Posted by: orcaweb | September 7, 2012

Better and better photos…

Quinn here – photos ho 🙂

29/08/2012 – 1/09/2012 Portsmouth to Santander and Santander to Portsmouth

Hello again readers, Rob here. I’ll begin by saying a massive thanks to Zak, who has given us 5 months of service this summer and to wish him luck in his masters in Falmouth. But as one Mitchell leaves us, another joins and I’m accompanied by Quinn, Zak’s younger brother. Armed with an even more expensive camera, let’s see if he can provide some nice snaps for you guys in this week’s blog!

After departing for Spain at around 11:00, as we passed the Isle of Wight, it became clear the weather was not going to be ideal. Despite this, the birds were out in force, braving the strong winds and somehow locating fish between the cresting waves. These same waves however managed to keep the entire channel’s Harbour population hidden, meaning we’d have to wait for Quinn’s first cetacean photograph.

We were up early the following morning hoping to end the wait, and it didn’t take long. At about 9:10am, the first of maybe 7 or 8 Fin whales that morning made an appearance out in the distance. Talking to Zak, I get the impression there has been a noticeable increase in the number of this species sighted in the southern region of the Biscay. The reason for this is unclear as very little is known about the tendencies of migrating Fin whales, but whatever it may be, we are seeing an abundance of tall column-like blows as the summer progresses. The closest of these spouts drew our attention to an animal just 20 metres off the starboard side, gifting Quinn this amazing shot…

The horde of passengers that had gathered to marvel at this giant was treated even further by the appearance of Pilot whales…

.. Followed closely by Bottlenose dolphins…

… The aforementioned species are known to commonly associate with each other, and it was a nice sighting to cap off a busy morning.

The great thing about landing in Santander is that the ferry docks right in the city centre, and with it being Quinn’s first time in the stylish port town, we decided to get off and have a look round. Luckily there was an internationally themed market to keep us busy, as most of the shops were shut for siesta. After browsing the this market for around 20 minutes however it began to rain, sending us back to the ship and putting a blunt end to Quinn’s first look at Spain.

After drying ourselves off, we headed back onto the observation deck in the hope of adding to the morning’s cetacean tally. We were made to wait around 2 hours before, at about 4:00 pm, just as had been the case that morning, the first of many Fin whales spouted in the distance. But by this time the wind and swell had begun to pick up, making it increasingly hard to spot anything other than this particular species. So after another few hours on deck, and a few more distant blows, we headed down below for the evening.

31/08/2012 – 2/09/2012 Portsmouth to Bilbao and Bilbao to Portsmouth

We left Portsmouth on Friday for an exceptionally calm channel crossing and in spite of being presented with mirror flat waters, failed to spot any cetacean life that evening. Even the bird life seemed surprisingly scarce, but in the absence of swell, at least we’d have a decent sleep!

And the kip must have served Quinn well as he was up on deck by 8:00 am. I was eating breakfast at the time and managed to miss what sounded like an amazing sight, so I’ll pass you over to my keener colleague for his description…

“I did catch the tail end of this super-pod, seeing around 5 or 10 individuals, but nothing that could make up for the spectacle I’d missed. There was no time to dwell on it however as we headed to the Planets bar for the morning’s presentation. I was delighted to see Friday’s leafleting had paid off, as we’d attracted well over 100 passengers. After a slight delay thanks to some technical difficulties, the presentation went well, we got lots of positive feedback and more importantly were followed onto the viewing deck by a large crowd.

Now feeling slightly responsible for the gathering’s entertainment, I began scanning the horizon for life. To my relief, after just a few minutes, a Minke whale exhaled around 300 metres from the vessel. Other than the customary appearance of their larger cousins the Fin whales, the Minkes made up the majority of the day’s sightings. Maybe certain populations of this species are joining the Fin whales in their apparent southward movement through the Bay. Whether or not this is the case, it’s certainly interesting to see so many south of the French shelf.

Whilst we had a plentiful presence of these Baleen whale viewings, their toothed relatives had but a single representative this afternoon. It was however this solitary Beaked whale that stirred up the most excitement amongst the crowd, breaching impressively around 800 metres from the boat. Even close up, it’s hard to distinguish between these mesoplodon (Beaked whales), but it was most likely the Biscay’s commonest species, the Cuvier’s.

After this, our final cetacean sighting of the day, we did spot some interesting wildlife in and around the shallow coastal waters off Bilbao. First up was the heaviest of all bony fish, the Sunfish…

.. And what appears to be a real rarity, a Scopoli’s shearwater..

Topping off yet another fantastic day in the office for us wildlife officers.

02/09/2012 – 04/09/2012 Portsmouth to Roscoff then Bilbao and Bilbao to Portsmouth

Quinn and I awoke early in the port of Roscoff on Monday morning, after greeting passengers until 11:00 pm the night before. As the new crew boarded and passengers emerged from their cabins, we decided to begin promoting the day’s presentation. Just as was the case with my last talk, this promotion paid dividends, helping us attract yet another huge crowd of passengers.

I’d suggested meeting on deck for about 2:00pm, the time we usually hit the Bay of Biscay and to my delight, most of who’d attended my lecture showed up. In addition to this substantial interest, the Bay was mirror flat, giving real promise to the day’s wildlife spotting ahead. As the first hour flew by however it became clear there was something missing, a necessity in cetacean watching, the cetaceans…

It was not until about 2 hours in, well after we usually sight the animals that the first of the not so Common dolphins showed up. At first, due to their inactivity at the surface, myself and Quinn mistook them for Harbour porpoises, needing a photo analysis to be sure.

Not long after this, in a similarly unenthusiastic fashion, another pod of Common dolphins broke the surface not far from the boat. Due to the presence of diving Gannets and fishing Shearwaters, I’m assuming that both pods were feeding, a common reason for less extravagant dolphin sightings.

It was not until the third pod appeared a while later however that their behaviour began to strike me as unusual. What appeared to be a regularly sized group, again feeding, suddenly revealed themselves to be a super-pod of over 100 animals as the boat sailed directly towards them. The very fact there were so many individuals under the surface, not breaching and assumedly feeding, in addition the previously seen hunting pods, hints at levels of predation I’ve personally not witnessed this summer. Combining this with the fact we’re seeing increasing numbers of this particular species in the northern region of the Biscay, and fewer down south, myself and Quinn began to theorize… Could fish migrations have something to do with it?

Finally however, as the light grew thinner and the shelf break closer, we got our show offs. A continuous stream of small Common dolphin pods kept the remaining few on deck happy until the sun disappeared behind the horizon.

We rose the following morning to yet more good weather, adding further to the usual Tuesday excitement. We were then gifted another blessing, this time in disguise, as our departure from Bilbao was delayed meaning we’d be well finished our presentation before reaching the shelf.

Had this delay not occurred, we would’ve missed the first of our cetacean sightings that morning, two Cuvier’s Beaked whales.

Known to feed on deep-sea squid and sharks found in the submarine canyons, it was no surprise to spot this whale in waters above the shelf break.

Next up was one of the season’s most sensational sightings, the surfacing of a Fin whale not 15 metres from the ship. As is often the case, I was on the other side of the boat and had it not been for these fantastic shots taken by Quinn…

…I Would have never believed it.

The next 2 species seen to be exploiting the nutrient rich shelf waters came as a package. A mixed pod of both Common and Striped dolphin were clearly visible feeding with the occasional breach. Again it was strange to see the prior so uninterested in the boat, but also nice to have them present in southern Bay.

In fact, the rest of the day’s sightings all came in dolphin form. Firstly, a small pod of Pilot whales made an appearance towards the middle of Biscay, followed eventually by some sociable Common dolphins as we neared sundown. It was thrilling to finally see these animals behaving in their usual, impressive manner and made for a fitting end to Quinn’s fist week aboard the Cap. His Nikon D3 captured the action…

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