Sensational Sightings at Sunset

Categories // Bay of Biscay

A jam packed week for whales! Amazing cetacean sightings have left Wildlife Officers feeling ecstatic

This week, as we sailed across the array of habitats our journeys between Portsmouth and Spain boast, we reached a marine species count of six - harbour porpoisecommon dolphinsbottlenose dolphinsMinke whalesfin whales and a shimmery swordfish!

Swordfish Cap Fin

One encounter this week, however, surpassed them all!

I drifted off to sleep on Wednesday evening, having seen very little that day due to the sea of white waves coupled with a wall of fog, urging for conditions to be better in the morning. I awoke to my alarm at 5am, bright eyed and bushy tailed, ready for the day ahead… tentatively raising the blind I was surprised to be welcomed with a delightful sunrise and flat seas! Surely it was going to be a good day!

Pods of common dolphins, blows in the distance, two fairly close whales and enthusiastic passengers made for very enjoyable deck watches, despite the addition of frequent white caps.That evening, with the sea returned to calm and warm colours from the sun, I just couldn’t pull myself away from the deck. Food could wait. I stood there gazing out over the ocean, feeling content as I breathed in the crisp, fresh air. I was thinking over the day’s sightings and how lucky we had been when I spotted a blow! This was followed by several more blows, some close enough to glimpse the creatures that had created them; the mighty fin whale!

Pleased with the day, though now a little chilly and peckish, I loaded the equipment and reluctantly turned towards the exit. Now, I don’t know what it was or why I did it - perhaps it was the sheer beauty of the ocean in the setting sun luring me back or maybe the feeling of bliss that I wanted to savour – but I turned back. Just one last look!

‘Ppppssssshhhhhhh’! A tall, vertical column of water powerfully erupted from the waves below as an enormous dark shape emerged just 50m from the ship. The ridge of the splash guard became visible ahead of the two blow holes it protects as the blow started to dissipate. A long, smooth black back rolled through the water for what seemed like an eternity before a small, swept back dorsal fin materialised. A FIN WHALE!

My yells of 'sighting' and the clanging of items flung from my arms to the deck alerted a couple of nearby crew who sprang out on deck just in time to witness the fin whale surface close in once again. Overwhelmed and shaking with excitement, I’m amazed I managed to lift the camera and hold down the button! The whale surfaced three more times before disappearing into the depths below.

Wow! I was in a state of utter shock and elation, beaming from ear to ear.

Fin Cap fin 1

Balaenoptera physalus: balaena = whale, pteron = fin, physa = blow

Fin whales are the second largest mammal reaching an impressive 27m (6.5m at birth) and can be found globally; often seen by us in the Bay of Biscay during the summer months! Known as the greyhounds of the sea, fin whales have long slender bodies and swimming speeds of up to 37km/h. They are baleen whales who filter feed on krill and small fish (consuming up to 2000kg each day!) using a feeding strategy from their specially adapted asymmetrically coloured jaw – the right hand side being white and the left hand being dark grey.

There are sadly many threats to the fin whales we see, including whaling (which has decimated ~90% of their population), pollution, fisheries (overfishing and bycatch) and ship strike. I am hopeful for the future of these remarkable animals though, as ORCA is leading lots of conservation and education such as our innovative research into saving large whales from ship strike. If you would like to learn more about these issues check out our website and annual report ‘The State of European Cetaceans’!

I can’t believe it’s already Trina’s last week on board! I have all my fingers and toes crossed for more sensational sightings for you this week and all the luck in the world for the future!


ORCA Wildlife Officer - Bay of Biscay

Sunset Cap Fin 05062019