Posted by: orcaweb | July 22, 2015

To Fin or not to Fin

Bonjour and welcome to our blog from a crazy week on the Cap Finistere. As the schools are starting to break up for summer our ship has been getting busier and livelier with families going on their summer holidays. This week our presentations were full up and our children’s craft sessions have been fun and messy! The seas were very flat and the cetaceans were in full view, we managed to spot 7 different cetacean species and 2 fish species along with several seabirds.

Black headed gul spotted on Thursday.

Black headed gull spotted on Thursday

It started with glassy waters on Wednesday. In the channel we came across a huge group of diving gannets and managed to spot a few dolphins amongst the feeding frenzy. The calm seas continued into the Bay of Biscay on Thursday morning and just 20 minutes into the deck watch we had a shark cruise past the ship. We then spotted a faraway bushy blow with a distinct 45 degree angle, most probably belonging to a sperm whale. Not long after 2 very tall blows drew lines in sea, when they got closer we managed to see a huge black curved body roll, indicating the blows belonged to fin whales. As we got close to Spain, Jenna and I discussed how we were bemused by the lack of dolphins, I have never travelled through the Bay of Biscay and not seen a single dolphin (yes even in a sea state 9!). But soon after we spotted some dark bodies moving through the water, from their dorsal fin and distinct beak we could identify them as bottlenose dolphins, these were closely followed by 2 striped dolphins jumping meters into the air – finally some dolphins!


Breaching striped dolphins

On our way back out of Bilbao we had common dolphins feeding and Jenna spotted a white tip shark over the canyons. As the seabed dropped out to over 4000m deep the fin whales appeared! We hadn’t had many fin whales in May and June, but in the last couple of weeks they have flooded into the bay. In just 2 hours travelling over the deep pelagic we spotted a total of 8 fin whales including two mum calf pairs.

One of the fin whales from Thursday

One of the fin whales from Thursday

On our deck watch on a Saturday morning we are over the northern shelf area of the Bay of Biscay. There must be a lot of food in that area at the moment because it has been full of activity and Saturday morning was no exception. Within 20 minutes of arriving on deck we had 3 pods of common dolphins attracted to the boat. After a couple of hours we were joined by over 50 passengers on deck and the common dolphins put on a show. We had dolphins racing towards the ship for over 15 minutes with a total of 200 dolphins in the pod, we also spotted 8 cute calves too!

Common dolphins leaping towards the ship

Common dolphins leaping towards the ship

With just 10 minutes left of our deck watch before we headed inside to do our presentation we suddenly saw the huge blow of a fin whale in front of the ship. It got closer to the ship and the passengers got to see just how large the animal is! My sight was then attracted to a small blow and then a pale animal near the surface, my heart stopped, I thought it may be a Risso’s dolphin (a species I have yet to see this season!) but when I saw 2 other dark brown animals and a small dorsal fin two thirds down its body I realised they must be Cuvier’s beaked whales. These deep diving species are often seen around the canyons approaching Spain, but we have had a few sightings in the north of the bay this summer.

Common dolphins

Common dolphins

After our presentation we rushed out on deck hoping we hadn’t missed too may cetaceans. But talking to passengers, it appears they had waited for us! During the afternoon, as we travelled through the deep pelagic on our way to Santander we saw 5 fin whales. As we approached Spain we spotted two pilot whales moving through the water and 2 pods of dolphins.

Fin whales return to Biscay

Fin whales return to Biscay

When we left Bilbao on Tuesday morning a huge thunder storm hit the area, this stopped us from using the outside decks for a couple of hours but we sat by the window in case we saw any cetaceans under the huge fork lightning. When we got back outside the sea was calm and glassy – perfect for cetacean watching! Not long after being on deck we spotted a crazy feeding frenzy about 400m away, we saw dolphins jumping and tuna breaching in the air.

Feeding frenzy involving dolphins and tuna

Feeding frenzy involving dolphins and tuna

Suddenly out of nowhere a huge black body emerged from the grey seas. It was a fin whale about 75m from the ship, it surfaced three times before disappearing for a deep dive. Then, just 5 minutes later we had another fin whale only 200m from the ship. The bay was quiet through the rest of the pelagic waters with just a few distant dolphins and leaping tuna. As we started sailing over the continental shelf edge we had over 300 common dolphins, a pod of bottlenose dolphins and some more tuna! For the whole 6 hour deck watch we were joined by Katy from Glasgow, dolphins are her favourite animal, but before this ferry journey she hadn’t seen a single cetacean and in just a few hours she saw two very close fin whales and over 300 dolphins! I love giving people the opportunity to see whales and dolphins in the wild and inspiring passengers to get involved in marine conservation.

A fin whale just 75m from the ship

A fin whale just 75m from the ship

Looking back at the photos from Tuesday I noticed a common dolphins with most of its dorsal fin missing. Dorsal fins can be damaged by being trapped in fishing gear, collision with boats or injury from predators such as orca or sharks.

IMG_7843 (2)

IMG_7842 (3)

Last weeks trivia question was: how fast do yellowfin tuna swim?

Answer: 50MPH! They are very fast swimmers.

This weeks trivia question: what is the function of a dorsal fin on cetaceans?

Thank you for reading our blog this week. Tune in next week for Jenna’s last blog and to find out if she got to see her all time favourite cetacean, the orca!

Clare and Jenna

If you haven’t already heard ORCA is in the final for a National Lottery Heritage Award! YOUR SEAS has been nominated for the best environment project, we have been selected out of 600 charities to be in the final 7! But now we need your help! All we need is a vote from you which will give us the chance to win £2000 to buy new equipment to vastly improve our surveys and help us protect more vulnerable cetacean habitats! Click here to vote for Your Seas.



  1. Reblogged this on Today's Catch.

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