Posted by: orcaweb | June 20, 2017

Whale Watching Works

Here’s your weekly update from myself, Andy, and Heather – your Wildlife Officers on the Brittany Ferries Flagship, the Pont-Aven!

Six days ago, as we crossed the northern continental shelf of the Bay of Biscay, Heather and I came across a group of more than half a dozen beautiful, jet black, long finned pilot whales.  They were travelling peacefully past the ship and were so unperturbed by our presence that they passed gently by, close enough for the many passengers on deck with us to enjoy some stunning views.  We were all elated and couldn’t believe our luck.  It seems that the captain and the bridge crew were also impressed as they quickly alerted the rest of the ship to the whales’ presence over the tannoy and people flocked to the rails to catch a glimpse of these magnificent animals.

pilots, northern shelf, June 17

male and female pilot whales

pilot whale, n shelf, 2017

Male pilot whale on the northern shelf

 

Many hundreds of years ago in the twelfth century the Bay of Biscay was the scene of the world’s first commercial whale fishery, as Basque fishermen hunted down the North Atlantic right whales – or the ‘Biscayan whale’ as they were known at the time. They had soon exhausted the local population by the sixteenth century, and had started a process that would see that species become extinct in the north-east Atlantic long before the twentieth century.  The scene in Biscay is very different now.  Today ORCA wildlife officers like us showcase, to the travellers crossing Biscay, the wealth of fascinating wildlife that lives there. From this melonistic (a development of the dark-coloured pigment melanin in the skin and is the opposite of albinism) common dolphin

leucistic CD

melanistic common dolphin

…to the apex predator, the sperm whale, which battles in the depths with huge squid the size of small whales – such as this one we came across floating on the surface beside the ship a week ago, passengers experience all that the Bay has to offer.

Giant squid 1

huge squid in the Bay of Biscay

People are fascinated by all wildlife but particularly whales and dolphins and there seems to be some sort of inexplicable bond perceived by modern humans that draws us to these mammals.  Countless commentators and even scientists have attempted to quantify and explain it.  This wasn’t always the way and the extensive depletion of whale populations during commercial whaling is testament to that.  But the worst of those bloody times have passed and most societies around the world currently have a very different relationship with their cetaceans.  Attitudes to these creatures have changed across the globe; if only by recognising that a whale or dolphin is worth more alive than dead.  This is certainly the case for the booming whale and dolphin watching industry that has emerged around the world over the last 50 years.  No longer are whales perceived as a source of food or oil or fertiliser but their, more sustainable, worth to most states is now as a tourism resource.  Indeed the International Whaling Commission now recognises the importance of the industry and many member states would like to see it focus its attention on this sustainable use of these animals rather than the unsustainable hunting of the past.

In 2009 our friends at International Fund for Animal Welfare produced their ten year report on whale watching.  IFAW report This highlighted the rapid growth of the industry which had seen it almost double in the previous decade to a position where 13 million people a year were taking part in whale watching around the world and the industry generated over $2 billion in expenditures.

ORCA and Brittany Ferries have recognized this modern phenomenon with their Sea Safaris, which start in a couple of weeks, taking passengers across Biscay with the sole purpose of looking for whales and dolphins from the decks of the Pont Aven. It could even be argued that this is a particularly unobtrusive form of whale watching as the ferry is making the journey anyway and the animals are not pursued in any way.  These trips are extremely popular and the numbers taking part continue to rise just as the global whale watching community grows too.

cuviers, scarred

Male Cuvier’s beaked whale heavily scarred from territorial battles over female harems

But other than those beautiful pilot whales, what else have we been privileged to experience on the Pont-Aven this week?  Well the weather has been kind to us and summer really is here.  We have had calm conditions and each trip through the Bay has produced a number of Cuvier’s beaked whales.  In particular, the trio of one female with a young male and another scarred old white male in tow is still being seen.

Yesterday hundreds and hundreds of common and striped dolphins joined us for our outward and return journeys.  But perhaps our most memorable crossing later in the week was our Saturday evening cruise out of Cork where we spotted a fin whale before dinner and then returned to deck after 9pm, not far from the Cornish coast, to find the ocean like a mirror and manx shearwaters, common dolphins and five minke whales feeding around us in the fading light.

minke, cork-kernow, june 17

minke whale in the fading light

It was a magical hour that a number of passengers experienced on deck but by the time it was dark Heather and I were left alone with one equally enthusiastic passenger – a French masters student studying cetaceans at university in Galway and the three of us excitedly chatted about our common passion for whales as we squeezed every last drop of dolphin from the increasingly dark seas.

striped acrobatics.

striped dolphin performing for the crowds

So sadly this is my last blog from the Pont-Aven.  In a fortnight, the Wildlife Officer season comes to an end on this ship and we all go our separate ways, each carrying a bundle full of images and memories that will stay with us for many years to come.  But soon the Sea Safari season starts and all of us will definitely be back to help as guides on those trips.  So we will be crossing the Bay of Biscay again looking for amazing sights and recognising the immense value that these animals bring to a world that is struggling to retain its wildlife jewels.

Andy

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