Posted by: orcaweb | September 2, 2015

Eight wonders of the Bay of Biscay!

Hello and welcome back to our blog! This week I (Tiffany) was joined by the lovely Lucy after saying farewell to Jade. Jade was our August trainee Wildlife Officer and a credit to work with and we wish her every success in her career.

After giving Lucy a quick tour of the ship, we went to meet and greet lots of passengers to excite them about our talks and deck watches. Although Wednesday’s deck watch in the channel brought little but choppy seas, Thursday morning started considerably better! We began our deck watch on Thursday morning with a sea state two. However this started to fluctuate between a sea state four, five and six as the hours passed. As we started to sail closer to the Spanish coastline, the sea conditions began to flatten for us to reveal five separate but distant blows of possible fin whales and one potential sperm whale. However as with our previous week (see Jade’s blog below) most of our sightings were far-off and made identification very challenging.


As we ventured closer to Bilbao, I said to Lucy that I had a feeling we would see our graceful pilot whales and low and behold what appeared as we passed over the deep sea canyon- two pilot whales! As I thought I may have been on a role with my predictions, I predicted Orcas for our deck watch in the afternoon as we passed back over the Bay of Biscay- however no such luck!

Myself & Lucy with the brand new children's poster on board

Myself & Lucy with the brand new children’s poster on board

Thursday afternoon with our return passengers started with a fun kid’s interactive talk which encouraged lots of people to join us up on deck! Lucy and I were excited to be faced with great conditions and although we had a few distant blows, we saw more plastic bags in the sea than we did whales. Marine litter is a huge global problem and has disastrous effects on all types of marine life, so this was very sad to see indeed. We hope that as our children’s presentation covers the damaging effects of plastic bags and other sorts of marine litter that we can encourage our future generation to help protect these magnificent animals.

One of the many plastic bags we saw floating in the sea

One of the many plastic bags we saw floating in the sea

Just as we were about to head inside for the evening, a passenger shouted ‘dolphins!’ to which we ran outside. These dolphins turned out to be in fact huge yellow fin tuna fish breaching clear out of the water. Their sheer size simply astounds me and it was incredible to see these fish so close to the ship!

tuna fish 1

Tuna Fish breaching

tuna fish 2

Yellow fin Tuna breaching clear out of the water!

Friday morning’s deck watch in the channel as we headed back to Portsmouth brought us a pod of possible bottlenose dolphins close to the ship, which was fantastic as we don’t always see cetaceans in the channel. We were also accompanied by lots of juvenile gulls, gannets and fulmars.

herring gull 2 herring gull

As Lucy and I were eager to see what Saturday morning would bring in the northern part of the bay, where we have had an increase in dolphin activity recently, we were up on deck before sunrise! It wasn’t long before common dolphins graced us with their presence with two very large pods containing lots of calves swimming alongside their mothers and breaching simultaneously. This is always a joy for us and passengers to see! For a solid hour we were inundated with common dolphins speeding towards the ship. After a few hours we knew we would start to reach the continental shelf edge and the depth change which is abundant in marine life. We managed to glimpse four blows of individual whales and a probable fin whale which surfaced not too far from the ship- giving us the quickest sight of its body.

mum and baby common

Mother & Calf common dolphin

mother & calf common

Saturday’s presentation was very busy with lots of passengers eager to hear all about the different types of cetaceans that they could encounter. This led us to have a packed deck along with fantastic conditions. The afternoon turned out to be quiet for sightings in the end but we did see a pod of striped dolphins which darted quickly away from the ship and a possible cuvier’s beaked whale, which surfaced a few hours later. This individual had no evident scarring and was very brown in colouration and thus a possible female cuvier’s.

striped dolphin

Stunning striped dolphin

Thick fog which descended upon us on Sunday morning as passed along the Brittany coastline, made surveying a little trickier. This didn’t stop our common dolphins appearing as the sun began to rise, along with a very startled sunfish which dashed underneath the water as the ship approached.

Four sunfish at the surface next to the ship

Four sunfish at the surface next to the ship

Sea state conditions on Monday were far from ideal with a sea state six and seven throughout our watch. Every white cap seemed to be a potential cetacean surfacing but the northern part of the bay still came alive with several pods of joyous common dolphins and a pod of skittish harbour porpoises– five individuals who scarpered very quickly! Skim feeding bottlenose dolphins close to the ship was incredible to watch and this was not all, as we also saw a pod of striped dolphins. Striped dolphins are usually a deep water species and so we were quite surprised to see a pod in coastal waters. These dolphins were obviously feeding and also tail slapping the surface of the water in a possible attempt to stun their prey.


Bottlenose dolphin- coastal ecotype


Acrobatic bottlenose dolphin!

On our return voyage we had an extremely quiet afternoon to start with and only saw distant and tantalising singular blows of a few individuals- one blow wonders! Our patience was rewarded at the end of the evening however with countless common dolphins as the week drew to a close. A beautiful end to another amazing week in the Bay of Biscay!


Possible hybrid- striped & common

Last week’s trivia question was: How long do fin whales live for?

The answer is: fin whales can live for up to 90 years of age!

This week’s trivia question and a question we were asked by a passenger is: How long do dolphins sleep for? (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 and train to become a Marine Mammal Surveyor to help us to collect our vital scientific data, then please visit our website for more information!

We hope you have enjoyed reading our weekly blog! Join us next week to hear from our new intern Lucy and to find out how she is getting on with becoming a Wildlife Officer!

See you next time for my final two weeks on board the Cap Finistere,

Tiffany & Lucy

Some of the bird life we have seen this week!

Some of the bird life we have seen this week!



  1. Complicated question! It used to be thought that cetaceans did not sleep,but it now seems that at least some cetaceans and seals do an interesting trick of allowing only one side of their brain to sleep at once, thereby keeping semi-alert for surfacing and protection. Most species, of course, have not been studied…….

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