Posted by: orcaweb | June 24, 2015

Cetaceans at sundown

17th June-23rd June 2015

Hello! Welcome back to our weekly blog edition. This was to be mine (Tiffany) and Chantelle’s last week together until September as we are looking forward to welcoming new interns on board with us in July!

During Thursday morning as we sailed over the deep pelagic seas of the Bay of Biscay, we were blessed with clear skies and a mesmerising sea state two.  I was welcomed back on board by a pod of common dolphins hurtling straight towards the ship. Anticipating the arrival of more pods of beautiful dolphins, we were incredibly surprised at how quiet the bay seemed to be.  We were kept on tenterhooks as we kept witnessing odd splashes in the distance and as the sea was glassy, we knew this had to be some sort of animal. With our dolphins not playing ball today and lying low, a positive identification was extremely difficult.


Flat seas on Thursday morning


The most abundant cetacean in the European Atlantic- The common dolphin

After a sunny few hours in port at Bilbao, we were eager to get straight back up on deck after giving passengers an insight into how to help us spot cetaceans. We were joined up on deck by two passengers who had spent most of their crossing to Bilbao two weeks previously out on deck with us and were eager to see some whales. Just as I was telling them that we hadn’t seen our elusive Cuvier’s beaked whale for roughly two weeks and were wondering where they had disappeared to, four Cuvier’s rolled straight in front of us.  They blew simultaneously as they continued to roll through the water revealing to all their sloping forehead, small dorsal fin and rotund body. Three of the individuals were brown in colouration with no apparent scarring and one individual was noticeably larger than the rest with an extremely pale body. Our passengers certainly felt privileged to have seen this rare and elusive beaked whale.

cuvier's beaked whales- brown & pale individuals

Cuvier’s beaked whales

cuvier's beaked whales- one pale & one brown individual

Cuvier’s beaked whales- one pale & one brown individual

Seeing these remarkable cetaceans was however tinged with sadness that we saw a large amount of discarded fishing debris on Thursday. This ghost fishing gear has a devastating impact on the marine environment and marine life. We are continuously recording and photographing all ghost fishing gear that we encounter on our survey routes, so that together as part of the ‘Global Ghost Gear Initiative’ and The World Animal Protection’s ‘Sea Change’ campaign we can help to solve the problem.


One of the discarded nets seen on Thursday

Beautiful weather and calm seas seemed to be the order of the week as Friday mornings deck watch in the channel brought exactly that. We were anticipating a minke whale sighting due to our recent increase in sightings of the smallest European baleen whale. Despite the flat seas however, the only cetacean we encountered was the splash of a harbour porpoise!

With a few white caps in the sea appearing on Saturday morning along the northern shelf (up to 200m deep), watching for the inconspicuous cetaceans that we can encounter in coastal waters became a little tricky. After four hours with no luck we headed inside to deliver our talk. We had around 50 keen listeners at the presentation and after telling them that approximately 31 different species can be seen in the Bay of Biscay, I hoped the bay would not disappoint. As we were answering passenger’s questions and listening to their amazing wildlife encounters after the presentation, we noticed some activity in the wake of the ship! Passengers shot up out of their chair and viewed the spectacle of a huge pod of common dolphins surfing in and out of the waves. This certainly got the excitement flowing! As we headed out onto deck, one early morning riser who had patiently stayed with us on deck all morning after fruitless surveying told us we had just missed the blows of three fin whales!

fin whale distribution

FIN WHALE DISTRIBUTION- Fin whales are regularly sighted along the continental shelf edge (which we had been passing over during our presentation) due to phytoplankton blooms along the continental shelf edge which sustain a huge amount of marine life.

For a solid two hours into the afternoon, passengers were treated to myriads of common and somersaulting striped dolphins and I was kept busy recording all our incredible sightings!


common dolphins surfing the waves!

leaping striped dolphins!

leaping striped dolphins!

As we started to approach the Santander deep sea canyon a beaked whale appeared next to the bridge. Upon studying the brown colouration and behaviour, I believed this to be a lone Cuvier’s female. However Chantelle managed to get some great shots of this whale and the dorsal fin looks distinctly similar to a northern bottlenose whale. Despite this, no obvious melon was seen and the melon of a northern bottlenose whale is typically visible on surfacing. We will indeed have to get a second opinion before we conclude which beaked whale this was in fact. The afternoon started to quieten down despite perfect sea conditions.  After a while something swimming under the clear water caught my eye as myself and passengers watched two Cuvier’s beaked whales swimming side by side and then disappearing beneath the whitewash of the ship. Saturday was such a fantastic day of sightings and we met many great passengers who were overjoyed with the four different species that they had seen through the afternoon.

Which beaked whale do you think this is?

Which beaked whale do you think this is?

Monday started as a quiet day until sundown when the sea came alive! As the sun started to set we noticed a large flock of various seabirds. Our eyes immediately scanned the sea below these feeding birds to see four stocky and shimmering dorsal fins slicing through the water beneath the dimming light- pilot whales! These pilot whales were joined by a pod of pelagic bottlenose dolphins that crossed the bow of our ship!

Pelagic bottlenose dolphins

Pelagic bottlenose dolphins

Pilot whales are extremely social and often associate with bottlenose dolphins. In total we saw around 40 pilot whales, 15 bottlenose dolphins and several pods of glistening common dolphins before night fell. It certainly was a magical evening and was incredible to share this was passengers!


Can you spot the spy hopping pilot whale?

As our week drew to a close and we sailed back towards Portsmouth, we saw a pod of acrobatic bottlenose dolphins and several pods of common dolphins, including a pod numbering around 150 individuals (my largest seen yet!) and dive bombing gannets!


Stunning sunset on Monday evening

The answer to last week’s trivia question is: Common dolphins breed from June to September with gestation lasting between 10-11 months. Females can give birth every 1 to 3 years.

This week’s trivia question is:  How do scientists know the age of whales? (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.

Have a great week,

Tiffany & Chantelle


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