Posted by: orcaweb | August 22, 2012

Sei hello to the Fin-tastic Bay of Biscay!

Hello again one and all!

Portsmouth to Santander & Santander to Portsmouth
(15/08/2012 – 17/08/2012)

Just my luck isn’t it: walking up on deck to howling winds and the sea foaming with large waves the weather was somewhat reminiscent of April – although with sunshine and much warmer. Given the worsening conditions I was lucky to spot a couple of gannets before the outer decks were closed off and I went below hoping the storm would die down for tomorrow.


Up early after a rather wobbly night, the Bay of Biscay was still pretty up and down with long large waves sweeping towards the French coast. This didn’t seem to stop the Cetaceans though – within minutes of walking out on deck I managed a fleeting glimpse of a couple of Common dolphin and then another one right by my feet. 7 o’clock came and went, without anything more – although the waves did have one advantage: Cory’s shearwaters delighted themselves by soaring across the sea just centimetres above the surface.


Then at 7:30 everything seemed to happen at once. First I spied the tall blow of a Fin whale in the distance. Hoping it would come close enough to photograph, I waited watching the spot it had surfaced. To my disbelief the next time the water burst upwards it wasn’t a blow but a striped dolphin launching itself out of the water into the next great wave. As it and the rest of its pod members did the same blows started to appear everywhere some close to the ship, others further away. All in all I think there were maybe 4 or 5 rather spread out Fin whales surfacing around us – possibly part of a small pod. The rough seas had yet another advantage here too, whereas Fin whales don’t usually show much of their backs at the surface in calm weather, in rough weather much more is exposed as they roll between the waves!


One disadvantage of course is that my camera was covered in salty spray – sorry about the slightly blurry photos 😦

These Fin whales were followed by several others although this time just lone individuals, spouting every now and again.


Maybe an hour after the first big group of Fin whales, I was just muttering that we hadn’t seen anywhere near the number of dolphins as usual when one of the passengers shouted Dolphin, pointing to two striped dolphin that had just shot out from underneath our feet. I suspect they were part of a larger pod that had come from the other side – maybe we weren’t on the dolphin side of the ship.


A little later again, quite close to the coast of Spain the Common dolphin obligingly put in an appearance to prove they were still there.


Reaching sunny Santander again with the Bay of Biscay slowly calming down, I looked forward to another great trip back across the Bay that afternoon. Up on deck as we left, the swell in the Bay was still significant but I was able to spot yet another Fin whale blow in the distance even before I had to go down and give our presentation.


Getting back up on deck, I was forced to choose between the glaring sun and the roaring wind. I chose the wind and found I had already missed two pods of Common dolphin alongside the ship and an unidentified whale blow (probably another Fin by the sounds of it). Throughout the day we had a succession of Fin whales both far and close to the boat – I have unfortunately lost count of how many, although I think one of our sightings may have been of a mother and youngster.




Later in the evening (still seeing Fin whales now and again), I finally spotted some dolphin (the only dolphin I had seen that afternoon was a lone individual breaching upside down several times in a sequence). In the distance a large pod of between 30-50 individuals were travelling in the opposite direction to us.

Having been informed by Ben that the Bay was full of Pilot whales I was disappointed not to have seen any – but shortly after the dolphin came a small pod (a male and female as far as I could see – you can tell from the fins; only the males have the large lumpy dorsal fins, females and juveniles have more typical dolphin shaped fins).


Following this was a small pod of Common dolphin, sending little silvery fish scattering across the water’s surface. Finally to finish off the day yet another Fin whale surfaced in the distance. If it weren’t for the large pod of Common dolphin I think I would have seen more Fin whales than dolphin this trip!


Portsmouth to Bilbao & Bilbao to Portsmouth
(17.08.2012 – 19.08.2012)

Another trip and another new wildlife officer! Quinn is joining me this time round for his training – and as another photographer we should hopefully have twice the chances of getting some great Cetacean photos!

Although the channel had calmed down significantly from Wednesday the strong wind was still about, so sadly no sightings in the channel on Friday evening. Luckily the Bay of Biscay was glassy smooth when we awoke the next morning! Up on deck, we soon spotted several small common dolphin amongst the seabirds (mostly shearwaters but a few gannets and a couple of little stints too).


A little while later after several more dolphin pods, some much larger dolphins showed up – Pilot whales!


Another short time later we started to see blows in the distance – every now and again a tall column of moisture, so probably Fin whales. We were also informed that 6 or 7 had been seen the other side of the boat.


Going back down to give our presentation the sun was getting stronger and stronger, so by the time we got back, it was already T-shirt weather. We decided to split up and take a deck each due to the sheer number of Fin whales out in the bay at the moment. Quinn took the starboard side so I’ll hand you over to him for his account of the afternoon:

“Hi guys, the afternoon got off to a relatively slow start. The wind had picked up over lunch and small waves had started to break, scattering crests of white to the horizon. As my first trip this made things trickier than our morning session. But the Fin whales kept on coming, making regular appearances over the 3 hours we were out. The dolphins were noticeably absent but 2 hours in a pair of Cuvier’s Beaked whales surfaced right next to the boat causing quite a stir amongst hopeful onlookers.


As we made our way closer to Bilbao the sightings dropped off, after a brief sighting of a sunfish before it was obscured by the bow wave and the last few Fin whale sightings we left the bay and its residents behind and arrived in Spain.

It has been a great first voyage for me and the bay was far busier than I was expecting. I’ll now leave you with Zak and his tale from the port side:”

My side of the boat was just as eventful – although starting a lot slower with just the occasional Fin whale on the horizon. Later on though after the beaked whales, we had several pods of dolphin…


…and just before we reached Bilbao, a succession of maybe 4-5 Fin whales within 100-200 metres of the boat putting on a spectacular display for the passengers!



Including these 2 individuals travelling together:


Reaching the shallow waters just outside the harbour we went below to wait and see what our return journey brought us.

Up early the following morning with overcast weather but fantastically flat seas I wasn’t sure what to expect. John, one of the passengers – even more eager than ourselves after missing the whales on his way down to Spain – had already been out on deck for a while but had only seen a single sooty shearwater and a few gannets. Thankfully a small pod of Common soon showed up along with more birds including juvenile gulls, Gannets and another Sooty shearwater.


We spotted several more pods as the morning wore on but around 8am, we noticed a large bank of dense fog ahead of the boat. Just before we hit it, we spotted something a few hundred metres out. Unfortunately it only surfaced once so each of us only caught a glimpse of it, but cross-referencing our descriptions, I’m pretty sure it was an Orca! It’s a shame that the first time ever I have seen this species that I can’t be sure about it, but fingers crossed I can see them again by the end of the year.

Frustratingly with the fog closing in, our visibility was reduced to down to 50 metres at times and yet we still noticed a few Common dolphin pods before we went down to do our presentation.

After the presentation with the fog even thicker than before in the Channel, we waited for it to clear before heading up onto deck. But even in that small amount of time the fog was already back in place once we reached the top deck.


We decided to wait it out, watching Gannets gliding in and out of the mist. Eventually this paid off and the fog cleared for long enough for us to spot dolphin twice! First another individual only surfacing one time but this time a bottlenose dolphin. The second sighting was of a small pod of dolphin which looked to me to be Common dolphin but it was difficult to tell at that distance. Again unfortunately the fog closed in yet again after this so we gave up and went to wait for the next crossing. All in all given so much fog it was an incredibly exciting morning – much better than I could have hoped for!


Portsmouth to Roscoff to Bilbao & Bilbao to Portsmouth
(19.08.2012 – 22.08.2012)

Back on my own and leaving Roscoff in the morning with the sea as flat as we had left it if not better, I was able to catch a glimpse of a small pod of harbour porpoise even before I went below to give the presentation.

Racing back up after lunch, I was just in time to catch a glimpse of a few more harbour porpoise before we passed the Isle d’Ouessant.


After this we had to wait until we reached the Bay of Biscay before we saw anything more than sunfish.

A short while past 2pm, I caught sight of a dolphin just out in front of the boat – however, I think it likely surfaced again the other side and everyone’s attention was quickly drawn by two helicopters roaring up behind the boat and practicing landing on the deck.


Turning our attention back to the Cetaceans, the dolphin I had spotted were long gone, but another pod could be seen fishing a short way out from the boat accompanied by a large flock of gannets plunge fishing.


Not long after this, one of the passengers spotted something else surfacing in the glassy waters. The other passengers and I turned just in time to watch a Minke whale roll at the surface and dive back down under the water (to my disappointment it did not surface again till it was out the back of the boat so no photos).

This was followed up by a succession of Common dolphin pods, some fishing, others travelling to the fishing grounds, some beneath our feet, others further out.


These continued to pass us till about quarter past 3, when a sunfish marked, the end of the procession and lead us into a much quieter part of the day – at least in terms of Cetaceans. Birds on the other hand were abundant including several flocks of Sabine’s gulls, Gannets, Shearwaters (Cory’s, Great, Sooty and possibly Manx), a Whimbrel at one point and also a Sparrowhawk following the ship.

I had to wait till after dinner before a few more Common dolphin pods passed us, and a little later a pod of bottlenose dolphin passing us in the distance. Thankfully between the dolphin pods there were plenty of birds and fish to watch including one little sunfish launching itself out of the water several times in a row!


Later, around 7pm as another pod of Common dolphin were passing us I got reports that a Pilot whale had been sighted the other side of the boat. Later still, after yet more Common dolphin, I was forced to move to the other side of the boat to make the most of the dying light. Just before 9, and after everyone else had given up for the day I caught sight of a sunfish, its silvery side reflecting the ships lighting back up at me. With pretty much no light left I called it a day and went to see what another full day in the Bay tomorrow brought.


Doing our presentation just after we left Bilbao, a few Common dolphin were already present in the wake of the ship just before I started. Racing up onto deck afterward I found I had missed several Fin whale blows in the distance too.

Braving the strong winds we passed a couple of shoals of fish, making the sea surface seem to boil (as far as I could tell the fish were being hunted but no dolphin nearby). Our first Cetacean at about midday was actually a Bottlenose whale, surfacing a couple of times before disappearing back beneath the waves. A few minutes later I was called onto the bridge by one of the officers – out in front of the boat was a huge Fin whale!


It surfaced a couple of times in front of the boat before diving to get out the way. Returning to explain what people had seen through the bridge windows, I was called back a few minutes later for another Fin whale blow out in front of the boat. This soon disappeared beneath the waves leaving us searching for it, but instead we were distracted by another blow out in front of the boat. This time even without binoculars the much larger dorsal fin was clearly visible – it was a Sei whale! The first time I have ever seen this species and the first time we have seen it in the Bay this year, this deep water whale is not often seen out here. (A big thanks to the guys on the bridge for helping me out!) Grinning from ear to ear, I returned to the deck to watch it surface again behind the boat to passengers’ delight and to learn that I had missed a couple of beaked whales whilst on the bridge.

For the next hour or so several fin whale blows passed us in the distance with the occasional glimpse at a back too. There was also a small pod of dolphin breaching out in the distance. After a particularly close Fin whale, we then entered a rather quiet part of the afternoon, until I switched sides of the ship – soon catching a glimpse of a Minke whale and then a few more fin whales too. Shortly after the whales I spotted a few Common dolphin close in to the boat, one carrying out a series of breaches. Finally to finish off the day, we passed through a large flock of Cory’s shearwaters.


And that’s all for another week! It’s fantastic to be seeing so many Fin whales out here at the moment (I’ve lost count of how many now) – Hopefully this is a good sign for at least one of our endangered species. Rob will be joining me next week, and with a bit of luck the Sei whale might come back so I can get some photos!



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