Posted by: orcaweb | April 25, 2018

The Bay of Biscay is full of surprises!

Hello there! It’s Sam again, back from my first full two weeks on board the Cap Finistere. Laura and I have had a great week this week, full of wonderful sightings and even a couple of surprise appearances…..

My week’s story starts with us, the wildlife officers, getting to know the crew a bit better. On deck we have developed this extra sense which is triggered by the bridge crew picking up their binoculars. Our response is to begin a frenzied search to make sure they haven’t seen something we’ve missed (the crew and the passengers find this highly entertaining!). On Thursday morning however our extra sense was triggered not by binoculars but by a commotion on the bridge. Three crew members ran from the port to the starboard side in what can only be described as action movie style. They looked like they were fleeing an explosion and were about to leap through the starboard window! Laura and I rushed to the railing to see what had gotten the crew so excited and we were not disappointed when we were greeted by a blow from a juvenile Fin whale right next to the ship!!! Once we had recovered from our shock we rushed to press that all-important sighting button and get our cameras ready to take a picture of this amazing animal.


Juvenile Fin whale that appeared right next to the ship!

For the following half an hour there was no rest as the Bay was full of activity.  We spotted blows off into the distance and even what looked like blows from a mother and calf pair! The Bay of Biscay is already becoming the hotspot for fin whales it is known to be.

Anybody would have been happy after that wonderful sighting and we thought our luck had been spent on our second day out. The Bay of Biscay, however, had other wonders in store for us. If any of you follow us on twitter you will have seen our call for help in identifying a beaked whale. This beaked whale appeared early on Saturday morning just off the northern continental shelf on our way to Santander. This cetacean, again, appeared right next to the ship, it was barely moving and never surfaced. We managed to take a few photos and experts think it was probably a Cuvier’s beaked whale. Not long after we also caught a glimpse of a lone Pilot whale surfacing right next to the ship. These animals are very social and don’t tend to travel alone, that’s why we think it may have come from the port side of the ship and the rest of its pod may have already dived.



This calm Cuvier’s Beaked whale also appeared very close to the ship!


I mentioned that we were getting to know the crew a bit better, this includes the wonderful Entertainment Managers and the French crew that live on board with us. Throughout the week we have been putting our high school French to the test and finding we have a lot to learn. The crew are patient with us and are quite happy to help us improve.

As always we are extremely grateful to all of the passengers that come to our activities and we enjoy every minute we spend with them. We love to hear about their experiences with marine mammals and their hopes of seeing wildlife on their crossings. Keep the stories coming!

I am off now to enjoy my week off at home with my family. I wish Laura and Heather all the luck for this coming week in the incredible Bay of Biscay.


Posted by: orcaweb | April 24, 2018

The not so calm Bay of Biscay after the storm…

First things first, my name is Lucy and I am one of the three Bay of Biscay wildlife officers on board the Pont-Aven for the 2018 season. As my first two weeks as a Wildlife Officer draw to a close, it’s time to look back at this week’s sightings and goings on. Trust me, it’s a good one!

Setting sail from Portsmouth, thoughts turned to what spectacular marine wildlife might grace us with its presence on our way to Santander. These dreams suddenly came crashing down as the Pont-Aven rolled in huge waves, with picture frames swung from their corners. Bad weather through the night caused the ship to be delayed by 5 hours so we presumed all hope was lost of seeing those enchanting creatures crossing the bay.

However, come lunchtime the swell subsided, the sun began to shine and our spirits lifted as passengers started to join us out on the top deck. We were now in prime Biscay location, crossing both the northern and southern edges of the continental shelf in the same day and it didn’t take long for our first cetacean sightings to come in; a whale blow on the glistening horizon followed by several more taking our total to four suspected fin whalesCommon dolphins and a few striped dolphins weaved through the water and played in the pressure waves from the ship frequently spotted by enthusiastic passengers on deck with us and those soaking up the afternoon rays below.


Common dolphin leaping into action

Contrary to popular beliefs, wildlife officers do not watch the waves all of the time, so as we sat down in the mess for our evening meal and rested our eyes, relaxation took over. Ten minutes later, excited conversation filled the room with whispers of “dauphins” and “baleines” between the French crew. Ever dedicated to the sea, we rushed over to the window to catch a glimpse of a blow 200 metres from the port side of the Pont Aven. This wasn’t any blow, but an angled blow coming from a large brown logging animal; a sperm whale! Luckily a fellow ORCA volunteer and devoted passenger who had joined us cetacean spotting all day was in the perfect position and managed to get this fantastic shot of the resting sperm whale as it slowly cruised and replenished energy at the surface from its deep 2,000m dives.


Logging sperm whale, resting from those deep sea canyon dives. Photo credit: Paul Burley

As if this wasn’t enough, three Cuvier’s beaked whales emerged towards the end of a busy day rounding off a remarkable day of deck watching and helping passengers observe 99 different cetacean individuals!


Cuvier’s beaked whale seen on both the northern and southern Bay of Biscay continental shelves

The remainder of the week that followed continued to surprise us including four Risso’s dolphins feeding as we were docked in Roscoff harbour, a curious yet playful seal staring up in wonderment at the Pont Aven leaving Cork and finally a dozen basking sharks as we made our way back to England, leisurely lapping up the last of the day’s sun.

All in all – an action packed week.

Lucy – ORCA Wildlife Officer

Posted by: orcaweb | April 19, 2018

Back to Biscay

Hello! Heather reporting after another wonderful week on board the Cap Finistere. I am delighted to be back working with ORCA and Brittany Ferries for my second season, after having such a fantastic time last summer on the Pont Aven.

Having just finished my second week on board, I have been treated to a fantastic start to the season. It would take something incredibly special of course to match the incredible orca sighting from last week, but we always keep our eyes open for anything!

You can always rely on the Bay of Biscay to showcase a wealth of stunning marine life, and this week was no exception. We are starting to see larger dolphin pods, with more and more dolphins grouping together to travel, feed and play. It’s been fabulous to see such big pods, particularly of common and striped dolphins, porpoising out of the water to come and greet the ship.


Common and striped dolphins together, coming to play by the ship

While all our dolphins this week were energetic and playful, some kept their distance from leaping gracefully from the water, silhouetted against the horizon. These frantic fins kept our eyes alert for their distant splashing and in a few cases very much testing our ID skills!


Striped dolphins playing in the crystal calm waters

One of our best sightings of the week was actually from inside our cabin as we prepared for our presentation! With no less than 50 common dolphins, we spotted them easily in the clear, calm water. With a mad dash we leapt to the window and watched in awe as the dolphins jumped and dived, visible as they twisted and turned under the water beneath us. Ever the professionals, we also swiftly opened up the data logger to record the sighting too!


Wildlife Officer Sam counting dolphins. Can you spot them?

As always, we were delighted to be joined by so many interested passengers out on deck. On our watches, we love meeting new people and talking to them over the hours. Even with no dolphin or whale sightings for sometimes several hours, the time flies by. I love seeing the enthusiasm so many people have for our whales and dolphins, with passengers running over from the port side- the dog walking area- to report their sightings to us. One such passenger described a sighting of what could only be a Cuvier’s beaked whale, so while we are jealous, we are delighted for all those who saw this magnificent animal, apparently very close to the ship!

I am also continually uplifted to hear so many people on board talking about the issue of marine plastics, which is very close to the hearts of all of us here at ORCA. I love hearing stories from passengers, sharing advice on how to live our lives with less reliance on plastics. A topic for a future blog perhaps!


Beautiful common dolphin

Along with Laura, I will be on board for the whole summer season, so I cannot wait to see what we spot over the next several months! Watch this space!

Heather – ORCA Wildlife Officer


It was another quiet week for the Pont Aven Wildlife Officers, with the journey to Santander only giving a few glimpses of common dolphins. Still, passengers were keen to be out dolphin spotting, with several staying out on deck with us for many hours in the hopes of a glimpse of those elusive dolphins.

Passengers have also been very passionate about getting involved with the issues cetaceans are facing today (overfishing, pollution etc.), with many asking how they could do their bit to help the environment after presentations by Lucy and myself. It is always a pleasure to see people engaging with the wildlife and taking an active role to help preserve it.


Kate presenting to passengers onboard the Pont Aven

This week during our last crossing to the Bay of Biscay we were joined by an ORCA Marine Mammal Survey team, who watch from the bridge for any whales and dolphins. They timed their survey perfectly as it wasn’t until Monday (the 16th April) that we were really treated by the wildlife of the Bay of Biscay. On our journey to and from Santander, we were graced with over 50 common dolphins, with many playing in the bow and wake of the Pont Aven. Passengers were ecstatic to see these incredible, acrobatic creates, before they disappeared into the deep blue of the Bay, but it’s hard not to be enchanted by these beautiful animals.


Lucy on early morning deck watch


Common dolphin playing in the wake of the Pont Aven

The biggest surprise of this week for us happened in the English Channel, on Tuesday the 17th. The English Channel has become an area where we, and other cetacean spotters like us, have come to not expect much activity, but perhaps a few trusty common dolphins. So imagine our surprise when 2 minutes into our morning deck watch when the flash of a tail was seen half way to the horizon. Lucy, myself and one dedicated passenger stared at the spot, willing the animal to make itself seen again. And there, among the many white caps and heavy swell, a minke whale came crashing up to the surface and breached 3 or 4 times. It was quite the spectacle, before it disappeared back into the mysterious channel. The rest of the journey back to Portsmouth was quiet, all for a few diving gannets keeping us company. But even with a quiet journey home, it just goes to show that you never know what you’re going to see when at sea, and some areas might just surprise you!

Kate – ORCA Wildlife Officer


Posted by: orcaweb | April 11, 2018

Orcas, porpoises and everything in between!

Hi I’m Laura, another one of the three Wildlife Officers on board the delightful Brittany Ferries’ Cap Finistere this summer. I’ve spent the past two weeks sailing back and forth between Portsmouth and Spain, looking out for whales and dolphins, and oh my….the Bay of Biscay did not disappoint!


Sam and myself on a particularly cold deck watch last week.

If you’ve been following our social media posts over the last week, you can’t possibly have missed hearing about our incredible orca sighting on Thursday morning, but if you did miss it, then let me be the first to tell you that WE SAW THREE ORCA!!!!!

orcas 1

A great shot of one of the orca we spotted on our way to Bilbao.

orcas 2

Two of the orca sighted on Thursday!

I personally have been to both Canada and New Zealand in pursuit of the orca, and failed miserably each time, so imagine my surprise when Heather shouts that she thinks she saw them on our deck watch! I knew it was possible to spot them in the Bay of Biscay, but they’ve never been recorded by ORCA so early in the season. I don’t mind telling you that I had a little cry of happiness when I saw them coming round the bow of the ship. They cruised past us on the starboard side and then we lost sight of them in the wake. Fortunately we had company during this sighting in the form of our champion cetacean spotter Matthew (pictured below), who helped us track the orca until we lost sight of them, and the bridge crew on board the ship who seemed to be as excited as us.


Our excited young passenger Matthew after he had seen orca on board the Cap Finistere!

So yes, that amazing sighting pretty much set me up for a fantastic second week on board the ship. A little while after our orca encounter we also caught sight of a whale blow on the horizon (possibly a fin, sei, or sperm whale), and then a number of common and striped dolphins put on a show for us as we approached Bilbao.

And if that wasn’t enough, we were met with relatively flat seas as we came through the islands around Brittany; so flat in fact that we were able to spot harbour porpoises (a personal favourite of mine)!!!! Despite these funny little creatures being the most abundant cetacean in European waters, their low surfacing profile and dislike for ships meant seeing them was a great treat for us and the dedicated passengers on board.


One of the lighthouses on the Brittany coast where we saw porpoises.

Sadly my first two weeks on board the Cap Finistere have come to an end, but I’ll be back soon. Good luck to Heather and Sam this week. Hopefully they see a lot more!


ORCA Wildlife Officer – Bay of Biscay


Posted by: orcaweb | April 10, 2018

Dreaming of the Bay of Biscay

And we’re back on board the Pont-Aven for another Wildlife Officer season – hurrah!


Pont-Aven ORCA Wildlife Officers, L-R – Kelly, Kate & Lucy

It has, however, been a quiet start to the Pont Aven Wildlife Officer season, with the Bay of Biscay having us at her mercy for our first trip to Santander. With strong winds, heavy swell and high sea states, we were unable to complete our deck watch, but still even in those rough conditions Kelly and I (Kate) were able to talk to passengers about the wonders of the Bay, even if we were swaying side to side when doing so! Even without seeing the glorious animals, people seem to be so inquisitive about what lies beneath, and as passionate as we are to see and protect them.

The rest of the journeys have been kinder to us. Through bracing the chilling winds and rain to glorious sunshine and near perfect conditions, we’ve stood on deck, determined to see those creatures the bay is so famous for, and through all of the changing weather conditions we were accompanied by gannets, who seemed as determine as we were to find those cetaceans.

From Roscoff to Plymouth, Portsmouth to Cork we had glimpses of dolphins and porpoises and a whale blow in the distance, and in all of these wonderful moments, we were clinging to the promise of the Bay of Biscay, and all of the creatures that had been hidden from us during the first crossing.


A friendly gannet keeping us company on our deck watch


Wildlife Officer Kelly on a misty day aboard the Pont Aven

We were rewarded for our dedication on Monday, when crossing the Bay of Biscay we sighted over 60 common dolphins and 3 whales, one of which we confirmed as a fin whale. There’s nothing quite like seeing that infamous blow on the horizon and wondering if you imagined it or whether your patience will be rewarded with a glimpse of one of the largest animals on the planet, the fin whale. Fantastically, we got to share the moment the fin whale surfaced with some dedicated passengers who braced the cold with us up on deck ten. Hopefully over the next few months there will be many more moments like this. We’ll be waiting!


ORCA Wildlife Officer – Bay of Biscay


Sunset over the English Channel

Posted by: orcaweb | April 4, 2018

First week as a WO on the Cap Finistere

Hello everybody!

The Wildlife Officers are back! My name is Sam and I have just finished my first week on board the Brittany Ferries‘ ship, the Cap Finistere. Our first few days on the ship began with our Wildlife Officer training, which included, surprise surprise, a few deck watches.

It was a great couple of days having all of the Wildlife Officers together learning about our duties on board the ferries and we even got to see some common dolphins and striped dolphins!  Overall, we sighted 129 dolphins during the training – a fantastic start to the 2018 Wildlife Officer season!


Wildlife Officers Brittany Ferries 2018, L-R Heather, Lucy, Laura, Kelly, Kate & Sam

After all that learning,  we arrived at Portsmouth on Good Friday and Laura and I waved goodbye to everybody as we embarked on our first official voyage. Our first day involved welcoming 180 children on board and helping them kick-start their Easter holidays. They really enjoyed our children’s presentation and had great fun with our new interactive quiz.

Our outdoor adventures began on our first deck watch when we experienced some unexpected hail (which nobody warned us about!). Despite this and some rather windy days, we have been accompanied on deck throughout the week by some really enthusiastic passengers who helped us search for cetaceans. Luckily we have had quite a few sightings, especially of our species of the week….the common dolphin, that were enjoyed by all of the passengers on deck.


Enthusiastic passengers joining us out on deck!



Species of the week: Common dolphin!  Leaping towards the ship

All in all we’ve had a great first week. The crew have been great, we have had some amazing feedback and we finally moved into our official cabin, yay!

Fingers crossed for Heather and Laura, our Wildlife Officers on board the Cap Finistere this week, I hope they have great weather and see plenty of cetaceans. We are all really excited about starting this season!!

Until next time,

Sam – ORCA Wildlife Officer, North-East Atlantic

If you would like to support the work of ORCA, you could make a donation or become a member, helping us to continue our vital surveying and education work.

Posted by: orcaweb | September 27, 2017


Well, this is it. That final day has arrived. The badge has been handed in. The cabin is cleaned. The deck empty. The Brittany Ferries Wildlife Officer 2017 season has come to a close. So, to wrap up the season in this blog we thought we’d have a look at some of our favourite moments over the past six months.

Wildlife Officers Hazel and Sophie 2017

Hazel and Sophie – Cap Finistere Wildlife Officers 2017

Sophie’s memories;

Working on both the Pont-Aven and Cap Finistère has been such a treat and I feel very lucky to have experienced so much on both Brittany Ferries ships. It really is tricky to pick just one favourite highlight, but there are definitely some stand out moments.

I know it was recent, but the previous week’s sighting of a sei whale right next to the ship was an incredible moment. When I saw it I found new meaning to the words ‘jaw-dropping’ and ‘lost for words’. Passengers were crowded round excitedly asking what it was they just saw and I was just stunned, with my mouth moving up and down with no sound coming out at all! I think my reaction was in part because we so often see whale blows in the distance, but it is far less often that we see a close sighting of their body. And then with this sei we didn’t just see the back rolling through the water, we could see the whole of its body, and its underside as it rolled. Magnificent. Here was the Tweet


Sei whale – So close and exciting that I briefly lost my ability to speak!

When it comes to a pure emotional reaction though, it has to be the first, (and only time) I saw orca. In mid-July, I saw a pod of four orca, a male, two females, and a juvenile. Strictly speaking this was on a Sea Safari I guided on rather than in my role as a Wildlife Officer, however, it was still from the Pont-Aven during the Wildlife Officer season. I had never seen orca before, and I have wanted to for such a long time. I am unashamed that I had tears in my eyes when I saw them. I didn’t expect such a surge of emotion when I saw them, but it was overwhelming, and really affirmed to me that conservation of wildlife is my calling.

My final highlight was as we approached Cork port and it was beautifully, mirror calm. Breaking the smooth surface of the water, we had EIGHT Basking sharks smoothly sailing by. You could very easily see the top of the head, large dorsal fin, and tail tip break the surface, and one in particular was right by the ship and was absolutely beautiful. Working for ORCA has given me the privilege of seeing so many species for the first time, from basking sharks, to so many whale, dolphin, bird and fish species. I am so grateful to have been given that opportunity.


What a handsome shark

Hazel’s memories;

Well, where do I start?! I have a keen interest in all wildlife but it’s fair to say I have an obsessional level of interest in cetaceans. So, as you can imagine, this past six months working as a Wildlife Officer for ORCA representing this fantastic charity working so hard to conserve them, seeing these incredible animals and talking to hundreds of people about whales, dolphins and porpoises on a daily basis has been a dream come true!

Having lived and worked aboard the Cap Finistère since April, I have grown to consider it my home on the sea. I have gotten to know the friendly crew sharing meals together in the mess, sought to inspire audiences with our presentations in the bar and shared amazing cetacean encounters with passengers and my fellow Wildlife Officers, looking out to sea from deck 10. Speaking of my fellow Wildlife Officers, what a joy it has been to meet those lovely likeminded folks and share these incredible journeys with them. We had a lot of laughs throughout the season, along with our three wonderful Placement Wildlife Officers Kelly, Nicky and Ashleigh and Wildlife Officer Mary who stepped in for a week in August.

I have had the privilege of hundreds of wonderful encounters with whales, dolphins and porpoises during my time as a Wildlife Officer, along with lots of other wildlife out at sea. Bringing to mind some of these special moments to write them here brings back these vivid and deeply emotional experiences that I will remember for the rest of my life.

A recent whale sighting eased its way into my top moments of the season. Heading out of Bilbao, over the deep squid-rich Santander canyon, Ashleigh and I were left gobsmacked by the sight of two breaching Northern bottlenose whales. Any sighting of a beaked whale species is, I feel, a special encounter given that they are such deep diving, elusive, little known creatures who live in largely unexplored locations far offshore.

On a handful of occasions I was fortunate enough to witness the breathtakingly beautiful sight of sizeable pods of striped dolphins. You can read as many books as you can get your hands on about whales and dolphins and their behaviours, but there is no substitute for seeing them out in the open waters and observing their movements. There is something particularly captivating about these fast, elegant and acrobatic dolphins. Watching large groups of them cascading through the waves is to watch fluidity in motion; they seem to embody the very essence of the water that surrounds them.

1 stripey

Amazing though all those encounters are, one stands out very vividly above the rest. I can’t quite put my finger on what it is about pilot whales that makes them have a special place in my heart. I love all cetaceans, but these bulbous headed, inky-blackish coloured beauties with their complex social bonds and ‘heart shaped’ white bibs on their chests always render me completely overwhelmed. The peaceful, mirror calm evenings were my favourite times on board. The stillness of the water, the pastel palette of pinks, blues and oranges intertwined in the sky as the sun began to sink beneath the horizon, the remoteness of the open ocean: Pure bliss. On one such evening came my best ever encounter with pilot whales, just to put the cherry on the top of an already perfect cake. Three of these peaceable, slow moving creatures moved into sight, breaking the surface with their enormous foreheads and rolling gently as they characteristically do. I think I squealed ‘pilot whales!’ and jumped in the air simultaneously, with tears welling up in my eyes!


Pilot whales

Jess’ memories;

The best thing about my three month season on the Cap Finistère was meeting the other Wildlife Officers. It was so wonderful to be in the company of such passionate and fascinating people who work so hard to protect wildlife, even in their spare time. I loved geeking out with them and sharing incredible marine life encounters with them. On our training week we all saw a huge basking shark, I was absolutely buzzing. When I looked around and saw everyone else bursting with excitement and happiness I knew I was amongst new friends.

Heather’s memories

With so many sightings it’s so difficult to choose just one favourite. I think for me it has to be seeing orcas while guiding on one of ORCA’s Sea Safari trips in July. I cannot put into words just how much I enjoyed my summer as a Wildlife Officer this year and seeing this amazing species was such a highlight. They were close enough that we could see their breath condensing in the cold air as their iconic, huge dorsal fins cut through the water. Such a beautiful sight.


Andy’s memories;

How to define your MOST memorable moment of your Biscay Wildlife Officer season? Well that really is a tricky one considering months of daily interactions with passengers and spectacular sightings of stunning wildlife have taken place. Perhaps it was the 75 year old Spanish gentleman that spent all day trying to spot dolphins but his eyes just didn’t seem to be able to catch any; shaking his head every time they passed. That was until I spent an hour with him at the end of the day trying to get him onto them. Finally he had a brief but very clear view of a single common dolphin porpoising out of the water next to the ship. The serious, intense, expression that he had had all day just dropped from his face and, beaming widely, he turned around and gave me a huge hug, explaining in very broken English that after 75 years this was the first dolphin he had ever seen. Miraculously the barrier of language had disappeared during our shared dolphin encounter!

Or maybe the bittersweet but fascinating photo that I took of a Cuvier’s beaked whale and her juvenile from deck 6 of the Pont Aven in poor weather over the Torrelavega Canyons? It was a lovely close shot but I knew that something was amiss and as Sophie and I stood on deck looking through the photos emotions welled up as we realised that the mother was so malnourished that her spine and ribs were clearly visible. Was it months of winter feeding of her youngster or was it something more sinister? It had been a year when a Cuvier’s whale had stranded in Norway due to massive ingestion of plastics and a humpback whale in France died with over 100 plastic bags in its stomach. Plastic pollution is killing these animals and plastic ingestion prevents them from feeding and they eventually starve and dehydrate. Was this the problem with our whale? We don’t know but it was certainly poignant and an issue that we speak of at length in our onboard public lectures.

emaciated Cuvier%27s spine.jpg

A malnourished Cuvier’s beaked whale

Over the years, I have seen some pretty impressive sights in the Bay of Biscay. One of my favourites was a view of a large sperm whale swimming past, metres from the ship, as I stood on the bridge wing above surveying for ORCA a few years ago. The leviathan turned its body and just slightly raised its head enough to lift one eye above the surface and look up at the ship (and what felt like me) as it passed. It was a brief and personal moment that I will remember all my life and sperm whales have been synonymous with Biscay for me ever since. What we saw on a fine day this past May has only re-inforced that association.

Yet the sighting that I think probably stands out as the most memorable of the season was sadly a sighting of a dead animal. In deep water, we watched what looked at first to be the pale underneath of a dead beaked whale floating towards the ship. But we soon realised that this was actually the body, minus its tentacles, of a dead giant squid. This was a complete first for me. We know that sperm whales feed on giant squid and that Architeuthis dux – the Atlantic giant squid exists in our waters but I suspect that very few people actually get to see one, whether dead or alive, and it is seldom seen above the surface as it is a deep water specialist . The body was approximately 5-6 metres long and distinct in shape.

Giant squid 1.JPG


Their association with the sperm whale has over the years been both scientifically and culturally depicted and it was, for me, another once in a lifetime sighting. We watch marine mammals when they surface to take air and consequently experience them from our ‘above the water’ perspective but we can seldom experience the majority of their existence, which takes place deep under the water. This meeting with the huge squid tentatively bridged that gap and whispered a hint of the life of the sperm whale that we are generally prevented from experiencing due to our massively different physiology. In wildlife terms it was a huge ‘tick’ for me although I wonder whether a dead animal can ever actually count as a real sighting. Either way, it was immense!

Katie’s memories;

On an early morning deck watch with just a few passengers there to bear witness, Hazel and I were treated to one of the most phenomenal sights I will ever behold. Two blows in the distance revealed the presence of two large whales, but an unsettled patch of water in an otherwise flat calm sea state suggested we were in the presence of another animal. Sure enough, as we fixed our gaze on the unusual disturbance, the sea erupted with the form of a breaching fin whale. The second largest animal in the world thrust its unfathomably huge body out of the sea, coming down with an enormous splash! 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 a memory that I will treasure; it is amazing to think that we share our planet with such majestic creatures.

We hope you have enjoyed reading about our highlights of the 2017 Wildlife Officer season and our other blog posts along the way. It has been a phenomenal experience for all of us. We are are hugely grateful to ORCA for the opportunity to represent them in this role and Brittany Ferries for supporting us in our Wildlife Officer programme. Thanks also of course to the passengers who came to our presentations and joined us up on deck to share brilliant wildlife encounters, spending hours on end with us, braving all weathers.

Finally, thank you to all of the incredible whales, dolphins and porpoises who graced us with their presence, keeping us and all who saw them captivated with their beauty; long may they continue to swim safely, wild and free, with the help of the charities, communities and individuals working to conserve them.

  • Hazel and Sophie – ORCA Wildlife Officers 2017


Posted by: orcaweb | September 21, 2017

Whirlwind last week!

This week began with some uncertainty! Whilst Hazel and I were enjoying our last breakfast together in the mess, Gaetan (Entertainments Manager) found us and advised a passenger had requested our assistance on deck 10 to help with an injured bird. We quickly jumped to action and went to our cabin and fashioned a bird carrier. Rushing upstairs we met with the passenger who pointed out the bird under a pile of chairs. I held the both while Hazel professionally handled the bird which upon inspection was a sooty shearwater.


These sea birds find it very difficult to take off once landed and need a strong uplift to take to the sky.  Therefore, it is not surprising that the passenger thought the bird was injured as they are very ungainly on land. The sooty shearwater, which we named Bert, was then placed in our make shift bird carrier and secured in a quiet dark part of our cabin. We were then advised by the ORCA office to leave Bert for a few hours so he could preen himself and dry out. Hazel disembarked and Sophie joined me aboard he Cap Finistere. It was now in our capable hands to ensure Bert was safe and sound! We checked his quiet area a few times throughout the day and could hear him moving in the box, we were careful not to disturb him.

It got to 6pm and we anticipated he may be well for release, we opened the box to ensure he was dry. There was no evidence of injury and certainly no blood in the box, just lots of smelly poo! He was raring to go!  Sophie and I took him to deck 9 at the back of the ship and we carefully lifted him out of the box. To fly, these birds need to catch a lift in the wind and we had been told we needed to propel Bert into the air so he could gain momentum! Bert struggled and broke free from Sophie’s grip just as she gave him one last encouraging push.  All of a sudden, he managed to catch the wind and he took flight! We all cheered with amazement and were so happy to see him free!

Wildlife Officer Sophie releasing Bert.

After that whirlwind morning, adrenaline was high but we were disappointed to find deck 10 had been closed due to the weather conditions, so we could not complete the first deck watch of the week. Thursday and Friday deck watches were surprisingly uneventful, the sea state was quite high but to see nothing all day was unusual and a shock to both Sophie and I, although we were graced with some beautiful rainbows from all the moisture in the air.


But things soon started to hot up and Saturday certainly did not disappoint! With 15 fin whale blows, common dolphins attracted to the ship and a blue shark we were thrilled. For my last visit to Santander I decided to run along the beach as it was a beautiful sunny day, the run was beautifully scenic with the backdrop of the Santander mountains and the hustle and bustle of a busy port town.

Tuesday was my final opportunity for some great sightings and boy was it chock full of them, the logger (ORCA’s electronical data collection programme) was constantly out!! The morning deck watch was full of common dolphins, striped dolphins (which i hadn’t seen in a while) and a beautiful scarred back of a male Cuvier’s beaked whale. The afternoon truly spiced up! With a group from the Holland Natural History society, we had very hi-tech binoculars and lots of trained eyes to help us. We saw common dolphins again and then it was fin whale after fin whale after fin whale, blows from all areas. The entertainment duo even raced over to us saying they had seen 7 blows from the bow of the ship and more dolphins. We were then fortunate enough to see the back of a fin whale around 100m from the ship which was amazing! After all this we were content but then a passenger pointed out a large fin and we all looked down and it was a large possible sei whale caught off guard by the ship. It slowly rolled showing its underside and quickly swam away from the vessel. This was one of the best sightings I have experienced, the whale was so close!


Sei whale

My placement is now over. What an amazing experience working alongside a fabulous team. I have thoroughly enjoyed my time on board Brittany Ferries with very friendly crew and had the most inspiring time at sea. Yes, I am yet to see long-finned pilot whales but what I have seen has exceeded my expectations and exacerbated an already ignited passion for the conservation of these animals. Thank you for this experience ORCA and to anybody considering a placement  or voluntary work with them…DO IT! You will have the support and learning materials you need along with friendly guidance. For now, the sun sets on my time with ORCA but I will forever remember this internship and the Bay of Biscay will hold a special place in my heart.


  • Ashleigh, Wildlife Officer Placement, September 2017


Posted by: orcaweb | September 14, 2017

Sea legs put to the test!

Well, this week has certainly tested my sea legs! The crossings have been extra choppy creating a lot of swell meaning the boat has been quite rocky. Luckily I have fared well and to date it has not made me ill. Other than that it has been another monumental week of sightings both in the bay and across the Atlantic ocean.


Moody skies in Biscay

The week began on a high. The first deck watch on Thursday was chock full of whales! We saw a fin whale blow, the roll of a Cuvier’s beaked whale and were graced with 4 rolls of a northern bottlenose whale which was amazing! There were also lots of sunfish, an arctic skua and oddly a large bird flying high far away from the boat. After researching what this might be alongside some photos we believed it may be a purple or grey heron migrating south.

The meet and greet and presentation on Thursday were very busy with lots of passengers inquisitive and engaged with our work which I enjoyed as it’s nice to be asked questions and test my own knowledge.

Then the pièce de résistance! In the first 30 minutes of our second deck watch, we saw something absolutely breathtaking and I may never see this again! A passenger noticed a huge splash and we all looked in that direction and to our surprise two large cetaceans breached out of the water, everyone was awestruck and speechless. Both Hazel and I eliminated what it couldn’t be and we confirmed they were northern bottlenose whales, they can weigh up to 8 tonnes and grow up to 10m long. What absolute strength to get themselves out of the water like that! Once back in our cabin, we looked at the GPS tracks and the location of the morning’s sighting of northern bottlenose whales was very similar, so one of them may have been the same one we saw in the morning. This is something I will remember forever!

As the week progressed, the weather worsened and unfortunately on Saturday we had to cancel a deck watch as the visibility was poor, there was lots of white water and the heavy rain made it impossible to stay out on deck. We still managed to engage with the passengers and discuss what we could’ve seen there if the conditions weren’t so bad.

Sunday’s deck watch around the Brittany coastline was considerably better, and so were the sightings! We saw a minke whale, common dolphins and I had the closest encounter with the coastal population of bottlenose dolphins. Four of them swam right up to the ship giving us a lovely clear view of them and the markings on their bodies.


Underwater bottlenose dolphin

Finally, on Tuesday, with the weather still not on our side we were finding it quite difficult to see anything other than white water and spray. After an hour’s wait we saw a group of 5 long dorsal fins break the water, they were in a chorus line, we could see the pale outline under the water, they were definitely Risso’s dolphins. What an amazing sighting!!

Still no pilot whales to date, but this week has been extraordinary!

Until next week,

Ashleigh (Wildlife Officer Placement)

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