Posted by: orcaweb | May 27, 2015

The Bay of Biscay: always full of surprises!

Hello everyone and welcome again to another blog from the Cap Finistere. Chantelle stayed on dry land this week and I (Clare) was joined by Tiffany on board.

After greeting the new passengers on Wednesday we gave a talk about the fantastic marine life that the passengers can hope to see over the next 20 hours. The talk ended with an impromptu question session from passengers. It is great to have passengers so interested in marine life and to have my knowledge tested. Following the presentation we headed outside to see if we could spot any cetaceans in the channel. We were joined by many passengers but unfortunately the channel wasn’t playing ball as white caps covered the blue sea in all directions.

Rainbow over the Channel

Rainbow over the Channel

After the crazy weather last week we were both very excited about having a calm Thursday in the Bay of Biscay. Within five minutes of surveying we were greeted by a pod of common dolphins, luckily we had a few early risers join us on deck and they had a great show of dolphins dancing in the early morning sun.

Commons thursday

Common dolphins in the early morning sun

Biscay then went very quiet and we had almost given up hope of seeing more cetaceans when we spotted a pod of 25 dolphins racing towards the boat. They surfed through the huge waves left over by the storms and put on a great show for the 40 passengers that had filled up the deck.

Passengers watching common dolphins

Passengers watching common dolphins

The passengers were rewarded yet again as we travelled over the Santander canyon. It is one of two canyons we pass over on our approach to Spain and these canyons are now recognised as hotspots for beaked whales. Right in front of us we spotted a pod of five Cuvier’s beaked whales including a very pale individual, which suggests to us it was an old male.

5 cuvier's beaked whales on thursday

The male cuvier’s beaked whales scratch each other when competing for a mate, both the scarring and their coloration gets paler as they get older.

In the afternoon we greeted the new passengers in Bilbao and encouraged several to join us outside to see if we could find the many cetaceans we had seen that morning. The canyon areas were very quiet with no sign of the cuvier’s, but as we sailed over the deep pelagic with depths of over 4000m we were bombarded by pod after pod of dolphins. It started with a few small pods of striped dolphins but soon we spotted a huge pod of over 100 common dolphins approach the ship.

surfing dolphins both

The common dolphins raced to the bow of the ship, but not quite being able to keep up they surfed the waves of the wake.

As Saturday approached we were both really excited about another day spent in the highly productive Bay of Biscay, especially as the sea was beautifully calm over the northern part of the Bay. Cetacean species are not sighted as often here as the rest of the bay but we were very lucky to have a pod of pilot whales pass through the flat waters.

The black shiny pilot whales were very obvious in the grey calm waters as they swam slowly past the ship.

The black shiny pilot whales were very obvious in the grey calm waters as they swam slowly past the ship.

At 10am we moved inside to give our presentation, before we had even set up the bar was full. By the time I started talking we had over 100 passengers squashed in and eager to hear more about cetaceans. I started talking about the species we could encounter over the Bay of Biscay and just as I moved on from pilot whales to common dolphins, someone in the front shouted and pointed out the window. The whole audience jumped up and rushed towards the window to see hundreds of common dolphins leaping and dancing in our ships wake; it was impeccable timing, as if I had planned it!

Over 100 passengers watching our presentation

Over 100 passengers watching our presentation

After a speedy lunch we were keen to start surveying in the flat seas. We had just stepped out on deck and instantly saw a pod of common dolphins right next to the ship. It was a lovely sunny afternoon so the deck was chocker block with passengers excited to see more cetaceans, and the dolphins didn’t disappoint as we saw many pods over the next hour.

feeding dolphins

A huge pod of feeding common dolphins.

On Sunday morning we arrived on deck, croissant and coffee in hand and ready to survey, unfortunately the sea was not ready for us as we were immersed in thick fog. It eventually cleared at 9.30 so we rushed back upstairs to try and spot some of the coastal species we can see around the Brittany islands.

No luck with cetaceans but we did spot many sea birds in the short time after the fog had cleared.

No luck with cetaceans but we did spot many sea birds in the short time after the fog had cleared. Four gannets flying in age order.

Tuesday was another surprising day in the Bay of Biscay. It was very quiet over the canyons and we had no sightings for the first two hours. Then we finally spotted two dolphins and during the next hour we had over 200 dolphins around the ship, including a huge pod of common dolphins feeding. Just as we were travelling over the continental shelf edge from the deep pelagic waters to the coastal waters we saw a blow and then a very pale body. It was a Cuviers’ beaked whale!! We had never seen a Cuvier’s this far north before so we were very surprised and excited!

A very pale cuvier's beaked whale spotted in the northern Bay of Biscay.

A very pale cuvier’s beaked whale spotted in the northern Bay of Biscay.

The answer to our last week’s trivia question is:

The minke whale uses the white bands on their pectoral fins for hunting. They confuse fish into thinking there are two predators so they circle into a ball, making it easy for the minke whale to swallow them in one mouthful!

This weeks trivia question:

Do dolphins drink?

Please comment on this post if you know the answer!

Thank you for reading our blog once again!

Clare and Tiffany.

Follow us on Twitter (@orca_web) for live updates from the Wildlife Officers on board the Cap Finistere.

 Two juvenile gannets

Two juvenile gannets

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