Posted by: orcaweb | April 26, 2016

Job whale done!


Harriet said goodbye to Jon at the ORCA office and picked up Ewelina, who was fresh and excited to start her second week on the Pont-Aven. We set sail from Portsmouth two hours later than scheduled and the sun was already setting as we left the harbour. It was too dark to carry out a proper deck watch, so we simply enjoyed the beautiful sunset over the Isle of Wight.

Our first deck watch started at 6.30am the next day. The weather was wild, the sea was at ‘sea state 5’ (large white caps with vast amounts of spray) and the swell was high. Visibility was poor; we couldn’t see a thing. Waves crashing on the port side of the ferry covered us in salty spray on the starboard side. We lasted for only 45 minutes out on deck due to the brutal conditions. At the end we were soaking wet and hungry, but we still had hope for the afternoon watch.

And we were not disappointed! As soon as we arrived on deck for the afternoon watch we saw a few tall whale blows. The whales stayed with us for a while and we even managed to see their dark backs in the water. But that was just the beginning! We had some very keen and experienced whale watchers with us out on deck, and their eyes were glued to the sea.

Over the next four hours we spotted five pods of common dolphins, all heading towards the ship to play in the bow waves. Once we got closer to Santander, our amazing passengers spotted two Cuvier’s beaked whales, a male and a female, on the starboard side of the ferry. Only a couple of minutes later, they noticed some dark shapes on the other side of the boat. These shapes turned out to be Cuvier’s beaked whales as well, but this time a mother and calf. This is why we always encourage our passengers to join us!


Cuvier’s Beaked Whale, mother and a calf.

The next day, the sea was quiet and the weather was fine. In the morning we spotted one pod of 13 common dolphins. The beautiful mammals came right up to the ship’s bow, jumping gracefully through the waves. In the afternoon, all the ocean creatures seemed to disappear for a while, but we were patient. As we approached Plymouth, a thick fog clung to the coastline. We started to lose hope, but suddenly we spotted movement in the water. These were four common dolphins, but they looked quite unusual. They were very large for this species, probably almost 4m in length and quite stocky. This is strange for common dolphins, as they normally grow to a maximum of 2.5m in length.


Common Dolphin splashing through the surface.

After a break in Roscoff we set sail for Cork. During our afternoon watch, on the return leg of the journey, we were lucky enough to spot a pod of common dolphins. There were also many seabirds to keep us entertained during the quiet hours. Gannets soared across the ocean and we also saw some beautiful fulmars. There were also many razorbills, but on closer inspection of Ewelina’s fabulous photographs we noticed they were actually a mixed flock of razorbills and guillemots. This is quite exciting for us as we didn’t know it was possible to see mixed groups of auks.


A beautiful Common Dolphin.

On Sunday morning, we woke up to discover it was the Pastry Day (hurray!). We indulged in delicious croissants to prepare us for the deck watch. Unfortunately we did not see any cetaceans in the morning. Nevertheless, we were entertained by some amazing weather. We experienced all four seasons in one day. We sailed from bright sunshine into very thick low-lying clouds. Our vision was cloaked by fog, rain and wind. It is always magnificent to watch nature showing off its wild side.

Early morning deck watch the following day was very exciting, Ewelina and I had been looking forward all week to returning to the Bay of Biscay. It was sure to be an action packed day, full of cetacean sightings. The sea was marvellous. We couldn’t have asked for better conditions. Within minutes of being on deck we saw large rorquals’ blows on the horizon. Next to approach our ship was a pod of dolphins. We thought that it was a pod of common dolphins, but we later discovered, through photographs, that this was a mixed pod of striped and common dolphins. They are known to travel around the oceans together.


Striped Dolphins


As we got closer to Spain we saw some strange slow moving dark dolphins swimming past the ship. They turned out to be pilot whales. This was our first sighting of these large black dolphins. More and more sightings of common dolphins kept us and passengers enthralled, along with many sightings of large whales’ blows on the horizon. Alas, we were not able to identify all the cetaceans far out to sea. We could, however, record valuable data about their existence and location in the deep waters of the Bay of Biscay.


Whale blow sighted in the distance

On the return leg of our Santander trip some passengers we had met at the beginning of the week joined us on deck. It was wonderful to hear stories about their adventures. Again, we had multiple sightings of common dolphins and whale blows. Over the deep-sea canyons we saw male Cuvier’s beaked whales. These mysterious beasties were covered in scars. Male Cuvier’s are prone to scarring from fighting, the males have two teeth protruding from their lower jaws that they use to fight for territory or compete for females. They aim for each other’s  blowholes. The male that we saw had very deep scars.


Male Cuvier’s Beaked Whale covered in scars.

All in all, it was an amazing week on board Pont-Aven. Our favourite waters in the Bay of Biscay were full of marine life. Some of the sightings were very surprising, so we cannot wait to go back. As for this week – “job whale done!” 🙂

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 collect our vital scientific data, then please visit our website for more information!


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