Posted by: orcaweb | June 7, 2017

A delightful detour

We have had yet another interesting and whale-filled week aboard the Brittany Ferries Pont Aven. Perhaps feeling a little spoiled by last week’s fin whale sightings, our expectations had been set very high!

As usual, the sun was shining on our first crossing of the week, through the Bay of Biscay to Santander. As we headed south, we crossed over the continental shelf, and headed into deep waters. It didn’t take long for the first whales of the week to appear- directly ahead of the ship! The Pont Aven sails quickly, at 25 knots or faster, so after shouting and waving excitedly, we focused our attention back to the whales now very close to us. We were lucky to be standing with fellow keen cetacean watchers, as the two whales rolled past us through the water on our starboard (right) side. We were intrigued, these small whales beside us: what were they? A beaked whale? Hearing a cry of CUVIER’S from the watching huddle of binoculars was a fantastic feeling, yet surprising.

We’ve mentioned Cuvier’s beaked whale in previous blogs; the elusive species known to inhabit the canyons in the Southern Bay of Biscay. Here we were, in the Northern Bay, many kilometres away, with two of them right by the ship! They were being typically sneaky, rolling stealthily through the water. So of course, I was running around the deck, making sure everybody’s eyes were on these passing whales. All too soon, they were disappearing into the wake of the ship, and I had missed my opportunity for a photo. I vowed that if we saw any more this week, I wouldn’t miss them again!

I thanked the lovely common dolphins for saving the day as I snapped away at the hundreds of dolphins darting towards us, eager to play throughout the day.

Our final trip down to Santander proved to be the best of the week. We rushed (or more accurately stumbled half asleep) up onto deck for 5am, keen to spot some dolphins in the sunrise. We were not disappointed when, at 05:20am, we spotted some distant dolphins leaping clear of the water to say good morning: the perfect way to start a day! We saw similar small groups throughout the day, but it was quiet. We have become accustomed to seeing many hundreds of common and striped dolphins on our journeys, so these often distant groups were surprisingly infrequent. We never lose our optimism however, and we were right not to.

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Sophie watching at sunrise

Once again on this trip we were joined by dolphin and whale enthusiasts, including a couple who had done the ORCA marine mammal surveyor training, and as such were keen to spot a whale! I was standing talking to them when suddenly fingers and binoculars were pointing over my shoulder to the stern. Spinning around, I was just in time to catch a glimpse of a distant sperm whale blow. True to form I started yelling, calling Sophie and all the watchers from the port-side to get over here quickly! They all came running over, and a few fast runners were just in time to see the whale blow a couple more time before disappearing out of view. I then had a captive audience and no whale, but nature stepped in to save me, in the form of another whale, this time much closer to the ship. It was a Cuvier’s, clear and bright in the Spanish sun! How fantastically lucky to have so many people, all watching exactly the right place at exactly the right time! Again, I had been talking to so many people, so neglected to snap a picture. I needn’t have worried, for there were plenty more finned friends to come!

As we approached Santander, we had another interesting sighting! Bottlenose dolphins off the coast of Spain! We knew there has been a resident pod recorded, but for the first time this season, we spotted them swimming right past us. A brilliant end to our journey south.

After a quick turn-around in sunny Santander, we were back on board and heading north. We had bad weather forecast, and wanted to get as much watching in before that hit. As we headed out of Santander, we appeared to be taking a different route to normal, heading north-west. We speculated that this detour was to avoid the storm we had been warned about, and looking east, it did seem very dark! However, it was grey on this new route too, standing out on deck with a few passengers, it got quite rough! Despite this, we saw no less than three Cuvier’s beaked whales surfacing in the huge swell. They came right past us, peeking in between the waves. This time I got photos!

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Three Cuvier’s beaked whales!!

We also had large groups of dolphins coming right into the ship, making us all but forget the wind and rain. There was one dolphin particularly that stood out, that we have since concluded could only be a striped/ common dolphin hybrid! I think we should take this detour more often! It was such a delightful surprise and the best way to round off another brilliant week. This week just goes to show, you never know what you will see as these wild whales and dolphins move and explore their ocean home.

Until next week,

Heather

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!

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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.

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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).

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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.

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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!

Posted by: orcaweb | May 31, 2017

A week in the life of a Wildlife Officer

Hello everyone, thanks for tuning in to read this week’s installment of our Cap Finistère Wildlife Officer blog written by myself, Katie. I thought that this week some of you might enjoy finding out about what else Wildlife Officers get up to on board: As well as our deck watches we also run a number of activities that feature on the entertainment schedule, and we even have some down time too, although some of that is still spent out on deck! So I hope you enjoy reading this insight to “A week in the life of a Wildlife Officer”!

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This beautiful sunset picture was taken one evening this week when Hazel and I had some time off (yes, we still want to go and look at the sea in our free time!) Can you spot the dolphins?

So each week begins on a Wednesday for us, when we wake up on board with a lovely view of Portsmouth from our cabin window. I went to the University of Portsmouth and lived there for three years so I really enjoy sailing past recognisable landmarks such as the Pyramids, Southsea Castle and Clarence Pier, as it feels like I’m coming home!

Once we docked, I deposited Jess and collected Hazel from the office and we got back on the Cap Finistère to start our week with a meet and greet in the Planets Bar. The aim of these sessions is to make the passengers aware that we are on board, as many of them have never heard of ORCA before and often don’t realise that they could see cetaceans on their crossing. This week, Hazel and I met a lovely couple at our meet and greet who are also marine mammal surveyors! This means they volunteer for ORCA by doing surveys on the bridges of ferries and cruises to collect data on the whales, dolphins and porpoises they see. If you would like to know more about becoming a marine mammal surveyor and when the training courses will be taking place, then check out this link.

One of the other things we do on board is take part in crew drills, which we did on Wednesday and this time had a lot of fun in doing so… These drills are quite serious training sessions for the crew so that they know what to do in an emergency situation and as part of the crew we are required to take part. This normally involves us standing quietly in the corner and doing what we are told, but this time we were approached by the Chief Officer and asked to make our acting debut… Hazel was given the role of a passenger who needed her heart medication and I became a distressed mother who was frantically looking for her 8 year old son. Once all of the crew arrived at the assembly station, myself, Hazel and a number of other “actors” started to kick off. This was a test for the crew to see how they would handle dealing with stressed passengers in difficult situations and I have to say after shouting at everyone that I wanted my 8 year old son  back and making quite a fuss, you will all be pleased to know that the crew did a very good job at calming me down, and locating my son of course. They also helped Hazel and the other actors to solve their problems, so I can safely say that if we were to ever find ourselves in a sticky situation, we know the crew would be able to look after us and the passengers very well!

Now for a sightings update: During Thursdays deck watches we had beautiful weather and saw large numbers of common dolphins, which included a sighting of a 40 strong pod! It was probably the best common dolphin sighting I’ve ever had, as there were so many, that we were able to watch dolphin after dolphin go by for roughly 5 minutes in the wonderfully clear water! I also saw a lovely striped dolphin leap out of the water right next to the ship at the same time, so it must have been a mixed pod. Later on in the day we also saw a pod of 7 pilot whales which Hazel and I always love to see! We were joined by a lovely boy called Sonny who we think brought us lots of good luck as he was very good at spotting dolphins and really enjoyed seeing them. You can see him and his dad pictured with me below!

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Here is a sequence of pictures that Hazel put together which shows one of the lovely common dolphins we sighted!

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This is me with Sonny and his dad after they joined us for an afternoon of fantastic sightings.

On Friday I was treated to my first sighting in the channel this season (which is normally a bit of a sighting-free zone), and saw some more common dolphins.  This lovely Great black-backed gull hitched a ride on our slip stream:

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Hazel’s picture of a Great black-backed gull enjoying the nice weather.

As well as our deck watches, we deliver presentations nearly every day whilst on board and on Friday Hazel delivered a new presentation for our northbound crossings, which is about whale, dolphin and seal spotting in the UK. This has gone down really well so far, as most people are usually shocked to find out that 25 species of cetacean can be seen around the UK, and so are pleased to learn where they have the best chances of sighting them.

I also developed a new northbound presentation which is all about whale and dolphin intelligence. There are plenty of examples that demonstrate how clever these animals are, but one of my favourites (it is normally a crowd favourite too), is an example of a group of young male bottlenose dolphins who figured out that when agitated, a puffer fish releases a toxin that can give the dolphins a bit of a high! They therefore bite down gently on the puffer fish and pass it round to each other; they are basically the first recreational drug using dolphins ever to have been recorded! To watch this in action, check out this link.

We also run children’s activities for all of the little people on our crossings. On Saturday we joined forces with Tori and Dave, our Entertainment Managers, and had a colouring party with a surprise visit from the Brittany Ferries mascot, Pierre le Bear. Other activities we run include measuring out the lengths of different whales and dolphins, playing marine themed games and “whaley” good arts and crafts. We think it’s important to try and educate the children a bit more about cetaceans whilst also making sure they have some fun!

Saturday’s sightings included large numbers of common dolphins again and even more pilot whales, lucky us! There were also three sightings of beaked whales (woooooh!), but surprisingly these sightings were not over the canyons where we normally expect to see our deep diving species, but actually took place over the shelf where the depth drops from 100 m to over 4000 m. We are not sure what these whales were doing there but perhaps there were a lot of squid around, which is their favourite food.

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Here is a picture of some of the common dolphins we saw; there were plenty more hanging out with these two as well!

After our last deck watch we arrived in Santander and we normally get off to have ice cream on a Saturday, because who doesn’t love ice cream?! However we arrived in Spain and it was really cloudy, so Hazel and I decided to stay on board and catch up on some on admin instead. Fingers crossed for more sun (and ice cream) next time!

Sunday came along and it brought a bottlenose dolphin sighting with it! We saw five of them breaching and tail slapping just off of the Brittany coastline and I was pleased that I was the first one to spot them. Sunday is also quiz-day and we have a lot of fun hosting our quizzes. Hazel and I both grab a mic and deliver it together which means we are able to have some banter with both each other and the passengers! They seem to enjoy our cryptic clues, which are often not particularly helpful… Here is an example of one of our quiz questions, see if you can guess the answer yourself: What is the name of the whale that Pinocchio gets swallowed by in the Disney film Pinocchio?

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These two fab passengers pictured with Hazel are Chris and Helen; the dolphin pens they are holding was their prize for winning the quiz this week! They are regular passengers on board the Cap Finistère who have joined us for every deck watch on their crossings and it has been lovely to have them!

Monday came around and we found ourselves in Roscoff where we were greeted by a fresh-faced crew who get on board, ready and rearing to go after their week off. Unfortunately we did not get any sightings that day, although we did get some good views of the lighthouses off the Brittany coastline.

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This a lighthouse we often sail by called Le Phare de la Vieille, which translates to “The Old Lighthouse”. It is indeed very old as it was built between 1882 and 1887.

On Tuesdays, we always spend some time preparing to get off which includes cleaning our cabin, finishing off any admin and packing. It is therefore a bit of a jam packed day as we also have a presentation, a children’s activity and two deck watches. This week the sea state was wonderful as it was so calm, so we were lucky enough to see three sharks, as well as lots of dolphins and two harbour porpoises!

Other sightings this week included a lovely pair of great skuas, a very large group of Manx shearwaters near the Brittany Coastline, as well as some gannets and even kittiwakes.

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Here is a pair of Great skuas, which we saw on Wednesday.

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Here are two gannets; one had its mouth open as they were having a chat, awh!

So thanks for reading, I hope you have enjoyed learning more about what we get up to each week. We have a lot of fun interacting with all of the passengers and showcasing our marine life, and I am very grateful to be here!

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 | May 31, 2017

The finbacks are coming!

After last week’s enormous numbers of dolphins and a fascinating experience with a mother and juvenile Cuvier’s beaked whale, where the mother appeared particularly malnourished, it’s been a pretty quiet week in Biscay.  Heather and I did have common and striped dolphins there early in the week but the numbers had dropped significantly and we didn’t even get a sniff of a blow from a large rorqual whale.

You might have read my last blog, Musings on Migration, where, amongst other things, I discussed fin whale movements and asked where all the large whales had gone.  I can now say, with my tongue firmly in my cheek, that the answer to that is currently Ireland!  For five consecutive weeks now we have picked up many basking sharks on our Saturday approach to Cork so we know that the plankton is there and where there is plankton there should be fish.  And we also know that fin whales feed on both zooplankton and small shoaling fish.  So we waited and we waited.  We’ve heard reports in recent weeks of fin whales off Fastnet and humpback whales off County Cork, but still we waited…

This week on a grey early Saturday morning in the Celtic Sea we reached the area where the basking sharks had previously been sighted and readied ourselves for shark fins in the waters below.  And there it was – not the second largest shark on earth (the basking shark) but the blow of the second largest whale on earth – the fin whale!  Off the starboard side, relatively close to the ship, the leviathan surfaced giving us good views of the rostrum and splash guard around the blowhole.

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Fin whale surfacing beside the Pont Aven

To say that we were excited would be an understatement.  Here were the finbacks we had waited for that we were sure would turn up eventually.  Perhaps even more excited than Heather and I were the German couple standing next to us.  After a moment of awe they realised that they were actually face to face with a huge whale and the gentleman clearly struggled to contain his joy as he slammed the palm of his hand onto the wooden deck rails three times and simultaneously let loose three expletives which are unprintable here but understandable in any language.  We laughed at him, we laughed at the whales, and inside I smiled for Heather who has had so many distant tantalising whale blows this season and finally experienced the majesty of this animal up close.  But we had no time to muse as we realised another fin whale was close by and a little way off three more signalled their presence with their blows and then rolled through the water as they shallow dived to feed.

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fin whale roll

We were elated to find a number of other passengers rush up to us to ask what it was that they had just witnessed and we cruised into Cork alert for any others and very satisfied with our early morning.

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Heather eagerly searching for more fin whales as we enter Cork harbour

The Roscoff-Cork route is particularly important to ORCA due to the increasingly reported prevalence of fin whales off Ireland.  We see fins regularly on our flagship routes through Biscay and are interested in documenting their movements in the North Atlantic which are still relatively unknown and we would like to know if there is a northwards shift to their feeding habits.

To be fair, fin whales have historically been recorded off Ireland.  Between 1920 and 1980 nearly 700 fin whales were taken by whalers off the north west coastal shelf of Ireland (we know that worldwide their numbers probably declined by 70% during modern commercial whaling and the IUCN still classes them as endangered), suggesting that Western Ireland is historically part of their migration route.  Fin whales have been recorded off the coast of Ireland during eleven months of the year with the season believed to start in May and peak in the autumn-early winter.  What is interesting about these fin whales off the east coast of Ireland is that this is not the deep water at the edge of the continental shelf – what is assumed to be typical fin whale habitat.  These are sightings which occur each year on the shelf in shallow water (under 100 metres).

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Fin whale close to the coast of Ireland

This suggests that the Celtic Sea’s plankton productivity may have ranged further north, above the continental shelf’s upwelling, than it has in the Bay of Biscay.  Although it is interesting to note that last year, later on in the season, ORCA surveys and Sea Safaris were surprised to report fins on the northern shelf of the Bay, an area that we have not previously recorded them in any numbers.

Yet that is what is so fascinating about these whales, they range widely and seem to occur right the way across their Atlantic territories at all times of the year and we have so much left to learn about them, especially where they breed.

They are called many things: from finback in the States, to rorqual commun in France, and they have been dubbed the Herring Whale in Scandinavia – perhaps homage to their generalist feeding habits which are the complete opposite of their larger rorqual cousins the blue whale.  The most recent abundance estimates for our part of the world – an area which consists of the waters around Ireland and the UK, Spain and Portugal (including The Bay of Biscay) were produced by CODA in 2007 and sit at 9,000 whales.

Needless to say we were keen to get out on deck as soon as we could when we departed Cork later that day.  Not far from land I was shocked to spot an immense splash at the stern of the ship and turned to see a large patch of white water a few hundred meters from the stern and then the distinctive roll of a big fin whale racing away from the ship.  I suspected a warning breach had taken place and I had just missed it.  When a mother came up to me later to say that her young son claimed he had seen a whale jump at the back of the ship it confirmed my suspicions.  Unfortunately, this particular whale had been far too close to the ship for comfort.  We know that fin whales in particular are susceptible to ship strike when feeding, more so than any other whale.  It has been claimed that in some areas as much as a third of stranded fin whales show signs of collision with ships.  So it is always very worrying when we witness them in close proximity with shipping.  That is why ORCA is involved in programs to attempt to mitigate ship strike and are currently conducting a research project on board the Pont Aven to understand how these large whales react when approached by a large ship so we can find ways to help the shipping world avoid such collisions.

Soon after that Heather shouted “blow” from the other side and we had almost an hour where we recorded another 7 fins including one juvenile all within sight of land.  It was a beautiful sunny evening and dozens of French and Irish passengers enjoyed the experience with us.  A short while later a solitary minke whale was also recorded

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fin back!

The Biscay trip that followed, despite the added advantage of having a full ORCA survey team on the bridge, still didn’t yield any large rorquals.  Although we did have many striped and common dolphins, a couple of Cuvier’s beaked whales, and a good sized pod of pelagic bottlenose dolphins.  So still we wait for the ecology of Biscay and the plankton biomass to work enough to attract the great whales in big numbers.  In the meantime we shall enjoy their presence in the Celtic Sea.  They will come, and when they do it will, as always, be spectacular.  Of one thing you can be sure, and that is that you will hear about it from ORCA when they do.  Keep an eye on our webpage and future blogs to find out when.

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common dolphin leaping in the Bay of Biscay

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A gannet having a flap

Sightings update: Katie and I (Jess) have had a lovely week of calm crossings with our regular common dolphins and striped dolphins impressing the passengers. On our Saturday crossing to Santander (our favourite crossing as we are able to get off the ferry and go to our favourite ice cream shop) we had a great group of keen passengers but sadly we weren’t having much luck with sightings. Just as the lack of wildlife activity was starting to make us look bad, Katie amazingly spotted three Cuvier’s beaked whales in the distance; the white head of a male shinned brightly in the sun and was followed by a female and possibly a youngster. The passengers and I were seriously impressed by Katie’s hawk-eyed spot, and we all went away with a spring in our step. AND I got to eat ice cream, RESULT!

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A common dolphin having a splash

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A common dolphin having a little jump

As it’s well into the season, we have started to map out our sightings and below you can see the map of what we’ve seen so far!

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Whales and dolphins are having a pretty hard time at the moment. Climate change, chemical and noise pollution, unsustainable fishing, commercial whaling, and marine litter result in hundreds of thousands of marine mammals dying every year, which, as I talked about in my previous blog, is all the more worrying now we know how much we depend on them. So what can we do to look after these magnificent and vital creatures? Well you certainly don’t have to be a marine biologist or conservationist to give marine wildlife a helping hand, and below are five easy ways you can make a difference and help protect these animals.

1) Go on a beach clean

Marine litter, particularly plastic, is causing catastrophic damage to ocean wildlife. Every year it is thought that around one million seabirds and one hundred thousand marine mammals die from ingesting or becoming entangled in rubbish. One of many ways we can tackle this problem is to keep our beaches tidy; every beach I have ever visited has had a form of litter washed up or left on it. This is our chance to grab some of that rubbish and dispose of or recycle it properly before it ends up back in the sea. Every beach goer can make a difference by taking away a few bits of plastic with them after each of their visits. You can also join organised beach clean days ran by your local wildlife groups or you could even organise your own community beach clean with your friends and neighbours if you’re lucky enough to live by the sea.

2) Reduce your use of plastic

Litter picking on beaches will of course stop some plastic from entering the ocean, but it is also good to try to stop it getting there in the first place. Even if we dispose of our plastic responsibly, it can still very easily blow off landfill sites and end up in rivers which then lead to the sea. One thing we can all try to do is reduce the demand for plastic products, by reducing our personal consumption of it. There are many ways to cut down on your single use plastic consumption, here are a few tips on how to avoid the worst ocean plastic offenders:

  • Say no to straws

Do we really need to drink our drinks with plastic straws? Every day in the U.S. 500 million straws are thrown away every day. Next time you are out with friends in a restaurant or bar, simply saying ‘no straws please’ when you order your drinks is an easy and effective way of reducing the demand for plastic and helping marine life.

  • Carry a reusable coffee cup

It is estimated that Britain throws away 7 million single use coffee cups every day. This is a huge problem because the card in these cups is fused with polyethylene to keep them waterproof and safe to drink from. These two materials then cannot be separated at a normal recycling centre. Therefore only 1% of these cups are recycled. By carrying a reusable coffee cup with you on your travels you could save thousands of cups from heading to landfill sites, where they are very easily blown by the wind into rivers, which then lead to the sea. Most coffee shops are very happy for you to bring your own cup to them to put your drink in.

  • Keep a reusable bag on you

Since Britain introduced charging for plastic bags, the use went down by 85%. This was a result for wildlife lovers as plastic bags are causing havoc in the sea. Many species mistake plastic bags for their jellyfish prey and die as a result of ingesting them. Just like the coffee cups, plastic bags are easily blown off landfill sites and even out of bins and then end up in the sea. Get yourself some reusable bags to pull out again and again at the shops, which will save marine life and save you some money!

3) Choose sustainable seafood

We have a lot of power when it comes to spending our money. The choices we make as consumers have a huge impact on wildlife, and choosing to buy sustainably sourced seafood will undoubtedly help ocean life. There are lots of online resources that can help you make good decisions about where to buy your seafood, take a look at The Marine Conservation Society’s advice on the Good seafood guide.

4) Join in with campaigns

There are all sorts of marine wildlife projects out there working hard to create a better future for our cetaceans, take a look online and see if you can find any petitions you might like to sign that will lobby governing bodies into making changes that will benefit our ocean and its inhabitants.

5) Support a marine wildlife charity

Now if you’re worried that you might not have time to fit all the techniques above in, an unbelievably easy way to help out wildlife, without even stepping outside your door, is to join an environmental charity as a member. For as little as £3 a month you can join ORCA as a member and be confident in the knowledge that every month you make a difference to whales and dolphins and the projects that are dedicated to protecting them.

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We are lucky to sail through the islands off the coast of Brittany where we see beautiful lighthouses

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One of our passengers enjoying a rainbow out on deck

Posted by: orcaweb | May 24, 2017

Thoughts on an unfortunate sighting

It’s Sophie again, checking in from this past week aboard the Pont Aven.

Wednesday brought a misty crossing through Biscay. It definitely was atmospheric – you could easily imagine a ghost ship emerging from the fog! Despite the reduced visibility, the sea was very smooth and we still had several hundred dolphins spotted in total. Closer to Spain we also had a very close sighting of two Cuvier’s beaked whales – likely a mother and calf. Most beaked whales disappear very quickly, but these weren’t quite as quick and we got a longer chance to snap some photos. Due to some rainy conditions we were also lower down the ship (on deck six) so we felt much closer to them. Definitely a sighting that passengers appreciated.

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Cuvier’s beaked whale mother (closer) and calf (further). Spotted within 200m of the Pont-Aven

Unfortunately, on closer inspection of the photos later, we were confronted with a saddening sight. While the calf seemed to be in a good body condition, the mother appeared emaciated. We can only hypothesise why this is the case. Our minds immediately went to an anthropogenic cause, was it a stomach full of plastic that is so often the case with marine wildlife? Has something happened to the squid that they feed on? It could simply be that she was sick, or old, and that prevented her feeding. However, her calf looked in a healthy body condition, so we wondered if the calf was perhaps part of the reason.

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Note her extremely poor body condition and protruding bones, that shouldn’t be visible in a healthy whale

Here’s an idea. Cuvier’s beaked whales are a deep diving species, reaching depths deeper than the sperm whales, and are less studied than sperm whales as well. We know in sperm whales that the calves cannot handle the extremes of diving deep as the adults do, so to allow the whale mothers to feed, the mothers will form crèches, taking turns staying at the surface with the calves. This is an example of alloparental care, seen in many social mammals. This allows the adult whales to feed at depth without leaving their calf alone and vulnerable at the surface.

Now extrapolate this to the beaked whales we saw. Not a huge amount is known about the social intricacies of beaked whales, but they are recorded in small groups, as well as alone. If this mother doesn’t have a family group for support, is she unwilling to dive to great depths to feed and leave her calf untended? Many mammals will nurse their young even as their body condition deteriorates, so the offspring will still be plump and healthy as the mother starves. A possible explanation perhaps?

However, let me emphasise that this is just speculation, and there are a number of explanations that could be the answer. This highlights why research is so important. We don’t know the reason why, we don’t know whether it is directly or indirectly caused by human action, or a natural but unfortunate occurrence. Without knowing what the problem is, we can’t hope to offer a solution. We can’t protect cetaceans without being equipped with understanding them.

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The sighting was brief but the impact was not. We desperately hope that she is faring better.

If you are interested in participating in ORCA’s research, and would like to join our teams surveying for marine mammals all around Europe and the adjoining waters, do consider becoming a marine mammal surveyor.  It’s a one day training course and then you can start volunteering on a variety of different routes. For information click here.

In an effort to end on a lighter note, we have seen a fair few more sunfish. We have now seen ten so far, I’m keeping count! I love these fish. Last week Heather covered some of their biology. But when you see them, they’re so funny looking, waggling their fins at the surface. Even when I’m feeling down they cheer me up. I’ve started a light-hearted competition to see which wildlife officer can see the most sunfish by the end of the season. With still the whole of June to go it’s anyone’s game.

Stay tuned for more news from the Pont-Aven!

Posted by: orcaweb | May 17, 2017

One species, many variations

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Common dolphin and reflection

It’s the end of our seventh week on board already! The cliché is true; time is flying and I’m sure it is because we are having a lot of fun (working hard of course). After seeing my favourite species last week (pilot whales) I couldn’t wait to see what this week had in store.

As Jess and I bid farewell to Portsmouth last Wednesday and began our journey to Bilbao, we delivered our presentation to the passengers to let them know which species they might see the following morning. We then spent a couple of hours up on deck as we travelled through the English Channel; it was a beautiful, sunny evening and we were joined by numerous people keen to talk with us about the sightings the next day might bring.

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One of many beautiful rainbows seen in the Bay of Biscay

I watched in wonder as a swallow darted and soared above us; they are such a joy to watch. Whenever I see them the lyrics of a heartwarming folk song I know called ‘Dark Swift and Bright Swallow’ are brought to my mind. The singer poetically reflects on the glee of seeing his first swallow of the year, one April day over the skies over Slapton Ley in Devon, as follows:

‘I was lifted above all care, as the swallows swum through the salted air,
Come from Savannah, and desert, and sea, to mark another year for me’

Having marvelled at these little masterful acrobats of the wind and sky, it was time to get a good night’s sleep ready for the wondrous wildlife of the water that we hoped to see early the next morning.

We were up on deck for 6am on Thursday as we passed over the deep, open waters (pelagic sea) in the Bay of Biscay. I was thrilled to find the sea state was a calm 1 – 2, which was very welcome after my previous week which featured some ‘choppy’ conditions! Our first sighting of the day was an ocean sunfish (Mola mola) which passed by very close to the ship. These bizarre looking creatures are the largest bony fish in the ocean. When at the surface, they turn on their side and drift along resembling a large pale dinner plate. When describing our sighting to a French colleague, I discovered that their name for this fish is ‘poisson-lune’ which means moon fish.

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Ocean sunfish (Mola mola)

Moments later we saw a similar looking shape in the water and thought it might be another Sunfish. Unfortunately, it turned out to be a plastic bag. You can see why marine animals end up eating plastic litter; it often resembles fish, jellyfish or other prey.

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Not a Mola mola!

On a more positive note, things then got very exciting. We were treated to relentless sightings of short-beaked common dolphins; in total we saw over 250 on this day! This was also the first day I saw dolphins from our cabin window. We are fortunate enough to see these stunning, sleek animals on nearly every crossing. Their distinctive hourglass-like marking on their flanks is the best identifying feature to look out for and this is usually clearly visible as the majority take an active interest in the ship, coming right alongside to play in the pressure waves given off by the movement of the boat and even diving right under it and out the other side. We are seeing a lot of calves with their mothers at the moment; I often wonder what the infant dolphins think the first time they see such a huge ship. I have no doubt that they trust their mothers know best and will keep them safe!

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We had fantastic views of hundreds of common dolphins last week

Common dolphins seem to me to be the Labradors of the dolphin world, were they likened to a dog breed. They are reliable and often seem excited to see the boat, much to the delight of all who see them, which implies a ‘friendly’ character. It is a shame to call any animal ‘common’ I think, not least because some so called common species are becoming less so, making it a misnomer, but it also implies that they are somehow not very interesting. This certainly cannot be said of these beautiful animals.

With that in mind, in this post I wanted to write a little bit about the variation that I have noticed in the common dolphins we have observed. (In a book I am reading, written in 1989, they are referred to as ‘saddleback dolphins’ which is an alternative name for them). Without closer inspection, you could assume that all of these animals look so alike that there are no unique identifying features to tell them apart. However, as with all species of cetaceans, most have individual features, some more distinct than others, which allow them to be recognised from one another. Indeed, there are photographic records identifying members of various species throughout the world. One humpback whale sighted and photographed off Shetland in the UK was later sighted and identified as the same animal in the waters of Guadeloupe, over 4500 miles away in the southeast Caribbean! Photo records prove invaluable time and time again for discovering fascinating new things about these animals.

So, back to the lovely common dolphins of Biscay. Various aspects of a porpoise, dolphin or whale’s appearance can be used to identify an individual animal and here are some photographs to illustrate this.

The first photo here shows two dolphins; you can see that the lower of the two has evidence of a historic injury to the top of its tail stock, indicated by the indent and what seems to be well healed scar tissue. Conversely, it may be a defect present from birth.

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In the next photo of two different animals, the top one has a visible circle shaped mark on its flank. This characteristic alone may not be distinct enough to identify an individual animal, but combined with other features (such as any notches in its dorsal fin) it could help to build a profile.

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The photo below features another two different dolphins; there are numerous notable differences in appearance here, but the most striking is the notching in the dorsal fin of the animal in the foreground.

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As you can see, there is indeed much variation among these animals. However common they may be, I will never tire of seeing these dolphins; there is a huge amount of variation between them and they are all unique individuals.

Additional cetacean sightings this week have included bottlenose dolphins, a distant large whale blow and two elusive beaked whales who disappeared before we could get a good enough look to identify them. However, on the last day of my two weeks on board we were treated to a view of some not so elusive beaked whales – three Cuvier’s beaked whales! One was a very battle scarred white male who shone like a beacon as he broke the surface of the water, the other two accompanying him were pristine looking females; perhaps he is assembling his harem, as is typical behaviour for these animals!

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Two of the three distant Cuvier’s beaked whales that we saw

The highlight of my week was to come on this same brilliantly calm day. The clear waters afforded us over ten sightings of blue sharks! I had only ever encountered one of these beautiful animals prior to this and I was very excited to see so many. Here is a photo of one of the sharks we saw!

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Perfect clear, calm conditions afforded us great views of numerous blue sharks

Other things we have enjoyed looking at this week included lovely rainbows at sea, a turtle dove and this beautiful but slightly bedraggled looking hummingbird hawkmoth which I found on the ship.

 

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Hummingbird hawkmoth

When I asked a French colleague for a cup in which to catch and release the aforementioned creature, he looked very concerned. It transpired he thought I had said that I had found a mouse on the ship! He was relieved when I showed it to him; for any future moth rescues I will be sure to use the French name ‘Papillon de nuit’ (butterfly of the night) to avoid confusion!

As I leave the ship for my week off I have land based wildlife watching and nature to look forward to. I wish my colleagues a week of great sightings and look forward to getting back on board!

Hazel

Posted by: orcaweb | May 16, 2017

Surveys, sightings and sneaky beakys

Heather here, checking in after another fabulous week aboard the Brittany Ferries Pont-Aven. We started our week with a beautiful Southbound crossing of the Bay of Biscay. Like last week, we were treated to lots of lovely Short-beaked common dolphins. These energetic and playful animals are easily identified by their relatively small (1.0-2.6m) slender body shape. When they porpoise (swimming whilst bringing their bodies out of the water) they show off their distinctive yellow and grey hourglass pattern on their flanks- the light yellow patch bright and clear in the Biscay sunshine. Although, as the name suggests, they are a common sighting, these intelligent and sociable animals never cease to brighten up the long days on deck. Often coming right in to play by the ship, passengers regularly spot common dolphins from the windows in the restaurant, or even from their cabins!

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Common dolphin

This week we have witnessed a lot of dolphin feeding behaviour, often with large groups of dolphins all working together. We watched them twist, turn and circle under the crystal clear water, herding the fish. The Bay of Biscay has fantastically nutrient rich waters creating an abundance of food for the many cetacean species we spot there.

Again this week, we have had some fab sightings of beaked whales around the Torrelavega canyon in the Bay of Biscay. ORCA has highlighted these canyons as a fantastic spot for spotting these elusive whales, which spend much of their time in the deep sea. Of these species, the Cuvier’s beaked whale is the deepest diving that we know of, reaching over 2,992m in depth, diving for over 2 and a quarter hours at a time. This long time spent at depth means that they are a relatively unstudied species, with the Bay of Biscay being one of the best places to see them. One male Cuvier’s beaked whale was spotted quietly sneaking past us this week, less than 250m from the ship! It was easily identified as a Cuvier’s by the light forehead sloping into the distinctive beak.

Like last week, we have not seen many of the great baleen whales on our travels. We spotted our first, and only, this week on our last crossing of Biscay- two very distant whales, we think were most likely an adult and juvenile fin whale. We are eagerly awaiting further sightings as the season continues and we will keep you posted!

We have also had a lovely couple of sightings of the non-cetacean variety, with a turtle dove flying by, over and around the ship on both crossings of the Bay. They are easily identified by their bright orange-brown feathers and graceful flight. These birds spend their winters in Africa before migrating north to spend their summers breeding in Europe. They are a rare sight, as they have been in decline for many years, and are now a species of conservation concern. We were therefore delighted to see them several times this week.

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Turtle dove in flight

Another non- cetacean species we have seen is several sunfish, lazily floating past us, bathing in the Biscay sun. The largest bony fish species in the world, these strange creatures can easily be mistaken for a floating plastic bag as they bask on the surface of the water. They can swim down to several hundred metres, and so perhaps what we saw was the sunfish soaking up some warmth from the sun, before diving back down into the colder waters.

Later in the week we were joined by the ORCA survey team, looking out for whales and dolphins on our routes between Roscoff and Cork. Wildlife officer Andy, unable to cope with a week away from our home on the lovely Pont- Aven, joined the team. We added again to our basking shark tally this week, it is now the fourth week in the row we have spotted them from this route, so it’s always worth a look for fins around these Irish waters!

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L-R Lucy, Andy, Sophie, Trudy, Heather & Phil

If you would like to find out more about becoming Marine Mammal Surveyor, to join us on surveys to collect vital scientific data, please visit our website for more information!

Heather

Posted by: orcaweb | May 11, 2017

“Nosey” whales and dolphins came out to play!

Hello everyone, it’s Katie again! Thanks for taking the time to read about my fourth week on board, which is the sixth week of our Wildlife Officer season. Get yourself a cup of tea, settle down somewhere comfy, and I hope you enjoy what I have to say!

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Wildlife Officer Katie – feeling very happy to be out on deck looking out for cetaceans!

As always I was sad to say bye to Jess as she disembarked, but happy to be spending this week with Hazel. We began the week with a deck watch in the English Channel and unfortunately there wasn’t very much to see other than a lot of white caps… It was a sea state 5 for most of our deck watch but we were not deterred; we got up bright and early the following day for a deck watch in the Bay of Biscay and we were rewarded! We had a number of common dolphin sightings throughout the morning which included some pods coming to play with the waves caused by the ship, as well as a couple of sightings of them feeding!

Later that morning, a group of bottlenose dolphins were spotted by a passenger and we noticed that they were also feeding. We think that these were the pelagic ecotype of this “nosey” species as they were much larger than their relatives which live in coastal waters. In fact their dorsal fins looked so tall we felt we needed a closer examination of the pictures we took to properly identify them. After looking at these, we soon realised that they were bottlenose dolphins but that there was another dorsal fin in that group which looked different to the others! We do know that sometimes other species will hang out with them in mixed pods, such as Risso’s dolphins and this is what we think we managed to capture. This is exciting because it was our first Risso’s sighting of the season, although I am hoping for more to come!

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Here you can see five bottlenose dolphin dorsal fins on the right, but on the far left you can see a different dorsal fin- we think it belonged to a Risso’s dolphin!

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Bottlenose dolphins

The other fabulous cetacean species that we got to see in this deck watch was another “nosey” species. It was none other than, wait for it… The northern bottlenose whale!!! I have been waiting to see one of these all season so I was very pleased when we got a sighting that was a mere 100 m away from the ship! It was moving away from us so I only got a quick glimpse of its bulbous forehead and bottle shaped beak but nevertheless, it was an impressive sighting as we could clearly see its robust looking body. They can be between 7 and 9 m long and the one we saw was even a beautiful bronze colour so it was amazing to see! This species regularly dives to depths of 1,500 m and can hold their breath for up to two hours. They like to hang out in deep habitats where there are lots of squid, which is their preferred food and this correlated with where we saw our whale, as it was sighted over some deep sea canyons that we cross over on the approach to Spain. For anyone who remembers, the whale that unfortunately got stuck in the River Thames back in 2006 was also a northern bottlenose whale. In fact no one is really sure why she ended up there, but given this species’ preference for deep water habitats it was certainly a memorable stranding and unlikely to happen again.

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Unfortunately this photo is a bit blurry, but it is evidence of our northern bottlenose whale sighting!

On Thursday afternoon we were hoping to spot our lovely whale again but no such luck unfortunately, as by the time we sailed back into the Bay of Biscay, the sea state had picked up. The hardy passengers we had up on deck with us were pleased to spot some fabulous common dolphins though; we can always rely on them! Unfortunately the conditions seemed to get even worse over night as we woke up in the channel to a sea state 6 with low visibility, heavy swell, glare on the water and lots of wind – a combination of which is pretty much a Wildlife Officer’s nightmare!

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Rough seas. The glare isn’t pictured here, but it was ahead of the ship.  Not great surveying conditions.

The deck watches on Saturday and Sunday led to a number of common dolphin sightings.  I was particularly pleased that a couple who regularly do the crossing and who always join us out on deck also got to see the lovely sight of the common dolphins.

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It is always lovely to see common dolphins, but it was especially nice seeing them on a sunny day!

On Monday we surveyed the northern part of the Bay of Biscay from about 2 o’clock in the afternoon and we didn’t get our first sighting until about 7 o’clock in the evening! Sometimes it can be hard surveying when there are no animals around, however it has certainly taught me how to be a lot more patient. Our first sighting that day was of the pelagic ecotype of bottlenose dolphins and after that we had a number of pilot whale sightings!

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Here you can see the distinctive pilot whale dorsal fin, which looks a bit like a smurf’s hat.

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Here are two more from another pod. You can really see the variation in the shape of their dorsal fins compared with the previous photo!

We have indeed seen many birds this week including a large number of guillemots in the north of the bay, kittiwakes, storm petrels, shearwaters, gannets of all ages, and a fabulous great black backed gull, whom I caught a picture of as he caught his dinner!

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Here is a photo of a lovely juvenile gannet which looks like it is in its second year, due to the mottled colouration on its back and wings.

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Check out this great black-backed gull catching his dinner- a little fish!

Our final deck watches of the week were unfortunately cancelled due to a high sea state, and I even began to feel a little sea sick! But despite this, I have had another great couple of weeks on board the Cap Finistère; it’s not always going to be breaching fin whales and Cuvier’s beaked whales everyday (as featured in my last blog), but I still really appreciate every sighting we get and I’m so pleased to be here! 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 | May 9, 2017

Musings on Migration

Hi, it’s Andy here on the Pont Aven.

We’ve had marginally better weather conditions this week and have had some great days travelling through Biscay.  Monday gave us distant pilot whales and wake riding bottlenose dolphins in the northern Bay, hundreds of common dolphins all the way across, and a brief close up of a female Cuvier’s beaked whale, along with a handful of the mighty fin whales in the southern Bay.

The fin whales aren’t here in huge numbers yet but they are certainly around. It may be that these are the first wave of the summer’s great whales to pass through before the usual much larger second movement that fills the Bay in August and September.

Passengers often ask us if these whales are migrating?  The answer is somewhat ambivalent as we don’t really know yet.  Certainly movement is taking place, driven in part by food sources, but so little is understood about the fin whale population in the North Atlantic that it’s hard to be certain.  We have yet to identify where their calving grounds are but their distribution ranges from Greenland and Svalbard in the north down to the Canary Islands and the Antilles in the south.  Whether there is a definite north-south migration similar to that of the humpback whales in the N. Atlantic is uncertain and fins can be found across their range at all times of the year.  But we do have some understanding of some of their foraging grounds and Biscay is clearly a hugely important one to the North Atlantic population.  It may well be that we are seeing a northern shift in summer fin whale distribution as we are starting to see good numbers of them feeding around Southern Ireland and the numbers seen in the Bay may be slightly less than the massive figures that were being recorded over a decade ago.  But that is anecdotal, speculative and cautionary and is exactly why the work that ORCA does, establishing a record of long term baseline data, is so important.

A week spent on the Pont-Aven sees us travel between four different countries (UK, France, Spain, Ireland) and that sense of continuous movement reminds me that both the history and the rhythm of the world is one of constant movement and migration.  Whale watchers and birders are regular companions for us on the upper decks, many travelling to Spain at this time of year to catch the raptor migration.  Others are heading south to take part in mammoth trips like walking the pilgrimage routes to Santiago de Campostella or starting or ending cycle tours that can cover huge areas of Europe and take months or even years to complete.  Some are solitary travellers, a few travel with just their dog as a companion, often in a trailer towed behind a bicycle.  Many passengers are returning to the UK after spending the winter in Spain or Portugal in their camper vans, others are bikers off on a big ride or emigrants leaving the UK and moving to Europe in search of their dreams.  And the same tales can be found on the Roscoff-Cork crossing with lots of French and Irish travellers using the ferry service for very similar reasons.

It is that crossing to Ireland that has given us so many sightings of basking sharks this year.  They also migrate in search of rich pickings and follow the plankton shoals north up the coasts of the UK and Ireland throughout the summer.  It is thought that some basking sharks winter off the coasts of West Africa, whilst others stay in the vicinity of the UK but move to deeper, warmer water.  So it seems that basking sharks migrate both through the water column and spatially.

We saw yet another shark sedately feeding on Saturday morning but before that we arrived on deck at 6am to find lots of swallows, swifts, house martins, a grey plover, and even a little egret – all using the slipstream of the ship to aid their migration north.  Swallows have been ever present friends since I started on the ship at the beginning of April.  When I left home they had yet to arrive from their southern African winter retreats but I soon found them in Spain en-route to northern Europe – despite the fact that Aristotle believed that the reason for their winter disappearance must have been that they hibernated underground!  We have enjoyed their company across the Bay of Biscay, the Channel and the Celtic Sea in recent weeks and I know that they will be swooping around the fields of my Devon home when I return in a few days time.  Like me they have been chasing Spring.  It’s wonderful to see the swifts returning too; I first picked them up flying high above Roscoff a couple of weeks ago.  We also found a group of travelling wheatears resting in the park on the seafront at Roscoff last week and I have been hearing those early migrants the chiffchaffs with their distinctive song around the Brittany town for some time.

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Turnstone, Roscoff harbour

 

 

 

The last late groups of lesser black-backed gulls have been moving through the Bay the past week from their wintering grounds off the Portuguese and west African coasts.  I’ve seen these heading through Biscay as early as mid-February before, accompanied by huge strings of adult gannets powering north through the late winter gales, driven by the unstoppable instinct to head to the breeding grounds to reproduce.  We’ve spotted osprey, mixed flocks of bar tailed godwits and whimbrels, herons and various wagtails in the middle of the Bay this year.  A wind beaten chiffchaff hitched a ride on the ship for quite some time on a Channel crossing.  Sadly we’ve not picked up any turtle doves this year but we have had three collared doves paying us a visit on the Pont-Aven.  That might not seem strange if it wasn’t for the fact that they aren’t really known to migrate so we have been surprised to find them on the ship so far out to sea.  So we’ve had a good range of moving species so far this Spring – perhaps not enough to make a twitcher twitch but more than enough to excite us.

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Collared Dove visiting the Pont-Aven

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A windswept chiffchaff sheltering on the ship

Maybe our favourite bird, that has been with us since the start of the Wildlife Officer season, is the amazing and beautifully two-toned manx shearwater.  We first found them in the Bay and on the northern shelf as we started the season and they have since largely moved on from there and can now be found in large numbers in the Celtic Sea as we cross to Ireland.  This tiny, 400g, trans-equatorial and trans-Atlantic migrating seabird can travel an immense 10,000 km from their primary wintering grounds off the coasts of Brazil and Argentina to spend around three months mainly off the coasts of Britain and Ireland – which host two thirds of the world’s Manxie breeding population.  That makes our waters and islands a globally significant habitat for these birds.  It’s likely that a majority of those that we spot in the Celtic Sea are nesting on the Welsh Islands of Skomer or Skokholm which accommodate around 170,000 of these shearwaters each year for their brief but essential, once a year visit to land, in order to nest. They do this in burrows below the ground which they access at night so as not to get predated on by great black-backed gulls and raptors.  This highlights the huge costs that migration incurs as species have to battle storms, predation and mortality but still the rewards – generally better food resources for raising their offspring – are worth the hardships endured.

Yesterday, Heather and I spent eleven hours on deck with passengers, sea watching and surveying within the Bay of Biscay in reasonable conditions.  It was a most enjoyable day for us all with hundreds and hundreds of dolphins sighted.  What was slightly strange was that we came across only a handful of birds and no other cetacean species at all.  No fin whales, sperm whales, pilot whales, beaked whales, bottlenose dolphins, just short-beaked common dolphins.  We diligently checked pod after pod and couldn’t find any striped dolphins until we found some in the very last couple of groups of dolphins that appeared at dusk.  Just large numbers of commons, many starting to amalgamate into groups of a hundred or more.  Have the fin whales and sperm whales moved on and the Bay is empty before the next wave of animals moves in or are they simply in another part of the Bay?  We don’t know yet but one thing I do know is that the movement of peoples and animals is absolutely fascinating and is an integral aspect of life on this earth.  Keep an eye on the blogs from my fellow wildlife officers over the coming weeks to find out where all the whales have gone.

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Striped dolphins on the northern shelf

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Common dolphins in the Bay

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