Posted by: orcaweb | May 13, 2015

Calm after the storm

Before we knew it, Wednesday had rolled around and it was time to say goodbye to Clare for a week and hello to Chantelle.  Both Chantelle and I were praying that the stormy weather would have subsided in the Channel and Bay. The weather didn’t look too promising however as we set sail. A sea state nine and high swell in the Channel meant deck ten was completely closed off and thus we couldn’t survey.

All of our wishing paid off on Thursday as the storm seemed to have passed leaving a sea state of four and five throughout the morning, which was a considerable improvement from the previous night. Thursday morning we witnessed a colossal blow of a whale towards the horizon. We were expecting to see a few more spouts or a small portion of its body, but this was all we glimpsed before the animal disappeared into the deep abyss, leaving us wondering if this was indeed a magnificent Fin whale. 18 pods of leaping Common and Striped dolphins also paid us a visit and left a lasting impression on a young girl who watched them porpoise in awe. Chantelle then spotted our deep diving champions; two Cuvier’s beaked whales in the distance- their brown rotund bodies rolling through the waves.

Thursday- Commons with a calf

Thursday- Commons with a calf

mother and calf common

Clear waters- leaping Common dolphin & calf

 The brilliant sea state for the afternoon deck watch brought even bigger smiles to our faces and we were ready for a manic afternoon of sightings. Sure enough after a short while, pod after pod of Common and Striped dolphins charged towards the ship to play in the wake. Even the cautious and acrobatic Striped dolphins were extremely inquisitive and swam right under the ship, reminding us that the behaviour of these exquisite creatures can’t always be predicted. Several passengers thanked us for helping them to spot dolphins and exclaimed that they had never seen a dolphin before or had never seen them on previous crossings! The joy and excitement that these incredible mammals bring to passengers is definitely one of the best parts of being a Wildlife Officer and makes me feel truly honoured to be a part of their experience.

surfing the waves

Surfing the waves!

 Surveying in the Channel on Friday morning brought little in terms of Cetaceans but we were kept company by plenty of Gannets- their heads glowing yellow in the sunlight as we sailed back towards Portsmouth. That afternoon we were excited to trial our new ‘Name that whale or dolphin’ quiz which was great fun and our participants enjoyed listening to the vocalizations created by various whale and dolphin species. With our quizzes and presentations, we are determined to make all our passengers Cetacean experts by the end of their ferry journey!

Trialling the new 'Name that whale or dolphin' quiz!

Trialling the new ‘Name that whale or dolphin’ quiz!

The Bay of Biscay is renowned for its rough seas, but by Saturday afternoon this almost seemed like a myth as we had mirror-like seas and perfect conditions for whale and dolphin watching! Our Common and Striped dolphins definitely put on a show for a deck full of passengers and kept people on their toes running backwards and forwards as we kept shouting ‘dolphins’ every few minutes!  At one point I had to try and squeeze myself through the arms of excited passengers jostling for position whilst scribbling down the GPS locations as quickly as possible. One eagle eyed passenger spotted a mysterious looking Cetacean towards the horizon, which he pointed out to us. Immediately we scanned the horizon and managed to capture a picture. Upon reflection we realised this was more than likely a Cuvier’s beaked whale due to its colouration and dorsal fin shape and size. (Please have a look at the below picture and let us know if you agree?)

Possible Cuvier’s beaked whale?

Watching Common dolphins

Watching Common dolphins

On our Northbound crossing back towards the South of England, we cruised past the French islands with the sun beaming down on us. Although no mammals were spotted, we were treated to plenty of bird sightings, including Gannets, Cormorants and Guillemots. We also had some of the French crew giving us and passengers interesting information on the stunning Brittany coastline. 

Brittany coastline

As the end of the week drew to a close, we were anticipating what a whole day in the Bay of Biscay would bring. Shortly after Chantelle had finished her presentation, we glanced towards the back of the ship to watch Bottlenose dolphins dancing in the waves. We raced upstairs to change into our outdoor deck clothes, hoping to not miss any sightings as we left Bilbao!

Striped dolphins

Striped dolphins

As we passed over the Torrelavega canyon we caught a glimpse of a few shimmering dorsal fins as we observed four Cuvier’s beaked whales travelling slowly through the swell. One was heavily scarred and was almost completely white in colouration- a mature male. The others also had visible scarring, leading us to believe that this was indeed a bachelor pod. The bay was also teeming with pods of Common and Striped dolphins, who never fail to bring a smile to our faces as we watched them carelessly play and leap amongst the surf. The perfect end to a calm and amazing week!

Three of the Cuvier's

Three of the Cuvier’s


Smily face of one Cuvier’s beaked whale

The answer to last week’s trivia question is: Sunfish are given this name as they spend almost half their day basking at the Ocean’s surface catching rays. There are a few theories as to why Sunfish do this:-

1) To regulate their body temperature after diving to depths of up to 200m in search of Jellyfish & Siphonophores (relatives of Jellyfish).

2) They may also use oxygen rich water to recharge their oxygen stores.

3) Or it may be to attract seabirds or fish to clean their skin of parasites.

This week’s trivia question and a question we are often asked by passengers is: Why are certain species of dolphin, i.e. the Common dolphin attracted towards the ship?

Summary of Ghost Fishing Gear- March 25th– April 30th 2015

This table summarises the ghost fishing gear which has been recorded so far from the Cap Finistere in the Bay of Biscay and English channel (March 25th– April 30th 2015) for the World Animal Protection Sea change campaign.

Ghost Fishing Gear Sightings
Buoy 18
Rope 3
Line 3
Net 3

Abandoned fishing gear has a significant impact on marine life, with approximately 136,000 Seals, Sea lions and large whales dying every year from fishing gear. ORCA Wildlife Officers have been recording and photographing any fishing related debris seen from the Cap Finistere and Pont Aven. This data will be passed to World Animal Protection so they can collate the trends, geography and volume in order to tackle the problem. See more about ORCA’s work here.

This map highlights the data collected on ghost fishing gear from both the Cap Finistere and Pont Aven  in the English Channel and Bay of Biscay (March 25th– 30th April 2015)

Map of ghost fishing gear

Map of ghost fishing gear

Some of the ghost fishing gear photographed from the Cap Finistere

Some of the ghost fishing gear photographed from the Cap Finistere

If you would like to support ORCA, you can give a donation or become a member.

Sailing away until next week, Tiffany and Chantelle

Tern resting on a log!

Tern resting on a log!


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