Wildlife guide Paul Semmens offers expert tips on spotting wildlife off the Cornish Coast

PUBLISHED: 12:41 18 August 2010 | UPDATED: 16:09 20 February 2013

Paul Semmens

Paul Semmens

Wildlife guide and surveyor Paul Semmens talks to Cornwall Life in this August issue about his lifelong passion for bird and marine life. Such is his enthusiasm, he offers expert tips on spotting wildlife off the Cornish Coast

Wildlife guide and surveyor Paul Semmens talks to Cornwall Life about his lifelong passion for bird and marine life. Such is his enthusiasm, he offers expert tips on spotting wildlife off the Cornish Coast

The childhood birthday gift of a birdwatching book has made a lasting impression on 49-year-old Paul Semmens from Penzance. At the age of eight Paul was introduced to the world of ornithology by his great uncle: little did he know at the time that the colourful pocket-sized book of illustrations would open his eyes to the wonders of the natural world and steer him to turn a passion for wildlife into a career, working locally with the Cornwall and Isles of Scilly Wildlife Trusts and the RSPB.

"As a child, my great uncle was the only member of our family with a car and I have fond memories of trips to sites around Cornwall to watch birds with him - they were like mini-adventures and quickly fuelled my interest in wildlife. I soon became fascinated in everything else that I saw on our birdwatching trips, appreciating the importance of the flora and fauna that make up an eco-system," Paul says.

Paul first turned his attention from the land to the sea in 1990. "I'd heard from some friends that large schools of dolphins had moved into local waters and decided to check it out. From the moment I caught my first glimpse I was hooked and straight after that I became more involved in studying marine life."

For the past 20 years Paul has worked with local Wildlife Trusts, both as a volunteer and in an official capacity undertaking surveys on specific projects. But it's on board the Isles of Scilly Steamship Company's passenger vessel Scillonian III that Paul's enthusiasm for sharing his wildlife expertise really comes into its own. "Between April and October I'm on board every Wednesday as part of the Isles of Scilly Marine Biodiversity Project, providing passengers with commentary on the wildlife that can be seen from the ship during the outward journey from Penzance to St Mary's. On the return journey my role is completely different; I base myself on the bridge and take detailed records of the marine and birdlife I see."

The Scillonian III provides an excellent opportunity to collect transect survey data, which means that as the ship takes its fixed route at the same time, on every sailing, data can be collected and measured accurately. The data reveals a picture of the seasonal movements, numbers and species of wildlife in that part of the Atlantic between Cornwall and Scilly.

On Fridays during the summer sailing season, and wearing a different hat for the RSPB, Paul talks to Scillonian III passengers about the birdlife of Cornwall and Scilly. He says: "The puffin is one of the most iconic symbols of the islands and I never tire of seeing their comical features and hearing the excited cries of first-time birdwatchers as they spot the illusive little characters darting across the water."

"Last year on 12 trips I saw nearly 400 individual cetaceans - mainly dolphins and porpoises but with the occasional minke whale and sunfish. We also see good numbers of basking sharks, which is a surprise to many visitors who seem surprised to learn that the gentle giants are completely harmless and visit our waters during the summer months to feed on the algal blooms. Dispelling misconceptions is an aspect of my work that I particularly enjoy."

Paul supplements his income by working at a high-tech company near Penzance that makes hydrophones - specialist equipment to monitor the underwater eco-location clicks of porpoises, dolphins and whales. "I've had a number of jobs over the years but have always gravitated towards work where I can draw upon my interest in wildlife. I started by giving guided walks with the council and private marine tours."

In his spare time Paul paints wildlife and seascapes in watercolour and acrylics. Despite monitoring wildlife at work, to relax, he watches the countryside and shores of Cornwall. This led to one of the greatest discoveries of his career, in 1999, when he recorded the third British sighting of the scarlet darter, a very rare species of dragonfly from southern Europe.

So would Paul ever swap life working outside in all weathers for another profession? "I love the countryside and have a real passion for the sea so can't ever imagine working in a nine-to-five office job. It's a privilege to get paid to do a job that I enjoy so much. When I set off from home in the morning to walk down to Penzance Quay I almost don't think about it as going to work."

He continues: "Seeing something like a 30ft killer whale in our Cornish waters provides an incredible thrill and I never tire of spotting dolphins: they can be a real spectacle and certainly know how to entertain us as they perform a leaping dance beside the ship. On one trip to the Isles of Scilly I saw 150 dolphins. In sad contrast, I'm also a volunteer with the Cornwall Wildlife Trust's Marine Stranding Network. Cornwall has the highest number of stranded cetaceans each year compared to any other county in the UK, but the data collected is invaluable so I do that work with a heavy heart."

"We're grateful for the support from the Steamship Company and when I'm not there some of the crew even collect data for me. If at least one passenger every trip goes away with a new-found interest and respect for wildlife then I will have made a difference," Paul concludes.

Learn more about the wildlife around the Cornish coast with Paul Semmens on Scillonian III every Wednesday until the end of October, with additional wildlife watching trips on 26 September and 10 October. Throughout August, adults booking 35 return day trips will be entitled to a year's free membership of either Cornwall or Isles of Scilly Wildlife Trust. Keep up to date with the wildlife Paul has recorded from the Scillonian III at www.ios-travel.co.uk/wildlife

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