Posted by: orcaweb | September 5, 2010

The Best Trip of the Season?

This trip will undoubtedly go down in my mind as the best trip of the season, so far (not wishing to jinx the remaining two or three I have left).  In fact, for several reasons, this trip will go down as one of my favourite Biscay crossings, ever.  Though numbers of animals were on the lower side, the diversity of life in the Bay at the moment is incredible (though not what it was just a few years ago even).

With the tail-end of the American Hurricane threatening to hail truly high seas, I placed bets against various members of the crew, predicting rough weather.  I could not have been more wrong, though I’ll gladly accept defeat if it means a calm crossing!  Starting well at 4p.m. in the mid English Channel, a large Minke Whale slinked east at a mid-distance affording views to the sunbathers present.  It was amazingly followed by another more distant Minke just inside the ever-present fog bank, meaning visibility was poor and only those with binoculars got a view.
An incredibly beautiful evening was crowned with a quite scarce ‘sun dog’, a limited-stretch of haze induced rainbow, followed by several Manx Shearwater, about 15 ‘British’ Storm-Petrel giving great views down the side of the ship and a hand-full of Harbour Porpoise moving serenely amongst the various fishing vessels in the western Channel.  It was obvious that food was plentiful in the area, and the remaining observers bid each other good night with high hopes for the morning as we entered the Bay.

As always, I was on deck in the darkness of morning, greeted by a flock of 8 Knot following the ship calling loudly for some time, with a Wood Warbler and Willow Warbler flitting around the deck, finally making it off-ship before the light broke.   As I’ve already said, my predictions were far from correct and we were met with absolutely mirror-calm seas as first light broke, perfect whale-watching conditions.  True to form, the first Cetaceans were within minutes with 15-20 Striped Dolphin moving low in the water, and with more present closer to the ship on the other side we joined those on the Port side.  As they slowly moved back and forth hunting in the water, I called out “more Dolphins up ahead!”.  It very quickly became very obvious that these “Dolphins” were not Dolphins, and were in fact Beaked Whales.  The size of them ruled out Cuvier’s immediately, and when the first was joined by another breaking sharply from the water with a crocodile-like beak I made the certain call of Sowerby’s Beaked Whale.  In an amazing 5 minutes these two individuals of an incredibly rarely sighted species rolled, surfaced and played alongside the ship at very close range giving incredible views to the lucky 6 of us who’d made it up early.  I’ll let the photographs do the talking right now, so please feel free to click the images to open them up larger for more detail.


This was an absolutely incredible start to the day with the sun not even having risen properly yet.  After a few ore Striped Dolphin I moved back to the slightly easier viewing conditions of the Atlantic-ward side of the ship, which was quickly rewarded with 20 or so Long-finned Pilot Whale seen only by those with binoculars, but thankfully a further c.20 joined the wake of the ship giving absolutely superb views, alongside 5 or 6 other unidentified cetaceans with very ‘sharp’ and large dorsal fins, resembling Risso’s/White-beaked type Dolphins.

We didn’t have to wait long for the next area of excitement, and after about 30 minutes at around 8a.m. we came across a vast area of activity which included an Ocean Sunfish and 2 Portuguese Man of War Jellyfish floating alongside the ship, whilst about 200 yards out 5 tiny patches of surface disturbance gave rise to a huge Leatherback Turtle being followed by a flotilla of around 4 Wilson’s Storm Petrels and 2 ‘British’ Storm Petrel along with a couple of Cory’s Shearwater at a mid-distance.  Whilst enjoying these less-than-abundant ocean wanderers 4 heads and backs broke the surface at around a mile distance.  With everyone ‘on to’ them and seeing the slick dark backs and big-foreheads breaking the still incredibly calm surface I made the confident call of Northern Bottlenose Whale.  A total of 4 or 5, they were on show for almost 10 minutes whilst we slowly passed, though almost immediately after I had identified these and looked forth ahead of the ship a brute of a male Cuvier’s Beaked Whale rolled in a south-westerly direction 5 or 6 times, seen by all, before it dived deep in search of squid.

As we approached the coast of Spain, a huge front swept toward us almost immediately culling cetacean sightings and increasing the wind to a good force 5, though the ocean remained eerily calm.  Despite a lack of cetaceans, a large number of birds were caught up in the front, including c.10 Willow-Chiff type warblers, a Wheatear, a couple of distant finches, 2 Arctic Skua (1 light phase, 1 dark), 5 Sabine’s Gulls, 4 or 5 Cory’s Shearwater, 1 Balearic Shearwater, and 1 Sooty Shearwater.  One bird that may be of particular interest to keen European birders, was a small spotty-chested Thrush seeming quite distressed uttering an unfamiliar but constant call and sadly never landing on the ship, nor being quite close enough for a definite identification.

Having grabbed a couple of hours kip and a good steak & chips for lunch I was more than ready for the ocean to surprise me once more for the return afternoon.  Not expecting a lot, given the more-than-generous dealings of the morning, I was pleasantly surprised.  Almost immediately at 3:30p.m. we were given very close views of about 50 Common Dolphin, 2 Portuguese Man of War, a Flying Fish and around 200 huge Tuna.  Now, things happen in a very short space of time here at sea, and this day was no different.  In the space of 3 hours, the Bay had come alive with huge schools of enormous Tuna and Common Dolphin.  In total, between 3:30 and 4:45 I estimate around 200 Common Dolphin and an incredible 500 Atlantic Blue-fin Tuna along with several Cory’s Shearwater, 2 Balearic Shearwater and 2 Sooty Shearwater.

After an incredibly tough talk, featuring 20 Striped and Common Dolphin and c.15 more Tuna from the back window, I emerged up on-deck at 6p.m. to descriptions of what were most probably 3 Cuvier’s Beaked Whale gently rolling down the side of the boat just 5 minutes previously, complete with descriptions of a “brown body, with a white head”.  Gripping.  Alas, knowing Mother Nature wouldn’t let us down I set to scanning the ocean for dark bodies, and amongst a further 100 or so Tuna came 2 huge rolling bodies a long way ahead of the ship.  Holding fire with my suspected ID but alerting the hordes of people present to be vigilant we were in shock and awe as an absolutely HUGE Whale erupted from the mirror-calm sea just 150 yards from the boat, giving perfect views of the creature, even close enough to allow me to run up and down the deck making sure everyone took note of the visible blow-holes, rostrum & splash-guard and long but blunt dorsal fin that made this, and the further 5 Whales that had now joined it, Fin Whales.  Giving incredible views of them surfacing, blowing, feeding and rolling onto their sides with pectoral fins in the air within 500 metres of the boat, they were soon joined by two very close Cuvier’s Beaked Whale that took almost no notice whatsoever of us or the larger rorquals and just moved on by quickly but close to the boat.

With the emotion and adrenaline running out, after half an hour or so most had been fulfilled and left with handshakes, thanks and huge smiles, whilst I of course kept a steady vigil with another observer.  Soon rewarded with a small blow (though the classic Father Ted “small or far away” system may have to be employed here…) I picked up on several Tuna leaping, leading me to doubt my previous assertion.  Just a second later a long log-like body pointed to the original culprit, a small Sperm Whale.  On view for mere seconds, it was lost amongst the small swell and not seen to blow again.  This proved to be the last large cetacean of the trip, though as the sun set the returning 20 or so die-hards were treated to something new for the season… ‘baby’ Common Dolphins.  These absolutely tiny creatures can’t have been more than a couple of days old and stayed close to their mothers as they leapt and shot under the boat to join a few more on the other side.

A quiet jaunt through the English Channel closed this absolutely remarkable trip, leaving me to wonder:  What will next trip hold?  High seas, or mirror-calm?  Crawling with life, or vacant?  We will soon see…

Lisle Gwynn  –  ORCA Wildlife Officer

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