Posted by: orcaweb | June 22, 2016

Happy News – Fin Whales Are Back!

Greetings from the ORCA team on the Pont Aven. Our week started, as usual, on Tuesday in Portsmouth, where we said goodbye to Ewelina (she’s taking a well-earned week off) and Jon was joined by Harriet for the week ahead. If you read Jon’s ‘fog log’ last week you’ll know that conditions out on the sea have been changeable and sightings of cetaceans (our beloved whales, dolphins and porpoises) in the Bay of Biscay have been fewer of late, so we were eager to see how things are developing, and what wonderful cetaceans we might encounter.

The English Channel on Tuesday evening was quiet, but the clouds put on a good show for us as they refracted the evening sunlight into beautiful patterns. The following morning we were up on deck with the sunrise for a full day of cetacean spotting over the Bay of Biscay. The sea was calm and viewing conditions were good, but things were quiet. Our most important sighting of the first watch was a group of large dolphins that appeared to be feeding in the distance; we wondered if they were the Risso’s dolphins, or perhaps the deep-water variety of bottlenose dolphin that can grow up to four metres in length!

Nearly 70 people came to our presentation later in the morning, many of whom then joined us up on deck for the remainder of the day. Even as the presentation was underway, several passengers saw what appeared to be three fin whales swimming past the ship, another passenger got some excellent photographs of a Cuvier’s beaked whale that must be diving in the northern canyons around the edge of the continental shelf, and we heard a report from the bridge that the Captain had seen what he thought were three orcas far ahead of the ship! During the afternoon, although there were some long breaks between sightings, we saw many common dolphins and we saw two bottlenose dolphins performing some pretty advanced acrobatics. Two whale blows were also sighted on the horizon, so clearly there are still some big whales in the bay, and further south we saw a Cuvier’s beaked whale over the deep Torrelavega canyon. Finally the weather closed in as we approached Santander and we were treated to a spectacular storm off to starboard, with ominous looking thunder clouds sending lightning flashes down to the sea.


Storms over Biscay

On Thursday morning we were again up with the dawn, just as the ship was crossing back over the continental shelf break on its way to Plymouth. We saw many common dolphins around the shelf break, which was a lovely way to start the day, and later on we spotted the back of a whale breaking the surface, though we couldn’t see enough of him to tell what species he was. After breakfast Jon gave a presentation to the passengers, and then we spent a lovely afternoon with many passengers up on deck, just enjoying the sunshine and watching the sea, its smooth surface given some life and depth by a gently rolling swell. The highlight of the afternoon, from a cetacean point of view, was spotting a group of gannets diving into the water (a spectacular sight in itself) and realising that a harbour porpoise was feeding on the surface where the birds were diving.


Common dolphin riding the waves

The middle of the week is usually quieter, but on our crossing to Ireland we were kept company by lovely gannets and shearwaters, and as we were leaving Cork harbour we spotted a basking shark very close to the ship. Seeing these very large animals – the second biggest fish in the world, close up makes one realise how truly massive they are; thank heavens they are gentle filter feeders! An hour outside Cork we saw two more sharks, probably blues, one of which appeared to be stalking an ocean sunfish, the largest of the bony fish at over 4m.

On Sunday evening we welcomed new passengers from Plymouth and we told them about all the wildlife we might see in Biscay the next day. On Monday we were up early and the sea was amazingly calm. We weren’t disappointed. Our first encounters were with common dolphins, jumping gracefully in to meet the ship, but soon we spotted whale blows and were seeing large whales, almost certainly fin whales, every few minutes. Much to our delight, they have returned to the bay! The highlight was when the two of us looked over the side of the ship, just checking around, and a fin whale swam out from under the ship directly beneath us! Looking straight down onto 26 metres of the second biggest animal that has ever lived is an experience neither of us will ever forget. To seal off a great morning morning, we later saw three Cuvier’s beaked whales, the deep-diving squid hunters of the seas, and the largest pod of bottlenose dolphins we have seen in a long time.


Bottlenose dolphins in Santander

After an ice cream in sunny Santander we welcomed more passengers aboard.  The sea was a mill pond for most of the afternoon, but sightings were fewer and further between. We saw dolphins, some more lovely fin whales and some distant cetaceans that we are almost sure were pilot whales, but there were long periods of inaction despite the excellent conditions. It just goes to show how much much we need to be in the right place at the right time.


The fin whales are back!

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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