Whales Dolphins and Submarines and……..

Being a land surveyor, my job takes me to wildernesses in Mid and South Wales. Whilst I enjoy my work, the technical challenge and the satisfaction of completing the surveying tasks, one of my closet pleasures is watching wildlife. Adders, weasels, red kites are just amongst the treasures hidden away on our landscape waiting to be spotted.

Thus when I go to sea, a sharp lookout is kept for any signs of the wild life that must live in the seas.

This year (2005) we went mad and decided to take a three week cruise from Swansea to the South Coast of Britain in Triton, our Sadler 32. To keep the travelogue brief, we sailed from Swansea to Padstow in a day. The only wildlife seen was the cruising chute which is a tricky beast at the best of times. After a night in Padstow we sailed for the Scillies.

Grimsby Harbour was our destination, whose route to demanded passing a few miles north of the 7 Stones reef. The seas steadily got rougher as we approached. Not the most comfortable passage, as we sat in the cockpit not wanting to eat, and generally feeling a little under the weather. In such a mode, eyes are generally kept on the horizon, keeping the queasy feeling at bay. The waves were tumbling around us all the way to the skyline. Suddenly, the brain noticed spray flying upwards, in contrast to the waves. I sat up looking at the spot were the disturbance was. It was quite a distance from the boat. I estimated it to be about a mile or so. Again the spray flew up, this time with a dark shape in the middle. A cry of ‘get the ***** camera it’s a whale’ went up. The crew is not keen at being shouted at, but she responded well, getting the video out and looking in the direction of my pointed finger.

We watched for a minute, and again the splash was seen. Too late for the video, it was over in a second. A third jump was seen, far to quick to record again. The last jump was most spectacular, the whole whale jumped clear of the sea, its outline and detail on its head was seen. We watched for minutes, but no more splashes were evident. Later with help of a whale expert, an identification was made. A Fin whale had been the culprit, maybe seventy feet in length.

Scillies came with choppy seas, with not so good weather. We stayed for several days, enjoying the rugged islands and their own brand of wildlife. The bird behaviour was noticeably different to what we were used to. The blackbirds and sparrows had little fear of the human population. Blackbirds stayed put whilst we walked by, as if posing for a photo.

Our next destination was Falmouth. We left on a calm morning with glassy seas. The motor was pushing us at five knots towards the east, with the main sail steadying the boat. I was playing with the radar, and was able to track the helicopters and passenger planes flying to and from St Mary’s airport. The crew was on proper watch whilst I was working with the gadgets below. She shouted something I can’t repeat, which roughly translated was ‘come up here and see this’.

I shot up the companionway into the cockpit, gasped, turned around and dived below for the cameras. A hundred dolphins stretched to the horizon, jumping out of the water like a pack of hunting dogs. They were heading towards Triton, eager to look at us and to dive under the keel, resurfacing and diving again. We watched, photographed and video’d these spectacular sea mammals for what seemed an age. One dolphin was identifiable by the scars on its back. He came back again and again along with lots and lots of other dolphins. They went away for a while, but soon returned with more diving and disappearing under the hull.

The wind began to get stronger and soon we were sailing with gusto towards Falmouth. The dolphins were now gone, and allowed us to concentrate on the sailing pleasures. We did see some floppy fins on the water surface, I put them down to being small sharks, but had no idea what they were.

Falmouth came and after a couple of nights in the visitors marina we sailed past the Eddystone on our way to Salcombe. We saw more of these floppy finned ‘sharks’ and noted that I had to identify them properly sometime. Once in the delightful Salcombe harbour, we were moored up in ‘The Bag’ alongside our companion boat, Youannmee. Egrets and herons delighted us every morning. Whilst they fished for breakfasted on fish, we watched them through binoculars. My friend Tudor thought it would be good to try to catch lunch, and began to use feathers to catch mackerel. I told him he was pushing his luck as we were so far from the open sea. As I spoke, his rod jerked, and Tudor struggled to land a huge mackerel. It got away at the last moment.

After Salcombe, we sailed to Dartmouth, in the pouring rain. A few pleasant days in Dartmouth was spent, the weather now improving to what we might hope for in summer. Our outward journey was at an end. Time came to start the return journey to Swansea, some 250 nautical miles away. We motored to Newton Ferriers, the sea calm and the weather windless. Time to relax and enjoy the peace. I fished almost all the way, land several mackerel. Both boat crews in Newton Ferriers enjoyed this food.

A couple of days were spent on the River Yealm, before we left for Fowey. Another calm day with plenty of fishing was had. At the same time a keen lookout was being kept for anything unusual. It came along several miles before Fowey. To set the scene, the seas were dead flat, barely a ripple was seen. So when I saw a ‘bow wave’ of about a foot high, I immediately grabbed the camera and binoculars. The bow wave went before us, and I was anticipating a whale again. The waves clipped the back of the boat, just causing small heave of the stern. Then nothing, the wave died, and there was nothing to be seen. A whale would have to surface to breathe. A shark would have been too small to cause such a large wave. The echo sounder read about thirty metres, so we decided it must have been a submarine. We were in their exercise area.

From Fowey we motor sailed to Penzance, seeing the Lizard at low water with rows of rocks looking like teeth sticking out of the water. The seabed must be very uneven here, the water welled up with the tide and current. What would the sea be like when the wind and a spring current where going in opposite directions? Another bow wave was seen similar the one before Fowey. Again we were sailing in an exercise area, and several warships had been seen and heard firing out to sea. Just hoped they knew we were there. More mackerel provided supper when Penzance was reached and the harbour gates were opened for us.

A night was spent in Penzance, a working harbour and a pretty and helpful town. The following morning we sailed as soon as the harbour gates opened, having planned to round Lands End using the inner passage. The weather again was calm, the boats ‘chinaman’ was in tow, hoping to catch a fish or two for supper this evening. Whilst rounding Gwnap Point the chinaman came to the surface with quite a large fish on it. Alas he got away. Another did the same, but again the fish escaped. The seabed again caused large upwellings, rising from 45 to 17 metres in just a few boat lengths. A mist settled upon us as we neared the Armoured Knight. Radar went on, life jackets donned, and foghorns were sounded. Youannmee disappeared in the mist, but the radar showed that there were no approaching dangers. Longships rocks and lighthouse could be seen on the radar screen, and soon enough appeared over the mist. Lands End could be seen over the mist, and we rounded the point in clearing visibility. A shape was seen in the water swimming on the same course as us. Might have been a small whale, or maybe a turtle. We soon left it behind wondering what it could have been.

On the remaining trip to Padstow, we saw basking sharks, their large dorsal fins moving through the sea slowly, bothering no one but the plankton. We stayed in Padstow for a couple nights enjoying this west Cornwall watering hole. The final trip of 77 nautical miles to Swansea was made, with the joy in the heart of a safe and enjoyable holiday, and the sadness of parting with a truly faithful mistress, the boat Triton. We saw more dolphins and basking sharks on this final leg. We arrived at Swansea’s River Tawe in the early hours of the morning.

Finally, the floppy fins turned out to be Sunfish! They are short fish, but also deep! And can come in two ton lumps. Some fish, some very exciting sights, and memories. An excellent trip in 2005.

Mark Johnson

Triton Sadler 32