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

If you would like to make a donation to help fund the fantastic work that ORCA do, or to become a member and train to become a Marine Mammal Surveyor to help us collect our vital scientific data, then please visit our website for more information!

Posted by: orcaweb | June 20, 2017

Whale Watching Works

Here’s your weekly update from myself, Andy, and Heather – your Wildlife Officers on the Brittany Ferries Flagship, the Pont-Aven!

Six days ago, as we crossed the northern continental shelf of the Bay of Biscay, Heather and I came across a group of more than half a dozen beautiful, jet black, long finned pilot whales.  They were travelling peacefully past the ship and were so unperturbed by our presence that they passed gently by, close enough for the many passengers on deck with us to enjoy some stunning views.  We were all elated and couldn’t believe our luck.  It seems that the captain and the bridge crew were also impressed as they quickly alerted the rest of the ship to the whales’ presence over the tannoy and people flocked to the rails to catch a glimpse of these magnificent animals.

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male and female pilot whales

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Male pilot whale on the northern shelf

 

Many hundreds of years ago in the twelfth century the Bay of Biscay was the scene of the world’s first commercial whale fishery, as Basque fishermen hunted down the North Atlantic right whales – or the ‘Biscayan whale’ as they were known at the time. They had soon exhausted the local population by the sixteenth century, and had started a process that would see that species become extinct in the north-east Atlantic long before the twentieth century.  The scene in Biscay is very different now.  Today ORCA wildlife officers like us showcase, to the travellers crossing Biscay, the wealth of fascinating wildlife that lives there. From this melonistic (a development of the dark-coloured pigment melanin in the skin and is the opposite of albinism) common dolphin

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melanistic common dolphin

…to the apex predator, the sperm whale, which battles in the depths with huge squid the size of small whales – such as this one we came across floating on the surface beside the ship a week ago, passengers experience all that the Bay has to offer.

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huge squid in the Bay of Biscay

People are fascinated by all wildlife but particularly whales and dolphins and there seems to be some sort of inexplicable bond perceived by modern humans that draws us to these mammals.  Countless commentators and even scientists have attempted to quantify and explain it.  This wasn’t always the way and the extensive depletion of whale populations during commercial whaling is testament to that.  But the worst of those bloody times have passed and most societies around the world currently have a very different relationship with their cetaceans.  Attitudes to these creatures have changed across the globe; if only by recognising that a whale or dolphin is worth more alive than dead.  This is certainly the case for the booming whale and dolphin watching industry that has emerged around the world over the last 50 years.  No longer are whales perceived as a source of food or oil or fertiliser but their, more sustainable, worth to most states is now as a tourism resource.  Indeed the International Whaling Commission now recognises the importance of the industry and many member states would like to see it focus its attention on this sustainable use of these animals rather than the unsustainable hunting of the past.

In 2009 our friends at International Fund for Animal Welfare produced their ten year report on whale watching.  IFAW report This highlighted the rapid growth of the industry which had seen it almost double in the previous decade to a position where 13 million people a year were taking part in whale watching around the world and the industry generated over $2 billion in expenditures.

ORCA and Brittany Ferries have recognized this modern phenomenon with their Sea Safaris, which start in a couple of weeks, taking passengers across Biscay with the sole purpose of looking for whales and dolphins from the decks of the Pont Aven. It could even be argued that this is a particularly unobtrusive form of whale watching as the ferry is making the journey anyway and the animals are not pursued in any way.  These trips are extremely popular and the numbers taking part continue to rise just as the global whale watching community grows too.

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Male Cuvier’s beaked whale heavily scarred from territorial battles over female harems

But other than those beautiful pilot whales, what else have we been privileged to experience on the Pont-Aven this week?  Well the weather has been kind to us and summer really is here.  We have had calm conditions and each trip through the Bay has produced a number of Cuvier’s beaked whales.  In particular, the trio of one female with a young male and another scarred old white male in tow is still being seen.

Yesterday hundreds and hundreds of common and striped dolphins joined us for our outward and return journeys.  But perhaps our most memorable crossing later in the week was our Saturday evening cruise out of Cork where we spotted a fin whale before dinner and then returned to deck after 9pm, not far from the Cornish coast, to find the ocean like a mirror and manx shearwaters, common dolphins and five minke whales feeding around us in the fading light.

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minke whale in the fading light

It was a magical hour that a number of passengers experienced on deck but by the time it was dark Heather and I were left alone with one equally enthusiastic passenger – a French masters student studying cetaceans at university in Galway and the three of us excitedly chatted about our common passion for whales as we squeezed every last drop of dolphin from the increasingly dark seas.

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striped dolphin performing for the crowds

So sadly this is my last blog from the Pont-Aven.  In a fortnight, the Wildlife Officer season comes to an end on this ship and we all go our separate ways, each carrying a bundle full of images and memories that will stay with us for many years to come.  But soon the Sea Safari season starts and all of us will definitely be back to help as guides on those trips.  So we will be crossing the Bay of Biscay again looking for amazing sights and recognising the immense value that these animals bring to a world that is struggling to retain its wildlife jewels.

Andy

Posted by: orcaweb | June 14, 2017

The Best UK Whale and Dolphin Spotting Spots!

Sightings update: This week I finally got my first glimpse of the resident bottlenose dolphins that live on the Brittany coastline between the Ile de Sein and island of Ouessant. This area is called The Iroise Sea, and in October 2007 is was designated as the first French Maritime Natural Park. It is always a real joy to sail through this area, and the regular presence of bottlenose dolphins, and many seals and seabirds, demonstrates how rich in biodiversity it is; this place is blossoming with life as a result of its protected status.

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Common dolphins very close to the ship

The Bay of Biscay has been unbelievably quiet on the whale front this last week! I am hoping that soon the migrating fin whales will arrive to impress all our enthusiastic passengers. But for now the common dolphins are still holding the fort and keeping the public engaged and inspired! We also saw an unidentified dolphin which we only discovered later from our photos was actually a pilot whale! Sneaky!

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A very distant sneaky pilot whale! So sneaky!

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A little trail of common dolphins

Many of our passengers have their first cetacean encounters on board with us and subsequently they are keen to seek out more marine wildlife experiences when they return home to Britain. So below I have put together some information on six of the best places in the UK for whale and dolphin watching:

  • Cardigan Bay

This is an extremely rich area for nature on the coast of Wales, which is home to bottlenose dolphins. The dolphins can even be seen from land as they come very close to the shore.

  • The Moray Firth, Aberdeen

This is certainly one of the best places to see bottlenose dolphins. There is a resident population in Inverness at Chanonry Point on the Black Isle.

  • West Coast of Scotland – Hebrides

My first ever encounter with cetaceans was in the Isle of Skye. I went on a boat trip that turned out to be a wildlife lover’s heaven! As well as spotting many seals and seabirds, including three white tailed sea eagles, a pod of seven gorgeous little harbour porpoises swam right past our boat. They were so close we could hear them puffing out the water from their blow holes. On that same trip we also saw a Minke whale and since then I have seen them many times on Skye from land. These experiences have been echoed in locations throughout the western islands of Scotland; friends have told me stories of whale and dolphin encounters from the Isle of Mull, the Shetland islands, the Isle of Rum and Isle of Coll.

  • Donna nook

Although ORCA is predominantly a cetacean focused charity, we do record all marine mammals we see on our surveys, including seals. I am a huge fan of seals and my interest in them began when I went to Donna Nook, a big stretch of coastline in Lincolnshire. Every autumn around three thousand grey seals haul out onto the beach to give birth to their pups and mate. It’s a brilliant way to get excellent close up views of seals without disturbing them.

  • Devon, Dorset, Cornwall, and the Scilly isles

Common dolphins are a regular site off the south west coast and pods of up to two hundred have been seen in the past on boat trips. Bottlenose dolphins are also present in this area as well as many grey and common seals. Devon had an unusual visitor this year; a humpback whale was spotted from the shore. Unfortunately this whale became entangled in lobster pot lines twice, but thankfully was rescued both times by the British Divers Marine Life Rescue (BDMLR). Lyme Bay in Dorset is home to a pod of white beaked dolphins, while the unusual Risso’s dolphin is often seen on crossings to the Scilly isles.  The ORCA surveys from Penzance to St. Mary are the second highest diversity route (after the Bay of Biscay of course!).

  • East Coast of Yorkshire

Places like Flamborough Head in Yorkshire are excellent for watching creatures like Minke whales from the shore. One of my favourite places in the world is Bempton Cliffs, just a few miles along the coast from Flamborugh, where there is a giant breeding colony of gannets. Here you can watch these huge birds bringing in fish for their young and you have the chance of spotting some cetaceans.

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These are just a handful of the UK sites where whale and dolphin watching is possible!

In your cetacean watching pack I would recommend packing:

  • Binoculars (ORCA sells some excellent binoculars in our online shop).
  • A Cetacean ID Book (I highly recommend Mark Carwardine’s Guide to Whale Watching in Britain and Europe, also available online here).
  • A notepad to record your sightings. We at ORCA would love to hear about what you’ve seen!
  • A camera to help you identify distant animals and capture magical moments!
  • Loads of food! I never leave the house to go wildlife watching without a full on picnic to keep me going!

Good luck on your whale watching adventures!

Jess, ORCA Wildlife Officer.

 

Posted by: orcaweb | June 14, 2017

“I have a question..”

Hiya, it’s Sophie here, back from another week out at sea aboard the Pont-Aven.

In our role as Wildlife officers it’s our job to engage with the public and pass on our enthusiasm and knowledge. It’s a really great feeling to answer people’s curious questions about these charismatic but often enigmatic animals.

However, we can’t help but notice that there are a few questions that we get asked a lot more often than others. So I thought I’d share with you some of the most common we get asked, with some answers, in case you’ve been wondering some of these too. And if you board Brittany Ferries in the future you can impress us with your knowledge!

What time will the Dolphins arrive?  When is the best time to see Whales and Dolphins?

Now, despite being a Wildife Officer, wildlife does not take orders. There is no real predicting what time a cetacean may pop up and say hello. What we can say is that our likelihood of seeing whales and dolphins will depend on the time of year, and where we are on our crossing. So you don’t necessarily have to get up a dawn to have a great sighting, but of course, the longer you watch, the more likely you’ll spot something. So getting up early means making the most of the daylight.

The summer months of July-September are the peak times for cetacean watching in the Bay of Biscay and are when we run our Sea Safaris on board the Pont-Aven. However we have still had some great crossings earlier in the season as well, as you can tell from previous blogs! We also tend to get more activity when we are crossing the continental shelf and into the southern part of the Bay. An hour or so out of Santander is also a great area over the Torralavega and Santander Canyons. But really, you never know when you’re going to get a great sighting, something that makes whale watching so addictive!

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Beautiful sunrises, but they don’t guarantee sightings

Why do the dolphins come to the ship? Are all the whales going to be far away?

We often see common and striped dolphins swimming towards the ship, under and around it. And for the most part, this is purely out of curiosity and for fun. It makes great viewing and passengers can’t help but be charmed when they get a closer look. But a lot of people wonder why, and ask if the boat churns up water and fish. While we do sometimes spot dolphins feeding from the Pont-Aven, it is not as a result of the boat’s propeller, rather we just happen to be near shoals of prey that they are feeding on.

Dolphins will approach all sorts of vessels and it is well documented how they ride the bow wave at the front of a boat. This surfing enables them to move at considerable speed with minimum energy expenditure.  However, the Pont-Aven is just a bit too large that they can’t quite stay in the bow wave, and we move too fast for them to keep up indefinitely, so eventually we leave the pods of dolphins behind.  After the ferry has outpaced them we often see them jumping in the waves of the Pont-Aven’s wake.

Whales on the other hand do not come in to the boat in the same way many dolphins do. That doesn’t mean we don’t sometimes see them close, as we can do if we’re lucky. Whale blows can be seen nearly at the horizon, but we’ve often had the sneaky beakies, – the Cuvier’s beaked whales, pop up incredibly close to the ferry.

In the case of whales, it’s often that they come up to breathe wherever and whenever they need it…if it’s close to the ship or not!

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A scarred male Cuvier’s beaked whale, part of a trio that calmly swam by the Pont-Aven on Wednesday – easily visible without binoculars.

How fast can they swim?

It does depend on the species, and there are conflicting reports and estimations. The top speed of cetaceans is normally only a speed they can maintain in short bursts, compared to a slower ‘cruising’ speed. Their torpedo like body shape is adapted to reduce locomotive drag as they move through the water. We often see the dolphins ‘porpoising’ through the water as well. This is a series of regular long jumps as they swim. This behaviour might look like a lot of effort, but it actually can conserve 30% of the energy they would have used if they were just swimming in the water. This is because there is less resistance during the time spent travelling than when the move through water.

The Sei whale is thought to be the fastest of the great whales with a top speed of 50 km/h. bottlenose dolphins can have a top speed of around 40-50 km/h but swim at around 10 km/h when not hunting or fleeing danger. With the common dolphins it is thought they can swim in excess of 25 km/h in a short burst. Of the small cetaceans, the Dall’s porpoise (native to the North Pacific) can swim the fastest at about 55km/h, almost as fast as a orca!

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A Common dolphin porpoising through the water

What is the whale blow? But in Finding Nemo…

All cetaceans will blow and exhale as they surface, however with the great whales, this creates a blow that can be seen from a considerable distance. Fin whale blows can be up to eight meters high and a blue whale can create twelve meter high blows! Unfortunately this answer has some ramifications for the accuracy of Finding Nemo. As the trachea and esophagus of whales are not connected, they cannot swallow water and then exhale it out their blowhole. The whale would have just swallowed Dory and Marlin whole and they’d have ended up in the stomach. The whale blows that we can spot from the deck are created when the whale exhales through the blowhole on the top of its head. The air inside the lungs is warm and moist, and this moisture condenses in contact with the cool air, forming the misty clouds we see. There’s also some mucus mixed in. After all, they are the nostrils of a whale.

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A fin whale with the remnants of it’s blow suspended in the air

How do Dolphins sleep? Do they sleep?

Cetaceans are what we call conscious breathers, this means breathing is something they have to think about, unlike humans. (But I bet you’re thinking about your breathing now). They have to consciously flex their muscles to open their blowhole, and when the muscle is relaxed, the blowhole is closed. This presents them with a problem if they want to rest, because if they need to actively breathe. Studies have shown that bottlenose dolphins engage in what we call unihemispheric sleep, where they are literally ‘half-asleep’. They can rest half their brain at a time, while letting the other half keep their body ticking over. Each side of the brain controls the opposite side of the body, so when the right hemisphere of the brain is resting the left eye will close, letting them sleep with one eye open. This enables them to rest without losing consciousness, as well as be vigilant for approaching dangers, and keep moving. They share this ability with certain bird species that must migrate over water.

What’s the difference between a porpoise and a dolphin?

Porpoises and dolphins are both in the order Odontoceti – the toothed cetaceans. However despite being closely related they are genetically distinct enough to be grouped into two different families – dolphinae (dolphins) and phocoenidae (porpoises).

This genetic distinction is evident in physical differences as well. Porpoises are generally smaller than dolphins with a more stout build compared to the dolphin’s longer body shape. Porpoises also have spade shaped teeth compared to conical teeth of dolphins. The dorsal fin of dolphins is a much more sickle shape than the equilateral triangle of the porpoises. And while they both have a rounded melon they porpoises lack the longer beak that most dolphins possess.

Can you recognise individual cetaceans here?

Yes, and no. It is much easier to determine individuals when you have a small well studied population that are resident to an area. Such as the bottlenose dolphins around Scotland, and the northern and southern resident groups of orca off the coast of Canada and the USA. This is usually based on variations in the dorsal fins, and building up photo catalogs of the individuals in an area. There are also catalogs of species when they have markings that differentiate them, such as using the mottled patterns of blue whales. However, in regards to the thousands of common dolphins that move through the bay, we cannot tell if it is the same pod we saw earlier in the week.

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It’s a big ocean out there. A single tiny dolphin jumps in the foreground against a cloudy sunrise.

Well, that’s all for now. Heather and Andy are back on board the Pont-Aven for another week of whale watching. The weather is forecast to be quite good so here’s to them having a great week with lots of cetaceans!

Posted by: orcaweb | June 7, 2017

A delightful detour

We have had yet another interesting and whale-filled week aboard the Brittany Ferries Pont Aven. Perhaps feeling a little spoiled by last week’s fin whale sightings, our expectations had been set very high!

As usual, the sun was shining on our first crossing of the week, through the Bay of Biscay to Santander. As we headed south, we crossed over the continental shelf, and headed into deep waters. It didn’t take long for the first whales of the week to appear- directly ahead of the ship! The Pont Aven sails quickly, at 25 knots or faster, so after shouting and waving excitedly, we focused our attention back to the whales now very close to us. We were lucky to be standing with fellow keen cetacean watchers, as the two whales rolled past us through the water on our starboard (right) side. We were intrigued, these small whales beside us: what were they? A beaked whale? Hearing a cry of CUVIER’S from the watching huddle of binoculars was a fantastic feeling, yet surprising.

We’ve mentioned Cuvier’s beaked whale in previous blogs; the elusive species known to inhabit the canyons in the Southern Bay of Biscay. Here we were, in the Northern Bay, many kilometres away, with two of them right by the ship! They were being typically sneaky, rolling stealthily through the water. So of course, I was running around the deck, making sure everybody’s eyes were on these passing whales. All too soon, they were disappearing into the wake of the ship, and I had missed my opportunity for a photo. I vowed that if we saw any more this week, I wouldn’t miss them again!

I thanked the lovely common dolphins for saving the day as I snapped away at the hundreds of dolphins darting towards us, eager to play throughout the day.

Our final trip down to Santander proved to be the best of the week. We rushed (or more accurately stumbled half asleep) up onto deck for 5am, keen to spot some dolphins in the sunrise. We were not disappointed when, at 05:20am, we spotted some distant dolphins leaping clear of the water to say good morning: the perfect way to start a day! We saw similar small groups throughout the day, but it was quiet. We have become accustomed to seeing many hundreds of common and striped dolphins on our journeys, so these often distant groups were surprisingly infrequent. We never lose our optimism however, and we were right not to.

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Sophie watching at sunrise

Once again on this trip we were joined by dolphin and whale enthusiasts, including a couple who had done the ORCA marine mammal surveyor training, and as such were keen to spot a whale! I was standing talking to them when suddenly fingers and binoculars were pointing over my shoulder to the stern. Spinning around, I was just in time to catch a glimpse of a distant sperm whale blow. True to form I started yelling, calling Sophie and all the watchers from the port-side to get over here quickly! They all came running over, and a few fast runners were just in time to see the whale blow a couple more time before disappearing out of view. I then had a captive audience and no whale, but nature stepped in to save me, in the form of another whale, this time much closer to the ship. It was a Cuvier’s, clear and bright in the Spanish sun! How fantastically lucky to have so many people, all watching exactly the right place at exactly the right time! Again, I had been talking to so many people, so neglected to snap a picture. I needn’t have worried, for there were plenty more finned friends to come!

As we approached Santander, we had another interesting sighting! Bottlenose dolphins off the coast of Spain! We knew there has been a resident pod recorded, but for the first time this season, we spotted them swimming right past us. A brilliant end to our journey south.

After a quick turn-around in sunny Santander, we were back on board and heading north. We had bad weather forecast, and wanted to get as much watching in before that hit. As we headed out of Santander, we appeared to be taking a different route to normal, heading north-west. We speculated that this detour was to avoid the storm we had been warned about, and looking east, it did seem very dark! However, it was grey on this new route too, standing out on deck with a few passengers, it got quite rough! Despite this, we saw no less than three Cuvier’s beaked whales surfacing in the huge swell. They came right past us, peeking in between the waves. This time I got photos!

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Three Cuvier’s beaked whales!!

We also had large groups of dolphins coming right into the ship, making us all but forget the wind and rain. There was one dolphin particularly that stood out, that we have since concluded could only be a striped/ common dolphin hybrid! I think we should take this detour more often! It was such a delightful surprise and the best way to round off another brilliant week. This week just goes to show, you never know what you will see as these wild whales and dolphins move and explore their ocean home.

Until next week,

Heather

Posted by: orcaweb | June 7, 2017

Surprises in the Channel

Hello and bonjour! Hazel here – welcome to my blog post for week 10 aboard the Brittany Ferries Cap Finistère.

Things got off to a fantastic, or perhaps I should say FINtastic (sorry…) start this week with the most productive deck watch I have ever had in the English Channel. The species diversity in the shallow waters of the Channel is much lower than in the hugely varied depths of the Bay of Biscay. However, we are always optimistic. On this occasion, no sooner had we arrived up on deck 10 to begin our watch when a passenger said ‘there’s some dolphins’ and pointed to the sea! Sure enough, a small pod of common dolphins passed close by the ship.

These alone were a treat to see, but the sightings didn’t stop there. The mirror calm sea state provided the perfect cetacean spotting conditions. My heart leapt in my chest as I glimpsed a gently rolling back and diminutive curved dorsal fin rolling through the water – my first ever sighting of a minke whale! I was glad a passenger witnessed it too or I might have doubted myself. As is characteristic of this species, it surfaced just once before disappearing and was not seen by us again. These animals are commonly seen surfacing just once or twice, which has earned them the nickname of the slinky minke. Finally, just before our deck watch came to an end, a splash near the ship revealed the presence of a harbour porpoise. Sadly we were unable to capture photos of these fleeting encounters, but perhaps this is the beginning of an exciting stream of Channel sightings – fingers crossed!

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A calm English Channel

The sightings of harbour porpoise and the minke whale stayed firmly in my thoughts this week. Both species provide important examples of just two of the many threats that these animals face, illustrating the challenges which organisations such as ORCA face in terms of conserving them. As such, I have chosen to write about these issues for my blog post this week.

Prior to this, no sightings of minke whales had been recorded by us Cap Finistère Wildlife Officers this season. Data within ORCA’s State of European Cetaceans report, collated from ten years’ worth of scientific surveys, supports the Northerly bias of this species’ distribution. Over that ten year period, sightings of minke whales were most numerous in the Arctic waters and the North Sea, with 189 and 74 sightings respectively out of 371 sightings in total. With this in mind, I lamented the fact that hundreds of these whales are killed each year in commercial whale hunting carried out by Norway and Iceland. It is thought provoking to consider that some of these may be animals seen by our marine mammal surveyors.

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Minke whale (stock photo)

Nearly half of the minke whales killed in Norwegian catch quotas have been found to be pregnant females, thereby not only killing one generation of these creatures but also the next. I was shocked to read in our patron Mark Carwardine’s ‘Guide to whale watching in Britain and Europe’ that 40% of the meat from minke whales killed in Iceland is eaten by tourists. He writes from his observations that many are just trying it once as it is marketed almost as a novelty, but when millions of tourists do so every year it creates demand for whale meat. I hope I am lucky enough to see more of these elusive whales during my time as Wildlife Officer, but more importantly I hope that campaigning and whale watching tourism will come to triumph over the slaughter of these wonderful creatures.

With regards to the harbour porpoise, the issue of bycatch is a considerable threat to their conservation. The term bycatch refers to the capture of any non-target species in association with fishing. Fishing methods like trawler nets and purse seine nets are indiscriminate, meaning that they not only catch the target species of fish but also any other animals which happen to be in their path. Hundreds of thousands of turtles, seals, sharks, whales, dolphins and porpoises are caught and killed as bycatch every year. All cetaceans (whales, dolphins and porpoises) are mammals and as such must come up to the surface to breathe. If there are caught up in nets and submerged underwater they drown (as is also the case for the aforementioned seals and turtles who also fall victim to this).

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Harbour porpoise (stock photo)

The harbour porpoise is the only species of porpoise found in European waters (globally there are 6 species of porpoise). As its name suggests, its distribution is largely limited to shallow, coastal waters no deeper than 200m. Due to this preferred habitat, harbour porpoises face a number of threats as they often live in close proximity to areas that are heavily fished. Depletion of their food sources and noise from boats are two such threats, but by far the biggest threat is bycatch. Another species of porpoise called the vaquita is found only in the Sea of Cortez in the Gulf of Mexico. The issue of bycatch has driven the vaquita to the very brink of extinction; it is thought that approximately 30 of these animals remain in the world today. I desperately hope that the efforts being made to save this species will prevent them from being consigned to history.

Within UK waters, data collected by ORCA helped to create Special Areas of Conservation (SACs) for harbour porpoises. These SACs were submitted for designation earlier this year and will create safe havens for these animals in five different areas around UK waters. I was very encouraged to read this news; harbour porpoise are less well known than the likes of the charismatic orca or iconic bottlenose dolphin but all of these species, from the largest to the smallest, need conservation efforts to protect them against the many threats they face.

Sightings highlights this week were a group of four Cuvier’s beaked whales spotted near the deep canyons on the approach to Bilbao on Thursday, two more harbour porpoise in the Channel on Friday and a pod of over forty striped dolphins just after the continental shelf on Saturday as we journeyed to Santander. The striped dolphins were a particularly exhilarating sighting; I had never seen such a large pod of this species before. They are stunning creatures and the speed at which they were moving was a marvel to behold.

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A large pod of striped dolphins – an exhilarating sighting!

We also saw two large pods of common dolphins the same day, moving in a very similar manner. Common and striped dolphins will often take an interest in the ship and play in the pressure waves created as we move through the water. However, on this day they were all going somewhere in a hurry. We wondered what was causing their rapid travel, daring to speculate that there may even be orca in the vicinity, whose presence can cause such behaviour in other cetaceans. Sightings of orca/killer whales (who themselves are actually the largest species of dolphin) are rare in the Bay of Biscay, usually occurring only four or five times a year. That said, the likelihood of seeing them increases between June to September so hopefully we may encounter these incredible animals in the Bay soon.

On that optimistic note, I am departing for my week off with plans to encounter reptiles in my home county of Dorset and search for booming Bitterns in Somerset.

Au revoir!

Posted by: orcaweb | May 31, 2017

A week in the life of a Wildlife Officer

Hello everyone, thanks for tuning in to read this week’s installment of our Cap Finistère Wildlife Officer blog written by myself, Katie. I thought that this week some of you might enjoy finding out about what else Wildlife Officers get up to on board: As well as our deck watches we also run a number of activities that feature on the entertainment schedule, and we even have some down time too, although some of that is still spent out on deck! So I hope you enjoy reading this insight to “A week in the life of a Wildlife Officer”!

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This beautiful sunset picture was taken one evening this week when Hazel and I had some time off (yes, we still want to go and look at the sea in our free time!) Can you spot the dolphins?

So each week begins on a Wednesday for us, when we wake up on board with a lovely view of Portsmouth from our cabin window. I went to the University of Portsmouth and lived there for three years so I really enjoy sailing past recognisable landmarks such as the Pyramids, Southsea Castle and Clarence Pier, as it feels like I’m coming home!

Once we docked, I deposited Jess and collected Hazel from the office and we got back on the Cap Finistère to start our week with a meet and greet in the Planets Bar. The aim of these sessions is to make the passengers aware that we are on board, as many of them have never heard of ORCA before and often don’t realise that they could see cetaceans on their crossing. This week, Hazel and I met a lovely couple at our meet and greet who are also marine mammal surveyors! This means they volunteer for ORCA by doing surveys on the bridges of ferries and cruises to collect data on the whales, dolphins and porpoises they see. If you would like to know more about becoming a marine mammal surveyor and when the training courses will be taking place, then check out this link.

One of the other things we do on board is take part in crew drills, which we did on Wednesday and this time had a lot of fun in doing so… These drills are quite serious training sessions for the crew so that they know what to do in an emergency situation and as part of the crew we are required to take part. This normally involves us standing quietly in the corner and doing what we are told, but this time we were approached by the Chief Officer and asked to make our acting debut… Hazel was given the role of a passenger who needed her heart medication and I became a distressed mother who was frantically looking for her 8 year old son. Once all of the crew arrived at the assembly station, myself, Hazel and a number of other “actors” started to kick off. This was a test for the crew to see how they would handle dealing with stressed passengers in difficult situations and I have to say after shouting at everyone that I wanted my 8 year old son  back and making quite a fuss, you will all be pleased to know that the crew did a very good job at calming me down, and locating my son of course. They also helped Hazel and the other actors to solve their problems, so I can safely say that if we were to ever find ourselves in a sticky situation, we know the crew would be able to look after us and the passengers very well!

Now for a sightings update: During Thursdays deck watches we had beautiful weather and saw large numbers of common dolphins, which included a sighting of a 40 strong pod! It was probably the best common dolphin sighting I’ve ever had, as there were so many, that we were able to watch dolphin after dolphin go by for roughly 5 minutes in the wonderfully clear water! I also saw a lovely striped dolphin leap out of the water right next to the ship at the same time, so it must have been a mixed pod. Later on in the day we also saw a pod of 7 pilot whales which Hazel and I always love to see! We were joined by a lovely boy called Sonny who we think brought us lots of good luck as he was very good at spotting dolphins and really enjoyed seeing them. You can see him and his dad pictured with me below!

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Here is a sequence of pictures that Hazel put together which shows one of the lovely common dolphins we sighted!

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This is me with Sonny and his dad after they joined us for an afternoon of fantastic sightings.

On Friday I was treated to my first sighting in the channel this season (which is normally a bit of a sighting-free zone), and saw some more common dolphins.  This lovely Great black-backed gull hitched a ride on our slip stream:

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Hazel’s picture of a Great black-backed gull enjoying the nice weather.

As well as our deck watches, we deliver presentations nearly every day whilst on board and on Friday Hazel delivered a new presentation for our northbound crossings, which is about whale, dolphin and seal spotting in the UK. This has gone down really well so far, as most people are usually shocked to find out that 25 species of cetacean can be seen around the UK, and so are pleased to learn where they have the best chances of sighting them.

I also developed a new northbound presentation which is all about whale and dolphin intelligence. There are plenty of examples that demonstrate how clever these animals are, but one of my favourites (it is normally a crowd favourite too), is an example of a group of young male bottlenose dolphins who figured out that when agitated, a puffer fish releases a toxin that can give the dolphins a bit of a high! They therefore bite down gently on the puffer fish and pass it round to each other; they are basically the first recreational drug using dolphins ever to have been recorded! To watch this in action, check out this link.

We also run children’s activities for all of the little people on our crossings. On Saturday we joined forces with Tori and Dave, our Entertainment Managers, and had a colouring party with a surprise visit from the Brittany Ferries mascot, Pierre le Bear. Other activities we run include measuring out the lengths of different whales and dolphins, playing marine themed games and “whaley” good arts and crafts. We think it’s important to try and educate the children a bit more about cetaceans whilst also making sure they have some fun!

Saturday’s sightings included large numbers of common dolphins again and even more pilot whales, lucky us! There were also three sightings of beaked whales (woooooh!), but surprisingly these sightings were not over the canyons where we normally expect to see our deep diving species, but actually took place over the shelf where the depth drops from 100 m to over 4000 m. We are not sure what these whales were doing there but perhaps there were a lot of squid around, which is their favourite food.

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Here is a picture of some of the common dolphins we saw; there were plenty more hanging out with these two as well!

After our last deck watch we arrived in Santander and we normally get off to have ice cream on a Saturday, because who doesn’t love ice cream?! However we arrived in Spain and it was really cloudy, so Hazel and I decided to stay on board and catch up on some on admin instead. Fingers crossed for more sun (and ice cream) next time!

Sunday came along and it brought a bottlenose dolphin sighting with it! We saw five of them breaching and tail slapping just off of the Brittany coastline and I was pleased that I was the first one to spot them. Sunday is also quiz-day and we have a lot of fun hosting our quizzes. Hazel and I both grab a mic and deliver it together which means we are able to have some banter with both each other and the passengers! They seem to enjoy our cryptic clues, which are often not particularly helpful… Here is an example of one of our quiz questions, see if you can guess the answer yourself: What is the name of the whale that Pinocchio gets swallowed by in the Disney film Pinocchio?

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These two fab passengers pictured with Hazel are Chris and Helen; the dolphin pens they are holding was their prize for winning the quiz this week! They are regular passengers on board the Cap Finistère who have joined us for every deck watch on their crossings and it has been lovely to have them!

Monday came around and we found ourselves in Roscoff where we were greeted by a fresh-faced crew who get on board, ready and rearing to go after their week off. Unfortunately we did not get any sightings that day, although we did get some good views of the lighthouses off the Brittany coastline.

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This a lighthouse we often sail by called Le Phare de la Vieille, which translates to “The Old Lighthouse”. It is indeed very old as it was built between 1882 and 1887.

On Tuesdays, we always spend some time preparing to get off which includes cleaning our cabin, finishing off any admin and packing. It is therefore a bit of a jam packed day as we also have a presentation, a children’s activity and two deck watches. This week the sea state was wonderful as it was so calm, so we were lucky enough to see three sharks, as well as lots of dolphins and two harbour porpoises!

Other sightings this week included a lovely pair of great skuas, a very large group of Manx shearwaters near the Brittany Coastline, as well as some gannets and even kittiwakes.

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Here is a pair of Great skuas, which we saw on Wednesday.

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Here are two gannets; one had its mouth open as they were having a chat, awh!

So thanks for reading, I hope you have enjoyed learning more about what we get up to each week. We have a lot of fun interacting with all of the passengers and showcasing our marine life, and I am very grateful to be here!

Until next time,

Katie

If you would like to make a donation to help fund the fantastic work that ORCA do, or to become a member and train to become a Marine Mammal Surveyor to help us collect our vital scientific data, then please visit our website for more information!

Posted by: orcaweb | May 31, 2017

The finbacks are coming!

After last week’s enormous numbers of dolphins and a fascinating experience with a mother and juvenile Cuvier’s beaked whale, where the mother appeared particularly malnourished, it’s been a pretty quiet week in Biscay.  Heather and I did have common and striped dolphins there early in the week but the numbers had dropped significantly and we didn’t even get a sniff of a blow from a large rorqual whale.

You might have read my last blog, Musings on Migration, where, amongst other things, I discussed fin whale movements and asked where all the large whales had gone.  I can now say, with my tongue firmly in my cheek, that the answer to that is currently Ireland!  For five consecutive weeks now we have picked up many basking sharks on our Saturday approach to Cork so we know that the plankton is there and where there is plankton there should be fish.  And we also know that fin whales feed on both zooplankton and small shoaling fish.  So we waited and we waited.  We’ve heard reports in recent weeks of fin whales off Fastnet and humpback whales off County Cork, but still we waited…

This week on a grey early Saturday morning in the Celtic Sea we reached the area where the basking sharks had previously been sighted and readied ourselves for shark fins in the waters below.  And there it was – not the second largest shark on earth (the basking shark) but the blow of the second largest whale on earth – the fin whale!  Off the starboard side, relatively close to the ship, the leviathan surfaced giving us good views of the rostrum and splash guard around the blowhole.

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Fin whale surfacing beside the Pont Aven

To say that we were excited would be an understatement.  Here were the finbacks we had waited for that we were sure would turn up eventually.  Perhaps even more excited than Heather and I were the German couple standing next to us.  After a moment of awe they realised that they were actually face to face with a huge whale and the gentleman clearly struggled to contain his joy as he slammed the palm of his hand onto the wooden deck rails three times and simultaneously let loose three expletives which are unprintable here but understandable in any language.  We laughed at him, we laughed at the whales, and inside I smiled for Heather who has had so many distant tantalising whale blows this season and finally experienced the majesty of this animal up close.  But we had no time to muse as we realised another fin whale was close by and a little way off three more signalled their presence with their blows and then rolled through the water as they shallow dived to feed.

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fin whale roll

We were elated to find a number of other passengers rush up to us to ask what it was that they had just witnessed and we cruised into Cork alert for any others and very satisfied with our early morning.

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Heather eagerly searching for more fin whales as we enter Cork harbour

The Roscoff-Cork route is particularly important to ORCA due to the increasingly reported prevalence of fin whales off Ireland.  We see fins regularly on our flagship routes through Biscay and are interested in documenting their movements in the North Atlantic which are still relatively unknown and we would like to know if there is a northwards shift to their feeding habits.

To be fair, fin whales have historically been recorded off Ireland.  Between 1920 and 1980 nearly 700 fin whales were taken by whalers off the north west coastal shelf of Ireland (we know that worldwide their numbers probably declined by 70% during modern commercial whaling and the IUCN still classes them as endangered), suggesting that Western Ireland is historically part of their migration route.  Fin whales have been recorded off the coast of Ireland during eleven months of the year with the season believed to start in May and peak in the autumn-early winter.  What is interesting about these fin whales off the east coast of Ireland is that this is not the deep water at the edge of the continental shelf – what is assumed to be typical fin whale habitat.  These are sightings which occur each year on the shelf in shallow water (under 100 metres).

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Fin whale close to the coast of Ireland

This suggests that the Celtic Sea’s plankton productivity may have ranged further north, above the continental shelf’s upwelling, than it has in the Bay of Biscay.  Although it is interesting to note that last year, later on in the season, ORCA surveys and Sea Safaris were surprised to report fins on the northern shelf of the Bay, an area that we have not previously recorded them in any numbers.

Yet that is what is so fascinating about these whales, they range widely and seem to occur right the way across their Atlantic territories at all times of the year and we have so much left to learn about them, especially where they breed.

They are called many things: from finback in the States, to rorqual commun in France, and they have been dubbed the Herring Whale in Scandinavia – perhaps homage to their generalist feeding habits which are the complete opposite of their larger rorqual cousins the blue whale.  The most recent abundance estimates for our part of the world – an area which consists of the waters around Ireland and the UK, Spain and Portugal (including The Bay of Biscay) were produced by CODA in 2007 and sit at 9,000 whales.

Needless to say we were keen to get out on deck as soon as we could when we departed Cork later that day.  Not far from land I was shocked to spot an immense splash at the stern of the ship and turned to see a large patch of white water a few hundred meters from the stern and then the distinctive roll of a big fin whale racing away from the ship.  I suspected a warning breach had taken place and I had just missed it.  When a mother came up to me later to say that her young son claimed he had seen a whale jump at the back of the ship it confirmed my suspicions.  Unfortunately, this particular whale had been far too close to the ship for comfort.  We know that fin whales in particular are susceptible to ship strike when feeding, more so than any other whale.  It has been claimed that in some areas as much as a third of stranded fin whales show signs of collision with ships.  So it is always very worrying when we witness them in close proximity with shipping.  That is why ORCA is involved in programs to attempt to mitigate ship strike and are currently conducting a research project on board the Pont Aven to understand how these large whales react when approached by a large ship so we can find ways to help the shipping world avoid such collisions.

Soon after that Heather shouted “blow” from the other side and we had almost an hour where we recorded another 7 fins including one juvenile all within sight of land.  It was a beautiful sunny evening and dozens of French and Irish passengers enjoyed the experience with us.  A short while later a solitary minke whale was also recorded

FW back, Cork, 27052017

fin back!

The Biscay trip that followed, despite the added advantage of having a full ORCA survey team on the bridge, still didn’t yield any large rorquals.  Although we did have many striped and common dolphins, a couple of Cuvier’s beaked whales, and a good sized pod of pelagic bottlenose dolphins.  So still we wait for the ecology of Biscay and the plankton biomass to work enough to attract the great whales in big numbers.  In the meantime we shall enjoy their presence in the Celtic Sea.  They will come, and when they do it will, as always, be spectacular.  Of one thing you can be sure, and that is that you will hear about it from ORCA when they do.  Keep an eye on our webpage and future blogs to find out when.

CD, May 17, 3

common dolphin leaping in the Bay of Biscay

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