Posted by: orcaweb | May 3, 2016

A week in the life of an ORCA Wildlife Officer!

Our blogs so far this season have been diaries of our cetacean sightings at sea, so this week we thought we’d do something a little different and try to give you a flavour of life as an ORCA Wildlife Officer aboard the Pont Aven.

The ship itself is a wonder, capable of carrying over 2,000 passengers and keeping them entertained with shops, bars and even a swimming pool. The crew is mostly French, and they place a high priority on maintaining a family atmosphere, so everyone goes out of their way to be friendly and helpful. We are officially part of the (mostly British) entertainment team, so we are in the company of musicians, magicians and children’s entertainers – very different from our usual world of marine biologists and conservationists. It is lovely to be surrounded by so much talent and creativity, though it can be strange to take to the stage immediately after a virtuoso guitar solo and open with ‘okay Ladies and Gentlemen, let us tell you how cool whales and dolphins are…’

Photo 1

The ship follows a weekly schedule between Portsmouth and Plymouth in the UK, Roscoff in northern France, Santander in Spain and Cork in Ireland. The middle of each weekly route is spent in the shallower waters of the continental shelf between the UK, France and Ireland, so here the emphasis is on spotting dolphins and possibly minke whales, though larger cetaceans have been known to venture into the shallow waters so we keep our eyes peeled.

But at the beginning and end of each week we sail down to Santander across the rich and varied waters of the Bay of Biscay. Here we cross the continental shelf break, where the sea floor drops dramatically from 200m to over 4,000m, and travel over the abyssal plain and eventually over the undersea mountains and canyons just north of the Spanish Coast. In Biscay we may see an enormous variety of marine mammals, from the mighty fin whales and even blue whales that roam the deep ocean waters to the sperm whales and beaked whales that love to dive deep for squid in the underwater canyons.

Photo 2

The ORCA team is busy for at least as long as the sun is up. On most days our deck watches start at sunrise, and if we are not presenting to the passengers on the wonders of whales and dolphins, or grabbing a quick bite to eat, then we are normally out on deck until the sun goes down. In the middle of a sunny day we may be surrounded by enthusiastic passengers, helping them to spot any cetaceans that are around and listening in return to their tales of adventure – so many of our fellow travellers lead interesting lives and have great stories to share. But in the early morning, or if the weather is less appealing, we may be alone with the sea and its wildlife. Initially the possibility of spotting larger animals is the main inspiration, but one soon learns to appreciate the sea for its own sake, and the company of a lone gannet or a group of shearwaters skimming the ocean can be as satisfying as the sighting of a whale.

This week started, as all weeks do, with a long daytime trip across the Bay of Biscay to Santander. Our early morning deck watch was quiet, but then my fellow Wildlife Officer Ewelina gave an excellent presentation to over 60 passengers, many of whom later joined us deck for some or all of the afternoon journey. As with all wildlife spotting, there were long quiet periods, but our cetacean sightings, when they came, were good. A fin whale surfaced close to the ship, so that we saw not just the blow but the whale itself – wonderful for us and for the many passengers who were with us. Later we spotted a group of three medium-sized whales that we struggled to identify with certainty; but photographs later confirmed them to be Cuvier’s beaked whales, those deep-divers of the ocean about whom so little is known. And as we approached the shallow waters of the Spanish coast we were met by three or four groups of common dolphins that came racing over to the ship faster than we could record them on our data sheets.

Photo 3

In recent weeks the northern coastal waters have been quiet; we suspect many of the dolphins are moving into Biscay as the weather warms up. Still, a bottlenose dolphin came to see us on our crossing to Cork, and later in the week we saw three pilot whales in the middle of the Channel; an unexpected reminder that it’s always worth being out on on deck, wherever we are.

On Monday we returned to Biscay and had a fabulous day! In the morning the sea was like a millpond, viewing conditions were perfect, and we were joined by Paul, one of our very experienced Marine Mammal Surveyors, so we had extra eyes. Barely 15 minutes passed between sightings – northern bottlenose whales, Cuvier’s beaked whales, bottlenose and common dolphins, and many fin whales.

Photo 4

At one point four fin whales were blowing at once, and another passed very close to the boat so everyone got a good look at the second-biggest animal on Earth. Over 100 passengers joined us on deck throughout the day, and many were thrilled by what was often their first sightings of whales and dolphins.

Photo 5

Tomorrow, after a brief return to Portsmouth, we return to Biscay, and we are very excited about what we might see now that the waters are warming up. We hope you’ll read our blog next week to find out how things go.

If you would like to make a donation to help fund the fantastic work that ORCA does, 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 the website for more information!

  • Jon & Ewelina
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