Mention whale-watching to a friend and they will probably wax lyrical about exotic holidays in far-flung destinations. Suggest the same in this country and you may receive a more incredulous response.
But marine wildlife watching is booming in Britain and the coastline of west Cornwall provides one of the most rewarding and spectacular settings.
With nature there are never any guarantees of course, but it’s with an open mind and a hopeful heart that I hop aboard Shearwater II – Marine Discovery Penzance’s 10-foot sailing catarmaran. I’ve joined owners, Duncan and Hannah Jones, and several other optimists, including a mother and her daughter who took the night train from grey London and woke up this morning to Cornish colours: deeply blue skies with swirls of creamy clouds.
Leaving the castle-topped island of St Michael’s Mount behind, we hug the coast and sail towards Mousehole. This huddle of fishing cottages was described by Dylan Thomas as the “loveliest village in England” after he spent his honeymoon here in 1938. Opposite the harbour lies St Clement’s Isle where five handsome grey seals, including a heavily pregnant female, are hauled up on the rocks. Duncan, at the tiller, steers quietly and sensitively past so that there is no engine noise to disturb them.
It’s not long before we see more wonderful wildlife. The first fin spotted belongs to a harbour porpoise, glimpsed briefly as it rolls through the waves. This is one of the best places in Britain to see our smallest and shyest cetacean. And then, following a glossy slick of plankton, we find an ocean sunfish basking on its side. This bizarre-looking animal stares at us dolefully before righting itself and disappearing into the depths.
At Cripp’s Cove, we scan for basking sharks. Although they elude us this morning, these gentle giants are often seen here, feeding with mouths agape and gill-rakers glowing ghostly white through the waters.
Around the corner looms Logan Rock. This naturally balanced boulder, high up Teryn Dinas cliffs, could be wobbled with the slightest of effort until it was toppled by a band of sailors in 1824 in a brash show of naval strength. It was replaced on its perch, but no longer rocks with such ease.
Dramatic stories also unfold at the famous Minack Theatre, carved into the granite above the pale sands of Porthcurno, just a few miles from Land’s End. Performances are occasionally interrupted to allow audiences to watch the acrobatics of passing pods of dolphins.
Then, more drama. Hannah answers a call on the radio. I can detect the barely contained excitement in her questions – “Where? Definitely? How many?” – and, suddenly, we’re hurrying to the horizon.
Two gannets are climbing above the waves in ascending spirals, preparing to dive, their bright white wings tipped with black. Feeding seabirds can sometimes point to the presence of something bigger and there – yes!
100 metres ahead, a long, black back curves slowly through a sunlit strip of sea. The crescent, almost sickle-shaped, dorsal fin, set well back on the body, defines it as a minke whale.
Duncan explains that sometimes minkes will circle the boat out of curiosity or lunge-feed spectacularly at the surface. Today though, it crests the water once, then twice more before silently slipping away.
Made in Britain
As we change tack and head for home, everyone on board quietly absorbs what we’ve just witnessed. Seeing the most magical creatures our seas possess will always be an enchanting experience, but it’s an encounter made all the more special for being in our own back yard.
HOW TO GET THERE
The A30 is the most direct road to Penzance. By train, Penzance railway station, on the quayside, is at the end of the Cornish main line and is both the most western and southern station in England.
The Night Riviera train runs to Penzance from London Paddington every evening (except Saturdays).
Marine Discovery Penzance
Shed 5, Albert Pier, Penzance Harbour, Penzance TR18 2LL
Whales (mainly minke, but occasionally other species) are most often seen during early spring and late summer.
A range of trips are available, lasting between 1½ and four hours. Marine Discovery are ambassadors for Planet Whale, which promotes responsible whale watching.
The Old Lifeboat House Bistro
Wharf Road, Penzance TR18 4AA
Recently opened café and restaurant in a restored Victorian building that once housed the town’s lifeboat.
Blue Seas Hotel
13 Regent Terrace, Penzance TR18 4DW
01736 364 744
Grade-II listed guesthouse serving award-winning, locally sourced breakfasts.