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A gannet having a flap

Sightings update: Katie and I (Jess) have had a lovely week of calm crossings with our regular common dolphins and striped dolphins impressing the passengers. On our Saturday crossing to Santander (our favourite crossing as we are able to get off the ferry and go to our favourite ice cream shop) we had a great group of keen passengers but sadly we weren’t having much luck with sightings. Just as the lack of wildlife activity was starting to make us look bad, Katie amazingly spotted three Cuvier’s beaked whales in the distance; the white head of a male shinned brightly in the sun and was followed by a female and possibly a youngster. The passengers and I were seriously impressed by Katie’s hawk-eyed spot, and we all went away with a spring in our step. AND I got to eat ice cream, RESULT!

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A common dolphin having a splash

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A common dolphin having a little jump

As it’s well into the season, we have started to map out our sightings and below you can see the map of what we’ve seen so far!

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Whales and dolphins are having a pretty hard time at the moment. Climate change, chemical and noise pollution, unsustainable fishing, commercial whaling, and marine litter result in hundreds of thousands of marine mammals dying every year, which, as I talked about in my previous blog, is all the more worrying now we know how much we depend on them. So what can we do to look after these magnificent and vital creatures? Well you certainly don’t have to be a marine biologist or conservationist to give marine wildlife a helping hand, and below are five easy ways you can make a difference and help protect these animals.

1) Go on a beach clean

Marine litter, particularly plastic, is causing catastrophic damage to ocean wildlife. Every year it is thought that around one million seabirds and one hundred thousand marine mammals die from ingesting or becoming entangled in rubbish. One of many ways we can tackle this problem is to keep our beaches tidy; every beach I have ever visited has had a form of litter washed up or left on it. This is our chance to grab some of that rubbish and dispose of or recycle it properly before it ends up back in the sea. Every beach goer can make a difference by taking away a few bits of plastic with them after each of their visits. You can also join organised beach clean days ran by your local wildlife groups or you could even organise your own community beach clean with your friends and neighbours if you’re lucky enough to live by the sea.

2) Reduce your use of plastic

Litter picking on beaches will of course stop some plastic from entering the ocean, but it is also good to try to stop it getting there in the first place. Even if we dispose of our plastic responsibly, it can still very easily blow off landfill sites and end up in rivers which then lead to the sea. One thing we can all try to do is reduce the demand for plastic products, by reducing our personal consumption of it. There are many ways to cut down on your single use plastic consumption, here are a few tips on how to avoid the worst ocean plastic offenders:

  • Say no to straws

Do we really need to drink our drinks with plastic straws? Every day in the U.S. 500 million straws are thrown away every day. Next time you are out with friends in a restaurant or bar, simply saying ‘no straws please’ when you order your drinks is an easy and effective way of reducing the demand for plastic and helping marine life.

  • Carry a reusable coffee cup

It is estimated that Britain throws away 7 million single use coffee cups every day. This is a huge problem because the card in these cups is fused with polyethylene to keep them waterproof and safe to drink from. These two materials then cannot be separated at a normal recycling centre. Therefore only 1% of these cups are recycled. By carrying a reusable coffee cup with you on your travels you could save thousands of cups from heading to landfill sites, where they are very easily blown by the wind into rivers, which then lead to the sea. Most coffee shops are very happy for you to bring your own cup to them to put your drink in.

  • Keep a reusable bag on you

Since Britain introduced charging for plastic bags, the use went down by 85%. This was a result for wildlife lovers as plastic bags are causing havoc in the sea. Many species mistake plastic bags for their jellyfish prey and die as a result of ingesting them. Just like the coffee cups, plastic bags are easily blown off landfill sites and even out of bins and then end up in the sea. Get yourself some reusable bags to pull out again and again at the shops, which will save marine life and save you some money!

3) Choose sustainable seafood

We have a lot of power when it comes to spending our money. The choices we make as consumers have a huge impact on wildlife, and choosing to buy sustainably sourced seafood will undoubtedly help ocean life. There are lots of online resources that can help you make good decisions about where to buy your seafood, take a look at The Marine Conservation Society’s advice on the Good seafood guide.

4) Join in with campaigns

There are all sorts of marine wildlife projects out there working hard to create a better future for our cetaceans, take a look online and see if you can find any petitions you might like to sign that will lobby governing bodies into making changes that will benefit our ocean and its inhabitants.

5) Support a marine wildlife charity

Now if you’re worried that you might not have time to fit all the techniques above in, an unbelievably easy way to help out wildlife, without even stepping outside your door, is to join an environmental charity as a member. For as little as £3 a month you can join ORCA as a member and be confident in the knowledge that every month you make a difference to whales and dolphins and the projects that are dedicated to protecting them.

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We are lucky to sail through the islands off the coast of Brittany where we see beautiful lighthouses

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One of our passengers enjoying a rainbow out on deck

Posted by: orcaweb | May 24, 2017

Thoughts on an unfortunate sighting

It’s Sophie again, checking in from this past week aboard the Pont Aven.

Wednesday brought a misty crossing through Biscay. It definitely was atmospheric – you could easily imagine a ghost ship emerging from the fog! Despite the reduced visibility, the sea was very smooth and we still had several hundred dolphins spotted in total. Closer to Spain we also had a very close sighting of two Cuvier’s beaked whales – likely a mother and calf. Most beaked whales disappear very quickly, but these weren’t quite as quick and we got a longer chance to snap some photos. Due to some rainy conditions we were also lower down the ship (on deck six) so we felt much closer to them. Definitely a sighting that passengers appreciated.

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Cuvier’s beaked whale mother (closer) and calf (further). Spotted within 200m of the Pont-Aven

Unfortunately, on closer inspection of the photos later, we were confronted with a saddening sight. While the calf seemed to be in a good body condition, the mother appeared emaciated. We can only hypothesise why this is the case. Our minds immediately went to an anthropogenic cause, was it a stomach full of plastic that is so often the case with marine wildlife? Has something happened to the squid that they feed on? It could simply be that she was sick, or old, and that prevented her feeding. However, her calf looked in a healthy body condition, so we wondered if the calf was perhaps part of the reason.

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Note her extremely poor body condition and protruding bones, that shouldn’t be visible in a healthy whale

Here’s an idea. Cuvier’s beaked whales are a deep diving species, reaching depths deeper than the sperm whales, and are less studied than sperm whales as well. We know in sperm whales that the calves cannot handle the extremes of diving deep as the adults do, so to allow the whale mothers to feed, the mothers will form crèches, taking turns staying at the surface with the calves. This is an example of alloparental care, seen in many social mammals. This allows the adult whales to feed at depth without leaving their calf alone and vulnerable at the surface.

Now extrapolate this to the beaked whales we saw. Not a huge amount is known about the social intricacies of beaked whales, but they are recorded in small groups, as well as alone. If this mother doesn’t have a family group for support, is she unwilling to dive to great depths to feed and leave her calf untended? Many mammals will nurse their young even as their body condition deteriorates, so the offspring will still be plump and healthy as the mother starves. A possible explanation perhaps?

However, let me emphasise that this is just speculation, and there are a number of explanations that could be the answer. This highlights why research is so important. We don’t know the reason why, we don’t know whether it is directly or indirectly caused by human action, or a natural but unfortunate occurrence. Without knowing what the problem is, we can’t hope to offer a solution. We can’t protect cetaceans without being equipped with understanding them.

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The sighting was brief but the impact was not. We desperately hope that she is faring better.

If you are interested in participating in ORCA’s research, and would like to join our teams surveying for marine mammals all around Europe and the adjoining waters, do consider becoming a marine mammal surveyor.  It’s a one day training course and then you can start volunteering on a variety of different routes. For information click here.

In an effort to end on a lighter note, we have seen a fair few more sunfish. We have now seen ten so far, I’m keeping count! I love these fish. Last week Heather covered some of their biology. But when you see them, they’re so funny looking, waggling their fins at the surface. Even when I’m feeling down they cheer me up. I’ve started a light-hearted competition to see which wildlife officer can see the most sunfish by the end of the season. With still the whole of June to go it’s anyone’s game.

Stay tuned for more news from the Pont-Aven!

Posted by: orcaweb | May 17, 2017

One species, many variations

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Common dolphin and reflection

It’s the end of our seventh week on board already! The cliché is true; time is flying and I’m sure it is because we are having a lot of fun (working hard of course). After seeing my favourite species last week (pilot whales) I couldn’t wait to see what this week had in store.

As Jess and I bid farewell to Portsmouth last Wednesday and began our journey to Bilbao, we delivered our presentation to the passengers to let them know which species they might see the following morning. We then spent a couple of hours up on deck as we travelled through the English Channel; it was a beautiful, sunny evening and we were joined by numerous people keen to talk with us about the sightings the next day might bring.

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One of many beautiful rainbows seen in the Bay of Biscay

I watched in wonder as a swallow darted and soared above us; they are such a joy to watch. Whenever I see them the lyrics of a heartwarming folk song I know called ‘Dark Swift and Bright Swallow’ are brought to my mind. The singer poetically reflects on the glee of seeing his first swallow of the year, one April day over the skies over Slapton Ley in Devon, as follows:

‘I was lifted above all care, as the swallows swum through the salted air,
Come from Savannah, and desert, and sea, to mark another year for me’

Having marvelled at these little masterful acrobats of the wind and sky, it was time to get a good night’s sleep ready for the wondrous wildlife of the water that we hoped to see early the next morning.

We were up on deck for 6am on Thursday as we passed over the deep, open waters (pelagic sea) in the Bay of Biscay. I was thrilled to find the sea state was a calm 1 – 2, which was very welcome after my previous week which featured some ‘choppy’ conditions! Our first sighting of the day was an ocean sunfish (Mola mola) which passed by very close to the ship. These bizarre looking creatures are the largest bony fish in the ocean. When at the surface, they turn on their side and drift along resembling a large pale dinner plate. When describing our sighting to a French colleague, I discovered that their name for this fish is ‘poisson-lune’ which means moon fish.

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Ocean sunfish (Mola mola)

Moments later we saw a similar looking shape in the water and thought it might be another Sunfish. Unfortunately, it turned out to be a plastic bag. You can see why marine animals end up eating plastic litter; it often resembles fish, jellyfish or other prey.

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Not a Mola mola!

On a more positive note, things then got very exciting. We were treated to relentless sightings of short-beaked common dolphins; in total we saw over 250 on this day! This was also the first day I saw dolphins from our cabin window. We are fortunate enough to see these stunning, sleek animals on nearly every crossing. Their distinctive hourglass-like marking on their flanks is the best identifying feature to look out for and this is usually clearly visible as the majority take an active interest in the ship, coming right alongside to play in the pressure waves given off by the movement of the boat and even diving right under it and out the other side. We are seeing a lot of calves with their mothers at the moment; I often wonder what the infant dolphins think the first time they see such a huge ship. I have no doubt that they trust their mothers know best and will keep them safe!

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We had fantastic views of hundreds of common dolphins last week

Common dolphins seem to me to be the Labradors of the dolphin world, were they likened to a dog breed. They are reliable and often seem excited to see the boat, much to the delight of all who see them, which implies a ‘friendly’ character. It is a shame to call any animal ‘common’ I think, not least because some so called common species are becoming less so, making it a misnomer, but it also implies that they are somehow not very interesting. This certainly cannot be said of these beautiful animals.

With that in mind, in this post I wanted to write a little bit about the variation that I have noticed in the common dolphins we have observed. (In a book I am reading, written in 1989, they are referred to as ‘saddleback dolphins’ which is an alternative name for them). Without closer inspection, you could assume that all of these animals look so alike that there are no unique identifying features to tell them apart. However, as with all species of cetaceans, most have individual features, some more distinct than others, which allow them to be recognised from one another. Indeed, there are photographic records identifying members of various species throughout the world. One humpback whale sighted and photographed off Shetland in the UK was later sighted and identified as the same animal in the waters of Guadeloupe, over 4500 miles away in the southeast Caribbean! Photo records prove invaluable time and time again for discovering fascinating new things about these animals.

So, back to the lovely common dolphins of Biscay. Various aspects of a porpoise, dolphin or whale’s appearance can be used to identify an individual animal and here are some photographs to illustrate this.

The first photo here shows two dolphins; you can see that the lower of the two has evidence of a historic injury to the top of its tail stock, indicated by the indent and what seems to be well healed scar tissue. Conversely, it may be a defect present from birth.

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In the next photo of two different animals, the top one has a visible circle shaped mark on its flank. This characteristic alone may not be distinct enough to identify an individual animal, but combined with other features (such as any notches in its dorsal fin) it could help to build a profile.

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The photo below features another two different dolphins; there are numerous notable differences in appearance here, but the most striking is the notching in the dorsal fin of the animal in the foreground.

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As you can see, there is indeed much variation among these animals. However common they may be, I will never tire of seeing these dolphins; there is a huge amount of variation between them and they are all unique individuals.

Additional cetacean sightings this week have included bottlenose dolphins, a distant large whale blow and two elusive beaked whales who disappeared before we could get a good enough look to identify them. However, on the last day of my two weeks on board we were treated to a view of some not so elusive beaked whales – three Cuvier’s beaked whales! One was a very battle scarred white male who shone like a beacon as he broke the surface of the water, the other two accompanying him were pristine looking females; perhaps he is assembling his harem, as is typical behaviour for these animals!

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Two of the three distant Cuvier’s beaked whales that we saw

The highlight of my week was to come on this same brilliantly calm day. The clear waters afforded us over ten sightings of blue sharks! I had only ever encountered one of these beautiful animals prior to this and I was very excited to see so many. Here is a photo of one of the sharks we saw!

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Perfect clear, calm conditions afforded us great views of numerous blue sharks

Other things we have enjoyed looking at this week included lovely rainbows at sea, a turtle dove and this beautiful but slightly bedraggled looking hummingbird hawkmoth which I found on the ship.

 

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Hummingbird hawkmoth

When I asked a French colleague for a cup in which to catch and release the aforementioned creature, he looked very concerned. It transpired he thought I had said that I had found a mouse on the ship! He was relieved when I showed it to him; for any future moth rescues I will be sure to use the French name ‘Papillon de nuit’ (butterfly of the night) to avoid confusion!

As I leave the ship for my week off I have land based wildlife watching and nature to look forward to. I wish my colleagues a week of great sightings and look forward to getting back on board!

Hazel

Posted by: orcaweb | May 16, 2017

Surveys, sightings and sneaky beakys

Heather here, checking in after another fabulous week aboard the Brittany Ferries Pont-Aven. We started our week with a beautiful Southbound crossing of the Bay of Biscay. Like last week, we were treated to lots of lovely Short-beaked common dolphins. These energetic and playful animals are easily identified by their relatively small (1.0-2.6m) slender body shape. When they porpoise (swimming whilst bringing their bodies out of the water) they show off their distinctive yellow and grey hourglass pattern on their flanks- the light yellow patch bright and clear in the Biscay sunshine. Although, as the name suggests, they are a common sighting, these intelligent and sociable animals never cease to brighten up the long days on deck. Often coming right in to play by the ship, passengers regularly spot common dolphins from the windows in the restaurant, or even from their cabins!

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Common dolphin

This week we have witnessed a lot of dolphin feeding behaviour, often with large groups of dolphins all working together. We watched them twist, turn and circle under the crystal clear water, herding the fish. The Bay of Biscay has fantastically nutrient rich waters creating an abundance of food for the many cetacean species we spot there.

Again this week, we have had some fab sightings of beaked whales around the Torrelavega canyon in the Bay of Biscay. ORCA has highlighted these canyons as a fantastic spot for spotting these elusive whales, which spend much of their time in the deep sea. Of these species, the Cuvier’s beaked whale is the deepest diving that we know of, reaching over 2,992m in depth, diving for over 2 and a quarter hours at a time. This long time spent at depth means that they are a relatively unstudied species, with the Bay of Biscay being one of the best places to see them. One male Cuvier’s beaked whale was spotted quietly sneaking past us this week, less than 250m from the ship! It was easily identified as a Cuvier’s by the light forehead sloping into the distinctive beak.

Like last week, we have not seen many of the great baleen whales on our travels. We spotted our first, and only, this week on our last crossing of Biscay- two very distant whales, we think were most likely an adult and juvenile fin whale. We are eagerly awaiting further sightings as the season continues and we will keep you posted!

We have also had a lovely couple of sightings of the non-cetacean variety, with a turtle dove flying by, over and around the ship on both crossings of the Bay. They are easily identified by their bright orange-brown feathers and graceful flight. These birds spend their winters in Africa before migrating north to spend their summers breeding in Europe. They are a rare sight, as they have been in decline for many years, and are now a species of conservation concern. We were therefore delighted to see them several times this week.

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Turtle dove in flight

Another non- cetacean species we have seen is several sunfish, lazily floating past us, bathing in the Biscay sun. The largest bony fish species in the world, these strange creatures can easily be mistaken for a floating plastic bag as they bask on the surface of the water. They can swim down to several hundred metres, and so perhaps what we saw was the sunfish soaking up some warmth from the sun, before diving back down into the colder waters.

Later in the week we were joined by the ORCA survey team, looking out for whales and dolphins on our routes between Roscoff and Cork. Wildlife officer Andy, unable to cope with a week away from our home on the lovely Pont- Aven, joined the team. We added again to our basking shark tally this week, it is now the fourth week in the row we have spotted them from this route, so it’s always worth a look for fins around these Irish waters!

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L-R Lucy, Andy, Sophie, Trudy, Heather & Phil

If you would like to find out more about becoming Marine Mammal Surveyor, to join us on surveys to collect vital scientific data, please visit our website for more information!

Heather

Posted by: orcaweb | May 11, 2017

“Nosey” whales and dolphins came out to play!

Hello everyone, it’s Katie again! Thanks for taking the time to read about my fourth week on board, which is the sixth week of our Wildlife Officer season. Get yourself a cup of tea, settle down somewhere comfy, and I hope you enjoy what I have to say!

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Wildlife Officer Katie – feeling very happy to be out on deck looking out for cetaceans!

As always I was sad to say bye to Jess as she disembarked, but happy to be spending this week with Hazel. We began the week with a deck watch in the English Channel and unfortunately there wasn’t very much to see other than a lot of white caps… It was a sea state 5 for most of our deck watch but we were not deterred; we got up bright and early the following day for a deck watch in the Bay of Biscay and we were rewarded! We had a number of common dolphin sightings throughout the morning which included some pods coming to play with the waves caused by the ship, as well as a couple of sightings of them feeding!

Later that morning, a group of bottlenose dolphins were spotted by a passenger and we noticed that they were also feeding. We think that these were the pelagic ecotype of this “nosey” species as they were much larger than their relatives which live in coastal waters. In fact their dorsal fins looked so tall we felt we needed a closer examination of the pictures we took to properly identify them. After looking at these, we soon realised that they were bottlenose dolphins but that there was another dorsal fin in that group which looked different to the others! We do know that sometimes other species will hang out with them in mixed pods, such as Risso’s dolphins and this is what we think we managed to capture. This is exciting because it was our first Risso’s sighting of the season, although I am hoping for more to come!

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Here you can see five bottlenose dolphin dorsal fins on the right, but on the far left you can see a different dorsal fin- we think it belonged to a Risso’s dolphin!

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Bottlenose dolphins

The other fabulous cetacean species that we got to see in this deck watch was another “nosey” species. It was none other than, wait for it… The northern bottlenose whale!!! I have been waiting to see one of these all season so I was very pleased when we got a sighting that was a mere 100 m away from the ship! It was moving away from us so I only got a quick glimpse of its bulbous forehead and bottle shaped beak but nevertheless, it was an impressive sighting as we could clearly see its robust looking body. They can be between 7 and 9 m long and the one we saw was even a beautiful bronze colour so it was amazing to see! This species regularly dives to depths of 1,500 m and can hold their breath for up to two hours. They like to hang out in deep habitats where there are lots of squid, which is their preferred food and this correlated with where we saw our whale, as it was sighted over some deep sea canyons that we cross over on the approach to Spain. For anyone who remembers, the whale that unfortunately got stuck in the River Thames back in 2006 was also a northern bottlenose whale. In fact no one is really sure why she ended up there, but given this species’ preference for deep water habitats it was certainly a memorable stranding and unlikely to happen again.

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Unfortunately this photo is a bit blurry, but it is evidence of our northern bottlenose whale sighting!

On Thursday afternoon we were hoping to spot our lovely whale again but no such luck unfortunately, as by the time we sailed back into the Bay of Biscay, the sea state had picked up. The hardy passengers we had up on deck with us were pleased to spot some fabulous common dolphins though; we can always rely on them! Unfortunately the conditions seemed to get even worse over night as we woke up in the channel to a sea state 6 with low visibility, heavy swell, glare on the water and lots of wind – a combination of which is pretty much a Wildlife Officer’s nightmare!

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Rough seas. The glare isn’t pictured here, but it was ahead of the ship.  Not great surveying conditions.

The deck watches on Saturday and Sunday led to a number of common dolphin sightings.  I was particularly pleased that a couple who regularly do the crossing and who always join us out on deck also got to see the lovely sight of the common dolphins.

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It is always lovely to see common dolphins, but it was especially nice seeing them on a sunny day!

On Monday we surveyed the northern part of the Bay of Biscay from about 2 o’clock in the afternoon and we didn’t get our first sighting until about 7 o’clock in the evening! Sometimes it can be hard surveying when there are no animals around, however it has certainly taught me how to be a lot more patient. Our first sighting that day was of the pelagic ecotype of bottlenose dolphins and after that we had a number of pilot whale sightings!

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Here you can see the distinctive pilot whale dorsal fin, which looks a bit like a smurf’s hat.

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Here are two more from another pod. You can really see the variation in the shape of their dorsal fins compared with the previous photo!

We have indeed seen many birds this week including a large number of guillemots in the north of the bay, kittiwakes, storm petrels, shearwaters, gannets of all ages, and a fabulous great black backed gull, whom I caught a picture of as he caught his dinner!

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Here is a photo of a lovely juvenile gannet which looks like it is in its second year, due to the mottled colouration on its back and wings.

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Check out this great black-backed gull catching his dinner- a little fish!

Our final deck watches of the week were unfortunately cancelled due to a high sea state, and I even began to feel a little sea sick! But despite this, I have had another great couple of weeks on board the Cap Finistère; it’s not always going to be breaching fin whales and Cuvier’s beaked whales everyday (as featured in my last blog), but I still really appreciate every sighting we get and I’m so pleased to be here! Thanks for reading, until next time…

Katie

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

Posted by: orcaweb | May 9, 2017

Musings on Migration

Hi, it’s Andy here on the Pont Aven.

We’ve had marginally better weather conditions this week and have had some great days travelling through Biscay.  Monday gave us distant pilot whales and wake riding bottlenose dolphins in the northern Bay, hundreds of common dolphins all the way across, and a brief close up of a female Cuvier’s beaked whale, along with a handful of the mighty fin whales in the southern Bay.

The fin whales aren’t here in huge numbers yet but they are certainly around. It may be that these are the first wave of the summer’s great whales to pass through before the usual much larger second movement that fills the Bay in August and September.

Passengers often ask us if these whales are migrating?  The answer is somewhat ambivalent as we don’t really know yet.  Certainly movement is taking place, driven in part by food sources, but so little is understood about the fin whale population in the North Atlantic that it’s hard to be certain.  We have yet to identify where their calving grounds are but their distribution ranges from Greenland and Svalbard in the north down to the Canary Islands and the Antilles in the south.  Whether there is a definite north-south migration similar to that of the humpback whales in the N. Atlantic is uncertain and fins can be found across their range at all times of the year.  But we do have some understanding of some of their foraging grounds and Biscay is clearly a hugely important one to the North Atlantic population.  It may well be that we are seeing a northern shift in summer fin whale distribution as we are starting to see good numbers of them feeding around Southern Ireland and the numbers seen in the Bay may be slightly less than the massive figures that were being recorded over a decade ago.  But that is anecdotal, speculative and cautionary and is exactly why the work that ORCA does, establishing a record of long term baseline data, is so important.

A week spent on the Pont-Aven sees us travel between four different countries (UK, France, Spain, Ireland) and that sense of continuous movement reminds me that both the history and the rhythm of the world is one of constant movement and migration.  Whale watchers and birders are regular companions for us on the upper decks, many travelling to Spain at this time of year to catch the raptor migration.  Others are heading south to take part in mammoth trips like walking the pilgrimage routes to Santiago de Campostella or starting or ending cycle tours that can cover huge areas of Europe and take months or even years to complete.  Some are solitary travellers, a few travel with just their dog as a companion, often in a trailer towed behind a bicycle.  Many passengers are returning to the UK after spending the winter in Spain or Portugal in their camper vans, others are bikers off on a big ride or emigrants leaving the UK and moving to Europe in search of their dreams.  And the same tales can be found on the Roscoff-Cork crossing with lots of French and Irish travellers using the ferry service for very similar reasons.

It is that crossing to Ireland that has given us so many sightings of basking sharks this year.  They also migrate in search of rich pickings and follow the plankton shoals north up the coasts of the UK and Ireland throughout the summer.  It is thought that some basking sharks winter off the coasts of West Africa, whilst others stay in the vicinity of the UK but move to deeper, warmer water.  So it seems that basking sharks migrate both through the water column and spatially.

We saw yet another shark sedately feeding on Saturday morning but before that we arrived on deck at 6am to find lots of swallows, swifts, house martins, a grey plover, and even a little egret – all using the slipstream of the ship to aid their migration north.  Swallows have been ever present friends since I started on the ship at the beginning of April.  When I left home they had yet to arrive from their southern African winter retreats but I soon found them in Spain en-route to northern Europe – despite the fact that Aristotle believed that the reason for their winter disappearance must have been that they hibernated underground!  We have enjoyed their company across the Bay of Biscay, the Channel and the Celtic Sea in recent weeks and I know that they will be swooping around the fields of my Devon home when I return in a few days time.  Like me they have been chasing Spring.  It’s wonderful to see the swifts returning too; I first picked them up flying high above Roscoff a couple of weeks ago.  We also found a group of travelling wheatears resting in the park on the seafront at Roscoff last week and I have been hearing those early migrants the chiffchaffs with their distinctive song around the Brittany town for some time.

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Turnstone, Roscoff harbour

 

 

 

The last late groups of lesser black-backed gulls have been moving through the Bay the past week from their wintering grounds off the Portuguese and west African coasts.  I’ve seen these heading through Biscay as early as mid-February before, accompanied by huge strings of adult gannets powering north through the late winter gales, driven by the unstoppable instinct to head to the breeding grounds to reproduce.  We’ve spotted osprey, mixed flocks of bar tailed godwits and whimbrels, herons and various wagtails in the middle of the Bay this year.  A wind beaten chiffchaff hitched a ride on the ship for quite some time on a Channel crossing.  Sadly we’ve not picked up any turtle doves this year but we have had three collared doves paying us a visit on the Pont-Aven.  That might not seem strange if it wasn’t for the fact that they aren’t really known to migrate so we have been surprised to find them on the ship so far out to sea.  So we’ve had a good range of moving species so far this Spring – perhaps not enough to make a twitcher twitch but more than enough to excite us.

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Collared Dove visiting the Pont-Aven

chiffchaff, Pont Aven, Channel, early May 2017

A windswept chiffchaff sheltering on the ship

Maybe our favourite bird, that has been with us since the start of the Wildlife Officer season, is the amazing and beautifully two-toned manx shearwater.  We first found them in the Bay and on the northern shelf as we started the season and they have since largely moved on from there and can now be found in large numbers in the Celtic Sea as we cross to Ireland.  This tiny, 400g, trans-equatorial and trans-Atlantic migrating seabird can travel an immense 10,000 km from their primary wintering grounds off the coasts of Brazil and Argentina to spend around three months mainly off the coasts of Britain and Ireland – which host two thirds of the world’s Manxie breeding population.  That makes our waters and islands a globally significant habitat for these birds.  It’s likely that a majority of those that we spot in the Celtic Sea are nesting on the Welsh Islands of Skomer or Skokholm which accommodate around 170,000 of these shearwaters each year for their brief but essential, once a year visit to land, in order to nest. They do this in burrows below the ground which they access at night so as not to get predated on by great black-backed gulls and raptors.  This highlights the huge costs that migration incurs as species have to battle storms, predation and mortality but still the rewards – generally better food resources for raising their offspring – are worth the hardships endured.

Yesterday, Heather and I spent eleven hours on deck with passengers, sea watching and surveying within the Bay of Biscay in reasonable conditions.  It was a most enjoyable day for us all with hundreds and hundreds of dolphins sighted.  What was slightly strange was that we came across only a handful of birds and no other cetacean species at all.  No fin whales, sperm whales, pilot whales, beaked whales, bottlenose dolphins, just short-beaked common dolphins.  We diligently checked pod after pod and couldn’t find any striped dolphins until we found some in the very last couple of groups of dolphins that appeared at dusk.  Just large numbers of commons, many starting to amalgamate into groups of a hundred or more.  Have the fin whales and sperm whales moved on and the Bay is empty before the next wave of animals moves in or are they simply in another part of the Bay?  We don’t know yet but one thing I do know is that the movement of peoples and animals is absolutely fascinating and is an integral aspect of life on this earth.  Keep an eye on the blogs from my fellow wildlife officers over the coming weeks to find out where all the whales have gone.

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Striped dolphins on the northern shelf

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Common dolphins in the Bay

Posted by: orcaweb | May 3, 2017

Whale poo and plankton; my new favourite things

Hello again! Jess here, updating you on all the fantastic marine life we have encountered this week, plus a little more about just how important marine mammals are and why they need looking after!

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Here is a cheeky fulmar we saw off the coast of Brittany – a relative of the albatros

Sightings update: Well it would appear that I am not the bringer of whales this season, all the action seems to happen in my weeks off (perhaps you heard about that giant breaching fin whale next to the ferry!?). However the common dolphins seem to have been consoling me and we’ve had regular pods racing towards us. In fact I had what was my best ever view of striped dolphins leaping about, which was beautiful! On our very last deck watch of the week some distant pilot whales (which are a large species of dolphin with a deceiving name) did made a sneaky appearance. We had two pods milling by as we sailed to Portsmouth, in the deep water just before we passed over the northern continental shelf in the Bay of Biscay.

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A striped dolphin leaping!

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A pilot whale

Engaging with passengers continues to be my favourite part of being a Wildlife Officer. It is really wonderful hearing people say that they are going to tell their friends and family about their wildlife experiences on board, and how they plan to reduce their use of plastic products having heard about the problem of marine litter in our presentations.

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Here is Katie logging our sightings with lots of keen passengers

I’ve found that attempting to enthuse the public about these animals isn’t exactly a hard sell. Passengers are always excited to hear that there is a chance to see whales and dolphins and it’s clear from watching their reactions when they do see them that they bring huge amounts of joy. We are all in agreement that there is something very mythical and awesome about them, but it is not just joy these creatures give us.

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Common dolphin mother and calf

As well as being beautiful and iconic, they also keep our oceans clean, green and fertile. Phytoplankton are microscopic plants that live in the ocean, and provide food for all that lives in the ocean. Little microscopic animals called zooplankton feed on the phytoplankton, and little fish and other creatures feed on the zooplankton. Then larger animals feed on the little fish, which are then eaten by large predators, such as whales and dolphins. Therefore phytoplankton are some of the most important living things and without them, the entire marine food chain would break down. Not only that, as they photosynthesise, phytoplankton actually produce 50% of the earths oxygen. So it’s very important to have healthy phytoplankton, otherwise we might struggle to breath!

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Phytoplankton (Photo credit Dr Richard Kirby)

Now here’s where the whales come in… It has been found that whale poo can stimulate the growth of phytoplankton. The whales feed on nutrient rich fish, krill, and squid etc. from the deep water column. As they come up to the surface they release all of these nutrients through their poo, which is what the phytoplankton need to grow. So by having lots of whales and dolphins moving through water columns, migrating across oceans and pooing as they go, its keeps the sea life healthy, and so it keeps us healthy.

Not only that! But when a whale eventually dies, it sinks to the bottom of the ocean, taking with it huge amounts of carbon stored in its body. As the whale decays the carbon is not released into the atmosphere, but instead moves into the marine food chain as small animals eat the dead whale. Even in death these animals provide a service to every other creature, including ourselves, on earth by locking away harmful carbon gases which cause global warming, its body acting as a carbon sink.

That is why we as a charity love to research these vitally important animals and apply our findings to conservation efforts. So although whales and dolphins are beautiful, that’s not the only reason we want to protect them, it’s just an added bonus that they are gorgeous to look at!

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Please visit our website if you would like to learn more about ORCA or how to become a member.

Jess – ORCA Wildlife Officer

 

 

 

Posted by: orcaweb | May 2, 2017

Sharks, Swells and Serendipitous meetings

Wednesday brought a smooth crossing for the Pont Aven across the Bay of Biscay with plenty of common dolphins joining the boat to play in the bow wave. We were also joined by two dolphins on deck 10 if you can believe! It’s true, just not dolphins of the cetacean variety, but Mr. and Mrs. Dolphin from West Yorkshire. What a superb surname! They weren’t recorded in our survey data but we thought with a name like that they definitely deserved a mention on ORCA’s blog.

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Sophie’s close encounter with a pair of Dolphins

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A common dolphin mother with her juvenile offspring

Much of this week has been sailing in fairly choppy conditions which has limited our sightings. Our latest crossing across Biscay was rough with a very large swell. However even in conditions that limit visibility you are still able to spot cetaceans, as we had common dolphins and two Cuvier’s beaked whales! Another silver lining has been the many rainbows we’ve spotted out at sea, and in the spray kicked up by the ship. Some of them have been quite dramatic against the grey clouds.

In other wildlife officer news, we have started running this season’s ORCA quizzes on board the Pont Aven. Twenty questions to test your whale and dolphin knowledge and maybe learn something new along the way. We had lots of interested teams participating on Sunday, with some great team names, including ‘Whizzers’, ‘Two whales and a mini’ and the winning team with 16/20, ‘Boys and girls on tour’. We also were joined by Pierre le Bear who helped kick the quiz off.

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Andy and Sophie with Pierre leBear kicking off ORCA’s quiz time

This week’s trip into Cork brought with it another fab sighting of a basking shark feeding not far from the harbour. ORCA may be devoted to whale and dolphin conservation, but we do record other marine wildlife, and pass on this data to relevant research organisations. This week’s sighting means we’ve had a fantastic ten basking sharks spotted this season so far. And while I wouldn’t go as far as to call me the shark whisperer, the only person present for all ten was yours truly.  However, I’m sure that my shark streak will break next week when Andy and Heather head to Cork again. You can see basking sharks into the autumn so let’s hope for plenty more! 2017 has already brought sharks to UK waters a month earlier than usual, and it’s gearing up to be a much better year for sightings than 2016.

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Even amongst some choppy waves we manage to spot more basking sharks!

I’ll leave you with some Basking Shark conservation facts

  1. In the North East Atlantic they are classed as Endangered.
  • While natural mortality is low, they were fished extensively for their liver oil and fins. In many parts of the world they are still targeted or processed if caught as by-catch.
  1. It is strictly protected in UK waters.
  • As a protected species you can face heavy fines and prison sentences of up to 6 months for recklessly disrupting, harassing, injuring or killing a basking shark. Under EU law they are a prohibited species so it is illegal to fish, land or sell these magnificent fish, this also applies to EU ships in non-EU waters.
  1. They have a low birth rate, giving birth to a litter of pups every 2-4 years.
  • They are Ovoviviparous. This means the eggs hatch inside the uterus of the shark and the young sharks mature further before the shark gives birth. Basking sharks also show ovophagy, literally ‘egg-eating’. The mother shark will continue to produce infertile eggs which the young feed on as they grow in the uterus.
  • This low fertility rate combined with a long maturation rate is one factor that has slowed their population recovery.
  1. They can travel HUGE distances across whole oceans
  • While we see them through April to October in UK and Irish waters, satellite tagging has shown that outside this window they spend more time feeding in deeper water. They have even been recorded migrating across the Atlantic and crossing the equator!
  • This highly mobile nature means that basking sharks need more than national or regional protection, much like many species of whales and dolphins.

For more information about Basking Sharks and where to spot them, check out The Shark Trust and their Basking Shark Project. Definitely check out the Shark Trust’s Code of Conduct for interacting with Basking sharks for an excellent protocol to guide your wildlife encounter.

Posted by: orcaweb | April 26, 2017

Close encounters of the bottlenose kind

Welcome to the fourth blog instalment from the Wildlife Officers aboard the Brittany Ferries Cap Finistère!

After the jaw dropping sighting of a breaching fin whale, numerous Cuvier’s beaked whales and hundreds of acrobatic common and striped dolphins I have a tough act to follow! (Check out Katie’s blog post from last week for the details of these amazing encounters).

We have been very fortunate on our crossings through the Bay of Biscay over the past month since we began our work on board. However, we know that the sea state and the number of sightings we see will vary greatly throughout the season from now until the end of September.

This was somewhat illustrated by the past week; although the conditions have been far from the roughest that we may experience, it has been ‘choppier’. Calm sea states of 1 to 3 had been the norm so far, giving us brilliant conditions for spotting cetaceans. Any disturbance of the water, from a pod of dolphins splashing excitedly towards the ship to a fin whale’s gigantic exhalation (blow) causing a plume of water spray on the horizon, had been clearly visible.

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A beautiful evening in Biscay with a sea state 0-1: Any disruption of the water’s surface is clearly visible – perfect for spotting whales and dolphins!

When we do our deck watches on board from deck 10, we not only engage with passengers present about the wonderful animals we might, and regularly do, see but also log our sightings for the purpose of recording information such as the location of animals, their species and the number of animals present. Doing so enables us to have a large data set which can be utilised for the conservation of these cetaceans and their habitats.

Above a sea state 6, the conditions make it very difficult to spot anything with large waves and white water rendering it nigh on impossible to see whales and dolphins. This means that our efforts are futile in terms of collecting useful data because we are likely to miss everything but the closest dolphin bow riding the ship. This week conditions peaked at a sea state of 7 in the Bay over a couple of days; low swell meant the crossings still felt calm, but waves and white water made our deck watches unproductive in terms of animal sightings.

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An entirely different story: sea state 6-7 (shown here) or higher make it very difficult to see cetaceans.  Note the long white waves and spray.

Nevertheless, we were still fortunate with some calmer days, joined up on deck by lots of enthusiastic, friendly passengers who were keen to see dolphins and whales; people are always willing to brave the conditions in the hope of seeing them. We are in a very fortunate position looking out for these incredibly charismatic and mysterious creatures and feel privileged to help people to spot them, including many who have never seen them before. We also get to meet fascinating folk from all walks of life, children and adults alike, who are as keen to hear about cetaceans (whales, dolphins & porpoises) as we are to talk about them.

I am always grateful for the curiosity and playfulness of the beautiful common dolphins that we see; some of these stunning hourglass-patterned animals approach the ship on almost every crossing. They bring a smile to the faces of all who see them and we have seen many calves too which add an extra cuteness factor! We even glimpsed some riding within the waves on the sea state seven days this week, catching sight of them once they were very close to the ship. The ever present Gannets are always a joy to watch too, gliding effortlessly even in the highest of winds. They are very photographic birds and I was pleased to catch a picture of these three flying in linear formation above us.

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Prior to beginning my role as a Wildlife Officer with ORCA I had never seen bottlenose dolphins. Over the past few weeks I have been thrilled to see what we believe to be both coastal and pelagic (open sea) types.

The bottlenose dolphin is a bulky looking species in comparison to the smaller common and striped dolphins that we see. The pelagic animals are notably larger than those in the coastal populations. Unlike both common and striped dolphins, the bottlenose dolphins have not, in my experience, shown any behaviour which we would describe as ‘attracted to the ship’ (which means moving towards the ship, bow riding etc.) I asked Andy, my fellow Wildlife Officer aboard the Pont-Aven, about this as he has had many encounters with bottlenose dolphins in the Bay of Biscay and the surrounding waters. His numerous experiences echo my recent sightings, with these animals simply passing these large ships by. I find the different behaviours displayed by the different species fascinating and I look forward to making many more observations over the coming months!

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The distant fin of a bottlenose dolphin pictured off the coast of Brittany

I am very keen to take trips to the Moray Firth in Scotland and Cardigan Bay in Wales to see animals within the well-known and much studied groups of resident coastal bottlenose dolphins in those waters. Where I am from in Dorset, bottlenose dolphins are sometimes sighted, most recently from Portland, but often also from Durlston Head. There is now thought to be a coastal population along the south-west coast around Devon and Cornwall to which the animals sighted in my home county’s waters may belong. Many wildlife groups in these areas are working together to gather information about these dolphins with the intention of affording them due protection and consideration in their home waters.  The work that we are doing on board also helps ORCA to gather more information about the distribution of these fascinating animals in the Bay of Biscay and English Channel.

In other news, a birding highlight for me this week was seeing swallows and swifts on our travels across the Bay, making their long journeys northwards. Being a lover of all wildlife, I look forward to witnessing them screeching and reeling through the warm sunset evening skies on my weeks off. We also saw large numbers of Manx shearwaters, guillemots and razorbills and three Sandwich terns.

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Guillemots and razorbills in a row: both of these bird species belong to the auk family, along with puffins.

Among this week’s passengers were my high school physics and biology teachers, heading off on holiday to Spain. I was surprised that they remembered me, having left the school over ten years ago! It was lovely to chat with them and hear that they are enjoying their well-earned retirement; it felt surreal to be delivering a presentation with them in the audience! I also had my birthday on ship this week and was treated to lovely sightings of common dolphins along with numerous whale blows as we approached the nutrient and food rich waters of the continental shelf on our way to Santander.

Aside from looking out for wildlife and leading whale and dolphin talks, activities and quizzes, Jess and I had great fun this week working with our Brittany Ferries colleagues within the entertainment team. We’re pictured here with our friends Tori and Pierre le Bear!

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L to R: Me (Hazel), Pierre le Bear and fellow Wildlife Officer Jess, with Tori at the front.

So, we may have had fewer sightings to comment on this week, but we have had a wonderful time on board with lots of lovely passengers and all our crew mates!

I have a week off now to enjoy the terrestrial wildlife back at home in Dorset. Butterflies, dragonflies, wildflowers and other beautiful sights hopefully await me on dry land!

Fin sequence

As I continue to relive the awe I felt at seeing the amazing breaching fin whale, I’ll leave you with this photo sequence I put together…

Until next time,

Hazel

 

Posted by: orcaweb | April 25, 2017

Sharks and sailing ships

After a somewhat blustery start, we have had another amazing week aboard the Brittany Ferries’ Pont Aven.

Looking out for whales and dolphins is an absolute dream in good weather, but it can be tricky in rougher seas. We certainly had a mixed experience this week! For this reason, weather is one of the important variables we record when we do our surveys. We work with the Beaufort scale which is widely used to describe wind speed based on observing the state of the sea. The scale runs from what is a whale watcher’s dream- a force 0 for mirror calm conditions, up to force 12, a hurricane! As you go along the scale, the waves get larger and the spread of rough white water makes it difficult, if not impossible to tell the difference between the waves and distant dolphins!

This week the Bay of Biscay was starting to show its wilder side: the wind and spray coating both us and the ship which then dried in the hot Spanish sun to look like a dry salty snow. The wind died down later in the day to reveal amazing conditions just in time for our crossing through the Channel to Plymouth. Not only did we spot some lovely common dolphins, coming to brighten up our day, but we also passed the gorgeous ‘Christian Radich’ a Norwegian tall ship.

Later in the week, we had a fabulous sailing from Cork to Roscoff. No sooner had we stepped out on deck after leaving Cork, when we were surrounded by no less than EIGHT basking sharks seemingly unaware of the fuss and scramble for cameras above them. Then arrived the common dolphins too- much to the delight of both of us and a suddenly very busy deck!!

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Basking shark

 

Monday was my last full day on board, and it did not disappoint. Not only did we see plenty of dolphins, but several whales were out to say hello too.

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Common dolphin underwater!

I was delighted and in awe to look down over the side of the ship to see a Cuvier’s beaked whale quietly sneaking past us! Had I been seconds later I would have missed the long back rolling through the water. Needless to say we were all pretty excited and completely missed the opportunity to snap a photo!

After that kind of day, I cannot wait to get back on board next week!

Heather – ORCA Wildlife Officer

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