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.

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.

 

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!