Posted by: orcaweb | September 17, 2014

Countless coastal water encounters & Fin Whales in the Canyons

10th – 16th Sept:

Hi everyone, it’s Ruth returning for a final 2 weeks aboard Brittany Ferry’s Cap Finistere. It has been a while since I was last aboard and I tell you I have missed it so! After 9 weeks of surveying different mammals of a smaller kind in woodland sites around England, I am now back to the open ocean, looking out for whales and dolphins once more. I first joined Becky for 3 days before venturing out on my own for the remaining 4 of this week.

It’s been great to be back out in the Bay of Biscay, but as the season is drawing to a close, I prepared myself for a quieter ocean. Sure enough, the first deck watch in the English Channel did not produce, but an obscure sighting the following morning in the deep waters of Biscay did. Becky and I were up bright and early to witness the breaching of an unidentified cetacean (possibly 3 in total), small in form but most strikingly very pale (possibly white) in colour! After breaching a kilometre or so from the ship, one of the individuals headed straight towards us and we could see this creature very clearly from afar making its way underwater not unlike a torpedo. This blunt headed, stocky but small individual did not surface again, so the mystery of this animal will continue to puzzle me. No cetacean even marginally fit the description of this creature; we can only assume it was an albino version of something. Any ideas or suggestions as to what this may have been are welcome.

The puzzlement of the previous encounter faded after witnessing a mixed pod of Common Dolphins and Striped Dolphins play in the waves created by the ship. There were only a couple more dolphin sightings that morning, each pod very small in number swimming past the ship, much to the disappointment of the passengers wanting to catch a glimpse of their playful behaviour. The lack of dolphin activity was soon forgotten however, as blows were seen ahead! The Fin Whale’s signature blow. Not one but two! We were able to see these large whales surface a few times, as they passed us. Within the next 15 minutes though, there were more! Three this time, and closer to the ship. We managed to get a great view of the closest individual rolling its back through the water before seeing its distinctive dorsal fin. More excitingly, we noticed that one of them was surfacing and blowing more frequently. Upon further inspection, we realised that this individual was a little smaller and was probably a calf! Normally Fin whales travel alone or in pairs so it would make sense that a group of three may include a calf, what a lovely sight indeed!

Fin Whale and its blow

Fin Whale and its blow

Fin Whale head and blowhole

Fin Whale head and blowhole

Fin Whale dorsal fin and tail stock

Fin Whale dorsal fin and tail stock

The return crossing back towards England was much quieter, no whales in sight (on the starboard side at least!), with a few reports of two whales having been seen on the Port side. Dolphins again were minimal with two small pods of Common Dolphins seen before the sun went down. However, throughout the day did see a few Tuna leaping vertically out the water that aroused some excitement.
After a brief encounter with a Harbour Porpoise, during a morning deck watch in the channel the next morning, it was time to say goodbye to Becky Garrity. As we sailed into Portsmouth for her final time aboard the Cap Finistere, the realisation of what a fantastic summer it has been hit us both. Nevertheless, all good things must come to an end, but of course, leaving lasting memories. Thank you Becky for being great partner to work with, (and for lending me your sunglasses and cap!).

Ruth (left) & Becky (right)

Ruth (left) & Becky (right)

Saturday morning deck watch alone, proved a very slow start, but with a sea state 4 and moderate swell whilst still being in the coastal waters meant cetacean sightings were less likely. Despite this, I glimpsed the very small blow and quick surface roll of a Minke Whale just a few hundred metres from the ship. A discrete Pilot Whale was also seen amongst the waves. It was not until an hour later that passengers were able to see something clear – the playful behaviour of Striped Dolphins in a mixed pod with Common Dolphins.

The Bay seemed very quiet after lunch however, with hours passing by and not a single cetacean in sight. Perhaps they had a little stage fright as I had at least 40 people up on deck looking out with me. This though, did not deter one very small animal that did appear in their place. A flutter of yellow flashed in front of me and abruptly, a Willow Warbler landed only a metre away in front of all these people! Poor little thing looked exhausted. With a couple of minutes rest, the little one was off into the big wide blue again – likely migrating back to South Africa for the winter.

Willow Warbler resting on deck

Willow Warbler resting on deck

With only 2 hours left until docking in Santander, and still no cetaceans, passengers were still determined to stick it out in hopes of seeing some. Luckily, as the sea flattened, I noticed a lot of splashing ahead. A pod of dolphins were passing the front of the ship so a few passengers decided to try their luck on the other side in hope of seeing them closer up. It was on both sides though that we got a fantastic view of what we could now identify as a pod of Striped Dolphins. Passing to the wake of the ship, they began their usual antics of breaching and twisting out of the water. This was only the start however, as a Fin Whale surfaced four times, once as a clear silhouette through the sun’s reflection on the water, whilst its body rolled forwards. Another two pods of dolphins were also seen approaching the ship before reaching Santander. One pod consisted of the much larger Bottlenose Dolphins. Some of these were twisting in the air right in front of us so that not only could we see their white underbellies, but could hear their bodies smacking on the surface as they landed. As the ship slowed and the land encroached around us, the final sighting of a Sunfish at the surface waving one of its pectoral fins was a suitable end to the day’s sightings.

The return crossing back to England the next day meant that we sailed over the best waters overnight and were already in the coastal waters approaching Brittany by sunrise. There were many birds to see though, from cormorants to a variety of Shearwaters: Corys, Manx, Great and Balearic were all seen, some even in large flocks.

Manx Shearwater flock

Manx Shearwater flock

Brittany coastline

Brittany coastline

The scheduled deck watch came to an end with no cetacean life to be seen. However, as we were taking the more coastal route through the islands, I decided to stay up on deck in the hope of seeing the resident Bottlenose Dolphin pod I had seen here in March. I was especially lucky as low and behold, the pod of three I was hoping for appeared right on cue, almost exactly where I had seen them 6 months previously! Carlos Condeço, a frequent passenger on the Cap Finistere, captured a delightful picture of one of these. By the afternoon though, the weather turned, making the likelihood of spotting anything very difficult. Nevertheless, with a sea state 5 and winds force 6, I waited patiently on deck, with no luck this particular time.

Bottlenose Dolphin (courtesy of Carlos Condeço)

Bottlenose Dolphin (courtesy of Carlos Condeço)

The return journey through the coastal waters past Brittany was a different story than the previous day. As soon as I arrived on deck, there was a sunfish giving us a frantic wave with one of its wing-like pectoral fins, so much so that I almost mistook it for a shark! Not long after, I saw two Bottlenose Dolphins circling around a fishing buoy, and the Willow Warbler seen once again fluttering by the ship. In fact, I saw it numerous times during the day so believe it may be living on board or hitching an easy ride south. An hour passed and the sea turned very calm – perfect for spotting things. Just as this thought crossed my mind, a Minke Whale surfaced briefly through the glare of the sun, making its silhouette unmistakable. This was only the beginning as the strange sight of hundreds, possibly thousands of jellyfish passed us by at the surface of the water, just metres from the boat. They were small jellyfish ranging in colour from purples and blues to oranges, yellows and the typical transparent white colour, never have a seen so many in one go!

Perhaps this was a sign that nutrients were abundant at the surface, as from then onwards all the way until sunset, ten different pods of Common Dolphins were sighted. One of these pods consisted of at least 120 individuals! In groups they attempted to catch up the ship from far out towards the horizon. This was extra special because the sea state was now mirror calm, so that every dolphin stood out like a sore thumb and the dolphins just kept on coming! The beautiful sunset topped off an excellent evening in the coastal waters, especially as I looked through my binoculars I saw the silhouette of a dolphin jump right in front of the setting sun!

Underwater Common Dolphin

Underwater Common Dolphin

Sunset over the Bay of Biscay

Sunset over the Bay of Biscay

The final trip back across the Bay of Biscay brought promise with calm seas and a whole day in the Bay. The crossing started well with a few Striped Dolphins appearing from underneath the boat before swimming away. Afterwards, despite many white caps around, some of the passengers and I saw the infamous Cuvier’s Beaked Whales. There were two clearly seen heading underwater towards the ferry. Their colouration was most prominent, as one individual was a lovely chocolate brown, whilst the other beside it was a ghostly white. A few instances I have witnessed such white individuals, most likely to be males that have built up years of scars through using their outward protruding teeth to fight amongst themselves.
However, the afternoon’s sightings dwindled and it was not until the last few hours of daylight that a lone Bottlenose Dolphin appeared. After disappearing underwater at the front of the ship, the Bottlenose was back moments later to breach out the water beside us. The final sightings of the day (and the week) were a couple more pods of Common Dolphins, each attracted to the ferry, often swimming underneath it, giving the determined few who were still on deck with me a lovely close-up.
The final week of the season is now among us though, and Katy Whitaker joins me on this final adventure. Fingers crossed that the season ends on a high.

– Ruth Coxon

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