Posted by: orcaweb | July 16, 2015

It’s oh so quiet… and so peaceful until… !!!

Allow me to introduce myself! I’m Jenna and I began my four week placement with ORCA on July 1st to train as a Wildlife Officer in the Bay of Biscay on board Brittany Ferries cruise ferry, Cap Finistere.  I first heard about the placement after completing the Marine Mammal Surveyor course with ORCA in October last year. I have just finished my first year studying Zoology at Anglia Ruskin University in Cambridge and have always adored animals, with a particular fascination in cetaceans from as long as I can remember (I blame the movie Free Willy!). Prior to starting the placement I have only ever seen whales and dolphins in person once when I was about 10 years old on a whale watching trip in Tenerife.


Looking out for whales and dolphins

The lovely Clare took me under her wing for my first week and showed me the ropes of how to live and breathe the daily life as a Wildlife Officer with ORCA. My first morning waking up on board was probably the only time I have ever willingly set my alarm for 4:45am! Up on deck I stepped out to take in the ocean view and was immediately greeted with the sight of an enormous blow from a fin whale (MY FIRST BALEEN WHALE SIGHTING!).

As the first week progressed I settled into ferry life, luckily with only one brief hint of motion sickness, phew! I was lucky to see Cuvier’s beaked whales, more fin whales, striped dolphins, common dolphins, a brief glimpse of bottlenose dolphins and a breaching minke whale. Incredible!


At the start of week two of the placement on Wednesday 8th I said goodbye to Clare and met Tiffany who would be the main Wildlife Officer on board for this week. It has been very interesting hearing about Clare and Tiffany’s different sightings over the past few months. But from what I gather from their stories and my experience of deck watches so far, there is usually much more marine mammal activity in the Bay of Biscay than I have currently witnessed. Could this be a sign of Killer whales in the bay? We’re still yet to see.

From Wednesday 8th to Friday 10th we had only seen a handful of sightings of common dolphins with hours of seemingly empty waters. Then along came Saturday… During our morning deck watch we encountered two pods of common dolphins. One large pod, approximately 300m from the ferry, were shooting past showing absolutely no interest in our ferry, they appeared to be in hot pursuit of prey or possibly fleeing predators; either way neither me nor Tiffany have ever seen common dolphins moving so quickly.

common dolphins leaping in formation

Common dolphins displaying perfect porpoising sequence

Two hours into our Saturday afternoon deck watch we were yet to have any sightings of cetaceans but had been graced with glorious sunshine and very calm waters, ideal conditions for a deck watch. A full deck of passengers joined us to assist with our spotting, though some may have been drawn out more so by the good weather. Whilst I was recording our routine 30 minute coordinates Tiffany yelled dolphins! I rushed out to the railings as did the sun bathing passengers. As I saw a dorsal fin appear I was immediately elated to see pilot whales! There were approximately seven individuals moving calmly through the surface, one I noticed with a calf at its side. This has been my favourite encounter yet.

Not long after the pilot whales we saw some erratic splashing only about 500m from the ship. We first thought dolphins but as we stared Tiffany and I noticed the splashes were a bit odd and very ungraceful. Our doubts were then confirmed by an enormous yellowfin tuna leaping out of the splashes followed by several others; a fascinating yet somewhat amusing spectacle. We had two further sightings of small schools of yellowfin tuna as we approached Santander over the canyons.

And of course we were greeted by many common and striped dolphins throughout our approach to Santander over the canyons with an impressive mixed pod of around 60 individuals.


We couldn’t not include a sunset photo

On Monday evening we were inundated with pods of common and striped dolphins from 7pm which tested my skills to record the data quickly enough. We remained persistent while we still had some light just after sunset and were soon rewarded with a Cuvier’s beaked whale surfacing very close to the boat!

common and calf

Common dolphins with calf

On Tuesday 14th we went out on deck a couple of hours after departing Bilbao while we were till over the deep sea canyons. Within minutes a pod of possible bottlenose dolphins were spotted toward the horizon. Not long after a fin whale surfaced no more than 400m from the ferry. A Cuvier’s then surfaced by the ferry straight after away from the fin whale. Only 30mins later we were spoiled with two adult fin or sei (TBC) whales and a calf also very near to the ferry… It gets better… Within 30mins we saw another fin whale! As if we hadn’t been fortunate enough already we then saw two pilot whales, quickly becoming one of my favourite species. We also saw common and striped dolphins on the crossing and had 12 separate sightings of yellowfin tuna.

potential sperm whale

Fin whale


Two pilot whales

mill pond

We were blessed with an incredible sea state 1!

fin whale

To be confirmed as to whether this is a fin whale or sei whale

fin whale and calf

Fin or sei whale with calf


Cuvier’s beaked whale

cuviers 1

Male Cuvier’s beaked whale

So it is safe to say the Bay has definitely livened up again significantly as I hit the halfway point of my placement.

Last week’s question: Why do Fin whales migrate north?

Answer: They migrate to the arctic in spring and summer to feed. In the northern hemisphere they eat small schooling fish such as herring. They return south to temperate waters to mate and calve in autumn and winter.

This week’s trivia question is: How fast can yellowfin tuna swim?

(Please comment below if you know the answer!)

WE NEED YOUR HELP! ORCA’s Your Seas educational programme has been nominated for a National Lottery environmental award. We are one of seven finalists from 600 entries and we could win £2,000 and National recognition for our fantastic work. Please vote for us and help us win this incredible opportunity!

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.

See you next week,

Jenna & Tiffany


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