Posted by: orcaweb | June 2, 2016

You can always count on the dolphins!

Wednesday 25th of May brought the start of a new week for the Wildlife Officers of the Cap Finistére. Ruth and I (Lucy) made our way back to the ship for a busy meet and greet with the new passengers boarding in Portsmouth. Many people were interested in hearing our sighting stories from the previous week and seemed particularly excited at the idea of seeing some beautiful cetaceans for themselves. I then gave a presentation to a full room that afternoon and we were joined by an eager crowd for an evening deck watch through the English Channel. Unfortunately this was a quiet evening for passengers and cetaceans alike as we went back to our cabins that evening without a single sighting to report.


A busy deck watch

We knew that Thursday would bring better luck. We awoke at 5am for a sunrise deck watch sailing over the abyssal plain and towards the deep sea canyons of the Spanish coastline. The abyssal plain reaches depths of over 4km and is often the home to some of the larger whale species. The deep sea canyons, known as the Torrelavega and the Santander Canyons are twice the depth of the Grand Canyon and full of squid which is the food of choice for many different whale and dolphin species.  However, Thursday was declared dolphin day. Our first deck watch gave us a total of 276 individual dolphins over 28 pods and included 18 calves alongside their mothers. The second deck watch of the day which took place in the afternoon brought 379 individual dolphins over 30 pods and included 8 calves. This brought the days total to an amazing 655 individuals, 58 pods and 26 calves! What a day! Both common and striped dolphins were seen and often they formed mixed pods. We had been surrounded for almost the entire day and it was spectacular.

CD sharp

A beautiful common dolphin

Friday morning after a night spent dreaming of dolphins in the waves we awoke to another deck watch in the Channel and just as with the last Channel watch we had no sightings to report. The Channel is often far quieter than the Bay of Biscay however there has been frequent sightings in the past of harbour porpoise and common dolphins here and even occasional sightings of pilot whales too, however this week they were spending their time predominantly within the Bay.


Two harbour porpoise seen only in the calmest of conditions

Saturday morning we could not believe our eyes, at first I thought perhaps my coffee had not got to work yet and I was still dreaming, but thankfully, I was not. The Bay of Biscay was a perfect mirror, crystal calm, the kind of conditions all whale and dolphin enthusiasts dream of! The moment we stepped out on the deck we had sightings, harbour porpoises in the shallow coastal waters of the northern most part of the bay. The most I have ever seen in one day, usually difficult to spot due to their small size, tiny dorsal fins and shy nature but today, we saw them all. Soon too came the dolphins, both common and striped and then, out of nowhere, an unusual looking fin broke the surface, a shark! A blue shark! Not a ferocious sight at all, gracefully gliding just beneath the water’s surface, and then we saw more! Eight individual sharks were spotted, three of which we confidently identified as blues, five of which we are still unsure of the exact species but were, without a doubt sharks. Again, a group of sightings we would have missed in any other sea state.

blue shark

A blue shark beneath the surface

It didn’t stop there either, as we progressed along our journey towards the Spanish coastline, we saw more small fins, too small for dolphins and belonging to too large an animal to possibly mean more sharks. Northern Bottlenose whales, two of them, were rolling across the surface, a great sight. You may remember that this is the same species that was found lost in the Thames River, over 10 years ago but much happier seen here in one of their natural environments of the Bay of Biscay. More beaked whales were also seen before arriving promptly into Santander that day.


Two northern bottlenose whales

Sunday morning had a lot to live up too after some great days previously spent out on deck. We took our usual scenic route around the Brittany coastline. Unfortunately there was a heavy fog for most of the morning and a varying sea state of 3-6 which meant a lot of white water and not great viewing conditions. This didn’t stop the dolphins of course and we were once again greeted by large pods of both common and striped species. We put on some kids arts and crafts activities following our deck watch and were joined by a lovely young girl named Chelsea who made a beautiful sea turtle from recycled materials whilst telling us all about her favourite animals on both land and in the oceans.

SD large group

A pod of acrobatic striped dolphins

After a well-deserved lie in on Monday morning we began with some more children’s arts and crafts where this time we were joined by two lovely brothers named Monty and Sidney. Both boys made some beautiful sea animals including a wonderful orca replica and the brightest seahorse I have ever seen. It is always so rewarding to engage with our younger passengers on the animals of the oceans and it always pleases me to see that they enthuse about them as much as we do. These two boys had even been lucky enough to see whale blows before on previous journeys across the Bay.

That evening’s deck watch was another trip around the Brittany coastline and with no fog we had hoped for some great cetacean spotting. The sea state wasn’t in our favour however, as it can often change rapidly around the islands as the topography of the ocean floor in this region varies widely. Despite a lack of cetaceans we did see a Euro Fighter Typhoon and a military ship crossing the waves which made for an interesting watch.

eurofighter typhoon

A Euro Fighter Typhoon

Tuesday quickly came back around and I once again found myself at the end of a two week stint on board. Ship life really is like nothing else and I can’t help but miss the gentle swell of the waves when I return home for a few days rest. We definitely wanted to get the most from the day. An early boarding in Bilbao meant greeting new passengers for the homeward sailing and we encouraged them to join us for my final presentation of the week. Each week we adapt our presentations to include some of our more recent sightings and stories and it was nice to recount our busiest days with an enthusiastic group. The deck watch that day began well, despite a high sea state 5 to 6 we were once again in the company of lots of acrobatic dolphins.

CDs plus melanistic

A pod of common dolphins including a melanistic type with a calf

We took a short break for some children’s activities and were joined by a Dutch family which gave Ruth a great chance to refresh her Dutch language skills, I did my best to keep up, having just about mastered the basics of French and Spanish during my time on board thus far. When we returned to the outside deck, the sea did not seem too welcoming. A sea state six and very strong blustery winds made seeing anything a particular challenge. Of course, our weekly wonders the dolphins did not let us down and could still be seen jumping high over the white crested waves. Four sunfish were also to join us appearing to float calmly past as if oblivious to the storm around them. After an ever increasing wind speed and a sea state eight we called it a day, we had been very lucky and were grateful of another fantastic week on board the Cap Finistere sailing across the Bay of Biscay, our home from home.


A sunfish waving us off, Au revior!

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  1. Hi Ruth and Yolanda Great fun on the trip down with you this week. Going through my photographs, I have a shot of a dolphin which appears to have two tails and a split dorsel fin. Very strange. When I am home in mid June will forward the picture to you. If I get a chance earlier, will send then, need to find a canon down load cable. Hope you had a successful return trip.


  2. We were there on the Saturday and my daughter was up on deck with you and sighted the Blue Shark. It was a magical ferry crossing seeing so many amazing sightings of whales and dolphins. Thanks for your great work! 🙂

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