Posted by: orcaweb | September 28, 2016

It’s the final countdown!


The final week of the Wildlife Officer season on-board the Cap Finistere is now upon us. Yolanda and I (Lucy) are reunited after saying Au Revoir to our final intern Elena. We started the week with a quiet sail out from Portsmouth through the English Channel on Wednesday afternoon. It was a particularly cold and windy deck watch making it clear Autumn was finally with us. Braving the harsh winds we were rewarded with two small pods of common dolphins leaping towards us.


Common dolphins

Thursday morning as our 6am alarms went off, I peered out of the window and squinting into the darkness I could see that the water was flat…perfect whale watching conditions! We raced up on deck for the beautiful sun rise, knowing we were already well within the bay and hopeful for some great sightings. Eager passengers were not far behind us with their binoculars at the ready. Striped dolphins were the first visitors of the morning. A small pod of roughly five were feeding, only breaching the water’s surface as they became aware of the ships wake.


A little later on a lonesome unidentified dolphin leapt out of the water, only once. This brief encounter caught us all by surprise and left us without any photographs to try and establish the species, definitely the one that got away. Sailing over the deep abyssal plain we were starting to wonder, had the fin whales left already for warmer waters? Most large whales show some form of seasonal migration and as the Bay of Biscay serves mainly as a feeding ground we wouldn’t expect the fin whales to stick around in large numbers for the entirety of the season. Then, just as the Spanish coastline was coming into view, a blow! A fin whale! As we sailed past this magnificent animal, the passengers that had so patiently waited with us got a great view of the animal as its long back rolled at the surface.


Fin whale surfacing

After greeting new passengers in Bilbao we set sail once more and were not disappointed. Within minutes of being out on deck we witnessed three fin whales who were acting rather strangely. They were incredibly close together, there were large blows and even bigger splashes made by the animals. I was anticipating a possible breach as they were clearly very excitable however not one of them came out of the water. With passengers at our sides we watched as the large whales continued to blow and splash out of view. Shortly after this exciting sighting we saw a further two fin whales, a much more relaxed pair, slowly rolling past us through the calm waters.


Three fin whales splashing about!

As the sun quickly started to set and we were once again reminded of the changing of the seasons a pod of common dolphins were suddenly upon us. A nice end to a lovely day. Friday morning brought us back to the English Channel and again, cold winds to wake us up. Despite this the sun was high in the air and the water was lit up like a beacon by its glare. This didn’t prevent us from seeing two pods of dolphins feeding, accompanied by diving gannets. The dolphins however, framed by the sun were mere silhouettes so we were unable to get an identification of the exact species. Saturday morning, as always was filled with anticipation as this is the one day of the week where we cross all of the different habitat types within the bay and therefore have a greater opportunity to see a variety of species. Common dolphins on the shallow coastal waters of the northern part of the bay were our first visitors. As we made our way towards the continental shelf edge we saw a large whale blow, a probable fin whale. Large waves and strong winds were hiding the animals well but we still saw a few more whale blows across the shelf. As we verged onto the deeper waters of the abyssal plain we saw a mixed pod of both common and striped dolphins. Before we headed back inside for our daily presentation we were lucky enough to see an oceanic sunfish breaching right out of the water next to the ship.

On Sunday, Lucy and myself (Yolanda) were sailing around the Brittany Coastline for the final time. Although it was a beautiful sunny day, the sea was quite rough, with lots of white water. This tends to make it harder to see cetaceans. Luckily, lots of dolphins made it easy for us by swimming towards the ship! We saw 35 common dolphins, including 4 calves, as well as a couple of bottlenose dolphins. It was also a fantastic day for seabirds, with lots of shearwaters, cormorants, and gannets swooping around the islands and lighthouses. Sunday was Lucy’s last day as she disembarked that evening, so it was a lovely end to her time on board.


On Monday, the sea was even rougher, with lots of spray and a very heavy swell. However, myself and a couple of hardy passengers braved the wind, spray, and occasional rain and were rewarded with 3 pods of common dolphins.

Tuesday was the final day of the wildlife officer season. On my last ever deck watch, three whales (probably fin whales), two striped dolphins, and one lonely common dolphin turned out to say goodbye. I went indoors to say farewell to the crew  – the 2016 wildlife officer season is complete!

So to summarise…

  • 19,353 passengers who attended our activities…
  • 260 deck watches…
  • 156 journeys across the Bay of Biscay…
  • 26 weeks on board…
  • 14 species…

…and 6 unforgettable months!

Both of us (Yolanda & Lucy) would like to take this opportunity to say a huge thank you to all of the wonderful passengers that have joined us throughout this year’s season – your company out on deck and your enthusiasm for our cause is always greatly appreciated. We would also like to say a massive thank you to Ruth, our fellow wildlife officer and friend, hopefully we will be able to sail together again soon! Our interns, Mary, Katie and Elena, thank you for all of your hard work, we are very proud of you all. To the Boogie Management entertainment teams, thank you for your support and last but not least thank you to Brittany Ferries for giving us the amazing opportunity to study these fantastic animals from your beautiful vessel – we will miss her!


2016 Wildlife Officers, Yolanda (left) and Lucy (right)

Posted by: orcaweb | September 23, 2016

The penultimate week!

On Wednesday, myself (Yolanda) and Elena boarded the Cap Finistere for the penultimate week of the 2016 Wildlife Officer season. We didn’t see any cetaceans during our deck watch on Wednesday evening, but as it was a lovely sunny summers evening we both enjoyed being outside watching soaring seabirds and the dancing green waves.


Gannets soaring at sunset

Unfortunately, Thursday was a different story. The swell was so heavy that the outside decks were closed in the morning, meaning we had to cancel our deck watch. After battling through an unforgettable presentation where lots of merchandise and leaflets slid onto the floor during some of the bigger waves (the show must go on), we were unsurprised to learn that the decks were still closed. However, this did give Elena more time to work on her project – a model of the Bay of Biscay. This comes complete with giant squid lurking in the trenches, lighthouses around the Brittany Coastline, and a model of the Cap Finistère!


Elena’s project


Elena’s artwork!

After a disappointing yet memorable day on Thursday, we were very pleased to find that the decks were open again on Friday morning. There was lots of white water, making it harder to spot cetaceans. However, a pod of bottlenose dolphins came bounding towards us out of the spray – a sighting at last!

The next crossing, departing on Friday afternoon, got off to a great start with our ORCA quiz. Our champions scored a record-breaking 20 out of 20 – well done! The following day was Elena’s final trip to Santander. It proved an exciting crossing as during the journey, we saw three pods of common dolphins, along with the blows of two large whales (most likely fin whales) in the distance.


A common dolphin surfacing

On Sunday, we had a beautiful calm sea with only the faintest ripples – perfect conditions! Over the course of the morning, two pods of common dolphins came swimming towards the ship to play in the wake. Due to the lovely calm waters, we were also able to spot another pod of dolphins feeding in the distance.


A common dolphin leaping towards the ship

On Monday, we saw a grand total of 32 common dolphins in several different pods. This was probably because we were sailing through a fantastic feeding area as we also saw lots of seabirds such as gannets and Great Shearwaters circling and diving.


A flock of great shearwaters

Tuesday was Elena’s final day on board. It was a wonderful sunny day, with a beautiful calm blue sea. We saw lots of fin whales in the distance, and two fin whales surfaced really close to the ship. Towards the end of the deck watch as we were about to go inside, we saw four common dolphins swimming next to the ship beneath the water – a fantastic end to our deck watch!


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, please visit our website for more information!

Cetacean love,


Posted by: orcaweb | September 14, 2016

Breach, breach, breach!!!!

On Wednesday, I (Elena) started my third week on board the Cap Finistere. The lovely weather in the channel gave us some fantastic views of Guernsey as we were starting our first deck watch whilst sailing between the Channel Islands.  Not long after we started our watch, we noticed a few splashes in the mirror-like waters – a small pod of common dolphins! However, unlike most other occasions we have seen them, they did not pay us a closer visit as they were too busy feeding.


Sailing through the Channel Islands

Going out on deck on Thursday morning and seeing the heavy fog and streaky white water all around got us a bit down. After all, the chances of spotting anything in weather like that are not great. We were sailing in the Bay’s deepest waters between the shelf and the underwater trenches – usually a fantastic place for spotting wildlife, especially large whales. A few passengers who saw our talk decided to join us on deck. The sun had barely come up when we spotted a pod of around 50 striped dolphins vigorously jumping in and out of the choppy water – they were in a hurry!!! That was a very welcome surprise as we see this species a lot less than the common dolphin and we had started to wonder where they have gone.


The breaching fin whale when we first spotted it on the horizon!

About an hour in, we spotted a big splash on the horizon to the back of the ship – it was a large cetacean breaching!! Extremely excited, I took a closer look through my binoculars – a fin whale, easily recognisable because of the asymmetrical colouration of the lower jaw. It wasn’t long until we spotted another animal breaching, this time the splash was to the front of the ship. We locked our eyes to the horizon, waiting for another sighting of the whale. As we were sailing forward, we were getting closer and closer to what was definitely a fin whale, breaching continuously and giving us an amazing show. After a while we found ourselves parallel to the animal and could see it only 50m away. And that’s when we got our best sighting of the season, we witnessed something I have only ever dreamt of seeing, something so spectacular that it made my heart and brain stop for a moment – the second largest animal on earth breached completely out of the water right there and then, 50 m away from us. Lucy and I were jumping for joy, not believing what we just witnessed. This experience left us emotional, ecstatic and inspired and showed everyone on deck what makes us dedicate our time and work to the conservation of these fascinating animals.


A beautiful cormorant


Over the weekend, we were once again graced with fantastic sightings – on Friday a playful minke whale paid us a visit in the Channel and breached right in the wake of the ship. Saturday or Santander-day as I like to call it, was very productive with another breaching fin whale spotted on the horizon, numerous striped dolphins and a couple of unidentified beaked whales, all spotted not too far from the Spanish coast as we were travelling to the beautiful Santander.


A playful common dolphin!

On Monday we were reminded by a passenger how lucky we are – ‘Not your usual start of the week’ someone said as we were marvelling at the playful and energetic common dolphins jumping around the ship. Tuesday was my last day with Lucy and we went out on deck ready to make the most of the fact we were sailing over the most productive waters in the Bay. Having just turned up on deck, we were greeted by a beautiful breach on the horizon – was it another happy fin whale or our friend from earlier this week? The rest of our watch was filled with tall whale blows until the captain had to close the decks due to a lightning storm. We stuck around for a bit staring at the sky and expecting the next bolt to cut through the heavy dark clouds.


One of our patrons Mark Carwardine wrote in his book that no one ever says ‘I do not remember if I have seen a whale.’ Everyone who has ever witnessed these animals’ beauty and grace will know that is true. Any encounter with a cetacean is truly remarkable and unforgettable. And with this thought, I will have to say goodbye and I am off to enjoy my last week on board the Cap Finistere.

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 | September 7, 2016

Shining Sun and Severe Swell

Hello again readers, it’s been a sunny and swelly week on board with our final intern of the season, Elena. I (Lucy) joined her on board the Cap Finistere on Wednesday, the last day of August. It feels like only yesterday I was preparing for this year’s whale watching season with all the other wildlife officers and now I find myself wondering where all the time went.

Our first deck watch together on Wednesday evening in the English channel wasn’t a great start for us. There was a thick fog that at times seemed to engulf the entire ship and a heavy swell that kept most passengers in their cabins.


A gannet looking for its next meal

Thursday was a very different story. As I opened the curtains in our cabin I saw that the sea was flat. The sun had not fully risen yet but with my eager eyes pressed against the window I was keen to get out on deck for a full day sailing across the Bay of Biscay. Despite a slow start, our first sighting was unforgettable! A fin whale, which seemed to pop right up next to the ship took an almighty breath and it was so close not only could we see the blow hole but its exhalation could be heard quite clearly. Both Elena and I were ecstatic, just hearing the breath of these magnificent animals really is quite a humbling experience.


A fin whale right next to the ship

A small pod of three common dolphins were spotted and later on a few beaked whales including a Cuvier’s beaked whale close to the ship.  Its beige brown back seen rolling away. As the harbour walls of Bilbao came into sight a passenger noticed a dolphin bow riding another ship. Dolphin often do this, even on our own vessel so it was a joyful sight to see from a different perspective. There were also lots of fish too including breaching tuna, some sun bathing sunfish and whole shoals of other unidentifiable species underneath the water. A large breaching animal was also seen in the distance making quite a splash.


A great shearwater

That afternoon as we made the return journey from Bilbao the weather had severely worsened. There were really strong winds and sea state 3-5 however this didn’t stop us from spotting a few large whale blows including some sperm whales as we sailed over the canyons. Then as if the mornings close encounter hadn’t been enough there was another really close sighting of a fin whale right next to the ship. I was able to see its body under the water as it slowly rose to the surface next to us allowing us to see its full length and all its fins. Elena and I, as well as the few passengers that stuck it out with us could barely contain ourselves jumping up and down with excitement!


The surface profile of a fin whale

Friday morning called for another deck watch in the Channel where harbour porpoise were spotted. As usual on the following Saturday we woke up hoping for calm seas over the Bay and this week we were not disappointed, as we woke up to a mirror flat ocean. Our first sightings of the day were common dolphins, skimming the water’s surface in the morning sun, then a minke whale as we made our way across the shallow coastal waters of the northern part of the bay. Shortly after the shelf edge we saw off in the distance a pod of pilot whales moving slowly through the water. After a great start to the day we experienced a  long pause in sightings but as we ventured closer to Spain we started seeing the blows of large fin whales again and a group of very keen passengers with us had their binoculars and cameras at the ready. By the afternoon the white water had started to reappear but there were still a few more whale blows to note down before arriving into Santander.



Sunday morning brought us back to the French coast and its picturesque Islands but we once again found ourselves in a heavy swell and lots of fog. This didn’t prevent us from seeing lots of common dolphins though which have become frequent visitors to the Islands over the past month. That evening Elena undertook her first children’s presentation and it’s fair to say she did amazingly well keeping both the children and the adults in the audience entertained throughout.


A gull resting on the water

Monday evening came around so quickly and I was once again left feeling like time was slipping through my fingers. We set up for a six hour deck watch where we saw common dolphins, sunfish and sharks underneath the water’s surface. Once thing we had forgotten to take notice of however was the intense glare of the sun on the water’s surface which resulted in both Elena and I going to bed that evening with some interesting looking panda eyes.


A common dolphin bounding towards the ship

The final day of the week soon came around and it was good to see more fin whales rolling by us at regular intervals throughout the Spanish coast and deep abyssal plain. The evening brought with it some common dolphins and minke whales as we sailed over shallower coastal waters. Some very well fed bottlenose dolphins whose sheer size always shocks me compared to that of the slender common dolphins also came bounding towards us just as the sun was starting to set.


A beautiful sunset over the Bay of Biscay

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 | August 31, 2016

Dolphins,whales and a giant black fin!

After months of excitement and anticipation I finally started my placement on board the Cap Finistère as the new and last for this season wildlife guide intern! My name is Elena and even though I do not come from a science or biology background, I am extremely passionate about cetacean conservation. Joining Yolanda on Wednesday was a moment I had been waiting for ever since I heard about the opportunity to be part of ORCA’s program. And so, my journey began!


Adolescent gannet

On Wednesday, we were sailing in the shallow and heavily shipped waters of the English Channel.  Having just started my training, I was unsure what to look for when trying to spot wildlife. However, beginner’s luck was on my side and I spotted the first cetacean of the day – an unidentified dolphin jumping out of the water towards the ship!

We started Thursday morning very hopeful as we were sailing over the deepest waters of the Bay of Biscay (reaching depths of 4.5km) as well as the deep sea trenches where cuvier’s beaked whales and sperm whales often feed. As Yolanda and I were discussing the height and shape of different whales’ blows, I saw something in the distance and it did not take me long to realise it was the first whale blow of the morning! The tall, straight blow on the horizon was unmistakably that of either a fin, blue or sei whale. Our persistence on Deck 10 was rewarded with a fantastic sighting of 3 fin whales not too far from the ship. At first, the smaller size of the cetaceans left us wondering if the encounter was actually with the rare sei whales but later examination of the pictures we took led us to conclude they were small fin whales.


Small fin whale

Our evening watch on Thursday over the 3km deep Santander trench started quietly but half way through, we had a close sighting of a couple of beaked whales, most likely Cuvier’s, who surfaced only around 50m away from the ship. These elusive cetaceans were spotted by one of our observant passengers, gliding quietly through the water, possibly after a good meal of fresh squid caught deep in the trenches! The rest of our watch was quiet and we finished the day feeling rewarded by the great sightings.


Enter a caption

On Saturday, I saw Santander’s coast for the first time and I have to say I was in awe. After a few sightings of common dolphins in Spain’s coastal waters, we enjoyed the foggy scenery that looked as if it was the set of a fairy tale. Sunday & Monday were full of fantastic common dolphin sightings. We spotted quite a few mothers with their calves swimming only around 2 meters away from the ship and luckily, lots of passengers got to enjoy the view!


A foggy Santander

Tuesday was the most eventful day of my first week – I finally felt ready to assist Yolanda with one of our talks. Our deck watch did not start until the afternoon when we were sailing over the submarine canyons and later on over the continental shelf. We rarely pass by these locations without spotting cetaceans and Tuesday’s watch delivered more than we had hoped for! Shortly after going on deck, we started seeing whale blows all over the horizon, every time closer to the ship. We believe those were the most common rorquals in the bay – fin whales. Almost right after that, we saw everyone’s favourite – common dolphins, racing in the waves on the side of the ship and letting us have a good look at them.


Common dolphin a few meters from the ship

Around 7pm we were already past the shelf and into shallow waters, headed towards Brittany’s coast. We kept seeing dolphins quite regularly, jumping high out of the water far in the distance. We were almost ready to pack up and go inside when a passenger shouted he saw something moving – I looked the way they were pointing and my stomach turned before I could even process what I saw – it was a jet black back rolling through the water with a huge almost completely straight dorsal fin sticking out! By the time I got my camera in position, the animal had disappeared deep underwater but I know that what I saw looked like it could be an orca… The fact I did not manage to take a picture makes me wonder if I can trust my own judgement, but in the same time, I know what I saw! We stayed on deck until sunset staring far into the horizon, wondering if we will get another sighting and questioning what we saw…


Posted by: orcaweb | August 24, 2016

It’s not all rubbish…

Today marks my final day on board the Cap Finistére after four weeks of working as part of ORCAs Wildlife Officer programme. It has been an absolute pleasure and I would like to thank both ORCA and Brittany Ferries for having me on board. Yolanda and Lucy, the senior Wildlife Officers, have taught me so much and have been a joy to work with!

As much as I have enjoyed every minute of being on deck, looking out for cetaceans and running kids activities or giving presentations, there is one thing that I must confess I have been disappointed in; and that is all of the rubbish that I have seen in the ocean. As part of our presentations that we give to kids on board, we discuss how pollution and litter in the oceans can affect marine life. It is estimated that 100,000 marine mammals and 1 million sea birds die each year due to marine pollution, and this is a fact that normally astounds both the kids and their parents alike. After spending a month sailing backwards and forwards across the Bay of Biscay, I can definitely say that I have seen my fair share of litter in the water. From plastic bags and bottles or bottle caps, to plastic trays and balloons; I’ve seen wooden pallets, a door and yellow bleach bottles too. I even saw an inflatable dolphin, not the kind of dolphin we wanted to see!

inflatable dolphin

Plastic Inflatable Dolphin

Although I have been shocked by the sheer amount of rubbish in the water, I have also been pleasantly surprised at how quickly children are able to tell us things that they think they could do to help. Putting litter in the bin, recycling correctly, not buying plastic bags and trying to raise awareness of cetaceans and the problems they face are all brilliant ideas that the children frequently suggest. I also noticed that after watching our presentation, where we express how important it is to reduce, reuse and recycle, the children would frequently point out rubbish in the ocean to me on our deck watches. Although it is terrible to see so much litter, it is encouraging to see the children taking note of this and being inspired to take action.

Fortunately, it’s not all rubbish… We have had a great week of sightings and seen a considerable number of dolphins alive and well compared to those of the inflatable kind. Last Wednesday we had a surprisingly good channel deck watch because the sea was nice and calm which meant we got a number of common dolphin and harbour porpoise sightings.

common dolphin

Common Dolphin

The following day we woke up in much deeper waters and therefore saw sperm whales and even the Cuvier’s beaked whale, probably because they like feeding on squid that live in deeper regions. I was very happy to see the Cuvier’s beaked whale because there haven’t been very many of them around in the last month. We also saw a number of fin whales, which we have been seeing a lot of in the bay during the last couple of weeks. Unfortunately Friday and Saturday brought about some bad weather which meant that our deck watch had to be cancelled on Saturday morning as we were not allowed on deck. In the afternoon the swell had subsided enough for us to get out on deck and we saw yet another fin whale. However this one was seen a mere 5 miles from off the coast of Bilbao; a place that we would never have expected to see them, because they normally inhabit much deeper waters!

On Monday it was Yolanda’s birthday, (Happy 23rd Birthday Yolanda!) and it brought us good fortune in the form of a 20 strong common dolphin pod! It was quite quiet after that until the sun began to set, when we then saw another fin whale. This time it was just 30 m away from the ship! It was so close that I could clearly see the splash guard around its blow hole! This definitely made it into my top 5 sightings of the month.


The beautiful sunset that gave rise to a fabulous fin whale sighting.

my fin whale

A fin whale about 30 m away from the ship.

Yolanda has also grown rather attached to the cuddly orcas we give away with Fin Friend memberships on board and she happened to mention this in her presentation that day. This meant that a very lovely lady kindly insisted that Yolanda have her cuddly orca after joining as a member. So I think Yolanda ended up having a great birthday, although I’m not sure if she was more excited about the sightings or the cuddly toy…

Finally Tuesday came around, which sadly was my last full day on board but I think some of the cetaceans must have realised and come to say good bye. At the very start of my penultimate deck watch, some of the passengers started pointing and shouting at something up ahead and just as I ran to the side of the ship I saw a Cuvier’s beaked whale shoot out from underneath us! I could clearly see its white head and rotund brown body. Seconds after, we saw another swim out from under the ship and it seemed to be very agile as it darted around and then disappeared in the same direction as the first one. If I had to take a guess, they may have been a mother and an older calf as the second whale was smaller and more olive-brown in colour. However they were not swimming right next to each other in the typical way a mother and calf do, so they may have just been friends.

The latter deck watch that we did on Tuesday was my last deck watch, but in true Bay of Biscay fashion, it did not disappoint! Of course we saw more fin whales which I have come to think of as being rather underrated. They are after all the second largest animal that has ever lived! We could see five of them exhaling all at once across the horizon; a pair in the north-east and a group of three in the south-east. One of the three also seemed to be a juvenile as its blow was much smaller than the other two. Both groups seemed to be swimming towards us and I got a lovely view of some of their backs rolling through the water through my binoculars. I was also lucky enough to see one last pair of fin whales up close and personal for my final sighting of the month, when yet again we saw a fin whale no further than 50 m away from us and then another popped up right next to it!


One of the fin whales swimming by for my last sighting.

I am going to miss the journey back and forth across the Bay of Biscay as it is a lovely one, despite a little swell every now and then. It brings with it lovely views of the Brittany coastline, sunsets and sunrises, rainbows and clear blue skies too.


Lighthouse near the Brittany coastline.

It has been a month of fabulous sightings for me on board, and an experience that I will remember forever. I am in awe of these animals that we share our planet with and I hope that I will continue to have opportunities to see them in their natural environment for many years to come.

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 | August 17, 2016

Marvellous members and memories

The weeks keep sailing by here on the Cap Finisteré and in week 20 Katie and I (Lucy) were ready as ever to look out for whales and dolphins. As usual our week starts on a Wednesday with an afternoons deck watch in the English Channel as we leave Portsmouth for Bilbao. The strong winds of last week had not left us yet and standing outside on the exposed starboard side was proving quite the challenge. Persevering we were rewarded with a pod of nine dolphins, unusually they were swimming away from the ship as opposed to towards us which is more usual of dolphin species we encounter. Obviously something else we could not see had caught their attention.

CD mother & Calf

A common dolphin mother and calf

Thursday morning was full of excitement as we woke up in the Bay of Biscay over the deep abyssal plane which reaches depths of around 4.5km. The dolphins were the first on the scene with two pods of striped dolphins and one of common dolphins bounding towards us making leaps and splashes along the way. Then the whales arrived, both sperm whales and fin whales at varying distances from the ship. The mighty blows of the fin whales impossible to miss.


A lovely striped dolphin

As the whale blows kept coming and the passengers kept spotting there was an obvious lack of beaked whales both here and over the canyons running through the Spanish coast line which is where we would usually expect to see them. After further research into ORCAs past data sets its apparent that this lack of beaked whales during July and August is a recurring event and it is believed that they move at this time of year to waters further south, just off the coast of North Western Spain. Seasonal movement of cetaceans is a common occurrence.

FW swimming away

Fin whales moving off into the distance

The second deck watch on Thursday began with a new group of passengers departing Bilbao for the return journey back to Portsmouth. We were left waiting as there was not a cetacean in sight for the first two hours of our watch. Then a blow and as we are seeing lately, where there’s one large whale blow there will usually be several more to follow. The sea around us seemed to fill with whales and passengers on both sides of the ship were calling ‘Blow!’ every few minutes, sometimes even every few seconds. By the end of the day we counted a total of 42 dolphins sighted and 53 whale blows, most of which were the mighty fin whales. Quite the day for all on-board.

FW pair

A pair of fin whales

More striped dolphins and sunfish were our companions on Saturday. Two large pods of striped dolphins which are usually outnumbered by the common dolphins were only just matched by them. Unfortunately the sea state was progressively getting worse and more and more white water was forming on the surface of the waves. This meant that only two whale blows were seen before arriving into Santander where the sun was burning even brighter than last week.


Sunny seas

After a quick stretch of the legs off ship we returned back to the deck for the outward sailing back to Portsmouth. We were glad to see that the sea state had calmed considerably and were hopeful that we would see many cetaceans. Strangely though we only saw fish species. Tuna, Sunfish and smaller fish species all leaping frantically and almost erratically out of the water. This lead us to believe that perhaps apex predators were lurking somewhere underneath the surface. On Sunday as we sailed around the Brittany coast line with calm seas and stunning scenery we were delighted to be joined by many common dolphins. Some simply playing in the water, others seen feeding and some also caught playing around the wake of other small vessels.

CD in wake

A common dolphin rides our wake

That evening we were excited about holding our end of week quiz. A bit of fun for all the family we were joined by the lovely Roper family. Daniel (aged 9) joined ORCA as a member last year after travelling on the Cap Finistere with his family and being inspired by the wildlife officers he met. This year he was as enthusiastic as ever and his sister Sophia (aged 7) was also really keen to see some wildlife and joined ORCA this year as a Fin Friend. Always out on deck with us in the early morning and braving harsh winds the Ropers were great company throughout both their outward and return crossings. It was no surprise when they won the quiz and we were delighted to reward their hard work with some great Brittany Ferries goodies.

The Ropers

The Roper family: Amanda, Neil, Sophia (Age 7) and Daniel (Age 9)

Monday morning found us back at the French islands and as per earlier in the week the waters were absolutely beautiful, crystal clear. These conditions meant we were able to not only spot the dolphins the moment they broke the surface but also we could easily follow them through the water below the surface. Seeing how agile these amazing animals are in their natural environment was a real treat for all on board.


A common dolphin under clear waters

These conditions meant we also saw a variety of fish species including our beloved sunfish and also a variety of sharks. A blue shark swam right past the ship and again we were able to watch as it moved in typical shark zig zag patterns through the water, probably looking for its next meal.


A Blue Shark

Tuesdays first deck watch was relatively quiet compared to previous sailings, a sea state three and a few whale blows on the horizon, we returned indoors for some kids activities with a really fun and lively bunch. We then headed back out on deck for another attempt and saw the sea state calming, the white water was disappearing and there were still a few whale blows to be seen as we sailed towards shallower coastal waters in the northern part of the bay. Then the sea started to turn into a magnificent mirror and the common dolphins arrived as if on cue. There were seen by many excited passengers out in the evenings sun.

CD fly

An acrobatic common dolphin in mirror calm seas

I leave this week having had the most fantastic time on-board with Katie, she’s been a real asset to the ORCA team and I hope that her last week on board with Yolanda brings her many sightings and many more smiles. Thank you Katie for all your hard work, it’s been a blast old sport!

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 | August 11, 2016

Fin Friends Forever

Week 19 of the Wildlife Officer season kicked off with myself (Lucy) joining Katie, our second intern for her second week on-board the Cap Finisteré. I was really pleased to see Katie enjoying her placement and really getting stuck into life as a wildlife officer.


Gannets, our favourite sea birds

On the Thursday morning as we sailed towards Bilbao we were greeted with a random mixture of weather conditions. A beautiful Bay of Biscay with calm seas but also fog and rain. With our visibility limited by the fog I was anxious for Katie to get more sightings. As if hearing my wishes, lots of fin whales began to blow all around us. Then a magnificent sperm whale sighting where we got to see all the vertebrate bumps down the whales back before it dived down into the deep. Cuvier’s beaked whales also made an appearance as well as common dolphins and the largest school of sunfish I have seen in one concentration, nine of them travelling together past the ship.


A fin whale

One of the best parts of being an ORCA wildlife officer is getting to engage with so many young people about the cetaceans (whales, dolphins and porpoises) and the marine environment. We have met some really bright kids so far this season and some whose kindness could not go unnoticed. On Thursday evening whilst we were out on deck a pair of young girls ran a competition to raise money for ORCA. They had a bottle full of pistachio nut shells which they asked passengers to guess the quantity for a small donation. These wonderfully thoughtful girls, filled our donation pot in no time and raised a brilliant £17.77 and 37.68Euros for ORCA. We were humbled by the generosity of everyone on board that evening. Thank you!


Sun Rays over the Bay

By the time Saturday morning came around we were eager and excited for another great day across the bay. The bay did not let us down. Once again we were greeted by beautifully calm seas, teetering on the edge of becoming a mirror sea state. This meant we were able to see the wonderful Harbour Porpoise. There are only six species of porpoise in the world and the harbour porpoise is the only one found in European waters, making this lovely animal so very important to our local ecosystems.


A Harbour Porpoise sneaking by

The day then progressed with three different dolphin species. Firstly the common dolphins bounding towards us, then the striped dolphins jumping high out of the water and then later on big bottlenose making even bigger splashes through the water. Fin whales could be seen frequently blowing past the ship. Sunfish again were spotted, the largest of the bony fish. Calm seas also allow us to see animals that might not necessarily break the surface and on Saturday we had two separate shark sightings.

CD Calf

Can you spot the tiny calf with its mother?

By the afternoon the water’s surface was starting to be stirred up by increasing sea winds but we were still able to see whale blows in the distance and also a possible beaked whale sighting just before our arrival into Spain where thankfully the sun was beaming brightly.


Sun over Spanish waters

We really were starting to feel very lucky when on Sunday morning another wonderfully flat sea state greeted us. Again this meant we were able to see many of the small and shy harbour porpoise as well as common dolphins feeding all around us. As we reached the French coastline we saw a sight that was familiar to me from last year when I was an intern on-board just like Katie. In a bay, off north western France, some tourist ribs with bottlenose dolphins playing around them. Last year I saw this exact scene in the same location every week of my internship and it’s nice to see a year later the bottlenose dolphins are still there. They are probably residents, choosing to stay in the area of the bay, most likely due to an abundance of food.

BD Feeding Frenzy

A Bottlenose dolphin amongst feeding Gannets

Before returning into the English Channel we got a lovely sighting of a minke whale. I always hope to see these small baleen whales when in coastal waters, which they prefer over deeper seas. As the minke whale rolled on through the waters around France we headed towards the channel that was by this point engulfed in a thick sea fog.


A Minke whale rolls by

That evening Katie undertook her first solo presentation for the excitable children on-board. She did amazingly well and clearly has a talent for engaging with young people. It is clear that she has really absorbed all of the information passed onto her thus far by Yolanda and myself and she presented with both passion and enthusiasm. Well done Katie!


A solo common dolphin

Monday afternoon’s deck watch started very slowly and it was several hours before we saw any signs of wildlife. Common dolphins were the first to join us and then just to keep everyone on their toes Tuna leaped out of the water making a big splash. These fish can reach up to two metres in length and are often mistaken for dolphins, the tuna however are not as graceful as dolphins and tend to give themselves away by belly flopping back into the water. More sunfish followed and then a familiar blow, Mr V! This is a whale we have seen consistently for several weeks within the bay now, we call him (or her?) Mr ‘V’ because of the unusual blow created by the animal. It is a large tall blow but you can distinctly see two separate plumes with one being shorter and off at an angle, we believe this is due to a damaged, deformed or blocked blow hole, but it helps us distinguish this individual from all other blows. Mr V is always seen in close proximity to another whale, a fin whale and this time the pair were joined by what we can only presume is a calf. There was a third blow, much smaller than the other two but sticking very closely to them. Is it possible that Mr V has a family?


Our Fin Friend

The final day of the week was very different. The sea state was terrible, well over anything we could accurately survey in however we remained on deck hoping for anything to stand out against all the white water. Despite extremely strong winds knocking us backwards and forwards along the deck we saw several large blows and the best fin whale sighting both myself and Katie have ever had. The blow was close and as the ship sailed on it only got closer. Following the animals movement we could see its body under the surface and as it raised its head again to exhale we saw all the details of its rostrum and jaw line, exposing its distinctive white right jaw. All the passengers that braved the harsh winds with us were very pleased, as were Katie and I.


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 | August 3, 2016

Swell or swell sightings?

Hello everyone! I’d like to take this opportunity to introduce myself, my name is Katie and I am ORCA’s newest intern on the Wildlife Officer programme on board the Cap Finisteré. It is nearing the end of my first week on board and the two main things that have been on my mind are the swell, and of course the swell sightings! As I am writing this, I can tell you that I am feeling a little seasick because it has been a bit choppy in the Bay of Biscay this afternoon. The curtains in my cabin are dancing backwards and forwards and the water in my bottle is jigging around, but nothing has fallen over yet, aside from me… Having said this, it has been a brilliant week! I have learnt so much and had some wonderful sightings of cetaceans under the brilliant guidance of the lovely Yolanda, one of our resident Wildlife Officers.


Unusual sighting up on deck 10 – Brittany Ferries’ Pierre Le Bear took a break from steering the ship to come and help me spot cetaceans!

Once I was finally able to find my way up onto deck 10 on my first day (it’s a big ship!) Yolanda and I began surveying. Our first deck watch was in the channel which I have been told can sometimes be quite hit and miss with the number of cetaceans that are seen. Unfortunately I was lacking in beginners luck as we didn’t see anything that day, but I certainly was not disheartened! It was great to chat to the passengers on board and learn more about surveying, including how to record the weather conditions.

On my second day on board I had an absolute whale of a time, if you excuse the pun. With a grand total of 21 fin whales as well as many sightings of common dolphins, some of which came right up to the boat, it is safe to say I was very pleased! Since then I have been impressing passengers with “fun fin facts” about fin whales’ asymmetrical colouration and incredible size- passengers find it hard to believe that they are 28 meters long and so wouldn’t even fit on deck with us!


Fin whale approaching the ship at about 50 meters away.

Over the next four days I became somewhat of an expert on fin whales as we had many more sightings of them. We even saw them in coastal waters that are roughly 200 meters deep; areas we wouldn’t normally expect to see them. We also saw more common dolphins, possible bottlenose and striped dolphins and even three possible minke whales! Luckily we were able to share some of these sightings with passengers on board and it was amazing to have the opportunity to watch children see dolphins for the first time. Seeing their faces light up as they shrieked with excitement when they saw dolphins close to the side of the boat was great!


A lovely sighting of some common dolphins- spot the calf!

My first week has also included some really beautiful sunsets and plentiful seabird sightings. There have been many gannets and shearwaters flying around that therefore provide entertainment when the cetaceans are being elusive, which is generally more often than not!


Sunset over the Bay of Biscay.


A gannet joining us for a sail

Overall it has been a brilliant week for me here on board and I am thrilled to be joined next week by Lucy, another of ORCAs resident Wildlife Officers. A big thank you also to Yolanda for showing me the ropes! I hope that I will continue to learn lots and I also have my fingers crossed for some killer whale sightings as they are my favourite! Well either that or a blue whale would be nice… I think I’ve almost found my sea-legs as well which is good news!

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 | July 27, 2016

“What a wonderful way to start the holiday”

Yolanda is back with me for my final week aboard the Cap Finistere; Lucy and I had an exciting time last week and I am expecting good things this week.

Our first night in the channel was challenging with high sea states, however after finishing our deck watch conditions improved and we awoke to beautiful conditions for our trip across the Bay of Biscay. Despite really good weather it was a while before we saw our first sighting of a small pod of feeding striped dolphins followed about ten minutes later by a beautiful sunfish.

Ocean sunfish

Ocean Sunfish



After another small group of feeding striped dolphins, we were greeted with a whale surfacing not too far away and watched it blowing off the back of the ship. A couple of distant medium cetaceans surfaced and after Bilbao we greeted new passengers to a really still Biscay. Unfortunately despite excellent conditions, sightings were fewer than expected, with six bottlenose dolphins starting us off shortly after leaving Bilbao. This was followed by a medium cetacean seen breaking the surface briefly and an unidentified shark shortly before finishing the deck watch. After the survey as it was getting dark and whilst talking to passengers, an unidentified beaked whale surfaced next to the ship. As the sun set, a fabulous rainbow appeared, followed by a pod of possible pilot whales.


The following morning we awoke to unbelievable channel conditions where numerous  common dolphins and harbour porpoise were seen.

Harbour Porpoise

Harbour porpoise in the English Channel

After a quick turnaround in Portsmouth we headed back for my final trip to Santander and what a great day this turned out to be. With numerous common dolphin sightings we reached the abyssal plain where we saw nine fin whales with passengers telling us there were several sightings port side and one especially close whilst we were doing the presentation.

The next day, joined by some hardy passengers who had taken us at our word when we told them there was a good chance of seeing dolphins from six in the morning, the common dolphins arrived on cue as soon as we arrived on deck and continued to show throughout the morning with a single brief sighting of two possible harbour porpoises until we went to do our presentation.

common dolphin

common dolphin

It was my final trip across to Bilbao and the passengers, especially all the children, were keen to see some cetaceans and as the family presentation was underway a couple of dolphins were spotted in the wake. Having explained to passengers that it would be unusual not to see dolphins at some point in the afternoon we started our deck watch to a full deck of passengers. Despite excellent conditions it was sometime before we had any good sightings, occasional pods of common dolphins. Many wanted to see whales and we explained that it might be possible if we reached the northern shelf edge before nightfall. So when it became apparent that we would reach the shelf we explained to the passengers that we were going off watch to get some work done and eat dinner and we would be back out for the northern shelf, where we hoped we may get more and hopefully varied sightings.

When we returned some passengers said they had only had an occasional dolphin but one passenger, an ORCA member and his father had managed to catch an orca sighting thirty minutes before, on the opposite side of the ship. This gave us hope that more sightings were likely and we immediately had a single common dolphin leaping to the ship.

This however was on the start of what would turn out to be a fabulous evening, as we approached the shelf edge I said “watch out for anything as there is deep water on the horizon” and immediately the first blow was spotted this got people on their feet. The word spread, and it wasn’t long before a second, then a third blow occurred.

This continued until it was almost too dark to continue with nine fin whale sightings, however with excitement at fever pitch the children were continuing to scream with delight spotting numerous whale blows in all directions. It was such a fantastic evening and everybody came and personally thanked us with one lady saying “what a wonderful way to start the holiday”.


fin whale


Some lives were changed tonight, including mine, it was such a great final trip to Bilbao with such amazing people I will never forget it.

The final day dawned and I gave my final presentation after which we went on deck and although there were not many sightings before we started, passengers had told us they had seen two whale blows and three cuvier’s beaked whales.

After three fin whale sightings we went to the children’s activity and when we returned to the deck passengers had seen numerous whale blows, including a good sighting not far from the ship and plenty of dolphins and tuna leaping.


striped dolphin watching us!

We started with a small pod of striped dolphins and numerous common dolphins with many passengers again thanking us for making them aware of what was out there.

I have had the time of my life and would like to thank the passengers and especially ORCA and Brittany Ferries for allowing me this fabulous opportunity, Yolanda and Lucy have been brilliant and the crews so friendly and helpful.

Thank you so much Mary

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