Posted by: orcaweb | April 20, 2016

The Pont, pastels and the possibility of whales

Day 1 on board the Pont Aven,

Jon and Ewelina, my two fellow ORCA Wildlife Officers, came to greet me in the ORCA Office after their first week at sea. Ewelina disembarked for some well-earned rest, and Jon and I made our way back towards our ship, the Pont Aven. After a brief tour of the ship and introduction to the very friendly crew, we set out for my first deck watch. As we sailed out of Portsmouth heading for Santander, the sea conditions were perfect; there was no swell and the sea was like a millpond. The view was magnificent, different blues merging and twisting across the smooth water. We were blessed with a beautiful sunset, pastel colours hung in the sky and the coast of the Isle of Wight was like something from a fantasy story. We did not spot any cetaceans that first evening, but all was good.

Day 2

Jon and I arose eagerly at 6am to see the sunrise over the Bay of Biscay. The wind was strong but we wrapped up warm and got out on deck 10, the open top deck of the ship. We were joined by a few interested passengers but we did not see any cetaceans (whales, dolphins and porpoises), a few gannets glided past to keep our eyes excited. As we went to prepare for our presentation to the passengers, we were told that whale blows had been seen from the windows of the ship – good news!

Jon’s presentation was very confident, and I realised it would be a hard act to follow. There was a lot of interest and we had a good turnout with over 60 passengers, captivated by information about cetaceans we might see.

After the presentation we were keen to get back out in deck, continuing on to Santander. The wind was strong, but as we crossed the deep waters more and more people came up on deck to join us. With more than 30 people on deck, all eyes fixed on the sea, we were able to spot many whale blows. Two sperm whales lay logging in the distance and their angular blows allowed us to identify them. Within seconds another ‘blow’ was shouted, this one taller and further out. It was difficult to identify but definitely a large rorqual whale, and we were all extremely excited to see the presence of such magnificent creatures. Shortly afterwards another large whale gave us a wee display, breaching out of the water. We also saw a small pod of common dolphins before we reached the continental shelf at the Spanish end of the Bay of Biscay. The weather on arrival to the Santander coast was lovely, warm and lit by bright sunshine (we both got a little burnt). We were delighted to be able to share these amazing sights with the passengers and everyone had a good day.


Day 3

Back out on deck at 6am for the return to Plymouth. The weather was not in our favour and this was set for the day, with low stratocumulus clouds blocking out the sun’s rays. No sightings on the first deck watch of Thursday morning. But some of the passengers came to watch with us and we had some very interesting conversations with some wonderful people.

At 10 o’clock it was time for my first presentation, I found it extremely daunting to get up on stage and talk to such a large group of people, but with encouraging smiles from passengers I got through it without incident and afterwards two lovely people decided to join ORCA and support our work.

The second deck watch of the day was as quiet as the first. We began to wonder where those dolphins were hiding.

Day 4

A quiet day in Roscoff bay, where we were able to catch our breath and catch up with paperwork and survey record keeping.

Day 5

We sailed to Cork with our eyes fixed on the sea. Weather conditions were not the best, but we were able to spot one dolphin playing around in the bow wave of the ship. On the return trip we had lots of many excited passengers out on deck with us. For the first half of our deck watch we were able to observe many different species of birds: gannets and shearwaters hunted over the water and a razorbill flew along with us for a while, a lovely sight. Then a small pod of common dolphins was spotted by a little girl who was watching with us; she called out with joy to inform the rest of us out on deck.

Day 6

Another quiet day; where are those dolphins? We stood out on the starboard deck in a cold wind hoping every wave crest was a cetacean. When we returned inside to warm up and meet our new passengers, we were told by the ship’s Children’s Entertainer that the crew were watching dolphins perform on the port side of the boat through the restaurant window. Sigh!

We did also see some beautiful swallows crossing the Channel, returning to the UK at the end of their long journey after wintering in the tropics.

Day 7

It was Jon’s final journey of the week, and on our way to Santander we had an awesome day of fantastic sightings and wonderful sea conditions. In the early hours of the morning in the deep waters of the Bay of Biscay we spotted whales blowing out towards the horizon, they were very tall columns of blows so there were large rorqual whales out there. A little later a large rorqual leaped out of the water, into a full breach, creating a massive splash. And finally as we approached the coast of Spain we were greeted with four pods of common dolphins, coming right in to play in the bow waves.

Version 2

We welcome new passengers on board at Santander and I gave my second presentation of the week. This time I was feeling more confident and things went very smoothly – I was both happy and very relieved!

How quickly things change out at sea! When we departed from Santander two hours later the sea conditions had deteriorated. The water was covered with white caps and the swell had increased. But after an hour or so of concentration Jon shouted ‘whale’ and we saw a fabulous Cuvier’s beaked whale, only 100m or so from the ship. He was stunning and the first Cuvier’s beaked whale I had ever seen. We were able share this fascinating creature with some wonderful people on deck.

Version 2

A wee while later we saw common dolphins through the rough sea conditions; they left amazing dolphin-shaped splashes in the water that just expanded with the movement of the water, quite a wonderful illusion!

Day 8

Our return to Portsmouth. The English Channel was calm and the weather was balmy as we stood out on deck, discussing whales and dolphins with some of the people we had first met earlier in the week, and watching the seabirds skimming the water. It has been a strange week, with my first exciting sightings of whales in the Bay of Biscay, but low numbers of dolphins spotted in the coastal waters. Perhaps we will find those dolphins next week – I do hope so!

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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