I have just finished my first ever rotation as an ORCA Ocean Conservationist, and what a fantastic experience it has been.
The Bay of Biscay is amazing.
Cut back to a month ago, in the middle of a lambing shed, when I received an email from ORCA asking whether anyone was available to work a two-week rotation with Brittany Ferries. Needless to say, I legged it back to the house to send the email saying I would do it. I was delighted to get a swift reply confirming I would be sailing between Portsmouth and Santander for two weeks on board the Brittany Ferries MV Galicia. After a few weeks of anticipation and a gruelling 20-hour mixture of bus, train and ferry travel, I was on the Galicia and on my first voyage to Santander.
On my first day onboard, I met the first of many birdwatchers heading for Spain. He was able to assist in the identification of the multiple birds seen throughout the day. Swallows, terns, skuas, gulls, gannets, whimbrels and wheatears were plenty, but there were no whales or dolphins to be seen. That was until 8:30 PM, when the more persevering passengers and I were rewarded with two common dolphins coming towards the ship as the sunset.
After day one, it became a dolphin bonanza. The Bay of Biscay has yielded many many pods of both common dolphins and striped dolphins. This allowed me to get a few good photos of them (although the bulk of the memory card is full of images of splashes or empty sea)!
Common dolphin with calf
The excitement that accompanies the arrival of a pod of dolphins transcends all ages, and it was a joy to see how happy passengers were at seeing them. Biker or birdwatcher, schoolkid or retired, it didn’t matter, everyone was leaning over the rails and pointing at the dolphins dancing alongside the ship. It was a particularly great feeling to have played a small part in delivering a dolphin experience to people who had been on many ferries and never seen one. However, it sometimes required me to be quite firm and to tell them to stay by the rails after they had missed the fifth pod of the day!
On every voyage I would leave the open deck and give a presentation on the Bay of Biscay, the cetaceans found here, global threats to cetaceans and about ORCA. These were incredibly enjoyable events too. After the presentations, the questions asked were extremely varied; notable questions included “How do dolphins sleep?”, “How do baleen whales find food?”, “How heavy is a blue whale?”, “Do you need a scientific background to become involved in ORCA?” and “Have you ever seen a whale from this ship?”.
The answers to these questions were. Dolphins turn off half of their brain to sleep, we aren’t completely sure how baleen whales know where to find food, a female blue whale can sometimes weigh 190 tons, you just need a passion for whales and dolphins to be involved with ORCA, and yes, I have seen whales from the ship.
A species of beaked whale
Although less common than the dolphins, when the whales arrived, they delivered. On three occasions, whales casually swam along the side of the ship allowing many passengers to see them. These were all types of beaked whales but in the distance, we also got to see pilot whales (not technically a whale), a pod of some sort of whale and even a large blow near the horizon that may have been a fin whale.
My first outing as an Ocean Conservationist has been exciting, full of new experiences and featured lots of interesting people. I cannot wait to see what my next ORCA placement will be.
ORCA Ocean Conservationist
Common dolphins in the evening light