Rupert Kirkwood was left stunned as he watched hundreds of bluefin tuna churn up waters during a two-hour feed.
These stunning pictures show bluefin tuna swimming alongside whales and dolphins taken during one kayaking trip a short distance from Plymouth.
Rupert Kirkwood, aged 60, regularly paddles out to sea to spot the abundant marine wildlife in Devon and Cornwall’s waters. On one of his recent trips, on Tuesday, August 11, he saw a group of ‘hundreds’ of bluefin tuna and witnessed a two-hour feeding frenzy including whales and dolphins.
Rupert was about three miles off the coast of Plymouth in Devon and says he’s never seen so many tuna that far east in British waters.
He said: “There was a constant roar of a tuna feeding frenzy for about two hours. I saw about 20 different feeding frenzies over that time.
“They pin the shoaling fish – sand eels and herring – against the surface then hit them from below with such force that the tuna often breach the surface themselves.
“If they don’t breach the surface there’s a huge splash of spray, it’s much more violent than a dolphin breaching the surface. They will be traveling two or three times the speed of a dolphin.
“They’re about the same size as a dolphin. There were dolphins in the same feeding frenzy.
“They were Atlantic bluefin tuna, also known as giant bluefin tuna. They are the biggest tuna species in the world.
“They’ve been seen down in Penzance the last couple of weeks, I saw a handful at Fowey the other day, and I’ve seen one as far east as Torbay.
“I’m not aware of anyone who has ever seen this sort of remarkable sight, this level of activity this far east, near Plymouth.
“I certainly never have, I’ve seen the occasional flurry and tuna jumping – but getting a photo of them is virtually impossible because they are so fast.
“The reason I did is because so many were erupting from the surface.”
Rupert reckons he was able to make the incredible sighting because he always makes sure to pay attention, whereas many people who go on wildlife tours end up spending too much time on their phones.
He added: “There’s a lot of boats that go out to the Eddystone, I spend all my life looking.
“People in the boats don’t notice these because they are so busy looking at their phones.
“I think people don’t believe what I see but it’s because I’m looking the whole time. That’s the wonderful thing about a kayak.
“That day it was so calm that I could hear porpoises puff in the distance, for about three hours I heard almost constant porpoise breathing, splashing dolphins, splashing tuna, and breathing minke whales – it’s unbelievable.”
Bluefin tuna, also known as giant tuna, are the most valuable species of fish in the world with one being sold last year in Japan for £2.5m. In 2017 Plymouth Live reported on a “monster” tuna – thought to weigh more than 300lbs – which was caught by rod and line off Plymouth’s coast.
The following year Plymouth Live reported on a massive 9ft tuna which was caught in a net off Devon’s coast – but strict quota rules meant no-one could eat it. It was eventually donated to the University of Exeter where researchers tested it to determine its age. It is illegal to catch them in the UK and to see them in these numbers so close to the coast is extremely rare.
Duncan and Hannah Jones, the owners of a tourist cruise company in Penzance who discovered the fish, said it was as though the sea was “exploding”.
But EU fishing regulations prevent British boats from catching bluefin tuna. Protection rules mean that only eight countries, including Greece, France, and Spain, can land tuna, and even they are restricted to a short season of fishing. However, the sighting is reported to have prompted foreign crews to raid British waters and cash in on the rare discovery.
A spokesman for Newlyn Fish Company, a fish wholesaler, said: “It is more than a fear, it’s a reality. This government enforces quota regulations to the letter which means there is no chance of British fishing organizations cashing in on this shoal.
“Even though the regulations are set by the European Commission, they are so strict in the UK and much more lenient in other countries.
“UK waters have been heaving with foreign vessels this week”, according to the men out on the boats.
“It wouldn’t be worth any British fisherman’s time attempting to catch any of them because their business would be on the line and they wouldn’t be able to sell it on.”
Tuna’s commercial importance and the introduction of new fishing methods caused numbers to decline in the 1960s, with over-fishing leading to it being classed as critically endangered. The International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas confirmed in October 2009 that Atlantic bluefin tuna stocks had declined dramatically. In early 2010, European officials increased pressure to ban the commercial fishing of bluefin tuna. But in the past few years, stocks have recovered and quotas have been increased, though British boats are not allowed to catch the species.
The Marine Management Organisation, which regulates commercial fisheries in the seas around England, said: “UK fishermen must not target bluefin tuna. If they are accidentally caught then they must be returned to the sea. If this is not possible then the fish may be landed but must not be sold.”
Bluefin tuna are rarely seen in the sea around the British Isles and are more common in the Mediterranean and Atlantic.
The reason behind their appearance is essentially unknown, although some experts believe it is down to warmer sea temperatures around the UK, as a result of global warming.
Mr. Jones, 34, said: “There were a lot of them when we spotted them, as many as 500 I would say.
“It would be impossible to guess how much a shoal like that would be worth, as it all depends on size and condition, but it is fair to say that they can be worth a lot of money.”