Hat off, gloves in pocket, it's breakfast time after watching the sea pull itself from a murky dawn into a bright, sunny morning.
From the window of the crews’ mess, something distracts me from the beloved bowl of cereal. Behind a salt-flecked pane the volcanic breath of a whale shoots up, followed by a slate-grey back that rolls out of view. Torn between shuffstling (shuffling and rustling – as fast as movement gets when resembling a waterproof puff pastry) back to confer with the deck watch, and just enjoying the moment, I took the latter and revelled the scene with my lucky cornflakes.
For the most part, cetacean sightings on the Pont-Aven are from the top deck, and cereal is replaced by a survey logger. As the ship rebounds between the UK, Spain, France and Ireland every 7 days, us Wildlife Officers (WO) survey a fabulously diverse section of European waters, rousing passengers from a sunny slumber to watch common dolphins burst from waves, or predict where the minke whale that just surfaced will reappear. Watching for wildlife is a communal activity on the Pont-Aven, oblivious to the concept of being “strangers” with each other, simply enjoying the possibility of what may be behind the next wave.
Highlights from these first two weeks revolve around two crossings of the Celtic deep. The first was a millpond-flat sea, with basking sharks slinking at the surface and small consecutive pods of common dolphins jostling at the surface for fish. Two lively German children kept us company, putting our own bilingual abilities to shame. Conversely, this week Storm Hannah brought some thrilling 20ft swells, 19 hours of tumbling down corridors and no opportunity to survey. However, while grasping onto sight of the horizon kittiwakes, shearwaters and gannets would weave between the great waves, bouncing on the gusts and skimming the surface with their wingtips. As the storm blew itself out, we left Cork with what could be a record in sightings rate; a seal seen within 30 seconds of starting the watch – surely a good omen?
While keeping an eye on the sea, quieter crossings lend themselves to longer conversations with passengers. It often emerges that they’re at the book-end of some great adventure, feeling contemplative and excited and we, the Wildlife Officers, suddenly become part of their story. While spotting a cetacean is usually transformative, talking about the work ORCA does to protect cetaceans and listening to passenger wildlife encounters is of such value to my role on board that the sightings are a total bonus. On a blustery crossing from Santander, we were periodically joined on deck by a determined Spanish family. Sightings were infrequent, and the family kept just missing them. A week on and doused by the Easter sunshine, the family returned (“your English beaches are nice, your food is odd”), resuming their hopeful position on deck. As we caught up in the glistening sun, common dolphins came racing towards the ship, riding the bow waves, and hanging around long enough for all, including the now jubilant family, to see. Joining this pace of life felt like trying to catch up in the Grand National, but once on deck with the binoculars to hand and fresh air flowing, inhibitions have dissolved like cereal in my breakfast bowl.
ORCA Wildlife Officer - The Bay of Biscay