Back in the Bay with the Great Whales

Categories // Wildlife Officer Sightings

Back in the Bay with the Great Whales

For the majority of ORCA volunteers and staff, the Bay of Biscay holds a very special place in our hearts.

Numerous members have worked, volunteered, surveyed, and guided on the Brittany Ferries ships that ply their trade back and forth across the Bay’s infamous waters.  For many people, the Pont-Aven in particular, will be especially dear to them. It may be the first ship that they took an ORCA Sea Safari on or perhaps they saw their very first rare beaked whale from the viewing platform on Deck 10, it could even be where they first came across our wonderful charity. Either way, thousands of hours of happy whale watching and surveying has taken place from the ship and when ORCA asked me if I would like to work on here again as Wildlife Officer this summer, I jumped at the chance to be back in one of my happy places. So after many months of pandemic difficulties, ORCA are back on the Pont!

It has been a fantastic first week aboard. We’ve crossed the Bay of Biscay down to Santander in all weathers and the last crossing tantalisingly hinted at the magic that we know it can produce. I recorded acrobatic striped dolphins and numerous rorqual whale blows. Many lucky guests got to see a couple of these mighty fin whales reasonably close to the ship. Because of last minute changes to the ship’s timetable we had the whole of the next day sailing from the edge of the continental shelf, past Brittany to Plymouth, with the weather on our side. Flat calm seas produced dozens of common dolphins racing to the ship and eight of the super shy harbour porpoises that we tend to only pick up in flat conditions. One memorable sighting was of six porpoise travelling together at vast speed all hunting collectively. But the sighting of the day has to be a small minke whale that surfaced 25 metres from the side of the ship briefly showing us its rostrum and open mouth before changing direction and surfacing again towards the back of the ferry. Needless to say, this delighted a young girl who had literally just arrived on deck to “look for dolphins” and was immediately presented with her first ever whale sighting - one that she will remember forever. To round off the smorgasbord of sightings we also picked up a couple of large bluefin tuna breaching in the English Channel.

But the Pont-Aven doesn’t just travel to Spain, it also sails to Roscoff in France and Cork in Ireland during the week and both have proved fruitful for sightings of common dolphins, minke whales and Risso’s dolphin. The bird sightings have been mixed with Biscay relatively quiet but there were several Mediterranean gulls in Santander harbour. Certainly, the continental shelf has produced some gems with a group of fifty Balearic shearwaters cutting across the channel from Roscoff last week, lots of great shearwaters foraging offshore, and as we sailed back from Cork on Saturday evening a group of around thirty Wilson’s petrels were feeding in association with Manx shearwaters and dolphins. All in all, it has been a fabulous start and I can’t wait to see what the next week brings. I’ve read that Wally the “itinerant” Walrus has left the Isles of Scilly and has now been spotted around Cork so I’ll be keeping an eye out for him. Keep an eye on my blogs to see whether I find him.

Andy Gilbert

ORCA Wildlife Officer - Bay of Biscay