Posted by: orcaweb | June 15, 2016

Our new ORCA ‘fog log’

As you probably know, every week the ORCA Wildlife Officers aboard Brittany Ferries excellent ships write a ‘blog’ to record their experiences with some of the world’s most wonderful marine animals. As you probably also know, the word ‘blog’ is a contraction of ‘web log’. This week I shall not be writing a blog; instead I shall be writing a ‘flog’, which you may not know is a contraction of ‘fog log’.

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Fog in the Bay of Biscay

Wednesday is an important day in our weeks aboard the Pont Aven; it is one of our two days each week spent over the rich waters of the Bay of Biscay. Ewelina and I were on deck at 05:30 and staring in disbelief at the thick wall of fog surrounding the ship as we passed Cap Finistere. We are nothing if not stubborn, and after an hour of glaring fiercely at the dense white cloud it got the message that it wasn’t welcome and decided to go elsewhere for the rest of the day. Cetacean sightings were not abundant – there were long quiet periods – but before breakfast we had seen a large pod of Risso’s dolphins, the first time this year we had seen these large squid-hunting dolphins and a very welcome encounter.

Over 60 people joined us for the morning’s presentation, and at least as many joined us on a deck for a very sunny afternoon down to Spain. Barely before the presentation was over a Cuvier’s beaked whale passed the ship; it is very unusual to see one of these deep divers so far north and we wonder what he was up to. The afternoon up on deck comprised long quiet spells of hot sunshine punctuated by visits from common dolphins, sometimes in groups of 30-40 animals, and eventually by another group of Cuvier’s beaked whales, this time in their more usual hunting grounds over the deep canyons of the southern bay.

The fin whales that have become part of our Biscay experience over the past couple of months have disappeared.  I for one will miss their powerful blows that seemed an intrinsic part of the seascape. We wonder who will come to take their place in the Biscay feeding grounds. Orcas perhaps?

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Flying common dolphins in Biscay

By the time we awoke on Thursday the ship was already back over the northern bay. We enjoyed a beautiful sunrise and a quiet couple of hours before we approached Finistere and the fog returned. This time it stayed with us for most of the day as we crossed the Channel to Plymouth, and despite stubborn persistence our spotting tally for the day amounted to one small group of dolphins and, more unusually, a green turtle that passed very close to the ship. The world has warmed up while I have been away from the ship, there is more energy in the system, and the temperature difference between the land and sea has increased. Warm, moist air from the land is spilling out over the much colder sea and all that moisture is condensing into fog. Until the sea warms and the temperature difference between land and sea lessens, fog is likely to be a regular part of our lives.

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Cuvier’s beaked whale in southern Biscay

Our crossings to and from Ireland this week were quiet, but we are always kept in good company by the birds of the Celtic Sea – shearwaters, razorbills and guillemots regularly flew along with us and they are welcome friends. Last week my colleagues saw twelve basking sharks in Cork harbour, so my hopes were high. This week most of the sharks had obviously decided to holiday elsewhere, but we saw one just outside the harbour and as my first ever basking shark he was a very welcome sight.

Sunday morning was clouded by yet more fog in the Channel, but we welcomed passengers from Plymouth with an evening presentation and looked forward to an early start in the Bay of Biscay the following day. Sure enough, visibility in northern Biscay was limited, but more worryingly it didn’t improve until we had traveled a long way south, and the sea was stirred up by strong winds. Still, we were able to see some pods of common dolphins and a Cuvier’s beaked whale. Later, in Santander, we assured our new passengers that the sea might calm down. It might indeed, but it didn’t! Instead the high winds were joined by a four-metre swell from the Atlantic. While we clung to the rail and tried to dodge the spray on the top deck, most of the passengers more sensibly stayed inside, many nursing mild seasickness. We managed to spot a few dolphins that came close to the ship, but anything more than 100 metres away was shrouded by huge waves and spray.  Alas!

Happily I have another week aboard this wonderful ship, joined by Harriet as Ewelina takes a week’s break. Do read Harriet’s blog next week to see if the fog lifts, the seas calm down and perhaps we encounter new cetaceans in the North Atlantic. Fingers crossed!

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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