Posted by: orcaweb | June 28, 2017

A dolphin comes to port

Hazel here again for this week’s blog post! It’s week thirteen for us Wildlife Officers aboard the Brittany Ferries Cap Finistère; here’s an update of on our recent sightings.

The week got off to an emotional start as Jess and I bid farewell to our colleague Katie, whose three month position came to an end last Wednesday. After a brief goodbye in the ferry terminal, Katie headed for home and Jess and I left to board the ship. I must say the Cap Finistère feels quite homely to me now after three months working and living aboard on a two weeks on, one week off basis. We enjoyed a warm, sunny afternoon for our deck watch that Wednesday afternoon, but had no cetacean sightings.

Our two deck watches on Thursday more than made up for this with lots of lovely common dolphins and striped dolphins sighted. An arched back and curved dorsal fin was our first sighting of the day, which occurred on the Northern edge of the continental shelf in the Bay of Biscay. This was recorded as a ‘medium cetacean’; our first instincts were that it was minke whale, but we weren’t sure about the likelihood of seeing one in this area. Sometimes the best we can do is try to capture a photograph of sightings and consult our more experienced ORCA colleagues back in the office at the next opportunity to do so.

In cases such as this when we are unsure or in disagreement regarding an animal’s identity, in the interests of collecting scientifically valid data it is better for us to err on the side of caution and simply record the information we have such as the animal’s size and location, rather than to make an inaccurate guess which could result in misleading records. On returning to the office, our colleagues confirmed our thoughts and positively identified this as a minke whale, advising that they are sometimes seen in this area of the Bay. There is so much to learn about these animals, which varies hugely from species to species, and I am relishing the opportunity to absorb so much information about cetaceans.

Minke edit

The gently rolling back and small, sickle shaped dorsal fin of a minke whale

On Friday we were back in the channel during which we saw no cetaceans. The animals are there, but the species diversity is comparatively less than the Bay of Biscay. Additionally, the presence of shallower water species such as harbour porpoise and minke whales is less obvious than the likes of high leaping striped dolphins or the 8m high columnar blows of fin whales seen in the Bay.

On Saturday we ventured back across Biscay and were treated once again to lovely encounters with pods of common and striped dolphins. At one point I spied a very distant whale blow. I haven’t seen any of the colossal great whale species in the area in the past two months; perhaps this marks the beginning of the fin whales returning to feed in Biscay, as is usual at this time of year. At the moment though, Cuvier’s beaked whales are the most numerous of our whale sightings. This day was no exception as we had the good fortune of a very close encounter with two of these illusive deep diving animals. The conditions were still enough to see their blow as they surfaced to breathe and we marvelled as their chocolate brown barrel shaped bodies rolled gently away through the calm waters.

Cuviers roll

A Cuvier’s beaked whale surfaces in the waters over the deep canyons on the approach to Spain, with its blow visible in the first photo, before rolling gently away from the ship.

On Sunday we were heading northwards once more. We kept our eyes firmly fixed on the Brittany coastline, hoping to see the resident bottlenose dolphins that we have been fortunate enough to encounter on many occasions on this sailing. Sure enough, as I scanned the waters near the shore and cliffs, the large, steel grey dorsal fins of five bottlenose dolphins could be seen gently breaking the surface of the water. A short time after, three more animals could be seen slowly moving across the shallow waters near a beautiful patch of sandy beach. I observed that people stood on the beach were watching the dolphins from the shore, whilst we were watching from the ship; they would have had great close up views from their vantage point!


A Kittiwake seen near the Brittany coastline – this beautiful gull species has red listed conservation status, having suffered severe population declines

Later that day we neared the port in Portsmouth. I was in our cabin at this point, whilst Jess had ventured outside to take in the view of the seaside city as we came in to dock. The cabin door burst open and Jess flew into view ‘the dolphin is here!’ she exclaimed excitedly. The animal she was referring to is a solitary bottlenose dolphin which has been seen in the area recently, moving between the waters around Portsmouth and the Isle of Wight (although it is now thought there may actually be more than one of these animals in the vicinity). I hastily grabbed the camera and binoculars; knowing how fleeting encounters with cetaceans can sometimes be, I didn’t want to miss this amazing opportunity to get a closer look at this dolphin! My heart was pounding in my chest as I looked across the waters of the port. Jess pointed towards a small boat, saying that she had seen the dolphin riding the bow waves in front of it and swimming alongside it, to the delight of the people within the vessel. A moment later the large, gunmetal grey, curved dorsal fin of the bottlenose dolphin split the surface of the water.

Bottlenose edited.jpg

The solitary bottlenose dolphin seen in Portsmouth port as we docked on Sunday evening

This is the closest encounter I have ever had with a bottlenose dolphin and this finally gave me an accurate impression of the sheer size of these charismatic animals, the largest of which can reach up to 4m in length. I observed the animal breach out of the water, but the only good photo I managed to capture was the above image of the dolphin’s back and dorsal fin next to the little boat. Since this sighting, as a result of a competition by ORCA to name this animal, it has since been dubbed ‘Nelson’! Other locals have also named this dolphin ‘Dinny’ and ‘Spirit’ – who knows how many names the animal will acquire during its time here!

Continuing the variable degrees of success on this week’s deck watches, no cetaceans were sighted on Monday. Once again it was a completely different story the following day with nearly two hundred common dolphins seen Tuesday, including lots of calves.
It was a brilliant end to this two week period on board.

Mum and calf edit

A common dolphin mother with her calf  just visible underneath her, sticking close to her side and shadowing her movements

The week finished as it began, with emotional goodbyes; Tori and Dave, some fantastic entertainment managers we have worked with over the past three months, are departing on Friday. We are very grateful to them as colleagues and friends for their wonderful assistance to us – they took a very keen interest in our work and were a huge help in enabling us to deliver our activity programme for passengers. Thank you both very much and bon voyage!

We’re now halfway through our six month Wildlife Officer season aboard the Cap Finistère, which means it’s time for our volunteer placements to begin! We have three placements joining us aboard over the next three months; each one will be living and working aboard with us for a month as we teach them everything we know about working as a Wildlife Officer. I’m excited to work with them and help them to have a fantastic experience with lots of cetacean sightings!

Melanistic common edit

A melanistic common dolphin

I’m now heading back home for my week off. One of the things I am most looking forward to is heading out at dusk to listen for nightjars. These beautiful, unusual birds have returned to the UK from Africa to breed and I hope to hear their characteristic churring calls on my local heathland wildlife reserve.

I am also doing a refresher course with British Diver Marine Life Rescue (BDMLR) to remind myself of the techniques I learned a few years ago to assist with the rescue of stranded cetaceans. Wildlife Officer Katie is coming along too, so we’re having a little reunion already after she departed only last week!

We’re fast approaching the ideal time of year for fin and sperm whale sightings in the Bay of Biscay, along with orca. My fingers are firmly crossed for these animals to be in the area on my return in a week’s time.

I’ll leave you with another common dolphin image – I never tire of seeing these lovely creatures and I’ll miss them on my week off!

Bye for now!

common edit.jpg

Hazel – ORCA Wildlife Officer


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