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.
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.
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.
Then a couple of passing schools of common dolphins but they were distant and not hanging around so not great views.
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.
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.
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 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.
.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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
latest update: seawatch southwest are pretty confident that this is in fact a Sei Whale. Slightly smaller than a Fin but a lot rarer!