Posted by: orcaweb | August 5, 2015

Breaching Beakies!

29th July- 4th August

Hello and welcome back to our weekly blog from Brittany Ferries’ Cap Finistere. July has flown past and before I (Tiffany) knew it we were saying Au revoir to Jenna- our July trainee. Jenna was a fantastic trainee and a pleasure to work with and as you may have read from her previous blogs, she had a great month with us! Time to say hello to our August trainee- Jade Chenery and to see what incredible cetaceans this month would bring.


Beautiful Sunrise

We have been very busy bees this week with lots of children and families on board who were eager to see and learn all about whales and dolphins. Our Wednesday evening deck watch in the channel brought choppy seas but our passengers were not disheartened by this as we told them how amazing the Bay of Biscay had been recently, due to a huge surge in our fin whale sightings.

Thursday morning in the pelagic zone, we were challenged with a constant change in sea state. However we had lots of people out on deck with us at first light, including one young boy called Daniel. Daniel was determined to see a fin whale and as well as being extremely patient, kept us amused throughout the morning. Ours and Daniel’s persistence was certainly rewarded as two hours outside of Bilbao we spotted some activity and then a sequence of breaches from two definite whales. Jade and I watched carefully through binoculars to try and identify these two animals, but this left us none the wiser as the glare and brief glimpses were making a positive identification extremely difficult.  Upon later inspection of the pictures we discovered these were undoubtedly members of the beaked whale family- possibly cuvier’s. However as neither of us had seen a cuvier’s breach (although this is not an uncommon behaviour), we will indeed get a second opinion in order to positively identify this species.

Breaching possible cuvier’s

cuviers 2 beaching

Two breaching beaked whales

cuviers 3 breaching

Breaching Beakie

The deep sea trench we pass over on our way to Bilbao bestowed a further surprise and shrills of excitement as a huge pod of up to 90 common dolphins sped towards the ship for lots of families to see. This certainly left everyone on a high for the start of their holiday!

common close to spain

Common dolphin close to spain

That day I delivered a children’s interactive presentation to a group of around 20 enthusiastic children on the return northbound crossing. This presentation is great fun, and as well as being very educational, focuses on the threats that whales and dolphins face. We feel it is extremely important to raise awareness of conservation issues amongst the younger generation, which is why our Your Seas community based marine education programme is a vital part of our charity’s work.

Me doing the children's presentation

Me doing the children’s presentation

After encouraging children and parents to join us up on deck, we were treated to seven distant blows- potential fin whales. These tantalising blows dissipated exceptionally quickly due to the strong winds which we were facing and we were left hoping to catch a closer glimpse of the whales. After breaking for a while to wait for conditions to become more bearable, we headed back out on deck to catch the last of daylight in the hope of further sightings. This certainly proved worthwhile as a fin whale surfaced immediately in front of us and a lucky family who had just stepped out onto deck. We watched this fin whale for a few minutes as it surfaced and blew, before losing sight of this incredible animal.

As we sailed through the English Channel on our way back to Portsmouth on Friday morning, we had a beautiful sea state two and were positive we would clearly see the tiny dorsal fins of harbour porpoises.  Total cetacean sightings for Friday’s deck watch however were zero, so we ventured inside to create whales, dolphins and sharks with lots of excited children.

Due to lots of recent dolphin activity on the northern shelf of the Bay of Biscay, we were confident we would encounter our beautiful common dolphins on Saturday morning’s deck watch. The commons did not keep us waiting for long as we witnessed several pods throughout the morning, as well as a breaching sunfish that seemed to want to join in the fun! As we passed over pelagic deep waters, we observed a few colossal distant blows of definite Rorquals and two simultaneous blows- one much smaller than the other- a potential sei whale mother and calf! Saturday’s sea conditions were perfect for whale and dolphin watching so we were a little surprised that we didn’t have more sightings, but felt privileged to see blows of enormous and majestic whales.


A common dolphin

diving gannets

Dive bombing gannets!

As the end of the week drew to a close, we were wondering if Tuesday’s sightings would beat our record number of fin whales from last Tuesday- 18 in total! Throughout the entire deck watch we had relentless heavy swell but a great sea state of 2/3. As we passed over the canyon we saw a fin roll through the waves and identified this as a definite beaked whale. This whale then propelled itself clear out of the water and was seemingly much larger than our cuviers. Although we were unable to see the beak, we noticed from our pictures that this whale seemed to have a very distinctive and bulbous melon- typical of a northern bottlenose whale. My first ever sighting a potential northern bottlenose! Our beaked whales certainly seemed to want to make a big impression this week!

Two hours passed by before our next sighting. A keen passenger who was great at spotting cetaceans alerted us to a blow two thirds of the way out. We watched this animal surface and blow several times. This was our first fin whale of the day and turned out to be our unfortunately last! As we headed further north in the bay, we were greeted by a small pod of acrobatic bottlenose dolphins that leapt throughout the swell.


Breaching bottlenose dolphin

Approaching the continental shelf, we were stunned to see two cuvier’s beaked whales roll straight in front of us, showing their pale and gently sloping forehead. One showed no scars- a possible female cuvier’s and one had a large scar along the side of its body- a possible male cuvier’s.

tw cuviers 1

Two cuvier’s- one female and a male

two cuviers

Two cuvier’s surfacing

As we were quickly examining our pictures of the cuvier’s, we spotted something surface on top of the swell. The black colouration and distinctive dorsal fin left no doubt in our minds that these were two pilot whales. Our deck watch and the week ended on a high with a pod of feeding common dolphins surrounded by dive bombing gannets, cory’s and great shearwaters!

feeding commons and birds

Common dolphins feeding with gannets and shearwaters

Last week’s question was: How are cuvier’s adapted to cope with the pressure at the depths they dive to?


  • They collapse their ribcage as they dive and generally have less air filled spaces in their body- this makes them more crush resistant.
  • They exhale 90% of spent (or waste) air before diving
  • They shunt the blood flow away from their extremities and focus blood flow around the heart, muscles and brain- this stops oxygen being wasted and focuses on organs which need oxygen enrichment.
  • They lower their heart rate.
  • They have more red blood cells-so more places to store oxygen


This week’s question is:  Do whales & dolphins mate for life? (Please comment below if you know the answer!)

If you would like to make a donation to help fund the fantastic work that ORCA do, or to become a member in order to train to become a Marine Mammal Surveyor and help us collect vital scientific data on our survey routes, then please visit our website for more information!

Thank you for reading our blog this week! Tune in next week to see how our new Intern Jade has found her first two weeks onboard!

Tiffany & Jade

moon pic- last one



  1. […] afternoon, after my first interactive children’s presentation, Daniel (from last weeks blog) joined us on deck with many other eager passengers and we were not left disappointed! In total […]

  2. Thank you so much for your work on the ferries. My son is the young boy Daniel who is referred to in the blog. The whale watching has been an absolute highlight of Daniel’s summer holiday – he continually mentions it and I hope it has begun a life long love.. He has added binoculars to his birthday list and has been badgering me to find out about any shore watches. After watching Big Blue Live, we are dreaming of a trip to Monterey Bay, but The Bay of Biscay provides some stiff competition. Thanks again – those early mornings are definitely worth it!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: