Posted by: orcaweb | April 13, 2016

ORCA back on the Pont Aven

It is the first week aboard the Pont-Aven for new Wildlife Officers Ewelina and Jon. Two weeks have passed since our ORCA training, and we are very excited to get on board and try out our newly-learned skills.

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On the first evening we explored the ship, trying to remember where everything is and who the key people are. The crew are mostly French, with a small team of British entertainers. Everyone is very friendly, and we are made very welcome.

Our first full day starts early with a deck watch at 6am. The sea is misty, but we see our first pod of common dolphins, including a mother and calf. Later Jon gives our first presentation on whales and dolphins to over 80 passengers.  A deck watch later in the day produces more dolphins, which are always lovely to see.

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Day 3 is ‘challenging’ – there is a big swell on the water and even the experienced crew are looking a little green. We start early and spend the morning with our eyes fixed on the horizon to avoid the worst of the seasickness; the sea is too rough to see much. Later in the morning we are in the bar preparing for our presentation, and we are explaining to passengers that the gannets they can see from the window are diving for fish, when a large pod of common dolphins comes racing over to say ‘hello’. It sets the stage perfectly for Ewelina’s presentation, which she bravely delivers from a rolling stage to a delicate-looking audience. The afternoon deck watch, sadly, delivers little but some badly-needed fresh air.

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Day 4 provides some welcome rest as the ship stays in Roscoff to change crews, and we are able to catch up with data updating and record keeping, and sleep! In the evening we set sail for Cork.

The next morning we are again up early for a deck watch into Cork. We are joined by a young French couple who are setting off for a holiday in Ireland, and who are amazed to hear that whales and dolphins might be seen even within sight of the Irish coast. The lady says she has never seen a dolphin, but has always dreamed of doing so. Not two minutes later a pod of common dolphins comes racing towards the boat; the joy on the young woman’s face is priceless.

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We raid Cork for ‘vital provisions’ (read ‘biscuits and chocolate’) before a quiet afternoon deck watch. Even in those times when no cetaceans (whales, dolphins and porpoises) are about, there is always something to see, in this case the spectacular clouds and a group of shearwaters that accompanies us. We watch them skim the water and practice distinguishing the different species.

We stay overnight in Roscoff and rise early for a deck watch to Plymouth. From inside the ship the weather looks ominous, but outside we find that the Arctic wind of the last few days has lessened and despite the significant swell, the ship is steady. We stand in relative comfort on the open deck and watch the angry sea. After leaving Plymouth Jon gives a presentation to the new passengers, with one hand firmly gripping the desk as the ship is still rolling. We try an evening deck watch, but the sea is covered in white caps and nothing can be seen.

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Day 7 starts early with a deck watch through the Bay of Biscay. A lightning storm off to starboard is spectacular, but the sea is too rough for easy spotting and the morning is frustrating – it is 48 hours since we last saw cetaceans. The only compensation is that the weather clears by the time we reach Spain, and Santander looks lovely in the sunlight. Ewelina presents to our new passengers and encourages them to join us on deck. For the first time in days the wind has dropped, the sea is calm and even the sun has come out. Soon we spot dark shapes in the water – three Cuvier’s beaked whales, the deepest divers in the ocean, pass close to the boat. Later on we are visited by both common and striped dolphins, and then we spot a large whale blow near the horizon. We suspect a fin whale from the size of the blow, though we can’t be sure, and we watch him come closer to the ship before moving away aft. Our last visit is from a group of (probable) bottlenose dolphins that are silhouetted in front of the sinking sun. A good day!

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Day 8, the last day of our first week at sea, is bright and sunny, and the sea in the Channel is calm as we make our way to Portsmouth. We are joined on deck by several passengers who share our passion for whales and dolphins; it is always encouraging to realise how many people care about these wonderful animals. But the shipping lanes are very busy and the cetaceans are elsewhere, so we spend the morning watching gannets diving for fish and skuas hunting over the water. We are tired after a long week, but very happy and looking forward to the next voyage.

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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!

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