Posted by: orcaweb | July 14, 2015

A Fluking Sperm Whale to say farewell

As our final week on board the Pont Aven began, Rose and I said goodbye to Wildlife Officer Jess Owen as we set sail for Spain. Our first Biscay trip of the week was one of the quietest yet with only a couple of tantalising splashes and a distant pod of feeding dolphins; too far away to identify. Due to the calm sea state we did spot some drifting nets floating past the ship that had been discarded and posed a danger to wildlife. This is known as ghost gear and ORCA has teamed up with World Animal Protection to gather data on the location and abundance of ghost gear with a hope of reducing this problem.

Ghost gear, drifting fishing debris.

Ghost gear, drifting fishing debris.

Heading back towards Plymouth we had a lucky encounter in the morning; the moment we started our deck watch we were greeted by a small pod of common dolphins. Although they were close to the ship, they did not show much of themselves at all as they disappeared under the ship. It was soon time for the presentation where many enthusiastic passengers joined us to learn about the life within our oceans.

The afternoon deck watch on approach to Plymouth left us with no further sightings of cetaceans, however there was a noticeable abundance of jellyfish seen floating just below the smooth surface of the water, however it was a shame we did not spot a sunfish!

Jellyfish surround Plymouth!

Jellyfish surround Plymouth!

After leaving a very sunny France the weather disappointingly changed to extremely windy and cloudy in the Irish Sea, determined that fin whales were still to be seen here (they were spotted the previous week by Becky and Jess) we endured the wind but to no avail. There were lovely viewings of manx shearwaters, great skuas and gannets though which gave us something to focus on.  With renewed enthusiasm for the afternoon deck watch out of Ireland despite the worsening sea conditions, we were joined on deck by the resident band on board, Sons of Kilcullen, who were excited at the prospect of spotting a whale. They must have brought us luck because only half an hour into the deck watch there was a blow and a large fin close to the ship which thrilled everyone, it was a quick sighting but I felt that it was probably a fin whale. Within the next ten minutes three blows were spotted further out and I was able to get photos of this group even with the low cloud on the horizon and choppy sea state. It was great to see the fin whales one last time in Ireland, hopefully a pattern in distribution will emerge with further surveying in this area next year.

Fin whales in the rough sea around Ireland

Fin whales in the rough sea around Ireland

After such a quiet Biscay crossing at the start of the week, we hoped sightings would pick up for our final crossing of the season. We certainly weren’t disappointed! Our watch started at 6am and as we walked out on deck, a small pod of pilot whales casually swam past the ship. Just over an hour later a small pod of striped dolphins passed by. We had a lot of people up on deck with us including children and each time the dolphins breached all the children on deck would cheer.

Striped dolphins

Striped dolphins

A few minutes later another pod of dolphins were seen feeding in the distance, they looked to be striped dolphins again and at the same time these popped up Rose shouted, “whale!” with cameras and binoculars at the ready there was no mistaking the 45 degree angled blow that belonged to a sperm whale. The first Rose had ever seen!

Sperm whale resting at the surface before taking its next deep dive

Sperm whale resting at the surface before taking its next deep dive

This wasn’t the end of the excitement; a few more striped dolphins passed by, keeping just below the surface and not showing too much of themselves. However thanks to a few well timed snaps with the camera we were able to make a positive ID. A few more minutes on, a pod which looked to be bottlenose dolphins snuck by but our attention was soon turned to a very distant blow on the horizon. Another low and bushy blow of a sperm whale, as we kept watch, this fantastic animal took a deep dive, fluking as it made what could be an up to 2000 metre journey to the deep dark depths to feed.

A distant flucking sperm whale

A distant fluking sperm whale

There was more activity around at the same time as the fluking sperm whale; an unidentified blow and a breach, both of with could very possibly have belonged to more sperm whales. We soon made it to Spain but we were both very eager to turn around and see what the journey back over the Bay had in store.

One hour into our return deck watch, all of a sudden seemingly out of nowhere, two Cuvier’s beaked whales appeared right next to the ship. We were all surprised to see them so close.

Two Cuvier's beaked whales passing s close by.

Two Cuvier’s beaked whales passing s close by.

Later on in the watch a few unidentified distant dolphins passed us, and after an hour with no sightings all of a sudden a large whale blow was spotted on the horizon; however it was too far away for a positive ID. Just 10 minutes after, another tall blow, this time much closer and we could see the long roll of the very dark back followed by a curved dorsal fin which could only mean a fin whale! It had been a while since we had spotted one in the Bay of Biscay and it was a fantastic sight to finish the season on.

Our final sighting of the season, a massive fin whale

Our final sighting of the season, a massive fin whale

We all now say goodbye to Brittany Ferries as ORCA’s wildlife officer season on board the Pont-Aven comes to an end. We would like to extend a huge thank you to the captain and its crew for being so welcoming. If you would like to find out more about ORCA or become a member please visit our website.


Rebecca Garrity and Rose Massingham


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