Posted by: orcaweb | May 10, 2016

‘Interesting’ weather and interesting presentations!

Some weeks don’t turn out as expected! This is my (Harriet’s) third week aboard the Pont-Aven, the wonderful Brittany Ferries’ flagship, and I am enjoying every single moment. As an avid cloud watcher I especially look forward to sunrise and sunset, with the wonderful clouds and the optical illusions that the sunlight can create as it shines through them. And the first part of this week was definitely dominated by the weather. After Ewelina’s and Jon’s wonderful day in the Bay of Biscay on Monday I was very keen to return to those rich waters, but Wednesday’s journey to Santander was beset by high winds – the sea was covered in white caps and spotting cetaceans (whales, dolphins and porpoises) was very hard work. Any further than halfway to the horizon, there might have been fin whales dancing and we would have struggled to see them. But with persistence, by the end of the day we had spotted common dolphins, fin whales, Cuvier’s beaked whales and even sperm whales.

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Common dolphins playing in the high seas

Later in the week we crossed to Ireland and again the clouds were back, this time low and grey, covering the whole sea and clouding our binoculars with gentle but persistent rain. On our return trip, the low clouds had settled into thick fog that gave our journey an otherworldly aspect, as beautiful gannets swept out of the fog to fly alongside us for a while before disappearing back into the mist. It was at this point we learned that the ship had developed a technical fault and we limped into the port at Brest for repairs, sad that our second opportunity this week to visit Biscay was lost.

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Fog on the Irish Sea

But while opportunities for cetacean spotting have been rather limited, a real highlight of the week has been the presentations we have been able to give to our passengers. I love being able to share my passion about cetaceans with so many different people who travel with us on the ship.

We give our presentations on stage in the ship’s main bar, and they are our chance to share interesting information about the marine environment and to introduce some of the animals we may encounter. I most enjoy talking about the different beautiful cetaceans that we are likely to see, and also telling passengers about the risks that threaten these animals and how we can work together to protect them. I am passionate about protecting these vulnerable species from harm and ensuring their survival, so that future generations can enjoy our incredible whales, dolphins and porpoises as much as we do today.

I find it fascinating that these marine mammals are all fundamentally similar. They have evolved from land mammals, but have returned to the sea where they are perfectly adapted to the marine environment. They are all incredibly streamlined to conserve energy, they have dorsal fins to make them more stable in the water and powerful tails to propel them through the ocean. However, with all these similarities these animals are incredibly different. They vary in size, shape and colour and in their behaviour, both in and out of the water – from the acrobatic dolphins that come racing over to play with our ship, to the sleek and mighty rorqual whales that hunt in the deep oceans and the sperm whales and beaked whales that dive deep into underwater canyons to hunt for squid.

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A lonely gannet soars in the sun’s rays

My favourite of these glorious cetaceans is the sperm whale and I long to see a tale fluke breaking the surface before a dive, or perhaps a whale spy-hopping – popping his head out the water for a wee look around. Some of the amazing facts about the sperm whale that I like to share with passengers are that they are the largest of the toothed cetaceans, with teeth the same weight and size as house bricks. Their head is one-third the size of their body, due to their massive echo-locating organ, the ‘melon’, that helps them find their way around and hunt prey in the dark deep waters. The sperm whale’s melon contains spermaceti oil, which is why they were hunted back in ‘ye olde whaling days’, this oil was extremely valuable for use in street lights and candles. It is thought that there were originally more than 1.1 million sperm whales cruising around the ocean, but numbers have declined to around 360,000. Sperm whales have beautiful wrinkly skin that we can use to distinguish them from other whales, and their single blowhole is located on the left side of their heads, so that their blow is projected at a 45-degree angle, which helps us to spot these marvelous animals at sea. Sperm whales exhibit sexual dimorphism; the males are three times bigger than the females and travel far and wide, whereas females tend to stay in the warm tropics and take turns to babysit while other females dive for squid, their favourite tasty meal.

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The sun’s halo through high clouds over Biscay

Commercial whaling used to be the biggest threat to our amazing cetaceans, but this is now far less of an issue. However, in our rapidly changing world we are seeing new risks emerging to their continued survival. Pollution is a massive problem in our oceans, and during our ORCA presentations we aim to raise awareness of this threat. Pollution comes in three main forms, plastics, noise and chemicals.

We have been losing cetaceans and seabirds at an alarming rate due to plastic pollution. Many whales, including the sperm whales washed up on beaches around the North Sea in January 2016, are found to contain huge volumes of plastics in their stomachs. Vast amounts of single-use plastics are deposited daily in the oceans, including bottles, carrier bags, sweet and crisp wrappers, cups and even car parts. These end up sitting in the stomachs of cetaceans once they are accidentally ingested and sadly they can pass away from malnutrition and dehydration.

Noise pollution is another big problem for marine mammals. Sound is a primary sense for many of these animals, using it for communication, navigation and hunting. Noise from leisure craft, offshore construction and shipping can disorientate cetaceans and interfere with their communication.

A third problem for whales, dolphins and porpoises is chemical pollution. Chemicals that enter the food chain can end up accumulating in cetacean’s bodies and the toxic effects can be extremely detrimental to their health. Some cetaceans washed up on beaches are now classified as toxic waste and need to be handled with special equipment.

Whilst the problems facing our beautiful cetaceans are extremely daunting, we are encouraged not only by the many organisations like ORCA that are working hard to raise awareness of these issues, but also by the interest shown by so many members of the public. During our presentations so many people show concern about the plight of our whales and dolphins, and many people come up and ask us questions when we are out on deck, especially about how they can reduce their use of plastics. With so many people working hard to protect these magnificent creatures, there is hope that they may be patrolling our seas for many centuries to come.

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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