Posted by: orcaweb | August 21, 2013

Lunge feeding Fin Whales, unusual bird sightings and a surprising number of Cuviers Beaked Whales!

This week we have been joined by Pip the Whale from Portsmouth International Port, who has been supporting ORCA by greeting the passengers and joining Pierre Le Bear for his party times. He’s been very excited to get out on the ship and see some of his relatives.


Pip and WO Imogen spotting something

Thursday 15th August Portsmouth – Bilbao

This morning we were out on deck bright and early, and were quickly rewarded by the sight of two large whale blows. Thirty minutes later we saw three more and only ten minutes after that three more appeared! One of the bridge crew then gestured down and ahead of us, and some passengers shouted ‘dolphins’ – but we quickly realised that it was actually a large group of Tuna jumping out of the water very spectacularly and close to the ship. We then saw two more individual whale blows and another very active group of Tuna breaching. We suddenly spotted two more whale blows together ahead of the ship quite close, which was revealed to be two Fin Whales travelling parallel to us in the opposite direction. They were close enough that everyone got a lovely view of their backs and dorsal fins as they broke the water – a really lovely sight!


Fin Whales

Getting closer to Bilbao the sun shone more on the water, giving us a lovely view of a Blue Shark just next to the ship. We also saw a weird and wonderful Ocean Sunfish turning on to its side as it swam away from the ship, followed by a sighting of another small shark, less than 1m in length. We couldn’t identify this shark species – there are actually 400 species of shark found in European waters! Another Ocean Sunfish passed by the ship, swimming along sedately.


Ocean Sunfish

As we entered the port of Bilbao, we could see lots of large shoals of fish swimming around near the ship. A fantastic, very wildlife filled morning.

Bilbao – Portsmouth

After such a busy morning we were excited to get back out on deck and have many more sightings – the afternoon did not disappoint! It wasn’t long before the first whale appeared, popping up suddenly really close to the ship, diving underneath it, and reappearing briefly in the ships wake. We could see that it was bown/grey in colour, which combined with the size and shape meant we could identify it as a Beaked Whale. Because it was such a quick glimpse we couldn’t definitely say which species it was, but it was most likely to have been a Cuvier’s Beaked Whale. Not long after this the first Fin Whales of the afternoon appeared, swimming close enough for everyone on deck to get a lovely view! About ten minutes later another individual Fin Whale appeared, again quite close.


Fin Whale

This was followed by a pair of large whale blows another ten minutes later. Just as we were starting to wonder where the dolphins were, we spotted a splash next to the ship, which was revealed to be an active group of three Pilot Whales very recognisable by their distinctive shaped dorsal fins. They delighted everyone by heading to the back of the ship and playing on the edge of the wake behind us! Despite being called Whales, these are actually a very large species of dolphin. Not long after this we started seeing more whale blows, many pairs and groups close together. Some of these looked very large and stayed in the air for a very long time – but we realised that often two animals were surfacing next to each other creating the illusion on one really long lasting blow! One whale blow we saw towards the back of the ship seemed smaller and very angled and the shape of the animal surfacing seemed more like it may have been a Sperm Whale, but it was too far away to be sure. An hour before sunset we saw some more dolphins, a mixed pod of Common and Striped Dolphins attracted to the ship and jumping out of the water.


Striped Dolphins playing in the wake

The last hour of the watch was filled with more whale blows, and a group of four Fin Whales swimming in the distance ahead of the ship – they were large enough that everyone got a fantastic view of them as they surfaced to breathe. The watch ended with two sightings of unidentified dolphins leaping out near the setting sun.

It’s been a Whale packed day, with an amazing 37 whales seen: one beaked whale, a possible Sperm Whale, and 11 definite Fin Whales. Judging by the size and shapes of the blow, it’s more than likely that the remaining 24 were also Fin Whales!

Saturday 17th August Portsmouth – Santander

It’s been another wildlife packed crossing today! This morning watch started in the pelagic waters of the bay, with a perfect sea state for spotting cetaceans. It wasn’t long before we saw several splashes out in the distance, which turned out to be a pod of about seven dolphins too far away to identify species. A few minutes later we saw another pod of eight, approaching the ship. A mother and calf leapt out beautifully, revealing them to be Common Dolphins. After a quiet hour, another pod of unidentified dolphins were spotted milling around and feeding. Twenty minutes later a Pilot Whale suddenly appeared close to the ship, a large lone male looking breathtaking in the morning sunlight!

Back up on a passenger packed deck this afternoon it wasn’t long before some more Pilot Whales appeared; a spread out pod of nine individuals. Three of these approached the front of the ship as if to swim in front of the bough, but veered off coming down the side of the ship we were stood on and giving everyone on deck the most spectacular view of their entire bodies under the water! One of them even turned slightly on its side, giving a lovely view of its long trailing pectoral fins.


Long-fined Pilot Whale very close to the ship

Only six minutes later another pod of five Pilot Whales appeared, this time accompanied by seven Bottlenose Dolphins jumping out of the water. After a quiet fifteen minutes, a Fin Whale suddenly surfaced quite far from the ship. Unusually we didn’t see the blow at all, even though it surfaced several times.

The sea then calmed down even more, and we saw our first group of breaching Tuna.



Only a few minutes later we spotted three Cuvier’s Beaked Whales surfacing together in the distance. The perfect conditions meant we got a lovely view of their brown colouration, the white heads, and a scarred male. Only ten minutes later we had a sense of Déjà Vu, as we saw another group of breaching Tuna, and another lovely view of three more Cuvier’s Beaked Whales surfacing! The sightings of wildlife were now coming thick and fast, with two sharks swimming separately close to the ships wake, and two more large groups of Tuna jumping out of the water. We also saw a large shoal of medium size fish swimming under the water, with some of them breaching, but were not able to identify what type they were. We then had two more sightings of breaching Tuna, one Ocean Sunfish and then our last cetacean sighting of the day of around twenty Bottlenose Dolphins jumping out of the water quite far from the ship.

Sunday 18th August Santander – Portsmouth

This morning’s watch took place at the top end of the bay, having all ready gone over the continental shelf into the shallow waters. It wasn’t long before we spotted a pod of seven Common Dolphins attracted to the ship.


Common Dolphins

Throughout the morning we saw many more pods of Common Dolphins, ranging in size from 4 to 32, giving a total of 66 Common Dolphins spotted this morning. All of these were attracted to the ship, and we had some lovely views of them breaching and swimming under the ship with their calves. We also saw a very large splash, but not the animal which caused it. However about ten minutes later we saw a large dolphin coming out of the water, it was silhouetted against the sun but we are pretty certain by the size and shape that it was a Bottlenose Dolphin. It made some spectacular splashes very similar to the one we had seen before, so perhaps there were more Bottlenose Dolphins around we missed seeing!

Monday 19th August Portsmouth – Bilbao

Today we came out on deck to be greeted by lots of passengers who told us they had already been seeing lots of Common Dolphins, which they had learnt to identify from the presentation! It wasn’t long before more Common Dolphins appeared: a continuous stream of one large pod spread out over fifteen minutes, with about 45 animals in total, including several calves. They were attracted to the ship, playing in the wake and even bough riding as the ship was travelling slow enough for them to do so.


Common Dolphin

Over the next hour we continued to see individuals and small pods of Common Dolphins attracted to the ship. The rest of the watch was then very quiet for cetacean sightings, with a few unidentified dolphins breaching far off in the distance. One of these we saw in our binoculars breaching spectacularly twisting onto its back showing a very white underside – most likely a Bottlenose Dolphin. We also saw a lot of different bird species today; including Gannets, Lesser Black-Backed Gulls, some Fulmars, Cory’s Shearwaters, and even some Sabine’s Gulls!


Sabine’s Gulls

Tuesday 20th August Bilbao – Portsmouth

As Chantel gave the presentation this morning, a whale appeared right on cue, travelling past the windows of the Planets Bar! It appeared to have a quite large, straight dorsal fin for its body and appeared to sink rather than roll, which is more characteristic of a Sei Whale than a Fin Whale. However, with the brief view, the interference of the ships wake and the angle we were seeing it, it was hard to get a positive ID and it could have been a Fin whale.

Up on deck some passengers told us they had all ready seen two Fin Whales blowing and passing the ship quite far out. After an hour another Fin Whale appeared, quite close to the horizon but with binoculars we could see the body and dorsal fin clearly. Fifteen minutes later we spotted a Pilot Whale surfacing close to this ship, quickly joined by another one playing in the wake. A passenger came over from the other side of the ship to say he had also seen three, so it appears we had a small pod playing around the ship.

A Great Shearwater then started flying around the ship, and we noticed a splash as a large fish jumped out. The bird obviously noticed too as it flew down and tried to catch the fish in a very dramatic battle, even though the fish was clearly too large for it!


Great Shearwater

We then spotted four large whale blows quite far out, all appearing at the same time. They were partly obscured by the very large swell out to sea, so we only saw them once. Not long after this we then spotted some HUGE splashes right on the horizon, which were two large rorqual whales breaching – most likely Fin Whales lunge feeding. We only wish they were closer so the passengers could have had a better view of this spectacular behaviour!

After a small pod of five Common Dolphins were attracted to and headed away from the ship, the evening became very quiet for cetaceans. After almost two hours of nothing we finally saw three Common Dolphins in the wake alongside the ship. Over the next couple of hours we saw an unidentified dolphin breaching far in the distance very spectacularly, a group of dolphins right out on the horizon travelling parallel to the ship, and another small group of Common Dolphins. We had an unusual bird sighting this evening of two Cormorants circling and flying alongside the ship. It was strange to see them so far out to sea, and we had many fascinated passengers watching them as they soared beautifully.



It’s been a lovely week on board the Cap Finistere, and we’re sad to be saying goodbye to Chantel as she finishes her final shift as a Wildlife Officer. I’m sure you will all join us in wishing her all the best for the future!


Pip the Whale at Santander modelling one of our lovely ORCA T-shirts – available on board now!

A fond farewell to Pip the Whale, who is returning home. We’re very grateful to Portsmouth International Port for letting him spend time aboard supporting ORCA and for their very kind donation of children’s colouring books. We hope to see Pip again sometime soon!

WO’s Imogen, Chantel and Pip the Whale


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