Posted by: orcaweb | July 29, 2015

My grand fin-ale!

So sadly my four week placement as a trainee Wildlife Officer in the Bay of Biscay on board Brittany Ferries’ Cap Finistere has come to an end. And my goodness it has been an incredible experience! The most rewarding part of this placement has been spending hours and hours on deck witnessing unforgettable sightings whilst making a huge difference to people’s knowledge of conserving wildlife.

This week began with rough seas in the channel on Wednesday afternoon with unfortunately no sightings. But waking up in the Bay of Biscay on Thursday at 6am to head out on deck was definitely worthwhile. Over both the morning and evening deck watches we had sighted 11 very large whales! Some close enough to positively identify as fin whales but others unfortunately too far to confirm. It can often be difficult to distinguish between sei whales and fin whales without a good view from the surface so we cannot be completely sure that the distant blows were fin whales. We were also joined by three pods of common dolphins and a pod of unbelievably acrobatic striped dolphins which were catapulting themselves across waves and side breaching to incredible heights.

Young striped dolphin

Young striped dolphin

Striped dolphin leaping

Striped dolphin leaping

Two striped dolphins

Two striped dolphins

Sei whale or fin whale...

Sei whale or fin whale…

Saturday was relatively quiet with only one distant whale sighting (likely fin whale) and a few pods of common dolphins. However there seemed to be a lot more birds around such as; corys, manx and great shearwaters.

Juvenile and adult gannets

Juvenile and adult gannets

The sea conditions on Sunday and Monday’s deck watches were far from ideal with no sightings on either day! This therefore pinned all my hopes of some good sightings before the end of my placement on Tuesday’s crossing over the deep see canyon off the coast of Bilbao, the pelagic waters of the bay and the northern continental shelf. Unfortunately we soon discovered from checking the forecast that once again the sea conditions were going to be poor; but this didn’t stop the cetaceans of the bay from giving me a terrific send off on my final watch…

Immediately when stepping out on deck there was a distant whale blow, a fin whale and a cuvier’s beaked whale sighted. Just over ten minutes on and we saw another distant whale blow and three cuvier’s very close to the boat. Under ten minutes later there were another two cuvier’s! In total over the afternoon despite rough conditions we saw 18 large whales, some close enough to confirm as fin whales with the last one being just 150m from the ship, others were highly likely to be fin whales but too far to be 100% certain. We also saw a total of six cuvier’s and my second favourite species… pilot whales!

Two fin whales

Two fin whales

Fin whale

Fin whale

Cuvier's beaked whale

Cuvier’s beaked whale

Fin whale

Fin whale

While we were distracted watching after two recently passed whales hoping to witness another surface, I took a glance ahead just in case we were missing any other approaching cetaceans and immediately recognised the distinct fin of a pilot whale about 100m ahead of the ship! There were approximately 6 individuals close enough to the ship to see their dark bodies under the surface before coming up, one of which was a calf. I had said that morning that I’d love to see some more pilot whales on my last crossing so the seas must have been listening…

Mother and calf pilot whales

Mother and calf pilot whales

mum and calf pilot whale 1- dorsal fin shapes

So after having had the best day so far of sightings for my final crossing, and getting very soaked and salty from the heavy swell’s spray in the process, I can safely say this has been the most fulfilling month of my life.

Not only have my eyes become much more fine-tuned at spotting cetacean activity and my camera skills improved, but I have also learnt great ways to inspire children to respect and care for their environment through recycling themed arts and crafts and cetacean based games such as guess who and pairs. It has also been a challenging yet enormously boosting experience learning and delivering the main on board presentation to keen passengers and receiving such nice feedback.

Recycling themed turtle arts and crafts

Recycling themed turtle arts and crafts

Me presenting the main presentation on board

Me presenting the main presentation on board

However I cannot emphasise enough how welcoming the other ORCA volunteers and staff have been and how supportive Clare and Tiffany have been as Wildlife Officers overseeing my training, I cannot thank them enough for their friendship, knowledge and enthusiasm over the last four weeks. The Brittany Ferries staff have also been fantastic, particularly the entertainments team that we work closely with.

I hope to continue to be involved with ORCA as much as possible as not only are they contributing massively to conservation efforts of cetaceans and their habitats but also providing incredible opportunities for everybody to get involved and witness this amazing marine wildlife no matter what age or background.

Jenna and Tiffany

Species summary from 01/07/2015 – 28/07/2015

Species Sightings
Common dolphin (Delphinus delphis) 37 pods
Striped dolphin (Stenella coeruleoalba) 8 pods
Bottlenose dolphin (Tursiops truncates) 7 pods
Harbour porpoise (Phocoena phocoena) 0 pods
Pilot whale (Globicephla sp.) 4 pods
Cuvier’s beaked whales (Ziphius cavirostris) 9 pods
Sperm whale (Physeter microcephalus) 3 individuals
Fin whale (Balaenopetera physalus) 46 individuals
Minke whale (Balaenopetera acutorostrata) 2 individuals
Yellow-finned tuna (Thunnus albacares) 23 schools
Sun fish (Mola mola) 2 individuals
Oceanic white tip shark (Carcharhinus longimanus) 1 individual

Last week’s question: What is the function of a dorsal fin on cetaceans?

Answer: Theories suggest that it’s function is to prevent roll and keep the animal upright. It also has a thermoregulation purpose to release excess heat.

This week’s question: How are cuvier’s beaked whales adapted to cope with the pressure at the depths they dive to (approximately 3km)?

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.

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