Sea kayaking: Get closer to marine wildlife than ever before

Sea kayaking is a great way to enjoy eye-to-eye encounters with marine wildlife – even for novices. 

Sea kayaking article spread
We spend the first hour or so of our paddle probing each cave we come to, gently nosing our way in to minimise disturbance. At the back of the third or fourth fissure a female seal hangs in the water; on a shelf still deeper into the cave, two bright, glistening eyes are just visible in the gloom: our first white-coat.
Careful not to outstay our welcome, we spend less than a minute with the pup, then paddle on round Dinas Head where, with less protection from the wind, the swell and chop increase. Luckily I’ve acquired a temporary set of kayaking legs, and we press on, past Needle Rock; here a white-coat rests out in the open, its mother regarding us placidly from the spray-lashed rocks.
Sport for all?
The return journey to Cwm-yr-Eglwys is blessed with that otter encounter – the moment that burns itself into my mind’s eye so indelibly that the paddle back to shore is almost erased from my memory, as if nothing else is sufficiently important to recall.
Back at the village we munch our sandwiches huddled behind the ruins of the 12th-century church of St Brynach (destroyed by the so-called Royal Charter Storm of 1859, named after a ship that it wrecked) while chatting to a hardy pair of walkers.
One of them, a man in his late 60s, wonders whether sea kayaking is something he could still learn at his age. Martin responds enthusiastically. “Why not?” he affirms. “I’ve taught people your age and they absolutely loved it.”
This is one of the things I’m beginning to appreciate about sea kayaking. With a bit of instruction, anyone can do it, but there’s also plenty of scope for learning advanced techniques.
I couldn’t possibly have paddled out on my own in today’s weather conditions, because I haven’t yet learned to rescue myself from a capsize, I don’t have the necessary control when kayaking close to the rocks and I don’t understand the tides, but in calmer conditions I’d feel quite comfortable. The more experience you gain, of course, the more adventurous you can be.
Vantage point
After lunch we paddle east towards Newport Sands and the mouth of the River Nevern. The drizzle has stopped and the wind eased, albeit marginally.
For a while we see little to set the pulse racing. A small group of razorbills bobs about on the surface, sporting an oddly mottled plumage that I’ve never seen before – this year’s models, Martin explains, yet to acquire the pied beauty of adulthood.
A little further on we spot a seal ‘bottling’ in the water: hanging vertically, its head above the swell, regarding us with evident curiosity. It reminds me of a Russian doll, or even one of those 1970s toys that rights itself after being knocked over.
But this tiny fractal of Pembrokeshire’s coastline still has one last detail to reveal. Gazing up I spot two scimitar-shaped hunters swooping in a perfect arc towards the rocks on the far side of an inlet: a pair of young peregrines, learning to control their sophisticated aeronautical hardware.
A little further on a second pair surprises us, like a pair of enemy ‘bogeys’, one of them banking tightly above our heads. It’s a sight that makes me giddy as I turn for home, craning my neck to follow the birds’ fierce and fiery trail.
There are any number of outdoor activity centres and freelance instructors that can teach you the basics of sea kayaking. It’s not hard to get started, though some of the more advanced skills will take much longer to master.
To find out more about sea kayaking in your area, including clubs and local experts, visit the website of the British Canoe Union’s Sea Touring Committee
James was taken out paddling by Pembrokeshire-based Sea Kayak Guides, which offers a variety of experiences ranging from one-day mini trips to multi-day expeditions visiting areas further afield, including Ireland and Scotland. In May and June trips visit Skokholm Island, famed for its colonies of breeding seabirds. Call 01437 720859 or click here
Preseli Venture runs courses, days out and even family holidays featuring sea kayaking, surfing, coasteering and walking. Call 01348 837709 or click here
Rock & Sea Adventures runs sea-kayaking and climbing courses for all levels of experience from its base in Anglesey. Call 01248 410877 or click here.
Seafreedom operates out of Oban on the west coast of Scotland, and provides instruction as well as guided trips. Call 01631 710173 or click here
  • Be aware of the time of year: March to July is a sensitive time for seabirds that come ashore to nest and raise their young.
  • Watch seabirds on the water from a distance and observe their behaviour: if they are craning, turning or bobbing their heads and/or flapping their wings, back off.
  • Avoid ‘rafts’ of seabirds floating on the sea’s surface. Any disturbance could cause them to regurgitate and lose food intended for their young.
  • Remember to be especially cautious when entering a sea cave between August and November – it’s the time of year when grey seal pups are born.
  • Land on or below seabird nesting areas. Auks such as guillemots and razorbills incubate their eggs on their feet – if they fly off ledges in a panic, eggs can be dislodged and broken.
  • Land in areas where seals may have young during the pupping season.
  • Creep up on seals or approach them bow on; always leave an escape route.
  • Get between a mother seal and her pup, or try to touch or feed any animals. 


To read a code of conduct for kayakers, click here.


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