Whale!

Having got back from an all-weekend wedding 250 miles away in the early hours, when the titanium knees were subjected to dance moves (largely unsuccessful) way beyond their manufacturer’s recommended tolerance, anyone with any sense would spend the next day doing weeding.

The Lone Kayaker however wouldn’t know where to start with all the weeds, and has got the same amount of sense as the average slice of toast.

P1080802
Lovely Looe

And the promise of one of the warmest early May days EVER, combined with light winds, meant he couldn’t resist heading offshore. Looe was the chosen destination, which was very lucky because he very nearly selected the North Cornwall coast which ended up being fogbound all day and about ten degrees cooler than the sun-drenched south coast.

I didn’t have big expectations in the wildlife front for the day, as I have only ever seen dolphins here once (although they were the rare Risso’s), but it got off to a good start with an encounter with the resident male Eider duck who is always very smartly turned out.

P1080798
Drake Eider

I paddled over to Looe island, and out past the Rannies Reef. A loafing Bull seal put in a spectacular yawn which just about summed up my sleepiness as well (perhaps he had just come back from an all-weekend Pinniped party).

P1090093
yawning Seal

Also there were half a dozen Turnstones on the last rock of the reef, looking very smart in their breeding plumage with white heads.

P1080816
Turnstones

Then I just headed straight out to sea, because it was flat calm with no swell and warm enough to be paddling in just a vest. Totally and utterly perfect, and if there was anything sitting on, or breaking, the surface for half a mile around I was going to see it.

I passed through the line of coastal touring yachts, several of whom (understandably) looked at me as if I was barking mad, just paddling out into a blank open sea.

A ragged formation of about twenty-five migrating Whimbrels flew over constantly ‘tittering’, the classic coastal sound of early May, as Whimbrels have a very short migration ‘window’. A handful of Swallows zipped past me having just crossed the Channel, one in full bubbling song.

P1080826
Squadron of Whimbrel

I also saw a scattering of the more common seabirds: Razorbills, Guillemots, Manx Shearwaters and only a very few Gannets, which din’t give me much hope of seeing any Dolphins because the sea seemed a bit lifeless.

I stopped for lunch five miles out from Looe island (Cheese ‘n Pickle Sandwiches). Completely quiet and still apart from the occasional cackle of a Guillemot drifting over the surface, too far off to see. As I digested, a single wandering Gannet momentarily dipped a wing as if it was going to dive but then aborted the plunge, but it made me look hard at the patch of sea below, and up popped a Porpoise. I paddled over for a closer look but didn’t get a good view although I saw it surface a few more time at distance.

Then things seemed to hot up. I came upon quite a large raft of Razorbills and Guillemots mixed with a few Manx Shearwaters which were busy diving from the surface, and there were more Shearwater flocks circling around. I guess I was over some sort of reef.

P1090038
Guillemot
P1090025
Razorbill
manx shear 4
Manx Shearwater
P1090041
Photo taken moments before whale surfaced

I stopped to watch and photograph another auk flock, and suddenly there was a great gush of air and a pretty sizeable back broke the surface followed by a fin, only fifty yards away and heading straight towards me! No question a Minke Whale.

I swung the kayak round to see it surface again but it only popped up when it was nearly out of sight. I tore after it and it reappeared having turned to the south, but although viewing conditions were as perfect as they could be it never came very close. I heard, and saw, it surface a further three or four times and then it was gone.

I managed a very poor photograph, my camera always struggling to autofocus during such smooth sea conditions because it doesn’t have anything to ‘get a grip’ on.

P1090049
Minke Whale

Wow. My first whale since Horace (or Doris) the Humpback over twelve months ago. Only my third Minke whale seen from kayak, the other two being momentary glimpses of a single blow. The identity of the whale during my prolonged encounter off Eddystone two years ago , when I was at the epicentre of its feeding activity for half an hour, remains uncertain, although it was a lot bigger than the Minke Whales I have seen and has been positively identified by one whale expert as a Sei. For me they remain the ultimate sea creature to see from my kayak, together with a Leatherback turtle which I have only ever seen once.

So, pretty pleased, and  a little shaky with adrenaline overdose (and Olympic-style kayak sprint). Soon cured by an Orange Club.

The sea smoothed off even more for the paddle back in, and I came across a few other kayakers who were doing the circuit of Looe island.

P1090067
Fellow kayakers at Rannies Reef

From a mile out the shrieks of enjoyment of bathers on the main beach at Looe carried over the sea. No doubt made more shrill by the water temperature which is only just over 12 degrees.

P1090115
Looe main beach

 

 

 

2017. The Year of the Dolphin

2017 IN FIGURES

2814 miles paddled in total.

2400 in Devon and Cornwall

P1020606
Winter Dawn on the Torridge estuary

183 in Spain (Costa del Sol)

P1070683
Gibraltar (from Spain)

133 in Scotland

IMG_3658
Loch Arkaig

100 along Rivers in England (Thames and two Avons)

IMG_9497
September Thames

500+ miles of offshore paddling (more than a mile from the coast) in Devon and Cornwall.

6 trips out to the Eddystone Lighthouse

The author at the Eddystone
Yours Truly at Eddystone

1 Interception by the UK Border Force

Wildlife seen from my kayak in 2017:

1 Humpback whale seen. Horace, aka Doris, hung around the sheltered waters of Slapton sands in South Devon for an incredible six weeks in the Spring. I saw him (her) twice from my kayak, although the first time shouldn’t really count because he (she) was tangled up in a lobster pot rope.

4I2A9000
Horace the Humpback takes a puff

33 days with Harbour Porpoises seen, a total of approx 177 individuals. Porpoises are very small and very unsplashy and easily overlooked unless the sea is flat calm. For every one I saw, I missed an equal number when all I heard was there ‘piff’ as they breathed, the sound of their breathing carrying long distances over the water.

IMG_2839
Harbour porpoises

11 days with Common Dolphins, totally approx 171 individuals. Another 175ish in Spain. Several fantastic close encounters with groups bow riding when I could muster up the power to paddle at top speed. I need to eat more pasties.

Seeing Common Dolphins is extremely unpredictable and random as they range far and wide and usually keep well offshore. However the pods in Torbay around Brixham at the end of the year and running into early 2018, were the closest in, and most regular, I have known.

P1020377_01
Common Dolphin (youngster)

3 days with Bottlenose Dolphins, totalling 50-80 individuals. Plus 8-10 at Chanonry point in the Moray Firth in Scotland, probably the best dolphin watching location in the UK.

P1010252
Bottlenose Dolphins

A huge thrill on 18 Dec a couple of miles off Lamorna Cove when a proper ‘stampede’ of 30+ Bottlenosers charged directly towards me in a line all jumping out of the water simultaneously. An unforgettable image.

2017 was by far my best year yet for number of dolphin sightings.

7 Giant Bluefin Tuna sightings, all after 13 Nov. Amazing. I have glimpsed them on occasion before and seen the odd random splash but there seems to have been an invasion of them this autumn. Hopefully it means the baitfish are making a bit of a comeback which will mean more mega sightings of large fish-eating sea creatures.

Jumping Giant Bluefin Tuna
Giant Bluefin Tuna

Four days with tuna at Fowey, with one extraordinary day with scores of splashes and fish jumping right out, one at Mevagissey  (double splash), one at Berry Head (double splash), and brief intense feeding frenzy off Lamorna Cove near Penzance.

Loads of seals. All Grey seals in SW England apart from one Harbour Seal near Portscatho.

Grey seal pup
Grey Seal pup
P1000547
Harbour Seal, south Cornwall

11 Otters in Devon and Cornwall, plus 6 (before 6am on one day!) in Shetland. A poor year overall for otter sightings; there don’t seem to be so many on the River Torridge. ???

P1070294
Otter

I saw otters on the Rivers Tamar, Taw, Camel and Torridge.

2 Mink. Nasty, nasty little creatures which have almost exterminated  Water Voles. Maybe this is a bit unfair because if you are a Mink you do what Minks do and can’t really help it (although leaving Water Voles off the menu would help the public image).

IMG_9590
Mink (trying not to look too evil)

One on the Torridge, one beside the Thames in Marlow!

1 Sunfish at Fowey. There were quite a lot around this year, I just didn’t seem to bump into many by shear random luck (or lack of).

Also one off Gibraltar (also from kayak) on 10 March. A real whopper.

P1030273
Gibraltar Sunfish

5 days with Portugese Man-of-War sightings, totalling over 50. A good year for jellyfish in general with nine or ten species seen, including the not so common, and unpleasantly named, Mauve Stingers.

IMG_0580
Portugese Man o’War

Technically Portugese Man o’Wars are not jellyfish, they are Siphonophores. Likewise By-the-wind Sailors (another excellent name) are not jellyfish, they are Hydrozoa. However because I am a bit of a simpleton it seems sensible to lump them all together in one group because they are all jellylike and do what is expected of a jellyfish (i.e. float about and look like they might give you a bit of a sting).

6 Sooty Shearwaters, on four days. A true ocean-wandering seabird which nests on islands in the Southern Ocean. My first ever kayak-seen Sooty ‘Shears’ were the result of my concentrated efforts to paddle offshore this year. 5 seen near Eddystone, 1 near Land’s End.

IMG_8133_03
Sooty Shearwater

37 Balearic Shearwaters, on six days. Scattered amongst the much more common Manx Shearwater, usually well offshore.

Manx and Balearic Shearwater
Manx and Balearic Shearwater

43 Storm Petrels, on six days from mid June to the end of August. 29 at Eddystone, 1 at Porthcurno and 13, several very close, on a rainy but fortunately fairly windless day off Fowey.

IMG_7900
Storm Petrel

Storm Petrels are probably my favourite pelagic seabird I have seen from my kayak because they look impossibly small and vulnerable when fluttering low over the waves, yet spend all their time when not involved with nesting at sea scattered over the oceans of the world.

They are indeed vulnerable because they seem to be a favourite snack of Peregrines. I have seen a Peregrine snatch a Storm Petrel from just above the surface of a stormy sea off Hartland Point (not from my kayak). Probably a good reason why they usually keep well offshore.

5 ‘Bonxie’ Great Skuas. Another of my favourites, and a sensational encounter with one off Fowey on a calm and sunny day, only a few feet from my kayak. By far my best view in SW England.

Great Skua, Fowey
Great Skua

6 Arctic Skuas . All near Torbay and no decent photos.

6 Puffins. All around Eddystone. The usual gang of dirty-faced immature birds in late Spring , and one (very unusual sighting, I think) juvenile on 21 Aug. A Puffling.

IMG_8321_01
Juvenile Puffin

1 Black Tern In Mevagissey Bay with a load of Common Terns. Only my second ever from a kayak, and first ever half decent pic.

IMG_9101-1
Black Tern

8 Long-tailed Ducks. An exceptionally good year and (yet) another of my favourites. The males are one of the most attractive sea ducks. This year I was treated not only to a superb pair at Porthpean, but also a hugely unusual drake in summer plumage on the Taw estuary on 29 Sept.

IMG_9876
Drake Long-tailed Duck in Summer plumage
IMG_2751
Drake (and duck) Long-tailed Duck in Winter plumage

1 Pink-footed Goose Another kayaking first , and actually I can’t remember the last time I saw a ‘Pink-foot’, even from dry land. Superb close view, in amongst some Canada Geese, on the upper reaches of the Fowey River.

P1000840
Pink-footed Goose

Several pairs of Black-throated Divers in Scotland. The most beautifully marked UK bird?

black throats
Black-throated Divers

 

Kingfishers on 21 days. Everybody’s favourite waterbird.

P1020751
Kingfisher

1 WILSON’S PETREL. I can still hardly believe this. The chances of seeing one of these from a kayak in England are as remote as Captain Sensible becoming Prime Minister. Ironically they are one of the most numerous birds in the world, nesting in the Southern Hemisphere and visiting the northern oceans in our summer.  A lot of birdwatchers spend a lot of time staring out to sea through telescopes hoping to see one but hardly any ever do. It’s only during storms that they are likely to be driven close enough to the shore to be seen, so when the sea is calm enough to venture far out in a kayak the petrels will usually be long gone.

So I was pretty lucky to see one a couple of miles from the Eddystone lighthouse, bringing back memories of the first one I ever saw with my father from the deck of the RMS St.Helena off the coast of South Africa, in 1989.

Wilsons petrel cropped photo
Wilson’s Petrel

Finally, 3 Favourite Scenes from the year. All great to look at from the depths of winter and give prospective kayakers hope that at least a few days next year might be warm, sunny and still.

1 Hartland Point

IMG_6271
Hartland Point

Looe

IMG_8859
Looe

3 Kynance Cove

Kynance Cove
Kynance Cove

Looking for Humpbacks

After my encounter with the suspected Fin whale near the Eddystone rocks last August, and a couple of brief sightings of Minkes, I thought that would put a pause on adventures with large cetaceans, at least until late summer.

It is still completely pretty amazing that a Humpback would appear in South Devon at all, and beyond belief that it would spend over six weeks cruising about the sheltered waters of Start Bay, wowing the crowd of assembled whale watchers with some unbelievably close passes to the beach at Slapton. The very fact that the carparks at Slapton Sands are so convenient and close to the steep shelving shingle beach (and therefore in close proximity to deep water), and usually swell-free because it is east facing, is a remarkable coincidence. Its about as perfect a place for whale-watching as you are going to get.

IMG_1046
Slapton Sands

If you were to put a pin in the map for the best pace for a whale to turn up for the maximum number if people to enjoy viewing it, you would choose Slapton sands. Even the bus stop is only yards away.

IMG_1048
The View down to Torcross

Needless to say I wanted to see the whale from my kayak. My first view from my Gumotex Inflatable was when the whale was trapped in a lobster pot rope. Hardly very memorable.

4I2A9019
First Slapton whale encounter

Ten days ago the sea at Slapton was just about flat calm and there was no ‘dumpy’ waves on the beach which can make launching here interesting/embarrassing/entertaining for the crowd. Apparently the whale was still around.

In my Scupper Pro kayak, which I had brought because it drags over the shingle well, I paddled a mile or two offshore. Lots of small parties of Guillemots whose guttural call could be heard for amazing distances over the millpond sea, a few Gannets and a pair of porpoises.

IMG_1004
Guillemot
IMG_1024_01
Harbour Porpoise

But no whale…yet.

I hadn’t really expected to see it because yet another remarkable feature of this remarkable whale is its habit of coming close inshore late in the day. Many seem to think this is tide-related but it can’t be because in the space of two weeks the tide has gone through its complete cycle, yet the whale still turns up at roughly the same time.

I slid my kayak into the water and sat around fifty metres from the shore, on a surface so calm I could have been in a lake.

To my toe tingling astonishment I heard the whale blowing half a mile away towards Torcross, and saw the bushy cloud of spray slowly disperse. Good grief, it seemed to be heading straight towards me. I fumbled for my camera but already my hands were trembling with excitement.

IMG_1057
The Blow

It surfaced and dived once more. I then saw patches of smooth water appearing in a line like giant footprints coming towards me at the surface as the whale approached….fluke prints caused by the whale swimming along just below the surface! Amazing!

It surfaced and blew only twenty yards away and I got a very unsatisfactory photo. Like a complete idiot I thought the action had finished when the bulk of its body disappeared and I lowered my camera, but then the tail flukes came up in perfect humpback-style as it deep dived. Moron…would have been a pic to remember.

IMG_1061
Slapton Humpback

However it was an absolutely extraordinary encounter. Who would have believed you could see a whale like this within a stone’s throw from the shore in South Devon. I had spent a fair amount of time during the winter researching where in the world you could see Humpback’s from a kayak, as it has been number one on my kayaking wishlist for some time. Hawaii or British Columbia were on the  shortlist.

Wherever it was going to be, I hadn’t expected it would only require about ten strokes of the paddle to get far enough from the shore to achieve the ideal position for viewing! Thinking about it, there probably isn’t anywhere else in the entire world when you can be loafing about  eating a Bakewell tart on the beach one minute, and having a Humpback swim more or less dirctly underneath your kayak less than five minutes later.

Four days ago a wildlife viewing boat (AK Wildlife Cruises) had absolutely incredible views of a Humpback breaching in the middle of Falmouth Bay right beside their boat. Crystal clear pictures and video, you couldn’t hope for better.

So a couple of days later I set off in my Cobra Expedition Kayak for a twenty-five mile paddle around Falmouth Bay, cutting right across the middle to the Manacles rocks, and then following the coast back. Tremendously exciting, calm waters, huge expectation, but no whale.

IMG_1414
St Mawes

I had a reasonable consolation prize. About three miles offshore I sped towards a mini feeding frenzy of gulls which had attracted a handful of Gannets which appeared from nowhere and wasted no time in plunging in. As I approached I could see fins of dolphins slashing at speed across the surface, and the pale patch behind the fin to show they were Common Dolphons. Superb. They appeared a couple of times more but were only momentarily visible in a burst of spray. And suddenly they were gone, the gannets drifted off, and the gulls settled on the water. The lone Manx Shearwater also winged away. Feeding frenzy over.

Gannet and Manx Shearwater
Feeding frenzy participants including gannet and Manx Shearwater

This is not the first time this has happened. It is quite difficult to get to a feeding frenzy before it finishes. One of my objectives for this year is to see a big frenzy. The only time I have ever achieved this was off Bude over ten years ago, when I threw out some mackerel for the gannets and they dived in beside my kayak to catch them.

Other wildlife highlights were five Sandwich Terns, four Great Northern Divers, a Whimbrel, six Purple Sandpipers on the Manacles and several swallows coming in off the sea.

Purple Sandpiper
Purple Sandpiper on the Manacles

And an excellent Barrel Jellyfish in the clear waters off Swanpool beach.

P1030366
Barrel Jellyfish

Nipped in for nice lunch at Porthallow and met up with former work colleague Andrew who is training for Lands End- John o’ Groats ! (by bike, not kayak)

P1030362
Kayaker meets Cyclist

Looking closely at photographs of the Slapton and Falmouth Humpbacks, it would seem they are different whales. This seems even more likely because the Slapton whale has been seen in its usual area since the Falmouth whale has been sighted, and it is unlikely the whale would backtrack sixty or seventy miles when it is supposed to be on migration.

So, probably two Humpbacks. Even more amazing. And on my ‘local’ patch. Thank goodness I hadn’t booked a whale watching by kayak trip somewhere on the other side of the world, which would never have been so much fun. (actually it might have been, but I’m a huge fan of wildlife in the UK, so it would have had to have been exceptional).

More please.

 

 

 

Another Extraordinary Whale Tale

Yet another trip down to South Devon to try to see the Humpback Whale that has been hanging around in Start Bay.

The first day bought a howling southwesterly wind so kayaking was off. It was also very cold. Hezzer and I  had superb views of a handful of Sandwich Terns working their way along the beach and frequently diving in for sandeels, as well as a couple of subadult Pomarine skuas harrying the gulls further offshore.

On the cetacean front we managed to see a small number of porpoises despite the choppy conditions, and the whale finally appeared in the late afternoon and worked its way past to the south, keeping well offshore and not giving anything more than a glimpse of its body, and just a hint of tail flukes.If it hadn’t been for the blows we would probably have never seen it.

The second day promised lighter winds and sunny skies, so I was very disappointed to be greeted by a hefty swell creating a nasty shore ‘dump’ whipped up by strong overnight winds,which once again ruled out any kayaking. Hopefully it would drop later in the day. Gannets and porpoises provided the only viewing through the morning, and then Hezzer got news via twitter that the whale was tangled by fishing nets over towards Blackpool sands. Oh no.

Through binoculars we could see a couple of fishing boats close together of Blackpool a couple of miles away, and then saw the whale blow close to them. And then it blew again in exactly the same place so it looked like it was stuck.

We drove round to Blackpool Sands as the RNLI inshore rescue boat was arriving to transfer members of the British Divers Marine Life Rescue (BDMLR) out to the scene. I thought that I might just be some use as an extra pair of hands so I inflated Puffing Pig, my Gumotex Safari kayak, and waited on the shore for a suitable gap in the waves to get out onto the sea. The growing crowd would have smirked if I had been caught by a hefty wave breaking violently onto the shingle. There was the briefest lull in the swell and I was away.Just.

4I2A8931
Paddling out

The RNLI crew sped over to warn me to keep away from the whale and although I hinted that I might have been able to help but they didn’t seem convinced (they were absolutely correct as it turned out).

4I2A8941
Thumbs up from the RNLI

I was soon out near the attendant fishing boat ‘Maverick’ and the whale kept surfacing and trying to dive away. Surface conditions were more lumpy than I was expecting and combined with the underlying swell I realised I wasn’t going to be of any use to anyone, or any whale.

4I2A9019
Lumpy sea conditions, and whale

So I paddled quickly back to the shore and glanced over my shoulder as I heard the whale blowing, rather desperately it seemed, behind me. I just got out onto the shingle before a mighty set of waves arrived, which would have minced me.

4I2A9000
Blowing Humpback
4I2A9040
It’s behind you (me)

Watching from the shore numerous rescuers were ferried out to the fishing boat with various gear for cutting the lobster pot rope wrapped around the whale’s body and tail.

The Salcombe offshore lifeboat arrived to support.

4I2A9369
Salcombe lifeboat arrives

The hundred plus onlookers held their breath as the operation reached a critical point. Six crew members on the fishing boat hauled on the rope to bring the whale alongside, while a diver from the BDMLR leaned precariously over the edge of the boat to cut the whale free.

4I2A9432
The critical cut

Success.The whale was suddenly released and it swam away, surfacing several times nearby as though nothing had happened. It headed back towards its favourite feeding ground towards Slapton.

The action happened too far offshore to hear any whoops of joy from the rescuers, but I’m sure there were  some. They certainly, and deservedly, seemed elated when they got back to the shore.4I2A9475

What a fantastic job they did. Carefully weighing up the situation, getting the right people and right equipment out to the whale (which wasn’t easy because they had to swim off the shore to the inshore lifeboat due to the heavy swell), and then the climax of the operation which looked to be a risky procedure for the diver hanging over the edge of the boat, inches above the whale.

Everyone on the beach was thrilled. Even the dogs seemed happy.

4I2A9484
Smiling dog

Incidentally, you can see why many observers think the whale has a calf. There are a lot of porpoises about (although they would be about twenty times smaller than a newborn Humpback!)

4I2A8995
Harbour Porpoise in the thick of it

All of todays photos taken by Henry Kirkwood. Thanks Hezzer.

P1080094
Hezzer and his mighty lens

Phalarope and Whale

Mount’s Bay which contains Penzance, Newlyn and Mousehole (and a few others), is the last sheltered stretch of water before Land’s End. Good for launching a kayak.

And the ten mile stretch of coast between Penzance and Gwennapp Head, the southwestern tip of Cornwall, is very definitely a hotspot for wildlife and claims to be the best site in the UK for cetacean spotting. There are some strong currents around this bit of coast and some deep water close in, so a focus of food for the sea creatures. Also the tip of the southwest peninsular is bound to have a concentrating effect  on any sea-based animal that is wanting to migrate south to north or vice versa.

I have ventured down there a couple of times recently on relatively windless days, using the big carpark beside Newlyn Harbour as a base, and a great view point for searching the surface of the sea.

There is a constant stream of boats of all descriptions emerging from the harbour: big beam trawlers, tiny fishing smacks, yachts, the lifeboat and a Fisheries protection vessel. In your little kayak you’ve got to watch your back for the first mile out around to Mousehole because none seem too keen to adjust their course to avoid you. The same applies to the Scillonian III coming out of Penzance harbour, but even more so. I had to take really quite dramatic evasive action as it was powering directly towards me.

p1050011
Beam Trawler
p1040990
Newlyn Lifeboat
p1020803
Scillonian III

Still buzzing about my whale encounter off Eddystone two months ago I paddled offshore once I had rounded Penlee point,  hoping for another big cetacean interaction. But the sea was pretty quiet, apart from a sunfish flopping about near the surface as I approached the Runnelstone buoy. The sea got very lumpy here with current against wind so I made for the shore and followed the coast back to Tater Du lighthouse.

p1040946
Logan Rock
p1040951
Tater Du Lighthouse

The surface then glassed off and if there was any sea life at the surface I was going to see it. There were noisy eruptions of sprats splashing at the surface so surely they were going to be eaten by something BIG. Unfortunately they weren’t, although a handful of Common Dolphins sprinted past me en route to somewhere important, and a few porpoises rolled slowly at the surface.

p1040968
Fish at the surface
p1040971
Common Dolphin in a hurry

The next day I completed a fifteen mile circuit of the bay heading out to the east but saw virtually nothing at all. Until that is I was about to put the kayak back on the roof of the car, and a fin belonging to a pretty stout-looking dolphin appeared just beyond Newlyn Harbour wall. I hurled my kayak back onto the water and mounted a hot pursuit, but the dolphins were in travelling mode and were soon lost to sight round Penlee point.

I’m pretty sure they were Risso’s because they had very tall and narrow dorsal fins and showed a bit of a spout as they breathed. Too far away to see the pale grey bodies though.

p1050013
distant Risso’s Dolphins

My most recent venture to Mount’s Bay was another thriller, although I was initially disappointed that I couldn’t venture too far along the South Penwith coast because it was just too lumpy to be enjoyable. There was a very long wave-period swell with a heaving sea and combined with the tide flow I decided to turn about for the less swirly waters off Mousehole. Anyway cetacean spotting isn’t so good in choppy seas, so I might as well sit around in calm water in a relaxed state rather than in a state of agitation in a hostile sea. Good move.

I was just about to crack open the flask of coffee when I realised that the little pale bird on the surface close by to my left was not a Guillemot or a Razorbill, it was a Grey Phalarope. A gem of a pelagic seabird, and only the third time I have seen one in the UK. (although I have seen vast numbers from a ship off the west coast of Africa, but that doesn’t count….it wasn’t from a kayak.). It was very busy pecking at plankton on the surface, and was even spinning around in the way that Phalaropes are supposed to do. I cannot see the point of spinning around and pecking at something on the surface rather than just pecking at something on the surface without the spinning thing, but I’m sure they know best. I watched it for five mins, then the sea state seemed to have got a bit calmer so I paddled a bit further offshore.

p1050366
camera-shy Grey Phalarope
p1050359
Grey Phalarope

While sitting slurping coffee about two miles offshore between Lamorna Cove and Mousehole, having been in complete silence for several hours so my senses were sharpened, my body locked in sudden terror as there was an explosive loud gush of  air from directly behind me. I lumbered my kayak around (it doesn’t turn very quickly) just in time to see the broad back and dorsal fin of a whale , I presume a Minke ,as it surfaced for its next breath fifty metres away. The smooth patch of water where it had breathed behind me was less than twenty metres away! Such a pity it didn’t pop up in front of my kayak instead.

Anyway, that was it. I didn’t see it or even hear it again. It was very lucky I saw it surface because if it hadn’t I wouldn’t have been totally certain of what the noise was.

I thought I glimpsed a few dolphins’ fins streaking across the surface but couldn’t be certain, so had to settle for a couple of small schools of porpoises doing their usual unobtrusive rolling at the surface, but with their characteristic puff as they breathed.

p1050452
Harbour Porpoise

And just to round the day off, a couple of Balearic Shearwaters zipping past and a flypast Great Northern Diver. Winter is on the way.

On the Trail of a Whale. My Holy Grail.

I’ve been making a real effort to paddle offshore as often as possible this summer. It actually isn’t possible very often because it is rarely calm enough.

I go specifically to see the amazing marine wildlife around the coast of SW England which seems to explode into life in July and August. The surface has really got to be almost smooth to spot fins surfacing, even small ripples make it very much more difficult. And if it’s calm you can hear the ‘piff’ of porpoises and dolphins carrying a long way over the water.

Guillemots
Gullemots

My rule is that I don’t go if there are whitecaps. Not just because spotting cetaceans is more tricky but it’s less enjoyable in terms of effort paddling into wind and swell and, of course, potential danger should something go wrong.

My planning of these offshore jaunts is meticulous in terms of tide, wind and swell and I carry a barrage of emergency equipment: GPS, phone, radio, PLB (personal locator beacon) and flares.

Paddling from Plymouth sound to the Eddystone Lighthouse is perfect for this kind of jaunt. The Eddystone lighthouse has a fascinating history and is a bit of an iconic sight and could just be my current favourite place to visit. You will soon see why.

Eddystone
Eddystone Lighthouse

It’s a perfect distance offshore (about 11 miles from Plymouth breakwater) to give a good long day on the water to make the effort of getting there worthwhile. It provides an excellent target and sense of satisfaction in getting there. It wouldn’t be so good if I just paddled 11 miles offshore to a random point I had programmed into my GPS.

You are not allowed to get out onto the lighthouse but I usually loaf about a bit (in the kayak) round the back of the lighthouse, have a word with a few fishermen in their boats, have a cup of coffee and head for home.

And it comes up with the goods in the wildlife department.

So I was pretty excited about the completely smooth water in Plymouth sound and the forecast of hot sunshine and clear blue sky all day. Paddling in a vest, superb (with PFD of course). This was my sixth jaunt out to Eddystone this summer and I had already racked up some fantastic sightings including porpoises, common dolphins, storm petrels, a pomarine skua and sunfish.

The usual steady stream of gannets cruised overhead, they always come over just to check me out as I might just mean fish. Manx Shearwaters whipped past my ears. I was suddenly in amongst a busy school of feeding porpoises criss-crossing about all over the place. I looked down and saw a large number of the fish they were hunting hiding directly beneath my kayak.

Harbour porpoise
Harbour porpoise

Then a couple of passing schools of common dolphins but they were distant and not hanging around so not great views.

P1010891
Compass Jellyfish

A lot of Compass jellyfish doing their thing (whatever it is they do, which seems to be to be not a lot), and a couple of glimpses of storm petrels carving about low over the surface, brought me to the lighthouse.

Storm Petrel
Storm Petrel

Stoked up with caffeine I struck back for Plymouth. My PFD (lifejacket) rubbed agaainst my kayak seat with every paddle stroke making a faint scuffing noise, but I heard a couple of scuffs that were out of sequence with my stroke. I stopped, nothing. Apart from regular ‘piffs’ from porpoises and dolphins often too far away to see. and the ‘thoomph’ of gannets impacting the water. The sea was alive with activity today.It was as if the stage was set for something really remarkable.

Eddystone 2
Eddystone

Then that scuffy noise again. Very faint. I stopped paddling again and this time I realised it was a faint prolonged breathy noise coming from way out to the west.I dug out my binoculars and followed the noise. I rarely use binoculars form the kayak as any sort of rocking movement is amplified making them useless, but today was so still I was able to see an intense circling troop of gannets plunging into the water in the far distance, and there was a dark back appearing at the surface beneath them. Just a bit slow and big-looking to be a dolphin.

Mmmmm. A quandry. I was already faced with a four hour paddle back. Did I want to paddle a further couple of miles in the other direction. Of course you can you lightweight! This could just be the whale that you have been hunting for many years and many thousands of miles of paddling.

I didn’t hang around and tore towards the gannets. Needless to say they had dispersed long before I was half way there but the large back surfaced a bit closer and my heart missed a beat. It was a whale for certain!

Closer still during its next sequence of breaths and blimey it looked enormous. I snapped away with my camera on rapid fire.

it's a whopper
Whopping Whale

It had passed way to the east next time it came up (ironically exactly where I had been half-an-hour ago) and I was tempted to head back, although on its final breath it just seemed to have turned back towards me…..

One more effort I thought, so paddled towards it again, and then waited silently just when I thought it was due to show.

The atmosphere suddenly seemed to electrify. There was complete silence apart from the slight rustly squeak of the wings of a load of gannets that had appeared from nowhere and were circling directly above my head, looking very expectant. No piffing from any small cetacean. I could sense something rather dramatic was about to happen and felt a long way from land (actually 8.5 miles) and a bit small sitting on top of my eighteen foot sliver of yellow plastic, less than two foot wide. I hoped I didn’t smell like a pilchard (although I probably did as it was very hot and I had done a lot of paddling).

Small fish exploded from the surface only twenty metres away and this was followed by a n explosion of water over a large area as (I realised afterwards) the whale lunged at the fish just below the surface. A second later it surfaced for a huge intake of breath and powered away at astonishing (terrifying) speed. Blinking heck, what a thrill. And it was absolutely enormous.Diving

.I sat about for more and by great good fortune found myself in the best ringside seat because, although it disappeared off to breathe almost as far away as I could see, it came back right beside me on several more occasions. I sat completely and utterly absorbed for over an hour.

At one stage it powered towards me with Plymouth in the distance directly behind and I thought for a minute it was a submarine. It’s speed was staggering.coming straight towards meapproaching

Even more incredibly I was temporarily distracted by the blowing of a school of four stout-looking dolphins that were heading straight towards me and which passed a few feet away. I saw they had rather attractive grey spray-paint like markings on their sides and photographs revealed later they were White-beaked dolphins. Another new cetacean species from my kayak! And as I watched them the whale surfaced in the background. A memorable image.

White-beaked dolphins
White-beaked dolphins

For it’s grand finale the whale put on quite a display of lunge-fishing with a decent amount of splashing. I couldn’t help but get the impression it was for my benefit, as it was once again right in front of me but I rather suspect it was to get a bellyfull of fish instead.lunge feeding

And then it moved off. So did I. But the cetacean action carried on. Two schools of friendly and active common dolphins to break up the long paddle back.Common Dolphins

jumping dolphin
Common Dolphin

Wow. Nine hours on the water. One whale, 4 white-beaked dolphins, 5 schools of common dolphins, two schools of porpoises (plus many many more heard bur not seen), 4 Storm Petrels, 4 Balearic Shearwaters, and a sunfish. Plus the common stuff!

Of course I assumed it was a Minke Whale as they are the most frequently seen, and I never thought I would see anything else. But it rapidly dawned on me that it was far too big for the thirty foot max of a Minke. I have paddled with twenty-five foot long basking shark and this was at least twice the size of that, infact I would guess it was three times the length of my kayak.

I posted my many photos to Hannah Jones at Marine Discovery in Penzance and she was immediately very interested and helpfully forwarded them to her Rorqual expert acquaintance. She rapidly gave a detailed analysis of the photos and explained that in her opinion it was definitely not a Minke Whale, could possibly have been a Sei Whale but was probably a juvenile Fin Whale! Wow!

There is currently ongoing debate about its precise identity. I even wonder whether there were two whales, one with a very long back putting in a brief appearance further out, but I can’t be sure and never saw them surface together.

Maybe I’m pleased that I have failed to spot a whale during kayak trips to Scotland and even Greenland. There’s something very satisfying about seeing one on ‘your own patch’, close to home. And against all the odds (because it was in Devon…just). And under your own steam. And in a kayak.

I have deliberately resisted the temptation to go on a dedicated whale-watching-from-kayak-trip in America or wherever specifically so I could see one under these circumstances. Although I didn’t honestly think I would. And anyway not this big a whale and not this good a view.

Could it have been the largest sea creature ever seen by a kayaker in the UK?Fin whale

latest update: seawatch southwest are pretty confident that this is in fact a Sei Whale. Slightly smaller than a Fin but a lot rarer!