Posted by: orcaweb | July 8, 2015

The Northern Shelf: Our New Number One

Hello again readers!

This week I (Clare) was joined by Jenna. Jenna is spending a month on the Cap Finistere with us to train how to become a Wildlife Officer and witness some of the fantastic cetaceans we encounter on our journeys to and from Spain. The Bay of Biscay has been pretty quiet this week with just a few sightings each day, but each one has been pretty spectacular.

Three playful common dolphins

Three playful common dolphins

Thursday morning started with a bang (or should I say a blow!), as we stepped out on deck at 5.45am we were greeted with the sight of a fin whale blow! It was our first fin whale sighting for a couple of weeks and Jenna’s first ever baleen whale sighting! Just 10 minutes later we had a large pod of common dolphins leaping towards the ship. With two fantastic sightings before 6am we were very excited about the rest of the deck watch as we travelled across the pelagic deep waters of the Bay of Biscay. Unfortunately the bay was very quiet and two hours passed with no sightings. However we still had plenty of patient passengers waited eagerly and luckily at 8.50am we had a pod of striped dolphins leaping and breaching out of the water!

Beautiful striped dolphin on Thursday morning

Beautiful striped dolphin on Thursday morning

After a couple of hours of sunshine in Bilbao we started sailing back through the Bay of Biscay. Because of the quiet morning we were not expecting much activity as we passed over the deep canyon area, but we were pleasantly surprised when something popped up just 100m from the ship. As the second individual appeared covered in scars we knew they were Cuvier’s beaked whales. We had a pod of six very close to the ship and the passengers got to see just how pale the elderly male individuals can be. Our luck continued, a few minutes later we saw a big blow in the distance, unfortunately it was too far to identify the species but I suspect from the tall blow it was a fin whale. Over the next hour we saw two more blows and another pod of Cuvier’s beaked whales. Throughout the evening we had many pods of dolphins and stayed surveying until the sun had set.

A male Cuvier's beaked whale

A male Cuvier’s beaked whale

A darker Cuvier's beaked whale. Probably a female adult or juvenile.

A darker Cuvier’s beaked whale. Probably a female adult or juvenile.

The sea conditions were very poor on Saturday morning and as we headed out onto deck we were not hopeful of seeing the usually shy coastal species we get on the northern shelf. Suddenly, just 10 minutes in I saw a large animal leap out of the sea and land with a huge splash just 100m from the ship! A BREACH!! I got the camera ready in case it surfaced again, and luckily it did! We identified it as a minke whale from its pointy head and the white bands on its pectoral fins. Minke whales are one of my favourite cetaceans and even after months of researching them in Iceland I had yet to see one breach; I am so excited I finally got to see that spectacular sight! Luckily a passenger had joined us just in time and got to witness this amazing and rare event. By 7am more passengers had arrived on deck and were amazed by the photos of the breach we had seen. To everyone’s surprise another splash appeared on the horizon, maybe it was another breach? Luckily, like on the first occasion it breached again and from the photos we could identify it as another minke whale. What are the chances of seeing two of these usually shy whales leap out of the water for all to see?!


Breaching minke whale

Sunday morning was another beautifully calm day on the northern shelf, unfortunately there was no sign of the leaping minke whales from Saturday but we did see a sunfish cruising past the ship. As we passed through the Brittany islands we saw a pod of 12 coastal bottlenose dolphins surfing the waves of the wake.

A beautiful gannet flying in the sunshine

A beautiful gannet flying in the sunshine

Monday was very stormy but as we entered the Bay of Biscay the wind started dropping. Just an hour into our deck watch we spotted some common dolphins in front of the ship, as I was pointing them out to passengers I suddenly saw a huge blow in the middle of the feeding dolphins. It resembled a fin whale blow, but what was a fin whale doing on the Northern shelf? We followed the blow behind the ship towards the horizon and saw we had 2 fin whales, possibly on their migration to the Polar Regions. As the wind dropped into the evening we were treated to glassy seas, a beautiful sunset and another pod of common dolphins!

Fin whale blow

Fin whale blow

Tuesday was even stormier than Monday and continuing on this week’s theme, the bay was very quiet until we entered the coastal waters of the northern shelf, then the bay became alive! We had several pods of common and striped dolphins, including a large pod of over 100 individuals. A lovely end to an eventful week.

Adult and calf common dolphins playing in the stormy conditions

Adult and calf common dolphins playing in the stormy conditions

This week’s ghost gear summary:

Ghost Gear is any discarded fishing gear, including buoys, nets, line or rope. When we see any of this ghost gear from our surveys we mark the location and take a photo.

Some of the discarded fishing gear we have encountered in the last month

Some of the discarded fishing gear we have encountered in the last month

During the last month we have seen:

Buoy 28
Net 7
Line 7
Rope 2

Last weeks trivia question:

What is the spermaceti organ found in the head of sperm whales used for?

Scientists are not entirely sure what the spermaceti is used for, but it is definitely involved in sound production.

It amplifies the clicking sounds sperm whales make for echolocation helping them pin point squid in the deep dark ocean.

This weeks trivia question:

Why do fin whales migrate to the polar regions? Please comment on this post if you know the answer.

Thank you for reading the blog this week!

Clare and Jenna

ORCA Your Seas project has just found out we have been nominated for a National Lottery Heritage award! We are up against 6 other charities and if we win we will be awarded £2000 and national recognition. As a small charity this will make a huge difference to ORCA and our work. To be in for a chance to win we need YOUR votes. Please vote for us here.



  1. Reblogged this on Today's Catch.

  2. Fin Whales migrate to polar regions to feed in the summer months =)

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