The Plight of a Gentle Giant

Categories // Bay of Biscay

The Plight of a Gentle Giant

It’s been another exciting week on board the Pont-Aven and once again the Bay of Biscay has not disappointed!

The Bay of Biscay is living up to its reputation as one of the best places in the world to see whales and dolphins! We have been blessed this week with near-perfect seas on our crossings to and from Santander, giving us breath-taking views of our wonderful cetaceans. Leaving the calm waters of Portsmouth, Lucy and I had a sighting of harbour porpoises swimming in the shallow coastal sea. As always, the common dolphins and striped dolphins have been out in force, putting on displays for passengers both up on deck and even those simply sitting by a window enjoying their morning cup of coffee. Cuvier’s beaked whales have been spotted logging on the surface, resting after their champion 2-hour and 43 minutes dives to nearly 3,000m. We’ve even had close encounters with sperm whales!

But, there appears to be something in the water this week, as we’ve seen animals feeding on many occasions. Of course, we’ve had gannets diving which have often led us to our lovely cetaceans, and in themselves the gannets’ dive is awe-worthy. They pierce the water, diving from up to 30 meters above the waterline, achieving speeds of 60 miles per hour which allows them to dive down to depth of around 15m – very impressive when you consider their small size of >96 cm! We’ve also seen bottlenose dolphins leaping and splashing in the pursuit of fish, and even a minke whale breaching 4 times out of the water, dancing in the waves as it passed the boat. But the real treat this week has come from the gentle giant that we Wildlife Officers have come to know and love - the fin whale.

As the second largest animal on the planet, it is always a delight for Wildlife Officers and passengers to be in the presence of these mesmerising creatures – I certainly don’t think I will ever tire spotting their 8m high blows on the horizon. While generally our fin whales are solitary animals (as discussed in Kirsty’s blog last week), this week the productive waters in the Bay of Biscay have treated us to groups of 4-5 animals in close proximity to each other for feeding time! The fin whales seemed to be everywhere, and in fact you probably couldn’t look at the sea without seeing one at certain times during our crossing! As baleen whales, fin whales are filter feeders, primarily feeding on small fish, squid and invertebrates such as krill. They have evolved an interesting feeding adaptation in the form of an asymmetrically coloured lower jaw – essentially what this means is the left side of their jaw is a dark grey colour, while in contrast the right side is white. The tongue and baleen are also coloured in this way. As a fin whale feeds, in turns on its side with the right jaw facing downwards, the white colour making it less visible to its prey. Then it simply opens its large mouth and lunges to the surface, creating a characteristic splash of white water around it as it takes in huge quantities of water and prey before squeezing the excess water out and licking the tasty treats off its baleen plates. You can imagine the shear size of the disturbance in the water as these 26m long animals lunge to the surface engulfing up to 80 cubic metres of water containing 10 kilograms of krill in less than six seconds– a true spectacle for all to behold.

We are extremely fortunate to see fin whales so regularly in the Bay of Biscay because they are in fact an endangered species, it is estimated that there are less than 100,000 individuals left. To put this into perspective, that’s just 10% of their population pre- commercial whaling. There are many threats that fin whales, like all other cetaceans, face today. From pollution to reduced prey availability and entanglement in fishing gear, they are navigating an increasing difficult ocean. But our fin whales are not only subject to these threats, they are also likely to be hit by large fishing vessels, especially in the Bay of Biscay which is an busy shipping route. Unfortunately for our fin whales, an old threat has now reared its ugly head again, and that is whaling. It shocks many of our passengers to learn that such a barbaric practise such as whaling continues to be a problem today. In 1986 the International Whaling Commission’s moratorium on commercial whaling came into effect however loopholes in this system still allow several countries (Norway, Iceland, the Faroes and Japan) to hunt whales. Recent figures suggest that these countries will kill up to 2,000 whales this year – which will undoubtably have devastating effects on the fragile populations of our whales. After a break of 2 years, Iceland has announced that it will resume fin whaling this year, with a quota 161 whales which may be increased by as much as 48 whales by using a second quota from the east of Iceland. It is truly devastating to think what this will do to our endangered fin whales -a species that has brought myself and countless others so much joy on the crossings to and from the Bay of Biscay.

So, what can we do to help save our precious fin whales? Well, the good news is that global demand for whale meat is declining, however industries are looking for “alternative” ways to use their catch, such as medicines and dietary supplements. Unfortunately, this archaic trade is being maintained largely by the public, especially tourists visiting countries that whale and treating whale meat as a delicacy. As consumers, you therefore have the power to stop whaling by refusing whale meat and other whale-derived products – stop the demand and therefore the supply. You have a vital role to play in protecting these magnificent animals, and I hope that you will use your voice so that on your next crossing through the Bay of Biscay you might see all the wonders that these gentle giants have to offer. I have no doubt that once you’ve seen them, you’ll love them just as much as I do.

Let’s change the world together,
Wildlife Officer, Brittany Ferries Pont Aven