Magical sighting amidst somewhat choppy seas

Categories // Bay of Biscay Wildlife Officer

Magical sighting amidst somewhat choppy seas

This week wildlife officers, Heather and Alex and many passengers have been treated to an array of whales and dolphins.

We were particularly excited to see the return of many common dolphins racing over to play in the bow wave and surf in the wake, with up to 60 individuals with their calves in one sighting alone.

Another highlight of the week, especially for Alex, was a sighting of pilot whales. The magical sighting came to us amidst somewhat choppy and misty seas. Amongst the whirling white water a shiny, jet black, thick dorsal fin cut through the surface of the waves. Cue the shouts of delight from the wildlife officers, who noted 6 stunning individuals. What a treat.

There are actually two species of pilot whales, short and long finned. The main difference between these is, as the name suggests, the length of their pectoral fins. However, it is likely that the pod we encountered were long-finned, as short-finned are usually found in more southern latitudes. However, without seeing the fins we cannot make a definite identification. Both species however have a similar social behaviours. Pilot whales live in what we call matriarchal societies and have very close social bonds. This is actually the reason behind their name, as the eldest female acts as the ‘pilot’ of the pod. She will ultimately make all the decisions, for example when they eat, travel and explore new areas. This can sadly also work against them; if one individual, particularly that eldest female, ends up stranding on land, the others will follow and also become stranded. There is a big challenge in re-floating these animals as they are reluctant to leave any member of their pod behind. Should the ‘pilot’ whale remain on land this may mean that the others continue to strand even after re-floating. This makes us all the more humbled and grateful when we see so many swimming safely out at sea in their family pods.

ORCA wildlife officers are lucky enough to see and share sightings of these graceful creatures with many excited people on our different cruise and ferry routes around the world. However, we do sometimes travel to areas where people see these animals differently. As Laura mentioned in last week’s blog, whaling is still very much a threat to many of our large whales. However, it is not just them at risk of being hunted; sadly, our beautiful pilot whales are also hunted in countries such as the Faroe Islands. During the last 300 years, more than 250,000 long-finned pilot whales have been killed around the Faroe Islands alone. Over half of the worlds’ cetaceans are considered data deficient by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and with continued largely unmonitored whaling activities it can have untold effects on the global population numbers. However, with independent researchers and charities like ORCA we can hope to build a better understanding of cetaceans and their conservation status around the world. We will continue to survey and record cetaceans around the world, and we can only hope that with research and education this will lead to the end of these outdated practices, making whaling nothing but a sad memory.