Posted by: orcaweb | April 26, 2017

Close encounters of the bottlenose kind

Welcome to the fourth blog instalment from the Wildlife Officers aboard the Brittany Ferries Cap Finistère!

After the jaw dropping sighting of a breaching fin whale, numerous Cuvier’s beaked whales and hundreds of acrobatic common and striped dolphins I have a tough act to follow! (Check out Katie’s blog post from last week for the details of these amazing encounters).

We have been very fortunate on our crossings through the Bay of Biscay over the past month since we began our work on board. However, we know that the sea state and the number of sightings we see will vary greatly throughout the season from now until the end of September.

This was somewhat illustrated by the past week; although the conditions have been far from the roughest that we may experience, it has been ‘choppier’. Calm sea states of 1 to 3 had been the norm so far, giving us brilliant conditions for spotting cetaceans. Any disturbance of the water, from a pod of dolphins splashing excitedly towards the ship to a fin whale’s gigantic exhalation (blow) causing a plume of water spray on the horizon, had been clearly visible.

Sea state 1

A beautiful evening in Biscay with a sea state 0-1: Any disruption of the water’s surface is clearly visible – perfect for spotting whales and dolphins!

When we do our deck watches on board from deck 10, we not only engage with passengers present about the wonderful animals we might, and regularly do, see but also log our sightings for the purpose of recording information such as the location of animals, their species and the number of animals present. Doing so enables us to have a large data set which can be utilised for the conservation of these cetaceans and their habitats.

Above a sea state 6, the conditions make it very difficult to spot anything with large waves and white water rendering it nigh on impossible to see whales and dolphins. This means that our efforts are futile in terms of collecting useful data because we are likely to miss everything but the closest dolphin bow riding the ship. This week conditions peaked at a sea state of 7 in the Bay over a couple of days; low swell meant the crossings still felt calm, but waves and white water made our deck watches unproductive in terms of animal sightings.


An entirely different story: sea state 6-7 (shown here) or higher make it very difficult to see cetaceans.  Note the long white waves and spray.

Nevertheless, we were still fortunate with some calmer days, joined up on deck by lots of enthusiastic, friendly passengers who were keen to see dolphins and whales; people are always willing to brave the conditions in the hope of seeing them. We are in a very fortunate position looking out for these incredibly charismatic and mysterious creatures and feel privileged to help people to spot them, including many who have never seen them before. We also get to meet fascinating folk from all walks of life, children and adults alike, who are as keen to hear about cetaceans (whales, dolphins & porpoises) as we are to talk about them.

I am always grateful for the curiosity and playfulness of the beautiful common dolphins that we see; some of these stunning hourglass-patterned animals approach the ship on almost every crossing. They bring a smile to the faces of all who see them and we have seen many calves too which add an extra cuteness factor! We even glimpsed some riding within the waves on the sea state seven days this week, catching sight of them once they were very close to the ship. The ever present Gannets are always a joy to watch too, gliding effortlessly even in the highest of winds. They are very photographic birds and I was pleased to catch a picture of these three flying in linear formation above us.

Prior to beginning my role as a Wildlife Officer with ORCA I had never seen bottlenose dolphins. Over the past few weeks I have been thrilled to see what we believe to be both coastal and pelagic (open sea) types.

The bottlenose dolphin is a bulky looking species in comparison to the smaller common and striped dolphins that we see. The pelagic animals are notably larger than those in the coastal populations. Unlike both common and striped dolphins, the bottlenose dolphins have not, in my experience, shown any behaviour which we would describe as ‘attracted to the ship’ (which means moving towards the ship, bow riding etc.) I asked Andy, my fellow Wildlife Officer aboard the Pont-Aven, about this as he has had many encounters with bottlenose dolphins in the Bay of Biscay and the surrounding waters. His numerous experiences echo my recent sightings, with these animals simply passing these large ships by. I find the different behaviours displayed by the different species fascinating and I look forward to making many more observations over the coming months!


The distant fin of a bottlenose dolphin pictured off the coast of Brittany

I am very keen to take trips to the Moray Firth in Scotland and Cardigan Bay in Wales to see animals within the well-known and much studied groups of resident coastal bottlenose dolphins in those waters. Where I am from in Dorset, bottlenose dolphins are sometimes sighted, most recently from Portland, but often also from Durlston Head. There is now thought to be a coastal population along the south-west coast around Devon and Cornwall to which the animals sighted in my home county’s waters may belong. Many wildlife groups in these areas are working together to gather information about these dolphins with the intention of affording them due protection and consideration in their home waters.  The work that we are doing on board also helps ORCA to gather more information about the distribution of these fascinating animals in the Bay of Biscay and English Channel.

In other news, a birding highlight for me this week was seeing swallows and swifts on our travels across the Bay, making their long journeys northwards. Being a lover of all wildlife, I look forward to witnessing them screeching and reeling through the warm sunset evening skies on my weeks off. We also saw large numbers of Manx shearwaters, guillemots and razorbills and three Sandwich terns.


Guillemots and razorbills in a row: both of these bird species belong to the auk family, along with puffins.

Among this week’s passengers were my high school physics and biology teachers, heading off on holiday to Spain. I was surprised that they remembered me, having left the school over ten years ago! It was lovely to chat with them and hear that they are enjoying their well-earned retirement; it felt surreal to be delivering a presentation with them in the audience! I also had my birthday on ship this week and was treated to lovely sightings of common dolphins along with numerous whale blows as we approached the nutrient and food rich waters of the continental shelf on our way to Santander.

Aside from looking out for wildlife and leading whale and dolphin talks, activities and quizzes, Jess and I had great fun this week working with our Brittany Ferries colleagues within the entertainment team. We’re pictured here with our friends Tori and Pierre le Bear!

with Pierre

L to R: Me (Hazel), Pierre le Bear and fellow Wildlife Officer Jess, with Tori at the front.

So, we may have had fewer sightings to comment on this week, but we have had a wonderful time on board with lots of lovely passengers and all our crew mates!

I have a week off now to enjoy the terrestrial wildlife back at home in Dorset. Butterflies, dragonflies, wildflowers and other beautiful sights hopefully await me on dry land!

Fin sequence

As I continue to relive the awe I felt at seeing the amazing breaching fin whale, I’ll leave you with this photo sequence I put together…

Until next time,





  1. […] click here to read my most recent Wildlife Officer blog post, published this Monday. Do look back through […]

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