Posted by: orcaweb | April 19, 2017

A week to remember…

Hi everyone, I’m Katie and I was lucky enough to be a Wildlife Officer Placement with ORCA last year when I spent one month on board the Cap Finistѐre. It is safe to say I absolutely loved every second and so I am thrilled to be back, this time working as a Wildlife Officer! Thank you very much to ORCA and Brittany Ferries for having me!

So before I begin to talk about the sightings we have had this week, I must warn you all to brace yourselves! We have possibly had one of the greatest weeks any Wildlife Officer has ever experienced and I hope you will therefore understand how excited I am and bear with me…  It all began on Thursday morning, and the notes about it in my journal were titled as “THE MOST AMAZING DECK WATCH!” In just 4 and a half hours of surveying, we saw a whopping grand total of 162 dolphins! I could not believe my eyes when we kept getting groups of 10 to 20 dolphins coming by almost every 10 minutes, it was incredible! These were mostly sightings of the lovely and reliable common dolphins, but we saw some mixed pods with striped dolphins as well. We were also lucky enough to spot a couple of pods of bottlenose dolphins feeding.

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A lovely striped dolphin that came to play in the waves made by the ship.

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A striped dolphin (left) and a common dolphin (right) swimming along together- so sweet!

Now if that wasn’t enough, in the same deck watch, we also saw not one, but TWO Cuvier’s beaked whales! It was a fabulous sighting, a mere 50 meters away from the ship and we were pleased to have shared it with many passengers that were out on deck with us at the time.  We were all lucky enough to see their huge barrel shaped bodies rolling through the water, as well as their distinctive goose-like faces. Many passengers were thrilled to hear that the strange looking whales they saw were in fact the deepest diving marine mammals and they were very impressed to learn that Cuvier’s beaked whales can hold their breath for over 2 hours! We also think that we were looking at a male and female together; this is because one of them had quite distinct scarring on its back compared with the other and male Cuvier’s beaked whales have two tusks on their lower jaw which they use to rake each other in territorial battles. We therefore think that what we were looking at was a male with a lady friend, which was very nice to see indeed. So here’s to the Cuvier’s beaked whales, thanks for being so uniquely impressive and weird, I love you for it!

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A Cuvier’s beaked whale- this one we think might be a female!

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Another Cuvier’s beaked whale- note the scarring on it’s back which is why we think this one is a male!

I also can’t go without mentioning that throughout the duration of that deck watch, we had a lot of great passengers stick with us, despite the wind up on deck! One such passenger was a lovely, chatty boy called Hugo, pictured below. He actually joined ORCA as a FinFriend the day before, so Hazel and I were really happy that he was rewarded with such a great first experience in the Bay of Biscay!

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Some lovely passengers, which included Hugo standing next to his mum and helping us spot whales and dolphins.

Later that afternoon, after we left Bilbao, we had another great deck watch! We had another 111 dolphins in the space of 2 and a half hours, which included more bottlenose dolphins that were breaching and tail slapping. Of course we also saw more of the lovely and ever-present common dolphins, too. As well as this, we had yet another spectacular sighting: As Wildlife Officers, Hazel and I do our best to keep our eyes on the horizon whilst interacting with passengers at the same time, but sometimes the animals we want to spot can end up much closer to the ship than expected! In this case a passenger shouted “What’s that?!” and we were spoilt yet again that day as we saw a huge whale just 40 meters away from the side of the ship! At first sight it looked like a fin whale but then we soon realised that there were not one but two animals right in front of us! There was a much smaller whale swimming alongside the adult, presumably also a fin whale, but when they both went under for the final time, we got a fabulous view of the young whales’ tail stock, which you don’t normally see with fin whales unless they are about to begin a deep dive. So why don’t you have a look at the pictures below and let us know what you think it might have been! Hazel and I are still convinced that we saw a fin whale mother and calf, but neither of us could say for sure. By the end of the day I felt quite drained from all of the excitement and it is safe to say that I am constantly in awe of these amazing creatures, lucky me!

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The possible adult fin whale.

 

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The possible fin whale calf… Let us know what you think it might be!

Friday passed by without much excitement. We had a deck watch in the channel and despite a lovely sea state 2, where there was no white water, we didn’t see a thing! However… Saturday came around and more than made up for this as it blew us out of the water once again! It felt like we were getting a repeat of the fantastic deck watches we had on Thursday, with another 156 dolphins (mostly the excellent common dolphins as usual), as well as a pod of 4 pilot whales earlier on in the morning! Later on in that deck watch, amongst all of the dolphin sightings, we saw another Cuvier’s beaked whale rolling through the water nearby!

 

We were also treated to sightings of 5 fin whales that day! Two of these we saw blowing near the horizon, which we were able to identify through our binoculars as it was such a lovely clear day. The passengers really enjoyed these sightings as many said they had never seen a whale before! Later on, we spotted another baleen whale which was hanging out with a pod of dolphins and we think we saw them feeding together on the same school of fish- excellent teamwork!

Now for the really good stuff…  As well as witnessing two more fin whales blowing, which we think might have been a possible mother and calf due to their proximity with each other; we saw our fifth fin whale that day. At first we saw it blow a couple of times and realised it was actually quite close to us, but before we knew it, it breached right out of the water! It didn’t just do this once though, we actually saw it breach five times! Every time it did this it came crashing back down into the water afterwards, leaving behind a humungous white splash! We also got a wonderful view of its whole body, both its back and its underside. Hazel and I turned to each other and both said that we could feel our hearts thumping in our chest; we knew we had just witnessed one of nature’s greatest spectacles, it was certainly a once in a lifetime sighting!

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The breaching fin whale- amazing!

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The fin whale breaching again, showing us it’s underside instead!

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A fin whale coming to the end of its breach!

I was very pleased to have shared this sighting with many passengers as well; one of whom was a really sweet little girl called Phoebe who wants to be a marine biologist when she grows up! Phoebe saw her first whales and dolphins this week and she absolutely loved it. Her and her family spent hours out on deck with us and that is her pictured below with Hazel and her lovely mum Kyja.

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Phoebe, Hazel and Kyja (Phoebes mum).

So then, why do fin whales breach you may ask? Well, scientists do not really know for sure why any whales do this, but there are some theories about why they demonstrate this amazing behaviour! It is actually quite a rare for them to do this because of their huge size (adult fin whales can grow to 28 m long and weigh between 60 and 80 tonnes), so it takes a lot of energy to bring their bodies out of the water.

One theory is that in rough weather it is possible that whales breach so that they can breathe without getting any water in their blowhole. However we saw our breaching fin whale in quite calm conditions (sea state 2) so another theory is that they do this to contact each other, possibly when noises in the ocean might mask their own vocal communication. The two other fin whales we saw were nearby at the time so perhaps the breaching one was trying to communicate over the noise of the ship. If it was a male, it could have also been trying to show its dominance, or maybe even been trying to attract a mate!

Some other theories are that whales breach in order to stun their prey; a large whale landing on top of some fish would certainly stun them and make them easier to catch! It is possible that our whale may have been doing this as we saw a few whales in the area that could have also been there to feed. As well as this, it is now thought that perhaps young whales in particular breach in order to exercise. Repeated breaching could help build up myoglobin in their tissues, which would enable them to store more oxygen for when they dive. Another theory is that whales breach to have a look around; maybe our whale wanted to get a good look at us standing on the Cap Finistere! Some other species of whale are also thought to breach to try and dislodge barnacles because they could cause the whale some discomfort, make them less streamlined in the water and even add a few pounds of weight to the whale!

So, back to our deck watches… After all of the excitement we experienced earlier on in the week, I’m not sure Hazel and I could have taken much more, or we may have keeled over! As it happened, over the next three days our deck watches were indeed more chilled out and sightings consisted of a mixture of common and bottlenose dolphins. On Monday we also had a nice variety of birds and we were able to identify them with the help of a lovely passenger called Dave who was actually a bird spotting guide. As well as the usual gannets, Manx shearwaters, great black-backed gulls and lesser black-backed gulls, we also saw some little gulls, a kittiwake, razorbills and some migratory species, which included swifts and a whimbrel.

 

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A pretty gannet that joined us on Monday.

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Some Manx shearwaters that we spotted on Monday.

This week has certainly been a week to remember. I feel very lucky to have witnessed so many wonderful creatures; the breaching fin whale is definitely a sight I will never forget! I have also had the pleasure of speaking to some really lovely passengers and working with my fabulous colleague Hazel. So the coming weeks certainly have a lot to live up to, let’s hope I haven’t used up all my whale and dolphin spotting luck in one go!

Thanks for reading. Until next time,

Katie

If you would like to make a donation to help fund the fantastic work that ORCA do, or to become a member and train to become a Marine Mammal Surveyor to help us collect our vital scientific data, then please visit our website for more information!

Posted by: orcaweb | April 18, 2017

Teaching an Old Dog New Tricks

It’s fair to say that I am no stranger to the Pont Aven or the Bay of Biscay. Having travelled both as a whale and bird watching passenger, and an ORCA Surveyor and Wildlife Guide I know the ship pretty well and have grown to love the Golfe de Gascoigne, as the French call the Bay.  Indeed, my first experience of ORCA was on an early Biscay I-Spy Whales and Dolphins minicruise on the Pont Aven.  These are still running today, are more popular than ever, and are now called Sea Safaris.

Little did I know then that some years later my relationship with the charity would have developed to the extent that I now guide on the very same Sea Safaris and this season I am in the extremely lucky position of working on the Pont Aven as a Wildlife Officer!  I have put a lot of time, effort and sometimes even expense into volunteering and developing my relationship with the charity and it is testament to the inclusivity and support that ORCA gives its active members that I am in this position on board the Britanny Ferries’ flagship.

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Basking shark in the Bay of Biscay

When I mention that I will be working in the Bay of Biscay many people raise their eyebrows and darkly point out the Bay’s long held reputation as a place of fierce storms and shipwrecks – an image etched into British folklore.  It is true that the Bay can experience rough weather but its reputation comes mainly from the days of sailing ships when northern European vessels often struggled against prevailing Atlantic winds and were unable to clear the Brest peninsular and found themselves at the mercy of the Atlantic swell banking against a steep continental shelf.  It is believed that Catherine of Aragon very nearly didn’t travel to England to marry Henry XIII because of her fear of     the weather in Biscay.  But in a modern ship travelling in spring and summer months those fears quickly give way to the increasingly more accurate perception of the Bay as a phenomenal place to spot wildlife, particularly whales and dolphins.

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Playful common dolphins approaching the Pont Aven

As I settle into life on board I look back over an amazing, although at times nerve-racking few weeks.  Our training week at the ORCA office was crammed full of important information and in the final few days we had an outstanding training trip through Biscay on the Cap Finistere.  This saw us spot a number of fin whales, beaked whales, striped and common dolphins and a huge ten metre basking shark.  Originating from Cornwall, I’m not unused to encountering Baskers but seeing one in the Bay and so close to the ship was a first for me.  Another first was being on the ship as a member of the crew and experiencing the behind the scenes ship life.  I was thrown in at the deep end as I boarded on my own in Portsmouth and had two days learning the etiquette of crew life, guiding for the passengers and giving presentations before my colleague Sophie joined me in Plymouth.  At my very first meet and greet, where we present ORCA and ourselves to the boarding passengers, I came face to face with the esteemed ornithologist, writer and campaigner Mark Avery whom I recognised immediately.  Mark even mentioned us in his blog. I was also joined on that first crossing by a number of excellent birders.

Two weeks on and my colleague Heather and I encountered Mark again on his return trip and my last crossing at the end of my first fortnight onboard.  On his first crossing south through the Bay common dolphins and a migrating osprey were the highlights.  I think we just stepped it up a notch this time with a group of five pilot whales!  One particular crossing earlier in the week yielded over 300 striped, common and bottlenose dolphins!!

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Acrobatic striped dolphin

Something else that I have had to learn was how to use the new electronic Logger that ORCA now have, which replace the old paper survey sheets.   These state of the art recording tablets will make surveying so much easier and accurate and hopefully we will eventually have raised the funds for all survey teams across all ferries and cruise ships to be using them.

Our weekly visit to Cork has so far yielded common dolphins and some great seabirds including large numbers of manx shearwaters.  And not only have the cetaceans kept me happy but the migrating terrestrial birds and seabirds around the ship make every day different.  As do the amazing passengers we meet from all walks of life and ages, including young Miriam; her enthusiasm for the cetaceans she was seeing was infectious and we are proud to have her join ORCA as a FinFriend member.

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Our newest FinFriend member, Miriam, with Wildlife Officer Heather

So I’ve definitely learnt some new tricks, and also experienced some new animals and birds for me in the Bay of Biscay and the Celtic Sea.  I’m looking forward to learning more as the season goes on, and I’m now disembarking the ship for a week off and leaving the passengers in the very capable hands of my fellow wildlife officers Heather and Sophie.

Until next week,

Andy

If you would like to support ORCA, you can join as a member or give a donation to help us continue our vital work.

Posted by: orcaweb | April 12, 2017

Hats off to the seabirds

Hello! Jess here, back for another season with ORCA and Brittany Ferries after a year on land. Two years ago I was a Wildlife Officer on the Pont Aven, and as that was so much fun I have come back for another summer of cetacean surveying, this time on the Cap Finistère. After my first week on board with Hazel I was then joined by Katie, who bounded on board with enthusiasm.

Our reliable friends, the common dolphins, darted towards us many times on our earlier crossings in the week over the Bay of Biscay. For a while there was a distinct lack of whale action and a large cetacean sighting was well over due. But finally we got lucky and as we sailed over the continental shelf one morning we saw pilot whales, three fin whales and our common dolphin pals again.

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Common dolphins with a calf in the middle

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A huge fin whale blow in the distance

We have delivered many presentations and kids activities over the week, too. Katie has invented a hilarious way of teaching children on board how to do their own mammal surveys. She sits them by a window and teaches them about recording the sea state and weather and then sneakily disappears. Then as the children start their surveys she reappears at the window with tiny toy whale species. Honest, it’s a treat to watch.

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Here is Katie giving a presentation in the Planets bar on board

During our quieter crossings there are still plenty of things to admire out in the ocean, and one of those is seabirds.

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Here are some gulls having an intimate moment

If anyone had said to me a few years ago that I would be excited by seagulls I would not have believed them. (By the way, you should never call them seagulls otherwise bird experts will jump out from behind their binoculars and give you a telling off. They are simply ‘gulls’.) I mean they’re just boring grey and white thugs that we see every day on the coast, right? WRONG! Just over the last few months I’ve found them to be so much more than chip stealing menaces and I have become extremely fond of them.

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A black headed gull hunting for bugs on the water

This new obsession really began when I visited Bempton Cliffs nature reserve in Yorkshire. This site is a huge expanse of cliffs that thousands of nesting seabirds use to rear their chicks, and it is a fantastic place for a budding birder to start. For anyone who thinks seabirds ‘aren’t really their thing’ I would highly recommend visiting a seabird nesting colony such as this one. The sheer variety of birds that nest there is astounding. Observing the diversity of species, including kittiwakes, gannets, puffins, guillemots, herring gulls, and fulmars, and the way they care for their chicks on the edge of a cliff opened my eyes to the wonderfully diverse and brave lives of seabirds.

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Black-headed gull

But watching these birds from the Cap Finistère out in the middle of the unforgiving sea is where I have really grown to love them. The seabirds keep us company and entertained on our surveys as we watch and wait for the cetaceans. Both us and the birds have to battle the wind and rain and waves together and it is at these times that I feel very connected to them, both of us sharing the same freezing yet epic experience. But what’s great for me, is that when its gets cold or dark, or I get hungry, I can retreat to the warmth of inside the ferry and do things like drink hot chocolate and sleep in a bed. But the seabirds stay out there, battling the elements day and night, hunting for food, without a break from the sea, with some species only coming back to land once a year to lay their eggs.

They can look a bit scary too, which is possibly why they get such a bad rep, but they do have a caring side. The great black backed gull could be seen as a bit of a brute. When it’s time to rear their young a parent bird will often raid the nests of smaller gulls, stealing chicks to feed to their own. When an adult bird sees a chick in their nest, it immediately triggers an instinct to then provide food and care for it. However, a study on nesting black backs found that sometimes a parent with one chick would fly off and steal another chick and bring it back to the nest to feed their offspring, but, as the parent put the stolen chick in its nest, its instinct to care for any chick in their nest would suddenly kick in and the parent would then feel it had to care for this new chick as well, even though it was originally food for the first chick. This meant that great black backed gulls were we stealing chicks with the intention of killing them, only to then find they had an overwhelming urge to care for them. Some gulls were found to have up to ten more chicks then they originally started with, and were caring for them all. Now some may say that is due to stupidity, but I think it’s adorable!

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This is a herring gull, not a black backed gull, I am yet to capture a shot of the great black backed gull!

We dock at Portsmouth three times a week, and I have found this to be the perfect spot to get some close up views of the great black backed gulls as well as the more common, yet majestic seabirds. The variety of bird species you can see in the Bay of Biscay is also quite remarkable, and the number of species goes up and up as the summer goes on. So far I have seen… here comes my geeky bird list: gannet, fulmar, black headed gull, great black backed gull, lesser black backed gull, storm petrel, collared dove, pipit (possibly meadow), herring gull, yellow legged gull, great skua, razorbill, cormorant and heron.

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Portsmouth harbour

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A simple but elegant black headed gull

So here’s to the seabirds! You might look boring to some, but now I have had just a tiny taster of what your epic life on the ocean is like, to me you’re amazing little beasts and are worth looking after.

Jess – ORCA Wildlife Officer

 

Posted by: orcaweb | April 11, 2017

Parlez with Passengers

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A Great Skua cruising over the waves

This week has brought the start of the Easter holidays, and with it, an influx of
passengers on board the Pont Aven. We were very excited to welcome aboard Mark Avery, the celebrated ornithologist, writer and campaigner. He joined Wildlife Officer Andy out on deck and they managed to spot several pods of common dolphins, a couple of whale blows, great skuas, and a fantastic sighting of a migrating osprey as they moved through the Bay of Biscay. Mark Avery has also blogged about his experience aboard Brittany ferries with ORCA and he highlighted the importance of the survey data we collect and The State of European Cetaceans Report that was published earlier this year.  Check out his blog here

 

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Wildlife Officer Andy Gilbert (left) with Mark Avery (right)

 

We had some great trips down through the Bay of Biscay for April. It’s really wonderful to share these sightings with passengers, especially when they are so enthusiastic and their patience is rewarded with some lovely sightings. We had one gentleman from Spain who was desperate to see a dolphin, as he had never seen one before in all his sixty nine years. After missing the first few, Andy helped him spot one before the pod disappeared into the distance. His joy was palpable and Andy was rewarded with an ecstatic hug.

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Some Common Dolphins clowning around in the Bay of Biscay

We were also accompanied down to Santander this week by the Jones family. It was lovely to meet such an enthusiastic and engaged family and they stayed for the whole of our deck watches. They were well rewarded for their perseverance, with common dolphins a plenty, and a few striped dolphins mixed in. We were also treated to a pod of bottlenose dolphins tail slapping for us. We even had a few whale blows and an unidentified beaked whale with her calf. There were lots of smiles all round and I suspect we will see future conservationists from that family.

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Wildlife Officer Sophie with the Jones family braving some chilly winds for some great sightings.

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One of the striped dolphins in a mixed pod with common dolphins

As we travelled from Roscoff to Cork, we encountered many interested French passengers on their holidays to Ireland. I was asked plenty of questions in French that I could only try to hazard a guess to answer. Since we are working on-board in such an international environment, Andy and I decided to brush up on our French and dust off the Spanish vocabulary for the different routes. We have also been testing each other during our deck watches. Luckily orca is very similar, orca in Spanish, and orque in French. Here’s a short list of some of the names we’ve been practising, perhaps they’ll come in useful for you too!

English French Spanish
Harbour Porpoise Marsoin commun Marsopa
Common Dolphin Dauphin commun Delfín común
Striped Dolphin Dauphin bleu et blanc Delfín listado
Bottlenose Dolphin Grand Dauphin Delfín de dientes rugosos
Long-finned Pilot Whale Globicéphale noir Calderon común
Minke Whale Petit Rorqual Rorcual aliblanco
Fin Whale Rorqual commun Rocual común
Sperm Whale Cachalot macrocephaly Cachalote
Cuvier’s Beaked Whale Ziphius Zifio Común

So we’re looking forward to hopefully a great season of sightings and being able to describe them to passengers three times over, in French,Spanish and English.

Sophie

Wildlife Officer aboard the Pont Aven

Posted by: orcaweb | April 5, 2017

The adventure begins…

Welcome to the first blog post from the new ORCA Wildlife Officers for the 2017 season! We are so excited to begin our adventure working on board the Brittany Ferries Cap Finistère and Pont Aven ships, interacting with passengers about cetaceans (the collective name for whales, dolphins and porpoises) and out on deck helping people to spot these incredible animals at sea.

I’ll be working on board the Cap Finistère with Katie and Jess.

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From left to right: Me (Hazel), Katie and Jess

Heather, Andy and Sophie will be working on board the Pont Aven.

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From left to right: Heather, Andy and Sophie

Our season began with a training crossing, travelling from ORCA’s home port of Portsmouth (where the charity are based in the Brittany Ferries building) to Bilbao and back again. On this journey, we familiarised ourselves with the processes for recording our sightings, the informative presentations, fun activities and quizzes, and of course meeting lots of lovely passengers along the way. This ferry crossing passes through the Bay of Biscay, one of the best areas in Europe for dolphins and whales (especially the elusive deep water dwelling beaked whale species, like the Cuvier’s beaked whale). Anything can happen at any time, so we have daily watches out on deck looking for the wildlife that inhabits these wonderful waters and helping passengers to spot them.

To say things got off to a good start is a bit of an understatement! We were treated to fantastic views of common dolphins and striped dolphins leaping acrobatically from the sea and some bottlenose dolphins passed gently by, too. I had never seen striped dolphins before so I was very happy to see them!  They certainly put on a fantastic display, as they lept and back-flipped in the wake.

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Striped dolphin (Stenella coeruleoalba)

The calm conditions meant we were able to clearly see the blow of numerous fin whales as we travelled into deeper waters, passing over the continental shelf and over the abyssal plain. These huge animals are the second largest cetacean after the blue whale and can reach up to 27m in length! At the surface, a large plume of spray can be seen as they expel air from their enormous lungs; this is what we refer to when we use the term ‘blow’. As they moved along through the water we saw their rolling backs and tiny dorsal fins. One fin whale even had dolphins riding the bow wave in front of it – an incredible sight!

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The blow of a fin whale, followed by its back and dorsal fin, as it rolls through the waters of the Bay of Biscay

In the deeper waters we had a couple of separate sightings of what we believe to have been beaked whales. They were far off in the distance and without a good look at a beaked whale (or a well-timed photograph!) it can be very difficult to positively identify which species they are. Nevertheless, it was very exciting to see them and I hope for many more sightings of these mysterious animals over the coming months.

Cetaceans are my favourite animals, but I have to say on this crossing the most memorable sighting was not a whale, dolphin or porpoise. We spotted a large, brownish, triangular dorsal fin close in to the ship, slowly moving closer into view, followed a long way behind by the tip of the animal’s tail. I couldn’t believe my eyes – it was a gigantic basking shark! The second largest fish in the world, passing quietly by, filtering food from the water with its huge mouth wide open. This sighting was another first for me and at 10m long (23ft) it was a very impressive animal!

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An enormous basking shark: The tip of its tail is visible on the left of the photo and the tip of its dorsal fin on the right – this is the second largest species of fish in the world!

The other wildlife officers departed leaving Jess and I to our first week working aboard the Cap Finistère. We were treated to numerous sightings of dolphins throughout the week and we were thrilled to be able to help some passengers have their first sightings of these beautiful animals and share information about cetaceans and their conservation. We have had a great first week getting to know the friendly, helpful Brittany Ferries crew and finding our way around the ship. As I write this I am due to disembark the ship for my week off tomorrow, but I am already excited to get back on board!

I look forward to sharing more of our Wildlife Officer adventures with you soon,

Hazel

If you would like to make a donation to help fund the fantastic work that ORCA do, or to become a member and train to become a Marine Mammal Surveyor to help us collect our vital scientific data, then please visit our website for more information!

Posted by: orcaweb | September 28, 2016

It’s the final countdown!

 

The final week of the Wildlife Officer season on-board the Cap Finistere is now upon us. Yolanda and I (Lucy) are reunited after saying Au Revoir to our final intern Elena. We started the week with a quiet sail out from Portsmouth through the English Channel on Wednesday afternoon. It was a particularly cold and windy deck watch making it clear Autumn was finally with us. Braving the harsh winds we were rewarded with two small pods of common dolphins leaping towards us.

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Common dolphins

Thursday morning as our 6am alarms went off, I peered out of the window and squinting into the darkness I could see that the water was flat…perfect whale watching conditions! We raced up on deck for the beautiful sun rise, knowing we were already well within the bay and hopeful for some great sightings. Eager passengers were not far behind us with their binoculars at the ready. Striped dolphins were the first visitors of the morning. A small pod of roughly five were feeding, only breaching the water’s surface as they became aware of the ships wake.

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A little later on a lonesome unidentified dolphin leapt out of the water, only once. This brief encounter caught us all by surprise and left us without any photographs to try and establish the species, definitely the one that got away. Sailing over the deep abyssal plain we were starting to wonder, had the fin whales left already for warmer waters? Most large whales show some form of seasonal migration and as the Bay of Biscay serves mainly as a feeding ground we wouldn’t expect the fin whales to stick around in large numbers for the entirety of the season. Then, just as the Spanish coastline was coming into view, a blow! A fin whale! As we sailed past this magnificent animal, the passengers that had so patiently waited with us got a great view of the animal as its long back rolled at the surface.

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Fin whale surfacing

After greeting new passengers in Bilbao we set sail once more and were not disappointed. Within minutes of being out on deck we witnessed three fin whales who were acting rather strangely. They were incredibly close together, there were large blows and even bigger splashes made by the animals. I was anticipating a possible breach as they were clearly very excitable however not one of them came out of the water. With passengers at our sides we watched as the large whales continued to blow and splash out of view. Shortly after this exciting sighting we saw a further two fin whales, a much more relaxed pair, slowly rolling past us through the calm waters.

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Three fin whales splashing about!

As the sun quickly started to set and we were once again reminded of the changing of the seasons a pod of common dolphins were suddenly upon us. A nice end to a lovely day. Friday morning brought us back to the English Channel and again, cold winds to wake us up. Despite this the sun was high in the air and the water was lit up like a beacon by its glare. This didn’t prevent us from seeing two pods of dolphins feeding, accompanied by diving gannets. The dolphins however, framed by the sun were mere silhouettes so we were unable to get an identification of the exact species. Saturday morning, as always was filled with anticipation as this is the one day of the week where we cross all of the different habitat types within the bay and therefore have a greater opportunity to see a variety of species. Common dolphins on the shallow coastal waters of the northern part of the bay were our first visitors. As we made our way towards the continental shelf edge we saw a large whale blow, a probable fin whale. Large waves and strong winds were hiding the animals well but we still saw a few more whale blows across the shelf. As we verged onto the deeper waters of the abyssal plain we saw a mixed pod of both common and striped dolphins. Before we headed back inside for our daily presentation we were lucky enough to see an oceanic sunfish breaching right out of the water next to the ship.

On Sunday, Lucy and myself (Yolanda) were sailing around the Brittany Coastline for the final time. Although it was a beautiful sunny day, the sea was quite rough, with lots of white water. This tends to make it harder to see cetaceans. Luckily, lots of dolphins made it easy for us by swimming towards the ship! We saw 35 common dolphins, including 4 calves, as well as a couple of bottlenose dolphins. It was also a fantastic day for seabirds, with lots of shearwaters, cormorants, and gannets swooping around the islands and lighthouses. Sunday was Lucy’s last day as she disembarked that evening, so it was a lovely end to her time on board.

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On Monday, the sea was even rougher, with lots of spray and a very heavy swell. However, myself and a couple of hardy passengers braved the wind, spray, and occasional rain and were rewarded with 3 pods of common dolphins.

Tuesday was the final day of the wildlife officer season. On my last ever deck watch, three whales (probably fin whales), two striped dolphins, and one lonely common dolphin turned out to say goodbye. I went indoors to say farewell to the crew  – the 2016 wildlife officer season is complete!

So to summarise…

  • 19,353 passengers who attended our activities…
  • 260 deck watches…
  • 156 journeys across the Bay of Biscay…
  • 26 weeks on board…
  • 14 species…

…and 6 unforgettable months!

Both of us (Yolanda & Lucy) would like to take this opportunity to say a huge thank you to all of the wonderful passengers that have joined us throughout this year’s season – your company out on deck and your enthusiasm for our cause is always greatly appreciated. We would also like to say a massive thank you to Ruth, our fellow wildlife officer and friend, hopefully we will be able to sail together again soon! Our interns, Mary, Katie and Elena, thank you for all of your hard work, we are very proud of you all. To the Boogie Management entertainment teams, thank you for your support and last but not least thank you to Brittany Ferries for giving us the amazing opportunity to study these fantastic animals from your beautiful vessel – we will miss her!

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2016 Wildlife Officers, Yolanda (left) and Lucy (right)

Posted by: orcaweb | September 23, 2016

The penultimate week!

On Wednesday, myself (Yolanda) and Elena boarded the Cap Finistere for the penultimate week of the 2016 Wildlife Officer season. We didn’t see any cetaceans during our deck watch on Wednesday evening, but as it was a lovely sunny summers evening we both enjoyed being outside watching soaring seabirds and the dancing green waves.

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Gannets soaring at sunset

Unfortunately, Thursday was a different story. The swell was so heavy that the outside decks were closed in the morning, meaning we had to cancel our deck watch. After battling through an unforgettable presentation where lots of merchandise and leaflets slid onto the floor during some of the bigger waves (the show must go on), we were unsurprised to learn that the decks were still closed. However, this did give Elena more time to work on her project – a model of the Bay of Biscay. This comes complete with giant squid lurking in the trenches, lighthouses around the Brittany Coastline, and a model of the Cap Finistère!

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Elena’s project

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Elena’s artwork!

After a disappointing yet memorable day on Thursday, we were very pleased to find that the decks were open again on Friday morning. There was lots of white water, making it harder to spot cetaceans. However, a pod of bottlenose dolphins came bounding towards us out of the spray – a sighting at last!

The next crossing, departing on Friday afternoon, got off to a great start with our ORCA quiz. Our champions scored a record-breaking 20 out of 20 – well done! The following day was Elena’s final trip to Santander. It proved an exciting crossing as during the journey, we saw three pods of common dolphins, along with the blows of two large whales (most likely fin whales) in the distance.

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A common dolphin surfacing

On Sunday, we had a beautiful calm sea with only the faintest ripples – perfect conditions! Over the course of the morning, two pods of common dolphins came swimming towards the ship to play in the wake. Due to the lovely calm waters, we were also able to spot another pod of dolphins feeding in the distance.

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A common dolphin leaping towards the ship

On Monday, we saw a grand total of 32 common dolphins in several different pods. This was probably because we were sailing through a fantastic feeding area as we also saw lots of seabirds such as gannets and Great Shearwaters circling and diving.

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A flock of great shearwaters

Tuesday was Elena’s final day on board. It was a wonderful sunny day, with a beautiful calm blue sea. We saw lots of fin whales in the distance, and two fin whales surfaced really close to the ship. Towards the end of the deck watch as we were about to go inside, we saw four common dolphins swimming next to the ship beneath the water – a fantastic end to our deck watch!

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If you would like to make a donation to help fund the fantastic work that ORCA do, or to become a member and train to become a Marine Mammal Surveyor to help us collect our vital scientific data, please visit our website for more information!

Cetacean love,

Yolanda

Posted by: orcaweb | September 14, 2016

Breach, breach, breach!!!!

On Wednesday, I (Elena) started my third week on board the Cap Finistere. The lovely weather in the channel gave us some fantastic views of Guernsey as we were starting our first deck watch whilst sailing between the Channel Islands.  Not long after we started our watch, we noticed a few splashes in the mirror-like waters – a small pod of common dolphins! However, unlike most other occasions we have seen them, they did not pay us a closer visit as they were too busy feeding.

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Sailing through the Channel Islands

Going out on deck on Thursday morning and seeing the heavy fog and streaky white water all around got us a bit down. After all, the chances of spotting anything in weather like that are not great. We were sailing in the Bay’s deepest waters between the shelf and the underwater trenches – usually a fantastic place for spotting wildlife, especially large whales. A few passengers who saw our talk decided to join us on deck. The sun had barely come up when we spotted a pod of around 50 striped dolphins vigorously jumping in and out of the choppy water – they were in a hurry!!! That was a very welcome surprise as we see this species a lot less than the common dolphin and we had started to wonder where they have gone.

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The breaching fin whale when we first spotted it on the horizon!

About an hour in, we spotted a big splash on the horizon to the back of the ship – it was a large cetacean breaching!! Extremely excited, I took a closer look through my binoculars – a fin whale, easily recognisable because of the asymmetrical colouration of the lower jaw. It wasn’t long until we spotted another animal breaching, this time the splash was to the front of the ship. We locked our eyes to the horizon, waiting for another sighting of the whale. As we were sailing forward, we were getting closer and closer to what was definitely a fin whale, breaching continuously and giving us an amazing show. After a while we found ourselves parallel to the animal and could see it only 50m away. And that’s when we got our best sighting of the season, we witnessed something I have only ever dreamt of seeing, something so spectacular that it made my heart and brain stop for a moment – the second largest animal on earth breached completely out of the water right there and then, 50 m away from us. Lucy and I were jumping for joy, not believing what we just witnessed. This experience left us emotional, ecstatic and inspired and showed everyone on deck what makes us dedicate our time and work to the conservation of these fascinating animals.

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A beautiful cormorant

 

Over the weekend, we were once again graced with fantastic sightings – on Friday a playful minke whale paid us a visit in the Channel and breached right in the wake of the ship. Saturday or Santander-day as I like to call it, was very productive with another breaching fin whale spotted on the horizon, numerous striped dolphins and a couple of unidentified beaked whales, all spotted not too far from the Spanish coast as we were travelling to the beautiful Santander.

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A playful common dolphin!

On Monday we were reminded by a passenger how lucky we are – ‘Not your usual start of the week’ someone said as we were marvelling at the playful and energetic common dolphins jumping around the ship. Tuesday was my last day with Lucy and we went out on deck ready to make the most of the fact we were sailing over the most productive waters in the Bay. Having just turned up on deck, we were greeted by a beautiful breach on the horizon – was it another happy fin whale or our friend from earlier this week? The rest of our watch was filled with tall whale blows until the captain had to close the decks due to a lightning storm. We stuck around for a bit staring at the sky and expecting the next bolt to cut through the heavy dark clouds.

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One of our patrons Mark Carwardine wrote in his book that no one ever says ‘I do not remember if I have seen a whale.’ Everyone who has ever witnessed these animals’ beauty and grace will know that is true. Any encounter with a cetacean is truly remarkable and unforgettable. And with this thought, I will have to say goodbye and I am off to enjoy my last week on board the Cap Finistere.

If you would like to make a donation to help fund the fantastic work that ORCA do, or to become a member and train to become a Marine Mammal Surveyor to help us collect our vital scientific data, then please visit our website for more information!

 

Posted by: orcaweb | September 7, 2016

Shining Sun and Severe Swell

Hello again readers, it’s been a sunny and swelly week on board with our final intern of the season, Elena. I (Lucy) joined her on board the Cap Finistere on Wednesday, the last day of August. It feels like only yesterday I was preparing for this year’s whale watching season with all the other wildlife officers and now I find myself wondering where all the time went.

Our first deck watch together on Wednesday evening in the English channel wasn’t a great start for us. There was a thick fog that at times seemed to engulf the entire ship and a heavy swell that kept most passengers in their cabins.

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A gannet looking for its next meal

Thursday was a very different story. As I opened the curtains in our cabin I saw that the sea was flat. The sun had not fully risen yet but with my eager eyes pressed against the window I was keen to get out on deck for a full day sailing across the Bay of Biscay. Despite a slow start, our first sighting was unforgettable! A fin whale, which seemed to pop right up next to the ship took an almighty breath and it was so close not only could we see the blow hole but its exhalation could be heard quite clearly. Both Elena and I were ecstatic, just hearing the breath of these magnificent animals really is quite a humbling experience.

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A fin whale right next to the ship

A small pod of three common dolphins were spotted and later on a few beaked whales including a Cuvier’s beaked whale close to the ship.  Its beige brown back seen rolling away. As the harbour walls of Bilbao came into sight a passenger noticed a dolphin bow riding another ship. Dolphin often do this, even on our own vessel so it was a joyful sight to see from a different perspective. There were also lots of fish too including breaching tuna, some sun bathing sunfish and whole shoals of other unidentifiable species underneath the water. A large breaching animal was also seen in the distance making quite a splash.

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A great shearwater

That afternoon as we made the return journey from Bilbao the weather had severely worsened. There were really strong winds and sea state 3-5 however this didn’t stop us from spotting a few large whale blows including some sperm whales as we sailed over the canyons. Then as if the mornings close encounter hadn’t been enough there was another really close sighting of a fin whale right next to the ship. I was able to see its body under the water as it slowly rose to the surface next to us allowing us to see its full length and all its fins. Elena and I, as well as the few passengers that stuck it out with us could barely contain ourselves jumping up and down with excitement!

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The surface profile of a fin whale

Friday morning called for another deck watch in the Channel where harbour porpoise were spotted. As usual on the following Saturday we woke up hoping for calm seas over the Bay and this week we were not disappointed, as we woke up to a mirror flat ocean. Our first sightings of the day were common dolphins, skimming the water’s surface in the morning sun, then a minke whale as we made our way across the shallow coastal waters of the northern part of the bay. Shortly after the shelf edge we saw off in the distance a pod of pilot whales moving slowly through the water. After a great start to the day we experienced a  long pause in sightings but as we ventured closer to Spain we started seeing the blows of large fin whales again and a group of very keen passengers with us had their binoculars and cameras at the ready. By the afternoon the white water had started to reappear but there were still a few more whale blows to note down before arriving into Santander.

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Santander

Sunday morning brought us back to the French coast and its picturesque Islands but we once again found ourselves in a heavy swell and lots of fog. This didn’t prevent us from seeing lots of common dolphins though which have become frequent visitors to the Islands over the past month. That evening Elena undertook her first children’s presentation and it’s fair to say she did amazingly well keeping both the children and the adults in the audience entertained throughout.

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A gull resting on the water

Monday evening came around so quickly and I was once again left feeling like time was slipping through my fingers. We set up for a six hour deck watch where we saw common dolphins, sunfish and sharks underneath the water’s surface. Once thing we had forgotten to take notice of however was the intense glare of the sun on the water’s surface which resulted in both Elena and I going to bed that evening with some interesting looking panda eyes.

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A common dolphin bounding towards the ship

The final day of the week soon came around and it was good to see more fin whales rolling by us at regular intervals throughout the Spanish coast and deep abyssal plain. The evening brought with it some common dolphins and minke whales as we sailed over shallower coastal waters. Some very well fed bottlenose dolphins whose sheer size always shocks me compared to that of the slender common dolphins also came bounding towards us just as the sun was starting to set.

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A beautiful sunset over the Bay of Biscay

If you would like to make a donation to help fund the fantastic work that ORCA do, or to become a member and train to become a Marine Mammal Surveyor to help us collect our vital scientific data, then please visit our website for more information!

Posted by: orcaweb | August 31, 2016

Dolphins,whales and a giant black fin!

After months of excitement and anticipation I finally started my placement on board the Cap Finistère as the new and last for this season wildlife guide intern! My name is Elena and even though I do not come from a science or biology background, I am extremely passionate about cetacean conservation. Joining Yolanda on Wednesday was a moment I had been waiting for ever since I heard about the opportunity to be part of ORCA’s program. And so, my journey began!

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Adolescent gannet

On Wednesday, we were sailing in the shallow and heavily shipped waters of the English Channel.  Having just started my training, I was unsure what to look for when trying to spot wildlife. However, beginner’s luck was on my side and I spotted the first cetacean of the day – an unidentified dolphin jumping out of the water towards the ship!

We started Thursday morning very hopeful as we were sailing over the deepest waters of the Bay of Biscay (reaching depths of 4.5km) as well as the deep sea trenches where cuvier’s beaked whales and sperm whales often feed. As Yolanda and I were discussing the height and shape of different whales’ blows, I saw something in the distance and it did not take me long to realise it was the first whale blow of the morning! The tall, straight blow on the horizon was unmistakably that of either a fin, blue or sei whale. Our persistence on Deck 10 was rewarded with a fantastic sighting of 3 fin whales not too far from the ship. At first, the smaller size of the cetaceans left us wondering if the encounter was actually with the rare sei whales but later examination of the pictures we took led us to conclude they were small fin whales.

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Small fin whale

Our evening watch on Thursday over the 3km deep Santander trench started quietly but half way through, we had a close sighting of a couple of beaked whales, most likely Cuvier’s, who surfaced only around 50m away from the ship. These elusive cetaceans were spotted by one of our observant passengers, gliding quietly through the water, possibly after a good meal of fresh squid caught deep in the trenches! The rest of our watch was quiet and we finished the day feeling rewarded by the great sightings.

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Enter a caption

On Saturday, I saw Santander’s coast for the first time and I have to say I was in awe. After a few sightings of common dolphins in Spain’s coastal waters, we enjoyed the foggy scenery that looked as if it was the set of a fairy tale. Sunday & Monday were full of fantastic common dolphin sightings. We spotted quite a few mothers with their calves swimming only around 2 meters away from the ship and luckily, lots of passengers got to enjoy the view!

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A foggy Santander

Tuesday was the most eventful day of my first week – I finally felt ready to assist Yolanda with one of our talks. Our deck watch did not start until the afternoon when we were sailing over the submarine canyons and later on over the continental shelf. We rarely pass by these locations without spotting cetaceans and Tuesday’s watch delivered more than we had hoped for! Shortly after going on deck, we started seeing whale blows all over the horizon, every time closer to the ship. We believe those were the most common rorquals in the bay – fin whales. Almost right after that, we saw everyone’s favourite – common dolphins, racing in the waves on the side of the ship and letting us have a good look at them.

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Common dolphin a few meters from the ship

Around 7pm we were already past the shelf and into shallow waters, headed towards Brittany’s coast. We kept seeing dolphins quite regularly, jumping high out of the water far in the distance. We were almost ready to pack up and go inside when a passenger shouted he saw something moving – I looked the way they were pointing and my stomach turned before I could even process what I saw – it was a jet black back rolling through the water with a huge almost completely straight dorsal fin sticking out! By the time I got my camera in position, the animal had disappeared deep underwater but I know that what I saw looked like it could be an orca… The fact I did not manage to take a picture makes me wonder if I can trust my own judgement, but in the same time, I know what I saw! We stayed on deck until sunset staring far into the horizon, wondering if we will get another sighting and questioning what we saw…

Elena

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