Posted by: orcaweb | August 9, 2017

Sei what?!

Hi readers, Nicki here. I’m on board the Cap Finistère with Hazel, training to become a wildlife officer. It’s been a fantastic first week, and I am thoroughly enjoying all of our activities on board; children’s activities, quizzes, presentations, meeting and greeting passengers, and especially our fabulous deck watches.

I could stare at the sea all day, but it is so lovely to share the experience with our interested passengers and chat to them about the wonderful animals we have the chance to see on our journey, particularly now there are so many (incredibly enthusiastic) children on board in the summer holidays.


Young James here was determined to spot a whale, despite rough weather meaning the outside deck was closed!

We’ve had some great sightings this week, despite some rough conditions early on when the deck was even closed at times. On my second day on board I was treated to my first great whale – a huge lone fin whale. The blow alone can reach up to 8m tall, and we watched this individual blow 5 or 6 times before rolling its huge back through the water for what seemed like ages before showing the swept-back dorsal fin and even the tailstock. Magical!

Fin whale.jpg

The lovely swept-back dorsal fin of a fin whale

Later on in the day I saw my first sei whale. We could tell it was smaller than the fin whale as we could see the blow and dorsal fin at the same time, and the more upright dorsal fin confirmed it was a sei rather than a fin whale. I felt incredibly lucky to see this less commonly seen species.

We also met a family of whales on deck 10! This is the lovely Whale family who joined us for our deck watch.


The Whale family with Hazel

Coming into Bilbao, not one, but three sharks were seen on the water’s surface, just metres from the boat! I love sharks, so this was hugely exciting for me, as well as the crowd of passengers and children that had gathered on the deck! We’re confident that one was a blue shark, but the other two had more uniform grey colouration and a blunt head. Any ideas, anyone?

We’ve also been enjoying some great bird sightings this week, including great skua, Cory’s shearwater and large numbers of great shearwater.

great shearwater.jpg

great shearwater

Saturday was whale heaven in the Bay of Biscay with blow after blow seen in the morning, and even one breaching animal close to the horizon. By the end of the day we had counted 12 whales! One was a fin whale, and one a sei, but the others we were unable to identify as they were either too far away, or we couldn’t see the body. In windy conditions it would be difficult and likely inaccurate to identify a whale from its blow alone. Still, the many blows made for a spectacular sight and an exciting, suspense-filled day!


There he/she blows!


Saturday morning sunrise

Throughout the week we have had many sightings of the lovely common dolphin, usually racing in towards the boat to play in the waves. This elegant dolphin often leaps clear of the water, giving us great views of the distinctive yellow and grey figure of eight markings on their sides. Some pods included calves, swimming in perfect synchrony with their mothers, and others had several striped dolphin among them, which would often leap high above the wake at the back of the boat, turn in the air, and slap down onto their sides! We all loved watching them!


Finally managed to capture a photo of common dolphins mid air! – Nicki

On Monday Hazel and I left our deck watch amidst calm seas around Brittany for our weekly crew drill, but as we were assembling with the rest of the crew on deck 7 common dolphins leapt towards us. Because we were 3 decks lower than our usual watch point, I really got a good feel for the size of these beautiful creatures – around 2.5 metres – which can look tiny from up on the top deck! It was a lovely experience to share with members of the crew.

I can’t wait to see what’s in store next week!

Deck watch questions and answers

This week passengers have been asking some brilliant questions about whales and dolphins. We wrote them down and decided to answer some of our favourites in this blog post.

These young passengers, sisters Gracie and Martha and their friend Libby, spent lots of time with us out on deck looking for dolphins and whales and had lots of questions!
We think they are budding wildlife officers in the making!


L – R: Nicki, Gracie, Libby, Martha and Hazel

Why do some whales and dolphins have one blowhole and others have two?
Most mammals have two nostrils (the equivalent to blowholes in the cetaceans). Toothed whales have one blow hole, whereas baleen whales have two. It is believed that one of the air passages of toothed whales evolved into their echolocation system, the bodily system that they use to make and receive sounds in order to locate and catch prey, leaving them with only one blowhole. By contrast, the baleen whales don’t echolocate to find their food (they filter feed, cruising through water or sieving sediment to find food) so their second air passage remained in use for breathing.

What kinds of fish are available as food for the dolphins and whales in the Bay of Biscay?
The Bay of Biscay has a wide variety of depths and prey available to cetaceans, providing different habitats to suit different species. It is home to a wide range of fish including anchovies, sardines, mackerel, tuna and blue whiting, along with lots of squid in the deep trenches. This variety of prey provides food for both animals who feed near the surface like the common dolphins and fin whales, and deeper diving species such as Cuvier’s beaked whale and sperm whale.

How long is a Sei whale?
(This question was in response to us having an awesome sighting of one of these animals, the third largest whale!)
The largest size for an adult male is 64 feet (19.4 m) long, weighing approximately 20 tons (40,000 lbs). Female sei whales are slightly larger. A newborn sei whale calf is approximately 15 feet (4.5 m) long at birth and weighs about one ton. We have been lucky enough to see two sei whales this week! Another interesting fact about this elusive and rarely seen whale is that they are the fastest whales, capable of swimming at 37 kilometres per hour!

Where do the fin whales we see in Biscay go when they leave on their migration?
The answer is, no one really knows. These animals have not been tracked on their migratory routes and more research is needed. Where the fin whales we see in Biscay, most numerously in the summer, go for the rest of the year is a mystery.

Are there any whales or dolphins we don’t know about yet?
The most recent discovery of a new cetacean was a species of beaked whale in 2014. we think the fact that a 13m long whale remained undiscovered until just three years ago is pretty incredible! Some of the beaked whales have still never been seen alive, and we only know that they exist because animals have washed up on beaches after dying out at sea. It seems likely, considering we know so little about these animals, that there may be more out there to be discovered; a very exciting prospect!


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