Posted by: orcaweb | June 29, 2016

Biscay’s beaked whale bonanza

22nd – 28th June 2016

Hello everyone and welcome back to hear all about another exciting week on board Brittany Ferries’ Cap Finistère. Having spent the best part of three months here this year and having lived on it again back in 2014, regretfully I disembark for the last time. As this has been my last week on board, sadly, this is my last Wildlife Officer Blog. What a way to finish though, keep reading to hear what myself (Ruth) and Yolanda saw.

Our first deck watch in the English Channel unfortunately presented more fog, which has seemed to follow us over the past few weeks, lingering like a bad smell. Thick, dense fog yet flat calm seas below made for an eerie sight. Still optimistic, we were joined by a number of passengers who shone some apprehension on the situation. Contently though, we watched gannets appear out of the mist as well as flocks of Manx shearwaters flap close to their reflections below them. Enjoying momentary mirror conditions, I looked down alongside the ship to see a purple thing catch my eye, a tiny bluefire jellyfish!

Eventually, we watched as the fog receded almost back to the horizon. Whilst this occurred, we were asked what we had seen during the day, but before we could reply a couple of harbour porpoise bobbed up in the distance and appeared a number of times as they swam further away! What perfect timing! Before the end of the deck watch another porpoise appeared as did the rain and thunder, promptly ending the deck watch.


Harbour porpoise

Starting the following day in dim light, due to the shortening daylight hours, we watched the sunrise during a quiet morning into Bilbao. Only a few pods of common dolphins broke the tranquillity that morning, but a pleasant sight nonetheless. Surprisingly, our most exciting encounters were of a heron and then a racing pigeon that tried to land on the deck railings, giving us a good view of its pink highlighted under wings – probably for easy recognition.

You will be glad to know, that the return journey from Spain was much more exciting for whales! Not long into the deck watch with optimistic passengers joining us following our talk, we saw a beaked whale only 40 metres from the ship! With a very rounded head, brown body and pale head it could have been a Cuvier’s beaked whale or a northern bottlenose whale, but when it surfaced again, we could see its very bulbous melon, highlighting it as likely a northern bottlenose whale!

beaked whale 1

A likely northern bottlenose whale alongside the ship

Despite the scarcity of sightings, they kept us entertained throughout the evening, from a pod of common dolphins which appeared under our noses as they had just swam from under the ship from the port side, to a pod of Cuvier’s beaked whales in the distance.

common dolphin nosedive

Common dolphin attracted to the ship

Despite flat calm sea conditions, thunder and lightning overcame the Bay of Biscay and we were advised to go inside to avoid the storm, closing the decks in the process.

The deck watch through the Channel on Friday morning brought news of the UK leaving the EU, and likewise, whales and dolphins seemed to desert us as well with little to be seen except some lonely sea birds. Manx shearwaters were among the most common here.

It was a fresh start on the Saturday though, as normally one of our best days, meaning that we were optimistic, starting the new day with a fulmar following the ship for over an hour before our first sighting. By using the ship’s movement to give it uplift, the bird was able to fly along effortlessly – normally a behaviour exhibited by gannets and gulls.

fulmar 2

A fulmar soaring above us

Sightings started to pick up as we neared the continental shelf edge, with common dolphins bounding towards the ship. A mixed pod of common and striped dolphins were also encountered, with a striped individual really making itself known with its high leaps. The next thing to appear was a large oceanic sunfish that literally appeared below our noses next to the ship.

Watching the horizon closely though, at around 9 am, as we were coming to the deeper edge of the shelf, something on the horizon caught my eye. Looking through my binoculars, I could see that there was what appeared to be a small concentrated puff of white dissipating above the surface. Intrigued, at first thinking this to be pollution from a small vessel, I watched on. In doing so, I saw a whale blow a number of times, but very different to that of a fin whale! It was not tall and column-like but smaller, bushier and most prominently ‘v’-shaped! Puzzled, knowing this was different I watched intently to see if I could glimpse the animals back but it was simply too far away. Could this have been a humpback whale? What seemed like minutes later, a flurry of whale activity livened up the decks as numerous large tall whale blows shot up towards the skies. Some were further away, others in line with each other and others were very powerful blows considering our long distance away. We estimated that there were probably five whales there – likely in a good feeding area, most likely fin whales, but impossible to certify without the confirmation of their fin shape.

v shaped blow

V-shaped blow from a whale

Throughout the morning, we witnessed more common dolphins as well as a few likely pods of bottlenose dolphins, displaying their more rotund grey bodies and fast swimming through the water at quite some speed. Pelagic bottlenose dolphins can even reach burst speeds of 40km/h! The way into Spain however, over the deep sea canyons proved quiet after our exciting morning, with a few more common dolphin pods to keep us entertained on our sail in.

Surveying around the Brittany coastline on the Sunday and Monday brought a mixed bag of sightings. Despite, a rather overcast day on Sunday, we encountered three separate oceanic sunfish bobbing at the surface, one being particularly large! A harbour porpoise topped off the morning deck watch, as it surfaced underneath the bridge. Monday’s deck watch however, was a rather quiet one. A small pod of dolphins did eventually appear, but far off in the distance, only highlighted by some diving gannets as they were likely to be feeding. Flocks of birds seem to litter the waters at times though, keeping us company. Our last sighting was a surprise common dolphin sneakily surfing the waves created by the ship just alongside us.


Large sunfish

After dinner we decided to venture up on deck again as we were nearing the continental shelf edge, a very productive area. As the sun was setting a pod of common dolphins appeared with a calf in tow and just as we were about to call it a day, a pod of large offshore bottlenose dolphins appeared – some swimming under the bow, whilst others swam alongside! One rather energetic individual breached numerous times displaying its amazing white underbelly as it crashed back onto the water’s surface in an almighty splash.

common dolphin with calf

Common dolphin mother and calf

Leaving Bilbao on my final day, I couldn’t believe the immensely calm conditions – a sea state zero! After an emotional final presentation to passengers, we eagerly arose up to deck to begin surveying in the mirror calm seas. Within the first half an hour, we had a pod of five beaked whales swimming along in the distance, a small breaching sunfish and a pod of common dolphins! What a great start!


sunfish breaching closeup

Breaching sunfish

beaked whales pod of 3 (3)

Beaked whale surfacing

The next few hours brought more beaked whales, including a group of three close by and a very old male, apparently travelling on his own. With a general pale complexion, he seemed to be more of a sandy colour than the typical copper brown of most Cuvier’s beaked whales.

pale beaked whale

Pale Cuvier’s beaked whale

After the excitement of going over the canyons and the squid feeding animals within them, the bustle died down with a large pod of striped dolphins breaking the quiet as they swam in a very close-knit formation – some with tiny calves in tow.

SD tight pod 5

Large pod of striped dolphins with some calves

A lull in sightings took place then, simultaneously with the increased wind speed and abundance of white water, making spotting a tad more difficult. However, a number of common dolphins eventually came out to play as they bounded towards the ship, almost in a race. As we were going over the continental shelf edge, we encountered our dependable pilot whales that we have been seeing here recently. The final sighting of the day though, just as the heavy rain and deteriorating weather was coming in, was a lovely pod of common dolphins and some bluefin tuna!

bluefin tuna scramble

Bluefin tuna creating a disturbance

That concludes our week’s sightings, but I just wanted to take this opportunity to thank everyone who has joined us on deck and to our presentations and really made these past three months infinitely enjoyable. I would not be here if it were not for ORCA and their partnership with Brittany Ferries, so thank you for this amazing opportunity and thank you to all the lovely crew and entertainment teams on board who made us incredibly welcome. Lucy and Yolanda, it has been a pleasure working with you and I wish you abundant cetaceans for the remaining three months. As I disembark, the first intern of the summer, Mary will take my place and begin a new adventure on the Cap Finistère.

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!

Au revoir!



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