Posted by: orcaweb | August 29, 2012

A grand farewell

Portsmouth to Santander & Santander to Portsmouth

(15/08/2012 – 17/08/2012)

Watching a sunny but windswept channel on Wednesday, I was sadly not able to spot any cetaceans but a few Gannets and Gulls.

Up for sunrise the following morning and hoping for better luck, the first thing I saw was a Sooty shearwater, followed by several Cory’s shearwaters and a few Great shearwaters (and possibly a Little shearwater – but I’m not sure on that one).


Finally, a little past 7, a Fin whale blow appeared out on the horizon – but not a great view. A few minutes later at a signal from the guys on the bridge, we raced over the other side just in time to see a Fin whale surfacing no more than 10 metres from the ship! Sadly by the time we had got there it was already at the back of the ship.


Returning to the other side, every now and then a Fin whale could be seen surfacing out on the horizon, till about 8:30 when just past a flock of Cory’s shearwaters, a Fin whale showed up a bit closer in and at the same time a small pod of dolphin (probably Striped dolphin) surfaced once or twice before disappearing. Sadly the rest of the morning was very quiet as we sailed under the heavy clouds shrouding northern Spain.

Luck was clearly still not with me when we left Santander again with cloudy skies but calmer seas; I was unable to spot any Cetaceans before I went to give our presentation. However, my luck hit during the presentation with a pod of Pilot whales surfacing in the ship’s wake just as I started talking, and then not 5 minutes later a Fin whale surfaced several times out behind the ship too!

Getting back on deck later, hoping for more I was a little disappointed at first with very little in sight. Soon some Common dolphin showed up though, first just one individual and then a small pod after that. A little while later I noticed a blow out behind the ship. Checking with the binoculars, having seen the large fin with my eyes, it was possibly another Sei whale although hard to tell at that distance.

After this however, my luck ran out and the rest of the afternoon was very quiet with only the odd shearwater and Neville, one of the passengers, to keep me company. Finally just as the light was fading (and unfortunately just after Neville left), I caught a glimpse of a sunfish, then a little later just after a few passengers had made their way out onto deck, 2 to 4 Fin whales surfaced several times some near the boat, some off in the distance. Frustratingly it was already too dark for good photos but I gave it a go anyway:


Just after this I caught sight of a dolphin (probably a Common dolphin) performing a series of leaps out of the water, but sadly wasn’t able to point it out for anyone else before it disappeared back beneath the waves. With that I called it a day and went to find some dinner.

Portsmouth to Bilbao & Bilbao to Portsmouth

(24.08.2012 – 26.08.2012)

After Rob joined me at Portsmouth we left a little later than usual for a relatively foggy channel sadly yielding no Cetacean sightings. Up on deck the following morning after quite a rough night, the Biscay was full of large waves and white crests.


Despite the adverse conditions we still managed to spot the blow of a Fin whale just before we went down to give our presentation.

Coming out on deck after Rob’s well praised presentation, we split up, Rob taking the shady, sheltered but spray covered side, I taking the windy side with all the sun’s glare. Rob was the luckier of the two, soon seeing Common and Striped dolphin together and possibly Bottlenose dolphin too! I eventually caught up with a lone Fin whale blowing not too far from the ship. A little later, with the spray becoming unbearable, Rob joined me and just after passing a small group of fishing boats being thrown violently about on the surface we saw a huge whale launching itself out of the water and slamming back down with an enormous splash. This was quite far out and when we eventually reached the place it had happened a Fin whale was gently surfacing with tall Blows – possibly the animal we had seen put on such a spectacular display.

The rest of the day passed with less excitement, except for the occasional Fin whale, and patches of sea that seemed to boil – actually shoals of fish splashing at the surface. Finally just as Bilbao was in sight a small pod of Common dolphin began leaping across the bow of the ship and a couple disappearing down into the depths beneath our feet.


Up early after departing Bilbao after nightfall, it was pleasant up on deck even with the chilling wind and gently rocking waves. The northern part of the bay seems to be quite good for dolphins at the moment, as after a while I managed to spot a lone Common dolphin leaping in front of the bow. Pacing up and down the deck in frustration at not having got any photos, I almost missed Rob’s shout of ‘Sunfish!’ – failing to get a photo yet again, we watched the largest Sunfish I have seen this year disappear into the ship’s wake. Not much later we were treated to two more pods of Common dolphin, one just off the coast of Brittany and just before we headed below to do the presentation.


Up in the channel in the afternoon, unfortunately there were just Gannets and a few Cormorants to keep us company today.


Portsmouth to Roscoff to Bilbao & Bilbao to Portsmouth

(26/08/2012 – 29/08/2012)

Sadly this is my last trip across the Biscay this year, but as you’ll soon find out absolutely packed full of marine life. Enjoy!

Leaving Roscoff in the morning in rather white crest filled seas, we were unfortunately unable to spot any harbour porpoises around the Brittany coast during our presentation. Later on after lunch, we were up on deck just before we entered the Bay of Biscay.


The occasional sunfish passed us by, and also Gannets, Shearwaters and a Cormorant until about 3pm, when just as I was pointing out a Sabine’s gull, a pod of Common dolphin showed up!


This was followed by a few more pods – all close to the boat and a few Sunfish too.


After this came one of our best sightings this year. At a shout from Rob, we watched as a Minke whale appeared and dived underneath the ship right beneath our feet!


This is the closest I have been to any of the great whales this year, and even if it was the smallest of those in the Biscay it was still absolutely amazing. Sadly the photos simply don’t do it justice.


Nothing could really out-shine the Minke whale after that, however a few more pods of dolphin still showed up over the next hour.


Finally just before the light faded and I gave up for the day, a sunfish floated past.


The next morning with bright sunlight and not a white crest to be seen (although pretty sizeable swell), Rob and I were up on deck just as we left port to try and spot some marine life before we had to do our presentation. Splitting up I soon had 4 or 5 Sunfish flapping lazily next to a large flock of gulls sat on the water’s surface.


A short while after that a small school of Tuna were spotted leaping out of the water – great to see there’s still some out here. Meeting up with Rob to go do the presentation he had also had a few Sunfish, and following this 4 or 5 Blue sharks! These sharks spent most of their time investigating plastic bags at the surface, a heartbreaking sight.

During the presentation a few pods of Common dolphin put in an appearance which was great, but returning to my post up on deck I found I had missed 2 Cuvier’s beaked whale right next to the boat with all their features visible in the calm seas. Not only this but Pilot whales and a few Fin whales in the distance too. The story was pretty similar on Rob’s side, speaking of which I will hand you over to him for his account of the afternoon before launching into my own…

“Hi guys, as we’d taken a side each I’ll briefly describe what I saw. Firstly, what turned out to be the first of many Fin whales spouted in the distance. The blow was completely unmistakable as it took around ten seconds to dissipate despite strong winds. Next up was a real rarity, two Northern Bottlenose whales. With it being one of just a few sightings this year, I quickly found Zak to inform him and plug it into the GPS. Not long after spotting these deep divers, I was presented with another pelagic specialist, Long Finned Pilot whales. I know these guys were up there on Zak’s wish list today so yet again the luck was on my flank! From the moment those “Blackfish” disappeared into the waves, those on my side of the ship were treated to what I can only describe as a super-pod of Fin whales. Until I met up with Zak again for dinner, the second largest of the baleen whales appeared at staggered intervals keeping everyone fixated on the water. One or two of these rorquals however did appear to have much larger dorsal fins than the rest, and surfaced in an almost submarine like fashion. Was there a Sei whale amongst the Fins? Possibly.”

… So whilst Rob had his super pod of Fin whales we also had 4-5 Fin whales out on the horizon, and similarly one of these had a much taller fin than the others – quite possibly a Sei whale although difficult to tell at that distance (and frustratingly no hope of any photos without a better camera).


A short while after this 2 or 3 more Fin whales could be seen spouting on the horizon and looking through the binoculars I even saw a great hump as one strongly arched its tailstock, going down for a deep dive. At the same time one of the passengers pointed out a much closer whale to the boat, although still a little distant. With the one view I had as it rolled at the surface it was incredibly reminiscent of a Humpback whale – although with such a fleeting glance I could easily be mistaken; much more likely it was another Fin whale. Following in quick succession was a quick leap out of the water by a sunfish. I then settled back for a relatively quiet period.

This came to an abrupt end when yet another Fin whale passed us in the distance, followed by a small pod of dolphin, which may have been Bottlenose dolphin but I am not sure. The next thing I spotted was what I initially thought were dolphin out on the horizon. The next few minutes were thoroughly confusing, with several animals surfacing almost never where we expected them to. At least one of these I am pretty sure was a female or juvenile Killer whale – it didn’t have the huge dorsal fin of a male individual but one of the glimpses I caught through the binoculars yielded very distinct white patterning behind the large dorsal fin. Of the three or four animals we saw surfacing (two swimming together the other two separately, they were swimming much faster than I have seen anything else this year and almost caught the ship in time to be close enough for a photo (if I could have been quick enough on the trigger that is). I suspect that they were possibly chasing dolphin or Pilot whales, but difficult to be sure. Whatever they were up to, an absolutely spectacular sight and a fitting one to go out on this year on my last trip across the Biscay. I quickly went across to tell Rob, although this turned out to be a huge mistake, as I returned just in time to watch two Fin whales disappear behind the boat – apparently they had been swimming alongside, right next to the boat. Serves me right I guess.

Disappointed at missing such a great photo opportunity I stared out at a passing Fin whale out on the horizon (feeding, judging by the number of birds nearby) and then a large pod of probably Common dolphin maybe 50 strong passed us at a distance. All the while the sea was steadily becoming glassy flat with barely a wave to be seen, even if the sun had disappeared behind the clouds. Then suddenly (just as Rob had wandered over to catch up on what he had missed – I swear he eats lucky charms or something) a Fin whale passed within metres of the boat! Surfacing once…


…rolling at the surface…


…and then blowing again….


…before rolling again…



…and finally disappearing beneath the waves.


An amazing grand finale to a final trip? Apparently the Biscay had other ideas, throwing a few striped dolphin performing vertical leaps straight up out of the water right beside the ship (sorry I was nowhere near fast enough to snap any photos – especially as the wind had switched to my side by then, blasting me in the face and starting to throw up white crests), and then another distant Fin whale before I headed down with Rob for dinner.

Walking up on deck, we perfectly timed our arrival to watch a pod of up to 100 Common dolphin play alongside the ship, spaced out along our course in smaller groups.



Including two or more mothers with calves!



Staying on Rob’s side due to the glare and wind on my side, we watched many small pods of Common dolphin pass us by until the sun finally set on my last and best day in the Bay of Biscay.


All in all (assuming our identification of Bottlenose dolphin and Sei whales was correct) we saw 9 different Cetacean species all in one day, surpassing my record of a possible 7 species earlier in the year. Whether this was Rob’s uncanny luck or a parting gift for me from the Biscay we’ll never know, but certainly a reminder to us all that we have some fantastic marine life in our seas and it would be an unbearable shame and crushing failure for us to lose it.

And that’s all from me for this year! After 28 round trips and over 1500 hours spent on the Cap Finistere I hope you have all enjoyed this blog, and for those of you who haven’t made it out to the Biscay yet, hopefully my photos (if fuzzy at times) have given you a taste of how busy this place can be. A huge thanks to Brittany Ferries, our wildlife officers (Tom, Ben, Joao, Rob and Quinn who will take over tomorrow) and everyone else involved with ORCA – staff, members, and sponsors alike, you have all made this summer Fin-tastic (I really do make no apologies for the terrible puns I have been using this year…). But don’t panic! It’s not over yet! I leave you in the more than capable hands of Rob, Quinn and Ben who have another month’s worth of Cetaceans to bring you yet!





  1. Hi Zak & Rob

    Great photos! I am so glad you were able to catch some of these because I had no chance with my wee camera. Thanks very much for the informative and entertaining presentation and your enthusiastic chat up on deck. I spent the rest of the outward and our later return sailing on deck (with Rob) looking out for whales and dolphins and I wasn’t disappointed. The dolphins are really cute but nothing will beat that Minke whale right below our feet. I wouldn’t have known what times and locations were best for spotting whales, nor indeed what to look for to spot the Fin whales, without your help so thanks guys for making these crossing so entertaining! One of our fellow passengers named you the “whale whisperers” and it’s well deserved. Best of luck with your future careers.

    Cameron and Jacqueline Shearer (Glasgow)

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