Posted by: orcaweb | April 13, 2016

Wildlife – Weather Permitting

Happy to be getting back on board myself (Lucy) and Yolanda got ready for what would turn out to be a week of both ups and downs for our cetacean spotting journey. After a busy departure greeting guests from Portsmouth on their way to Bilbao we gave a presentation to an attentive group of passengers and hoped to see some of the amazing species we so lovingly study. We were not in for much luck however. Kitted up and eager to start we were faced almost immediately with a sea state eight and an extremely heavy swell. This meant that we would not be able to go on effort straight away as for accurate sightings data we require a sea state of six or below. We remained on deck however and with the loyal support of the passengers that attended our presentation we faced masses of spray and no sightings. A beautiful rainbow was the only thing we had to talk about that evening on retreating back to our cabins for a well-deserved hot chocolate.


A beautiful rainbow brightens our day

Determined to get some sightings in we headed back out on deck at sunrise the following morning refreshed and revitalised. We were not left disappointed. A pilot whale, my favourite cetacean species made an appearance close enough for us to see its majestic rolling motion over the waves and even better, I was able to catch a picture of the female as she went about her day. As we sailed closer and closer towards Bilbao we were greeted by a mixed pod of common and striped dolphins, over 17 individuals all leaping towards the ship with many lucky passengers catching sight of them too. As land came into sight more dolphins could be seen in the distance playing in the waves.


A female Pilot whale rolling through the waves

After saying farewell to our enthusiastic whale watching companions we were soon ready again to make the journey back to Portsmouth with another hopeful deck watch. Unfortunately bad weather reared its ugly head once more. A sea state four and the heaviest swell we had felt since storm Katie matched with lots of spray, rain and strong winds meant actually seeing anything was near impossible. We went to bed that night grateful for the mornings luck. When we awoke we were in the English Channel and despite there being a lack of cetaceans here (usually we would expect to see dolphins in the Channel) we did have some lovely bird sightings including a great skua, some gannets and a flock of greater black backed gulls.


A flock of Black Backed Gulls

We then spent some time with a large number of the children on board making paper plate crafts on the theme of the marine environment. They all did so well at understanding what we were teaching them and everyone had a lot of fun. That morning we had a deck watch dominated by common dolphins. The weather was still really bad however and we put all our hopes on a sunny arrival into Santander. We decided on some more children’s activities as nothing lifts the spirits quite like a happy child about to start their holidays. We spent some time with two very lovely children, measuring out the different whale and dolphin species along the deck, followed by some games and trivia and colouring in, they were extremely bright and we really enjoyed sharing our stories of whales with them. As we approached Santander we saw more dolphins leaping out of the water with calves in tow. This happy image did not reflect the weather, there was rain in Spain that day and feeling cold and weather beaten we decided to stay on ship and prepare for the next sailing.


Common Dolphins approach

The following day we were somewhat disheartened to be greeted by a thick fog, preventing us from seeing any cetaceans. We did however have a ship full of excitable children returning home from their Easter holidays. We ran our children’s presentation to a busy planets bar on board and as usual I was left highly impressed at the amount of knowledge these children already had about marine wildlife. With the mood still high we followed the presentation with some more arts and crafts activities which went down a storm and ended the day with a fun family quiz which was won by the aptly named ‘Golden Orcas’ with an impressive score of 11 out of 15.


A fog looms over the waves

With the Easter holidays now over the ship saw less children boarding and we returned to our usual schedule. Our presentation that day received a warm welcome and kind donations from the passengers which are always so greatly appreciated and vital to the work that we conduct on board Brittany Ferries. We went into the evening ever positive for our five hour deck watch over the northern shelf and shallow waters. A sea state 2 to 3 awaited us and we watched and we waited however no cetaceans made themselves known. Only gannets kept us company that evening.


A Gannet soars over the sea

As the end of the week snuck up on us we were starting to see familiar faces, not only from the previous weeks but also from my training period on board last year. It was really nice to be met with smiles and congratulations on my new role as Wildlife Officer. After a fact filled presentation we got ourselves back out on deck with every intention of making up for yesterday’s lack of sightings and what a deck watch it was! Within seconds of being out on deck we were met with a Cuvier’s beaked whale right next to the ship, I had never seen one this close before and was blown away by its gracefulness! The day then progressed with several pods of common dolphins and one mixed with striped. We soon also saw lots of splashes appearing somewhat erratic and realised we were witnessing tuna leaping out of the water in great numbers. A feeding frenzy was commencing. Much smaller fish were seen leaping out the water attempting to escape approaching dolphins and then as if things couldn’t get any more exciting, a blow! A minke whale! We were both over the moon at this point as this was a first for both of us and another species ticked off the list. We left the deck that night with big smiles on our faces.


Sunlight breaking through the clouds over the Bay of Biscay

So we leave this week having almost lost hope for cetacean sightings on an all-time high and more motivated and enthused than ever before!

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!

Thanks for stopping by,




  1. I think your black-backed gulls are probably migrating Lessers going north, but not sure from the pic.

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