Wednesday, 25 September 2013

Kayaking with Giants

There is not a ripple to be seen. The only sound is the plop of a paddle as it dips into the water, the drip of sparkling droplets as it is lifted out and the gentle slap of the kayak as it glides through the smooth water. Spray jackets rustle as our arms slowly work moving the paddle at a steady rate. The deep blue ocean is so smooth it looks oily, swirling patterns created from innumerable shades of blue, black, green and purple. The deep green of the shoreline, an impenetrable wall of trees silently passes by. Wispy lichen hangs like tendrils from the branches, giving them an almost ghostly and eerie presence.

The beauty of Vancouver Island from a kayak

Across the still water a huge ‘whoosh’ breaks the silence, a whale surfacing to breathe. Louder, deeper somehow, longer than the Orca that call the straits and waterways off Vancouver Island home for the summer. This whale is bigger, much bigger. Scanning ahead, and around us, we hear a ‘whoosh’ again and this time see the ephemeral water droplets hanging in the air. We drift, watching, listening, and waiting. ‘Whoosh’ again, closer, this time and we see a dark, large body surface, arch its back and disappear. A humpback whale, one of the oceans giants, the size of a bus, circles our small, 6 foot long kayak. I feel no fear. This giant is searching for food, which for them is small shoaling fish, although I am glad to keep a respectable distance.

The whale surfaces again, and in the opposite direction another two whales surface almost simultaneously. There are now three working the area around us. The whale ahead breathes dips its body and gracefully lifts its wide, wing like tail out of the water, almost waving goodbye.

The majestic tail fluke of a humpback whale

But it is a brief goodbye. Birds circle, a sure sign of food being pushed to the surface of the water. We watch the commotion, listening to the raucous calls of the gulls. Suddenly the water erupts from beneath the birds as the humpback whale lunges upwards and out of the water, white water explodes everywhere. Mouth open wide the whale engulfs the entire ball of fish. For a moment it seems to pause, hanging in mid-motion, mouth open, it’s bristly plates of baleen hanging down from the huge top jaw. Beneath, the throat has ballooned allowing the whole shoal to be scooped up in one go. Slowly, sedately, the whale disappears beneath the waves, here it will push all the water out through those baleen plates where the fish will be trapped, like a filter, allowing the whale to wipe them clean with its huge tongue and swallow the food.

Humpback whale lunge feeding

Not even before the first whale had disappeared another surges up and out of the water, this time sideways, it’s long, white, knobbly pectoral fin (flipper) lifted up out of the water.

Everything briefly goes quiet before the each whale surfaces to breathe once more, lifts its tail and disappears to continue its search for food. We continue to sit, somewhat breathless from the whole encounter, listening and watching as time after time each of these whales continues to surface and feed…

another adventure with Kingfisher Wilderness Adventures....

Wednesday, 18 September 2013

A hobby

A hobby - an activity or interest pursued for pleasure and relaxation and not as a main occupation.

For me, as many people will know by now, its bird ringing. For those reading the Wild Barley blog on a regular basis (thank you!) it’s pretty much impossible to escape the fact. Most weekends, and occasionally during the week, you will find me getting up ridiculously early in order to go and catch birds, to age them, sex them, take a load of biometrics and to ultimately learn more about them. The ringing I do as part of the BTO ringing scheme is contributing masses to our understanding of bird ecology and populations. Understanding how and where they moult, breed, migrate, over winter, live, grow, behave…

My hobby - bird ringing

A hobby – a fairly small, very swift falcon with long narrow wings, specialist aerial feeders.

Oh what a bird! So awesome that even a popular table football game is named after it…. Ever thought how Subbuteo got its name...? well the scientific name for hobby is Falco subbuteo and the games creator was a big fan of this super bird.

Acrobatic and fast… soaring skywards before diving back to earth; racing over treetops or reed beds; twisting and turning in mid air in pursuit of dragonflies and sometimes small birds. No time to stop, with captured prey often eaten on the wing. The delight of warm summer evenings and a highlight of any days birding; winter sees them head off to Africa in search of more insects…

When attempting to catch swallows and martins at a roost however, the hobby is not necessarily the sight you want to see. The gathering flocks provide a tempting source of food for hungry hobbies especially when migration is nearing. Storming into the group, the hobby races after the sand martins and swallows, dipping, diving, twisting and turning… the martins and swallows flock closer together, with reactions so quick they seem to move as one, confusing the hobby, not letting it single out one individual.

In many cases the flock will move on, deciding the reeds they were attempting to roost in may not be safe enough and leaving the ringers with empty nets… on top of that catching a fast moving hobby in mist nets is tricky to say the least…

Although, there are those occasions where the right factors come into play, the fates align, one little thing leads to another and you come round the corner to find not a hobby bouncing out of the net and making a quick escape, not a hole indicating where a hobby has burst through the net, but a hobby caught in the net!

With dusk falling over the reeds and nets at Icklesham, Sussex, and just a single swallow caught in the roost, it was indeed an absolute delight to catch one of these superb birds. 

A hobby - the bird :)

Friday, 13 September 2013

Orca in the mist...

I am sitting in a kayak, the smooth silky water a finger tip away, behind me a huge grey boulder of the shoreline towers above. Pot marked with yellowish, reddish and orangey brown lichen, with brown bull kelp tickling the rock where it plunges into the water, continuing to the depths covered in urchins and anemones. Above and the deep green trees are shrouded by fog. Ahead the fog crowds in close, sea and sky merge, in the near distance a motor boat chugs. We wait. Patient. Well mostly. The handheld radio crackles, voices break the anticipated silence, cutting across the foggy air. Orca are coming our way. The motor boat gets a little louder, the whale watch boat, they must be close. Then hidden by the mist we hear a ‘kawoof’ followed by another and another. The unmistakable sound of Orca’s breathing! In front the steady stream of breaths passes by, unseen, but distinct… 

Minutes pass and all we hear is breathing Orca and the motor boat slowly passing us by. Then, to our right a tall, black dorsal fin looms and out of the mist a small group passes closer to shore, and closer to us.

The main group disappears, their blows getting fainter and with them the motor boat fades away. We are left alone. Four kayaks, five people and four Orca milling around… heaven! 

Here's looking at you!

Our guide drops down a hydrophone, an underwater microphone, and replacing the sound of the engine and the crackle of the radio, the wonderful calls of Orca’s echo through the air.

The mist begins to lift, bright sunlight beams through the breaks, glistening off the Orca’s backs and creating sparkles in the droplets of their breath. The world of Johnstone Strait, Vancouver Island, Canada, reveals itself, a backdrop of forested mountains, rippling calm waters and Orca surfacing in the deep blue-green sea.

Orca in the mist

This wonderful encounter was part of a kayak tour with Kingfisher Wilderness Adventures (, more adventures from this trip to follow.... Watch this space!