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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Manx Shearwaters

 

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

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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

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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.

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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.

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Pale dolphin
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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:

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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):

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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.

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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.

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Newlyn harbour
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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:

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Common Dolphins
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Common Dolphin with small calf
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Common Dolphin with ?twins (maybe just nursery chums)
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Minke Whale

 

 

 

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.

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Beam Trawler
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Newlyn Lifeboat
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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.

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Logan Rock
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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.

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Fish at the surface
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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.

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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.

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camera-shy Grey Phalarope
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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.

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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.