it is gone. This video is fairly typical (including the slate grey sea)

 

Also a very dramatic sighting of a large whale, thought to be an incredibly rare Sei Whale, lunge fishing near the Eddystone lighthouse, three years ago.

probable Sei Whale
Probable Sei Whale, Eddystone

My only previous encounter with a Humpback was Horace (aka Doris) off South Devon in 2017. This photo looks great but when you consider that Horace was tangled up in a lobster pot line and so going nowhere, it’s not so good.

4I2A9040
Horace and thelonekayaker

Fortunately he/she was released successfully by the BDMLR team.

I have been so keen to improve my whale-from-kayak chances, I have ventured on trips to Greenland…..

P1140621
Greenland kayak-camping

and the world’s greatest ocean-aquarium, the Sea of Cortez in Mexico….

20170501_224918
Sea of Cortez

Fantastic experiences both, a few glimpses of distant whales, but the search for that magical encounter continued…..

until now. gulp 8

I still can’t quite believe that the sort of sight that I had specifically gone to both Greenland and Mexico to see, happened right here on my doorstep. It’s all the more personally satisfying for me that I came upon the Humpback completely unexpectedly, completely randomly, completely unguided, and powered only by my own grunt. I have always been a huge supporter of observing and celebrating the natural history on your home patch, even though it might be harder to find, and require more effort (and enduring some dubious weather) than hopping on a plane to where the wildlife might be handed to you on a plate (so to speak).

I’ve also always quite liked doing stuff where the end result is extremely unlikely to happen and only comes about by putting in huge amounts of hours of trying. I think I am the only individual daft enough to go looking for whales from a kayak in England.

So here we are….everybody’s favourite species of whale putting in a spectacular show of lunge-feeding, fin-slapping and raising the tail flukes (but no singing….as far as I could hear, above my pounding heart).

flipper 2
Humpback, Gwennap Head behind

Played out on a calm blue sea under a cloudless blue sky with a backdrop of the stunning Cornish coast. How good is that?

Everybody loves a Humpback…this next video has had well over one million views. That’s more than Happy Talk (singalong version) by Captain Sensible on Youtube. Sorry, Capt.

 

 

Just seeing this next image is exciting enough for me. It was all I was ever hoping to see. Six views so far. All by myself.

dorsal fin 2
Humpback back

I might struggle to match the excitement of this astonishing sight in subsequent blog posts, but if I can convey the enjoyment of slicing through the water completely silently and unobtrusively, whether it is far offshore or miles inland up a creek, observing and enjoying the huge variety of wild creatures that inhabit the southwest of England, then all is good.

It is great to welcome a whole load of new readers on board.

 

 

 

 

 

Are There More Dolphins Around?

I have had the great good fortune to come across another couple of pods of Common Dolphins recently. The first was a very unobtrusive group of four juveniles in the middle of Torbay. I just happened to have a pair of binoculars in the car and gave the sea a quick scan when I arrived in the car park, and could just make out a few fins breaking the surface well over a mile away. The chances of me being able to locate these were very slim as it would take me twenty minutes to get out there, and there was a three foot swell running which makes seeing stuff on the surface difficult because half the time it is hidden by a wave.

However, one leaped clear of the water so I was in luck. I was actually looking UP at the dolphin as it rose out of the top of a swell. That’s one of the benefits of sitting at water level in a kayak….you can never get that kind of unique perspective from a (normal) boat.

p1230522=1
Jumping juvenile Common Dolphin

They weren’t in a particularly sociable mood, but no less than I might have expected from a quartet of aloof adolescents. Even so, they half-heartedly swam along side in my pathetic pressure-wave for a few moments.

p1230533 2

 

The wall-to-wall cloud was briefly interrupted by a burst of sunshine that instantly transformed the steel-grey scene to one of pleasant colour;

dolphin foggy coast
Common Dolphin and early morning fogged English Riviera

Yesterday I ventured out into Plymouth Sound to inspect the Breakwater. Another grey and drizzly day but I knew the wind was not due to pick up till midday, allowing me a few hours of safe offshore paddling.

It was a big tide and the breakwater was being used as a roost for many hundreds of Dunlin, that feed on the mud of the Tamar estuary when the water drops.

p1230805
Dunlin plus micro-snack

Half a dozen Purple Sandpipers were dodging the swells as they surged over the top of the breakwater.

p1230818
Purple Sandpiper

I really like Purple Sandpipers. They are ridiculously tame and are difficult to spot because they are only ever found on exposed bits of rocky coast that have plenty of wave action.

p1230829
(super-plump) Purple Sandpiper

As I was watching the birds I glanced round and did a huge double-take (which cricked my neck) when I saw, through the mist, a dozen fins cruising past a hundred yards away.

p1240049
Dolphins in the murk (plus calf, at the back)

Astonishing, not just because I had never seen dolphins within the Sound before (although I only paddle here a few times a year), but because of the poor visibility. As I sat and watched they did a satisfactorily close ‘flypast’:

And as if trying to make the point that it really WAS worth my effort coming all this way to paddle at this location on such a dreary January day, the back marker surfaced just a few feet away.

As usual watching these dolphins was an absolute thrill, and it was good to see a couple of calves in amongst the group of twenty or so, which included some really big individuals.

I have been very lucky to see three pods of Common Dolphins in three separate locations in the last two weeks. So….. are there more dolphins around?

Are There More Dolphins Around?

I have been ploughing through all my old diaries in an effort to establish some detail about the numbers of dolphins I have seen. This is thunderously tedious and I have fallen asleep more than once. So I will be as succinct as possible with my findings.

I have been sea-kayaking for thirteen years. For the first seven or eight years I did a lot of fishing so had my head down and didn’t do the miles. Since then I have ditched the fishing and look out for, and hopefully photograph, wildlife.

In the first ten years I saw about a dozen pods of Common Dolphins. In 2016 I set my sights on seeing a whale so clocked up about 500 miles of offshore (more than a mile from the coast) paddling. I have done the same in 2017 and 2018.

This greatly increased my ‘hit’ rate for Common Dolphins because they favour deeper, offshore water. My records for the last three years are:

Common Dolphins:                               2016                    2017                  2018

Number of days seen:                             7                           11                      17

Total number of Dolphins:                    81                         148                    432

So quite a dramatic increase in numbers, approx 100% up year on year.

My porpoise observations have increased as well:

Harbour Porpoise:                                2016                    2017                  2018

Number of days seen:                             16                        33                      44

Total number of Porpoises                     88                       177                    327

Again, a  roughly 100% increase year on year.

p1060805
Porpoises

Other Cetaceans

In 2016 I saw an incredible seven different species of cetacean from my kayak around Devon and Cornwall: Common, Bottlenose, Risso’s and Whitebeaked Dolphins, Harbour Porpoise, Minke and (probable) Sei Whale. In 2017 it was four and in 2018, despite the large numbers, only three species.

white-beaked dolphins
White-beaked Dolphins

Why the increase in numbers?

So it would appear that it is only Common Dolphins and Porpoises that have increased dramatically, and the reason for this has got to be food. Both these species feed mainly on shoaling fish, and abundance of prey such as herring has increased following historic overfishing. Also in both Common Dolphins and Porpoises there doesn’t need to be an actual increase in numbers of individuals because there is plenty of them around in the local seas, they are just changing their distribution and following the food source, which luckily for dolphin watchers is close to the coast of SW England.

It’s like throwing more bird seed out onto the lawn….it brings in more birds from the local area.

This is not the case for whales which also feed on shoaling fish, because there aren’t a load of whales nearby ready to move in on the fish-fest, because they have a slow rate of reproduction and will take time to recover from their depletion of numbers. Having said that, I saw five Minke Whales this year (and have only ever see two before, in 2016), so hopefully this reflects an increase in that species. Minke Whales breed faster than any other whale so have the potential to ‘come back’ quicker than any other.

whale 8
Minke Whale

 

The very recent spike in reported sightings of dolphins (which, I think are all Common Dolphins) is almost certainly because there are more about, and more closer in to shore, since the New Year. It will also be influenced by  the relatively quiet weather in January which means flatter seas and not only encourages more people to be out and about, but makes seeing fins easier. Not many dolphins are going to be seen during a storm. Everyone’s indoors watching Strictly on catchup.

The weather has certainly influenced my recent sightings. I am very wary about paddling far offshore during the winter and at the slightest hint of a wind disappear off up a sheltered creek.

p1140625
Sheltered Creek Perfection

Further influences are that when dolphins are reported more people are looking out for them (especially in relatively sheltered places such as Plymouth Sound ), more observers have got cameras, and there are more drone pilots around (which provide some very watchable dolphin images).

Is global warming involved? I personally say no.. I would think that levels of fishing influence the number of shoaling fish far more than any other factor.

Whatever the reasons, the apparent increase in numbers is good news all round, because everyone agrees that dolphins have a feelgood factor that is OFF THE SCALE.

close dolphin 1
Plymouth Sound Dolphin…the antidote to a drizzly day.

There She Blows! Minke Whale (and dolphins and porpoises) at Fowey.

Two days of light winds were forecast so it was time to head offshore again. The first trip was to Penzance with Dave and I was under pressure to deliver some cetacean sightings. We had a good thirteen mile paddle out of Mount’s Bay and along the coast to Lamorna, and managed fifteen porpoises which put on a very good puffing show, but I was just a little disappointed (and surprised) that we didn’t see any dolphins because spotting conditions were ideal.

P1190230
Dave (porpoise-spotting) in front of St. Michael’s Mount

There was a nice scattering of seabirds however: Razorbills, Guillemots, Eddie the Eider, a passing Great Northern Diver (my first of the autumn), and lots of Kittiwakes.

P1190205
Kittiwake (juv)

The next day was a stunner with clear blue skies and virtually no wind. I was on the water at Fowey as the sun had just peeped over the horizon, and paddled directly out to sea once out of the estuary.

fowey 1
Fowey

Almost immediately I saw a large milling mass of seabirds circling low over the surface about a mile out, with a dozen Gannets intermittently dropping in. A very active ‘work up’ and there was going to be some big fish-eaters beneath, for sure.  As I steamed at full speed towards the action I could see dolphins jumping clear of the water, but as usual the frenzy had tempered a bit when I eventually rolled up. The gannets had moved on but there seemed to be plenty of fish left over for the dolphins, and gulls,to pick off at a leisurely pace.

 

I just sat still in my kayak taking in the scene. Dolphins passed within inches.

P1190283
Common Dolphin

I was sure my attempt at underwater footage with the GoPro would be a success, but the clarity of the water wasn’t great so the result was a bit disappointing. However it’s interesting to hear the dolphin clicks and squeaks in this video clip:

 

Suddenly all twenty-five (ish) dolphins were off at top speed, lured away by a China Clay ship which had emerged from Fowey docks and was starting to crank up the speed. The dolphins sprinted towards it and I could just see them leaping out of its bow wave as it receded into the distance.

P1190294
Dolphins sprinting off to see the ‘Ventura’

P1190304

A good start to the morning….and it wasn’t even nine o’clock.

I was just settling into my usual breakfast of 50% muesli, 50% Jordans Country Crisp (with raspberries), when I caught sight on an even bigger ‘work up’ at the limits of vision with hundreds of circling white dots of Gannets which every so often plunged into the sea en masse. Wow, this was a biggy.

Putting my muesli/country crisp on hold I paddled hard towards the action, but knew it was going to take at least twenty minutes to get there as it was probably two miles away, and knew I was going to be on the point of meltdown because I was already hot in my waterproof coat in the windless and sunny conditions. However if this was going to be my first big Gannet feeding frenzy I had observed up close, being a liquefied sack of sweat was the price I was willing to pay.

From long distance I could once again see large creatures jumping clean out of the water. I got the impression that some of these looked a bit like giant Tuna as I fancied I saw some spiky fins, but it was just too far away to tell and they might have been dolphins.

From what I have observed, these feeding frenzies evolve very rapidly. A pod of dolphins  herds fish into a baitball and pins it against the surface, reducing the fish’s options of escape. Passing Gannets don’t hesitate to seize the chance of a meal and dive in onto the larger baitfish (probably mackerel). The flash of white wings draws in other Gannets from afar, while below the surface the dolphins strike the baitball from below and frequently burst from the surface, as do the Tuna (if they were there!).

 

 

One reliable feature of these events is that the main action finishes just before I arrive on the scene. I think the Gannets (and maybe Tuna) move off when all the bigger fish have been eaten, leaving the dolphins and gulls to concentrate on the bits and pieces. Such was the case, again, as I rolled up with temperature gauge well into the red.

But today there was a bit of a treat in store because a rather larger predator had been attracted in to all the commotion. As I sat still watching all the splashing action as dolphins criss-crossed around and the juvenile gulls were squealing, there was a big prolonged breath and a much larger fin appeared at the surface….a Minke Whale. It disappeared in towards Fowey and then turned to come back. I was hopeful of a very close pass but it came to no nearer than about a hundred metres, and as usual very difficult to photograph because you really don’t know where it is going to appear next, and they cover large distance between breaths. They are in fact very like a giant porpoise in that they roll surprisingly quietly at the surface, and keep changing direction.

Anyway, I was quite pleased to get this clip of it as it surfaced, with Fowey five miles away in the background.

 

Ironically the closest it surfaced was when I was struggling to take off my jacket and drop my core temperature out of the critical range, and my face was covered in sweaty goretex.

P1190324
Minke Whale, Fowey
P1190347
Minke Whale , fowey

For a final push I paddled just a little bit further out, and was joined by another (or maybe the same ones as earlier) pod of dolphins as I headed into the sun. When they disappeared it went quiet enough for me to finish my breakfast which was  not surprisingly quite soggy.

 

The paddle back in was moderately uneventful (in comparison to the paddle out) although the sea had smoothed off even further which allowed me to hear, and then observe, ten porpoises which were dotted about in ones and twos as they usually are.

P1190385
Fowey porpoise

My final ‘encounter’ was at the mouth of the estuary where I had a chat with a kayak fisherman who was in an extremely well-equipped craft.P1190434

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mousehole Magic

WHALE,DOLPHINS,PORPOISES AND EDDIE

P1170791
Penzance Harbour

A couple of recent trips to Mount’s Bay have been sensational. They both got off to a good start with views of Eddie the Eider who seems to have made Penzance Harbour his home. He has just completed his autumn moult. When I saw him on 24 Sept he still had blotches of brown transitional plumage and looked a bit scruffy, but by 7 Oct he was looking very smart and ready to impress for the winter:

P1170631
Dowdy Eddie 24 Sept
P1180768
Immaculate Eddie 7 Oct

Mount’s bay is a very exciting place and I am always full of expectation as I head out into the open sea beyond St.Michael’s Mount.

Gannets appear after a mile or so where the offshore current shears past the still waters of the bay.

P1170779
Sub adult Gannet

On my September trip a large flock of Kittiwake that had been resting on the surface all took off in a panic as a couple of Great Skuas (Bonxies) piled in to the group to cause a bit of trouble, which is what Bonxies do best.

P1170644
Bonxie

On both these trips I have seen a Minke Whale, but only fleeting views when the whale’s exhalation draws my attention. They travel so fast that they can be almost out of sight when they surface again, especially if the surface is a bit choppy. No photos, unfortunately.

I saw a handful of porpoises on the second trip because the surface went so flat for an hour or so I could hear them puffing from a long distance away.

P1190083
Porpoise in front of Praa

On my second trip I got very excited because I could see a wheeling group of about a hundred Gannets a mile or two ahead of me and every so often a they peel off and plunge into the sea. This could be my first close encounter with a major Gannet feeding frenzy although I knew from previous (dismal) experience that during the twenty minutes it was going to take to get there the action might be over. However, the bigger the frenzy, the longer it will last…..

As I approached I could see big creatures jumping out of the water beneath the Gannets. I was too far off to see whether these were Bluefin Tuna or dolphins, but I suspect they were probably both. And….groan….I couldn’t believe my bad luck when the Gannets suddenly wheeled away just as I was drawing close enough to get a pic….blooming typical. I suspect the bigger fish had been hoovered up, there were just sprats left. However there was a nice school of Common Dolphins remaining to provide a bit of a spectacle. They were busy milling about feeding so for an hour I just sat about and watched.

 

 

 

 

 

I was joined by the Marine Discovery yacht from Penzance who had presumably, like me, seen the feeding frenzy from afar.

 

 

Every so often some dolphins would speed off and put in some fantastic leaps. This one would have ended up amongst the enthralled guests aboard Shearwater II if it had put in one more jump.

 

 

After coffee break I paddled slowly off along the coast, but kept a mile or so from the shore, which is where the action seems to happen. Another pod of about twenty dolphins crossed my path and one really started to leap about. By enormous good fortune it jumped right in front of the circular hole in the cliff which gives the coastal village of Mousehole its name. The perfect image.

P1190045
Mousehole dolphin

P1190046

Then, just in case I had missed its first performance, it did a slightly less energetic leap with Mousehole itself as the backdrop.P1190049

The dolphins then dispersed and I was left to admire the supporting cast of characters and views. However every so often I would see a sizeable splash which was not followed by a show of dolphin’s fins. Tuna for certain, but I never actually saw the fish.

P1170674
Reluctant Razorbill
P1170663
Mighty Tanker
tanker
Another mighty tanker
P1190063
View down the coast to Logan rock

Yet another astonishing day, with every second filled with excitement or anticipation. No more offshore paddling for the foreseeable because the wind is on the up (BIG time).P1190021

 

 

Mousehole Whale

After a long drive to Penzance I was thrilled to see Mount’s Bay was much smoother than the wind forecast had predicted. However knowing it was probably just the calm of the early morning I was on the water in double-quick time.

Within a minute of exiting Penzance Harbour the omens for a good day of wildlife-watching were favourable… several dark patches at the surface were shoals of sprats or sandeels, and Eddie the resident Eider duck was half way through a crab-shaped breakfast.

P1170472
Eider plus (legless) crab

As I paddled quietly passed the rocks by Jubilee Pool a little posse of Dunlin were catching forty on their migration south.

P1170462
Dunlin trio

I paddled directly offshore at quite a lick because I knew it was probable that sea conditions would only be favourable for an hour or two. A hat-trick of swans which would probably be more at home on the Thames at Henley looked a bit incongruous in the middle of the bay.

P1170018
Penzance bay

A couple of miles out where the offshore tidal current shears past the more static waters of Mount’s bay the action started to hot up. Flocks of Manx Shearwaters cruised around while some were resting on the surface.

P1170154
Manx Shearwaters

 

Amongst the throng was a single Balearic Shearwater which at one stage flew directly towards me, zipping past a few feet away.

P1170061
Balearic Shearwater

Had I turned for home these sightings alone would have made my day worthwhile. It was a good thing I didn’t. A couple of miles off St. Michael’s Mount I saw a sparkle as the sun glinted off the fins of a pod of cetaceans. Common Dolphins, which I carefully approached. A lone porpoise popped up once and puffed as I drew close to the dolphins

P1170099
Common Dolphins and St. Michael’s Mount

As usual they came over to investigate and I saw it was a nursery group of about twenty in total with quite a few calves and juveniles sticking close to mum as usual.

P1170123
Dolphin and youngster

 

Two interesting observations were that one was very pale grey, and one adult had a moderately mangled fin which was probably caused by a boat injury or being caught in a net.

P1170105
Pale dolphin
P1170047
Dolphin with damaged fin

It was superbly relaxed conditions for viewing with smooth sea and hardly any wind so I just watched the action. Every so often the whole lot would speed off and a couple jumped really high but as usual I missed the action with the camera. This is the best I could manage:

P1170134
Semi-jumping dolphins

As I ate my breakfast (muesli and granola mix) in the company of the dolphins I kept glimpsing what looked like wafting black smoke further out to sea, and then realised it was vast numbers of shearwaters circling about low over the water. More than I had ever seen before in one place.

So I stoked up the boilers and set off out to investigate at high speed, because usually the feeding event has finished by the time I arrive on the scene. I was very flattered when the dolphin pod came over to benefit from my pathetic bow wave. I fumbled the GoPro onto my head as quickly as possible:

 

 

 

Exciting stuff, especially as the calves seemed to be jumping and surging as enthusiastically as their parents. Look at this slomo, are those dolphin twins?

 

 

 

Incredibly, en route to the seabird feeding frenzy I passed another pod of common dolphins consisting of fifteen sturdy looking individuals which I think were a pack of male dolphins. Even more interestingly, several did the bellyflopping breathing action which is maybe just so they can have a bit more of a look around above the surface. As visibility in the water wasn’t great today it certainly would have provided them with a bit more of a view.

 

 

 

I had my first effort at underwater photography of the dolphins but I wouldn’t say it was a raging success.

 

 

 

Phew, excitement overload. But I could sense better was yet to come because the vast numbers of feeding seabirds meant large amounts of baitfish which would also bring in other predators. In fact I thought it was tuna splashing at the surface as I drew near to the action, but it turned out to be the shearwaters shallow diving onto the baitfish from a few feet up.

P1170253
Quite a lot of shearwaters

A couple of miles off Mousehole I passed a stationary yellow boat containing a load of fishermen, and started to converge with Shearwater II,  a catamaran yacht owned by Marine Discovery who run wildlife watching trips from Penzance, as it was heading further offshore.

As I was watching the yacht there was a great breathy blast and a fullgrown (it seemed pretty big anyway) Minke Whale surfaced between the two of us. Blinking heck. It surfaced again in the distance towards Penzance and then looked like it had turned to come back.

P1170186
Minke whale and Penzance

It duly obliged and surfaced again just behind Shearwater II, scenically passing in front of the circular cave in the background from which the village of Mousehole gets its name.

 

 

 

The it came back again. You can hear its breath in this video clip:

 

 

 

Of course I was hoping for it to surface  right beside (ideally not on top of) my kayak but it appeared to have moved on. They cover a lot of distance between breaths and there is absolutely no point in chasing after them  in a kayak because they move so fast and are just about out of sight after surfacing a couple of times.

There was plenty of other wildlife to hold my attention. The thousands of Manx Shearwaters intermittently rested on the surface and were conveniently settled  in a long line so I could paddle along in front trying to pick out any rarer species, in the manner of an inspection at a military parade.

About one in two hundred were the smoky-brown coloured Balearic Shearwaters. Not that impressive to look at if you are not a ‘birder,’ but if you are you will know it is always fantastic to see one because they are a globally threatened species.

P1170247
Balearic Shearwater

I hit the jackpot when I spotted a larger chocolate-coloured shearwater trying to be inconspicuous amongst its smaller relatives. A Sooty Shearwater! This is a proper offshore species that I had never seen from my kayak till last year, and have never seen sitting on the water around the UK. (the last one I saw like this was off New Zealand):

P1170332
Sooty Shearwater

As I was sat enjoying the seabird flock supping a cup of coffee a couple of miles out to sea, the cloud drifted over and the wind suddenly started to lift. Fortunately I had allowed for this in my action plan, which is precisely why I had come to this particular stretch of coast today. It seems to be about the best place to see deepwater species relatively close to the shore, as well as being relatively protected from wind and swell. I think there is also a good interface between currents about one and a half to two miles from the coast here which provides a good concentration of baitfish.

I had not seen the last of the whale, as it was working its way up and down the current interface. I thought it was still about because the shearwaters kept getting very excited. Interestingly it was only shearwaters and not Gannets because the baitfish involved were very small and Gannets prefer larger individual fish to target.

 

 

 

It then disappeared and I paddled a bit faster towards Mousehole as the wind steadily increased. The whale then appeared in amongst the shearwaters.

 

 

 

and to finish off with surfaced a couple of times relatively close by when the sea was beginning to look a bit less friendly. No boats or anyone else within a mile.

 

 

 

Buzzing with adenaline I scorched back past St. Clement’s Isle and got a sort of resigned look from the resident seals who assumed I was another idiotic kayaker who was going to frighten them in to the sea. Idiotic maybe, but I make an effort to keep well away from resting seals.

P1170423
Mousehole seal

On the final stretch back to Penzance harbour the wildlife eased off a bit giving me time to appreciate a bit of scenery. Just the cheerful ‘kirrick’ call of migrating Sandwich terns.

P1170431
Newlyn harbour
P1170438
Penzance

This was my sixth whale seen from kayak in SW England. Four Minkes, one Humpback, one possible Sei. Autumnal weather with gales are now forecast so it’s back to creek paddling for the foreseeable. Hopefully there will be a few more windows of calm weather while the sea is still bursting with baitfish so I can enjoy a bit more of this kind of stuff:

dolphin 2
Common Dolphins
P1170116
Common Dolphin with small calf
dolphin twins
Common Dolphin with ?twins (maybe just nursery chums)
whale 10
Minke Whale

 

 

 

Blue Sharks at the Eddystone

From a kayaking perspective the Eddystone has got it all: remoteness, wilderness, isolation, challenge, mysteriousness and the possibility of a sensational wildlife encounter. This is where I met my BIG whale two years ago:

coming straight towards me
(probable) Sei Whale

and an ultra-rare Wilson’s Petrel last year:

Wilsons petrel cropped photo
Wilson’s Petrel

and the only place I have ever seen any superb White-beaked dolphins.

White-beaked Dolphins
White-beaked Dolphins.

It’s not just wildlife that grab’s the attention….. on my first trip for 2018 out to Eddystone a few weeks ago I wasn’t aware that Thursday morning is wargames day and the passing frigates don’t seem to be too happy about a little yellow kayak messing up their planned path of attack.

 

 

I think I’ll stick to other days of the week from now on.

Interestingly I saw absolutely no cetaceans on this particular day (the first time in fifteen visits to Eddystone by kayak), and I have no doubt it was because of the loud pings of the sonar from the warships which I could hear emanating from the water sounding like a stone bouncing across the ice of a frozen pond. At one stage there were whistles as well….all a bit spooky. I could still hear all this noise pollution going on when the ships were a good five miles away, although I suppose they could have been coming from a submarine lurking only a few feet below me.

I doubt if there were any dolphins or porpoises within twenty miles of that racket.

At least I had a fantastic encounter with a couple of Puffins on this first trip, one of which was extraordinarily tame and paddled right up to the front of my kayak for a bit of a look.

P1130332
Eddystone Puffins
eddystone puffin
Eddystone Puffin close encounter

The weather was stunning on my most recent trip a couple of days ago. Sunny and still and warm enough to just be wearing a vest beneath my lifejacket.

As usual virtually every Gannet I passed, and there must have been several hundred, diverted from their flight path and circled around me once before giving up on me as a source of a fishy snack.

P1150186
Gannet

Hundreds of Manx Shearwaters flashed past at eye level, some only feet away, and amongst the rafts of resting birds were one or two of the very much more uncommon Balearic Shearwaters, the first I had seen this summer.

balearic shear
Balearic Shearwater

It’s a twelve mile paddle out from Plymouth sound to the Eddystone lighthouse, so quite a commitment. I do my homework thoroughly and know precisely what the tidal currents and the weather, particularly the wind, are doing. I will only go if the wind is forecast to be less than seven or eight mph all day. In fact today looked perfect because the wind was going to be light northerly in the morning, so helping me on my way out, before turning southwesterly to aid my paddle back. Perfect.

Today I called in with Rame Head NCI to report my journey plan and did a radio check with them.

I couldn’t see the lighthouse initially because the visibility was only about five miles so I had to keep on course using my GPS, but it soon cleared so I could navigate using eyeballs.

On the way out I saw and heard, a lot of Porpoises. In fact the total for the day was twenty-two, the majority on the outward trip. It’s funny how all wildlife seems to be more active in the morning and goes a bit quiet after lunch, when everything seems to go a bit sleepy .

P1110581
Porpoise

A sturdy fishing boat from Penzance passed close in front of me as I approached the lighthouse.P1150175

As usual the last couple of miles were interminable and I kept having to check the speedometer on my GPS to make sure I was still actually moving.

But after four and a half hours of paddling I was beneath the enigmatic lighthouse:

 

 

I didn’t stop for a rest because there were a lot of recreational fishing boats around, but aimed to get back to less cluttered waters in the middle of nowhere to stop for lunch. I wonder how many people would consider the Eddystone lighthouse with half-a-dozen boats nearby to be a bit claustrophobic.

As I settled in to chew my way through a couple of dried out ham sandwiches, I saw a fin sweeping at the surface only a few yards away. Two or three feet in front of the moving fin was another cut the surface which was presumably a dorsal fin.

 

OK it wasn’t that big and wasn’t that dramatic but this was clearly a small shark (about five foot long), and a close look at the caudal fin shows that it is clearly blue, so I’m pretty sure that this is a Blue Shark.

blue shark 2
Blue Shark caudal fin

Nearby was another, about the same size. I’ve seen this sort of thing way offshore before but never got a definite diagnosis on the species before. This is the first Blue Shark I have seen from my kayak.

The (very) long paddle back was quite quiet although my interest was just about maintained by a lot of Compass Jellyfish just below the surface. The most attractive of the UK jellyfish.