Posted by: orcaweb | June 12, 2016

Brilliant Bottlenose, Breaching sunfish and abundant Beaked whales!

Week 1st – 8th June

Welcome aboard the Cap Finistere’s weekly blog for updates of what our Wildlife Officers have seen en route over the English Channel and Bay of Biscay. This week myself (and Yolanda), were very fortunate to witness extremely calm conditions all week which allowed for some fantastic sightings!

Our first deck watch in the English Channel brought us a variety of seabirds such as Manx shearwaters, kittiwakes, herring gulls, great skuas and as always, the gannet.  This also included fulmars, which are a particularly pleasant sight as they glide along like mini albatrosses.

fulmar 1

Fulmar flying alongside the ship

Thursday though brought butterflies to my stomach, as it was not only a Biscay day, but also my birthday! Dare I say it, turning a quarter of a century old! Feeling optimistic, Yolanda and I set our alarms early and aimed to see the sunrise at 5:20 am. However, a cloudy start meant this was not possible, but an extremely flat sea welcomed us out on deck all the same. All before 6 am, we saw four pods of dolphins, what a great start to my birthday! Many passengers joined us on deck throughout the morning; some with keen bird-watching eyes, helping to spot things – especially at times where dolphins seemed to surround us! Special thanks are in order for Martin, who put in many hours on deck with us and with it helped us spot 415 dolphins that morning. Most of these were common dolphins with a few pods of striped dolphins thrown into the mix. One pod even appeared after having swum from under the ship, then to leap out all in unison to reveal those gorgeous striped markings.

juvenille CD surfacing

Common dolphin

The afternoon deck watch was filled with much the same excitement after Yolanda updated passengers with our recent sightings. All eager to see more marine life, we darted up on deck following the presentation. Suspense lingered, as it took a while for anything to show. A fish literally cut through the suspense as it sliced through the water’s surface to breach. A small sunfish would you believe it – how unusual!

sunfish breaching 1

Sunfish breaching

Later on, with sun reflecting on their backs, a group of beaked whales were spotted in the distance, backs rolling through the water. A series of common dolphins then followed, as did a few acrobatic striped dolphins, putting on quite a display whilst showing off their stripes once again. Whilst many passengers were eager to see more, another pod of beaked whales swam in a line a few hundred metres away, displaying their pale white heads, strongly contrasted against their brown bodies – Cuviers beaked whales! None of these had any evident scarring so we believed these to be females, and perhaps juveniles.

Female cuviers

Female Cuvier’s beaked whale

More pods of dolphins followed in a joyous procession over the evening with another lone beaked whale gingerly peeping above and rolling through the surface. While the sightings became sparser, as did attendance numbers as people went below to warm up and refuel. However, Mary and her mother were determined to stay and make up for having missed the previous whales. Patience surely paid off as an incredibly old Cuvier’s beaked whale sluggishly surfaced only 20 metres away from the ship, casually sinking into a deep dive. Now, this individual was white all over, except for a brown patch on its tail stock (between its dorsal fin and tail), and a grey tail fluke. We were able to watch in awe as this large white animal sunk below the surface as if it hadn’t been there at all. As we retired to our own cabins, we had witnessed over 500 dolphins and 9 beaked whales today. A great turnout for my birthday indeed!

underwater white male 0

Very old male Cuvier’s beaked whale

Despite a quiet deck watch in the Channel on Friday, Saturday morning brought with it more flat calm conditions starting the day with promise. As soon as I arrived on deck just before 6 am, a member of the bridge welcomed me onto the bridge to discuss the dolphin he had just seen – an uncommon Risso’s dolphin! What a treat.  The early morning started with a few harbour porpoises poking their heads out the water and giving us a quick glimpse of their bodies.  The next sighting though were an absolute delight! A very close pod of bottlenose dolphins, stirring up at the bow. These were clearly quite large animals compared to the very common, common dolphins. Therefore they were likely to be the pelagic ecotype of bottlenose dolphin, which can reach an amazing 4 metres in length.

With common dolphins appearing throughout the morning, passengers who joined us were particularly delighted to see them racing towards the ship, producing the ‘ooh’s’ and ‘aahs’ like that of a firework display, in sync with their mighty leaps, contributing to a very pleasant and rewarding atmosphere overall.

CD surfacing next to ship

Common dolphin attracted to the ship

Approaching the canyons, all eyes eagerly looked out to spot a whale. Before arriving into Santander as hoped, two separate beaked whales were seen – one was probably a Cuvier’s beaked whale, as we could clearly see its brown colouration as it submerged under water for a deep dive – less than 100 metres from the ship! After an ice cream in Santander, meet and greet occurred in the Planets Bar where we met new passengers including many children returning from their holidays, now being the end of half term. Since the longer daylight hours allow for a later sunset, we decided to go up on deck after leaving Spain to rejoice in the flat seas once more. Low and behold, whilst talking to a few people I had met on their way to Spain, we witnessed a mixed pod of common and striped dolphins, just as the sun was setting.

CDs leaping sunset

Common dolphins at sunset

As Sunday arrived, I could not believe that the flat seas were still yet continuing. We were joined bright and early by a number of children and adults for the morning deck watch, and I have to say, around the Brittany Coastline, I wasn’t expecting to see much more than a few varieties of bird. I was pleasantly surprised to see a small shark, a couple of sunfish (one that was yet again breaching itself out of the water), and most amazing of all – four minke whales! These were all separate sightings, as minke whales (or stinky minke’s as fishermen have named them), are normally solitary animals. Four in one day is actually a personal record!

The children’s presentation and activities proved very popular on Sunday and I have to thank Bonnie and Maggie in particular who dedicated hours of their time to ORCA activities. They even became my assistants during the talk, giving out stickers when a correct answer was given, whilst offering facts to the rest of the audience from what they had learnt earlier on deck.

Once the buzz of children had died down by Monday, a thick fog unfortunately masked the beautiful calm conditions. It took hours to lift and even then not completely. A few dolphins appeared in the distance, but it was not until after a spell of rain around Brittany that we had the best sighting of the day, a pod of bottlenose dolphins coming to play. They breached and leapt out the water, almost appearing to smile for the camera. These were incredibly large bottlenose dolphins too, very well fed and definitely up to the 4 metre mark!

posing BD breaching

Bottlenose dolphin breaching

The rest of the afternoon fell quiet, but we decided to venture up after dinner for the sunset as we approached the continental shelf. This determination was not in vain, as we encountered two dolphin pods, one of common and striped dolphins and my personal favourites, pilot whales! These were made even more special the fact that it was a mother and her calf. The final pod of the day with a mix of common and striped even had calves too, and one of these was teeny tiny, seen leaping clear out the water!

After an already fantastic week, Tuesday became the grand finale with flat conditions once again and four dolphin species making an appearance over the course of the day after leaving Spain. As usual, common dolphins came and went in waves, as did a few acrobatic striped dolphins. During the middle of the day a thick fog closed in on us so that we could only see about 20 metres. This did not deter us from staying put and seeing yet more dolphins. By late afternoon, the fog had cleared and with the continental shelf nearing, sightings picked up. Within minutes of seeing common dolphins, we witnessed a couple of pilot whales swimming closely with a pod of bottlenose dolphins. Then, as if that association of species was not odd enough, we saw a mixed pod of common and striped dolphins with some striped really throwing themselves out of the water and also a lone bottlenose dolphin. After a couple more pilot whales and a medium-sized (possibly beaked) whale, the sea had turned into an infinity of cloud reflections. Despite a lack of sightings in the now shallow waters, the mirror conditions were a mesmerising way to end the week.

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!


sunset (1)



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