September at Sea

Categories // Bay of Biscay

September at Sea

Find out about Nina's first week on board the Pont-Aven! 

Day 1

On Tuesday 7th September, I ventured down south (very, very far south for me) to Plymouth, the UK’s ‘Ocean City’, on arguably the hottest day of the year, to embark on a much-awaited adventure. Over the next couple of weeks, I will be on board the Pont-Aven, in partnership with Brittany Ferries, to monitor cetacean activity on crossings from Plymouth to Roscoff (France), Santander (Spain) and Cork (Ireland). I will be the Wildlife Officer on board for ORCA, a UK national charity supporting the research and conservation of whales, dolphins and porpoises and their marine habitats.

Day 2

And so, my watch begins. My first official deck watch on Deck 10 was Wednesday morning, surveying the route from Roscoff to Plymouth, and boy was it foggy! The weather conditions certainly weren’t optimal but environmental data is very important to monitor as it has an effect on survey technique and results. Granted, it was not the best start to my surveys weather-wise, but I certainly was not disappointed. The gentle ripples and lack of swell meant that I was able to spot four short-beaked common dolphins about 30 minutes into the journey. They were very close to the ship and easily identifiable, due to their hour-glass tan colourations and smaller, sickle-shaped dorsal fin. A fleeting glimpse of their dorsal fins breaking the surface was all I was lucky enough to see. I was thrilled to share this sighting with some enthusiastic albeit tired passengers!

As the journey progressed, the weather marginally improved. The Pont-Aven fog horn was still blaring every so often (making me jump every time) and we sailed through bouts of thick fog here and there, but I was grateful for the lack of rain. There weren’t many people braving Deck 10 as visibility was poor and the foghorn was lurking in wait to surprise any unsuspecting passengers. It’s a shame because the sea state and swell were perfect for spotting cetaceans! I did spy some lovely sea birds on my watch, including several pairs of gannets. They have striking orange heads and piercing blue eyes and I watched them skim and dive effortlessly into the waves.

Days 3 & 4

Thursday morning started off with another foggy, choppy deck watch before breakfast. Visibility wasn’t ideal and there weren’t any early risers to chat to about marine wildlife, so I quickly nipped down for some food and a hot chocolate (a must for these early mornings!). From about 9am until we arrived into Santander port, I was on Deck 10 keeping an eagle eye out for cetaceans and seabirds. I really wanted to see a fin whale during this crossing! About halfway across the Bay of Biscay, myself and a keen passenger managed to spot a common dolphin porpoising very quickly towards the stern of the boat, about 150m out. Again, it was just a glimpse of a small, sickle-shaped dorsal fin and a flash of tan colouring, but it was enough to confirm ID. I had so many interested passengers engaging with me over the hours of the morning, asking me all about my role with ORCA and what species of cetacean you can see in the Bay of Biscay. It’s always exciting to see other people get excited about wildlife as much as me. Friday was a quiet day – no sightings to report and we had pretty average weather, but absence data is just as important to record!

Day 5

What a corker of a day! Fresh-faced and ready for the day, I started my deck watch at 7:30am, watching the sunrise over the Irish Sea. We were heading into Cork today and I had a good feeling. And I was right. Just over half an hour into the watch, I spotted 5 common dolphins along with a teeny tiny calf. I managed to quickly whip out my camera as they came porpoising towards the ship. I only saw them briefly but managed a half-decent photo or two. I knew as soon as I’d spotted the dolphins, there were more to come. 30 minutes of so afterwards, we were nearing the port in Cork, and I spotted 3 bottlenose dolphins in a feeding frenzy, along with several diving gannets swarmed around them. Lots of passengers were out on deck watching us arrive into port and saw the animals feeding off the starboard side of the ship. A good start to Saturday!

Common dolphin

Anyway, it’s time to set sail again, this time back to Plymouth for the Santander route across the Bay of Biscay. Fingers crossed for a fin whale or two! Check back with me in a couple of days to see what I get up to!