Posted by: orcaweb | April 18, 2017

Teaching an Old Dog New Tricks

It’s fair to say that I am no stranger to the Pont Aven or the Bay of Biscay. Having travelled both as a whale and bird watching passenger, and an ORCA Surveyor and Wildlife Guide I know the ship pretty well and have grown to love the Golfe de Gascoigne, as the French call the Bay.  Indeed, my first experience of ORCA was on an early Biscay I-Spy Whales and Dolphins minicruise on the Pont Aven.  These are still running today, are more popular than ever, and are now called Sea Safaris.

Little did I know then that some years later my relationship with the charity would have developed to the extent that I now guide on the very same Sea Safaris and this season I am in the extremely lucky position of working on the Pont Aven as a Wildlife Officer!  I have put a lot of time, effort and sometimes even expense into volunteering and developing my relationship with the charity and it is testament to the inclusivity and support that ORCA gives its active members that I am in this position on board the Britanny Ferries’ flagship.

Basking shark, Andy G., Cap_30-3-17

Basking shark in the Bay of Biscay

When I mention that I will be working in the Bay of Biscay many people raise their eyebrows and darkly point out the Bay’s long held reputation as a place of fierce storms and shipwrecks – an image etched into British folklore.  It is true that the Bay can experience rough weather but its reputation comes mainly from the days of sailing ships when northern European vessels often struggled against prevailing Atlantic winds and were unable to clear the Brest peninsular and found themselves at the mercy of the Atlantic swell banking against a steep continental shelf.  It is believed that Catherine of Aragon very nearly didn’t travel to England to marry Henry XIII because of her fear of     the weather in Biscay.  But in a modern ship travelling in spring and summer months those fears quickly give way to the increasingly more accurate perception of the Bay as a phenomenal place to spot wildlife, particularly whales and dolphins.

Commons, Biscay, April 2017

Playful common dolphins approaching the Pont Aven

As I settle into life on board I look back over an amazing, although at times nerve-racking few weeks.  Our training week at the ORCA office was crammed full of important information and in the final few days we had an outstanding training trip through Biscay on the Cap Finistere.  This saw us spot a number of fin whales, beaked whales, striped and common dolphins and a huge ten metre basking shark.  Originating from Cornwall, I’m not unused to encountering Baskers but seeing one in the Bay and so close to the ship was a first for me.  Another first was being on the ship as a member of the crew and experiencing the behind the scenes ship life.  I was thrown in at the deep end as I boarded on my own in Portsmouth and had two days learning the etiquette of crew life, guiding for the passengers and giving presentations before my colleague Sophie joined me in Plymouth.  At my very first meet and greet, where we present ORCA and ourselves to the boarding passengers, I came face to face with the esteemed ornithologist, writer and campaigner Mark Avery whom I recognised immediately.  Mark even mentioned us in his blog. I was also joined on that first crossing by a number of excellent birders.

Two weeks on and my colleague Heather and I encountered Mark again on his return trip and my last crossing at the end of my first fortnight onboard.  On his first crossing south through the Bay common dolphins and a migrating osprey were the highlights.  I think we just stepped it up a notch this time with a group of five pilot whales!  One particular crossing earlier in the week yielded over 300 striped, common and bottlenose dolphins!!

Striped silhouette, April 2017

Acrobatic striped dolphin

Something else that I have had to learn was how to use the new electronic Logger that ORCA now have, which replace the old paper survey sheets.   These state of the art recording tablets will make surveying so much easier and accurate and hopefully we will eventually have raised the funds for all survey teams across all ferries and cruise ships to be using them.

Our weekly visit to Cork has so far yielded common dolphins and some great seabirds including large numbers of manx shearwaters.  And not only have the cetaceans kept me happy but the migrating terrestrial birds and seabirds around the ship make every day different.  As do the amazing passengers we meet from all walks of life and ages, including young Miriam; her enthusiasm for the cetaceans she was seeing was infectious and we are proud to have her join ORCA as a FinFriend member.

Heather and Miriam

Our newest FinFriend member, Miriam, with Wildlife Officer Heather

So I’ve definitely learnt some new tricks, and also experienced some new animals and birds for me in the Bay of Biscay and the Celtic Sea.  I’m looking forward to learning more as the season goes on, and I’m now disembarking the ship for a week off and leaving the passengers in the very capable hands of my fellow wildlife officers Heather and Sophie.

Until next week,


If you would like to support ORCA, you can join as a member or give a donation to help us continue our vital work.


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