Posted by: orcaweb | August 2, 2012

Beginner’s luck?

Hello again everyone! And welcome back to your virtual seat on board the Cap Finistere! This week I have Rob Joining me so with two pairs of eyes, hopefully we can spot twice as many cetaceans!

Portsmouth to Santander & Santander to Portsmouth
(25/07/2012 – 27/07/2012)

Like the last few trips, leaving Portsmouth the weather was fantastic, not a cloud in the sky and nice flat seas. A little bit of wind but not enough to put crests on any waves out there. Going up on deck after finishing our presentation, we were barely there for 10 minutes before I spotted a huge dark shape in the water, with a large dorsal fin sticking up above surface – and occasionally the tail too. It turned out to be a basking shark, the second largest fish in the sea!

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No need to worry about the ominous dorsal fin though, these guys only eat microscopic plankton, lazily swimming along with their mouths open filtering it out of the water. This has actually been my first sighting of any marine life in the Channel so incredibly exciting!

Maybe five or ten minutes later, one of the passengers said they’d seen something. Looking in the direction they pointed I saw a gannet sitting on the water assuming this was what they were talking about. I was wrong of course – just as I was saying it’s only a gannet, 3 or 4 Harbour porpoises rolled over at the surface nearby. As we passed they even leaped out of the water (porpoising) showing off for us – sadly a bit too far out for my camera.

A short while later, 4 of us out on deck all thought we might have seen a blow – possibly followed by a dark shape rolling over in the water. Probably a Minke whale but it was very difficult to tell at that distance.

After a quick break for dinner, Rob and I were back out on deck and were quickly rewarded with another pod of Harbour porpoise. This time there were three of them, rolling over without so much as a splash at the surface and much closer to the boat.

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A little later as we neared the coast of Brittany, we switched sides to watch the sunset. Not so much marine life on this side, but one of the passengers did catch a glimpse of a sunfish before the sun sank below the horizon. Fingers crossed for tomorrow morning!

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And now I’m going to hand you over to Rob to bring you the next exciting instalment of our trip across the Biscay:

Hi guys! I’m going to talk you through the next stage of what has been a truly amazing first voyage aboard the Cap Finistere, which began with an early rise in order to take full advantage of the calm waters over the Bay’s abyssal plain.

Having been extremely lucky in terms of cetacean and fish sightings on day one, I awoke with huge optimism for what the day may bring. I didn’t even have to wait long for my first whale sighting! At around 7:00am a small pod of Pilot whales surfaced off the starboard side, easily visible in the absence of white crests. Not bad for my first 5 minutes on deck!

My lucky streak did not end there, a mere 10 minutes later several Cuvier’s Beaked whales put on a wonderful show, spy-hopping and rolling within 100 metres of the boat.

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After a brief spell of inactivity even more Beaked whales made an appearance in the distance, before unsurprisingly disappearing below the waves around the Torrelevega canyon. As they descended, perhaps to feed on the deep-sea squid and fish, we were treated to an almost continuous stream of very small Common dolphin pods.

The Common dolphin were joined by what myself and Zak believed to be their striped relatives for a short while, who boasted their impressive breaching ability in the distance. If it were not for an unwelcome fog descending across the bay, I’m sure we would have witnessed further pods before docking in Santander.

My good fortune however returned just an hour or so before we hit land. We managed to spot what was probably a Tuna, followed by and Blue shark then a Sunfish. The shallow waters had been surprisingly kind!

As the already sparse cloud cover receded inland, I quickly became glad Zak had agreed to give up his usual nap time and give me the tour of Santander. This saw us venturing about half an hour from the docks to the nearest beach…

…passing the avant-garde Palacio de Festivales Cultural Centre before returning with just enough time to board.

Once myself and Zak had regained our sea legs we decided to have short spell out on deck before the afternoon’s presentation, a decision justified by the attendance of the day’s largest Common dolphin pod (somewhere between 30-50 individuals). Reluctantly we left them to their own devices and headed downstairs as Zak prepared to give his talk, which was brought to life by the appearance of yet more pods, who appeared right on cue after they’d been mentioned in the slide show!

After a short dinner we quickly retook our positions up top, not wanting to miss the Fin whale hotspots over the French shelf, but it appeared my luck had finally run out. A group of whale watchers described seeing what could only have been orca in our absence and although it’s nice to know they are present in the Bay, it was a shame to miss them, especially for Zak who has managed to miss them in all of his 21 round trips!

Also on the list of sightings our appetites had cost us was another pod of Pilot whales. This was however more than made up for by our own spotting of three pods of these “Blackfish” just a few minutes later very close to the ship. One pod even gave us a great view of their tail flukes as they dived down towards the depths.

After what had been an incredible first trip across the channel and the Biscay, I was more than content to watch; yes you guessed it, more Common dolphins backlit by the sunset, truly living up to their name!

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Portsmouth to Bilbao & Bilbao to Portsmouth
(25/07/2012 – 27/07/2012)

In stark contrast to the previous trip, we left Portsmouth for an overcast and windy channel. The wildlife situation wasn’t as good as last time, with a sole report of a Harbour porpoise… But I suppose every crossing won’t be as exciting as my first.

Hoping to reward the couple who braved the weather last night, myself and Zak lodged ourselves on deck early in search of the Bay’s cetacean residents. Despite an abundance of white crests, we were able to do so by around 9:00am, when what appeared to be a whale of some description spouted not 20 metres from the bow.

A while later, after almost an hour of a Cory’s and Great Shearwater display, a Minke whale emerged from the slowly calming Bay, leaving both bird and whale watchers contented as they made their way to the back of the Cap for my presentation.

I was delighted to see such a large crowd gather in the Planets bar as myself and Zak set things up, there seemed to be a lot of interest from the Bilbao bound passengers…. Fingers crossed the afternoon doesn’t disappoint.

After a quick lunch Zak and I decided to split up and take a deck each. As I reached the now rather warm port side, I was nicely surprised to see the many familiar faces of those who’d attended my lecture. This surprise however soon turned to guilt, as I’d clearly enthused these passengers yet time was passing and sightings were lacking. Luckily a pod of at least 4 Pilot whales turned up just in time to confirm my claims that there was life out there!

As I found Zak to notify him of the sighting and to log the whales in our GPS, he informed me he’d just encountered a small pod of Common dolphin.

Once we’d shared descriptions of our encounters I headed back portside where I was pointed in the direction of what seemed to be a Bottlenose dolphin by John, a passenger I was now on first terms with after we shared an afternoon whale watching.

This time Zak joined me and John to watch the waters above the canyons of the shelf break off Bilbao. We were fortunate he did, without him we would have struggled to identify the most elusive surfacing Common dolphin I have ever seen, bearing barely any of its unique features. This astonishingly shy dolphin turned out to be our last of the day, as we returned to our cabin upon entrance to the shallow Spanish waters.

A prompt start was essential in order to catch the northern reaches of the Bay as the Sunday sun came up. Although we’d already left the pelagic waters behind, it was nice to see the increasingly familiar Common dolphins before reaching the even shallower seas beyond the Brittany coast. The first glimpse came around 7:20 and the next just half an hour later, leading Zak to describe it as his most eventful Sunday this Summer!

(Zak here, sadly 7am is clearly too early as only when when lifting the camera to photograph the dolphin did I realise the camera was turned off and the lens cap on. So instead here is a photo of myself pointing to what we saw)

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Unfortunately we were unlucky during the return leg across the channel. Just a few Gannets kept us company on deck until docking in Portsmouth, not a fair reflection of excitement on the wildlife front this trip.

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And now I’ll hand you back to Zak for the final journey of his current stint on board the Cap Finistere:

Portsmouth to Roscoff to Bilbao & Bilbao to Portsmouth
(29/07/2012 – 01/08/2012)

Doing our presentation just after leaving Roscoff (yet another large crowd for Rob!), the weather was nice and sunny – although with a few cloudy patches. The waves weren’t perfect, certainly not for spotting harbour porpoises, but as we rounded the Brittany coast they flattened out nicely. Our first couple of sightings came as we wove our way between the islands off the Western coast of Brittany, both times of sunfish – looking almost like bits of rubbish until we noticed them moving.

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It stayed pretty quiet after that, with a few gannets gliding past us, up until we entered the Bay of Biscay. It wasn’t long before we passed a flock of gannets plunging into the water for fish, surfacing, gulping down their meal, taking off and doing it all over again. Strangely no dolphin in sight though.

A little while after that, watching a large flock of gulls resting on the surface of the water, spread out in a long line behind a fishing vessel, we noticed what at first we thought were Harbour porpoises. A closer inspection of the photographs showed that they were actually a small pod of small Common dolphin. Again a little later, having left many of the seabirds behind, we passed another small pod of Common dolphin, again much less energetic than I’m used to in the Bay.

After this we were left watching pretty empty seas for a short while, but thankfully I managed to spot a few sharks to punctuate the lack of cetaceans.

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Towards dinner time though, the Common dolphin were back, and this time putting on their usual acrobatic displays next to the boat (sometimes with gannets fishing in amongst them too!). We watched several small to medium sized pods go past until after sunset, when we decided the appearance of a shooting star across the sky in front of the boat was a fitting finale to our day’s cetacean watching.

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Leaving Bilbao the following morning, we were both up on deck pretty much as soon as we had left the harbour, and reached the deeper, richer waters. We were disappointed to see that the wind had greatly increased since last night, and the sea around Spain was full of cresting waves. We decided to split up and take one side of the ship each now Rob’s ID skills are up to speed, and unfortunately Rob drew the short straw having a very quiet morning on the starboard side. With some of the passengers having spotted whales already even in those tricky conditions, my luck seemed to be holding up better for once. After a long time, watching and seeing nothing, I happened to glance down and almost fell overboard. Right beneath my feet were two huge dark streamlined shapes. Desperately trying to point them out to those around me, within seconds they had flicked their tails and dived down becoming lost to sight beneath the waves. Thankfully (although no-one else managed to catch a glimpse) I got a great view of their crescent shaped tails just before they went – making these two animals Beaked whales of some sort (probably Cuvier’s Beaked whales). In fact the beaked whale family, are the only cetaceans not to have a distinctive notch in the centre of their tail flukes. As shocked as I was at my closest whale sighting this year, I completely failed to get any photographs.

Having checked with Rob to see whether they had come from his side of the ship (they hadn’t, or if they did they hadn’t surfaced there), we decided to have a quick lunch before resuming our vigil. We returned to find we had missed two pods of striped dolphin. Taking up our previous positions, we were at least relieved to see that the cresting waves were finally flattening out (if slowly). Just as I was about to consider going below to set up for our presentation, I sighted a huge blow just out in front of the ship. And then another! Two Fin whales, swimming alongside the ship maybe 100-200 metres out were taking deep breaths at the surface, readying for another dive. Sending a passenger (to whom I am eternally grateful) over to the other side to fetch Rob in the hopes of showing him his first Fin whale (he got there just in time), we watched as the two surfaced again and again, before becoming lost in the distance behind the ship.

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We then had to go down to do the presentation (and annoyingly missed a pod of 10 or so Beaked whales), during which we had several medium sized pods of striped dolphin launching themselves out of the water, sometimes up to 5 metres high.

Racing back onto deck, it appeared my luck for the day had run out, with a very quiet afternoon with a sunfish and a few sharks until a small pod of Common dolphin and two pods of Pilot whales showed up, which Rob mentions in his summary of a much more exciting afternoon:

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“As Zak’s afternoon was slightly less exciting than mine, we decided I should probably describe what was seen from about 12:00 onwards.

To the delight of the horde of passengers joining me on deck, several pods of Common and Striped dolphins came to show off right beneath our feet. Their impressive display continued as they were left behind in the wake, the latter could be seen for several minutes as they breached acrobatically in the pressured waves.

Apart from a brief sprint to Zak’s side for a pod of Pilot whales, the action was all on my flank. Pods of yet more Common dolphins were accompanied by a large unidentified cetacean, really captivating the masses.

The day that had started with less than perfect weather, ended as my calmest yet, with a family of Dutch biologists doing my job for me and spotting the plentiful Common dolphins until sundown… Certainly a decent way to complete my first week aboard the Cap!”

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And that is all yet again from myself (although not from Rob who has another exciting week to go). Thanks to Rob for his help (and unbelievable good luck) this week, and good luck to him and Ben for the coming weeks! I’ll be back again in another two weeks! (Hopefully with a squeaky clean camera – mine is currently coated in sand, sea spray and confetti…)

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