Posted by: orcaweb | August 4, 2012

The Green Flash

Bonjour and Ola everyone, Rob here again reporting from the Cap Finistere. I’d like to say a big thanks to Zak for training me up, and to welcome Ben aboard. Let’s hope it’s a good week!

01.08.2012 – 03.08.2012

Portsmouth to Santander & Santander to Portsmouth Upon leaving Portsmouth for the channel, we were greeted with huge swell generated by the combined forces of tidal and wind driven waves. Although not the best conditions for cetacean watching, we were out on deck, and I was somewhat excited by my first spell of bad weather! Several birders also braved the weather, and were rewarded with numerous avian attendees, including Gannets and Shearwaters… So although not mammalian, life was observable in between the breakers. After a rough sleep that saw me harnessed in to my top bunk, Ben and I were up top early to scan as much water as possible over the abyssal plain and the Torrelevega canyon. Although the swell had not let up, a pod of Common dolphins made themselves obvious, breaching the water acrobatically… They just have to make an appearance! Not long after however, a thick fog descended over the boat, forcing us to head back below as we approached the Spanish coast. Myself and Ben decided to take advantage of the 3 hour turnaround in Santander. Where last week I ventured to the beach with Zak, this time we decided to browse the cities trendy centre, that definitely lived up to its reputation in my opinion. Once back aboard and encouraged by the slightly improving weather, we returned to deck 10. The waves had not completely ceased, but they didn’t stop us from spotting a large column like blow in the distance, it had to be a Fin whale! The animal spouted several more times, suggesting it had probably just surfaced from an extremely deep or prolonged dive… Whatever the reason, it gave us a quite a show. A couple of hours later after leaving the deep water in our wake, we were presented with another Baleen whale just tens of metres off the boat. Due to the subtle blow and the animal’s smaller size, we came to the conclusion it was probably a Minke, although sadly it didn’t give us enough to make a positive identification. Later that evening, whilst talking to a slightly intoxicated veteran sailor, Ben and I were told about “the green flash”. This was an old sailing legend referring to a burst of green light supposed to be the last thing seen of an ocean sunset. After a quick google search it turned out there was truth behind the legend. Although rare, this optical phenomenon can apparently be seen over an unobstructed horizon in the right conditions… Definitely one to look out for! Another early start was necessary the following morning in order to catch the French shelf break. Despite these whale hotspots proving fruitless, we did spot a small pod of maybe 5 or 10 Common dolphins towards the Brittany coast. After passing the French headland the weather took a sudden turn for the better, granting us a smooth final leg of the journey into Portsmouth harbour.

03.08.2012 – 05.08.2012

Portsmouth to Bilbao and Bilbao to Portsmouth At around 4pm, we re-entered the channel for our second trip of the week. Just like the previous excursion, the swell began pulling the ship in all directions, to the point where an announcement was made for all passengers to remain seated. The night’s sleep should be fun… After the expectedly turbulent night, Ben and I gave ourselves and extra hour in bed before my talk. We went to start setting up around 10:30 by which time people had already started congregating in the planets bar. I checked the tv guide expecting to see some British hopeful competing in the olypmics, but no… The majority had gathered for my presentation! It was great to see so much interest during the lecture and many joined us on deck after, let’s hope they get some action! It was action we wanted and action we got, as almost immediately a Minke whale made itself our first sighting of the day. Despite only a brief roll at the surface, the animal’s unique bushy blow immediately told us it was the smallest of the Baleen whales. After a further hour or so watching the calming waters, I was pointed in the direction of yet another whale. Although colouration is not always the best feature from which to identify a cetacean, the dark figure had to be a member of the “blackfish” family. After ruling out Pilot whale due to the animals dorsal fin shape, myself and Ben concluded it was probably a False Killer whale. I felt rather lucky to have witnessed this particular species as it’s a real rarity in the Bay. Shortly after, Ben and I decided to split up and cover both sides of the boat. Where his luck continued, mine came to end…. So I’ll pass you over to him for an account of what was (apparently) an exciting few minutes. Ben here, so as Rob was staring out at an uneventful bay I had a fascinating 5 minutes. Me and the group of passengers on my side first spotted a pod of common dolphins trying to chase down the boat, however as we were too fast they were left in our wake. A couple of minutes later I spotted a pair of beaked whales (most likely cuviers) directly below the edge of the boat. As I followed them out of site with my binoculars, I was alerted to another pair of beaked whales approaching from the same direction as the previous. These two encounters with the beaked whales were great I got a great view of them and their features as they were so close to the boat. 05.08.2012 – 08.08.2012 Portsmouth to Bilbao and Bilbao to Portsmouth After a swift turnaround in Portsmouth, we were back out for my last trip of my first stint aboard the Cap. We left too late to get out on deck that evening so Ben and I hit the hay early ready for tomorrows crossing of the Bay. We woke around 8:00 the following morning, just as we were entering the port of Roscoff. Mondays are crew change day, so we have what is supposed to be a brief stop in the French harbour. Today however there was a delay of some sort that saw me present to my largest crowd yet whilst the ship was docked… That’s a first. Another issue caused by this delay was that of daylight hours in the Bay. Mondays are always a race against time to get into as much deep water as possible before sundown, so let’s hope the ferry can make up time! A few minutes later, as we passed Ile D’Ouessant, two bird watchers joined us on deck. With their help we managed to identify three species of Shearwater before leaving the shallow island waters; Manx, Great and Belearic. It’s a shame we didn’t have Zak’s camera/ photography skills! As the light faded that evening, we hadn’t quite reached the continental slope but despite the fact we were still over the shelf, cetacean life was visible. Staggered sightings of Common dolphins were reported, and it’s my guess these smaller pods were part of a much larger super pod…. Easily 200 individuals! We docked in the industrial port of Bilbao at around 6:30 the following morning. After the standard turnaround, we headed back into the “Basque Sea” for the weeks only full day in the Bay. As Ben’s presentation finished, we moved onto deck, filled with the usual Tuesday morning enthusiasm. Leaving the few white caps behind, we headed north towards the nutrient rich submarine canyons of the shelf edge and although there wasn’t much to see, people were slowly emerging from their cabins. It was not until we reached the middle of the Biscay that the first sighting came, and what a sighting it was! A pod of maybe 10 Pilot whales began rolling just a few metres from the ship. Thanks to the complete stillness of the Bay, it was possible to see these animals underwater, making it my most memorable viewing yet. Another fantastic sighting came just half an hour later and although not quite as close, it was equally impressive. This time the viewing came in the form of the deep diving Northern Bottlenose whale. Despite it being my first encounter with this species, I quickly identified the animal by its colouration and characteristic bulbous head. What a fantastic hour! The customary attendance of Common dolphins kept those on deck entertained as the daylight began to fade. With it being my last night aboard for a while, myself and Ben decided to stay out even after the sightings tailed off. It was not until the sun had disappeared over the horizon that and we realised we weren’t going to see our “green flash” that we called it a day. It had been a brilliant 2 weeks aboard the Cap Finistere in which I’d seen almost all of the cetacean species found in the Bay. I hope the rest of the summer is just as eventful and good luck to Ben for the coming week.

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