Fantastic whale and dolphin sightings on final “I Spy Whales” Biscay trip of the season

27th Sep 2012

Bay of Biscay trip report 18th-20th September 2012

We embarked at Portsmouth on the 18th September for our final trip across the Bay of Biscay for the 2012 season and what a season it has been. This time we were joined by 105 eager whale-watchers. We were also very lucky to have our Patron, Chris Packham join us on this trip.

Biscay whale sighting

The first leg of our journey on this voyage out of Portsmouth started with a wildlife talk by our guides on the wildlife of the Bay of Biscay. This was followed by an interesting input by Chris Packham relating to his views on marine conservation.

On the following morning we were out on deck by 6.30am and we were ready for action with those guests who wished to have such an early start. There is no expectation that our guests will stand out on deck the whole time, but you do get more out of these trips the more time you spend out on deck looking for wildlife, as you never know when you might get a sighting.

The weather was looking good with a sea state averaging about 3, with dry weather. We have had one trip when we were in the teeth of a gale and although it was challenging it did not discourage or dishearten the hardy few of our group who braved the elements on that particular voyage!

This first morning we were at the North end of Biscay near the coast of Brittany and as expected it wasn’t long before the first Common Dolphins appeared – these were attracted to the ship as is their usual behaviour. This was followed by a couple of ocean sunfish (Mola mola) which often float by the ship sometimes unnoticed. Mike our guide described them as being like a floating dustbin lid and I guess that is as good a description as any! He also mentioned that if they have ‘Tesco’ written on them then they would be plastic bags! Often you think you are looking at a sunfish but it turns out to be just another piece of ocean litter or debris floating on the surface.

As the morning drew on we started to see some Bottlenose Dolphins, a small group of them approached the ship from ahead of us and swam towards the port bow. I just love it when these guys come to play as they are so acrobatic and they didn’t disappoint this time around either as they swam towards the ‘wake-wave’ they started leaping or breaching clear of the water in spectacular fashion with their bellies up crashing down again with a splash. I love it when they do that. I’ve indicated before that these pelagic bottlenoses are big animals they are so graceful and pure beauty of form and no Biscay trip would be the same without coming across them.

Later that morning we started to drop off the shelf edge into deeper water and this is when we spotted our first whale ‘blows’. We could not identify these animals but they were probably fin whales. Striped Dolphins started to appear too. These animals are similar in size to Common Dolphins but have a distinct light grey spinal blaze and a mostly black beak from which extends a dark stripe which encircles the eye widens and runs back to the rear flanks of the animal. It is from this colouration that the animal derives its name of ‘Striped’ Dolphin.

Back now to our ‘human’ animals and to our celebrity guest Chris Packham who mingled with our intrepid group enthralling everyone with his knowledge of wildlife especially the young people amongst our group. He enjoyed the day as much as everyone else and his experienced eye helped us locate animals throughout the trip.

As we headed south we had yet more large rorqual whale blows and a few definite Fin Whales afforded us some great views of their long streamlined bodies and falcate dorsal fin before disappearing beneath the waves. As we neared the Spanish coast we had a ‘flurry’ of Fin Whale activity and what proved to be the best sighting of the day which were two Fin’s blowing and surfacing almost in unison. Most of our guests managed to spot them. A third large rorqual whale seen at about the same time may have been the smaller Sei whale. When this species surfaces its blow is usually visible at the same time as the dorsal fin.

After spending a pleasant couple of hours in Santander we boarded the Pont Aven again and many of us enjoyed the evening socialising and reminiscing about the whale watching experiences of the day.

On the third and final day we were up on deck early again and some of us enjoyed the beautiful sunrise. We were at the north end of the Biscay almost the exact area where we were at the same time the previous day but this time on the return voyage. We encountered small groups of Common Dolphins again. The captain took the ship between the islands off the Brest Peninsula as they have been doing every Thursday of each week since December 2011. We sailed through the turbulent waters between the islands and into the English Channel. During the rest of our voyage our guests were treated to more sightings of Common and Bottlenose Dolphins and a couple of Minke Whales, the smallest of the ‘rorqual’ whales. As we neared the British coast we were in relatively shallow water and a number of Harbour Porpoises were spotted to add to our tally of cetaceans.

We had some keen birders on our trip too as this was also a ‘migration special’ mini-cruise and there was enough birdlife on our crossing in both directions to challenge our observation skills. You will find the list of birds seen at the end of this report.

As this was our final trip of the 2012 season ORCA would like to take this opportunity to thank Brittany Ferries for allowing us to operate the Whale and Dolphin mini-cruises across the Bay of Biscay on their flagship the ‘Pont Aven’. We would also like to thank the captain’s and crew of the ship for their assistance on board and for allowing us the use of the Commodore lounge in order to deliver the talks.

We would also like to thank all the guides who gave their services with dedication, skill and professionalism throughout.

Lastly we must thank the most important people of all who were the many guests who joined us on all the six trips as without you it would not have been possible. We hope to see some of you again in 2013 for another exciting season of watching whales and dolphins crossing the Bay of Biscay.

We also wish to extend our heartfelt thanks to Chris Packham for taking the time out from his busy schedule to join us on this last trip.

The guiding team were- Glenn Overington (Team Leader), Mike Williams, Rob Boyd, Tom Young, Elfyn Pugh and Sophie Isaacs. We would also like to thank Paul Burley a Biscay veteran for his presence and expert spotting skills.
Apart from the above the guides for the whole season also included Stephen Marsh, Richard Bull, Evan Landy, Aimee Felus, Judd Hunt.

Special thanks must go to Sally Hamilton, ORCA’s Director, and Sophie Isaacs, Supporter Development and Admin Manager at ORCA’s head office in Portsmouth for organising the cruises and holding it all together.

Wildlife checklist
Cetaceans
Fin Whale – 11, Sei Whale – 1, Minke Whale – 2, Unidentified Whale Species – 27, Bottlenose Dolphin – 29, Common Dolphin – 175, Striped Dolphin – 3, Unidentified Dolphin Species – 15, Harbour Porpoise – 28

Other wildlife
Ocean Sunfish – (Mola mola) – 4
Large White Butterfly sp.- 1.

Bird List
Cory’s Shearwater – c145, Great Shearwater – 12, Sooty Shearwater – 6, Manx Shearwater – 4, Balearic Shearwater – 5, Unidentified Large Shearwater – 45 (Cory’s or Great), Unidentified Medium Shearwater – 2 (Sooty, Manx or Balearic), Storm Petrel – 42, Fulmar – 1, Great Skua (Bonxie) 9, Arctic Skua – 4, Northern Atlantic Gannet – Present, Herring Gull – Present, Greater Black-backed Gull – Present, Lesser Black-backed Gull – Present, Yellow legged-Gull – Present, Mediterranean Gull – Present, Sabine’s Gull- 5, Sandwich Tern – c10, Arctic Tern – 4, Common Tern – 3, ‘Commic’ Tern (Arctic/Common) – 4, Grey Heron – 1, Yellow Wagtail – 6, Pied/White Wagtail – 3, Unidentified Pipit sp. -1, Unidentified Passerines – 3, Turnstone – 1, Ringed Plover – 2, Cormorant – Present, Shag – Present.