Posted by: orcaweb | August 24, 2016

It’s not all rubbish…

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

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

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Plastic Inflatable Dolphin

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

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

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Common Dolphin

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

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

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

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A fin whale about 30 m away from the ship.

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

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

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

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

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

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Lighthouse near the Brittany coastline.

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

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

 

Posted by: orcaweb | August 17, 2016

Marvellous members and memories

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

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A common dolphin mother and calf

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

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A lovely striped dolphin

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

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Fin whales moving off into the distance

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

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A pair of fin whales

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

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Sunny seas

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

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A common dolphin rides our wake

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

The Ropers

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

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

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A common dolphin under clear waters

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

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A Blue Shark

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

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An acrobatic common dolphin in mirror calm seas

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

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

Posted by: orcaweb | August 11, 2016

Fin Friends Forever

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

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Gannets, our favourite sea birds

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

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A fin whale

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

LIGHT RAYS

Sun Rays over the Bay

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

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A Harbour Porpoise sneaking by

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

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Can you spot the tiny calf with its mother?

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

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Sun over Spanish waters

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

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A Bottlenose dolphin amongst feeding Gannets

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

MINKE

A Minke whale rolls by

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

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A solo common dolphin

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

FIN WHALE 3

Our Fin Friend

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

FIN WHALE

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

Posted by: orcaweb | August 3, 2016

Swell or swell sightings?

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

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

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

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

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Fin whale approaching the ship at about 50 meters away.

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

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

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

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Sunset over the Bay of Biscay.

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A gannet joining us for a sail

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

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

Posted by: orcaweb | July 27, 2016

“What a wonderful way to start the holiday”

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

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

Ocean sunfish

Ocean Sunfish

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

 

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

Harbour Porpoise

Harbour porpoise in the English Channel

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

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

common dolphin

common dolphin

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

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

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

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

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fin whale

 

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

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

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

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striped dolphin watching us!

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

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

Thank you so much Mary

Posted by: orcaweb | July 20, 2016

Wandering whales

The wildlife officer season sails on on-board the Cap Finistere and here you will find myself (Lucy) joining Mary for her third week as a trainee wildlife officer. As we left Portsmouth I could see that Mary was really starting to take things in her stride and had become used to the busy routine we undertake each week.

With the summer holidays approaching the number of families with small children boarding were starting to increase. With a mixed crowd for my presentation that evening, I gave the audience a choice. Would they prefer a lecture style presentation on cetaceans and the Bay of Biscay or a child friendly fun packed interactive talk? The room unanimously agreed on the later of the two and I was pleased to see people of all ages taking part in answering the questions posed to them.

The evenings deck watch through the channel presented us with a non-too favourable sea state 7 and upwards. This meant lots of white water and resulted in no sightings that afternoon. We did however find time to install our new habitat/species correlation charts. This has been designed to help passengers understand which species they are most likely to see at various points within the crossing. So far this has made a great impact on peoples understanding of why the Bay of Biscay is one of the best places in the world to see whales and dolphins.

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Admiralty map and species poster on deck 10

The following morning as we awoke over the abyssal plain which reaches over 4.5km at maximum depth we were greeted by sea states we were able to successfully survey in. We saw a handful of common dolphins to get us started. We didn’t have to wait long either for the large whale blows to make an appearance. Probable Fin whales but Sei and Sperm can also be seen here as well as the mighty blue whale.

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A fin whale surfaces

As we crossed the deep sea canyons within the Spanish coast line, two large beaked whales were seen close to the ship, but such a quick sighting meant that many features had to be taken into consideration in a very short space of time. The animals were noted as probable Cuviers beaked whales, the deepest diving marine mammal on the planet, reaching depths of up to 3km, known to frequent these particular waters.

Beakie

The back of a beaked whale as it swims away

On returning that afternoon from Bilbao we conducted another deck watch over the same canyons and abyssal plain and it was as though we had been followed. As the ship turned itself around we were soon surrounded by large whale blows. Many seemed to be travelling in pairs and there was one blow right on the horizon which was much taller and much denser than any of the others, a possible Blue whale perhaps? Many passengers had joined us and were mesmerised by the mighty blows that continued to appear as the hours passed. One lovely young lady named Lauren who was a keen animal lover and very excited by whale watching was very happy for her first sightings, she hoped before bed time she would see some dolphins too and she was not left disappointed. By the evening common dolphins had found us and a future conservationist was left inspired.

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A pod of common dolphins

Friday soon came around in the English Channel. Species within the channel vary widely and despite popular belief the channel (as Mary proved last week) is rich in wildlife. Within moments of getting out on deck and feeling joyous at the low sea state we spotted Harbour Porpoise, swimming away as fast as they could. Then as if out of nowhere, a minke whale! Often referred to as the stinky minke for their terribly fishy breath, I think a kinder name might be the sneaky minke as they do have a tendency to take us by surprise.

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A minke whale

Saturday morning brought with it dolphins common and striped, and a large whale blow over the shelf.  After a busy kids presentation with some really bright young people we did some activities in the playground with views of the open ocean as our back drop and the budding new marine biologists were eager to get back outside for the second deck watch of the day. Unfortunately our eager companions were left as disappointed as we were when the sea state that awaited us was extremely high. Mountains of white water rose and fell all around us and we soon became completely covered from head to toe in salt spray. It’s fair to say nothing else was seen in the Bay of Biscay that evening.

The next morning is was as though the previous evening had been nothing but a bad dream. A mirror! Our favourite sea state over the northern part of the bay. These shallow waters gave us several sightings of the always beautiful common dolphins. Inspired by calm conditions, Mary gave then her first presentation to the ship’s passengers and she did so well. I was really proud of her, engaging a full room and enthusing about cetaceans. The following day, Mary then did another presentation, this time aimed at children and it’s fair to say the kids were thrilled. Well done Mary, you’re a great Wildlife Officer!

The deck watch that day found us once again on the Northern shelf and after the success of the presentation lots of young children and their families joined us out on deck. Almost immediately common dolphins gave us a show and there were cheers from the audience all along the railings. Then blows, several large whale blows really got the crowd going. These large blows were almost certainly that of Fin whales and then we saw our friend with the ‘V’ shaped blow again. This animal was again seen in conjunction with a fin whale, the two swimming past together as seen twice last week. I really would love to know the story behind the usual blow, perhaps a common cold torments our wandering friend.

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Two whale blows including our friend ‘Mr V’

Tuesday came around very quickly and it was a fun one with lots of interesting activity in the Bay as we left Bilbao. Sperm whales, beaked whales, common dolphins and an excited pod of bottlenose were all seen within our first couple of hours out on deck. Just as we went off effort for kids activities and a lunch break the sea state started to look far from good. When we returned to the deck things weren’t looking any better, a sea state 6 just low enough for us to accurately survey in. With my eyes on the water I had begun to describe the appearance of whale blows to a curious passenger when as if hearing my explanation a blow appeared! It couldn’t have been timed better, exactly what I had been describing demonstrated in real time before our eyes! It’s fair to say, all that witnessed it were in awe.

Blows Mr V

A pod of excitable Bottlenose Dolphins

The sea then began to calm and to our relief all the white water disappeared and the sea was flat once more. Here we saw lots of common dolphin until just an hour later a thick, dense fog rolled in and we were forced to go off effort.

I now leave Mary for the final week of her placement on board with Yolanda. I am immensely proud of all the obstacles she has overcome to become a confident and successful wildlife officer and I have no doubt she will get some brilliant sightings in her final week. Thank you Mary, you’ve been a real pleasure to work with and I do hope we will get the opportunity to work together again, looking out for whales and dolphins.

Gannets

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

Posted by: orcaweb | July 13, 2016

Whale Watching Heaven in the Channel

 

Hi, I’m Mary a trainee wildlife officer and after my first exciting week aboard the Cap Finistere with Yolanda and the ecstasy of spotting orcas, Lucy joined me for my second week. What a start, a mirror calm channel and minkw whale, blue shark, ocean sunfish and numerous harbour porpoise were enjoyed by all out on deck on Wednesday evening’s deck watch – it was whale watching heaven.

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mirror calm reflection

On Thursday, our first morning in the bay produced several pods of common dolphins and a close encounter with a fin whale, after Lucy’s presentation on leaving Bilbao, right on cue, as if scripted from the rear window we enjoyed 2 pods of dolphins leaping in the wake, the first common and the second acrobatic striped dolphins.

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Towards the end of the day, as we approached the northern shelf of the bay we encountered several small pods of common dolphins and recorded splashes as “other” but on examining the photos they turned out to be tuna as seen below.

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Then what appeared to be 3 whales blowing, confusing us with their differing blows as they passed us but on looking at the photos it appears that it was only 2 animals, one a rorqual and the other appearing to have a V shaped blow, maybe you would like to make a suggestion as to the second whale blow?

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Friday we awoke back in the channel, where we saw 2 harbour porpoise and I conducted my first full quiz, which seemed to go without a hitch and participants said they had enjoyed it.

Up early for the northern shelf in the hope of catching a glimpse of the orca, we were invited on to the bridge to be told they had just been spotted on the port side of the ship, such a shame as we were confined to the starboard side but whilst on the bridge we had our first sighting of the day, common dolphins but with a separate larger dolphin, possibly a Risso’s dolphin amongst them.

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At our children’s activities, having just finished measuring out the length of all the cetaceans which can be seen within the Bay of Biscay, to add a final flourish, a fin whale passed the ship giving the children a good sighting before disappearing on the horizon. We finished the day with a pod of striped dolphins feeding in front of the ship and then leaping in the wake and a Cuvier’s beaked whale close to the ship. I was later pleased to find I had managed to capture such clear image of such a beautiful animal.

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The following two days we were able to find several frequent small pods of common dolphins, these sightings were greeted by cheers of delight by the children, one of whom managed to take some lovely photos.

On Tuesday we left Bilbao with rough seas, unable to be on effort for much of the day but this did not stop us finding some striped and common dolphins and a sunfish to the delight of our more hardy passengers and especially a young girl so pleased to have seen her first dolphins.

Looking forward to next week’s adventures!  Bye for now, Mary.

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

Posted by: orcaweb | July 12, 2016

Orca Alert!

On Wednesday, myself (Yolanda) and our new wildlife officer Mary boarded the Cap Finistere for another week of sun and sightings!  At the beginning of the week, the sea was very rough with lots of white water and we didn’t spot any cetaceans, but we saw lots of seabirds.

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A Great Shearwater.

On Thursday, we were up on deck as soon as it was light. At around 6 am we had a lovely sighting of a pod of 3 pilot whales, including a mother and a calf. After this, things were very quiet in the Bay of Biscay for almost an hour. This was surprising given that we were sailing over the continental shelf – usually the most exciting and diverse part of the bay. However, shortly before 7 am the reason for the lack of sightings became clear when we spotted…

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A very tall dorsal fin…

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A mysterious tail fluke…

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Another view of that strange dorsal fin…

ORCAS!!!!

We saw a pod of 3 orcas casually milling just 500 metres from the ship! We only get a handful of sightings of orcas (also known as killer whales) from Brittany Ferries’ ships every year, so this was a truly spectacular sighting. It was also the first time I have ever seen these amazing creatures! One lucky passenger was also on deck with us at the time and got to see these fantastic animals.

For the next hour, we didn’t see any other cetaceans – probably because they were all keeping out of the way of the orcas! However, as we neared Spain we saw a very tall blow in the distance, shortly followed by a closer sighting of a fin whale.

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A fin whale.

During our afternoon deck watch, we saw lots of common dolphins. However, the highlight of the afternoon deck watch was when a fin whale surfaced just 10 metres from the ship – so close that we could hear it breathe!

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A Fin Whale swimming away from the ship.

After a rather rainy deck watch on Friday morning, we held a children’s arts and crafts session. 7 children joined us to make starfish, seahorses, whales, and even a sunfish out of paper plates. We have some exciting new stock on board – cuddly orcas. These are completely adorable and there is a strong temptation to cuddle them all for quality control purposes but luckily Mary is keeping an eye on me!

On Saturday morning, we saw several pods of common dolphins as we sailed towards Santander.

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Common dolphins racing towards the ship.

After a talk, we then held a children’s activity on deck 10 where we measured out how big whales and dolphins are – it’s always amazing to see how big they actually are! We then went out on deck again, where we saw more common dolphins splashing through the sea towards us.

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Common dolphins swimming towards us.

During our Sunday morning deck watch, we sailed around the Brittany coastline. This gave us a lovely view of the islands, and lighthouses as we searched for cetaceans. We saw a couple of common dolphins and numerous seabirds including cormorants, skuas, gannets, kittiwakes and shearwaters.

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A common dolphin leaping into the air.

After a presentation, Mary then hosted a quiz in the evening. 7 teams took part, and the winners (‘The Minions’) scored a record-breaking 23 out of 28 – congratulations!

On Monday, we had a very well attended talk – many thanks to my volunteer who helped me explain the Sperm Whales’ feeding habits by pretending to be a giant squid! Afterwards, we went outside to try and spot some whales and dolphins. We had a fairly quiet deck watch, with 2 pods of common dolphins, so we went inside for dinner. We came out a couple of hours later to hear that we’d missed about a hundred dolphins and what were probably pilot whales! However, we did manage to spot some dolphins during our second deck watch.

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A common dolphin mother and calf.

On Tuesday, despite sailing over what are usually very exciting waters, we didn’t see a single cetacean, and were starting to wonder if we’d used up all our luck at the start of the week by seeing orcas!  Our final deck watch turned out to be one of the best deck watches of the week. Not only did we see 3 pilot whales, we also saw over 200 common dolphins! We think we must have been going through an area of the sea that had particularly high numbers of fish as lots of the dolphins appeared to be feeding and were more interested in their dinner than in us. However, many dolphins were attracted in towards the ship, giving us fantastic views of these beautiful creatures. Dozens of passengers joined us on deck for this deck watch, so shared these wonderful sightings with us.

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A male pilot whale – look at the large, squashed dorsal fin.

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 to collect our vital scientific data, then please visit our website for more information!

Cetacean love,

Yolanda

Posted by: orcaweb | July 5, 2016

The best of Pont-Aven WO season 2016

This is the last blog post from the Pont-Aven Wildlife Officers this season. It is then the best time to summarise our work and life on board, and remind you the most memorable moments. All three of the Pont-Aven Wildlife Officers are completely different, with different backgrounds, experience, interests and character. Because of that, we have different favourite moments of our journey. I thought, that it would be simply not fair, if I wrote the summary alone, so I decided to ask Harriet and Jon for help.🙂

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We all share the love of wild animals and we feel privileged, that we had so many wonderful wildlife encounters this season. We have spotted whales and dolphins on every crossing through the Bay of Biscay. We have seen basking sharks in the Irish Sea and pilot whales in the English Channel. Wherever we have been, we have had a company of gannets and shearwaters. It is really difficult for us to choose the best sightings of the season, simply because every sighting was special. However, let us remind you some highlights of our trips.

Whilst working with ORCA I have had the opportunity to witness some amazing animals from the Brittany Ferries flagship, the Pont-Aven. I have thoroughly enjoyed seeing the dolphins; especially the huge volume of common dolphins. They are wonderful to watch, they moved so gracefully through the water, and put on displays as they darted underneath the ship and played in the wash.

However, I think my most treasured sighting was the fin whale, that we saw on my last trip to Santander. Ewelina and myself (and many passengers) were watching two whales blow towards the horizon. When I noticed a strange pattern on the water about 100m from the ship. I had never seen anything like it, these three huge perfect circles radiating outwards on the surface. We kept our eyes pinned on the expanding spot, and from the depths of the ocean, out popped a fin whale’s back. It was enormous, as this amazing animal rolled through the water we understood the true size and width of this wonderful cetacean. We could see lots of detail on the fin whale’s back and dorsal fin, which is now imprinted on my memory… it was awesome.

Harriet

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 We had many amazing sightings, but my favourites would be the fin whales. Seeing dolphins is wonderful and never gets old, but seeing the second biggest animal that has ever lived – 120 tons of whale! – within a couple of hours of the European coast is an amazing thing. I was so happy when the fin whales returned to Biscay in June, they seem to be an essential part of the Bay, and I missed them when they moved north for a while. The mental picture I have (oh for a photograph!) of looking directly down onto a fin whale as it swam beneath the boat right in front of us will stay with me forever.

Besides that, perhaps surprisingly, I really enjoyed observing the Manx shearwaters. Along with the always perfect gannets, these beautiful and graceful birds kept us company in the long quieter hours on the Celtic Sea, stroking the surface of the water with their wingtips as they glided alongside the ship.

 Jon

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I like surprises, so I have really enjoyed the most unexpected sightings. For example, one day I decided to go up on deck 10 a bit earlier, before the start of our survey. The weather was beautiful, so I wanted to take some photographs of the Cork Harbour. When I was busy photographing a very picturesque town called Cobh, Harriet alerted me, that she saw something strange in the water ahead. I pointed my camera in that direction and… it was a basking shark! I was so excited, that the passengers around probably thought I was a bit crazy.😉 But very soon some of them started to share my excitement, because we saw another basking shark and another one, and another one just next to our boat… In total, we managed to spot 12 of these amazing animals feeding in and just outside the Cork Harbour.

Ewelina

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However, our time at the sea wouldn’t be the same without all the fantastic people we have met. As a part of the entertainment team, we were surrounded by musicians, magicians, acrobats and other performers. At the beginning their world seemed really interesting, but completely different than ours. With time we have realised, that nowadays being a biologist has a lot in common with being a performer. Both biologists and performers choose a path of life, in which we put our passion above money. We all love travels and adventures. On the ship we have all worked and slept in very unusual hours and we have all been trying to make passengers’ trips more enjoyable.

Besides that, we have spent a huge amount of time talking to our passengers. During our deck watches and presentations, we have met so many fantastic wildlife enthusiasts! Quite a few times they have surprised us with their knowledge about the underwater world, really interesting questions or incredibly funny comments. Sometimes we can even learn from them, as we have met for example a marine mammal specialist, a shipping traffic coordinator and a submarine engineer. Here, you can find some memories of our best “human encounters”.🙂

For me there are many memories of my time as a Wildlife Officer aboard the Pont Aven that will stay with me, but if I have to pick my highlights they would be life aboard ship, working with Ewelina and Harriet, the diverse entertainers and the wonderful Brittany Ferries crew. Life on board is simple and focussed, and there is a real family atmosphere; we are all, literally, in the same boat! I already miss my hours standing up on the least windy part of the top deck, communing with the sea.

I remember reading as a boy that life at sea can become part of one’s soul, and can be sorely missed by those forced to stay on land. Years later, I now understand what the authors were writing about, and I hope it will not be long before I too am back on the sea, helping people to understand and value the wonderful creatures that live just a few miles from our shores.

Jon 

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My most memorable human experience on the Pont-Aven was during one particular Meet and Greet. To engage with passengers, I had a few questions to get the conversation flowing. One question being- ‘Do you like whales and dolphins?’ the usual response was, ‘Yes’. However, on one occasion I asked a gentleman this question, to which he replied, ‘I have tried whale once, but I have never had dolphin!!’. It was the first, and only, time this happened to me. I was quite surprised but told the man that I did not have any whale or dolphin meat from him to try. But if he wanted to come to our presentation, we would be able to share some information about the incredible cetaceans. And hopefully see some during the crossing.

Harriet

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For me, the best “human encounters” have been meetings with our passengers, who had never seen dolphins or whales before. Usually, at first they were surprised or even shocked, that it is possible to observe cetaceans while travelling by ferry. Then, they were quite often a bit suspicious, but also curious. Some of them stayed with us on deck 10 and managed to spot the first dolphins or whales in their life. Every person reacted differently. Some people were laughing or smiling, others were shouting with excitement. Some people were speechless, others could not stop talking. It was not uncommon to see tears in people’s eyes and once I even heard a lady quietly saying, that she doesn’t deserve to see something so beautiful… (by the way, she fully deserved a wonderful whale encounter, as she stayed with us on deck for many hours!). It was an amazing experience to help people in realising their dreams about seeing whales and dolphins!

Ewelina

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All in all, it has been a wonderful season on board Pont-Aven. We have learnt a lot about whales and dolphins, we have had a chance to experience life at sea and… we have had loads of fun! The end of the season has come suddenly and certainly too quickly. We hope to meet each other one day, preferably somewhere at sea.🙂 Good luck to our WO team on Cap Finistere and to the next year’s Wildlife Officers on the Pont! We wish you many amazing sightings and… Bon voyage!

Posted by: orcaweb | June 29, 2016

Biscay’s beaked whale bonanza

22nd – 28th June 2016

Hello everyone and welcome back to hear all about another exciting week on board Brittany Ferries’ Cap Finistère. Having spent the best part of three months here this year and having lived on it again back in 2014, regretfully I disembark for the last time. As this has been my last week on board, sadly, this is my last Wildlife Officer Blog. What a way to finish though, keep reading to hear what myself (Ruth) and Yolanda saw.

Our first deck watch in the English Channel unfortunately presented more fog, which has seemed to follow us over the past few weeks, lingering like a bad smell. Thick, dense fog yet flat calm seas below made for an eerie sight. Still optimistic, we were joined by a number of passengers who shone some apprehension on the situation. Contently though, we watched gannets appear out of the mist as well as flocks of Manx shearwaters flap close to their reflections below them. Enjoying momentary mirror conditions, I looked down alongside the ship to see a purple thing catch my eye, a tiny bluefire jellyfish!

Eventually, we watched as the fog receded almost back to the horizon. Whilst this occurred, we were asked what we had seen during the day, but before we could reply a couple of harbour porpoise bobbed up in the distance and appeared a number of times as they swam further away! What perfect timing! Before the end of the deck watch another porpoise appeared as did the rain and thunder, promptly ending the deck watch.

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Harbour porpoise

Starting the following day in dim light, due to the shortening daylight hours, we watched the sunrise during a quiet morning into Bilbao. Only a few pods of common dolphins broke the tranquillity that morning, but a pleasant sight nonetheless. Surprisingly, our most exciting encounters were of a heron and then a racing pigeon that tried to land on the deck railings, giving us a good view of its pink highlighted under wings – probably for easy recognition.

You will be glad to know, that the return journey from Spain was much more exciting for whales! Not long into the deck watch with optimistic passengers joining us following our talk, we saw a beaked whale only 40 metres from the ship! With a very rounded head, brown body and pale head it could have been a Cuvier’s beaked whale or a northern bottlenose whale, but when it surfaced again, we could see its very bulbous melon, highlighting it as likely a northern bottlenose whale!

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A likely northern bottlenose whale alongside the ship

Despite the scarcity of sightings, they kept us entertained throughout the evening, from a pod of common dolphins which appeared under our noses as they had just swam from under the ship from the port side, to a pod of Cuvier’s beaked whales in the distance.

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Common dolphin attracted to the ship

Despite flat calm sea conditions, thunder and lightning overcame the Bay of Biscay and we were advised to go inside to avoid the storm, closing the decks in the process.

The deck watch through the Channel on Friday morning brought news of the UK leaving the EU, and likewise, whales and dolphins seemed to desert us as well with little to be seen except some lonely sea birds. Manx shearwaters were among the most common here.

It was a fresh start on the Saturday though, as normally one of our best days, meaning that we were optimistic, starting the new day with a fulmar following the ship for over an hour before our first sighting. By using the ship’s movement to give it uplift, the bird was able to fly along effortlessly – normally a behaviour exhibited by gannets and gulls.

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A fulmar soaring above us

Sightings started to pick up as we neared the continental shelf edge, with common dolphins bounding towards the ship. A mixed pod of common and striped dolphins were also encountered, with a striped individual really making itself known with its high leaps. The next thing to appear was a large oceanic sunfish that literally appeared below our noses next to the ship.

Watching the horizon closely though, at around 9 am, as we were coming to the deeper edge of the shelf, something on the horizon caught my eye. Looking through my binoculars, I could see that there was what appeared to be a small concentrated puff of white dissipating above the surface. Intrigued, at first thinking this to be pollution from a small vessel, I watched on. In doing so, I saw a whale blow a number of times, but very different to that of a fin whale! It was not tall and column-like but smaller, bushier and most prominently ‘v’-shaped! Puzzled, knowing this was different I watched intently to see if I could glimpse the animals back but it was simply too far away. Could this have been a humpback whale? What seemed like minutes later, a flurry of whale activity livened up the decks as numerous large tall whale blows shot up towards the skies. Some were further away, others in line with each other and others were very powerful blows considering our long distance away. We estimated that there were probably five whales there – likely in a good feeding area, most likely fin whales, but impossible to certify without the confirmation of their fin shape.

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V-shaped blow from a whale

Throughout the morning, we witnessed more common dolphins as well as a few likely pods of bottlenose dolphins, displaying their more rotund grey bodies and fast swimming through the water at quite some speed. Pelagic bottlenose dolphins can even reach burst speeds of 40km/h! The way into Spain however, over the deep sea canyons proved quiet after our exciting morning, with a few more common dolphin pods to keep us entertained on our sail in.

Surveying around the Brittany coastline on the Sunday and Monday brought a mixed bag of sightings. Despite, a rather overcast day on Sunday, we encountered three separate oceanic sunfish bobbing at the surface, one being particularly large! A harbour porpoise topped off the morning deck watch, as it surfaced underneath the bridge. Monday’s deck watch however, was a rather quiet one. A small pod of dolphins did eventually appear, but far off in the distance, only highlighted by some diving gannets as they were likely to be feeding. Flocks of birds seem to litter the waters at times though, keeping us company. Our last sighting was a surprise common dolphin sneakily surfing the waves created by the ship just alongside us.

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Large sunfish

After dinner we decided to venture up on deck again as we were nearing the continental shelf edge, a very productive area. As the sun was setting a pod of common dolphins appeared with a calf in tow and just as we were about to call it a day, a pod of large offshore bottlenose dolphins appeared – some swimming under the bow, whilst others swam alongside! One rather energetic individual breached numerous times displaying its amazing white underbelly as it crashed back onto the water’s surface in an almighty splash.

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Common dolphin mother and calf

Leaving Bilbao on my final day, I couldn’t believe the immensely calm conditions – a sea state zero! After an emotional final presentation to passengers, we eagerly arose up to deck to begin surveying in the mirror calm seas. Within the first half an hour, we had a pod of five beaked whales swimming along in the distance, a small breaching sunfish and a pod of common dolphins! What a great start!

 

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Breaching sunfish

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Beaked whale surfacing

The next few hours brought more beaked whales, including a group of three close by and a very old male, apparently travelling on his own. With a general pale complexion, he seemed to be more of a sandy colour than the typical copper brown of most Cuvier’s beaked whales.

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Pale Cuvier’s beaked whale

After the excitement of going over the canyons and the squid feeding animals within them, the bustle died down with a large pod of striped dolphins breaking the quiet as they swam in a very close-knit formation – some with tiny calves in tow.

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Large pod of striped dolphins with some calves

A lull in sightings took place then, simultaneously with the increased wind speed and abundance of white water, making spotting a tad more difficult. However, a number of common dolphins eventually came out to play as they bounded towards the ship, almost in a race. As we were going over the continental shelf edge, we encountered our dependable pilot whales that we have been seeing here recently. The final sighting of the day though, just as the heavy rain and deteriorating weather was coming in, was a lovely pod of common dolphins and some bluefin tuna!

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Bluefin tuna creating a disturbance

That concludes our week’s sightings, but I just wanted to take this opportunity to thank everyone who has joined us on deck and to our presentations and really made these past three months infinitely enjoyable. I would not be here if it were not for ORCA and their partnership with Brittany Ferries, so thank you for this amazing opportunity and thank you to all the lovely crew and entertainment teams on board who made us incredibly welcome. Lucy and Yolanda, it has been a pleasure working with you and I wish you abundant cetaceans for the remaining three months. As I disembark, the first intern of the summer, Mary will take my place and begin a new adventure on the Cap Finistère.

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!

Au revoir!

Ruth

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