Posted by: orcaweb | July 25, 2012

Fantastic weather and shark infested waters!

Hello avid cetacean fans! It’s good to be back on the Cap Finistere again, hopefully bringing you some great sightings now the whale season has truly begun.

First and foremost, many thanks to Tom for all his hard work, including training Ben and myself and of course his fantastic photos! And good luck to him in whatever he’s up to next. That said, I am hugely jealous of his Killer Whale sighting.

Portsmouth to Santander & Santander to Portsmouth
(18/07/2012 – 20/07/2012)

So stepping aboard the ship on Wednesday, I was worried that the rain that had plagued me back in the UK might be following me – with sights like this one across the channel:

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I managed to spot the odd seabird including the usual gannets and a few shearwaters but that was it.
Thankfully the following morning the sea had calmed down a lot although try as it might the sun couldn’t break through the heavy low lying cloud, at least not until we reached Santander. No matter, the cetaceans were still present (if a little early for some people). The first sighting came at quarter to 7 not long after I made my way up on deck. Four Striped dolphins including a mother and calf appeared out of nowhere from underneath the ship (possibly part of a larger pod that may have approached the other side). Sadly I didn’t get any photos due to the combination of low light at that time in the morning and sluggishness on my part (not to mention my excitement at seeing cetaceans again for the first time in 4 weeks!).

About an hour later, a small pod of Pilot whales (4-5 of them) surfaced several times pretty much next to the ship, before we left them behind crashing through our wake (I even received reports that they were breaching out in the wake!).

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We also saw the odd jellyfish and a small group of Cory’s Shearwaters.
And finally to top off the morning, with the coast of Spain in sight a pod of 40-50 Common dolphin were spotted leaping towards the ship – with a few smaller straggler pods following along afterwards.

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The sun finally made its appearance just as we reached Santander. A fantastic welcome back to the ship – although I was a little disappointed that the whales had not made an appearance for me (as you cetacean lovers might know, the Pilot whale is actually a species of dolphin. A pretty large one at that, but a dolphin nonetheless).

On our return journey we soon headed back under the cloud we had left out in the Bay and I was just able to spy a small pod of (probably) common dolphin in the distance before I had to go below to do our presentation.

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Not long after I had started, a pod of Pilot whales were spotted out in the wake behind me to the delight of everyone in the bar – and a first for me! The only species that’s shown itself before during the presentations has been the Common dolphin.

Hurrying out onto deck in the early evening, I was worried I might have missed everything. Almost the opposite however, from those who had been watching while I was presenting they had not seen much, and almost immediately a small pod of dolphin (too far away to identify) could be splashing out towards the horizon.

Then just as I was about to go for dinner, I noticed a lot of splashing out toward the front of the ship. But before we got there the passengers around me had noticed some even closer! We sailed past a very closely packed pod of Striped dolphin (there may have been other species too – I only got a good look at the Striped dolphin) clearly corralling a school of fish. When we had passed them I relocated the pod I had seen out towards the front (probably Common dolphin from what I had seen), to see that they were also hunting out in the distance – although they soon realised the ship was there and came leaping towards the wake to play.

A little later, not sure if I was imagining things I saw what looked like a blow in the distance. Setting my doubts to rest, we saw the blow twice more as we passed – and at that size even off in the distance it was probably a lone Fin whale!

Then just before I went below for the night, I spied a very small pod of Pilot whales travelling in the opposite direction to us. Only just visible to the naked eye that far out (although some good views through the binoculars!) they were soon lost to sight.

Portsmouth to Bilbao & Bilbao to Portsmouth
(20/07/2012 – 22/07/2012)

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Travelling through the channel in the afternoon and overnight I wasn’t sure quite what to expect in the Bay the following morning. What I got was pretty much perfect whale watching conditions (and some proper sunshine finally). On deck around 7am I soon caught sight of a small pod of bottlenose dolphin heading north. A bit later, I saw a pod of around 40 Common dolphins out on the horizon, which approached us once we got near enough, making for some fantastic views.

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Shortly after that something caught my eye. Whilst my brain caught up, I managed a garbled cry of whale, pointing to where I had seen a strong tall blow. Surprisingly close to the boat (maybe 100-200 metres), I watched as a fin whale surfaced a few times (although sadly only taking small breaths, so no more huge blows) before disappearing under the waves behind the ship. Probably the best opportunity I will get all year to photograph this species I failed in getting a single shot (not even a blurry or poorly timed one!), but I was able to get a clear look at the dorsal fin through the binoculars to get a positive ID.

To add to the morning’s impressive sightings I soon spotted yet more splashing out in front of the boat. Much more splashing than I expected though. As we passed it turned out to be a super-pod of many smaller pods of both Common and Striped dolphin – easily 200 individuals in total (it took a good 10 minutes or so before they were all behind us). An absolutely amazing sight to see so many cetaceans in one go, and certainly the largest pod I have ever seen.

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A few other common dolphin pods (whether they were separate pods or stragglers is difficult to say) were spotted before I went below to do our presentation. No cetaceans out the back this time, but apparently another Fin whale was spotted while I was downstairs.

When I got back up the sea was even flatter, and the sun blazing away the morning cold. With almost a complete lack of wind (something I had never experienced in the Bay before today) I wouldn’t have been surprised if we heard the cetaceans before we saw them. The wind picked up though before I could test this theory, and not long after I only just caught sight of a Pilot whale and a couple of dolphin in the distance before they were too far to see.

A little later I caught a glimpse of another Pilot whale – although again it wasn’t visible for long and I soon lost it amongst the waves. At the same time one of the passengers had caught sight of a bird. Whilst I first dismissed it as a gannet, when it came closer it was unmistakeably a grey heron. Quite why it was flying South across the Bay of Biscay I don’t know.

Eventually land was sighted ahead and from past experience this is usually where my sightings tail off. Not today however. First was a small pod of Common dolphin – nice and close to the boat like usual.

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A little later came the second. Not far from the coast of Spain, halfway through talking to one of the passengers something caught my eye. Turning to watch (and unintentionally cutting myself off mid sentence) I saw a great big white patch settling on the sea quite far away. Unsure what I had seen, I peered through the binoculars at that spot just in time to see a beaked whale launch itself well clear of the water and come crashing back down again with a huge splash (which was what had caught my eye in the first place – the splash from the first breach). As ready as I might have been with my camera for the third breach it sadly never came.

Finally, just before we reached the coast, a lone common dolphin appeared almost from beneath our feet (part of a pod that was seen on the other side of the boat) to breach a couple of times before disappearing into the wake.

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Leaving Bilbao a little later to a fantastic sunset, I stayed up on deck to spot a few common dolphin pods in the dim evening light.

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Before heading below to see what the channel brought us the next day.

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The following morning the dazzling sun glistened off glassy smooth seas in the northern bay – perfect cetacean watching weather. Just a shame there weren’t any cetaceans around to watch. Instead I had to settle for the odd jellyfish, a few Manx shearwaters and the antics of young gannets to keep me going through the morning chill.

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A little later on in the English Channel, it was much the same, although with eerie banks of fog snaking their way across the water.

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Portsmouth to Roscoff to Bilbao & Bilbao to Portsmouth
(22/07/2012 – 25/07/2012)

Sleeping our way across the Channel I woke in Roscoff to a beautiful sunny day. With the water as flat as I had ever seen it (I have to stop saying that – every time I do it gets flatter again), I hoped there might be a good chance for harbour porpoise sightings. Up on deck as soon as we left Roscoff, I was unfortunately able to spot more than the seabirds, including this large flock of Manx shearwater, before I had to go below to do the presentation.

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Frustratingly the one time I decided to take a short break, whilst we were travelling through the islands off the Brittany coast (between which I haven’t seen anything all year) turned out to be when several passengers caught sight of the elusive harbour porpoise. So a shame I didn’t get to see them, but good to know they are still there – I have learned my lesson for next time.

Up on deck as we headed into the northern part of the Bay of Biscay, the first thing we came across was a sunfish. Much further out than I’ve usually spotted them the lazily flapping fin breaking the surface was what gave it away. Because the water was so amazingly calm, we were even able to spot small schools of fish.

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A little later I spotted a much bigger fish.

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A blue shark! Growing up to 3.8 metres long and spending their entire lives cruising the open ocean, they actually have to keep swimming to stay alive (they are unable to pass water over their gills in any other way!). They also have to keep swimming to stop themselves from sinking – using the lift from their huge pectoral fins to keep themselves afloat! To my utter delight (I believe I’ve mentioned before that sharks have always been my favourite animal) we passed another individual.

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And another. And another! Including one investigating yet another plastic bag out in the bay which was sad to see.

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In the end I lost count of how many we saw but I think the total was somewhere around 15 before I went to have a quick dinner.

After dinner, I came up to the other side of the boat to avoid the sun’s glare for a while and managed to spot another sunfish. Talking to the passengers, several had seen small pods of dolphin one, up near the Brittany coast and another appeared right underneath where I was standing – I was just too slow to see anything more than splashes though. There was even rumour of a basking shark up by the Brittany coast which I was incredibly jealous of. Still searching even after the sun had set, I eventually gave up and decided to see what luck would bring me tomorrow on our way back across the Bay.

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Unfortunately the unbelievable weather didn’t quite hold. Travelling back out into the bay in the morning the wind had picked up significantly, and there was quite a sizeable swell. Just as we left the coast of Spain I did our presentation and was lucky enough to have a couple of small Common dolphin pods appear out the back towards the end of it.

Once up on deck I first sighted another small pod of Common dolphin, shortly followed by a larger one (30-40 individuals).

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After this is was relatively quiet until one of the passengers spotted what I am pretty sure was two Bottlenose whales slowly travelling through our wake. A short while after this, another passenger sighted a blow. In the distance could clearly be seen a series of tall blows from two Fin whales.

After this was yet another quiet period before towards the end of the day I started to spot very small groups of dolphin quite distant from the ship, and unusually undemonstrative. Soon however, we passed right through a very stretched out/well spaced pod of maybe 50 Common dolphin – a great finish to the day.

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And that’s all I’ve got for you so far! If this fantastic weather keeps up, Rob (our new wildlife officer, who is starting this week) and myself will hopefully be able to bring you even more great sightings!

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