Posted by: orcaweb | April 20, 2016

Feeding Frenzies and breaching boom!

13th – 19th April 2016

Welcome aboard Brittany Ferries’ Cap Finistere for the fourth week of the Wildlife Officer season. What a week it has been!

Lucy and I (Ruth), started the week with promise as our first deck watch in the English Channel brought a pod of large black dolphins – the behaviour, size and shape analogous to pilot whales! This is an unusual sighting for this area, yet we were both glad to have seen our favourite species so unexpectedly.

Thursday morning however brought high winds and a less than ideal sea state. This left us apprehensive about sightings. A large splash towards the horizon however surprised all of us on deck, as a beaked whale breached its entire body out of the water like a rocket. Twice we saw this, displaying its long 6-10 metre body with a well-rounded head. This was most likely a northern bottlenose whale, due to seeing a bulbous forehead as part of its silhouette. A few common dolphin pods then completed the deck watch, poking through the abundant white water.

Later that afternoon, not long after arriving up on deck 10, we saw a pod of unidentified dolphins breaching far away, causing quite a lot of splashing. Calmer seas later brought more sightings of dolphins, giving us a lovely close encounter of some common dolphins as they swam under the ship.

surfacing CD - Ruth Coxon Biscay WO April 2016 PQ  (2)

Common dolphin swimming alongside the ship

As we traversed the deep-sea canyons, all on deck were enthralled to see a pod of Cuvier’s beaked whales. As clouds began to spit rain at us, many contented passengers having seen both dolphins and whales, took refuge inside. Still determined, Lucy and I eagerly looked on with the sea still very flat. After briefly being alone on deck, an officer burst out of the Bridge to alert us to something big in front of the ship. Instantly excited, we attempted to look for it through the bridge windows. With our attentions diverted ahead, a large animal suddenly leaped clear of the water, only 120 metres away, launching its long grey body out to the side of the bridge, flinging itself onto the starboard side! A breaching whale!! Electrified sounds escaped our mouths as the enormous splash lingered almost as if in slow motion. Camera ready, hoping for another breach, the animal surfaced normally further away. Rising up and sinking down, twice we could see its tall hooked dorsal fin being the last thing to remain above the surface. The size, shape and swimming behaviour suggested that this was likely to have been a Sei whale – a very difficult animal to catch on camera.

sei whale fin

The sinking back and dorsal fin of a surfacing sei whale

Ecstatic after having seen this rare behaviour, more sightings of common dolphins kept our mood high throughout the deck watch. It was not long though until another unusual sighting appeared. We observed a slow moving triangle with a smaller thinner caudal fin following closely behind – a basking shark slinking through the water!

basking shark fin - Ruth Coxon Biscay WO April 2016 (1)

Basking shark

As if things could get more exciting, a fin whale appeared! The tall columnar blow was followed by views of its long dark back before the recognisable slanted dorsal fin. Just after we input the sighting, there were two more blows in sight; one of these being much more prominent than the other. The latter was about half the size – likely to be a mother and calf fin whale! What luck!

fin whale - Ruth Coxon Biscay WO APril 2016

Fin whale at the end of its surface sequence

As the sun was setting, Lucy and I were reflecting on the days wonderful sightings. Just as the orange glow spread across the surface symbolising the setting of the sun, a tight pod of striped dolphins transpired into view. Soon after, they broke away from their formation to play in the wake, breaching, twisting and turning in true striped dolphin style. We had one final common dolphin sighting as the last of the light disappeared, including a calf in tow. What a fantastic day – six species of cetacean and a basking shark!

CD mother and calf - lucy Mcleod Biscay WO April 2016

Common dolphin and calf

Friday was less eventful with a less than ideal sea state as we moved through the channel. Despite our lack of sightings that day, the whale and dolphin themed ‘Pub Quiz’ went down very well with seven teams taking part.

The sea changed once again on Saturday, leaving no white water – great spotting conditions! It was a slow start however with a couple of dolphin sightings in the distance, some displaying feeding behaviour. Just before going in for the presentation though, a fin whale blow dissipated towards the horizon – tall and columnar. We saw the animal surface a few times with a mighty blow and occasionally saw its dark grey back and distinct dorsal fin.

fin whale back and dorsal - Ruth Coxon Biscay WO April 2016

Fin whale

With more people joining us on deck and more dolphin sightings, we realised we were crossing over the continental shelf and likely to have more sightings due to nutrient rich upwellings enticing animals here . Consequentially, the presentation was pushed back a couple of hours to allow more people to experience these animals and allow us to record them. We were incredibly pleased with our decision as we encountered seven more dolphin pods, mostly common dolphins and a pod of striped dolphins underwater, incredibly close to the ship.

SD underwater 2

Striped dolphins under the waters surface

The best was to come though as another fin whale appeared and also a very different looking blow, very low and bushy – iconic of a sperm whale! What a morning! With excitement filling the air, a unusual sighting tricked all on deck – was it a sperm whale logging or a basking shark? As it neared it became clear that it was simply a large floating log! Later on, the delayed presentation went down a storm with many interested passengers having seen cetaceans during the morning. Later, back up on deck, we witnessed more common dolphins and as we approached the canyons, everyone on deck saw the silhouette of a beaked whale, a truly fantastic day.

Beaked whale -  Ruth Coxon Biscay WO April 2016

Unidentified beaked whale

Moving into shallower waters on Sunday around the Brittany coastline we saw some dolphin activity in the distance – a pod of dolphins feeding and fast swimming in a line. Their shape was more stocky and larger than common dolphins, and the vague grey colouration suggested these were bottlenose dolphins.

Monday morning was much the same as we stuck to the French coast after stopping off at Roscoff. The lovely sunny weather and flat seas were a delight with a flock of circling and diving gannets altering us to a pod of feeding dolphins. A quiet calm lingered around the islands with a mirror calm sea making the rocks in the distance look like they were floating. Despite the lack of cetaceans, many different sea birds were seen from shearwaters, guillemots swimming on the surface, including one that was startled by the ship and flew away frantically. It was not until we had rounded Brittany to arrive into the Northern Bay of Biscay and picked up speed, that a pod of common dolphins appeared beside the ship. Within seconds of this, a minke whale appeared out to sea, surfacing very discretely before sinking below.

guillemot escaping ship - Ruth Coxon Brittany Coastline WO April 2016

Guillemot racing away from the ship in mirror calm conditions

manx shearwater 3

Manx shearwater seen around the Brittany coastline

Unfortunately, Tuesday’s sea was the polar opposite – displaying much white water, the sea heaping up in large foamy streaks and making the conditions impossible to survey. Due to deck closure, we remained behind the large glass windows in case anything became obvious amongst the rough sea. Whilst talking to a passenger about the unfavourable conditions, we saw a pod of three common dolphins race towards the ship. A fleeting sighting, but a sighting all the same leaving the woman very content at having been there at the right moment.

Thank you for checking in on this week’s sightings, it seems that the increase in nutrients as a consequence of the spring phytoplankton bloom has done wonders in increasing our cetacean sightings. Fingers crossed that this continues next week.

Gannet - Lucy McLeod Biscay WO April 2016

Gannet flying alongside Deck 10

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!

Au reviour!






  1. Nice bit of writing. Very exciting to read!

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