Posted by: orcaweb | April 5, 2017

The adventure begins…

Welcome to the first blog post from the new ORCA Wildlife Officers for the 2017 season! We are so excited to begin our adventure working on board the Brittany Ferries Cap Finistère and Pont Aven ships, interacting with passengers about cetaceans (the collective name for whales, dolphins and porpoises) and out on deck helping people to spot these incredible animals at sea.

I’ll be working on board the Cap Finistère with Katie and Jess.

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From left to right: Me (Hazel), Katie and Jess

Heather, Andy and Sophie will be working on board the Pont Aven.

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From left to right: Heather, Andy and Sophie

Our season began with a training crossing, travelling from ORCA’s home port of Portsmouth (where the charity are based in the Brittany Ferries building) to Bilbao and back again. On this journey, we familiarised ourselves with the processes for recording our sightings, the informative presentations, fun activities and quizzes, and of course meeting lots of lovely passengers along the way. This ferry crossing passes through the Bay of Biscay, one of the best areas in Europe for dolphins and whales (especially the elusive deep water dwelling beaked whale species, like the Cuvier’s beaked whale). Anything can happen at any time, so we have daily watches out on deck looking for the wildlife that inhabits these wonderful waters and helping passengers to spot them.

To say things got off to a good start is a bit of an understatement! We were treated to fantastic views of common dolphins and striped dolphins leaping acrobatically from the sea and some bottlenose dolphins passed gently by, too. I had never seen striped dolphins before so I was very happy to see them!  They certainly put on a fantastic display, as they lept and back-flipped in the wake.

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Striped dolphin (Stenella coeruleoalba)

The calm conditions meant we were able to clearly see the blow of numerous fin whales as we travelled into deeper waters, passing over the continental shelf and over the abyssal plain. These huge animals are the second largest cetacean after the blue whale and can reach up to 27m in length! At the surface, a large plume of spray can be seen as they expel air from their enormous lungs; this is what we refer to when we use the term ‘blow’. As they moved along through the water we saw their rolling backs and tiny dorsal fins. One fin whale even had dolphins riding the bow wave in front of it – an incredible sight!

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The blow of a fin whale, followed by its back and dorsal fin, as it rolls through the waters of the Bay of Biscay

In the deeper waters we had a couple of separate sightings of what we believe to have been beaked whales. They were far off in the distance and without a good look at a beaked whale (or a well-timed photograph!) it can be very difficult to positively identify which species they are. Nevertheless, it was very exciting to see them and I hope for many more sightings of these mysterious animals over the coming months.

Cetaceans are my favourite animals, but I have to say on this crossing the most memorable sighting was not a whale, dolphin or porpoise. We spotted a large, brownish, triangular dorsal fin close in to the ship, slowly moving closer into view, followed a long way behind by the tip of the animal’s tail. I couldn’t believe my eyes – it was a gigantic basking shark! The second largest fish in the world, passing quietly by, filtering food from the water with its huge mouth wide open. This sighting was another first for me and at 10m long (23ft) it was a very impressive animal!

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An enormous basking shark: The tip of its tail is visible on the left of the photo and the tip of its dorsal fin on the right – this is the second largest species of fish in the world!

The other wildlife officers departed leaving Jess and I to our first week working aboard the Cap Finistère. We were treated to numerous sightings of dolphins throughout the week and we were thrilled to be able to help some passengers have their first sightings of these beautiful animals and share information about cetaceans and their conservation. We have had a great first week getting to know the friendly, helpful Brittany Ferries crew and finding our way around the ship. As I write this I am due to disembark the ship for my week off tomorrow, but I am already excited to get back on board!

I look forward to sharing more of our Wildlife Officer adventures with you soon,

Hazel

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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