This week on board the Pont-Aven, Lucy and I (Kate) were joined by some keen wildlife watchers, other ORCA staff and volunteers to observe the wonderful wildlife in the Bay of Biscay. However, similarly to the Wildlife Officers on the Cap Finisterre, we found our infamous fin whales seemed to have moved from Biscay, but where they have gone we do not know. Our deck watch was therefore unusually quiet, even the dolphins appeared to be hiding from us. It was a slow start to the week, but the weather was on our side, and as the sun shone down on deck 10 we even had to take a few layers off (a novelty for us wildlife officers who are usually wrapped up enough to face a blizzard!) We stared at a seemingly empty ocean before the first “dolphin” call was made – finally the common dolphins had made an appearance, there was life out there!
We only caught a glimpse of one suspected fin whale, but it was the Cuvier’s beaked whales that stole the show this week! Of course, we did miss seeing our wonderful fin whales, but the Cuvier’s more than made up for it. In total we saw 10 Cuvier’s beaked whales, most of which popped up right next to the boat giving us a good look at those goose-like white faces and scared male bodies! We even had a Cuvier’s breaching in the distance, as it leapt over the horizon leaving a jet stream of water trailing behind it and coming down with a huge splash.
After the many Cuvier’s sightings, we were treated to endless displays by more common dolphins racing towards the boat and leaping and jumping out of the waves created by the ship as it moved through the water. Even a grey, misty English Channel on our return to Plymouth treated us to dolphins and a few ocean sunfish. I have really grown to love common dolphins, even though they are indeed “common”, you can always rely of them to brighten your day by racing towards the boat and putting on a wonderful display for both passengers on deck and those inside enjoying their morning cup of coffee! During this trip the common dolphins really did come out in force, we’ve had many sightings of large pods of 50+ dolphins! We’ve seen several mother and calf pairs leaping in perfect synchrony, and even had a few sneaky striped dolphins mixing in with the commons! Passengers and wildlife officers were ecstatic to find so many continuously making a beeline for the ship from miles away – they may have been difficult to count, but more excitingly it was difficult to know where to look next!
Whilst being a Wildlife Officer on board the Pont-Aven, I have been luckily enough to meet some of our dedicated volunteers as each month a team of surveyors joins us (as they did this week). They spend 3 days surveying for whales and dolphins and always disembark with a huge smile on their faces and raring for the next survey! But this week I got to know a few volunteers a bit better, as 4 extra guides joined us up on deck 10 for a crossing to the Bay of Biscay. After spending a few days with these volunteers, I feel that I truly understand what makes this charity so special – our dedicated members and surveyors. As with any charity, ORCA relies on the generosity of the public to keep us afloat, but ORCA stands above the rest for me, in that our members are at the heart of our research. During my time as a Wildlife Officer I have spoken to many people who deeply care about marine mammals, and what makes ORCA so wonderful is that they enable anybody who cares about the ocean to take an active role in protecting it. We have recently seen in the news how important the public’s voice is to powering marine conservation, take for example the battle against single-use plastics – it is because of the huge support given by the public that industries are listening and making real changes to reduce plastic pollution. Here at ORCA we not only try to educate people as to the threats to marine mammals, we encourage members of the public from all walks of life to join our team. This could be in a number of ways, but most commonly is training members of the public to be Marine Mammal Surveyors. Training members of the public to conduct scientific research is known as citizen science and is proven to be an effective way of collecting large amounts of scientific data – without you, we wouldn’t be able to conduct our work and protect our wonderful whales and dolphins. In fact, the majority of our data is collected by our volunteer Marine Mammal Surveyors, and in return for their valuable time, we hope to give back some unforgettable, once in a lifetime encounters with breath-taking whales and dolphins. From short ferry routes to Amsterdam to cruises to Iceland and everything in between, there’s something for everyone’s expertise and availability as a volunteer with ORCA – and I can personally testify that there’s no better way to spend your days than looking for whales and dolphins. During my time as a Wildlife Officer I have seen so many magnificent species, I’ve even seen a pod of one of my all-time favourite species, the pilot whale (and one was even spy-hopping!). Our Marine Mammal Surveyors come from all walks of life but have one thing in common, and that is their awe-inspiring passion for cetaceans and the ocean.
So, if I’ve whet your appetite for whales and dolphins, and you have some spare time on your hands, why not train to be a Marine Mammal Surveyor and join us on one of our cruise or ferry routes? Anyone can do it – no prior experience is required; you just need a love of the marine environment! Or come see what it’s all about and join us on a Sea Safari, with a team of expert spotters to help guide you! And really, who could think of a better way to spend your day than looking for whales and dolphins?
There’s a big ocean out there, why not help us explore it?
Wildlife Officer Bay of Biscay