Posted by: orcaweb | May 22, 2014

Stalker Dove followed by Fin Whales, Pilot Whales and possible Humpback & Sei Whale sightings!

14th-20th May – (Pont Aven)

 

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It was a slow start on the first day, and despite many passengers joining me late morning, there were no whale or dolphin sightings, just some slightly unusual birds around. The first of many appearances were of a Collared Dove (pictured above and below) not long after sunrise, which I can only suspect was joining us in Spain, perhaps for a peaceful holiday. Either that or it was the same bird that joined me on my previous trip aboard Brittany Ferries’ Cap Finistere a couple of weeks ago. In that case, it would appear that I have a stalker dove, following me from ship to ship! I am not sure what to make of that, but I will make peace with it….

More about the dove’s movements, it seemed to fly a couple of times around the ferry, before flying out to sea until it became a fluttering speck. By which point it would change its mind and flap frantically back towards the Pont Aven, often struggling to catch it up. On a number of occasions, tired after its venture seaward, it would perch over the edge as if looking for whales and dolphins. So, despite the lack of company early on, I certainly appreciated the dove’s entertainment! At times I’d even find myself urging it to keep going in order to catch the ship (especially once – after I tried to feed it bread, but accidentally scared it off! I felt rather guilty as it tried once again to catch the ferry, but that was quickly lifted, after it returned safely aboard).

The Collared Dove exploring the ferry

The Collared Dove exploring the ferry

 

Gannet (centre), Swift (top left), Cormorant (bottom left), Shearwater (top right), Sandpiper (bottom right)

Gannet (centre), Swift (top left), Cormorant (bottom left), Shearwater (top right), Sandpiper (bottom right)

Other ornithological encounters included a pair of swifts, a swallow, Shearwaters, Skuas, a Sandpiper, a Kittiwake, Common Scoters, a couple of Fulmars and a Cormorant. After my mid-morning presentation though, the Cetacean sightings came all at once, as numerous Common Dolphin pods charged towards the ship within the hour, often swimming under the boat. One large pod of about 50 individuals, were not attracted to the ferry however. Due to their strict line formation and fast swimming, I can only assume that they were chasing prey (or perhaps avoiding being prey to some larger, unseen predator?).

Common Dolphins

Common Dolphins

 Other sightings that afternoon included a pair or Fin Whales quite far out to the horizon. The very distinctive tall, column-like blow made identification easy despite their distance. In fact, due to the size of one individual’s blow in comparison to the other, they may have been a mother and calf. The whale sightings did not end there though, there were numerous reports of a large whale appearing close to the ferry, but alas, on the other side, and gone before I could identify it! Though due to the descriptions from various spectators, I can take an educated guess and suspect it may have been a Sperm Whale.

Thursday began much the same as the day before, as my stalker dove (who probably by then thought I was stalking it!), appeared numerous times, displaying the same behaviour. Later that morning we sailed around the North-westerly tip of France, dodging the rocky islands and abundant lighthouses. Here, there was an unexpected Common Dolphin pod sighting on the Port side of the ship while I was gazing towards the Isle of Sein, unfortunately opposite to that of the majority of passengers who stood gazing out towards the ‘Tip of Raz’ on the Starboard side! This small pod of three leisurely swam by the ship amongst the waves, curiously staying with the ferry for a few minutes before swimming around the back of the Pont Aven.

Lighthouse monuments by the Tip of Raz

Lighthouse monuments by the Tip of Raz

Later on in the English Channel, all was very calm, as the sea state became almost glassy and flat – perfect whale and dolphin spotting weather! Some stranger sightings followed such as various jellyfish, including the very distinctive Barrel Jellyfish. Over the next hour there was also a sunfish rising to the surface, a possible Harbour Porpoise making a quiet but swift escape away from the ship, and a Minke Whale producing one blow and splash before submerging out of sight.

After a more than usual productive few hours in the Channel, I was about to call it a day as we were hours from docking when I was rewarded for my persistence with a large group of plunge-diving Gannets. They focused my attention on a large pod of Common Dolphins feeding on fish below. The fish at the surface were made clear by a dark area of tiny ripples (clear against the flat calm), caused by the dolphins working together to herd the fish upwards. Moments after the main indulgent period, a single Common Dolphin leaped metres clear of the water (higher than any I have seen before), putting on quite a display! This breaching behaviour seemed to me, rather celebratory of its most recent fill of ‘catch of the day’.

Common Dolphins feeding

Common Dolphins feeding

Both departing from Ireland and arriving in and out of Plymouth, the calm weather provided fantastic views of various seabirds, including the Common Terns hanging around Cork’s Port, feeding and squabbling over Sandeels, Herring gulls, Guillemots, Cormorants and Shearwaters. There were also many Barrel Jellyfish sightings. With recent reporting’s of Basking Sharks and even Risso’s Dolphins around the Cornwall coast, I kept a keen eye out, only to see a small pod of Common Dolphins on the way into Plymouth, feeding while Gannets plunged to steal their catch.

Common Terns squabbling over sandeels (left) and Barrel Jellyfish (right)

Common Terns squabbling over sandeels (left) and Barrel Jellyfish (right)

The final crossing on Tuesday though, was the most eventful with an estimated 201 individuals sighted between 6am and 8pm! Just after arriving on deck at daybreak, there was a large pod of about 60 Common Dolphins all racing towards the ship, some with calves clearly by their sides. This successful start was only the beginning though, as I was overwhelmed with Common Dolphin sightings all morning. Not only this, but a Fin Whale appeared half way to the horizon (one of the closest Fin Whales I’ve been lucky enough to observe) at about 7:30 that morning (also the earliest rising Fin Whale too!). Mid afternoon was eventful still, with a clear sighting of a pod of 6 Pilot Whales just before Santander was in sight. Watching them gracefully slide through the water I noticed there was at least one, perhaps 2, calves in the pod as well. This was particularly exciting for newlyweds Sarah and Rich, who were embarking on their honeymoon to Morocco, as they witnessed this beautiful sight. Hopefully it was a FIN-tastic start to a great honeymoon!

Fin Whale

Fin Whale

The final trip back later that afternoon was ever more eventful, with many more Common Dolphin pods swimming under the boat, as well as a very energetic Striped Dolphin that breached clear of the water continually away from the ferry. Later that afternoon there was a Fin Whale just below the horizon and also 2 possible Sei Whales that on the other before dusk. However, there is one more thing that deserves a mention. I was lucky enough to have one of ORCA’s Marine Mammal Survey teams onboard surveying from the Bridge. While surveying on the opposite side, a very excited Kate appears to tell me that I have just missed an incredible large whale sighting that produced a very large tail fluke before diving! The team at first believed it to be a Blue Whale, but following debate decided that it was most likely a Humpback Whale, which are rarely sighted over the bay, so quite a treat. I just can’t believe I missed such a rare sighting! But sods law will continue in the world, and I will just have to keep my fingers crossed that I see it with my own eyes next week on the Cap Finistere.

Striped Dolphin breaching and two whale blows

Striped Dolphin breaching and two whale blows

Finally, for those who were wondering…yes the dove is STILL aboard the Pont Aven, I get the feeling he won’t be leaving any time soon, so if anyone has a good name for him please do reply to this post! All suggestions welcome.

That’s all from me, handing over to Amy and Ella now, fingers crossed for more fantastic sightings!

– Ruth (and the Dove)

Ruth and the dove

 

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Responses

  1. Hi Ruth,
    It was great to meet you on the Pont Aven earlier this week. As you know I was part of the ORCA Marine Mammal Survey Team which you mention in your blog and we saw the humpback whale you mention at the following
    co-ordinates in the bay Longitude 44.32’369 (N) Latitude 004.04’238 (W). There is absolutely no doubt in our minds now that it was a humpback whale and we established very soon after sighting the animal ‘blow’ several times ahead of us to port. What threw myself and Cait Cochrane (our team leader) a bit which made us think it was a ‘blue whale’ was when the animal ‘fluked’ the ‘tail-stock’ seemed exceptionally muscular. The rest of the evidence did not point to it being a blue whale. I wanted to check some video footage I took of a ‘herd’ of humpbacks in the Pacific ocean a couple of years ago when I got back home and I have done so today. Having seen that and the ‘fluking’ behaviour of the animals depicted on that footage I am more than satisfied that the animal we saw was ‘definitely’ a humpback whale.
    I think we will be seeing more of these animals in the bay in future years as their numbers increase. Of course they are seen quite a lot around the coast of the UK from the Shetland Islands, the North sea off the coast of Yorkshire and Tyne and Weir, on rare occasions even off the coast of Pembrokeshire and regularly off Southern Ireland. I’m no expert but ‘perhaps’ some animals spend the summer in the bay and move north later in the year? Perhaps they are only in the bay temporarily. We need a real expert to comment on this and why they should turn up in the bay. I’m assuming that they might be feeding on shoals of sprat or similar. I simply don’t know the answer.
    I hope you and your other ‘compatriots’ spot one in the bay again this summer!

    With best wishes

    Elfyn Pugh

  2. Hi Ruth and other Biscay wildlife officers,
    Since my previous entry I have checked the Bay of Biscay ‘Admiralty Chart’ and at the co-ordinates where we saw the humpback whale during our ORCA survey the water is very deep at around 4000 metres but it was very close to what is known as the ‘Jovellanos Seamount’ so if you take a look at the chart (copy in the ORCA office or on the bridge of the ship) you can see where I mean. I am ‘speculating’, as that is all I can do being a non-expert, that there might well be ‘upwelling’s’ in that area which may be a good feeding ground for foraging cetaceans including the humpbacks. I wonder if there are any scientific papers in existence concerning the sea area where that seamount is located. It might be interesting to research.

    Elfyn Pugh

  3. Me again! Following further research I’m again speculating that the humpback whale our ORCA survey team saw may have been feeding on shoaling anchovy, pilchard or sardine and not sprat as I previously indicated. I’d love to take a boat out and hang around that ‘Javellanos Seamount’ goodness knows what we might see!


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