Posted by: orcaweb | July 2, 2014

Beautiful Bottlenose!

Much like a transient Orca travelling into unfamiliar waters, I (Ella) migrated this week from the Pont Aven to the Cap Finistere to join Orca sister Katy. Much unlike a transient Orca, my goal in doing so was less to kill and eat other marine mammals, but instead to observe the beautiful cetaceans of the Bay of Biscay and to enthuse passengers with a passion for their conservation.


This first objective came to fruition on Thursday morning, as the first rays of a fierce summer sun illuminated a 20+ strong pod of Striped Dolphins (Stenella coerulealba) travelling out towards deep pelagic waters from the continental shelf. A strong side-wind caused the animals to curve and flex in the air, creating elaborate breaching acrobatics.

Striped Dolphins

Striped Dolphins


Aggregated pods of Common (Delphinus delphus) and Striped dolphins appeared periodically throughout the course of the day; often travelling in the same direction and at considerable speed. We observed such animals displaying the typical breaching associated with long-distance travel and rather than paying the wake of our ship any attention, passing by unabated. This behaviour, we noted to ourselves, was ever so slightly unusual.


Common Dolphins

Common Dolphins


By the time we reached the Santander and Torrelevegqa canyons, infuriating reports of large whale sightings (speculated to be Cuvier’s Beaked Whales) were coming thick and fast from passengers positioned on the Portside of the boat. Luckily for the merry group of passengers gathered with us on starboard (breath baited and binoculars poised) the dolphins continued to roll by under the boiling Spanish Sun – a good day of sightings were had by all, and we packed up our kit that evening with a feeling of elation.


Following a good day of sightings, we had high expectations for the week to come. However, Friday came and went without event (not too unusual considering the inherent noise pollution of the Chanel) and Saturday too drew to a close with nothing more than seven Common dolphins making an appearance as we crossed the Bay to Santander. By this point, we were coming to a loss as to where all the whales and dolphins were.


It was only over diner, as we chatted to one of the engineers on board, that we gleaned a clue as to what might be going on. The engineer in question reported having seen two large black dorsal fins in the last dying light of Thursday night off the portside stern as we crossed the bay. Dorsal fins, he recounted, that could have easily been a meter or two tall. If it was indeed the case that one of the seas most veracious predators – the Orca (Orcinus orca) had returned to the bay, that that would easily explain the fast taxis displayed by the dolphins; the absence of any Roqual whales (such as the fins who we have observed to have recently calved and would be easy targets) and the apparent emptiness of the bay. We would have to be on high alert for the rest of the week.


Sunday saw us joined on deck by some really enthusiastic passengers as we crossed the Chanel bound for Portsmouth. Two of the most dedicated were Lucas – a budding marine biologist, aged 11, and his little brother Alex. Both were sporting their brand new Orca polo shirts as they helped us spot two Oceanic sunfish (Mola mola) and a multitude of gannets – both adult and juvenile. And with that, Ella swam off into the sunset to chase dolphins elsewhere.


After bidding farewell to Ella on Sunday, the Cap Finistere felt somewhat lonely, and with not a single sighting of the cetacean variety on Monday, I began to wonder what lied ahead. I did however see two juvenile Gannets (Morus bassanus) hovering above us in our tail wind to glide through the air, this ended with a mid air squabble between our two young Gannets. With a few squawks and pecks, order was soon restored as they carried on soaring back and forth over the ship.


Juvenile Gannet

Juvenile Gannet


My only other sighting on Monday was a rather ominous looking cloud. As we sailed further into the Bay of Biscay the weather constantly changed, and we were surrounded by some very dark intimidating looking water vapor. Could this be another reason for the lack of sightings? Are the dolphins and whales put off by the impending weather? With that I called it a day and headed back inside, still full of hope that Tuesday would bring something special!


Intimidating Cloud

Intimidating Cloud


And I was not disappointed!! Tuesday came filled with numerous sightings of Common Dolphins, Bottlenose Dolphins (Tursiops truncatus) , Long-finned Pilots Whales (Globicephala melas) and a Fin Whale! (Balaenoptera physalus)! A great day compared to the previous 24 hours! I started off my day with a very quick sighting of a mother and calf pair and another adult swimming towards the ship, I was so excited to see them that I screamed “DOLPHINS” before realizing that I was, in fact the only person on deck at the time, however my yelling clearly sparked some interested as I was soon joined but some enthusiastic passengers, who were very quickly rewarded for their patience as a large pod of Common Dolphins came leaping towards the ship.

Soon after I spotted 5 large black dorsal fins resting on the surface, a common behaviour in Long-finned Pilot Whales, we only saw a quick glimpse of these magnificent animals before they disappeared but it wasn’t long until we spotted another pod of Common Dolphins, this time it was much larger- this was a 40 strong pod- just incredible.


Playful Common Dolphin

Playful Common Dolphin


However my favourite sighting of the day was actually the last one, just off the bow of the ship we spotted several fins milling around. As they came along side we noticed these curious animals was a pod of Bottlenose Dolphins, we were given a breathtaking display from some very playful animals! As they flipped and soared through the air, we were able to see just how amazingly powerful these creatures can be! I for one had never seen anything like it, it’s definitely one of the best displays natural has to offer.


Bottlenose Dolphins

Bottlenose Dolphins

Until next time avid readers…….


Ella & Katy


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