Posted by: orcaweb | September 7, 2016

Shining Sun and Severe Swell

Hello again readers, it’s been a sunny and swelly week on board with our final intern of the season, Elena. I (Lucy) joined her on board the Cap Finistere on Wednesday, the last day of August. It feels like only yesterday I was preparing for this year’s whale watching season with all the other wildlife officers and now I find myself wondering where all the time went.

Our first deck watch together on Wednesday evening in the English channel wasn’t a great start for us. There was a thick fog that at times seemed to engulf the entire ship and a heavy swell that kept most passengers in their cabins.


A gannet looking for its next meal

Thursday was a very different story. As I opened the curtains in our cabin I saw that the sea was flat. The sun had not fully risen yet but with my eager eyes pressed against the window I was keen to get out on deck for a full day sailing across the Bay of Biscay. Despite a slow start, our first sighting was unforgettable! A fin whale, which seemed to pop right up next to the ship took an almighty breath and it was so close not only could we see the blow hole but its exhalation could be heard quite clearly. Both Elena and I were ecstatic, just hearing the breath of these magnificent animals really is quite a humbling experience.


A fin whale right next to the ship

A small pod of three common dolphins were spotted and later on a few beaked whales including a Cuvier’s beaked whale close to the ship.  Its beige brown back seen rolling away. As the harbour walls of Bilbao came into sight a passenger noticed a dolphin bow riding another ship. Dolphin often do this, even on our own vessel so it was a joyful sight to see from a different perspective. There were also lots of fish too including breaching tuna, some sun bathing sunfish and whole shoals of other unidentifiable species underneath the water. A large breaching animal was also seen in the distance making quite a splash.


A great shearwater

That afternoon as we made the return journey from Bilbao the weather had severely worsened. There were really strong winds and sea state 3-5 however this didn’t stop us from spotting a few large whale blows including some sperm whales as we sailed over the canyons. Then as if the mornings close encounter hadn’t been enough there was another really close sighting of a fin whale right next to the ship. I was able to see its body under the water as it slowly rose to the surface next to us allowing us to see its full length and all its fins. Elena and I, as well as the few passengers that stuck it out with us could barely contain ourselves jumping up and down with excitement!


The surface profile of a fin whale

Friday morning called for another deck watch in the Channel where harbour porpoise were spotted. As usual on the following Saturday we woke up hoping for calm seas over the Bay and this week we were not disappointed, as we woke up to a mirror flat ocean. Our first sightings of the day were common dolphins, skimming the water’s surface in the morning sun, then a minke whale as we made our way across the shallow coastal waters of the northern part of the bay. Shortly after the shelf edge we saw off in the distance a pod of pilot whales moving slowly through the water. After a great start to the day we experienced a  long pause in sightings but as we ventured closer to Spain we started seeing the blows of large fin whales again and a group of very keen passengers with us had their binoculars and cameras at the ready. By the afternoon the white water had started to reappear but there were still a few more whale blows to note down before arriving into Santander.



Sunday morning brought us back to the French coast and its picturesque Islands but we once again found ourselves in a heavy swell and lots of fog. This didn’t prevent us from seeing lots of common dolphins though which have become frequent visitors to the Islands over the past month. That evening Elena undertook her first children’s presentation and it’s fair to say she did amazingly well keeping both the children and the adults in the audience entertained throughout.


A gull resting on the water

Monday evening came around so quickly and I was once again left feeling like time was slipping through my fingers. We set up for a six hour deck watch where we saw common dolphins, sunfish and sharks underneath the water’s surface. Once thing we had forgotten to take notice of however was the intense glare of the sun on the water’s surface which resulted in both Elena and I going to bed that evening with some interesting looking panda eyes.


A common dolphin bounding towards the ship

The final day of the week soon came around and it was good to see more fin whales rolling by us at regular intervals throughout the Spanish coast and deep abyssal plain. The evening brought with it some common dolphins and minke whales as we sailed over shallower coastal waters. Some very well fed bottlenose dolphins whose sheer size always shocks me compared to that of the slender common dolphins also came bounding towards us just as the sun was starting to set.


A beautiful sunset over the Bay of Biscay

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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