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.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

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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!