Exploring the Exe Estuary by canoe and paddle board: Reflections on management and wellbeing benefits

Exmouth Estuary. Credit: C. Petersen

Having abandoned our attempt to walk an extended section of the South West Coast Path (@swcoastpath) because of the Covid-19 accommodation restrictions still in place, we plan a canoe trip down the Exe instead.

Our youngest is unhappy at the start because it’s a pretty chilly mid-April day (the car registers 4 degrees Celsius as we drive down to our launch site) and he has had to put a slightly damp wetsuit on (plus buoyancy aid) before 9am in the school holidays. I find a woolly hat for him and we try and persuade him that this is a good idea, especially when we see the nearly flat pale blue clear water with the morning light reflecting off it.

We launch our two canoes (one single, one double) and a paddle board; a few wispy clouds break up the blue sky but the sun starts to shine and almost immediately we feel much warmer. I suddenly feel grateful to be able to be here and to venture out on the water, and that this at least is not restricted due to the pandemic. Our eldest cheerfully battles to keep the single canoe going in a straight line at the start but soon gets the hang of it.

We can see our destination in the distance and have timed the tides right so without much effort on our part we start to float (almost) effortlessly towards Exmouth. After a while we negotiate our first slightly complicated swap (luckily without falling in, as I sense that a dip in the cold water at this point would have made our trip quite a bit shorter).

Common Tern. Credit: All About Birds

While floating down the Exe estuary with the tide, we watch two common terns diving to catch fish making their piercing cry, warning us to steer clear. A few boats motor by us (as there’s not a breath of wind today), and although we make sure we’re out of the way some of them slow down and wave as they pass.

The Exe Estuary is protected at National, European and International level by designations as a special protection area (SPA), a site of special scientific interest (SSSI) and a wetland of international importance (RAMSAR). Some parts of the estuary are also designated as a National Nature Reserve (e.g. Dawlish Warren) and a Local Nature Reserve (Exmouth), and other sections as Wildlife Refuges (one of which operates only at certain times of the year). The habitats in the Exe Estuary support internationally important waterbirds. The mild climate and the normally plentiful food sources of the Exe mudflats attract tens of thousands of wetland birds, including Avocet, Curlew, Godwit, Dunlin and Brent Geese. These have migrated from as far away as arctic Siberia, and face many challenges along the way.

However, since 2017 and markedly in 2020, the Exe Estuary has seen a large amount of coastal change impacting on its habitats, beaches, sandbanks and waterways as reported in a 2020 public consultation and call for evidence. This also includes reports of fewer bird sightings. Large amounts of sand have moved, with diverse impacts reported including the choking of mussel beds by sand (impacting on local commercial mussel sellers); the lifeboat station in Exmouth being no longer usable, and river channels used by boats becoming silted up. In 2017, 250,000 cubic metres of sand were deposited at Dawlish Warren as part of wider flood risk prevention and mitigation measures for local properties and for the railway line, as well as to build up the beach there; some of this sand has shifted. It is still unclear exactly why this is, but it is likely to be a combination of the heavy storms, the particular characteristics of the flood work done at Dawlish Warren, and natural coastal change and drift.

Monitoring of coastal change carried out by the Plymouth-based Channel Coastal Observatory’s South West Regional Coastal Monitoring Programme corroborates some of the evidence obtained in the public consultation – the Map Viewer has a bathymetry data layer option which shows visually the extensive recent sand deposits (updated for 2020).

The Exe Estuary Management Partnership has played a crucial role (since it was set up in 1995) in coordinating the management of the estuary and bringing together diverse stakeholders (e.g. local authorities, government agencies and conservation, commercial and recreational interest groups). It provides a public forum to discuss the management of the estuary, collects evidence on coastal change and also acts as a contact point for local communities. The Partnership aims to conserve and enhance the special nature of the estuary, and to promote sustainability by managing competing demands and addressing conflicts as they arise.

The Exe Estuary is used extensively by a wide range of user groups, including by fishing, leisure and tour boats, kite surfers, jet skiers, swimmers, paddle boarders and by beach goers and dog walkers. Managing and minimising the inevitable conflicts between these users and ensuring the protection of this special place is not straightforward, and the partnership provides a forum for conflict management, problem solving and awareness raising. (I attended a meeting once as part of my work with Footprint Ecology, and it was illuminating, if not entirely comfortable to participate). Practical guides for the Exe Estuary for water users, shore users, Dawlish Warren, and dog walkers, can be found here (and see below):

We stop for a minute to chat to the friendly people at Starcross Yacht Club (and who jokingly try to enlist us with our motley collection of floating craft).

We swap over again and the two kids go in a double canoe together. They work out a system (after some trial and error) of alternately paddling to the count of ten – which works well until we enter the faster flowing section when we have to dodge the moored boats. It looks like the kids are about to head off into the open sea, so I persuade them to both paddle at the same time and eventually we make it to our landing site. (As we glide through on the speeding current I recall the time we tried to negotiate this section against the tide – after setting off I remembered I had left the key to the bike lock in the car, which was essential for our return trip, so we realised we had to go back again – and the current was so strong we had to abandon and land further along.)

Having safely landed and hauled our water craft up out of the water, we then go for the obligatory dip (the water is still so spring-cold it takes your breath away) before getting our still miraculously pretty dry clothes out (thank goodness for dry bags) and get changed. While my other half jogs off to get the car, the kids raid the take-away offering near the landing site with the tenner I happen to have with me and come back with something hot. As we wait I look at the zoning map and information outlining the wildlife refuges:

Map of southern Exe (Wildlife Refuges in pink). Credit: Exe Kiteboarders

I definitely feel a greater sense of wellbeing by the end of our journey. The health and wellbeing benefits of spending time in blue spaces and on the coast are now well documented – and for me they occur as a result of the combination of cold water immersion (see e.g. chapter 6 in Isabel Hardman’s book the Natural Health Service), contact with nature (see e.g. the Finding Nature blog) and spending time (with family/friends) in blue spaces including the coast (see e.g. the BlueHealth project; ECEHH research and Catherine Kelly’s new book Blue Spaces and an accompanying Guardian article; see also my recent report on the health and wellbeing benefits of visiting the coast – focusing on the South West Coast Path).

Whatever the causes, at the end of our trip I feel like new.

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