Running to the sea

Yesterday I ran to the sea. Since returning from Lundy island, I’ve been dreaming of more adventures. On Lundy, it was easy to do crazy things outside my comfort zone: sleeping under rocks away from the village, snorkelling with puffins at sunrise, kayaking through rough waves, and swimming the length of the island. However, in Cambridge and at home near Bath there is less scope for these sort of things (although I did sleep under a hedge a few times in Cambridge), so I decided to do a mini adventure. I’ve never really considered my house to be near the sea, but a quick look at google maps confirms that it is only 27 miles away. Judging from my experience running along the south west coast path last Easter (see a previous blog), this is definitely achievable in one day. To make things more exciting, I decided not to take a map.

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The start

I set off at 8:40 in the morning, having slept under the stars in the garden. The route was pretty simple: Run upstream along the river that passes my house until you reach a big lake. Run west from this lake to another lake. Find the river exiting this second lake, and follow it down to the sea. For the first few miles I was running at a decent pace next to the river. I found a disused canal partially filled with water, ducks, and reeds, and followed it for a bit. I had an amazing close up view of a kingfisher, and found a flooded woodland which looked like the sort of place you could imagine seeing a beaver.

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Disused canal with ducks and black headed gulls
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Swampy woodland

After about an hour, I came across a stream entering the river from a mysterious and ancient looking wood, so decided to do a detour to check it out. I ended up following some more streams and taking a slightly hillier route to the first lake. I was unsure exactly where I was for most of the time, but if you keep moving in roughly the right direction you will probably get there in the end.

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Trees
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Killer sheep added another layer of excitement

Then there was a little bit of running on the flat, to reach the second lake, which involved passing the yeo valley yogurt farm (probably a significant proportion of the atoms in my body originate from these yogurts). At around midday, I reached a sign which said 13 miles to Weston super Mare (the sea). I decided that, with 4 hours of daylight left, I could easily afford to take another scenic detour. Instead of following the river down to the sea, I contoured along the edge of the valley, through some woodland, bracken, and grasslands. There were also 2 very impressive gorges.

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A detour through the woods
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Impressive limestone gorge with rare calcareous grassland habitat

However at this point my legs were hurting and I only had 2 hours left before sunset, so after emerging from the woods I decided to run the last 9 miles along the verge of a main road.

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A random missile next to the road
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A boring route but faster than going on footpaths
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Funky graffiti
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Nearly there, but a bit lost in the urban jungle

My idea was that then I could arrive at the beach in time to photograph the epic sunset reflected in the sea. In reality I got lost in Weston super Mare, photographed some funky graffiti instead, and arrived at the beach at low tide to witness a disappointing sunset with no reflection, and took one photo before my phone died. In hindsight it would have been better to do a slightly longer off-road route. To get home, I got a train back to Bath.

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The beach! But unfortunately no epic sunset

The whole thing took about 7 hours and it was probably around 30 miles (google maps said 27, but I did some detours), so I was not very fast (I also stopped a few times to eat food). However it was definitely a fun adventure that I would recommend – it’s amazing how many different places you can experience and how much you can challenge yourself in just one day.

 

To see some of my wildlife photography and films, please check out my other website http://www.joshuaharriswildlife.co.uk

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Lundy Memories

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This summer I was a long term conservation volunteer on Lundy island. I spent most of my free time photographing and filming the wildlife, mostly underwater, and exploring the coastline. It was an absolutely awesome 3 months, with some truly mind boggling experiences. Here are some of the most memorable (in no particular order):

Swimming as fast as I could along the east side of Lundy, feeling the water rushing past and looking down at the amazing patterns of many different seaweeds. Sleeping out near the north end of the island (away from all the people) amongst a cacophony of manx shearwaters flying in to feed their chicks. Listening to the screaming of peregrines as I woke up (flashback to Cambridge). Watching storm petrels flitting across the sky just above my head in the dark. Capsizing a leaky kayak in rough waves (was actually quite dangerous at the time, but I was ok in the end). A seal hugging my leg for about a minute. Me and my 2 housemates watching an absolutely giant beetle crawling around in someone’s dirty pants. Being chased by an absolutely massive bull seal when kayaking. Snorkelling through spectacular sea caves with seals. Peering over the cliff edge to see 2 female seals with pups on a secluded beach below. Walking past a seal pup about 2 metres away when it hauled out on the road near the jetty. Swimming far out from the west side of the island to photograph seabirds underwater. Swimming the length of the island. Meeting an angry seal in a remote cave. Sneaking up on turnstones, oystercatchers, and common sandpipers to within a few metres by kayak (it is definitely easier to sneak up in a kayak than if you are on the shore). Attempting to climb up a bramble covered cliff, wearing only shorts. Trying to kayak through the narrow gap between 2 rocks as the tide rushed through in the opposite direction. Getting heat stroke during the 14 mile Lundy race. Walking up to the north end at 3:30am the next morning, with just a bit of orange light in the sky. Getting drunk (x3). Swimming in complete darkness with bioluminescent plankton lighting up silver as I disturbed the water. Walking around in the dark, and in the moonlight. Sleeping behind a random rock at the top of a cliff, and waking up with no memory of where I was. Watching the sun go down over the horizon countless times. Watching the sun go down over the horizon with puffins silhouetted in front just a few metres away, swimming around in the reflection of the sunset. Fulmars flying past my head closer than 1 metre whilst I was swimming. Fulmars flying past me when I was sitting on the cliff edge, close enough that I could have touched them. Hating myself when I didn’t wake up for the sunrise. Watching and photographing shags just a few metres away at the bottom of the cliffs at the north end as the sun went down over the horizon. Glimpsing deer running like ghosts silhouetted against the blue glow after a cloudy sunset, as I was walking up the island to sleep. Being forced to kiss a guy who worked in the pub as part of a drinking game (would not recommend). Looking into the eyes of guillemots underwater as close as 1 metre (definitely would recommend). Swimming with puffins and guillemots for up to 5 hours a day for several weeks. Eating mouldy food from the depths of the fridge. Being surrounded by the bubble trails produced by guillemots and puffins underwater. Falling in love with a seal (it repeatedly nuzzled the camera and nibbled my fins and wetsuit). Seeing the most awesome stars. Putting on a wet wetsuit at 4:30am. Snorkelling with 3 incredibly inquisitive seals at sunrise in absolutely unreal visibility and the most epic light. Being smashed around by big waves whilst photographing guillemots underwater, and also when trying to get out onto the rocks (pretty edgy but certainly very exciting!) Swimming around in the bay beneath a seabird colony at sunset, with all the birds wheeling around overhead. Watching a peregrine hunt kittiwake chicks inside a cave. Listening to kittiwakes calling in the dark as I fell asleep.

Underwater seabird madness

Welcome to the second of my blogs. Recently, instead of damaging my feet on some crazy adventure (see previous blog), I have been a long term conservation volunteer on Lundy island in north devon, one of my favourite places. One of my ideas for this summer on Lundy was to try to photograph and film puffins, guillemots, and razorbills underwater. I’d seen a few photographers do this before, but as far as I know none of them had thought of doing it at sunset, and no one had done it on Lundy. I got the idea of photographing underwater at sunset from seeing an epic shot of a killer whale in the wildlife photographer of the year by Norwegian photographer Audun Rikardsen, with golden sunlight bursting through the water. Although I think this image was taken just before the polar winter (when the sun is very low in the sky), I couldn’t see why the effect should be any different to a normal sunrise or sunset, so I was surprised that more photographers had not thought of doing this.

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The killer whale photo by Norwegian photographer Audun Rikardsen which inspired me to photograph guillemots at sunset.

 

So, before going to Lundy, I had the dream shot in my head: a puffin / guillemot / razorbill swimming down through golden rays of sunlight, with the bubble trail backlit by the sun.

When I arrived on Lundy there were loads of seabirds still around, and conditions were perfect (hot and sunny every day, so rubbish light during the day but a guaranteed awesome sunrise and sunset). On the first evening, I got in the water at around 6, was absolutely blown away by the beauty and awesomeness of seeing the auks diving underwater, and so used up all the camera battery by 9, at which point the light was getting seriously hot. So although it was a crazy experience, this first attempt did not produce the images I was after (I got some cool film though).

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One of the early pictures. The light is not as good as later in the evening, but you can see the “snorkelling” behaviour – swimming around on the surface with it’s head in the water to look for fish / investigate me.

For the first few weeks it was an absolute dream: I would slip into the calm water, swim around with the seabirds in absolutely unreal light, look into their eyes underwater, and watch the sun dip down over the horizon, with the birds silhouetted in front. The sunrise sessions were even better: I slept out under the stars (there is low light pollution on Lundy) in my bivvy bag near the north end of the island, was kept awake by manx shearwaters calling as they fly in to their burrows, woken up by peregrine falcons calling and the wailing sound of seals, and saw some deer before sunrise. I got in the water before 5am, and watched the sun rise whilst surrounded by puffins and guillemots (the razorbills were always far rarer, I think overall I only have a couple of images of them). Later on, when the wind changed to the west (the big seabird colony is on the west side) things became a bit dodgy in the evenings: climbing out onto the rocks amongst big waves, with one hand holding the camera and wearing flippers, was certainly an exciting, sometimes scary, and adrenaline fuelled experience, and it was incredibly lucky I didn’t smash the glass dome of the camera housing on the rocks. It was then even more annoying that I scratched it in an entirely non dangerous situation a few weeks later.

It was an absolutely mind bogglingly awesome and beautiful experience to swim with the seabirds. Watching them on the water at sunset is pretty cool, but beneath the water it is a whole new world. The low sun filters down through the waves, the guillemots swim towards me out of the gloom, through the golden rays of light, their bubble trails lighting up in the sun. Sometimes when I approached a large group, they would all dive at once, and there were as many as 20 all swimming around me. When they disappeared, I was surrounded by their criss-crossed bubble trails floating up to the surface. The groups often moved away from the shore throughout the evening, so I followed them out, reaching several hundred metres from the shore, in water too deep to see the bottom. There was no point of reference in the water, so it was absolutely incredible (apart from on some evenings there were actually massive swarms of jellyfish which got in the way of the photos, which was very annoying). The birds were so at home underwater, using their wings to fly underwater far more gracefully than they fly through the air. It was mental!

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A puffin – awkward on land and inefficient in flight but a swimming machine.

At first I focused solely on photographing them underwater, but when swimming around with them I kept seeing them silhouetted against the sunset. To get an image of this required a very high tech gadget – a raft which I made out of plastic bottles from the recycling. With this raft, and a slightly longer lens (you need a mega wide angle for underwater stuff), it was possible to take photos and video at a water level perspective with the sunset in the background. The issue was that with the longer lens, underwater shots were tricky and almost always looked rubbish, so each evening I would have to decide on one setup, and then later realise that the other would have been better. I also bought a cuddly toy puffin and tied it onto my head as a cunning disguise. Once, when I was swimming in an area with few birds, a puffin landed right next to me, so the trick worked, but most of the time I’m not sure it made much difference as they were very curious anyway.

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The raft for water level shots, and the toy puffin.

Despite some technical issues and a very large number of muck ups (basically an excuse for saying I was a crap photographer), there were a handful of images that I actually liked, and in my opinion they are by far the coolest images I have ever taken.

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Puffins at sunset. It’s annoying that the ones on the right are looking away though.

 

 

 

 

 

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A guillemot diving.
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A puffin as the sun drops over the horizon.
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The guillemot shot I had dreamed of (except that the sun is burnt out and the water is too green).

This experience was also the best ever. It was awesome to be immersed in the seabirds’ world, and experience the colony from their perspective. Often when watching wildlife we just look at the animals from a distance, seeing them in a very different way to how they see each other and how they experience the habitat. I felt that in this case, swimming around with the seabirds, seeing them fly overhead (a few times closer than a meter away), seeing them swim around me underwater, and at times being smashed around by large waves, I had experienced a part of their world. Millions of images must be taken of puffins on land, yet they only have to come to land to breed. Apart from breeding, they are really marine animals, perfectly at home on and under the sea. Hopefully some of the underwater images conveyed this.

I am also making a film about some of the wildlife on Lundy. Keep an eye on my Facebook page (Joshua Harris Wildlife Photography) or Instagram (@joshharriswildphoto) to see a few more of my photos, or check out the gallery on my website www.joshuaharriswildlife.co.uk/Lundy/ for a larger selection. Also watch out for my future blogs, the next one will be about the best memories of my time on Lundy.

120 mile adventure

I recently ran, jogged, and walked from Newquay in Cornwall to Barnstaple in Devon, along the south west coast path, a distance of 120 miles.

I was inspired to do this by reading abut the adventures of Sean Conway (who ran the length of the UK self supported) and Alastair Humphreys (who thought of Microadventures). I also wanted to do another adventure similar to my Shetland trip last summer, going somewhere I did not know much about and “making things up as I went along”. Although this time I decided that instead of taking my camera and focusing on photographing wildlife, I would do something physically challenging. The south west coast path seemed like a good place for such an adventure, because it would be easy to navigate (you can’t get lost when you just keep the sea on the left), there are plenty of villages where I could stop for food, and, judging from google maps satellite view, the vegetation along the coast was mainly gorse, bracken, and small woods, so it should be easy to be able to find somewhere to sleep where I would not be noticed.

So I booked a train to Newquay, bought a tarp, lightweight sleeping mat, and GoPro to record my adventure, and set off. In my rucksack I had: sleeping bag, bivvy bag, sleeping mat, tarp, small first aid kit, chlorine tablets (there was never actually any need to use these), GoPro, phone, money, base layers, fleece, waterproof, plus a pair of shorts, a t shirt, and trainers to wear.

Arriving at Newquay was a bit weird, since obviously it wasn’t a race so there was no start line or anything. I just walked for a bit, recorded a video of me saying something and looking nervous, and started running. At first I got distracted by the many fulmars which were nesting on the cliffs, and the fact that there were signs that said there were corn buntings breeding in this area (they have become very rare due to intensification of agriculture and here many fields were left aside to provide ideal locations for nesting, because they nest on the ground, and foraging for insects in the rough grassland). Fulmars are one of my favourite bird species. Although they are often mistaken for seagulls, they are in fact related to albatrosses. They fly with stiff wings, superbly using the wind to fly using minimal energy when searching the sea for food, and often very acrobatically around the cliffs. In fact, studies have shown that at wind speeds above 25 miles per hour, flying at sea uses less energy than sitting on the nest, as they never need to flap their wings at all. This energy efficient flight is achieved by a technique known as “Dynamic soaring” that is used by many wide ranging seabirds such as albatrosses. It works in a cycle: Facing into the wind causes the birds to gain height, as the air flowing over their wings generates lift. Then they fly downwards in the direction they want to travel, using the height gained to move forwards. Then they turn to face the wind agin and repeat the process. This allows them to fly in pretty much any direction they want, provided it is windy (which it reliably is in the ocean).

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A fulmar photographed on Lundy island (not during my run).
A diagram showing the dynamic soaring technique

Anyway, unfortunately I didn’t have time to watch the fulmars all day, so I took a quick video of the on my phone (regretting the lack of long lens), and moved on. This first afternoon was really fun, as I was running at a decent pace considering I had a 10kg rucksack (maybe 6 mph), and it was cool running over beaches (people looked at me like I was a bit weird) and down hills. On this first afternoon, I covered 27 miles in 6 hours, with one cafe stop for a cheese panini, and a few other stops to eat peanuts and drink water. I arrived in the village of Polzeath (just past Padstow in Cornwall) as it was getting dark and went to a cafe where I ate a very large pizza, a flapjack, a cereal bar, more peanuts, and an egg. Then I found a small valley with a dense thicket of trees that looked like a good sleeping spot, set up my tarp, and went to sleep feeling really tired.

Day 1 had gone better than I had hoped, so I decided to try to get to Bude the next day, which I thought was about 40 miles away, but I wasn’t sure cause there was no internet connection. I actually felt alright as I started running, and the weather was really nice. Despite more distraction by fulmars, I ran 7 miles in the first hour, and then pulled into a cafe to get some beans on toast. I then ran a bit slower (probably average 5mph) for a few more hours, ate a beanburger in another cafe around midday, ran a bit more, ate some bread and dates that I had bought, and it seemed like I was doing well. However at some point in the afternoon I rounded a corner and saw in the distance the coastline going on for miles, and realised that to complete the whole thing I would have to cover all that distance. Whereas up till now I had only though about reaching the next village, I was now thinking about the whole journey, which is a bit demoralising really considering its so long. Its much better to break it into many manageable chunks and just focus on each section at a time. Also at this point I was getting tired and the terrain was getting more hilly, so I slowed down quite a lot and was walking up hills and when it was especially muddy. I almost reached Bude after 12 hours and 36 miles (with 3 cafe stops), but it was getting dark so I went to a pub, then slept behind a bush in some sand dunes. It was pretty cool to see 2 snipes and a curlew (both live in marshy areas and are declining in the UK) near to where I was sleeping though.

The next morning I felt pretty dead, and basically walked most of the 2 miles to Bude, where I got a massive breakfast, because judging from google maps there were hardly any villages where I could get food for around the next 30 miles. This day was pretty slow, with an average speed of only 2.4mph (28.5 miles in 12 hrs with 1 cafe stop and many stops to eat dried fruit, take pictures, and generally rest for a few minutes), because it was really muddy, hilly, and my knees hurt when going up and down hills, so I basically only ran on the flat areas. I went through a village that I remembered from English GCSE had some significance for the poet Thomas Hardy, and I was a bit tempted to write some depressing poetry about the meaninglessness of life or something, cause I felt really tired by this point and my feet had blisters. On a brighter note, I saw a peregrine falcon. The coastline of north Cornwall and Devon was the last refuge of peregrines in the UK when they were almost wiped out by persecution and bioaccumulation of pesticides (leading to thinning of the eggshells causing the adult birds to break them accidentally when incubating the eggs) in the late 20th century. In this area there are many large cliffs which are perfect nest sites, and relatively low human disturbance, so its easy to see why they clung on here. They’ve since made an incredible comeback across the UK, and breed in many of our cities (such as Cambridge), where the tall buildings mimic the cliffs that they nest on and urban pigeons are ideal prey.

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A peregrine falcon photographed in Cambridge (not on my run)

 

There were also some pretty cool rock formations, with massive cliffs and lots of folding. Also I found a hairy orange caterpillar (the hairs probably make them very unpleasant for birds to eat) and 2 species of beetle, although I’m not sure what species they were because unfortunately I’m rubbish at identifying invertebrates. I reached Clovelly, a village in north Devon, at 8:45, went to a pub, and went to sleep in a nearby wood. I could have shown a better sleeping spot but, having sat down for a bit, my legs had become really stiff and my feet hurt when I tried to walk up the hill.

Unfortunately it rained a lot in the night and I hadn’t put up the tarp cause I felt so dead, so I got really wet. The next morning it was also raining and very muddy, so I hardly ran at all for the first 7 miles. Also there were no pubs or cafes, so I just ate a 250g bag of salted peanuts and some dates throughout the morning. I reckon its actually inadvisable to eat around 5g of salt and 150g of fat in one morning, but I didn’t have any other food and I was very hungry. I saw a roe deer, which was nice, and there were a lot of funky lichens on the trees (due to the minimal air pollution of this area), but unfortunately I’m not a lichen expert so I didn’t know what species they were. After a while the landscape got flatter and the weather improved, so I actually started running, and the last 10 miles were on a completely flat tarmac cycle path so I ran it non stop, ending with a sprint finish just in time to catch a train home.

The whole thing took 75 hours 38 mins, so just over 3 days, although I actually spent 4 days doing it, as 2 of them were half days.

It was a pretty cool adventure, and I’d definitely recommend trying something similar. Alastair Humphreys’s website has a lot of helpful advice that’s worth reading if you’re deciding what to do. I’d never run more than 16 miles before, so you can probably achieve more than you think, and anyway you can just walk if you feel tired. Just go! It’ll be really fun.

My feet at the end. Maybe do your adventure when it’s not so wet and muddy! It was definitely worth it though.