Week 19 of the Wildlife Officer season kicked off with myself (Lucy) joining Katie, our second intern for her second week on-board the Cap Finisteré. I was really pleased to see Katie enjoying her placement and really getting stuck into life as a wildlife officer.
On the Thursday morning as we sailed towards Bilbao we were greeted with a random mixture of weather conditions. A beautiful Bay of Biscay with calm seas but also fog and rain. With our visibility limited by the fog I was anxious for Katie to get more sightings. As if hearing my wishes, lots of fin whales began to blow all around us. Then a magnificent sperm whale sighting where we got to see all the vertebrate bumps down the whales back before it dived down into the deep. Cuvier’s beaked whales also made an appearance as well as common dolphins and the largest school of sunfish I have seen in one concentration, nine of them travelling together past the ship.
One of the best parts of being an ORCA wildlife officer is getting to engage with so many young people about the cetaceans (whales, dolphins and porpoises) and the marine environment. We have met some really bright kids so far this season and some whose kindness could not go unnoticed. On Thursday evening whilst we were out on deck a pair of young girls ran a competition to raise money for ORCA. They had a bottle full of pistachio nut shells which they asked passengers to guess the quantity for a small donation. These wonderfully thoughtful girls, filled our donation pot in no time and raised a brilliant £17.77 and 37.68Euros for ORCA. We were humbled by the generosity of everyone on board that evening. Thank you!
By the time Saturday morning came around we were eager and excited for another great day across the bay. The bay did not let us down. Once again we were greeted by beautifully calm seas, teetering on the edge of becoming a mirror sea state. This meant we were able to see the wonderful Harbour Porpoise. There are only six species of porpoise in the world and the harbour porpoise is the only one found in European waters, making this lovely animal so very important to our local ecosystems.
The day then progressed with three different dolphin species. Firstly the common dolphins bounding towards us, then the striped dolphins jumping high out of the water and then later on big bottlenose making even bigger splashes through the water. Fin whales could be seen frequently blowing past the ship. Sunfish again were spotted, the largest of the bony fish. Calm seas also allow us to see animals that might not necessarily break the surface and on Saturday we had two separate shark sightings.
By the afternoon the water’s surface was starting to be stirred up by increasing sea winds but we were still able to see whale blows in the distance and also a possible beaked whale sighting just before our arrival into Spain where thankfully the sun was beaming brightly.
We really were starting to feel very lucky when on Sunday morning another wonderfully flat sea state greeted us. Again this meant we were able to see many of the small and shy harbour porpoise as well as common dolphins feeding all around us. As we reached the French coastline we saw a sight that was familiar to me from last year when I was an intern on-board just like Katie. In a bay, off north western France, some tourist ribs with bottlenose dolphins playing around them. Last year I saw this exact scene in the same location every week of my internship and it’s nice to see a year later the bottlenose dolphins are still there. They are probably residents, choosing to stay in the area of the bay, most likely due to an abundance of food.
Before returning into the English Channel we got a lovely sighting of a minke whale. I always hope to see these small baleen whales when in coastal waters, which they prefer over deeper seas. As the minke whale rolled on through the waters around France we headed towards the channel that was by this point engulfed in a thick sea fog.
That evening Katie undertook her first solo presentation for the excitable children on-board. She did amazingly well and clearly has a talent for engaging with young people. It is clear that she has really absorbed all of the information passed onto her thus far by Yolanda and myself and she presented with both passion and enthusiasm. Well done Katie!
Monday afternoon’s deck watch started very slowly and it was several hours before we saw any signs of wildlife. Common dolphins were the first to join us and then just to keep everyone on their toes Tuna leaped out of the water making a big splash. These fish can reach up to two metres in length and are often mistaken for dolphins, the tuna however are not as graceful as dolphins and tend to give themselves away by belly flopping back into the water. More sunfish followed and then a familiar blow, Mr V! This is a whale we have seen consistently for several weeks within the bay now, we call him (or her?) Mr ‘V’ because of the unusual blow created by the animal. It is a large tall blow but you can distinctly see two separate plumes with one being shorter and off at an angle, we believe this is due to a damaged, deformed or blocked blow hole, but it helps us distinguish this individual from all other blows. Mr V is always seen in close proximity to another whale, a fin whale and this time the pair were joined by what we can only presume is a calf. There was a third blow, much smaller than the other two but sticking very closely to them. Is it possible that Mr V has a family?
The final day of the week was very different. The sea state was terrible, well over anything we could accurately survey in however we remained on deck hoping for anything to stand out against all the white water. Despite extremely strong winds knocking us backwards and forwards along the deck we saw several large blows and the best fin whale sighting both myself and Katie have ever had. The blow was close and as the ship sailed on it only got closer. Following the animals movement we could see its body under the surface and as it raised its head again to exhale we saw all the details of its rostrum and jaw line, exposing its distinctive white right jaw. All the passengers that braved the harsh winds with us were very pleased, as were Katie and I.
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