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)

Posted by: orcaweb | August 30, 2017

Smooth Sailing at Sea

It’s Sophie here, reporting back from a week aboard the Brittany Ferries’ Cap Finistere. Last Wednesday, I was raring to get back on board and back in Biscay! The weather certainly did not disappoint and our crossings were incredibly smooth sailing with not a white cap to be seen. I don’t think I’ve ever had 6 days in a row of such nice seas! When you get up on deck and see the sunrise over such calm seas, you can’t help but feel like it’s going to be a good deckwatch. And the sunsets are equally beautiful.


Sunset over an impressively smooth Biscay

Saturday and Monday’s crossing in particular delivered us some fantastic seas and lots of sightings. We had such a busy morning and from the moment we got out on deck we were greeted by common dolphins galore. We even had some pods of bottlenose dolphins jumping and splashing near the ship!

IMG_4294 (2)

Four Common dolphins, two adults and two juveniles, approaching the ship.

The dolphins seemed to be especially busy around the northern half of the bay this week, and were accompanied by large flocks of seabirds out in force as we passed Brittany and headed into the Bay. This included some great and Manx shearwaters showing off their grace as they skimmed the smooth surface of the sea. There was also a raft of 100 or so great shearwaters that took off as they abruptly realised that maybe the best place to sit on the water was not directly in front of the ship. I also spotted a great skua harassing a poor juvenile gannet for his lunch, illustrating their ‘pirates of the sea’ nickname is not unwarranted.


A gannet coasts along near the ship against an evening sky

Our new intern, Ashleigh, is proving a whiz on the logger recording all the sightings down speedily. (But I’ll let her tell you her experiences on board next week). We did have a few fin whales to welcome her on board, including two together quite close to the ship.

IMG_4119 (2)

Ashleigh’s first photo onboard – of her first whale blow no less

There were also a few of my favourites, – the sunfish. I love how they look like they’re waving to you when they waggle a fin just above the surface of the water. This week has actually been pretty good for fish, we’ve had quite a lot of tuna jumping out of the waves, and on Tuesday we even had what looked like some sort of very large game fish jumping repeatedly, perhaps even a marlin? This week also marks my first blue shark!

Unfortunately I was the only one who got a glimpse of it before it disappeared under the wake of the ship, but I was still very excited as despite many blue sharks being spotted from the Cap Finistere, it has taken me four months to spot one! Alas I did not manage to get a picture of it.

So we’ve had a real mix of different marine wildlife and some lovely weather to go with it. It’s been a pretty good intro week for Ashleigh as well! This is actually my first blog from the Cap Finistere despite having moved to this ship from the Pont-Aven in July. It’s been great to be able to have the experience on working on both of the ships and see the differences between the two. But they both sail through beautiful Biscay so you wouldn’t see me complaining on either ship!

‘Til next time!


Wildlife Officer



Posted by: orcaweb | August 23, 2017

 Where have all the Dolphins gone?

Hi, Mary here and I am the Wildlife Officer on board the Cap Finistère for 10 days until Sophie arrives back off holiday on the 23rd August.

It’s great to be back (I was a Wildlife Officer Placement last year) and I have not been disappointed.  On the first afternoon we were out on deck 10 with many enthusiastic passengers watching small pods of common dolphins and a few bottlenose dolphins, waiting to see what the approaches to the northern shelf edge might bring. Unexpectedly in shallow water, over 4 hours from the shelf edge we had a blow, a fin whale, the second largest animal to have ever lived on Planet Earth, cruising south.

Almost 3 hours later just on the approaches to the shelf edge we spotted a family of beautiful pilot whales.  In the pictures below you can see their glossy black bodies and ‘smurf-hat’ shaped dorsal fin.


Pilot whales


Pilot whales

We also sighted some more common dolphins and then an unidentified large dolphin, could it also have been a pilot whale, or maybe something larger?


Unidentified large dolphin

After a couple of fin whales that we passed whilst sailing over the continental shelf edge, we retired for the night, looking forward to our return trip from Bilbao. Again we were lucky with a couple of whale sightings, but where were all the dolphins?  The bay only produced two dolphins, and numerous groups of breaching fish.

On the second deck watch, on the Northern shelf, we had some amazing views of 5 Fin whales and later on, another smaller rorqual whale. Ending the day in the shallow waters approaching the French islands, we had several sightings of common dolphins either feeding, or jumping into to the ship.


Fin whale

On the Wednesday morning on sailing into Portsmouth Harbour we had a privileged view of the port side of the new aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth and all of the other vessels decorated with banners and white ensigns welcoming her into her new home in Portsmouth.

After heading back into the English Channel, later that day we managed to spot a couple of bottlenose dolphins under many sea birds in the blustery channel.

On Thursday we were in the Bay of Biscay again – hurrah!  In the morning, we had 5 whale sightings, an unusual sighting of a striped dolphin moving slowly next to the ship underwater, and on the approaches to Bilbao a unidentified beaked whale surfaced briefly and a large breaching fish were spotted.

The afternoon sailing was amazing as the sea state dropped to almost zero, all of the passengers eagerly awaited our first sighting and what a sighting that was – a group of three Cuviers beaked whales, one smaller, probably a juvenile surfacing next to the ship.


Cuvier’s beaked whale

Next Nicki (Wildlife Officer Placement) spotted a Blue shark alongside the ship and later an ocean sunfish.  Not long afterwards, a passenger alerted us to a blow towards the rear of the ship, another fin whale surfacing to the delight of the passengers. Shortly after a dark shape was spotted towards the front of the ship just resting on the surface and as it passed us we could identify it as an unidentified beaked whale. On inspecting the photographs later we wondered if it was in fact a northern bottlenose whale. What do you think it might be?


Unidentified beaked whale

As there was little wind and such a good sea state a large group of shearwaters (Cory’s and Great) were seen feeding on the surface and attacking them to steal their catch a skua, identified by a passenger Steve as a Pomarine Skua by its broad tail projections. After and a group of 9 feeding bottlenose dolphins and a distant blow, we went in to eat and do a little admin. This allowed us to do a third sea watch as we approached the northern shelf, this again proved fruitful as we managed to see more rorqual whale blows and finally a couple of common dolphins.

The rest of the week was productive, with a few distant feeding dolphins, a couple of common dolphins wand 3 Harbour porpoise were spotted close to the ship heading speedily away in the English Channel.

We had plenty of eagle eyes out with us the next morning, and just before sunrise we were joined out on deck by numerous passengers eager to spot some wildlife, a couple of common dolphins greeted us as we started our deck watch but as we started to cross the northern shelf and the sea became much deeper an unidentified whale and 4 rorqual whale blows were spotted and this was followed by a lovely sighting of a group of 5 pilot whales.  An amazing 10 further rorquals were seen, including identified Fin whales before we headed back inside to deliver our presentation about the amazing wildlife in the Bay of Biscay.

As it was too dark on leaving Santander we awoke near the French islands off the Brittany coast where our first sighting was of 7 feeding bottlenose dolphins and several small pods of common dolphins. On entering the English Channel we managed to catch a glimpse of a couple of harbour porpoise racing away from us.

On our last trip towards Bilbao we were plagued with fog.  We left the deck for our crew drill just as the fog lifted and as we were out on deck for this drill we were lucky enough to see several pods of common dolphins leaping towards us and a sunfish. We did not have to worry about the passengers on the higher deck as their whoops of joy and cheering signalled to us that they had spotted them, as had a lot of the crew with us.


That afternoon, passengers were treated to a fairly close fin whale, followed shortly after, by 6 otherroqual whales and a possible distant sperm whale blow. The passengers couldn’t believe their luck! To top it off a great day was a solar eclipse, only partial, but visible and we had some great comments from some of the passengers who had thoroughly enjoyed the experience.

There was also a fantastic sighting of over 70 Great Shearwaters close to the ship but where have all the dolphins gone out of the bay?


Great shearwaters

Later just before we left our watch several passengers came back and as they were asking if we had seen anything splashing was seen, at last the common dolphins had come to the ship to say goodbye to us all. Excitedly the passengers left us saying “seeing the dolphins had made their day!”

Nicki and I have thoroughly enjoyed our time on the Cap Finistère and are sad to be leaving but we hope Sophie and Ashleigh (our next Wildlife Officer Placement) have as good a time as we have.

Au revoir et merci Brittany Ferries Mary.


Map of sightings from 14-22/08/17

Posted by: orcaweb | August 16, 2017

Groovy Cuvies

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

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

8.8.17 tues blow

Whale blow on the starboard side

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

10.8.17 thurs moon am

Thursday morning’s lovely moon

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

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


One of the beautiful Cuvier’s beaked whales

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

11.8.17 fri adult gannet


11.8.17 fri adult gannet from above

Adult gannets – a huge 2m wingspan!

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

11.8.17 fri 3rd yr gannet - started to get yellow head

This gannet is likely to be in its third year

12.8.17 sat juvenile gannet

A very young gannet just beginning to get its white feathers

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

12.8.17 sat santander scenery

Coming into beautiful Santander

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


Bottlenose dolphins feeding under birds along the gorgeous Brittany coastline

13.8.17 sun alice and katie brittany coastline

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

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

14.8.17 mon common dolphin

The always elegant common dolphin

14.8.17 mon fin whale

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

14.8.17 mon pm sunset

Monday’s beautiful sunset and calm sea

Until next time,

Nicki (Wildlife Officer placement)

Posted by: orcaweb | August 9, 2017

Sei what?!

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

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


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

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

Fin whale.jpg

The lovely swept-back dorsal fin of a fin whale

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

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


The Whale family with Hazel

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

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

great shearwater.jpg

great shearwater

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


There he/she blows!


Saturday morning sunrise

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


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

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

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

Deck watch questions and answers

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted by: orcaweb | July 26, 2017

Chasing the Cachalot

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

– John Masefield.

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

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


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

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


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

– Kelly (Wildlife Officer Placement)

Posted by: orcaweb | July 19, 2017

Staring down the blow hole

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

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


Two juvenile gannets flying over a mirror calm sea.

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

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

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

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


The beautiful sunset on Saturday morning.

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

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

Until next time,
– Kelly (Wildlife Officer Placement)

Posted by: orcaweb | July 12, 2017

Introduction to life at sea

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

Kelly and Hazel Wildlife Officers

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

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

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


Common dolphin leaping

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

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

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

Week 2:

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

6th July

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

– Kelly (ORCA Wildlife Officer Placement)

Older Posts »