Its seal time again – Harwich / Walton-on-the-Naze

Autumn has been a season of seal watching so far and last weekend was no different. It was also another new location for us, taking a boat from the port of Harwich in Essex with Sealwatching.co.uk.

The boat left from the quay at Harwich Dock and motored out through the port, past the huge shipping container port and along the much more pleasant beach at Dovercourt for about 45 minutes until reaching Hamford Water Nature Reserve. It was there that we found the seals. First just one or two in the water, then a couple more basking on the banks, until we spotted another group of about 50 hauled up ahead. As we approached, they spooked and started launching themselves into the water, making quite a splash as they went.

It was interesting to see a few of them skipping along, jumping in and out of the water like dolphins playing. The boat hung around for a while as we watched the seals (and i’m sure a hen harrier way off in the distance), before we headed back, this time with the tide, to be back at the dock within 30 minutes.

It was a very pleasant way to spend two hours and the crew took good care of us, providing binoculars if needed and a running commentary of the sites along the way and a history of the local landmarks.

Before heading home, we stopped off at Essex Wildlife Trust’s Hanningford Resevoir for a quick trundle along their Wind In the Willows inspired nature walk, coffee, cake and dropping in and our of a couple of their hides for a quick peak.

Seals from Burnham-on-Crouch…sorry it’s late part 2

Those very few of you who may follow this blog will have seen that we go to Burnham-on-Crouch quite often to see the seals and back in mid-September my wife and i went again, this time with baby Benjamin!

This time, it was just a day trip, but we did go again with Discovery Charters and met up again with our friend Noodles the dog.

It was another great day of seal watching, but also some pleasant sightings of water birds. I swear every time we go that the number of birds is increasing massively. The great work that the RSPB has done as Wallasea Island has not only created a great habitat for the returning birds, but has also helped to de-silt the river Crouch.

I won’t take too much time with words here, but just let the photos do the talking!

Seals from Chichester Harbour…sorry its a bit late part 1

A few months back my wife found out about another colony of seals (grey and common) within easy distance of home, with trips running out of Chichester Harbour. So back in early September we drove down and went on a boat trip with Chichester Harbour Water Tours (other operators are also available).

The habour itself is a good 15 minute drive away from Chichester (taking traffic in to consideration) so if you’re in Chichester for a look, give yourself plenty of time to get there – which we did not and had to rush!

 

 

The area around the harbour is a good place for walks and there’s a nice cafe also.

The trip from the harbour to where the seals can be seen is lovely with  sailing boats, sailing clubs and waterbirds to spot along the way and once there we had great views of the seals in the water and on the sand banks. It was certainly worth the drive down and the rush!

 

Cape Town & Hermanus – Whales and Penguins please

So, our first proper holiday with baby Benjamin. A week in Cape Town and Hermanus with the main aim of seeing some southern right whales (after our failure to do so in Western Australia) and also African Penguins.  It’s the beginning of spring in August in the Western Cape, not peak season for most tourists, but it is a great time to see whales and penguins. The spring weather meant quite a lot of sunshine, not too hot, but with a big temperature drop as the sun went down, and the odd spot of rain.

On our first day in Cape Town we got the help of a local guide, Merryl O’Brien, to help us get a feel for the place. It’s not something we normally would do, but we had Benjamin and we had a lot of questions to ask of a local that we couldn’t seem to find out before we arrived. Merryl took us out of town and down the Cape to Cape Point. On the way down, we saw Cape fur seals in Hout Bay and, before getting Simon’s Town, we spotted a few people by the side of the road looking out to False Bay right by Glencairn railway station. We guessed they had seen some whales and stopped to see if we were correct. Sure enough, we saw a couple of juvenile humpbacks right up close to shore, probably only 50m away from the road itself. We were expecting

some shore-based whale sightings in Hermanus, but not here, so this was a real bonus.

The weather was foul, when we reached Cape Point, so deferred the trip up the funicular railway and the views over the bay that it offered (had the weather been nice) and carried on to the Point itself for the obligatory photo-op by the Cape of Good Hope sign. We were again surprised to see ostriches here, right by the shore, having thought that they lived in more arid climates! We spent the afternoon visiting a couple of vineyards in the Constantia Valley wine region, one of the oldest in the Southern Hemisphere with some vineyards dating back to the 1680s. First we had lunch at Groot Constantia (the olive, tomato and ricotta ravioli in the Jonkershuis restaurant was incredible) then with a wine tasting at Constantia Glen and their Flagship Tasting, with a mix of reds and whites.

On our next trip out to Simon’s Town, we gain stopped to see the humpbacks at Glencairn, before driving down to Boulder’s Beach to see the penguin colony. The penguins here are African penguins (also known as jackass penguins due to the donkey-like bray that they frequently and loudly emit). After paying a small entrance fee (35 Rand) you walk out onto the boardwalks and are immediately greeted by penguins dotted around the walkways, in the overgrowth and, as you reach the end of the walkway, all over the beach itself. Back in Simon’s Town (home to the South African navy, so you’ll be surrounded by people in uniform) we did a whale-watching trip with Simon’s Town Boat Company. It didn’t take long until we came to some humpbacks again very close to shore, but not the same ones we saw up near Glencairn, and some more fur seals, both in the water and sunning themselves on the rocks.

So, on to Hermanus, where the plan was to see southern right whales every day, either from land or shore. They’re called right whales as they were the “right” whales to hunt. They are big, so you get good returns for your time and money, and they often move slowly and close to the surface, meaning they were easy to catch.  This also means that they should be relatively easy whales to find if you only want to see and take pictures of them.

We booked an apartment near a place called Gearing’s Point in Hermanus which is one of the many whale watching points that are dotted along the Walker Bay coast, all of which can be reached on the Fernkloof cliff path. We stopped off at Betty’s Bay to see the penguins at Stoney Point nature reserve. If anything, the penguins are even better to see here. I can’t explain exactly why, but maybe you’re just a little closer them and sometimes you’re almost eye-to-eye with them.

As we arrived at the car park, right on Gearing’s Point, there were quite a few people gathered around the walls, with cameras or binoculars out. There were whales about and I jumped out of the car to get a look, being rewarded by seeing a southern right breaching probably only 70 metres or so from me. Unfortunately we had to go and check into our apartment so the viewings were cut short. In the afternoon, we did a land-based tour along the coast to some of the best whale-watching spots with local whale watcher, expert and photographer, David de Beer. We spotted quite a few southern rights as we explored these points along Walker Bay a then took a drive up to a view point on top of the hills for a spectacular view over Hermanus and Walker Bay as the sun began to set.

We spent the rest of the week doing various boat trips from Hermanus New Harbour (Hermanus Whale Cruises and Southern Right Charters), but our planned cage-diving with sharks trip was cancelled due to choppy seas. Instead we did a Big Marine 5 tour with the same company, https://www.whalewatchsa.com/Dyer Island Cruises, where we spotted another humpback, penguins, loads of fur seals, albatross and Heather even saw a sunfish, but no sharks (apart from one shadow underwater of a bronze whaler shark.  Apart from that first day, we didn’t really see any other whales from the shore, but on our walks along the cliff path we saw plenty of birds, including a cape sugarbird and some fiscal shrikes. We also saw what we think was a cape mongoose, along with lots of the dassies (or rock hyrax) that are common around the Cape.

All in all, our mission was accomplished, we saw the southern rights (sometimes with some nice breaching and often very close) and we saw hundreds of penguins. Everything else was a bonus, including the great food and local wines and beers (Old Harbour I’m looking at you), with the spectacular setting of Bientang’s Cave Restaurant, right at the foot of the cliffs in Hermanus, with the waves crashing against the rocks next to you being a particular favourite.

So, what’s next?

Inverness and the Moray Firth

So, a flying visit…literally.

An Easyjet flight up to Inverness on a Friday night, 2 nights in Nairn and a flight back to Gatwick on Sunday evening, all with a 4 month-old baby? Sounds crazy, but we had heard about the Scottish Dolphin Centre a while back, where you can potentially see bottle-nosed dophins from the shore and decided we had to go.

The Scottish Dolphin Centre is run by the Whale and Dolphin Conservation (WDC) charity, through which Heather has adopted one of the dolphins, Spirit. It sits on the mouth of the River Spey in a former salmon fishing station. We started the day with a tour of the ice house where, as the name implies, was used to store ice for preserving the salmon back in the day. The ice house is now used for exhibitions and “dry dives”, where videos of underwater wildlife is shown. After a nice lunch in the centre, we went on a guided wildlife walk (2.15pm, April 1st to October 31st) with Adam, one of the guides.

The walk, started with some time looking for dolphins from the centre, but alas with no luck, so we headed along the river spotting huge number so gulls and other seabirds. Soon after something spooked them and sure enough 2 osprey appeared from up river. We trekked along the river looking for otters, but again nothing this time. After the tour, Heather and I went further down the river and crossed the old railway bridge, now converted to be part of the national cycle network and as we crossed, another osprey came over head.

After the Dolphin centre, we drove to a few other places along the firth where there is supposed to be good chances of seeing more wildlife, Portgordon for seals, Burghead (dolphins from the Burghead Visitor Centre – a former coastguard lookout) and Hopeman East Beach (dolphins again), but had no more luck. That was the enough for day one, so head back to our apartment in Nairn for dinner and good nights sleep.

Sunday morning, we drove down to the Clansman’s Harbour for a boat trip on Loch Ness with Jacobite cruises. We just did a short trip from the harbour to Urquhart Castle and back, but it was enough to get a good feel for the Loch and to hear all the stories about the fabled monster. We had some time to kill following the cruise so we drove a few miles down the road to the Loch Ness Centre for an immersive exhibition about the monster and all the attempts down the years to prove whether or not it really exists. Let’s just say, it is unlikely!

Our last activity for the weekend was a wildlife cruise with Dolphin Spirit from Inverness Marina. Dolphin Spirit offer two tours, one on the Dolphin Spirit which is more sedate and another on Dolphin Mischief, a RIB, for the more adventurous. With our little one, we were on the Dolphin Spirit this time around, but otherwise we would probable have taken the RIB. It was a nice trip, no dolphins again, but we saw some grey seals, some cormorants and a common tern.

It was a great weekend, with beautiful coastlines and countryside, lovely people, nice food and some nice wildlife spotting, but no dolphins this time round. However, it was enough to make us want to go back, for a week at least next time!

Burnham-on-Crouch – Common seals and seabirds

So, last weekend it was the West coast of England last and today was on the East coast in Burnham-on-Crouch in Essex. As the name implies, Burnham sits on the River Crouch, just before it flows out in to the English Channel.

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View of the River Crouch from Burnham

 

If you’re in London and fancy seeing some wildlife, its just an hour and a half’s drive away or 1 to 2 hours on the train (depending on the service).

We took a boat operated by Discovery Charters from Burnham Town Quay on a two-hour trip along the river looking for common seals, but also keeping an eye out for seabirds and waders (more on that later).

Once we were past the moorings for all the number of yacht clubs that operate along the river, we made our way onto the River Roach that joins the Crouch with Foulness island on one side and Wallasea island on the other.

Soon we came across our first seals. I would say they were basking in the sun, but it was fairly overcast, albeit with no wind, no rain and mirror-calm waters.  As we motored along we saw seals on either side of the river  in groups of 8 to 12 and saw over 50 in total.  The boat slowed past each group, then turned round and went past again so that the passengers on each side of the boat got a good view. The seals were quite curious and although some of the seals may have slipped down the muddy banks into the water as we approached, like boats being launched down a slipway, they often swam towards us to have a closer look at us.

 

Wallasea Island is a RSPB project consisting of saltmarsh, mudflats and lagoons that has been created by re-engineering the existing seawall and utilising more than 3 million tons of excavated soil from the huge Crossrail rail tunnels that have been bored under London. This newly created habitat is home to a huge array of birds (differing depending o the season) and today we say a huge amount of arctic terns, some cormorants, oystercatchers, spotted redshanks (I think) and a single avocet (although I believe it is common to see many more).

 

We were dropped back at the quay and had some traditional chips and a pickled onion from the chippy before we jumped in the car for the drive home.

This was our third time making the trip to Burnham and we’ve always seen seals and in the summer months we’ve seen seal pups. We’ve also previously seen marsh harriers and curlews, so although sightings are never guaranteed, in our experience this is a very good spot for seeing something!

 

 

 

Cornwall day two – dolphin watching in Padstow!

So, back on a boat today.

After another great cooked (veggie) breakfast at the Little Mainstone guest house, we jumped in the car for the hour long drive to Padstow, made famous by Rick Stein and his restaurants, but is a very beautiful little fishing in its own right.

We were booked in the 2 hour discovery trip with Padstow Sea Safaris. We got kitted up in our warm layers, waterproofs and lifejackets before heading out to the harbour, down some steps and into the boat. It was a RIB, so guarenteed to be fast, windy, a bit bumpy and a bit wet.

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Keep warm! Lots of warm layers and waterproofs needed on a RIB in spring.

We headed out of the estuary and along the coast to a cove with a rocky feature called “The Dragon” due to its likeness to a sleeping Smaug. Unfortunately there were no seals here, just a lonely Shag, so we headed back out to “Seven Souls” another sheltered cove where we came across a single grey seal, its head bobbing in the green waters.

Next stop was a small island, home to nesting seabirds. We had a wonderful sight of a seal on the rocks as dozens (if not hundreds) of Guillemots and Razorbills launched themselves from the cliff abive it’s head and straight towards us.

After a few minutes watching this spectacle, we headed towards Port Isaac, home to the Doc Martin TV series. As we motored on we saw a common dolphin, then another and soon we were joined by a small pod of 4 or 5, playing chase with us and surfing through our bow wave. This is the kind of dolphin experience you imagine and we felt lucky to see it. This went on for about 15 minutes before 1 got excited and started jumping, seemingly just to entertain us.

Time was running out, so we took some photos at Port Isaac before heading back towards Padstow. We kept close to shore, stopping at caves along the way, hoping to see some more seals who like to sleep on some “shelves” inside the caves. We saw one more grey seal “bottling” in the water before we returned to Padstow. We were dropped off on the beach (due to the tide) and walked back 10 minutes to town.

We had lunch in Cherry Trees Coffee House, which serves the most amazing cakes along with pasties and other lunch fayre. We can heartily recommend the Easter Caramel Brownie Tart!

Cornwall day one – seals and seabirds trip in Penzance

  • We arrived in Looe, Cornwall last night, staying in a lovely little B&B called The Little Mainstone Guest House. It’s on the West bank of the river overlooking the harbour and West Looe (where most of the cafes, restaurants and shops are located. It takes just a couple of minutes walk to get there over the bridge. We started the day with a full cooked breakfast (veggie option), the owners got up and made it early for us as we had an early start.
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Looe, Cornwall, at dusk

Today, we drove across to Penzance (about 1hr 20mins) for our first seal trip of the year. We went with Marine Discovery, who operate from on office on the Albert Pier and sail on a catamaran, which was very welcome today, as it was pretty windy and choppy. The catamaran is a lot more stable in this weather than a single-hulled boat.

We set out using the engines and the first stop was St Clements Island off the coast of Mousehole, where there were a number of grey seals who had hauled themselves out onto the rocks. The whole area is great for seabirds, we saw a number of Cormorants, Guillemots, Razorbills, Shags, Fulmars, Manx Shearwaters and Gannets.

The Gannets are the UK’s biggest seabird and they’re huge. They are also good indicators of where you may see porpoises, just look for them diving, which highlights where fish may be found nearby and the porpoises might not be far away.

We then set sail, and headed out to the Minack Theatre, Porthcurno, which is a beautiful open-air theatre that looks out to see. Using the sail just adds a little something to a boat trip as you don’t get any engine noise masking the sound of the sea or the birds. We turned turned round at Porthcurno and headed back to Penzance, but closer to shore looking for harbour porpoises. We luckily saw 4 or 5, but they were being quite shy and we only got fleeting glances and no good shots.

It was windy and very cold on the boat and in spite of Heather’s layers (1 thermal top, a wooly jumper, a hoodie, a padded jacket and 2 waterproof javkets), not to mention 7 items of headgear (1 cap, 2 woolly hats, hoodie and 3 coat hoods), we were frozen when we got off the boat and in a state of near hypothermia. If you’re going out on a boat trip at this time of year, wrap up!

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Being prepared! Wet weather gear is essential for spring boat trips in the UK.