Posted by: orcaweb | September 24, 2014

Fin whales bid us farewell on our final Biscay crossing

Final week: 17th – 24th September

Hello from Ruth and Katy aboard Brittany Ferries Cap Finistere, this is our final blog for the season and what a FINtastic season it has been!

Ruth (left) and Katy (right) during a deck watch

Ruth (left) and Katy (right) during a deck watch

Starting in the coastal waters of the Channel, we were surprised to see any dolphins at all, considering the sea was fairly choppy with lots of white water around. But that didn’t stop a couple of Bottlenose Dolphins popping up and fighting the Gannets for some early supper. Yes, the cheeky gannets were living up to their name, dive-bombing as the dolphins worked hard to push the fish to the surface. Soon after we briefly saw two Common Dolphins breaching next to the ship.

Dolphins and birds feeding together

Dolphins and birds feeding together

The following morning we saw three Cuvier’s Beaked Whales, each a lovely chocolate brown. In fact, on this particular occasion we could even see their small discrete blows, as the water was so calm. Soon after, an eagle-eyed passenger alerted us to a whale blow on the Port side of the ship. We believe due to its surfacing behaviour, smaller blow and considerably smaller size, that this may have been a Sei Whale, a less common species seen in the Bay of Biscay. Later, some unusual splashing caught our eyes and we noticed a medium-sized cetacean frolicking in the waves, unknown to us what this may have been. Its breaching attempt left us none the wiser to its identity as we saw very little of its body; leaving this cetacean a complete mystery.

Cuvier's Beaked Whale (male)

Cuvier’s Beaked Whale (male)

Possible Sei Whale blow

Possible Sei Whale blow

Another mysterious creature arose from the depths, but this time we were able to identify it – t’was neither whale nor dolphin – t’was a swordfish; the second sighting this summer! It was seen right next to the boat and in a similar location to the previous sighting. This one was much more active though, and darted in swooping zigzag away from the ship. We had further fish sightings, more lively than normal in the form of two yellow-fined Tuna and a Sunfish, each breaching out the water. The Sunfish was extremely energetic, breaching 3 or 4 times, especially compared to its normal sedate behaviour basking at the surface.

Over the course of the day, going towards and away from Spain we encountered 3 Fin Whales. Each spotted initially due to their distinctive tall blows. With our first sighting, we witnessed the whole surfacing sequence, starting with the disturbance at the waters’ surface before its head appeared, followed by its colossal blow – about 8 metres high. Next we saw the typical forward roll motion of the animal before seeing its slanted dorsal fin.

Fin Whale's colossal blow

Fin Whale’s colossal blow

Fin Whale's back during it's typical forward roll motion

Fin Whale’s back during it’s typical forward roll motion revealing its slanted dorsal fin

Also on our return from Spain we saw some more Cuvier’s Beaked Whales. However, on this occasion, one was brown and the other white. Both were clearly scarred and evidently males. There have been various sightings of such heavily scarred white individuals this summer, and so we believe these to be very old whales.

Ending a good day of sightings, just as we were about to head inside, a large straight dorsal fin, jet black in colour, caught our attention. We both stood in awe, glued to our binoculars, trying to keep our hands steady whilst fighting against the wind to try to work out what this large dorsal fin belonged to. In anticipation, we watched it bob up and down through the water, with none of the body to be seen. We briefly lost sight of the dorsal fin as it sank beneath the surface. We scanned the horizon and found it had popped up again towards the back of the ship. We followed it’s fin, but Ruth saw that it disappeared with splashing seen in its place, whilst Katy saw the fin clearly above the surface. With this, we realised that between us we were watching two different animals! This second dorsal was more curved than the first and much smaller. Whilst this new dorsal fin was being watched by Katy, the previous animal was seen lob-tailing by Ruth. This is a tail-smacking behaviour, where the individual raises its tail fluke and repeatedly slaps it on the surface of the water. It is a behaviour commonly seen in marine mammal species, especially when being protective or territorial. The individual then continued to splash with its tail fluke, making it difficult to see much more than a pale underside. We are still unsure as to what these cetaceans could be, but our instincts alerted us to an elusive and iconic species (especially for our charity), seen 4 times already this summer in the Bay of Biscay. However, without being able to see the body or more of this animal we are unable to confirm its identity.

You may have noticed so far, that there have been a lack of dolphins sightings. Even this surprised us. Only Bottlenose Dolphins had been seen, and pods few in number. Perhaps our mysterious black finned cetaceans were responsible for the Common Dolphins disappearances?

Where are the all the Common Dolphins? (photo taken a few days later)

Where are the all the Common Dolphins? (photo taken a few days later – we found them eventually!)

We had an unusually active Friday morning though, with seven probable Bottlenose Dolphins just parallel with Guernsey. Unlike previous Bottlenose sightings, they were very inconspicuous, casually milling past. Another animal that did this during the course of the morning, was not a cetacean, it was in fact a Basking Shark. We could see his dorsal fin and his tail tip poking out the water’s surface. As the water was so beautifully flat calm, it was easy to see this magnificent animal. For both of us, it was a first – our first shark of the basking variety.

The next visit to the deep waters brought yet again more Fin Whales. This time we had 5 Fin whales in close succession. This was a welcome sight as we’d had a very quiet morning, seeing only Yellow-Finned Tuna leaping vertically out of the water. Soon after we were greeted by some Cuvier’s Beaked Whales as we approached Santander.

Fin Whale

Fin Whale

Monday’s crossing solved a little mystery for us….we found the Common Dolphins! It seemed that they’d been hiding in the coastal waters between the continental shelf and the Brittany coastline. Pods just kept reeling in! It wasn’t just Common Dolphins that we saw here though, as was made clear when seeing them very close to the boat. Some were so close to the ship, leaping out of the water, that a small group of them even looked like they were about to head-butt it. What was even more strange, was that about 5 individuals were swimming head on towards us, directly in front of the ship as if they were playing a game of chicken with us! Both these groups of dolphins struck both of us as very different. Katy noticed a lighter grey colouration at the front of these individuals (highlighting a lack of yellow), and Ruth noticed a brilliant white patch near the tail stock which also looked rather stocky. This led us to believe that these may have been Atlantic White-Sided.

Common Dolphin and her calf

Common Dolphin and her calf

Our final crossing across the Bay of Biscay was a rather quiet end to the busy season. With a high sea state for the first few hours of our deck watch, we only saw a lone Striped Dolphin and a Sunfish. As the sea began to calm down, we spotted two large whale blows in the distance over the course of 15 minutes. At first due to the high winds, these blows appeared very low and bushy, signature to the Sperm Whale. However, upon inspection to the photos, they could equally have been Fin Whales due to their body size.  What a lovely way to end the season.

Possible Sperm Whale blow

Possible Sperm Whale blow

On behalf of all the Wildlife Officers that have volunteered this season, we would like to thank Brittany Ferries for providing the opportunity to live on board as a member of the crew, and their continued support. It has been an incredible 2014, the season which started in March has flown by incredibly fast. I think we speak for everyone when we say thank you to everyone involved, all of the WO’s and the girls in the office (Catherine Bowley, Lucy Babey and Sally Hamilton) you’ve made this experience truly memorable.

Team ORCA leaving Portsmouth aboard the Cap Finistere 6 months ago on our training week (minus Katy who is taking the photo)

Team ORCA leaving Portsmouth aboard the Cap Finistere 6 months ago on our training week (minus Katy who is taking the photo)

If you would like more information about ORCA, please visit our website, or if you would like to become a member, you can join for as little as £3 a month. Or you could like us on Facebook, or follow us on twitter. Thank you everyone for your continued support.

– Goodbye from Ruth and Katy – Au revoir!

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