Posted by: orcaweb | August 16, 2017

Groovy Cuvies

Hi everyone, Nicki back again to tell you about my second week aboard the Cap Finestère. It’s been another wonderful week with lots of exciting sightings, and although the weather has been variable, the sea state has got better and better across the Bay of Biscay over the last few days. As I write it is a beautifully calm and almost glassy-looking sea outside; a very welcome treat after last week’s rougher weather.

At the beginning of the week, whales were far outnumbering dolphins on our deck watches with just 2 of the lovely common dolphin seen but 9 large whales! I was busy watching blows close to the horizon when out of the corner of my eye I saw an enormous grey back roll through the water next to the boat! A huge fin whale had surfaced right next to us! I saw it only for a few seconds but was completely awestruck by the sheer size of these magnificent animals. As the second largest whale after the blue whale they are also our second largest animal, growing to 27m! The sighting was followed by some very excited and surprised passengers rushing up onto deck to tell us what they’d seen, several out of their cabin windows!

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Whale blow on the starboard side

On Thursday morning we arrived on deck at 6am to this beautiful moon and soon saw another whale blow.

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Thursday morning’s lovely moon

The evening deck watch over the deep trenches close to Bilbao was extremely windy and we were even finding it difficult to stand on deck at times, let alone hold our binoculars still! With the sea becoming very choppy we weren’t feeling optimistic about our chances of spotting cetaceans, but incredibly we had a fantastic sighting of 2 Cuvier’s beaked whales swimming slowly right next to the ship! I couldn’t contain my excitement about seeing my first beakies but somehow I managed to take a photo! Luckily a few passengers had also braved the wind and saw this amazing animal with us. Cuvier’s beaked whales hold the record for deepest diving cetacean at nearly 3,000m and also longest dive: they are able to hold their breath for an incredible 2 hours and 17 minutes!

The Santander and Torrelavega canyons are a hotspot for these whales due to the abundance of squid – their prey. Although they are odontocetes (toothed cetaceans) females have lost their teeth, as their method of capture involves sucking up the squid like a hoover! Males have 2 tusks at the end of their beaks, which they use to rake other males in battles over females. Older male Cuvier’s beaked whales can be so scratched that they look almost white! We didn’t see any scratches on the two individuals we saw, so we think they were likely to be females.

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One of the beautiful Cuvier’s beaked whales

Friday was the day I first fell in love with gannets! On our quiet deck watch we had many of these beautiful white birds, often flying very close to us and staying with the ship for some time. On occasions they were so near I could even see the blue circle around their eyes! These amazing animals dive at speeds of 60 mph, from heights of 30 metres and to depths of 12m. The characteristic yellow head and black wing tips that look like they’ve been dipped in ink make them easy to spot. With their 2 metre wing span they can be a useful ‘natural ruler’ for us out at sea, helping us to estimate the sizes of the cetaceans we see.

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Gannet

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Adult gannets – a huge 2m wingspan!

I was fascinated to learn that it takes young gannets 5 years to develop their full white adult plumage! Juveniles are a mottled brown, becoming whiter and whiter over time.

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This gannet is likely to be in its third year

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A very young gannet just beginning to get its white feathers

Saturday morning’s watch was quiet save for a brief leap from a lovely striped dolphin, although straight after our presentation excited passengers had a fantastic sighting of 2 fin whales right next to the ship! Due to the calm conditions the outline of the entire animals could be seen under the surface of the water. What a treat! During our children’s activity on deck 10, keen to make the most of the now beautifully calm and clear conditions, the children tried their hand at their own deck watch, even recording the sea and weather conditions as we do. They were not disappointed as 2 Cuvier’s beaked whales were spotted in the middle distance as we passed over the trenches close to Spain! Later we had a sighting of some distant pilot whale and I saw a blue shark as we neared Santander, amidst beautiful scenery. Fantastic!

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Coming into beautiful Santander

There was more stunning scenery in store for us on Sunday morning coming through the islands of the Brittany coastline. With calm seas again we were able to spot a shy harbour porpoise rolling its small, dark, equilateral triangle-shaped fin through the water, and we had a visit from a pod of common dolphins with several calves too. A large group of feeding birds alerted us to a group of bottlenose dolphin underneath, also feeding, and again with a calf. I was struck by how much bigger and bulkier the bottlenose dolphin were in comparison to the common dolphins; they can measure up to 3.9m compared to the common dolphin’s 2.5m. We were also lucky enough to spot a seal and another shark, and share it all with some very enthusiastic passengers! A fabulous morning.

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Bottlenose dolphins feeding under birds along the gorgeous Brittany coastline

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Keen young spotters Alice (L) and sister Katie (R) enjoying the dolphin sightings

Monday was dolphin day, with sighting after sighting of common dolphin, several pods of bottlenose dolphin feeding and even a lovely family group of pilot whale with a calf. I saw my first ocean sun fish, which I was extremely excited about, having previously been scuba diving to look for these huge odd-looking fish with no luck. Several fin whale blows and backs were also seen, and we couldn’t resist going back up to deck 10 for a second watch after dinner. As the sun set a fin whale rolled gently through the water – a magical end to a magical week.

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The always elegant common dolphin

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A fin whale rolls through the water with its huge blow still hanging in the air

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Monday’s beautiful sunset and calm sea

Until next time,

Nicki (Wildlife Officer placement)

Posted by: orcaweb | August 9, 2017

Sei what?!

Hi readers, Nicki here. I’m on board the Cap Finistère with Hazel, training to become a wildlife officer. It’s been a fantastic first week, and I am thoroughly enjoying all of our activities on board; children’s activities, quizzes, presentations, meeting and greeting passengers, and especially our fabulous deck watches.

I could stare at the sea all day, but it is so lovely to share the experience with our interested passengers and chat to them about the wonderful animals we have the chance to see on our journey, particularly now there are so many (incredibly enthusiastic) children on board in the summer holidays.

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Young James here was determined to spot a whale, despite rough weather meaning the outside deck was closed!

We’ve had some great sightings this week, despite some rough conditions early on when the deck was even closed at times. On my second day on board I was treated to my first great whale – a huge lone fin whale. The blow alone can reach up to 8m tall, and we watched this individual blow 5 or 6 times before rolling its huge back through the water for what seemed like ages before showing the swept-back dorsal fin and even the tailstock. Magical!

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The lovely swept-back dorsal fin of a fin whale

Later on in the day I saw my first sei whale. We could tell it was smaller than the fin whale as we could see the blow and dorsal fin at the same time, and the more upright dorsal fin confirmed it was a sei rather than a fin whale. I felt incredibly lucky to see this less commonly seen species.

We also met a family of whales on deck 10! This is the lovely Whale family who joined us for our deck watch.

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The Whale family with Hazel

Coming into Bilbao, not one, but three sharks were seen on the water’s surface, just metres from the boat! I love sharks, so this was hugely exciting for me, as well as the crowd of passengers and children that had gathered on the deck! We’re confident that one was a blue shark, but the other two had more uniform grey colouration and a blunt head. Any ideas, anyone?

We’ve also been enjoying some great bird sightings this week, including great skua, Cory’s shearwater and large numbers of great shearwater.

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great shearwater

Saturday was whale heaven in the Bay of Biscay with blow after blow seen in the morning, and even one breaching animal close to the horizon. By the end of the day we had counted 12 whales! One was a fin whale, and one a sei, but the others we were unable to identify as they were either too far away, or we couldn’t see the body. In windy conditions it would be difficult and likely inaccurate to identify a whale from its blow alone. Still, the many blows made for a spectacular sight and an exciting, suspense-filled day!

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There he/she blows!

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Saturday morning sunrise

Throughout the week we have had many sightings of the lovely common dolphin, usually racing in towards the boat to play in the waves. This elegant dolphin often leaps clear of the water, giving us great views of the distinctive yellow and grey figure of eight markings on their sides. Some pods included calves, swimming in perfect synchrony with their mothers, and others had several striped dolphin among them, which would often leap high above the wake at the back of the boat, turn in the air, and slap down onto their sides! We all loved watching them!

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Finally managed to capture a photo of common dolphins mid air! – Nicki

On Monday Hazel and I left our deck watch amidst calm seas around Brittany for our weekly crew drill, but as we were assembling with the rest of the crew on deck 7 common dolphins leapt towards us. Because we were 3 decks lower than our usual watch point, I really got a good feel for the size of these beautiful creatures – around 2.5 metres – which can look tiny from up on the top deck! It was a lovely experience to share with members of the crew.

I can’t wait to see what’s in store next week!

Deck watch questions and answers

This week passengers have been asking some brilliant questions about whales and dolphins. We wrote them down and decided to answer some of our favourites in this blog post.

These young passengers, sisters Gracie and Martha and their friend Libby, spent lots of time with us out on deck looking for dolphins and whales and had lots of questions!
We think they are budding wildlife officers in the making!

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L – R: Nicki, Gracie, Libby, Martha and Hazel

Why do some whales and dolphins have one blowhole and others have two?
Most mammals have two nostrils (the equivalent to blowholes in the cetaceans). Toothed whales have one blow hole, whereas baleen whales have two. It is believed that one of the air passages of toothed whales evolved into their echolocation system, the bodily system that they use to make and receive sounds in order to locate and catch prey, leaving them with only one blowhole. By contrast, the baleen whales don’t echolocate to find their food (they filter feed, cruising through water or sieving sediment to find food) so their second air passage remained in use for breathing.

What kinds of fish are available as food for the dolphins and whales in the Bay of Biscay?
The Bay of Biscay has a wide variety of depths and prey available to cetaceans, providing different habitats to suit different species. It is home to a wide range of fish including anchovies, sardines, mackerel, tuna and blue whiting, along with lots of squid in the deep trenches. This variety of prey provides food for both animals who feed near the surface like the common dolphins and fin whales, and deeper diving species such as Cuvier’s beaked whale and sperm whale.

How long is a Sei whale?
(This question was in response to us having an awesome sighting of one of these animals, the third largest whale!)
The largest size for an adult male is 64 feet (19.4 m) long, weighing approximately 20 tons (40,000 lbs). Female sei whales are slightly larger. A newborn sei whale calf is approximately 15 feet (4.5 m) long at birth and weighs about one ton. We have been lucky enough to see two sei whales this week! Another interesting fact about this elusive and rarely seen whale is that they are the fastest whales, capable of swimming at 37 kilometres per hour!

Where do the fin whales we see in Biscay go when they leave on their migration?
The answer is, no one really knows. These animals have not been tracked on their migratory routes and more research is needed. Where the fin whales we see in Biscay, most numerously in the summer, go for the rest of the year is a mystery.

Are there any whales or dolphins we don’t know about yet?
The most recent discovery of a new cetacean was a species of beaked whale in 2014. we think the fact that a 13m long whale remained undiscovered until just three years ago is pretty incredible! Some of the beaked whales have still never been seen alive, and we only know that they exist because animals have washed up on beaches after dying out at sea. It seems likely, considering we know so little about these animals, that there may be more out there to be discovered; a very exciting prospect!

Posted by: orcaweb | July 26, 2017

Chasing the Cachalot

Hello again readers, it’s Kelly here with my last instalment from my 4-week-long Wildlife Officer Placement.

This placement and my time on board has taught me a great deal of things about living at sea, marine wildlife (particularly cetaceans) and also a lot about myself as a person. These 4 weeks have improved my patience, my appreciation and understanding of cetaceans along with my ability to inspire and educate others about the importance of marine conservation. One of the greatest gifts that this time on board has given me was the chance to reignite my love of the sea. The quiet hours of early morning deck watching where it’s just you and the sea are some of the most tranquil and awe inspiring moments. Being able to witness the raw power and beauty behind the crashing waves and feeling the salt caress your cheeks and lips are some of my favourite things. The following verses from John Masefield’s “Sea Fever” poem beautifully depicts the ocean and how like the tide you often can’t help but keep coming back.

“I must go down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky,

And all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by.

I must go down to the seas again to the call of the running tide

Is a wild call and a clear call that may not be denied.

I must go down to the seas again to the vagrant gypsy life,

To the gull’s way and the whale’s way where the wind’s like a whetted knife;

And all I ask is a merry yarn from a laughing fellow rover.

And a quiet sleep and a sweet dream when the long tricks over.”

– John Masefield.

I’ve seen a great variety of sea life, from the small and humble harbour porpoise to the great fin whale that can reach up to 28 metres. This week ocean sunfish (Mola mola) have come out to play and they are absolutely fantastic creatures to look at and recent research has discovered a new sunfish species! I’ve learnt what to look out for and identify animals correctly by blows, behavioural cues and dorsal fins. The only things I have yet to see include: Risso’s dolphins, Northern bottlenose whales and last but not least the mighty Sperm whale. Over the course of my 4 week placement I managed to spot a whopping 888 individuals, which reaffirms my belief that there definitely is something in the water and that these animals deserve to be protected.

Another great thing about my time on board was the ability to interact with a variety of different audiences, especially children who seemed extremely keen to share their stories and help you spot every single breaking wave. Being able to engage with children through fun activities, games and crafts and seeing their thirst for knowledge renewed my hope in humanity. They inspired me so much so that I developed an interactive timeline on cetacean evolution and also a playing card game that marries fantasy with reality called ‘whale wars’ (think Pokemon meets Yu-Gi-Oh! but with real life cetaceans). Seeing their faces light up when they saw their first leaping dolphin or whale exhaling felt like I was witnessing their dreams come true.

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Delivering the children’s presentation on whales and dolphins on board the Cap Finistere.

I am extremely grateful to ORCA and the Wildlife Officers for giving me the opportunity to inspire, engage and educate others, but also to learn about and be inspired by these absolutely amazing cetaceans. The more I learnt, the more I wanted to know and to share this newfound knowledge with others. At times I definitely felt a bit like Captain Ahab in Moby Dick as the majority of conversations and any down time revolved around whales and dolphins! But unlike Cpt. Ahab I never did spot the sperm whale (cachalot), nevertheless I can say without a doubt that this placement is unlike anything else I’ve experienced and is one of the best things I have ever done. Although my 4 weeks are over, I was able to make memories that will last a lifetime – I sincerely hope this is only the beginning of a wonderfully exciting journey with ORCA and cetacean (and marine) conservation.

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Always excited for deck watches and cetacean spotting, even on the last day of the placement!

– Kelly (Wildlife Officer Placement)

Posted by: orcaweb | July 19, 2017

Staring down the blow hole

Hello readers, its Kelly here and I’m back with another update about life at sea aboard the Cap Finistére as a Wildlife Officer Placement.

This week had a lot to live up to after the array of species and sightings the week before. It started out with a beautifully calm channel crossing on Wednesday (12th July). The sun was out in force and the gannets were circling over the ripple of common dolphin fins hunting below the surface. Feeding had definitely taken priority over putting on a show in the pressure waves, as group after group of dolphins seemed to keep quite a low profile as the ship sailed past.

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Two juvenile gannets flying over a mirror calm sea.

The crossing had been quiet and with the other ships dotted around the channel we thought our chances of spotting anything would be slim. Just as the glare was disappearing and the sun was lowering in the late hours of the afternoon a fin broke the surface and the silence. It belonged to the first minke whale I’d ever seen! It vanished as soon as it was noticed, giving me a new understanding of the nickname “slinky minke”. It was definitely a good omen for the start of what would hopefully be a week full of sightings.

Thursday morning greeted us with fin whale blows from our bedroom window, beckoning us out and onto deck 10. The deck watch started out early but the promise of fin whales seemed to have passed us by being replaced with grey clouds and dark skies. Fishing vessels materialised along the horizon one after the other until there were around 40 boats surrounding us. Half way through the quiet deck watch a pair of skittish common dolphin surfed alongside the ship. The dolphins seemed to have brought the sun and soon the clouds were replaced with sunshine and the tail end of a rainbow. In the last few moments of the watch the whale blows were back and soon after the blows were seen a fin whale rostrum was seen breaking the surface along the horizon. A pod of nearly 60 common dolphins swam by just in time for the end of the deck watch.

Up to watch the sunrise and keen to spot some of the recently seen orca (on ORCA’s most recent Sea Safari) we were up and on deck for 05:00 on Saturday. The day was off to a great start, with sightings of around 25 common dolphins and several whale blows along the horizon. Four brown fins bobbing along the surface interrupted the fairly tranquil morning and upon closer inspection they turned out to be Cuvier’s beaked whales! These weird and wonderful cetaceans are quickly becoming a firm favourite as it feels like an absolute treat every time I spot one. This particular pod of whales was spotted much more north in comparison to their usual range in the trenches, canyons and deep sea along the Spanish coast.

The deck watch had even more tricks up its sleeve; in the last third a whale blow was spotted near to the ships bow. This blow was tall but thinner than the fin whale blows I’d seen previously and much to my surprise the whale surfaced close enough to get a good look at its curved but very upright dorsal fin. It was a Sei whale! Just when I thought my day couldn’t get any better we sailed past a very large surface disturbance, the whale couldn’t have been that far away as it looked quite recent. Out of the blue (quite literally) the head of a fin whale appeared and vanished, but not before I managed to see the whale open its nostrils to exhale and get a good look down both blowholes!

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The beautiful sunset on Saturday morning.

Sunday along the Brittany coast was the calmest sea state I have ever witnessed during my time on board. The sea rivaled glass and was accompanied with a thick curtain of fog. It was grey, visibility was poor and the GPS for the logger decided to take the day off forcing me to go old school and record any sightings on paper. Pods of common dolphins made up for bad weather and cruised alongside, busy hunting and feeding on nearby shoals of fish. It was a dolphin sort of morning as the resident pod of bottlenose dolphin came out to play! The fog ended up being a blessing in disguise as the ship was forced to slow down to an average of 10 knots, allowing the dolphins to get close enough to leap and play in the bow waves.
Both bottlenose and common dolphins were out again on Monday along with the largest bony fish of them all – the ocean sunfish!

These weeks have been a marine biologists dream and have allowed me to get a sneak peak into the activities of marine mammals and other cool creatures in and around the Bay of Biscay. I’ve been lucky enough to see so much in such a short period of time during this wonderful and inspiring placement. I hope to spot even more cetaceans during my last week but who knows what I’ll see next!

Until next time,
– Kelly (Wildlife Officer Placement)

Posted by: orcaweb | July 12, 2017

Introduction to life at sea

Hello readers, I’m Kelly the first Wildlife Officer Placement (of the year) on-board the Cap Finistère vessel, which is run by Brittany Ferries.

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Kelly (left) & Hazel (right) – ORCA Wildlife Officers 2017

My first day (Wednesday, June 26th) was a whirlwind of activity on the ship, all the new sights, smells, names, faces and corridors to get lost down. No time was wasted as Jess and I got straight into meeting and greeting passengers and informing them all about the wonderful opportunity to spot cetaceans with us. Unfortunately the weather had other ideas and our deck watch plans were very much rained on. The weather went from bad to worse, with a majorly rough sea state rocking the ship and inflicting bouts of seasickness in the passengers as well as the seasoned crew, but not us hardy Wildlife Officers!

Over the next few days, the storms had cleared, the sun was shining and the common dolphins were out in significant numbers. My first sighting seemed almost magical after a rocky start to the placement – the dolphins bow riding and playing in the wake of the ship more than made up for it.

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Common dolphin leaping

Thanks to Jess’s time and patience, I got to grips quickly with our schedule, the logger, administrative tasks and being able to identify cetacean species from a fast moving vessel.

Other things I managed to do in my first week included:

  • Acquiring my sea legs.
  • Navigating my way around the ship.
  • Correctly identifying common dolphins.
  • Entertaining and inspiring children.
  • Getting a sunglasses tan.
  • Debating the largest sea creature: megalodon vs. blue whale.

Week 2:

Time flies when you’re having fun, and before I realised it was Wednesday again. The week brought new cetacean sightings and a new wildlife officer into my life. Patience and perseverance really does pay off and on mine and Hazel’s Thursday morning deck watch, after hours of staring at the sea we (and a very keen passenger) were rewarded with a super pod of common dolphins. Wave after wave of dolphins came bounding towards the ship and I honestly couldn’t believe my eyes when we saw what must have been nearing 200 individuals, mothers and their calves and even the odd striped dolphin tagging along.

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Screenshot from the logger for the afternoon deck watch on Thursday 6th July

The day just proceeded to get even better as the second deck watch of the day conjured up a kaleidoscope of cetaceans – even more common dolphins followed by pilot whales and a Cuvier’s beaked whale extremely close to the ship that quickly dived into the depths. I thought my day had been made, and that it wasn’t possible to get any better than that until out of the corner of my eye after a long but exciting day I spotted a lone, tall, jet black, straight dorsal fin just cruise through the water – we can’t say that it was definitely an orca but it sure seemed pretty convincing.

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Cuvier’s beaked whale breaking the surface very close to the ship.

Friday morning’s deck watch was my first introduction to identifying mysticete whales from their blows. I was treated to two quite tall and straight blows from fin whales close to the horizon and the tiny sliver of one of the whale’s backs just breaking the waters surface.

Little did I know that the fun was only yet to start, as Saturday turned out to be everything I expected and more! Pod after pod of common dolphins graced us with their presence and far away fin whales teased us with their fleeting blows. A pod of five mystery uniformly coloured individuals had us wracking our brains in order to identify them, until a passenger was able to put our minds to rest by showing us a slow motion video he had taken – they ended up being five quite large bottlenose dolphins.

The evening deck watch had even more tricks up its sleeve, the weather had calmed, the sun had come out and the conditions were just right for cetacean spotting. It turns out that we couldn’t have missed our next sighting if we tried, as massive fin whale rolled the last third of its body back into the watery depths right beside the ship! The whale’s presence seemed to have halted time and attracted quite the crowd as the amazing animal slowly appeared and slipped away into the shadows.

Saturday couldn’t have been topped and Sunday morning was slow and quiet. The usually serene and relatively uneventful coastal waters along the Brittany coast surprised us with a few cheeky common dolphins hunting around a fishing vessel and a shy harbour porpoise making an appearance for the first time during my time on board.

My time on the Cap Finistère has been extremely exciting so far; adjusting to the way of life at sea and also being able to see these beautiful cetaceans up close and personal has been nothing short of inspiring.
I hope to keep sharing my discoveries through blog posts and pictures, as I know this only the beginning of a wonderful new adventure!

– Kelly (ORCA Wildlife Officer Placement)

Posted by: orcaweb | July 5, 2017

The half way mark!

Hello! Jess here reporting on my final week on board the Cap Finistere. At the start of the week I was joined by Kelly, the first of our three Wildlife Officer Placements. These placements are designed to give people a four week experience on board learning how to be a Wildlife Officer.

Our first crossing to Bilbao saw the worst weather I have ever experienced in the Bay of Biscay! We were unable to go out for our surveys as the spray of the waves was coming over the top of the ferry and landing on the deck. On our second crossing we did manage to venture out, but the sea was still a very rough sea state 5. Despite this, we did catch fleeting glimpses of common dolphins and striped dolphins.

We had a very scenic trip to Santander on Saturday where we spotted some large birds of prey. Are there any readers out there who know what feathered creatures might be lurking in the sky around the city?

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Approaching Santander

Tuesday’s crossing brought more common dolphins all through the afternoon as we approached the continental shelf, AND A WHALE! Finally! I was starting to get worried about the lack of whales this week but a small fin whale made an appearance which made my day!

As we are half way through our Wildlife Officer season on the Cap Finistere, I thought I would write about some of the things we have achieved so far, and have included pictures of some of my most treasured moments on board.

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Common dolphin

From the end of March until now we have engaged with an outstanding 8370 passengers! That’s through giving presentations, delivering quizzes, running children’s activities, and deck watches. Amazing! We’ve met some cracking passengers this year who have been inspired by the wildlife in the Bay of Biscay and have been very supportive to ORCA and its aims.

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Common dolphins

We have signed up twenty six adults and children as ORCA members and FinFriends, and our generous passengers have donated over £2,000 to help us run our conservation projects!

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Acrobatic common dolphins

It’s great to see the numbers, but the comments and feedback from passengers is what really makes me feel excited to be a Wildlife Officer. I met some parents travelling back from Spain who were keen to tell us what they had been up to on holiday. Turns out, their children were so enthused by our presentation on whales and dolphins, and the huge issue of plastic pollution in the sea, that they spent their entire holiday cleaning the beaches they visited! Two passengers persuaded me to seriously consider a career in teaching, after their kind comments about a presentation I gave. I am now looking into doing my Forest Schools qualification as a result of meeting them! I also had a brief encounter with a man who was convinced he could smell seals from miles away. Nothing profound came of this, I just wanted to share it as it still makes me smile.

Comments such as ‘I never knew a killer whale was actually a dolphin’ after a presentation, and ‘that was magical’ after a dolphin encounter,  have made me incredibly happy, knowing that what we do on board is educating and inspiring the public to care for and protect our oceans.

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A picture from the sharknado day!

That’s it from me, but wait! I can’t go without mentioning my two incredible colleagues Hazel and Katie! These two women have been inspiring to work with, and are professional, hardworking, innovative, and dedicated to saving our seas. I know they are going to go onto great things, and of course our Hazel will be on the Cap Finistere until September, so you shall be hearing lots more from her!

I want to thank all who I have worked with at ORCA and Brittany Ferries, and I wish you a very successful summer full of whales!

Pont WLOs

Jess

Posted by: orcaweb | July 4, 2017

There and Back Again

Sophie here, checking in from the final week of Wildlife Officers on board the Pont-Aven.

Our last week coincided with the first of ORCA’s Sea Safari trips running this year. It’s my first sea safari, as Andy and I were two of the Sea Safari guides for the duration of the mini-cruise. It was wonderful to be involved and we had a great set of interested passengers booked on for this trip.

Nigel Marven, as one of ORCA’s patrons, also joined us alongside our team of ORCA guides, and Wednesday evening we were able to hear him speak about his travels, work and some of his amazing cetacean encounters during the course of his career. From being towed along with a pod of Belugas to stroking grey whale calves, there were definitely some inspiring encounters!

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A fascinating talk by Nigel Marvin with many attentive listeners

Despite rather rough weather as we approached Spain we had a productive trip with 5 different species definitely identified and 312 individual cetaceans counted. We had lots of common dolphins coming into the ship (282 total for the trip) which always delight, and photos afterwards confirmed there were a few striped dolphins dotted about the pods as well. We also had groups of bottlenose and Risso’s dolphins which were spotted by passengers out the restaurant windows! So whenever you’re on board Brittany Ferries, don’t forget to look out the window even when you’re eating, because you’ll never know when you get a great sighting.

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It wouldn’t be a crossing without our lovely common dolphins

Of course, everyone was desperate to see a whale, despite being entertained by dolphins aplenty. While we did have a very distant whale sighting, it was not identified, and it only made us even keener to have a closer sighting. Fortunately, after lots of scanning the seas, the benefit of having so many eyes out looking was clear as we had a fantastic sighting of two fin whales together, clearly visible from the ship.

Unfortunately we had a considerably bumpy night as we sailed back towards the UK. However, the next morning we still had a fun trip heading north, with some dolphins and views of the lighthouses of the islands around the Brittany coast. We also had our ORCA quiz to test our passenger’s whale and dolphin knowledge, with some ORCA cuddly toys and t-shirts for first and second prize. Nigel Marven also added his own tie breaker question for second place. “Which animal has the largest penis in the animal kingdom, relative to body size?” For those of you wondering, it’s a barnacle of course! The length is an adaptation to a stationary lifestyle. So if you need a fun fact for a dinner party conversation, there’s one for you.

If you are interested in joining us on a Sea safari and would like to find out more about them, you can find information on ORCA’s website here, and on Brittany Ferries website here.

As the rest of the Sea Safari guides departed the ship, Andy and I were left for our last crossings to Cork, Roscoff, and across Biscay before leaving the Pont-Aven. We had one last crossing to Cork with a couple of quite large sunfish, which were our first this season for the Ireland crossing. I love sunfish, so I was glad we had a few to say goodbye to.

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This Sunfish was quite a large specimen, at least a meter long!

Our last Biscay crossing was very smooth, and we had many whale blows in the distance, we even had a fin whale blowing some 800m from the Pont-Aven, which we were able to enjoy with lots of Spanish children on a school trip. We also caught one lone Cuvier’s beaked whale sneaking past the ship. The number of whales is picking up, so hopefully there’ll be even more for the upcoming Sea Safaris this year.

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He nearly slipped by, but we managed to spot this male Cuvier’s Beaked Whale

All too quickly however, we have reached the end of the final week and the Wildlife Officer 2017 season aboard the Pont-Aven. Thousands of passengers and cetaceans later, I know I speak for all three of us when I say that we have had a fabulous time looking out for whales and dolphins aboard Brittany Ferries’ Pont-Aven. I have been so grateful for this opportunity that ORCA has given me. These weeks have flown by so quickly and yet it also seems like that first week in April was ages ago. I have learnt so much and had two amazing colleagues to work with on board. And of course I have been able to see such a variety and number of whales, dolphins, sharks and sunfish, and even a dead giant squid. You never know what you might find!

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Looking out for whales and dolphins! It’s not ORCA’s motto for nothing!

We all met such a diversity of people on their travels, from professional truffle hunters to Israeli students fascinated by Celtic music to families incorporating cetaceans into their homeschooling. Bikers, families, school groups, business trips and lone adventurers, different languages, different cultures, different political views, we are all one human family, connected to the ocean in so many ways. It’s been great able to talk to and educate so many different people about the importance of cetaceans and their ocean home.

And so, we bid you farewell from the ORCA wildlife officers of 2017, on board the Pont-Aven. You’ll still be reading a few more blogs from me, as I will be moving to the Cap Finistere till September!

From Heather, Andy and I, we wish you safe travels, fair winds and good sightings!

Sophie Tuppen, Wildlife Officer

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Farewell from the Pont-Aven Team!

 

Posted by: orcaweb | June 28, 2017

A dolphin comes to port

Hazel here again for this week’s blog post! It’s week thirteen for us Wildlife Officers aboard the Brittany Ferries Cap Finistère; here’s an update of on our recent sightings.

The week got off to an emotional start as Jess and I bid farewell to our colleague Katie, whose three month position came to an end last Wednesday. After a brief goodbye in the ferry terminal, Katie headed for home and Jess and I left to board the ship. I must say the Cap Finistère feels quite homely to me now after three months working and living aboard on a two weeks on, one week off basis. We enjoyed a warm, sunny afternoon for our deck watch that Wednesday afternoon, but had no cetacean sightings.

Our two deck watches on Thursday more than made up for this with lots of lovely common dolphins and striped dolphins sighted. An arched back and curved dorsal fin was our first sighting of the day, which occurred on the Northern edge of the continental shelf in the Bay of Biscay. This was recorded as a ‘medium cetacean’; our first instincts were that it was minke whale, but we weren’t sure about the likelihood of seeing one in this area. Sometimes the best we can do is try to capture a photograph of sightings and consult our more experienced ORCA colleagues back in the office at the next opportunity to do so.

In cases such as this when we are unsure or in disagreement regarding an animal’s identity, in the interests of collecting scientifically valid data it is better for us to err on the side of caution and simply record the information we have such as the animal’s size and location, rather than to make an inaccurate guess which could result in misleading records. On returning to the office, our colleagues confirmed our thoughts and positively identified this as a minke whale, advising that they are sometimes seen in this area of the Bay. There is so much to learn about these animals, which varies hugely from species to species, and I am relishing the opportunity to absorb so much information about cetaceans.

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The gently rolling back and small, sickle shaped dorsal fin of a minke whale

On Friday we were back in the channel during which we saw no cetaceans. The animals are there, but the species diversity is comparatively less than the Bay of Biscay. Additionally, the presence of shallower water species such as harbour porpoise and minke whales is less obvious than the likes of high leaping striped dolphins or the 8m high columnar blows of fin whales seen in the Bay.

On Saturday we ventured back across Biscay and were treated once again to lovely encounters with pods of common and striped dolphins. At one point I spied a very distant whale blow. I haven’t seen any of the colossal great whale species in the area in the past two months; perhaps this marks the beginning of the fin whales returning to feed in Biscay, as is usual at this time of year. At the moment though, Cuvier’s beaked whales are the most numerous of our whale sightings. This day was no exception as we had the good fortune of a very close encounter with two of these illusive deep diving animals. The conditions were still enough to see their blow as they surfaced to breathe and we marvelled as their chocolate brown barrel shaped bodies rolled gently away through the calm waters.

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A Cuvier’s beaked whale surfaces in the waters over the deep canyons on the approach to Spain, with its blow visible in the first photo, before rolling gently away from the ship.

On Sunday we were heading northwards once more. We kept our eyes firmly fixed on the Brittany coastline, hoping to see the resident bottlenose dolphins that we have been fortunate enough to encounter on many occasions on this sailing. Sure enough, as I scanned the waters near the shore and cliffs, the large, steel grey dorsal fins of five bottlenose dolphins could be seen gently breaking the surface of the water. A short time after, three more animals could be seen slowly moving across the shallow waters near a beautiful patch of sandy beach. I observed that people stood on the beach were watching the dolphins from the shore, whilst we were watching from the ship; they would have had great close up views from their vantage point!

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A Kittiwake seen near the Brittany coastline – this beautiful gull species has red listed conservation status, having suffered severe population declines

Later that day we neared the port in Portsmouth. I was in our cabin at this point, whilst Jess had ventured outside to take in the view of the seaside city as we came in to dock. The cabin door burst open and Jess flew into view ‘the dolphin is here!’ she exclaimed excitedly. The animal she was referring to is a solitary bottlenose dolphin which has been seen in the area recently, moving between the waters around Portsmouth and the Isle of Wight (although it is now thought there may actually be more than one of these animals in the vicinity). I hastily grabbed the camera and binoculars; knowing how fleeting encounters with cetaceans can sometimes be, I didn’t want to miss this amazing opportunity to get a closer look at this dolphin! My heart was pounding in my chest as I looked across the waters of the port. Jess pointed towards a small boat, saying that she had seen the dolphin riding the bow waves in front of it and swimming alongside it, to the delight of the people within the vessel. A moment later the large, gunmetal grey, curved dorsal fin of the bottlenose dolphin split the surface of the water.

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The solitary bottlenose dolphin seen in Portsmouth port as we docked on Sunday evening

This is the closest encounter I have ever had with a bottlenose dolphin and this finally gave me an accurate impression of the sheer size of these charismatic animals, the largest of which can reach up to 4m in length. I observed the animal breach out of the water, but the only good photo I managed to capture was the above image of the dolphin’s back and dorsal fin next to the little boat. Since this sighting, as a result of a competition by ORCA to name this animal, it has since been dubbed ‘Nelson’! Other locals have also named this dolphin ‘Dinny’ and ‘Spirit’ – who knows how many names the animal will acquire during its time here!

Continuing the variable degrees of success on this week’s deck watches, no cetaceans were sighted on Monday. Once again it was a completely different story the following day with nearly two hundred common dolphins seen Tuesday, including lots of calves.
It was a brilliant end to this two week period on board.

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A common dolphin mother with her calf  just visible underneath her, sticking close to her side and shadowing her movements

The week finished as it began, with emotional goodbyes; Tori and Dave, some fantastic entertainment managers we have worked with over the past three months, are departing on Friday. We are very grateful to them as colleagues and friends for their wonderful assistance to us – they took a very keen interest in our work and were a huge help in enabling us to deliver our activity programme for passengers. Thank you both very much and bon voyage!

We’re now halfway through our six month Wildlife Officer season aboard the Cap Finistère, which means it’s time for our volunteer placements to begin! We have three placements joining us aboard over the next three months; each one will be living and working aboard with us for a month as we teach them everything we know about working as a Wildlife Officer. I’m excited to work with them and help them to have a fantastic experience with lots of cetacean sightings!

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A melanistic common dolphin

I’m now heading back home for my week off. One of the things I am most looking forward to is heading out at dusk to listen for nightjars. These beautiful, unusual birds have returned to the UK from Africa to breed and I hope to hear their characteristic churring calls on my local heathland wildlife reserve.

I am also doing a refresher course with British Diver Marine Life Rescue (BDMLR) to remind myself of the techniques I learned a few years ago to assist with the rescue of stranded cetaceans. Wildlife Officer Katie is coming along too, so we’re having a little reunion already after she departed only last week!

We’re fast approaching the ideal time of year for fin and sperm whale sightings in the Bay of Biscay, along with orca. My fingers are firmly crossed for these animals to be in the area on my return in a week’s time.

I’ll leave you with another common dolphin image – I never tire of seeing these lovely creatures and I’ll miss them on my week off!

Bye for now!

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Hazel – ORCA Wildlife Officer

Posted by: orcaweb | June 27, 2017

It’s all fin and games

Throughout our time on board, we have been privileged to witness a truly wonderful range of species, living wild and free throughout our oceans. We are often asked about the social lives of these species, and why they seem to just love to play. We love to talk about their behaviour, as there is so much we are yet to discover about their social lives and communication.

Cetaceans are widely recognised as incredibly sociable, with great emotional intelligence. The large baleen whales live largely solitary lives, often migrating long distances to find a mate. They sing across oceans, communicating over hundreds of kilometres. Meanwhile, the toothed whales, including the dolphin species and sperm whales usually live in very sociable pods. Indeed much of what we know about communication within these species, we have learned from these gregarious and playful animals.

In general, smaller species such as the common dolphin tend to form more flexible societies. Individual small family pods can come together to form a huge group of hundreds or even thousands of individuals all hunting and playing together. They are so sociable that they often form mixed pods with other species. We often see striped dolphins and common dolphins travelling and playing together as we travel through the Bay of Biscay.

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Common dolphins coming to play by the Pont Aven

Larger cetaceans such as the orca and pilot whales tend to form stable matriarchal pods. These are led by the eldest females, the matriarchs of the group. These family groups often stay together for their entire lives. This means that they are incredibly close, with strong emotional ties within their pod. They will be part of a wider population, able to communicate and mix with other related matriarchal pods.

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Pilot whales sighted last week from the Pont-Aven

These family pods have very strong, individual identities. That can be seen through their communication. Different family pods belonging to the same wider population have many similarities in their dialects. The more distantly related they are, the more different their whistles sound.

You can however have different populations living in the same area, yet they don’t mix, as is the case for orcas and sperm whales. Their dialect is completely different, and so they can’t communicate with the other populations. The unique dialect they each have really reinforces their sense of identity and knowledge of who they are. When it comes to orcas particularly, there are many different, genetically distinct ecotypes of orcas throughout the world.

They also have distinct identities within their own pods. Dolphins are known to use signature whistles to refer to individuals, in the same way as we have names for each other. These are thought to change throughout their lives, for example when young male dolphins leave their mothers to form young ‘bachelor pods’ their signature whistles become similar to each other. This is thought to strengthen the bond between them, and to signal to competitors that their alliance is strong.

Although it can be difficult to understand the reasons for many behaviours, sometimes it is simply play. We have seen dolphins jumping into the air, twisting and turning and chasing each other under the water. On every crossing of the Bay of Biscay this season, we have had dolphins darting through the water, keen to play in the waves around the ship, and to surf the wake.

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Common dolphin showing off!

In other parts of the world they have also been recorded playing with objects such as pebbles and seaweeds, balancing them on their pectoral fins, carrying them around in their mouths, or throwing them back and forth to each other. We don’t understand the rules, but I’m sure it’s all great fun from the dolphins’ perspective!

Dolphins have also been recorded using tools. For example, some members of a population of Bottlenose dolphins in Shark Bay off the west coast of Australia have been observed wrapping their beaks in sponges before hunting for fish near the seabed. This behaviour, called ‘sponging’ prevents the dolphins’ beaks from being injured by corals and sharp rocks while they forage.

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Bottlenose dolphins off the coast of Santander

Not dis-similarly, it was documented through the use of ‘secret’ filming for the BBC documentary Spy in the pod, that some bottlenose dolphins, particularly young males, enjoy deliberately administering themselves a non-lethal dose of pufferfish venom (read into that what you will!)

Of course, we are hesitant to over anthropomorphise these animals and to attribute human traits to their behaviours, but it’s hard not to with these animals who are so obviously intelligent, emotional and charismatic. As a child I wanted to grow up to be a dolphin, and to be honest, it doesn’t seem like too bad a life!

Heather – ORCA Wildlife Officer

Posted by: orcaweb | June 26, 2017

Au revoir, adios and good bye!

Hi everyone, welcome to the last installment of the Cap Finistère blog that will be written by myself, Katie. It is my final week on board and I am feeling very sad that I will have to say goodbye to the whales and dolphins of the Bay of Biscay as I have had a great time watching out for them and had an amazing three months! I’d like to thank both ORCA and Brittany Ferries for having me as it has been an absolute pleasure.

This week, Hazel and I felt as if we were welcomed on board by the ocean on Wednesday, as it delivered a beautiful sea state in the channel! We were therefore able to spot a Minke whale (YAY), which was my first one this season and only the second one we have seen on board the Cap Finistère this year. It is a shallow water species and has a very distinctive arched back and upright, curved dorsal fin when it surfaces, so we were able to identify it immediately and I was of course thrilled! We were also lucky enough to see some shy harbour porpoises swimming away and also a pod of Risso’s dolphins! This was another exciting sighting for me as it is only the second time I have seen them. Unfortunately what with all of the excitement these sighting caused, we weren’t able to catch any photos… Sorry!

The following day we saw some lovely common dolphins; these have become my favourite cetacean in the Bay of Biscay because they are so playful and we can always rely on them to show up and impress all of us!

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A common dolphin, my favourite Biscay cetacean.

We also had a sighting of a whale as we were right on top of the depth change area in the middle of the Bay of Biscay. Amazingly, we heard it exhale heavily when it first appeared which is what drew the attention of many passengers to it and we saw it exhale a second time which created a busy blow. My first instinct was that it was a beaked whale as it had a very rotund body and small dorsal fin, although we normally see them further south in the bay. Unfortunately I wasn’t quick enough with the camera so couldn’t get a photo, but if I were to hazard a guess I would say we saw a northern bottlenose whale!

Later on that afternoon we saw some more whales! I know, how great is that?! This time we could definitely identify them and they were none other than a trio of groovy Cuvies (which translates to three Cuvier’s beaked whales)! On the same deck watch we saw more pods of common dolphins and also a pod of striped dolphins too, so it was certainly turning out to be a great week!

On Saturday it was a beautiful sunny day but there was quite a rough sea state. Nevertheless the common dolphins didn’t disappoint, as in just the afternoon deck watch alone, we saw 56 of them; 4 of which were calves!

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Here are the common dolphins swimming towards the front of the ship.

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Mother and calf common dolphins, aren’t they lovely!

On Sunday I was on deck for my last sailing past Brittany and it was a beautiful sunny day so I got some brilliant views of the lighthouses and coastline. This area is also great for bird life and we saw cormorants, kittiwakes, Manx shearwaters many gulls and some young gannets that must have been less than a year old!

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The orange and white lighthouse is called La pointe Saint Mathieu with an adjoining abbey on its left.

 

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Here is a cormorant we saw near the Brittany coastline.

On Monday I had to say my final au revoirs to the French crew that disembarked for the crew change in Roscoff, which was sad as I have really enjoyed working alongside them! We did a deck watch in the afternoon which began in the northern part of the bay and although we didn’t see any cetaceans, we saw 12 blue sharks (yay for sharks) as it was yet another beautifully clear day!

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This is one of the beautiful blue sharks that swam by the ship!

Later that evening, Hazel and I decided to go and see the sunset and we were also lucky enough to get a sighting of three beautiful pilot whales very close by in the evening light! It was stunning and neither of us could contain our excitement. Fortunately there were a number of passengers that witnessed them too and this certainly was one of my favourite sightings I have had all season!

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Three beautiful pilot whales swam by close to the ship during sunset on Monday evening.

On my final day we had another beautiful sea state and were lucky enough to see two separate beaked whale sightings! In our first deck watch we saw a group of 6 beaked whales, yes s.i.x.! That is the most I have ever seen together and although we are not 100% sure, we think they were northern bottlenose whales! Later on that day we also saw two more Cuvier’s beaked whales so I don’t know what is in the water at the moment but it certainly seems to be making the beaked whales appear!

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Here is one of the 6 beaked whales we saw. We think it is a northern bottlenose, what do you think?

So it has been a very pleasant last week indeed, but I can’t go without talking about some more of the highlights of my time on board the Cap Finistère. First and foremost, there was the breaching fin whale which I saw in my second week. Yes, I’m sure everyone remembers that week; I for one will never forget seeing such a huge animal propel itself out of the water 5 times in a row. It was a beautiful sight to see and now a memory that I will treasure; it is amazing to think that we share our planet with such majestic creatures.

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Here it is again, the breaching fin whale seen at the start of the season. An incredible sighting and one I will never forget.

I also have some other sightings that make it into my highlights: During week 9 I had a fabulous common dolphin sighting of a 40 strong pod which went on for about 5 minutes. One of the reasons I loved this particular sighting so much is because it was a beautiful sunny day, the water was crystal clear and the sea state was behaving! I was also lucky enough to see 2 Cuvier’s beaked whales together really close to the ship once, which we identified as a male and female and I am thrilled to have seen this because I am convinced they were in love!

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Here is a final picture of a beautiful mother and dolphin calf from my favourite common dolphin sighting this season.

Finally I must mention one of the most important highlights of all, which was having the opportunity to work with my two fantastic colleagues, Jess and Hazel. These girls are both extremely knowledgeable about all kinds of wildlife and I feel as if I have learnt a lot from them. There has also been non-stop laughter, intriguing conversations and some great memories made. I wish them all the best in the future and I am very glad I had the opportunity to work with them! Thanks girls, you are both stars!

Thank you for reading. Au revoir, adios and good bye!

Katie

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