Posted by: orcaweb | June 11, 2014

Early morning Fin Whale mania!

3rd June – 10th June – Pont Aven

Hello everyone and welcome aboard to this week’s update from Brittany Ferries’ Pont Aven. It is now somehow June, and I think all the Wildlife Officers will agree that the season, (which started in March), has gone incredibly fast! What an amazing 3 months it has been, especially having already ticked 14 species off the Bay of Biscay species list. These include 4 different dolphin species (Common, Striped, Bottlenose and Atlantic White-sided Dolphins), 5 Baleen whale/Mysteceti species (Fin Whale, Sei Whale, Minke Whale, Humpback Whale and Blue Whale), and 6 toothed whale/Odontoceti species (Long-Finned Pilot Whales, Sperm Whales, Northern Bottlenose whale, Killer Whales (Orca), Sowerby’s Beaked Whale and Cuvier’s Beaked whale).

To further an amazing record of sightings so early in the season, some species rarely being seen, between us we feel very lucky to have been a part of ORCA’s mission to protect these wonderful creatures and rewarded by seeing them with our own eyes. However, all good things have to come to an end, and this unfortunately is the case for one of our volunteer Wildlife Officers, Kerry Heseltine, who has been a fantastic person to volunteer with. Moving on to a paid job in the Caribbean, we wish Kerry all the best, and hope that some cetaceans pop up around the British Virgin Islands for her to share with us.

Kerry

Kerry

Being Kerry’s last days as a Wildlife Officer for ORCA, we were both hoping for a good few days of sightings and this was certainly the case. Starting early on Wednesday morning in the coastal waters of the Bay, it was a slow start, especially after having a delayed departure from Portsmouth due to the D-Day landing commemorations. These celebrations brought bunting flags from all countries near and far that decorated all vessels in port, with those heading to France packed full with D-Day enthusiasts as well as those returning as Veterans.

Flags on the Pont Aven for D-day commemorations

Flags on the Pont Aven for D-day commemorations

The day dramatically picked up by lunchtime though, as there were endless pods of Common Dolphins and some acrobatic Striped Dolphins who were showings us their leaping twist displays as they flew out the waves created by the boat. However, some of the Common Dolphins took a different approach and saw this as an opportunity to surf the waves. It was especially delightful seeing calves and their mothers do this, being able to see them just below the surface. As more and more dolphins appeared by the boat, a third dolphin species appeared being much larger in shape and form. These were Bottlenose Dolphins, who compared to other species almost looked like small whales in comparison, reaching a larger 4 meters in length!

Bottlenose Dolphins

Bottlenose Dolphins

Common Dolphins surfing the wake waves

Common Dolphins surfing the wake waves

Having been overrun with dolphin sightings, our first whale took us by surprise, appearing fairly far out to the horizon, possibly being a Sperm Whale, displaying a lower bushier blow. Though more appeared as we witnessed 3 more of these in the next 20 minutes, but the characteristic tall columnar blow of Fin Whales. In fact, 2 of these Fin Whales literally popped up 300 metres away from the boat! It was quite a sight as Kerry and I noticed their white lower jaws (apparent on their right side only) emerging from the depths below! The one furthest from the boat broke the water with a mighty 8m tall blow, so that it’s blowhole was clearly visible. What an incredible sight so close to the boat and better yet with a decent crowd to witness them as excited as we were. In fact, we have borrowed one of these pictures from Bryan Attewell who was very quick to catch some shots of these wonderful animals before they disappeared. The final crossing for Kerry took us just at the end of the continental shelf at sunrise, in which we were lucky enough to see a pod of Pilot Whales and Common Dolphins before returning to the shallow waters.

2 close Fin Whales surfacing

2 close Fin Whales surfacing

Fin Whale blowing

Fin Whale blowing

Fin Whale surface roll

Fin Whale surface roll (Courtesy of Bryan Attewell)

The days that followed, with Kerry no long on board, were very calm with every splash of white water focusing attention on pods of dolphins heading towards the ferry. Continuous sightings on Monday morning kept me on my toes, ready for the influx of whale blows that spoon spanned the horizon. As expected, we were going over the continental shelf, heading into deep nutrient-rich waters (4000m). The first of numerous sightings were of a group of whales blowing repeatedly near the horizon. Some of the blows were distinct Fin Whale shaped, whereas another almost resembled Northern Right Whale shape appearing as a ‘V’ shaped blow. However, after observing more blows, it became clearer that these were likely separate blows happening simultaneously, possibly from a calf very closely to its mother’s side.

Whale blows

Whale blows

Mother and calf whale

Mother and calf whale

Mother and calf whale blows

Mother and calf whale blows

More whale blows appeared over the course of 40 minutes, some much closer than the previous group. The excitement was very clear to most passengers who had never witnessed these before. In fact, after the first few distant sightings, a woman asked me “Do they ever came much closer?” At which point moments later a Fin Whale appeared only a kilometre away, giving us all a much clearer view of its body during its surface roll.

Fin Whale blowing a kilometer away

Fin Whale blowing a kilometer away

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

After witnessing an estimate of 11 individual Fin Whales, it was time for the daily Wildlife of the Bay of Biscay talk in the bar (having to pull myself away from the activity). However, after returning up on deck there were endless Common Dolphin pods, including a few stand out individuals, which leapt acrobatically out of the wake waves. Taking a closer look, I confirmed that these were Striped Dolphins displaying their typical lively leaps.

Striped dolphin breaching

Striped dolphin breaching

The final crossing back to Santander was highly anticipated as we expected to go over the deep sea canyons. Having had engine issues though, the Pont Aven was docked until sunset in Santander, leaving me a little deflated having missed out on a good afternoon/evening of what could have been an eventful start to the return crossing. Especially after having hear d from my colleagues on the Cap Finistere that only 2 days prior they had spotted an Orca (Killer Whale), breaching! I was hoping it would make an appearance, but the long delay meant that I would never know if it did hang around or not. Therefore, the last day was largely spent in the shallow waters of the English Channel, with the only sighting being a lonesome sunfish!

So, after having a whale of a time spotting whales far and close, I will be joining Becky Garrity on the Cap Finistere for a few days, in the hope of glimpsing this elusive Orca among other cetaceans I hope.

– Ruth Coxon

RUTH

 

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