Posted by: orcaweb | May 18, 2016

Brilliant bottlenose, a breaching minke whale and fluking sperm whales!

Week: 14th – 18th May

Hello again, and welcome back after a two week break from Wildlife Officers on board the Cap Finistère. The ship having been in for a re-fit over the past two weeks , meant that we were eager to get back on board and see what marine life might be out in the Bay of Biscay.

After getting back on board on Friday (13th), our first deck watch commenced on the Saturday with a hazy mist surrounding us, meaning low visibility. Our first sighting despite this, were a pod of bottlenose dolphins leaping out the water just before 8 am. Some were leaping clear out of the water in synchrony, displaying their large, robust, grey bodies meaning that they resembled the larger ecotype of bottlenose dolphins that inhabit deeper pelagic waters.

BD; breaching; Biscay; WO; Cap finistere; May; 2016; Ruth Coxon (16)

Bottlenose dolphins breaching

Within the next hour, a couple of squashed black dorsal fins skimmed through the water. These wide-based fins were the tell-tale sign of pilot whales – my favourite cetacean! With their rounded heads, they pushed on through the water for us all to see.

LS; pilot; biscay; wo; cap; May; 2016; Ruth Coxon 2

Pilot whale

Later, quiet overcame the bay while crossing the continental shelf edge, which would normally be a good location for sightings. We were then wondering where the common dolphins were – normally being most common! For another hour or so, we were pondering this, until two pods of common and striped dolphins appeared in mixed pods. After slowing down to about 15 knots, one group played around the ship weaving in and out the waves and venturing back and forth underneath the ship. The second group were playful in another sense, breaching clear out of the water in a twist and turn fashion, displaying their pale bellies. Even the common dolphins of this pod put on a show – almost copying the striped dolphins’ behaviour!

CD; breaching; twisting; biscay; WO; Cap finistere; May; 2016; Ruth Coxon 3

Common dolphin breaching and twisting

The afternoon deck watch brought hopeful people to the top deck following the presentation. It was a slow start but then a pod of common dolphins appeared as they were attracted to the ship, giving everyone a lovely close up view as they rushed to the railings to see them.

2; CD; breaching; biscay; WO; Cap finistere; May; 2016; Ruth Coxon - excellent close up 2

Common dolphins attracted to the ship

About 10 miles before arriving into Santander, I noticed two angled blows ahead and pointed these out immediately. No later after voicing their presence did I lift my binoculars to my eyes to identify the whales. As suspected with the low and bushy blow they were sperm whales – two of them! I watched, as both one by one, they arched their knobbly backs high out of the water, displaying their hump-like dorsal fins. The last one to finish its dive sequence did so with an almighty fluke as it brought its large triangular tail fluke high out of the water and it hung momentarily suspended in the air before submerging below – my very first fluking sperm whale! I was ecstatic, as were the many passengers who were lucky enough to witness this exciting sight!

Sunday’s deck watches were a little less exciting since we were in the coastal waters around the Brittany Coastline; however we still managed to spot three pods of common dolphins clear to see amongst the flat, calm seas. An additional pod were even spotted from our cabin window later in the afternoon during part of the Channel crossing!

CD; mother; calf; surfacing; biscay; WO; Cap finistere; May; 2016; Ruth Coxon

Common dolphin mother and calf

Birds also kept us company as throughout the morning, we spied hundreds of Manx shearwaters, many guillemots that dived below due to the approaching ship, fulmars, kittiwakes, even a pair of collared doves and later on in the week, a turtle dove that we believed to be taking refuge on the ship.

turtle dove; cap; biscay; may; 2016; Ruth Coxon

Turtle dove

Monday afternoon’s deck watch brought even more ideal spotting conditions around the northwest tip of France. Within fifteen minutes of arriving on deck, we spotted a figure breaching out of the water creating quite a splash and quite a stir amongst the passengers joining us on deck. The animal launched its entire body out of the water again and again to reveal that it was definitely not a dolphin!! It had a very pointed head (or rostrum), giving this species its nickname as the ‘pike-headed whale’, and white armbands on its pectoral fins! Have you guessed it? A minke whale! It proceeded to breach – at least twenty times, sometimes on its side, other times slapping down on its back and other times doing an almighty belly flop! It certainly put on quite a show for all of us! Especially Yolanda, who among others had this minke as their first breaching whale!

MW; breaching; Brittany; coast; Cap; WO; May; 2016; Ruth Coxon 2

Breaching minke whale

MW; breaching; Brittany; coast; Cap; WO; May; 2016; Ruth Coxon 5

Breaching minke whale

After the incredible excitement of the breaching whale, the bustle died down and so did the sightings. Over the next few hours, other than fulmars, gannets and a couple of stray pigeons, all that were spotted were a couple of lonely sunfish. These were seen about an hour apart bobbing at the surface, before passing the ship.

sunfish; Biscay; May; 2016; Cap; Ruth Coxon 13

Oceanic sunfish

Tuesday 17th May however, turned out to be the most productive day in terms of sightings so far throughout the season! We were very hopeful at the start of the day once leaving Bilbao due to a magnificent sea state 1, with only ripples over the water. Following the presentation, we rushed up on deck after waffling down our lunch to make the most of these ideal conditions. The first sightings of the day were a pod of Cuvier’s beaked whales followed by a number of common dolphin pods including one individual that was a hybrid, lacking the yellow part of a common dolphins colouration.

CB; head; surfacing; Biscay; Cap; May; 2016; Ruth Coxon

Cuvier’s beaked whale

1; hybrid; CD; Biscay; Cap; may; 2016; Ruth Coxon

A hybrid common dolphin – notice the lack of yellow

The more distance covered the better the conditions got and we were soon experiencing whale watching heaven with mirror calm conditions! This was so flat, that the sea seemed to blend in with the sky due to the reflections of the clouds. Rejoicing in the mirror calm, a long dark shape emerged at the surface – a sperm whale! The dorsal hump was clear to see as this animal rested at the surface along the whole journey past the ship for many passengers to see. Further past the stern the animal fluked as it went down for a deep dive, I certainly felt spoilt having seen this twice in a matter of days. During sperm whale’s passage, along the starboard side of the ship, a large triangular dorsal fin poked gingerly above the surface – likely to be a bashing shark!

SP; biscay; may; 2016; cap; logging; Ruth Coxon 3

A logging sperm whale

basking shark; BS; Biscay; May; 2016; cap; Ruth Coxon

Basking shark fin

It had already been a fantastic start to the deck watch with a number of squid-feeding animals showing up above the deep-sea canyons that we were going over. However, it wasn’t long before another squid feeding animal arrived! A pod of long-finned pilot whales! The first individual that we saw had a very broad, hooked dorsal fin meaning that it was likely a very mature male. The others were females and a calf but soon after, even more pilot whale pods appeared – totally three in all!

Now, in all honesty, the rest of the afternoon was a complete blur, as we seemed inundated with dolphin sightings! They seemed to come in at all angles, some feeding, some swimming along and others attracted in to the ship. In total during this particular Tuesday, we observed 385 dolphins amongst 32 pods. Most of these were common dolphins including a few pods of 35 individuals or higher, but also a couple were bottlenose dolphins and the odd striped dolphin too. What an exceptional day and certainly the highest number of sightings in one day so far this season!

3; CD; breaching; reflections; biscay; WO; Cap finistere; May; 2016; Ruth Coxon - good

Common dolphins

BD; calf; AT; Biscay; WO; Cap finistere; May; 2016; Ruth Coxon; close up

Bottlenose dolphin mother and calf

The day was not over though, as we neared the continental shelf edge, we spied a few medium sized whales and then more minutes later, totalling eight altogether! These were beaked whales, but at some distance, we were unsure of their identity. One however came much closer in than the rest and seemed to have a very rounded forehead, meaning it could have been a northern bottlenose whale. Once these elusive whales had passed, the excitement died down as did the sightings as we left the shelf edge behind.

UB; Beaked; Biscay; Cap; May; 2016; Ruth Coxon

Unidentified beaked whale

Our final sighting of the day took place in the shallow waters and was a lone harbour porpoise, seeming to swim shyly away from the ship.

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 revoir!



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