Posted by: orcaweb | June 23, 2015

Fin whales finally return to the Bay of Biscay

This week I (Jess) was joined by 2014 Wildlife Officer alumni, Katy Whitaker who was keen to get back out into the Bay of Biscay for the first time this year, and she proved to be a lucky charm! On Wednesday morning we found ourselves in the northern part of the bay, amongst a real hive of activity. We spotted a big group of gannets deep in a feeding frenzy. They looked like little white missiles as they dived in to the water to catch fish, in what must have been a very large school.

Gannets can spot their prey from one hundred feet in the air and as they dive down to catch them they can reach speeds of 60mph

Gannets can spot their prey from one hundred feet in the air and as they dive down to catch them they can reach speeds of 60mph

When a gannet hits the surface of the water it can dislocate its wings to become more streamlined so that it can dive a further twelve meters into the sea to catch its fish.

When a gannet hits the surface of the water it can dislocate its wings to become more streamlined so that it can dive a further twelve meters into the sea to catch its fish.

Diving birds are an excellent indicator of potential cetacean presence as whales and dolphins are likely to be attracted to the fish too. We kept our eyes fixed on the sea under the gannets and sure enough a small pod of dolphins, which sadly were too far away to identify, appeared from the left. If that wasn’t enough, a minke whale then surfaced, heading in to take advantage of this vast food supply. We always tell passengers to look out for bird behaviour such as this as it is a classic method that whale watchers use, so I was very excited to see it first hand and the passengers were impressed.
As we approached the deeper areas of the bay common dolphins and striped dolphins started to approach the ship.

common dolphin

common dolphin

A good two hours went by and the dolphin sightings became distant and sporadic. Many passengers expressed their desire to see a whale so we were really hoping to get some good views as we sailed over the Santander and Torrelavega canyons off the coast of Spain, a favoured habitat of sperm whales and beaked whales. Finally our patience really was rewarded with an incredibly close encounter with a Cuvier’s beaked whale and her calf! It appeared that these two animals had come from right under the ship and were calmly bobbing along the surface just twenty meters away. I felt quite honoured to have witnessed this and so Katy and I celebrated in Santander with a cheeky ice cream!

cuviers babs

A female Cuvier’s beaked whale and her calf, it is usually just males that have scars on their backs however this female has a teeth marks near her dorsal fin which could potentially help us to identify her in the future.

The mountains surrounding Santander

The mountains surrounding Santander

Sunday brought no cetacean sightings but an excellent view of the famous Edistone lighthouse.

Sunday brought no cetacean sightings but an excellent view of the famous Eddystone lighthouse.

On Saturday we sailed through heavy mist and fog to reach Cork in Ireland, where Katy had particularly set her heart on finding a seal. We set off along the beach determined to spot one after the success Rose and I had two weeks beforehand. Sure enough, there was a seal! In exactly the same place it was on my previous trip with Wildlife Officer Rose Massingham.

IMG_9901

A charming common seal

A magnificent grey heron we found in the harbour

A magnificent grey heron we found in the harbour

Our final Biscay run of the week arrived and we could wait to see what this wildlife haven had in store for us. The morning began with some lovely pods of common dolphins approaching the ship which are always a charming sight. Then not long after the Cuvier’s beaked whales appeared again! This time a calf breached right by us followed by a male and female gently moving just under the surface. In general these whales are rarely seen as they only spend a small amount of their time at the surface, so to have had two close encounters this week has been really special.
After our quick turnaround in Santander we were soon back out surveying, and within minutes we had quite a remarkable sighting. A huge blow was spotted almost on the horizon, followed by another, and then another, and this continued! We counted eleven different large whale blows within half an hour, all roughly fourteen kilometres away. What a sight! If only we had been a little closer to these animals then we may have been able to identify them, however the pure height of the blows suggests that these were likely to be fin whales, the second largest animal in existence.

The fact that we saw these blows so far in the distance suggests that the owner of the blow must be a very large animal!

The fact that we saw these blows so far in the distance suggests that the owner of the blow must be a very large animal!

And if that wasn’t enough!! Later in the evening we then had an epic pod of around sixty common dolphins spring towards the ship, there was so many that our captain even announced their presence over the speakers.

common dolphins just meters from the ship!

common dolphins just meters from the ship!

We have had a wonderful week of wildlife and have met some lovely animal enthusiasts along the way (hello Shirley, Duncan, and Norman!).
Look out for next weeks blog to see if we can spot our seal friend for the third time this season, and to see if it is indeed the same one, and to see if the good luck of lucky charm Katy continues!
If you would like to find out more about ORCA or how to become a member then please visit our website.

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Responses

  1. Jess, The small pod of dolphins on the first day were Bottlenose (I have photos) and it might be useful to mention the huge pod of Striped and (mostly) Common Dolphins that approached the ship while you were giving your presentation – the largest group I have ever seen in Biscay and probably 300-500 animals. Good news about the Fin Whales.
    John H


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