Posted by: orcaweb | June 7, 2017

Surprises in the Channel

Hello and bonjour! Hazel here – welcome to my blog post for week 10 aboard the Brittany Ferries Cap Finistère.

Things got off to a fantastic, or perhaps I should say FINtastic (sorry…) start this week with the most productive deck watch I have ever had in the English Channel. The species diversity in the shallow waters of the Channel is much lower than in the hugely varied depths of the Bay of Biscay. However, we are always optimistic. On this occasion, no sooner had we arrived up on deck 10 to begin our watch when a passenger said ‘there’s some dolphins’ and pointed to the sea! Sure enough, a small pod of common dolphins passed close by the ship.

These alone were a treat to see, but the sightings didn’t stop there. The mirror calm sea state provided the perfect cetacean spotting conditions. My heart leapt in my chest as I glimpsed a gently rolling back and diminutive curved dorsal fin rolling through the water – my first ever sighting of a minke whale! I was glad a passenger witnessed it too or I might have doubted myself. As is characteristic of this species, it surfaced just once before disappearing and was not seen by us again. These animals are commonly seen surfacing just once or twice, which has earned them the nickname of the slinky minke. Finally, just before our deck watch came to an end, a splash near the ship revealed the presence of a harbour porpoise. Sadly we were unable to capture photos of these fleeting encounters, but perhaps this is the beginning of an exciting stream of Channel sightings – fingers crossed!


A calm English Channel

The sightings of harbour porpoise and the minke whale stayed firmly in my thoughts this week. Both species provide important examples of just two of the many threats that these animals face, illustrating the challenges which organisations such as ORCA face in terms of conserving them. As such, I have chosen to write about these issues for my blog post this week.

Prior to this, no sightings of minke whales had been recorded by us Cap Finistère Wildlife Officers this season. Data within ORCA’s State of European Cetaceans report, collated from ten years’ worth of scientific surveys, supports the Northerly bias of this species’ distribution. Over that ten year period, sightings of minke whales were most numerous in the Arctic waters and the North Sea, with 189 and 74 sightings respectively out of 371 sightings in total. With this in mind, I lamented the fact that hundreds of these whales are killed each year in commercial whale hunting carried out by Norway and Iceland. It is thought provoking to consider that some of these may be animals seen by our marine mammal surveyors.


Minke whale (stock photo)

Nearly half of the minke whales killed in Norwegian catch quotas have been found to be pregnant females, thereby not only killing one generation of these creatures but also the next. I was shocked to read in our patron Mark Carwardine’s ‘Guide to whale watching in Britain and Europe’ that 40% of the meat from minke whales killed in Iceland is eaten by tourists. He writes from his observations that many are just trying it once as it is marketed almost as a novelty, but when millions of tourists do so every year it creates demand for whale meat. I hope I am lucky enough to see more of these elusive whales during my time as Wildlife Officer, but more importantly I hope that campaigning and whale watching tourism will come to triumph over the slaughter of these wonderful creatures.

With regards to the harbour porpoise, the issue of bycatch is a considerable threat to their conservation. The term bycatch refers to the capture of any non-target species in association with fishing. Fishing methods like trawler nets and purse seine nets are indiscriminate, meaning that they not only catch the target species of fish but also any other animals which happen to be in their path. Hundreds of thousands of turtles, seals, sharks, whales, dolphins and porpoises are caught and killed as bycatch every year. All cetaceans (whales, dolphins and porpoises) are mammals and as such must come up to the surface to breathe. If there are caught up in nets and submerged underwater they drown (as is also the case for the aforementioned seals and turtles who also fall victim to this).


Harbour porpoise (stock photo)

The harbour porpoise is the only species of porpoise found in European waters (globally there are 6 species of porpoise). As its name suggests, its distribution is largely limited to shallow, coastal waters no deeper than 200m. Due to this preferred habitat, harbour porpoises face a number of threats as they often live in close proximity to areas that are heavily fished. Depletion of their food sources and noise from boats are two such threats, but by far the biggest threat is bycatch. Another species of porpoise called the vaquita is found only in the Sea of Cortez in the Gulf of Mexico. The issue of bycatch has driven the vaquita to the very brink of extinction; it is thought that approximately 30 of these animals remain in the world today. I desperately hope that the efforts being made to save this species will prevent them from being consigned to history.

Within UK waters, data collected by ORCA helped to create Special Areas of Conservation (SACs) for harbour porpoises. These SACs were submitted for designation earlier this year and will create safe havens for these animals in five different areas around UK waters. I was very encouraged to read this news; harbour porpoise are less well known than the likes of the charismatic orca or iconic bottlenose dolphin but all of these species, from the largest to the smallest, need conservation efforts to protect them against the many threats they face.

Sightings highlights this week were a group of four Cuvier’s beaked whales spotted near the deep canyons on the approach to Bilbao on Thursday, two more harbour porpoise in the Channel on Friday and a pod of over forty striped dolphins just after the continental shelf on Saturday as we journeyed to Santander. The striped dolphins were a particularly exhilarating sighting; I had never seen such a large pod of this species before. They are stunning creatures and the speed at which they were moving was a marvel to behold.


A large pod of striped dolphins – an exhilarating sighting!

We also saw two large pods of common dolphins the same day, moving in a very similar manner. Common and striped dolphins will often take an interest in the ship and play in the pressure waves created as we move through the water. However, on this day they were all going somewhere in a hurry. We wondered what was causing their rapid travel, daring to speculate that there may even be orca in the vicinity, whose presence can cause such behaviour in other cetaceans. Sightings of orca/killer whales (who themselves are actually the largest species of dolphin) are rare in the Bay of Biscay, usually occurring only four or five times a year. That said, the likelihood of seeing them increases between June to September so hopefully we may encounter these incredible animals in the Bay soon.

On that optimistic note, I am departing for my week off with plans to encounter reptiles in my home county of Dorset and search for booming Bitterns in Somerset.

Au revoir!


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