Thursday, 3 July 2014

EC Cornwall ~ Day 2

Continued from here

When we got back to the bunk house / hostel, we met up with the other group. They’d had no luck in spotting basking sharks, so had eventually given up and gone snorkelling with local seals instead of sharks.

We were all naturally a little disappointed, but it seemed everyone had had a good day anyway, and my group all remained positive for our trip out on the boat the next day.

When our turn on the boat came around, we had our briefing and then set off out of Penzance harbour.

Our Skipper and Guide, Charles Hood

Our first exciting bit of wildlife was seeing lots of these huge jellyfish, Rhizostoma pulmo – commonly known as Barrell Jellyfish. These impressive looking creatures are the largest jellyfish found in British waters, and while I have seen thousands over the years as I grew up near the Pembrokeshire coast, they were quite a surprise for some of our group! Luckily for swimmers these are not stingy jellyfish, and in fact they form a favourite food of leatherback turtles.

We were searching for the plankton-eating Basking Sharks near to the coast, as apparently this is usually a good place to find them as they feed off blooms of algae that have concentrated as the tide or currents push them up against cliffs or into small bays.

We passed this house up on the cliffs, which is apparently where the author John Le Carre lives!

We also passed the famous Minack Theatre perched on the cliffs:

After much searching for basking sharks we had had no luck, apart from a very brief sighting of some porpoises that I couldn’t get pictures of – they were too far away, and only a tiny bit of fin breaks the water as they swim. So we headed out to the cluster of rocks off of Land’s End to find some friendly seals to swim with instead.

Seals are such lovely curious creatures. As soon as our boat arrived at the rocks there were little grey heads popping out of the water to find out what we were!

We got our thick wetsuits all zipped up, and added neoprene hoods to our ensemble – very sexy! Then, snorkels and flippers in place, we plopped into the water. We were buddied-up in pairs, and I was buddied with Vijay. We stuck close together in the water, so he appears in lots of these photos. We weren’t allowed to go after the seals or touch them or anything, but they were pretty happy to come up to us, and even nibble on our flippers if they thought we weren’t looking!

After the seal swimming we did a bit more basking shark searching as we continued around the coast, until it was time for lunch. Lunch was brief as we were keen to search for sharks again, this time returning around the coast back towards Penzance.

There were still no sharks for us to see, so we had to satisfy ourselves with watching the bird life – gannets diving, and occasional razorbills and guillemots whizzing past. Then all of a sudden Charles, our guide, let out a cry of “what’s that fin?” We were all immediately at attention trying to see what he had spotted. Then there is was – another fin!!! 

It was soon apparent that these were not basking shark fins we had seen, but in fact they belonged to a creature that Charles said was much rarer to see – a Risso’s Dolphin. These dolphins are less bold with humans than the bottlenose dolphin that we normally think of when we think ‘dolphin’, so they don’t come so close to boats or ride the bow waves. They also don’t have the distinctive beak, and so are a little more whale-like in appearance.

Risso's Dolphin

After seeing nothing but fins for a few seconds, the dolphins disappeared. Then, quite suddenly, a dolphin began to surface fairly near to our boat. It looked quite odd and at first we couldn’t work out what was going on. Then, as it broke the surface, we saw that it had brought up one of those huge barrel jellyfish and was playing with it! It was wonderful to watch, so much so that I missed the best bits for photos and only started snapping when it wasn’t so clear to see. In the 2 photos, the dolphin is the longer pale whitish blob under the surface to the right, while the jellyfish is the smaller greyer rounder blob under the surface to the left of the dolphin.

Next on the agenda from the dolphins was a bit more entertainment: they were performing a little nearer a yacht that was further out to sea, breaching, tail-slapping and a behaviour called spy-hopping. This involved them bursting vertically out of the sea until just their tail was still in the water, then falling sideways with a big body slap back into the water. They seemed to do this trick in synchronisation, so that as one dolphin was falling away from the vertical, the next was just rising out of the water to follow on, with about 5 or 6 repetitions of this trick in a row!! It was incredible to watch, but difficult for me to photograph!

I got lots of pictures of splashes, and one of the tail slapping although it the tail was tiny in it, and cropping it means the picture quality isn’t too great.

Then, a short while later, the dolphins performed again! And this time I was able to get a shot of the spy-hopping!

They swam around our boat for a while, although to be honest time was pretty much standing still for me as I was so excited! 

It may have been a basking shark fail, but it was a firm dolphin win! And to make it extra exciting, this was my first ever sighting of marine dolphins, so I really was one excited little person!

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