Sea kayaking is a great way to enjoy eye-to-eye encounters with marine wildlife – even for novices.
There is a moment that you yearn for on any wildlife trip – whether it’s a morning stomp round your local patch or a night drive in the heart of the Serengeti – when the day suddenly grants you a treasured instant of complete abandonment.
For a few brief seconds or minutes you are caught up in something wholly incidental to your normal, everyday life. Something happens that you simply can’t wait to describe to your partner or your mates when they ask about your experience. “Well,” you smile, “I did see…”
On my autumn excursion along the Pembrokeshire coast, that moment happens about two hours into a day’s sea kayaking. We have just turned our vessels round to head back to our starting point, mainly because we’re being buffeted by a westerly gale howling in from the Atlantic.
And there it is: an otter, no more than 3–4m away, chugging through the choppy brine towards the rocky shore, with a lumpsucker or some other prized fishy meal clamped between its needle teeth.
For several seconds it doesn’t see us, and we can quietly enjoy the look of detached determination on its face and the nut-brown sleekness of its coat.
We’re so close – the closest to a wild otter I’ve ever been – that I can almost see the drops of seawater on its back. My guide, Martin – who kayaks this coast almost every week of the year – grins broadly. And then the otter turns, spots us and dives.
To the uninitiated, the benefits of sea kayaking – climbing into a long, narrow and unstable boat – to observe shy marine mammals or fast-moving seabirds may not be entirely obvious. Indeed, a firm platform on a vessel that isn’t threatening to capsize every few seconds would appear to be the absolute minimum prerequisite for successful wildlife-watching.
You might appreciate other comforts, too: not having your feet and knees crammed into a space the size of a matchbox; not having to sit in a position that makes it impossible to swivel about your waist; and not fearing that you are about to be dumped unceremoniously into the water every time you take your eyes off the next wave to enjoy the view – to name but three.
There are, however, some compensations for the pain and the perils. I am reminded of a sea-kayaking excursion I joined in Norway’s Svalbard archipelago a few years ago.
Drifting serenely among the brash ice of Hornsund fjord, I spotted a small ’berg with 15 or 20 kittiwakes perched prettily atop it, casually preening themselves under a weak Arctic sun.
I paddled a little closer, lifted my camera to fire off a few shots, then allowed the momentum to carry me nearer still. Soon the kittiwakes were filling the frame of my viewfinder, yet they’d barely even looked at me, let alone shown any sign of taking flight.
By the time I’d drifted gently alongside their floating, ice-blue perch, the penny – sorry, Norwegian krone – had dropped: not only does a sea kayak get you to places you can’t otherwise reach, it also means that you’re less likely to disturb the wildlife you’re cosying up to.
That icy encounter, though, took place in calm conditions, with not much more than a whisper of wind disturbing the surface of the sea.
Fast-forward four years, to September 2010, and I find myself standing on a tiny beach in the village of Cwm-yr-Eglwys in Pembrokeshire, wiping the tears away as a gale of astonishing ferocity sweeps in from the Atlantic.
I’m wondering whether I trust the wisdom of my guide for the day; perhaps more to the point in these conditions, I’m wondering whether I trust myself. But Martin Leonard – sea-kayaking expert and instructor – assesses the threatening clouds out to the west and the wind whipping up the water of Newport Bay, and nods his approval. “Should be okay here,” he says. I hope he’s right.
We’ve already donned wet suits and spray jackets, plus the neoprene skirt that forms a watertight seal around the sea kayak’s cockpit, so we’re ready to go. Martin holds the boat steady while I clamber in with about as much grace as a rhino squeezing through a porthole, then he gives my vessel a little shove. I’m off.
The first sensation is, I’d imagine, akin to that experienced by a hippopotamus on ice skates. That the kayak will be turning turtle any moment now seems to me an absolute certainty, but somehow I survive the first few minutes, and some of what I’ve learned before comes back to me.
I remember to lean forward a little – it helps with balance – and I’m soon starting to feel more confident.
Martin leads us round the headland of Dinas Island; despite its name, it’s actually a fist-shaped peninsula jutting out into the southern expanse of Cardigan Bay.
We hug the rocky shore, not just to gain shelter from the storm but also to scour the rocks for something else: one of the main reasons I’ve ventured here at this time of year. A seal pup.
Between August and November, grey seals give birth to their young – white-coated blubber-babes that spend the first month of their lives on land, squirming like giant, fluffy maggots.
Many of them will be born in the countless sea caves that pockmark this coast, and one of the few ways in which you can access these watery caverns is in a kayak.