ORCA for everyone!

Categories // Bay of Biscay

ORCA for everyone!

ORCA Sea Safari season has started and we welcomed our first Sea Safari passengers & ORCA guides on board the Pont-Aven! 

There was a real buzz around deck 10 Tuesday evening as we all met to say hello and go through the schedule for the ‘big day ahead in Biscay’. As resident Wildlife Officers on the Pont-Aven, lots of passengers were keen to know what Kate and I had spotted so far this season and no one was disappointed as we started rolling off the list of cetaceans…fin whales, sei whales, pilot whales, minke whales, common dolphins, striped dolphins AND those elusive Cuvier’s beaked whales.  Although the bay has gone a little quiet on the fin whale front, many were still so excited for the prospects ahead with a few people still waiting to see their first EVER dolphin! For me it felt like times were about to change, with all the extra fresh pairs of eyes on the ocean I was confident we were going to have a sightings-filled crossing. 

As we all met on deck around ~5.30am Wednesday morning, we were treated to a majestic sunrise – a perfect way to start off a day of cetacean spotting! We had our first pod of common dolphins sighted around 9am as we approached the edge of the northern European continental shelf. The shelf regions are considered hotspot habitats for many cetaceans, and other marine life, due to the high concentration of nutrients that upwell in these regions, this brings the plankton, the fish and therefore our lovely cetaceans. As we continued over the shelf we were treated to many more pods of common dolphins and also striped dolphins, many forming mixed-species pods. Sightings started to peter as we crossed through the Bay but suddenly there was a shout from the starboard side, “beaked whale” which sent us all charging over from port side to get a closer look! A Cuvier’s beaked whale!! During the sea safari we also spotted bottlenose dolphins, tuna species, ocean sunfish and a minke whale, this brought our total sightings total to 312 animals – we certainly had very happy whale and dolphin spotters!

One of the most joyous elements of being a Wildlife Officer is being able to engage with a diverse array of people, all with many different reasons bringing them onto the Pont-Aven.  From passengers keen to spot their very first ever whale or dolphin, to experienced wildlife enthusiasts making their way to see the vultures in the Pyrenees, being able to hear and share stories with them has been very special. Helping out as a guide on my first Sea Safari also gave me a great opportunity to meet other ORCA surveyors and members and hear what made them inspired to support ORCA.

No exception to this, on Friday we welcomed a lovely school group on board. All their faces lit up as we brought out the whale and dolphin figurines, followed by inquisitive faces as we described each of the species and then gasps as we listened to the echolocation clicks and calls they make. Being able to see how excited they all were at the prospect of seeing these animals reminded me of just how fascinated I was with cetaceans when I was young (and still am, even more!) – so they could be our next generation of OCRA Wildlife Officers!What was perhaps the most encouraging aspect was how much these young children knew about marine pollution – particularly those pesky single-use plastics. Going through the eco-friendly alternatives to many single use plastics they all shouted out reusable water bottle and bag for life before we’d even shown them!

With the beginning of many school holidays now approaching, this has meant a very lively and energetic Pont-Aven on our weekend ventures to Cork, Roscoff and Plymouth – a great opportunity to talk and inspire many young people on the boat about cetaceans. One of my highlights of the week has to be pointing out two huge whale blows, to all the young…er passengers that made it out on deck with us that morning. Hearing the, “Whooooaaaa” as the blow shot up two huge spouts of water high into the air – once at the front of the ship and then in the wake. At first my head couldn’t quite register what I was seeing, I asked myself, “am I still in the Bay of Biscay?! Nope, definitely in the Celtic Sea” Kate and I both concluded that the blows were most probably fin whales, knowing that they can be found distributed around west Ireland and the typical characteristics of the blow being tall and columnar in shape.

Excitingly, I also witnessed my first ‘super’ pod of common dolphins that morning, with around ~120 individuals leaping past the boat. The increased sightings within these waters this week is perhaps a good indication that there is increased productivity and abundance of food sustaining these high numbers at the moment.

To end my penultimate week as a Wildlife Officer the Bay of Biscay didn’t disappoint during our final crossing on Monday. The sun was out, the deck was full and the passengers were binocular ready. The day started with numerous pods of common and striped dolphins, both putting on first class performances of body slams and belly flops in the wake of the boat. The big finale came when we had two separate sightings of two Cuvier’s beaked whales surface around 100 m from the boat. Passengers were able to get clear glimpses of the squished goose-shaped heads that make this species so distinct, followed by their long brown bodies and dorsal fin positioned further back.

That’s all for now, I wish Kate and Lucy another great sightings-filled week whilst I’m gone…just don’t see those killer whales without me, yes we live in hope. See you in a week Pont-Aven!

Kirsty Macleod

Wildlife Officer Bay of Biscay