Hi everyone, I’m Katie and I was lucky enough to be a Wildlife Officer Placement with ORCA last year when I spent one month on board the Cap Finistѐre. It is safe to say I absolutely loved every second and so I am thrilled to be back, this time working as a Wildlife Officer! Thank you very much to ORCA and Brittany Ferries for having me!
So before I begin to talk about the sightings we have had this week, I must warn you all to brace yourselves! We have possibly had one of the greatest weeks any Wildlife Officer has ever experienced and I hope you will therefore understand how excited I am and bear with me… It all began on Thursday morning, and the notes about it in my journal were titled as “THE MOST AMAZING DECK WATCH!” In just 4 and a half hours of surveying, we saw a whopping grand total of 162 dolphins! I could not believe my eyes when we kept getting groups of 10 to 20 dolphins coming by almost every 10 minutes, it was incredible! These were mostly sightings of the lovely and reliable common dolphins, but we saw some mixed pods with striped dolphins as well. We were also lucky enough to spot a couple of pods of bottlenose dolphins feeding.
Now if that wasn’t enough, in the same deck watch, we also saw not one, but TWO Cuvier’s beaked whales! It was a fabulous sighting, a mere 50 meters away from the ship and we were pleased to have shared it with many passengers that were out on deck with us at the time. We were all lucky enough to see their huge barrel shaped bodies rolling through the water, as well as their distinctive goose-like faces. Many passengers were thrilled to hear that the strange looking whales they saw were in fact the deepest diving marine mammals and they were very impressed to learn that Cuvier’s beaked whales can hold their breath for over 2 hours! We also think that we were looking at a male and female together; this is because one of them had quite distinct scarring on its back compared with the other and male Cuvier’s beaked whales have two tusks on their lower jaw which they use to rake each other in territorial battles. We therefore think that what we were looking at was a male with a lady friend, which was very nice to see indeed. So here’s to the Cuvier’s beaked whales, thanks for being so uniquely impressive and weird, I love you for it!
I also can’t go without mentioning that throughout the duration of that deck watch, we had a lot of great passengers stick with us, despite the wind up on deck! One such passenger was a lovely, chatty boy called Hugo, pictured below. He actually joined ORCA as a FinFriend the day before, so Hazel and I were really happy that he was rewarded with such a great first experience in the Bay of Biscay!
Later that afternoon, after we left Bilbao, we had another great deck watch! We had another 111 dolphins in the space of 2 and a half hours, which included more bottlenose dolphins that were breaching and tail slapping. Of course we also saw more of the lovely and ever-present common dolphins, too. As well as this, we had yet another spectacular sighting: As Wildlife Officers, Hazel and I do our best to keep our eyes on the horizon whilst interacting with passengers at the same time, but sometimes the animals we want to spot can end up much closer to the ship than expected! In this case a passenger shouted “What’s that?!” and we were spoilt yet again that day as we saw a huge whale just 40 meters away from the side of the ship! At first sight it looked like a fin whale but then we soon realised that there were not one but two animals right in front of us! There was a much smaller whale swimming alongside the adult, presumably also a fin whale, but when they both went under for the final time, we got a fabulous view of the young whales’ tail stock, which you don’t normally see with fin whales unless they are about to begin a deep dive. So why don’t you have a look at the pictures below and let us know what you think it might have been! Hazel and I are still convinced that we saw a fin whale mother and calf, but neither of us could say for sure. By the end of the day I felt quite drained from all of the excitement and it is safe to say that I am constantly in awe of these amazing creatures, lucky me!
Friday passed by without much excitement. We had a deck watch in the channel and despite a lovely sea state 2, where there was no white water, we didn’t see a thing! However… Saturday came around and more than made up for this as it blew us out of the water once again! It felt like we were getting a repeat of the fantastic deck watches we had on Thursday, with another 156 dolphins (mostly the excellent common dolphins as usual), as well as a pod of 4 pilot whales earlier on in the morning! Later on in that deck watch, amongst all of the dolphin sightings, we saw another Cuvier’s beaked whale rolling through the water nearby!
We were also treated to sightings of 5 fin whales that day! Two of these we saw blowing near the horizon, which we were able to identify through our binoculars as it was such a lovely clear day. The passengers really enjoyed these sightings as many said they had never seen a whale before! Later on, we spotted another baleen whale which was hanging out with a pod of dolphins and we think we saw them feeding together on the same school of fish- excellent teamwork!
Now for the really good stuff… As well as witnessing two more fin whales blowing, which we think might have been a possible mother and calf due to their proximity with each other; we saw our fifth fin whale that day. At first we saw it blow a couple of times and realised it was actually quite close to us, but before we knew it, it breached right out of the water! It didn’t just do this once though, we actually saw it breach five times! Every time it did this it came crashing back down into the water afterwards, leaving behind a humungous white splash! We also got a wonderful view of its whole body, both its back and its underside. Hazel and I turned to each other and both said that we could feel our hearts thumping in our chest; we knew we had just witnessed one of nature’s greatest spectacles, it was certainly a once in a lifetime sighting!
I was very pleased to have shared this sighting with many passengers as well; one of whom was a really sweet little girl called Phoebe who wants to be a marine biologist when she grows up! Phoebe saw her first whales and dolphins this week and she absolutely loved it. Her and her family spent hours out on deck with us and that is her pictured below with Hazel and her lovely mum Kyja.
So then, why do fin whales breach you may ask? Well, scientists do not really know for sure why any whales do this, but there are some theories about why they demonstrate this amazing behaviour! It is actually quite a rare for them to do this because of their huge size (adult fin whales can grow to 28 m long and weigh between 60 and 80 tonnes), so it takes a lot of energy to bring their bodies out of the water.
One theory is that in rough weather it is possible that whales breach so that they can breathe without getting any water in their blowhole. However we saw our breaching fin whale in quite calm conditions (sea state 2) so another theory is that they do this to contact each other, possibly when noises in the ocean might mask their own vocal communication. The two other fin whales we saw were nearby at the time so perhaps the breaching one was trying to communicate over the noise of the ship. If it was a male, it could have also been trying to show its dominance, or maybe even been trying to attract a mate!
Some other theories are that whales breach in order to stun their prey; a large whale landing on top of some fish would certainly stun them and make them easier to catch! It is possible that our whale may have been doing this as we saw a few whales in the area that could have also been there to feed. As well as this, it is now thought that perhaps young whales in particular breach in order to exercise. Repeated breaching could help build up myoglobin in their tissues, which would enable them to store more oxygen for when they dive. Another theory is that whales breach to have a look around; maybe our whale wanted to get a good look at us standing on the Cap Finistere! Some other species of whale are also thought to breach to try and dislodge barnacles because they could cause the whale some discomfort, make them less streamlined in the water and even add a few pounds of weight to the whale!
So, back to our deck watches… After all of the excitement we experienced earlier on in the week, I’m not sure Hazel and I could have taken much more, or we may have keeled over! As it happened, over the next three days our deck watches were indeed more chilled out and sightings consisted of a mixture of common and bottlenose dolphins. On Monday we also had a nice variety of birds and we were able to identify them with the help of a lovely passenger called Dave who was actually a bird spotting guide. As well as the usual gannets, Manx shearwaters, great black-backed gulls and lesser black-backed gulls, we also saw some little gulls, a kittiwake, razorbills and some migratory species, which included swifts and a whimbrel.
This week has certainly been a week to remember. I feel very lucky to have witnessed so many wonderful creatures; the breaching fin whale is definitely a sight I will never forget! I have also had the pleasure of speaking to some really lovely passengers and working with my fabulous colleague Hazel. So the coming weeks certainly have a lot to live up to, let’s hope I haven’t used up all my whale and dolphin spotting luck in one go!
Thanks for reading. Until next time,
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