Posted by: orcaweb | June 4, 2014

Sweet and Sowerby’s

This week on the Pont Aven has been one for the books! We were joined by passengers on deck every day and our crossings through the Bay of Biscay delivered sighting after sighting!

The week started, as per usual, at the gruelling time of five o’clock in the morning as we stationed ourselves on top deck of the Pont Aven for morning surveying. An ominous storm cloud above threatened to soak us to the skin but our waterproofs served us well. Despite seeing no whales or dolphins we did meet one damp mammal; a disgruntled passenger who informed us whilst trudging past; “You two are mental.” This slow start was, however, by no means an indication of things to come – in fact quite the opposite. It would turn out to be one of the most exciting days of cetacean sighting either of us had ever had…

Sunrise over the Bay of Biscay

Sunrise over the Bay of Biscay

As our ferry ploughed onwards through the Bay of Biscay, our first visitors were a pod of Common Dolphins (Delphis Delphinus) who were followed by their close cousins; a pod of Striped Dolphins (Stenella coeruleoalba). Our first Baleen Whale of the day, a Minke Whale (Balaenoptera acutorostrata) surfaced gracefully over the edge of the continental shelf, identified by the short distance between blowhole and dorsal fin. This was a fleeting and rather unusual sight, as these animals normally inhabit shallower coastal waters. From then on, mixed pods of common and striped dolphins made frequent appearances and were unmissable in the tranquil sea.

Common Dolphins reflected in the mirror-calm sea.

Common Dolphins reflected in the mirror-calm sea.

Acrobatic Striped dolphin.

Acrobatic Striped dolphin.


As we crossed the Spanish canyons we spotted a large, brown body surfacing above the water. The head of this animal seemed to have a distinct melon, much like a Northern Bottlenose Whale (Hyperoodon ampullatus), but the dorsal fin shape was much more reminiscent of a Cuvier’s Beaked Whale (Ziphius cavirostris). Speculation was in mid flow (and the jury is still out to this day) when an amazing thing happened.

Our mystery whale. Cuvier's Beaked Whale or Northern Bottlenose Whale?

Our mystery whale. Cuvier’s Beaked Whale or Northern Bottlenose Whale?

A pod of six, large animals could be seen milling past the boat; were it not for the mirror-like sea-state we might not have been able to see perfectly the peculiar elongated rostrum that so clearly identified this as a pod of SIX Sowerby’s Beaked Whales (Mesoplodon bidens)! This species, which have been categorized as Vulnerable, are a reclusive, little-studied deep diving species that have been claimed to actively avoid ships. We know we have been incredibly lucky to see a pod of six, within 600 m of our boat! The relevance of this sighting was not lost on the faithful gaggle of passengers, whom we had by this point amassed. A passenger turned to us, a beaming grin on his face, “You two really have the best job, don’t you?”. This more than made up for our poor morning start.

Sowerby's 1

Up-close and personal with Sowerby’s Beaked Whales!

Six Sowerby's Beaked Whales!

Six Sowerby’s Beaked Whales!

After a fantastic first crossing, our enthusiasm was buoyed as we passed from the Bay of Biscay, back into the English Channel. Indeed, our keenness was rewarded, with sightings of Habour Porpoises (Phocoena phocoena) and pods of Common Dolphins off the Northern French peninsula. Apart from this however, the English Channel remained noticeably void of any Cetacean presence, or much marine wildlife at all for that matter, beside a good smattering of Gannets (Morus bassanus).

Harbour Porpoise hunting alone in the English Channel.

Harbour Porpoise hunting alone in the English Channel.

When it came to our second crossing of the Bay of Biscay this week, given our previous success, we were understandably excited, and what a morning! A Fin Whale (Baleanoptera physalus) and calf could be seen blowing simultaneously, luckily, the mother breached, allowing us to identify the species from her tell-tail white flank colouration. The day progressed with amazing sighting followed by amazing sighting; huge pods made up of both striped and common dolphins, pregnant females and amazing acrobatic displays. We even saw what we suspected to be a nursery group of dolphin calves flanked by adults.

A nursery group of calves led by an adult dolphin.

A nursery group of calves led by an adult Striped dolphin.

The outstanding highlight of the day was what we have come to believe was a Blue Whale sighting! As the sun began to set, a huge columnar blow indicated the presence of a massive animal well over a kilometre away from the ship. At the time we didn’t want to draw conclusions regarding species identification, but the few photos we snapped point towards a Blue! The floor is open to suggestions, so please comment if you have an idea what this animal is!

Possible Blue Whale. The blow, blowhole, back and dorsal fin of the enormous animal sighted over the continental shelf.

Possible Blue Whale. The blow, blowhole, back and dorsal fin of the enormous animal sighted over the continental shelf.

All in all, this week has been fantastic. We’ve had some unforgettable sightings and can leave the Pont Aven for this fortnight in the very capable hands of Kerry and Ruth.

Don’t forget you can read more about ORCA via the charity website.  You can also become a member for as little as £3 a month to help us continue our work protecting these magnificent animals!

Amy and Ella


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