I’m a veteran of more than 50 trips across the Bay of Biscay, looking for cetaceans and seabirds. I’ve even done the odd ferry journey along the west coast of Japan and across the Cook Strait of New Zealand. But until this spring, the closest I have been to seawatching from a small boat, was a working research trip off the Otago Peninsula, dragging an Agassiz trawl along the seabed to collect marine invertebrates. This inevitably attracts petrels and shearwaters and the odd giant petrel and albatross. But I was there to collect the creatures we rudely dragged up, not watch birds.
So, I was delighted, this mid-May to be invited by Captain Keith Leeves – Keith being the K in AK Wildlife Cruises, to join one of his pelagic cruises out of Falmouth, Cornwall. Capt Keith is a vastly experienced skipper, running all sorts of boats around the world. He is extremely knowledgeable about the area of our trip along the southern coast of Cornwall. And not least of his many skills is that he is also a remarkable observer.
We had not got far out of Falmouth, when Capt Keith spotted a dark shape in the water ahead of us. As we approached, we could see it was a Great Northern Diver, in perfect, summer plumage. Though we were careful not to get too close to intimidate the bird, we were close enough to see the green sheen of the neck band and every lovely white spot on its filigree back. We even heard the bird calling, more evocative of a North American lake than at sea off Cornwall.
I could tell straight away that this was going to be a trip more akin to my trawling in New Zealand than seawatching from ferries. The views are so much lower and so more intimate.
You’d be forgiven for thinking that mid-May isn’t perhaps the best time to be out looking for wilidife off the Cornish coast, but there was plenty to see. In fact, part of the joy of the area is that it can be productive at any time of year, and in just about any conditions. Capt Keith’s knowledge of the coast allows him to bring the best of the wind conditions, no matter where they are coming from. Our route took us on a general southerly bearing and, on the way, we encountered a few flocks of Manx Shearwaters, shearing by, always best to see while you are at sea rather than as distantly from the shore. I was taken back to my first encounter with Manxies, more than 30 years ago, on a sailing trip off Ayrshire.
On that same sailing trip, we also had Storm Petrels flying close to the boat, and I remember my father digging out cans of Tennent’s lager with scantily clad girls on them, to celebrate. Capt Keith is far too professional for such shenanigans but did have Stormies in mind as we approached a couple of fishing vessels and their attendant seabirds. A couple of Bonxies were joining the general gullage, and Capt Keith and his assistant Richard set about laying a chum trail to see what we could draw in. To our delight, a Storm Petrel came and sniffed out the trail, but was gone all too soon.
No pelagic trip is complete, for me, without a bit of mammal action. On my Cornish trip, the starring beasts were Harbour Porpoises. They are always tricky to see, as they swim so low when they break the surface, to breathe, so Capt Keith took us to a more sheltered area of coast where he had seen porpoises before. They are hugely underrated cetaceans, and it was, again, great to see several close by at such a low vantage point.
The little treats kept on coming as we went further down the coast, with a late ‘wintering’ Puffin, several Guillemots and Razorbills (which Capt Keith identified with unerring accuracy). Plus there was a nice little group of Purple Sandpipers with some wonderfully striking breeding-plumaged Turnstones on the rocks underneath some family groups of Shags.
The Shags had progressed remarkably into their breeding season, and most of the juveniles we saw on rocks and on the nesting cliffs, were full-sized birds. Also approaching full size were a couple of young Ravens still with their parents on a cliff not 30m from where a pair of Peregrines was nesting.
This stretch of coastline is beautiful, with cliffs and idyllic harbours, bays and flowered grassy tops. It is also home to what proved the trip’s pièce de résistance: my first Cornish Chough, indeed the first Chough I have ever seen in England, dancing over the clifftops as only a Chough can. A wonderful end to a great trip. I can’t wait to get out to sea again.
Mike’s pelagic trip was run by AK Wildlife Cruises. See the website akwildlifecruises.co.uk for details of sightings and excursions out of Falmouth, Cornwall, throughout the year.