I really like Porpoises, and have named both my inflatable kayaks after their Newfoundland name ‘Puffing Pig’. Their Old English name of ‘Herring Hog’ is equally as offbeat and excellent, and in my view only adds to their personality.
I feel they are very much a speciality of kayaking, because the complete silence as you paddle along makes the characteristic ‘puff’ of a porpoise easy to hear. On a calm day it carries far over the water and is usually the first hint a porpoise is around. They are so unobtrusive and small that they must be hugely overlooked by people like me (and other observers in ‘normal’ boats) , but even so are by far the most common cetacean around the southwest coast and the one I encounter most regularly during offshore jaunts.
Gannet behaviour can also be a help if you are on the lookout for porpoises. All a wandering Gannet has to do is circle around just once, and more often than not there will be a porpoise fishing below. I know this may sound completely daft and exaggerated, but the last four times I have seen a hunting Gannet circle around while cruising in my kayak, there has been a Porpoise below (and presumably a few fish suitable for a Gannet snack).
Porpoises are very aloof and unlike most cetaceans are not inclined to come over to a kayak to investigate. They just carry on with going about their daily business. This makes porpoise photography quite challenging, and it is further complicated by their constant change of direction and only rare appearances of anything more than back and fin above the surface.
So up till now all my porpoise photos consist of a body and fin rolling at the surface. probably my best so far is this atmospheric-style arty-type shot.
So I was very pleased to be in the epicentre of a group of eight very busy and active porpoises in perfect calm conditions off Berry Head with the early morning April sun behind me. Absolutely excellent, all the more so because calm offshore conditions are so rare. And at last a photo of a porpoise’s head and eye (which actually looks a bit weird without a dolphin’s ‘beak’). Definitely my best porpoise image yet.
There were similar sort of conditions in Falmouth Bay a few days later, very flukey because the light winds were right in the centre of a low pressure system. I half expected to see dolphins (or possibly a whale) because viewing conditions were so good, but had to settle for half a dozen porpoises instead. Not too much of a hardship.
As autumn progresses the opportunities for offshore paddling in search of cetaceans diminish. Both wind and swell increase and the sea generally becomes less friendly and also I just don’t fancy paddling around miles offshore when it is cold. It’s fine when you are clad in a vest and it’s nice and hot and sunny. Falling in wouldn’t be a problem; in fact it would be a good way to cool off.
And anyway the cetaceans thin out as the season wears on.
Possibly my final offshore jaunt of the year was to Falmouth bay on a calm October morning. A couple of Sandwich terns hunting in Carrick Roads showed that winter was not here yet. One joined a roost of Mediterranean Gulls for a bit of a breather. Mediterranean gulls used to be rare but now there is a significant influx every year from mid summer onwards.
A few seals splashed about in the mouth of the Percuil River.
Passing the lighthouse at St Anthony the bay looked calm and welcoming so I headed out. It was still enough to hear a couple of schools of porpoises ‘piffing’ long before I saw them. And I would have missed a small school of Common Dolphins had I not been looking directly at them as one leaped half out of the water. They sped past and were remarkably difficult to observe, and were soon gone. All I could see were the spurts of water at the surfaces as their fins emerged, I couldn’t actually see the fins.
A sudden major splash drew my attention to several large dolphin sized creatures breaching clear of the water. They looked completely silvery and I wasn’t really concentrating and it all happened in the blink of an eye (maybe I was blinking as well). So I’m not really sure what they were but I think they were Tuna! Yes, Tuna! Blinking heck! They did not reappear so I’m even more certain they weren’t dolphins, as I would have expected them to surface for a breath somewhere within sight.
I know that Bluefin Tuna are around but this is the first time I have seen them from my kayak in the UK. Funnily enough I did see one jumping in exactly the same way in Southern Spain in March. Getting a better view (and hopefully a photo) will be one of my targets for next year.
While loafing about three miles offshore I noticed that one of the tankers moored up in Falmouth bay had completely disappeared…..fog! It was rolling in like a blanket.
Although I had my GPS with me I felt a bit vulnerable as the mist rolled towards me and regretted not having a compass as a back up. It wouldn’t be too good if the batteries in the GPS went. I pushed for the rocky coast quite hard and as it was I never quite lost sight of it. Interestingly the sea fog that day was not forecast. Good lesson. Always be prepared.
There are plenty of estuaries and sheltered inlets around south west England to provide entertainment when the open sea is no go. I hadn’t ‘done’ the Camel estuary for a few years so set off from Wadebridge and drifted downstream on the outgoing tide. It was a cold and wet day and I could hardly believe my eyes when an otter appeared fishing in the open estuary in front of me. Of the hundred or so otters I have seen around Devon and Cornwall in the last decade this is only the second one I have seen in a proper marine environment, and I have yet to encounter one in the open coast.
I gave it a wide berth in an effort not to disturb it, but as I got upwind it definitely got a wiff of me. And clearly didn’t like it too much. It slipped into the water and disappeared.
I was completely absorbed by the hoards of wading birds including Spotted Redshank, Greenshank and Black-tailed Godwits as I paddled slowly down towards Padstow. With that classic winter soundtrack of the estuary…..the bubble of Curlew, the mew of Lapwing, the whistle of Wigeon and the ping of Teal.
I did a double-take on a huge white bird in flight when I realised it wasn’t a swan. a quick fumble for my binoculars with cold hands…..it’s a Pelican! And it was quite a lot bigger than a swan.
A Dalmatian Pelican, and the first one to be seen in the UK for over a hundred years. I was aware it had been ‘doing the rounds ‘ of the estuaries of Cornwall and had even ventured up to the Taw estuary in Devon, before coming back to its apparent favourite place, the Camel. So I was half expecting to see it, but it was still a bit of a thrill.
Even when there is not a lot of wildlife to see, the broad-leaved woodland that clads the hills around many of the inlets of the south-west provide a very scenic backdrop to an autumnal paddle.
The Tamar is one of my favourites as it is very sheltered and always offers Kingfishers and a few Dippers up near Gunnislake weir.
Kayaking around the coast has its unexpected moments. I have rescued several inflatables plus occupants being blown offshore, but never before a diver with cramp. I towed him half a mile into Port Mellon bay near Mevagissey. Hard work and unbelievably slow but it warmed me up. A lot.
Good view of a fox, a young looking one, on the edge of Roadford Lake.