Posted by: orcaweb | July 6, 2012

First week. First sightings. Summer begins.

Hello! My name is Ben and I am the new wildlife officer on the Cap Finistere for the summer. Sorry for the absence of photos in my blog but I currently don’t have a camera (which is something i’m hoping to change in the near future). This is the account of my first whole week on board, travelling the Bay of Biscay.



Friday 29th June

After leaving Portsmouth and saying goodbye to Tom for the last time, it was time for me to put what Tom had taught me into practice. I got an early night as we would be in a good part of the Bay in the morning for spotting cetaceans I also wanted to run through my presentation one more time before presenting it.

Saturday 30th June

So I got up on deck at 7:30 after running through my talk one last time and decided to stand on the sheltered side of the boat (as last trip with Tom when I was roughing it on the windy side I missed a beaked whale and a pod of 40 dolphins).

There were already a couple of people on the lookout and one person had just spotted a whale of some description less than 5 minutes prior to my arrival (damn second helping of frosties). Whilst out on deck for the first 2 and a half hours we had encountered a pod of dolphins quite far off towards the back of the boat which my eyes weren’t quite good enough to determine what species (this is why I need a camera). Then when the passengers helping me went in for their mid morning coffees I stayed out and 10 minutes later I saw a tall column of blow of which I looked at immediately with the binoculars but couldn’t make out what whale it was as it disappeared immediately below the surface, but still my first whale of the season!. =D

I then did my talk after having trouble just getting the tele to turn on, luckily a 6 year old girl was in the front row and told me how to fix it (and it worked) haha. Immediately after I finished talking the dolphins I ‘booked’ showed up out of the observation window behind me ;). It was so satisfying (I couldn’t of planned it better), they looked to be common dolphins and were clearing the water by at least a couple of meters (it was the highest I have ever seen them jump).

After having a quick lunch I got up on deck and had missed the pod of dolphins that appeared 5 mins after my talk, and despite much enthusiasm from the many hopeful passengers I had with me, we didn’t see any cetaceans. A few rumors of seeing whales blow were floating about the top deck but I didn’t see them. We were however in the company of a group of 4 juvenile gannets which stayed with us for a long while. I was quite stunned as to how close these gannets can fly to the water, constantly maneuvering the ever changing sea surface with what appears to be no effort and these weren’t even adults.

After dropping off the helpful passengers in Bilbao we were back in the Bay hoping for a more productive afternoon, however we didn’t get any cetacean sightings before it was too dark. Maybe they don’t show up unless you have a camera, anyway I got an early night ready for the 6:30 start.

1st July 2012

I got up early as planned and skipped breakfast, I got up on deck but no passengers were about yet. I knew this would be the best time of the day so I wanted to spend as much of it trying to get some sightings as possible. After an hour of not seeing anything and dealing with the glare and strong winds I decided to get some grub and when I got to the mess I was soo happy, COOKED BREAKFAST! And CHIPS! So I had more than my fair share it made up for the recent lack of sightings. I then went back up on deck but still had no luck for the next hour and a half before going back down to prep my talk. I did my talk and went straight back out and despite the high levels of enthusiasm of the passengers still no cetaceans, however we did get a view of some gannets performing their spectacular dives from 30-40 meters above the sea, tucking back their wings and firing themselves into the ocean. So there were obviously fish about but where were the cetaceans? And due to the high waves there wasn’t a good chance of seeing any porpoise on the way into Portsmouth so I went back below.


We left a picturesque Portsmouth late in the evening, passing under the stunningly lit spinnaker tower.

2nd July 2012

Entering the northern part of the Bay I stood up on deck hoping to get some sightings as we passed over the continental slope, however no cetaceans were to be seen for the whole day. What am I doing wrong!? Moral was now low.

3rd July 2012

Leaving Bilbao early in the morning I wasn’t optimistic after the bad day before but after only been out of port for less than an hour we had our first sighting of dolphins off the back of the boat. The conditions leaving Bilbao were perfect for spotting cetaceans the sea was smooth the sun was out (so I could wear shorts!). During the 3 hours before my talk I had seen an array of wildlife from multiple pods of striped dolphins (which kept their distance from the boat), to 1 shark and 2 shark/dogfish and 2 sunfish, these sightings had already made up for the bad day before. At my talk there was not the usual big crowd, so I did the talk without a mic and it turned into a sort of discussion so it ended up lasting nearly an hour, and there was also the delay of dolphins appearing off the back of the boat whilst I was discussing what features to use to identify a common dolphin (right on que) so these tips were put immediately into practice.

So when I got up on deck, me and a couple of passengers had high expectations, and within an hour we had our first sighting of common dolphins which we could see coming in from a distance to join the boat this was coupled with the arrival of a pair of shearwaters (which had the bird watchers more excited), we had a couple of encounters like this within the next 15 mins and then they started appearing right underneath us (they must have approached from the other side of the boat). After this crazy half an hour I switched sides as the wind and spray got stronger on my original side. There weren’t any more cetacean sightings that day, but one last sunfish was spotted to round off the best day of the week (so far…).


4th July 2012

The enthusiastic crowd at my talk after leaving Portsmouth gave me their word they would be up with me at 7 in the morning on deck to get in a good few hours of spotting cetaceans in the Bay. After a couple hours stint outside that evening conversing with the passengers and watching the gannets everyone was looking forward to a morning in the Bay.

5th July 2012

I was up on deck by 7 ready to greet any cetaceans that wanted to show up, but none were to be seen that morning heading into Santander. This deeply disappointed the passengers I had persuaded the day before to skip their lie-ins, I couldn’t help but feel guilty.

I got off the ship for my first time in Santander, and it was pleasantly hot which put me in a better mood after a cetacean free morning. Leaving Santander I was once again optimistic but as we got further from the shore the conditions worsened and after 2 hours the ship was rocking, so when it came to my talk not many passengers were fit to leave their rooms and the ship seemed quite empty. However there were still some hardcore wildlife lovers that braved the strong winds, ocean spray and rain with me on deck for parts of the afternoon. Stood far forward on the port side of the ship looking down at the crashing waves the vessel was creating I spotted a common dolphin swimming below, not breaching just swimming.

Where did it come from!? It must have been the other side. This sighting made my day I wasn’t sure if I would see anything in these conditions. I was quite happy with myself for spotting this dolphin until one of the passengers had told me they had seen a pod of least 15 dolphins on the other side of the ship from the window outside the reception area, this then made my sighting less satisfying, but at least someone saw them. Despite the bad weather and the rough conditions the journey out of Santander was fun, with a few passengers keeping me company and being wrapped up warm I could quite happily admire the might of the ocean crashing against the ship.  

This rounded off my first week as a solo wildlife officer, I’ve already seen 3 species of cetaceans but there have been at least 31 different species seen in the Bay and I want to see them all. So bring on the rest of the summer and many more cetacean encounters.


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