The Lone Kayaker and Friends across the Pond. Part 1.

From this side of the water the perception of California is that it is very large and very loud and a bit over the top. In many respects it is:

(four locomotives at the front and two pushing from behind…get in there!)

Some of the sea creatures are equally as bullish and ‘in your face’, such as these magnificent elephant seals. They are not the most attractive of marine mammals, but it is great to see them ‘warts and all’ although some might say they might benefit from a shot of botox or a tummy-tuck (especially as facelift central, Hollywood, is only just down the road).

In California even the Curlew’s beak is bigger, when you might be forgiven for thinking that it was plenty long enough in the first place.

Long-billed Curlew

However the wildlife isn’t all big and bold. Some of it is quite quiet, small and subtle.

Mule Deer


Rivoli’s Humming Bird

And California has an unbelievably pleasant and sunny climate (although it was pretty bad when we were there) and no end of wide open spaces. So in other words it’s got it all, which is really quite annoying.

It didn’t take long for us to find a kayak rental outfit, Monterey Bay Kayaks, at the neck of Elkhorn Slough, a sheltered creek that drains into the Pacific. Even better, Becky and I found ourselves paddling out onto the water on a OK Malibu Two, my original SOT kayak.

Although the weather had been dodgy, we managed to pick a good day for this memorable excursion. It was essentially still and sunny, so perfect for observing wildlife.

It was noticeable how tame all the wading birds and sea ducks were compared to the UK. Several were the same species as we get wintering around the coast in southwest England, but here they were completely unconcerned when we floated past a few feet away, whereas at home you are lucky to get within 200 yards of them.

Horned Grebe (called Slavonian Grebe in UK)

I think the reason is that these birds are no longer hunted, and although shooting is decreasing in the UK it takes a while for the wariness to wear off. Or maybe the birds just know that this location is a protected refuge (a bit like Slimbridge in the UK). Interestingly dogs are very closely controlled here and must be kept on a lead at all times. Many are totally banned from beaches. It only takes one manic dog on a beach to terrify and cause havoc amongst resting shorebirds, and this only has to happen on a couple of occasions to make the birds avoid that beach completely.

Eared Grebes (called Black-necked Grebes in the UK)

What looked to be a random collection of driftwood across the other side of the estuary was in fact a raft of Sea Otters. Mega Excitement as we had never seen one before. Although most were chocolate brown, one had an almost completely white head.

Sea Otter

Fantastic. I had hoped to sea a sea otter but never thought it would be so close. This estuary is a popular place for kayaking in the summer so the rule is that you must keep ten boat lengths away from the otters…if you can.

We passed a large haul-out of Harbour Seals as we paddled slowly up the estuary. Quite a fishy pong as we approached from downwind.

Harbour Seals

These Harbour Seals are a subspecies of the same ones found in the UK, but I have never seen one with such a bright ginger colouration as this:

seriously Ginger seal

The wildlife action just kept on coming as we drifted along with the incoming tide, supping tea. Lucky we brought our own tea bags (and thermos) with us from the UK, they are a bit tricky to find in the US as there is more of a focus on coffee and disposable cups in California (and the US as a whole).

We saw several new species:

Western Grebe

It was just great to see the Godwits busily probing the mud along the shoreline as we floated past yards away.

Marbled Godwit

This Black-necked Stilt took the biscuit as far as the shorebirds were concerned….what a beauty.

Black-necked Stilt

As we paddled past a creek which was flooded by the high tide, a Sea Otter emerged and swam past holding its paws in the air as if it was desperate not to get them wet. I suspect it had just spent a long time cleaning them and wanted them to dry thoroughly.

Sea Otters are the only exclusively marine mammal that are not surrounded by a layer of blubber to keep warm. Instead they have an incredibly warm coat, the most densely-packed and insulating of any mammal. It was the demand for this pelt that nearly led to their destruction when they were hunted to near extinction for nearly two hundred years until the early twentieth century.

Sea otters need to spend an awful lot of time cleaning and grooming this coat to maintain it’s integrity and thermal quality.

We watched this particular otter doing the most thorough brush-up we have ever witnessed.

Sea Otter Grooming

In this video the alarming belching noise in the background is one of the local seals (NOT a result of a surfeit of fast food).

Although I hate cliches,  ‘endearing’ is the appropriate word. I think it’s because of the feet.

… be continued…..



Christmas Bonus. Dolphins, Porpoises and Seals.

Still a few weeks to go to Christmas I know, but I just couldn’t resist the title.

The winter storms, which bludgeon me into submission and send me cowering up a creek, have been kept at bay for a further couple of days by a nose of high pressure. Not only light winds but also very little groundswell which is unusual at this time of the year, making offshore paddling irresistible.

Fowey was my destination on Day 1. Fowey is not only an exceptionally beautiful place, paddling always seems to be more relaxing here as the tidal currents seem to be less than around the corner past Dodman Point. Even the slightest current working against the wind chops up the surface significantly.

And following my recent encounters with the Giant Tuna and dolphins and porpoises here, I was full of expectation.

I called in my ‘passage plan’ on the radio with Charlestown NCI because there was nobody at home in Polruan NCI probably because I was a bit early, as usual.

I got the impression that there was not a lot going on in the sea in terms of wildlife but was kept interested by the little parties of Guillemots I passed. First photo with my new camera!

Guillemot (in winter outfit)

I watched the handful of passing Gannets closely as they filed past. All they have to do is circle round once and show an interest in a particular patch of sea, and my eyeballs are locked on to the surface, because the fish that attracts a Gannet will also lure in other sea creatures. I’ve often located porpoises in this way, but for every one I have seen there will be twenty that I have missed, not only because porpoises are so small and unobtrusive, but because by the time I have arrived at the scene the action, if there has been any, has finished. Chasing down feeding ‘events’ in a kayak is a slow process. It’s a lot easier with a 200 horsepower outboard. Even two hp would be quicker than me.

Encouraged by a light tailwind I wandered about three miles offshore, and suddenly found myself on the edge of a group of twenty circling Gannets which seemed to have appeared out of nowhere. Sure enough, there were fins below. Three Common Dolphins. Fab. As I quietly approached, five more dolphins joined the gang and they all came over to  say hello. Just for fun I piled on the speed (can’t go more than 6-7mph flat out) and the dolphins responded with a load of splashing and surging in my excuse for a pressure wave.

Dolphin and the Dodman



Common Dolphin, Fowey

The dolphins hung around for five minutes then moved off. It all went a bit quiet after that so I paddled in for a leg stretch at superb Lantic Bay. As I was approaching the beach I heard the haunting querulous call of a Loon and observed a family of three fishing in the bay. Great Northern Divers (aka Common Loon across the pond) often go around in threes and I’m pretty sure these are Mum, Dad and this year’s offspring. Just by the way they act, and look, and communicate to each other in a family sort of way. Amazing that they can stick together on their migration from the arctic.

Lantic Bay Loon

My enjoyable day was soured a bit as I arrived back in Fowey. A Dory which I had seen leaving the estuary at the same time as me six hours earlier overtook me on the way in and it was full up to the gunwhales, and beyond, with Sea Urchins. I had a chat with the three crew and they said they had picked up over six hundred (!) urchins by shallow diving along the local coast, and were going to sell them on to souvenir and craft shops. Blimey. They must have had nearly the lot.

Sea Urchin (one that got away)

Day 2  involved a fifteen mile circuit of one of my favourite sheltered bays in South Cornwall, initially heading three miles offshore and then coming back along the coast.

I set off just as it was getting light and my systems (e.g eyes and ears) were far from fully operational when a small duck, which I initially presumed to be a Guillemot, pitched onto the surface with quite a splash in front of me.  Because it was half dark I was only ten yards away when I realised it was a Long-tailed Duck. I scrambled my new camera out of its dry bag and just managed a few shots before the duck paddled off into the gloom. My fourth L-T Duck of the autumn….pleased with that.

Long-tailed duck
Long-tailed Duck

Incidentally, no long tail because it’s a female.

My offshore jaunt was rather dull and was rescued by the appearance of a couple of porpoises which surfaced only a few yards away. In typical aloof porpoise style they popped up, piffed, and then completely disappeared.

Harbour Porpoises

From a couple of miles offshore I could hear the weird wailing ‘song’ of a seal drifting out from a sheltered cove. At one stage it droned on for about a minute without a breath. A bit like Leonard Cohen, but more tuneful.

After coffee ‘at sea’ I cautiously paddled towards the seals who were hauled out on the rocks. I am acutely aware that seals can feel very vulnerable when out of the water and kayakers can, and do, cause real disturbance to colonies, so I kept my distance and was subjected only to a disapproving stare.

Six-eyed Stare
Large and Little

One seal, which had a nasty-looking fresh injury on its back, was mottled like a granite-style kitchen surface. A Harbour (or Common) Seal. Not Common at all in SW England, only the second I have seen in Cornwall. Maybe it’s because they get beaten up by the Grey Seals, as seemed to have happened to this one.

Common (Harbour) seal

The Spring tide was just about low as I came round the headland to Portscatho. The local gulls were very busy and very noisy as they hunted through the exposed kelp for their favourite delicacy. Flicking over the fronds with their beaks and shallow-diving from the surface. If one caught a starfish it was immediately hounded by half-a-dozen friends who were keen to have an ‘arm’ or two. Dramas like this that are played out as you paddle along unobtrusively and silently are what I like most about kayaking (as well as all the other stuff).

Gull plus seafood lunch. Rick Stein would approve.

I consumed my cheese and pickle sandwiches on the foreshore at Portscatho. The weather wasn’t bad for December 5th… was completely windless and warm enough for me not to have cold feet, even though I was wearing two pairs of socks. My photos would have looked better if the sun was shining, however. A turquoise sea is always better than one which is battleship grey.


My ornithologically outstanding day was nicely rounded off with a close encounter with two Purple Sandpipers, distant views of a couple of Slavonian Grebes and a Red-necked Grebe, and another dozen Loons.

Purple Sandpiper with purfect camouflage.
Great Northern Diver (Loon)

It’s not just the marine environment that provides the best wildlife encounters from a kayak. It’s nice to get close views of some of the commoner, but no less attractive, species that seem only to be tame enough for close approach in city parks. Like this Moorhen with its incongruously large, and green, feet.

Oxford Moorhen

I snapped this squirrel in the middle of Oxford (from my kayak of course). I’m not entirely sure that the tree to which it was clinging wasn’t some sort of creature from Middle Earth. Those look like faces in its bark.

Secret Squirrel
That’s got to be an Ent from Fangorn, surely