Posted by: orcaweb | June 4, 2015

The mystery of the two breaching whales

Bonjour! This week Chantelle and I (Tiffany) set sail hoping to have a cetacean full week! On Wednesday, as we sailed through the English Channel on our journey to Bilbao we were followed closely by plenty of gannets, giving passengers close up views of their beautiful colours and markings. Although we had not seen cetaceans on the starboard side, we had a few excited passengers advise us that they had seen dolphins in the channel. We began to eagerly anticipate how amazing Thursday’s sightings were going to be!

Busy shipping- English channel

Shipping vessels & Gannets in the English channel

Within just a few minutes of being on effort on Thursday morning, we saw our first blow! The distinctive angled blow of this logging animal was clear to see and I couldn’t help but be overcome with delight at seeing my first ever sperm whale!  We continued to eagerly scan the sea and to our joy we spotted two towering blows! As I write this I am beaming from ear to ear as we haven’t seen a fin whale blow since the beginning of May and were wondering if all our fin whales had left the bay to travel much further north to feed.

sperm whale logging

sperm whale logging

can you spot the blow fin whale

can you spot the fin whale blow?

After an excellent presentation given by Chantelle, we were determined to go out on deck as soon as possible. We didn’t even have to be out on deck to spot whales as Chantelle saw a Cuvier’s beaked whale out of our cabin window!  We had a very short wait before our next cetaceans began to appear in the form of a very robust pod of bottlenose dolphins, which appeared seemingly out of nowhere and crossed the bow of the ship. This set the order of the day for dolphins as we watched several pods of gregarious common dolphins race towards us. We battled against the dimming light to stay out on deck for as long as possible as we neared the productive continental shelf edge. As the sun started to set, we saw several colossal blows of yet another fin whale as the ship sailed past. Our final sighting of the day was a large mixed pod of common and striped dolphins in a feeding frenzy. Tranquil Thursdays are well and truly back!

bottlenose collage

bottlenose dolphins

Saturday the bay was shrouded by mystery. Glassy calm seas in the morning brought splashes, ripples and the tiny dorsal fins of five very elusive harbour porpoises. We were joined by Michael from the Sussex Wildlife Trust (hello!) who was determined to see a Cuvier’s beaked whale.  Although he only witnessed ripples created in the wake of the porpoises, he had high hopes for what Saturday would bring and kept us entertained throughout the day. As we were about to head back inside to set up for our presentation, two passengers alerted us to the fact that they could see a dorsal fin in front of the bridge. We waited to see a wide, stocky dorsal fin appear right in front of us- a lone male pilot whale. We found this very unusual as pilot whales are extremely social animals and are usually found in pods of up to 50 individuals.

Pilot whale

Lone male pilot whale

Saturday afternoon over the deep pelagic seas brought continuous weather and sea state changes with visibility not on our side. We were extremely surprised to only see two pods of common dolphins.  After two hours of surveying nothing but waves, both Chantelle and I were suddenly alerted to an extremely large splash and activity towards the horizon. This was followed by several very tall blows and two very large animals, breaching straight out of the water and creating a huge splash on their return back into the sea. These animals seemed to be travelling in the direction of the ship and breached up to ten times. We and several passengers struggled to capture a glimpse of any distinguishing features of the animals, even with binoculars, as they propelled themselves out of the water. Our first thoughts were humpback whales, but upon further research it appears that humpbacks are a rare species in the Bay of Biscay and there have been no confirmed sightings. We also could not see any signs of long pectoral fins on the animal. The tall blow was characteristic of a typical fin whale blow and fin whales do exhibit breaching behaviour, so this is a possibility. Our final theory and one that believe is more likely is that this was our first sighting of killer whales. The lack of dolphins seen on Saturday could account for this and Killer whales have a tall, bushy blow, leap vertically and regularly breach. Killer whales were also seen from the Cap Finistere last year around this time. However due to our lack of evidence- with not being able to capture either of the animals on camera due to the enormous splashes engulfing them, the mystery will remain. One thing for sure is that we could not wait to be back across those deep seas on Tuesday to see if there were any killer whales still lurking in the area.

big splash

Huge splashes of possible killer whales!

Sunday’s deck watch brought few cetacean sightings but a huge amount of educational fun as we delivered an interactive children’s presentation which educated children on the threats faced to our marine life, played marine themed games and took part in an ORCA treasure hunt around the ship with 40 children, which entailed answering questions about whales and dolphins in order to gain the next clue.

common collage

common dolphins

As we set sail from Bilbao on Tuesday morning, we were faced with perfect sea conditions for cetacean spotting. Sadly this was not meant to last as the swell soon picked up, turning very heavy and along with this a sea coated with white caps. Through the swell and white caps, we managed to catch glimpses of several pods of common dolphins before the swell submerged them from our view. Our ‘killer whales’ were unfortunately nowhere to be seen but stay tuned for next week’s blog………

Summary of species seen in May 2015

SPECIES                             SIGHTINGS

common dolphin                  102 pods

striped dolphin                     10 pods

bottlenose dolphin                2 pods

harbour porpoise                  3 pods

pilot whale                            2 pods

cuvier’s beaked whale        19 individuals

sperm whale                        1 individual

fin whale                              1 individual

minke whale                        1 individual

sunfish                                 9 individuals

Collage of all species for end of month blog-end of may

Species seen this month collage

The answer to last week’s trivia question is: dolphins gain water from their main prey (squid and fish) which contain large amounts of water.

This week’s trivia question is:  Why do whales breach? (Please comment below if you know the answer!)

Thank you very much for reading our weekly blog. If you would like to support ORCA, you can become a member or make a donation. To find out more about ORCA’s work then please visit our website.

Until next time,

Au revoir from Tiffany & Chantelle

gannet collage

Beautiful gannets



  1. This is really cool. Wish I had been this lucky in May when I was on Cap Finistere.

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