My second week on the Pont-Aven was somewhat mixed in terms of sightings with variable conditions.
Despite this, as always, there was great interest from passengers both out on deck and at my lectures. There really are so many of us who care about the natural world and are prepared to support the work that ORCA does to protect it.
But there were these things that stood out. One was the large number of bluefin tuna in the Channel and the feeding frenzies that they created as they pushed the shoaling fish they were hunting to the surface where the seabirds gathered in their hundreds to take advantage of the food. It became easy to predict their upcoming presence in a relatively empty sea as skeins of gannets from miles around would tear past the ship, aware of the presence of the feat long before I was.
Another notable moment was during one of the Biscay sailings. It was a dull morning, and I was standing 28 metres up on deck 10 chatting to guests and a large fin whale surfaced right below us from under the ship. It was feet from the ship and our very first view was straight down its blowholes. I immediately raised my camera but even reducing the zoom to its minimum 100mm, all that I could fit into the frame was this huge dark mass of rorqual whale back as it arched its spine to roll into the safety of deeper water. This led to an interesting discussion with those who had experienced this amazing moment, about how close it was and why shipping can be a hazard for these creatures.
Ship strike can play a significant role in mortality rates amongst the bigger whales who are slower and spend more time at the surface. We know that fin whales are particularly susceptible to suffering from ship strike and with 90% of our goods travelling by sea and the amount of global shipping only increasing the impact upon their population is likely to grow. Mitigating against such collisions is an important part of ORCAs ongoing conservation and working with our shipping partners the charity is in a unique position to affect change. But as always that change will only come about with hard science to support it. This is why ORCA is working with our long term partner Brittany Ferries, and other collaborators, on a research project to understand more about the problem in the northeast Atlantic. The Pont-Aven and its Biscay crossings are a crucial part of this project. Thankfully this particular fin whale was safe but you can read more about this threat here in our State of European Cetaceans Report.
On a completely different note, I haven’t picked up any beaked whales the past two weeks as we’ve crossed Biscay. We do call them sneaky beakies, so maybe I’ve just been unlucky and they have managed to evade me so far.
The other interesting wildlife event occurred one morning after a slightly stormy night when the deck crew came looking for me just as I was about to go on shift out on deck 10. They wanted me to help with a seabird that had landed on the deck overnight. This isn’t ORCAs remit on board but inevitably we are always called whenever any wildlife situation occurs. I do have some experience with injured wildlife so I was happy to do what I could in a personal capacity. It turned out to be a great shearwater that had got stuck and was unable to take off again. These amazing seabirds spend their whole lives offshore, travelling from their island breeding grounds around Tristan da Cunha in the south Atlantic all the way up the eastern coast of the Americas and crossing the Atlantic Ocean where they can be seen off European coasts during August as they head back to their breeding colonies. Despite this super-human migration, they are useless at walking on land. Physiologically designed only to excel in the air and the sea, their legs can’t give them enough support to get a run-off from the deck of a ship like this. I caught the shearwater and was able to assess its condition. Thankfully it seemed healthy; its wings were fine, it had a full stomach, and was pretty feisty, which is often a good sign if an animal is in trouble. All it needed was a lift-off so I took it to the top deck and released it over the side where it promptly flew off to continue its journey back to the south Atlantic.
I will be back soon to do another fortnight on the Pont and see what has changed out there. I’ll let you know how it goes!