Minke Whales and many Dolphin species sighted on the 13th-15th Aug ORCA I-Spy trip

29th Aug 2013

ORCA I-Spy Trip 13th – 15th August

Summary of Sightings

Species Numbers sighted
Sperm Whale 1
Fin Whale 20
Minke Whale 1
Cuviers Beaked Whale 2+
Unidentified Beaked Whale 1
Large Rorqual blow 32
Pilot Whale 4
Common Dolphin 3,000+
Striped Dolphin 13
Bottlenose Dolphin 80+
Unidentified Dolphin 48
Harbour Porpoise 5

You just never know what the wildlife experience in the Bay of Biscay is going to be like and certainly the year to date had been a good one with many wonderful observations and encounters. Would this trip continue that trend?

A late evening watch on the 13th as we entered the English Channel and headed south produced no sightings. On the 14th the team were up on deck at 06:00 and almost immediately the shout of dolphins could be heard as a small group of common dolphins charged toward the side of the ferry. This was to be the theme for the early part of the morning with small groups of common dolphins attempting to reach both the port and starboard side of the ship and for some of the guests their first dolphin encounter.  We then had a short quiet spell before we neared the continental shelf edge which allowed guests to enjoy breakfast before the important and not to be missed shelf edge drop off.

Every now and then a splash caught someone’s eye but no animals could be seen and after several sightings of this nature we finally caught sight of a tuna which explained what was going on. Oddly though, no dolphins were with them.  The sea state had also started to worsen now being a 3 but we suddenly saw two distant rorqual whale blows and a possible pilot whale. Then as we neared the deeper waters striped dolphins appeared along with more rorqual whale blows and 3 nearer pilot whales which gave great views. It wasn’t until later in the morning until we finally clinched a definite fin whale, although distant you could make out the white right side of the lower jaw as the animal swam by. More rorqual whale blows along with an intermittent definite fin whale occurred as we started to meet many animals as we passed across the abyssal plain. The shout then went up of something different and we were lucky to see our only confirmed sperm whale of the trip although one may have been seen much earlier as we passed over the northern shelf edge by Mary Hill who we were lucky to have on the trip as well.

The excitement and sightings continued as we came across more fin whales and then a distant breaching beaked whale but unfortunately only twice and at distance. Our first sunfish was recorded and then a close fin whale that was luckily able to take evasive action as it had surfaced very close to the starboard side of the ferry. It was able to dive again almost immediately and all that was left was a large flukeprint that washed against the side of the ship.  At times the cetacean action was frantic and there was plenty of running between port and starboard as the sightings of animals and blows continued.

All of a sudden a shout went up from the nearer the bows and two fin whales appeared so close to the starboard bridge wing that the ferry was on a collision course. Luckily the bridge crew had seen these two animals 1Km dead ahead and had tracked them as the ship quickly closed the distance but it needed a skilled hand at the helm in order to take the evasive action required to avoid a collision and luckily seaman Arnaud was able to steer the ship abruptly to port, allowing the whales to swim down the starboard side unscathed. The whales were so close that they could easily be seen under the surface together. An amazing encounter and a stark reminder of the dangers these animals face, Arnaud and the Captain made heroic efforts to ensure that the whales were not harmed.

- Fin Whale

Shortly afterwards we managed to see a presumed mature adult male Cuvier’s’ beaked whale swim down the port side, there were certainly 2 and possibly more as it seemed that some people had all been watching different animals!  On nearing Santander we were lucky to round off the day with a nice group of bottlenose dolphins.
That evening on leaving Santander we did not have much daylight left but with such a beautiful calm evening we stayed out on deck and enjoyed seeing Venus and Saturn along with a meteor streaming briefly through the night sky.

The morning of the 15th saw the team up on deck again by 6:00am and seeing bottlenose and common dolphins almost immediately. As we neared the Brest peninsula and started to navigate through the near shore island group one of those almost unbelievable Biscay moments happened. We suddenly realised that the sea state had reduced to a 1 or 0 and we were literally surrounded by dolphins. Many groups of common and a few of bottlenose could be seen feeding, logging and fast swimming as far as the eye, binocular or telescope could see it was just incredible and for nearly 25 minutes we had large numbers of dolphins on both the port and starboard sides. We estimated a minimum count of 2,000, a best of 3,000 and a maximum of 5,000 animals.

- Common Dolphin

One of the guides managed to pick up a minke whale and every now and then we would also see a harbour porpoise and even the odd sunfish. As we then crossed the shipping lanes getting nearer to Plymouth we were all a little stunned by what we had just encountered but we still continued to see the odd small group of common and bottlenose dolphins as the sea state worsened to a 3. Bird sightings for the most part of the trip had been thin on the ground but as we neared Plymouth we finally started to see fulmars, storm petrels and the odd shearwater including 5 greats and a Cory’s.

The trend continues another amazing trip!

Bird Sightings

Great Shearwater 5
Cory’s Shearwater 1
Manx Shearwater 5
Balearic Shearwater 6
Storm Petrel  100+
Bonxie 3
Auk Sp. 10
Sandwich Tern 4
Common/Arctic Tern 5
Peregrine Falcon 1
Chiffchaff 1 (on board)

Black Kite 1 (Santander)
Grey Plover 80 (at sea)

ORCA would like to thank our guides, Aimee Felus, Elfyn Pugh, Dave Cunniffe and John Young along with helpers Gill Felus and the crew of Brittany Ferries' Pont Aven for once again welcoming us on board and being the heroes of the moment in avoiding those fin whales – phew, it was so close!