Posted by: orcaweb | September 10, 2014

Plentiful Pilots and fascinating Fins

What a week!

 

September has come around very quickly indeed as the final month starts for us Bay of Biscay wildlife officers on board Brittany Ferries Cap Finistere. This week I ventured into Biscay alone to see what lay ahead.

Brittany Ferries Cap Finistere

Brittany Ferries Cap Finistere

With my first sunrise deck watch in three weeks the sun was very noticeably rising later than what I had been used to. The first sight of the day was from a single, bright flash of a lightning bolt on the horizon, this was soon followed by a small pod of Striped dolphins and an hour later more appeared. Just before we arrived into Bilbao an unidentified fish breached a couple of times as the deck watch came to an end.

Striped dolphin

Striped dolphin

As the ship turned around and started towards Portsmouth, our journey back to England certainly did not disappoint. During the presentation on the wildlife of the Bay, passengers and I were delighted to be joined by a pod of over 15 Bottlenose dolphins as they breached in the wake very close to the ship for all to see. They gave a fantastic display, however that was not all, what a way to end the presentation than with a tall whale blow. If anyone had any doubt about the Bay’s diversity at the start of the talk, they certainly wouldn’t have by the end.

Bottlenose breaching

Bottlenose breaching

The sightings did not stop there, as soon as deck watch started, passengers and I were welcomed by another very tall whale blow and a Great shearwater. Later, a small pod of Cuvier’s beaked whales casually milled passed the ship, some of which were heavily scared males. After a few unidentified cetaceans snuck by, we were all treated to the sight of a small and distant, yet unmistakable pod of Pilot whales.

A Male Cuvier's beaked whale

A Male Cuvier’s beaked whale

With a short deck watch on Friday, the channel waters were mirror calm and perfect conditions to spot wildlife, even though it was so hazy you could hardly tell where the sea ended and the sky began. Much to passengers surprise, the first sighting of the day was a Sunfish. A few minutes later a mysterious dark object appeared quite far away, in the binoculars it looked very similar to the dorsal fin of the Basking shark that wildlife officer Chantelle Barry and I had seen a few weeks previous. I could not confirm this however and it also lacked any hint of a tail fin, in the end I wasn’t quite sure what to make of it.

Sunfish

Sunfish

With an early start on Saturday morning the first sighting of the day was a slow moving dark back of an animal, every so often a very prominent dorsal fin would appear, the only thing that came to mind was a Pilot whale. The first time I had seen one so far north. Passengers and I were also joined by the first Common dolphins of the week. For about an hour, there were many small pods of dolphins passing the ship at various distances amongst which was a very sneaky Sunfish and a large school of unidentified fish breaching out of the water. Towards the end of the morning deck watch we approached the continental shelf and here we had a fantastic view of two Pilot whales slowly swimming past.

The first Pilot whales

The first Pilot whales

The afternoon deck watch soon came around as we approached Santander and the deck was full of eager and enthusiastic passengers, they were not disappointed. Although the first sighting was of a very large, but distant, pod of unidentified dolphins, it wasn’t long until we had the highlight of the day. There were two very distant Cuvier’s beaked whales and these were followed very shortly by a fantastic Fin whale. Only 600 meters away and producing a very prominent blow with the long roll of its back before showing that give away dorsal fin. Before we reached land we were joined by some playful Common dolphins and massive flocks of Great shearwaters and Lesser black back Gulls.

Juvenile Lesser black back gull

Juvenile Lesser black back gull

Watching the bright sunrise early Sunday morning as we approached the Brittany peninsular, the Cap Finistere passed many pods of slow moving dolphins and a couple of sunfish. Although the conditions were perfect, the closest I have seen to a state 0 all season, with the sun right in front of me, each dolphin showed nothing more than a silhouette.

Sunrise in the Bay

Sunrise in the Bay

I have certainly noticed an increase of sightings in the Channel throughout the summer months and this afternoons was no exception. There was a massive disturbance in the water just 500m away, with binoculars ready and waiting hoping something would show itself, sure enough seconds later a Minke whale breaches. This was right in the centre of the binoculars giving a very clear sighting of the muscular grooves down its throat. By the time another breach happened, the Minke was quite far behind and with terrible visibility it certainly didn’t make for the most fantastic photo of the season…

A distand breaching Minke

A distand breaching Minke

Making our way back into the Bay, throughout Monday afternoon, the ship was surrounded by many different pods of Common dolphins ranging in number, from 2 individuals to over 50, some of which had calves with them.

On Tuesday we once again passed over the Bay for the final ime this week. Within the first hour of deck watch we witnessed the best sighting of the day… if not, the week! Something very big just below the surface popped up for air, just 50 meters from the ship, a huge Fin whale passes by, so close you could see the white on its jaw and so big it wouldn’t fit in my camera frame!

A very close Fin whale encounter

A very close Fin whale encounter

The most common sighting of the day were Pilot whales, I saw more today than I had all season. Many different pods, some passing 60 meters from the ship, some had calves, one pod even looked as though they were hunting fish.

A pod of Pilots

A pod of Pilots

A shark was seen with the very distinctive fins slicing through the water, however I was not sure of the species. With a couple of Common dolphins quietly swimming below the surface next to the ship and the visibility getting very noticeably worse as the mist encroached, the last sighting of the trip was particularly exciting. The first turtle I had seen all season!

A very distant turtle

A very distant turtle

With one more trip to go before my season as a Wildlife officer comes to an end we also welcome back Ruth Coxon.

 

Rebecca Garrity

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