Posted by: orcaweb | June 7, 2010

Spiderman, Rally Teams and Cetaceans Galore

Well I see Richard has beaten me to the first post of the season, so congratulations to him!  I’m Lisle, ‘the other’ Wildlife Officer onboard the Brittany Ferries ‘Cap Finistere’, and whilst Richard has just finished his first trip, I’ve just finished my first stint, so I’m here to regale tales and sightings from the past three weeks or so.

Along with the southern oceans, the Bay of Biscay is one of Earths most treacherous and infamous stretches of ocean.  Skirting France and Spain, it provides a haven for cetaceans all year round, and indeed for seabirds throughout the late spring to mid autumn months.  Understandably, legends of mermaids, the Cracken and epic sea battles swarmed in my head as I powered through the southern counties en route to Portsmouth, to set sail on my home for the next five months.

The first Spanish crossing was undertaken by myself, Richard and Stephen Marsh, our ever humorous boss, where despite a serious lack of French skills we were warmly welcomed as part of the afloat family.  Everybody from the Captain to Pierre The Bear had smiles, violent handshakes and excitement about the possibility of seeing some sea life over the coming months.  I honestly didn’t think we’d be as well received as we were, but right up until my disembarkation I had members of the crew popping up before and after their shifts, hoping to catch a glimpse of something interesting.  Though of course their brief stops mean limited potential, and tales of cetaceans (Whales, Dolphins and Porpoises) galore as I make my evening stroll are always met with disbelief.

Of course the reality is that many hours are spent staring at a (seemingly) empty ocean, being met with brief bursts of activity after the dues are paid, so being the diehard Wildlife Officers we are, myself and Richard have come up with a couple of simple traditions and assumptions to make us last each day, see if you can spot us indulging in them…

1.  Breakfast – this usually consists of fruit, and over the course of a couple of trips, myself and Richard have come to the conclusion that as soon as you take a bite from your apple, something will happen.  Wildlife Officer tip number 1?  Bring fruit!  See if you can spot us take a bite then nervously clamber for our binoculars for a scan of the horizon.

2.  Sunset Cetaceans – Without doubt a geographical factor, but there always seems to be activity as the sun goes down.  It’s enough to keep us out from dawn ‘til dusk though!  Especially our frequently encountered regular pod of about 20 Common Dolphin off of the tip of Brittany as the sun sets on day 1 of each Santander crossing.

I’ve met some fantastic people on my time onboard (so far), from the gent who worked aboard HMS Fin Whale, with tales of deep sea acoustic testing frying everything below the boat, to the kids who took such delight at the sight of a pod of Common Dolphins that the eldest deemed it reasonable to give me a swift punch where no man should be punched, and a smile as thanks.  Cheers buddy, wherever you are, being punched by Spiderman definitely brightened up that cold evening!

One thing’s for sure, sightings have been plentiful in the Bay over the last few weeks.  The totals from my time are simply ridiculous, especially considering they mostly come from one observer (myself), on one side of the boat.  Who knows what’s been happening in the other direction!

Sightings from the Cap Finistere…

– 9 Cuvier’s Beaked Whale
– 1 Beaked Whale sp. (probable Cuvier’s)
– 2 (probable) Northern Bottlenose Whale
– 3 Sperm Whale
– 15 Fin Whale (probably most likely to be this number of individuals, but with over 30 sightings of the species)
– 1 Minke Whale

– c.2,300 Common Dolphin
– c.200 Striped Dolphin
– c.5 Bottlenose Dolphin
– 2 Harbour Porpoise

– c.5 large Tuna
– 1 ‘Skipjack’ small Tuna
– Blue Shark eating at an animal corpse at the surface in the south-western approaches (lovely)


– c.7 Cory’s Shearwater
– 3 Arctic Skua
– c.10 Great Skua (aka Bonxie)
– 2 Sooty Shearwater
– 1 Balearic Shearwater
– c.30 Manx Shearwater
– 1 Puffin
– c.5 Guillemot
– c.3 Razorbill
– c.15 Little Gull
– 1 Sandwich Tern

– 3 Collared Dove
– 1 Turtle Dove
– several racing Pigeon
– Hundreds of Hirundines (Swallows and House Martins, no Sand Martins)
– 100+ Common Swift

– 1 Hummingbird Hawk-Moth

I try to make it off of the ship when I can in Santander, and aside from a lot of tourists and some amazing ice-cream, I’ve totted up the following species in very low numbers (brief walks / short time / possibility of repeat count of individuals)…

Spotless Starling
Red-backed Shrike
Eagle sp. (Probably Booted)
European Bee-eater (heard only)
Zitting Cisticola (heard only)
Spanish Sparrow
Black Kite
Melodious Warbler

So as I’m sure you can see, I’ve been having a Whale of a time (no pun intended!) on board the Cap Finistere.  It’s hard to pick a ‘top moment’ from the week, so I’m going to lay some of my favourites on you in a list, in no particular order…

– Tom the young Shark enthusiast who spent some time out on deck with me looking for cetaceans and Sharks, finally rewarded with not just Common, but Common, Striped AND Bottlenose Dolphins!  You’re a lucky fella Tom, enjoy your time living in Spain!

– The family who enjoyed mill-pond conditions with me in the southern Bay as we approached Santander.  The young ladies thoroughly enjoyed an absolute brute of a male Cuvier’s Beaked Whale surface 50 metres off the side of the ship and then deep dive.  I told you it would be worth the wait!  Judging by your laughter and smiles, I’m sure it was.

– Spiderman!  That punch really quite hurt, but if you enjoyed the Dolphins that much, we’ll call it ‘one for the team’.

– I’m sorry I don’t remember your name, but Mr. Seabird from the Surrey area… I’m sorry we didn’t turn some of those Gannets into Cory’s for you, especially given the hours we put in.  I’m sure you’ll be horrified to hear I had a lone Cory’s about 20 minutes outside the Santander cove on the return journey.  There’s always next time!

– The 15 people who beat me out on deck on that frightful morning.  I’m sorry for my “lazy” arrival at 5:15am… Thanks go out to the kids who drew attention with “What’s that?!” at a Sperm Whale fluking only 100 yards off the side of the ship, and to everyone else with their chorus of “WOW WOOO OOOHH AHHHH” as a Cuvier’s Beaked Whale breached a thoroughly incredible height at a distance of about half a mile, I told you it can get magical out there didn’t I!

– Mr. Harrison, I still haven’t seen any Pilot Whales out there, so thanks for ‘gripping me off’ with your Blackfish sp. while I was preparing my talk!  It’s the hope that keeps us going.

– Again, I’m so sorry but I don’t think I caught your names. The family picking up their daughter from a year in Spain… Your enthusiasm was unrivalled, and I’m glad to have been the one to top off what was hopefully an excellent year abroad with Common and Striped Dolphins and Cuvier’s Beaked Whales to boot!  To your son, I’m sure you’ll love the University of Plymouth, I certainly did.  If you read this, drop me a line for any pointers or info.

– The Parents of Spiderman – I hope you enjoyed our pod of 300+ Common Dolphin from the comfort of the Bridge on that sunny afternoon, it’s just a shame that Sperm Whale never showed any of its body.  Distance is a stubborn mistress!

– The British Rally Team – Excellent to have you onboard, I know you were a little dubious at first but I’m glad you enjoyed the couple of hundred Common Dolphins coming to the bow from all angles and thanks for picking up on the Cuvier’s that passed me by as I was rabbit-ing on about something or other!

– The guys in the Bridge.  You’re all fantastic, your games of knocking on the windows and hauling us to the other side of the ship are unbelievably appreciated, the passengers have been thoroughly impressed and always had amazing compliments on your dedication.

– The girls on the desk, Audrey, Caroline, Mr. Med Student, Kieran, and all the other crew that have joined me up on deck over the weeks – I WILL show you all cetaceans at some point this summer, I PROMISE.

– David the Magician.  Special thanks to you for keeping me company in those quiet patches, I hope you enjoyed the Fin Whales, Cuvier’s Beaked Whales, Common and Striped Dolphins, I know you weren’t a believer!  I’ll never forget the look on your face as that Fin Whale breached from nowhere.

– The Bank Holiday Brigade – I’m sorry you couldn’t all hear me too brilliantly, but the fact that 80+ of you turned up to hear me talk was absolutely amazing, thank you so very much for taking an interest.

– The kids from ‘up north’ – There is NO such thing as a silly question, keep asking the questions and you’ll keep getting results.  I’m glad you enjoyed your trip and the Dolphins.

Well this is me signing off for now, feel free to get in contact if you have any questions!  I’ll leave you all with a photo I took as I stood on deck alone one evening…

Lisle  –  Wildlife Officer



  1. Its great to see the Brittany Ferries wildlife officer blog up and running again. You guys are having some brilliant wildlife sightings whilst crossing the Biscay I’m green with envy! Anyhow I’ll be out there whale watching myself next month on the ‘Pride of Bilbao’ and if I get sightings anything as good as youv’e seen I’ll be well pleased. You are doing a great job for ORCA guys showing people the tremendous wildlife out there.
    The sightings from the ‘Cap Finisterre’ are obviously living up to expectations.

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