Posted by: orcaweb | July 20, 2016

Wandering whales

The wildlife officer season sails on on-board the Cap Finistere and here you will find myself (Lucy) joining Mary for her third week as a trainee wildlife officer. As we left Portsmouth I could see that Mary was really starting to take things in her stride and had become used to the busy routine we undertake each week.

With the summer holidays approaching the number of families with small children boarding were starting to increase. With a mixed crowd for my presentation that evening, I gave the audience a choice. Would they prefer a lecture style presentation on cetaceans and the Bay of Biscay or a child friendly fun packed interactive talk? The room unanimously agreed on the later of the two and I was pleased to see people of all ages taking part in answering the questions posed to them.

The evenings deck watch through the channel presented us with a non-too favourable sea state 7 and upwards. This meant lots of white water and resulted in no sightings that afternoon. We did however find time to install our new habitat/species correlation charts. This has been designed to help passengers understand which species they are most likely to see at various points within the crossing. So far this has made a great impact on peoples understanding of why the Bay of Biscay is one of the best places in the world to see whales and dolphins.


Admiralty map and species poster on deck 10

The following morning as we awoke over the abyssal plain which reaches over 4.5km at maximum depth we were greeted by sea states we were able to successfully survey in. We saw a handful of common dolphins to get us started. We didn’t have to wait long either for the large whale blows to make an appearance. Probable Fin whales but Sei and Sperm can also be seen here as well as the mighty blue whale.


A fin whale surfaces

As we crossed the deep sea canyons within the Spanish coast line, two large beaked whales were seen close to the ship, but such a quick sighting meant that many features had to be taken into consideration in a very short space of time. The animals were noted as probable Cuviers beaked whales, the deepest diving marine mammal on the planet, reaching depths of up to 3km, known to frequent these particular waters.


The back of a beaked whale as it swims away

On returning that afternoon from Bilbao we conducted another deck watch over the same canyons and abyssal plain and it was as though we had been followed. As the ship turned itself around we were soon surrounded by large whale blows. Many seemed to be travelling in pairs and there was one blow right on the horizon which was much taller and much denser than any of the others, a possible Blue whale perhaps? Many passengers had joined us and were mesmerised by the mighty blows that continued to appear as the hours passed. One lovely young lady named Lauren who was a keen animal lover and very excited by whale watching was very happy for her first sightings, she hoped before bed time she would see some dolphins too and she was not left disappointed. By the evening common dolphins had found us and a future conservationist was left inspired.

CD Pod

A pod of common dolphins

Friday soon came around in the English Channel. Species within the channel vary widely and despite popular belief the channel (as Mary proved last week) is rich in wildlife. Within moments of getting out on deck and feeling joyous at the low sea state we spotted Harbour Porpoise, swimming away as fast as they could. Then as if out of nowhere, a minke whale! Often referred to as the stinky minke for their terribly fishy breath, I think a kinder name might be the sneaky minke as they do have a tendency to take us by surprise.


A minke whale

Saturday morning brought with it dolphins common and striped, and a large whale blow over the shelf.  After a busy kids presentation with some really bright young people we did some activities in the playground with views of the open ocean as our back drop and the budding new marine biologists were eager to get back outside for the second deck watch of the day. Unfortunately our eager companions were left as disappointed as we were when the sea state that awaited us was extremely high. Mountains of white water rose and fell all around us and we soon became completely covered from head to toe in salt spray. It’s fair to say nothing else was seen in the Bay of Biscay that evening.

The next morning is was as though the previous evening had been nothing but a bad dream. A mirror! Our favourite sea state over the northern part of the bay. These shallow waters gave us several sightings of the always beautiful common dolphins. Inspired by calm conditions, Mary gave then her first presentation to the ship’s passengers and she did so well. I was really proud of her, engaging a full room and enthusing about cetaceans. The following day, Mary then did another presentation, this time aimed at children and it’s fair to say the kids were thrilled. Well done Mary, you’re a great Wildlife Officer!

The deck watch that day found us once again on the Northern shelf and after the success of the presentation lots of young children and their families joined us out on deck. Almost immediately common dolphins gave us a show and there were cheers from the audience all along the railings. Then blows, several large whale blows really got the crowd going. These large blows were almost certainly that of Fin whales and then we saw our friend with the ‘V’ shaped blow again. This animal was again seen in conjunction with a fin whale, the two swimming past together as seen twice last week. I really would love to know the story behind the usual blow, perhaps a common cold torments our wandering friend.

IMG_7480 - Edited

Two whale blows including our friend ‘Mr V’

Tuesday came around very quickly and it was a fun one with lots of interesting activity in the Bay as we left Bilbao. Sperm whales, beaked whales, common dolphins and an excited pod of bottlenose were all seen within our first couple of hours out on deck. Just as we went off effort for kids activities and a lunch break the sea state started to look far from good. When we returned to the deck things weren’t looking any better, a sea state 6 just low enough for us to accurately survey in. With my eyes on the water I had begun to describe the appearance of whale blows to a curious passenger when as if hearing my explanation a blow appeared! It couldn’t have been timed better, exactly what I had been describing demonstrated in real time before our eyes! It’s fair to say, all that witnessed it were in awe.

Blows Mr V

A pod of excitable Bottlenose Dolphins

The sea then began to calm and to our relief all the white water disappeared and the sea was flat once more. Here we saw lots of common dolphin until just an hour later a thick, dense fog rolled in and we were forced to go off effort.

I now leave Mary for the final week of her placement on board with Yolanda. I am immensely proud of all the obstacles she has overcome to become a confident and successful wildlife officer and I have no doubt she will get some brilliant sightings in her final week. Thank you Mary, you’ve been a real pleasure to work with and I do hope we will get the opportunity to work together again, looking out for whales and dolphins.


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!



  1. Wow. Just catching up with my Facebook feed and found this post by Lucy. Well what can I say about our experience on board the cap finistere returning from bilbao on the 14th July 16.

    Lauren and myself were absolutely delighted to have been met by Mary and Lucy on the observation deck. With their invaluable help we discovered a whole new world below and around us. They both posess a highly infectious enthusiasm for sharing their passion for cetaceans and other marine life with all the passengers on board. They managed to turn what can be a long trip into an absolute pleasure.

    It was a sheer delight to watch my daughter become so engaged and keen to stay on deck looking out for more whales and dolphins! This has made a huge positive impact on my Laurens interest in wildlife and she’s just got hold of her first pair of binoculars and is currently planning OUR next trip out spotting. I just finally want to thank both ladies for all their help and for inspiring Lauren who’s now an avid Orca find friend!

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