From Portsmouth to Santander, to Plymouth, Roscoff and Cork, it’s always an adventure aboard Brittany Ferries Pont-Aven
Another great week has passed aboard the Pont-Aven. Passengers have been known to ask us what it is that drives us wildlife officers to stand on deck for hours on end, come rain or shine, just to catch a glimpse of a whale or dolphin…
Of course the reputation of the Bay of Biscay is reason enough for most of us. Its diverse range of habitats makes it ideal for spotting whales, dolphins and the occasional porpoise. Leaving England, we sail through the coastal regions (< 200m depth), where we find small whales and dolphins. As we approach Biscay, we travel over the Northern Continental Shelf, where a sharp decrease in leads us into the pelagic deep at 4,550m. This area is crucial in making the Bay of Biscay such a spectacular area for whales and dolphins. Here, the upwelling of nutrients sustains all the marine life we’re so desperate to see. Carry on cruising across the pelagic deep sea, an area which keeps your attention with the promise of large, baleen whales. The excitement continues through to the deep sea canyons (~4,850m), where the bounties of squid sustain the elusive sperm whales and beaked whales.
This week, we have been treated to a variety of cetaceans in the Bay. The ever beautiful common dolphins always please the crowds with their playful displays in the wake of the ship. As if from nowhere they leap out of the water, causing a rush of people to the side, their eyes glued to the water for another glimpse of these charismatic dolphins. Fin whales, on the other hand, are a bit trickier to spot, but once you get a glimpse of that distinctive 8m tall, straight blow on the horizon, they are unmistakable. At ~27m long these animals can cause disbelief between passengers who are lucky enough to view them, and the call of “blow” from one wildlife officer to another always causes excitement. Biscay always surprises you, and while it’s notorious for stormy seas, Monday’s crossing was near-perfect. The glassy ocean enabled to have some spectacular encounters. As always, we were treated to many common dolphins playing in the wake of the boat, their splashes even more prominent when they emerged from the still waters. But we were also lucky enough to see lots of fin whales, milling in the waters, clear for all to see (and photograph!) We were even treated to a resting sperm whale, Cuvier’s beaked whales, and 2 basking sharks among the common, striped dolphins and bottlenose dolphins! A truly magical crossing.
But it is not only the waters of the Bay of Biscay that we the wildlife officers on board the Pont-Aven find ourselves in, and as such we are treated to a variety of other sights along our journey! We also sail to Roscoff, which takes us through the English Channel – a coastal habitat with shallow waters of up to 200 m. The Channel has a reputation for being the quieter leg of the week’s journey, but the challenge of spotting a dolphin in these waters makes it oh so sweet when you find them! Because of its shallow depth, in the Channel we would expect mainly smaller species of dolphin such as the harbour porpoise, common dolphin and bottlenose dolphin and with the occasional minke whale. In previous weeks Lucy and I have been lucky enough to catch a breaching minke whale in the Channel, proving that you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover!
Once a week we also make the journey to Cork, where we cross the English Channel and Celtic Sea. The Celtic Sea, like the Channel, is a shallow habitat of around 200 m, so again here we expect our smaller cetacean species. But among the sightings of bottlenose and common dolphins, often, we catch a glimpse of basking sharks! These gentle giants often cause confusion when first sighted as the triangular fin wades through the water. It’s only as they slowly float through the water, and you see the distinctive 3 points (tail fin, doral fin and nose) that you realise that there’s a basking shark in the water feeding – which is always a pleasure to see. To my delight, this week Lucy and I were also greeted by a friendly grey seal an hour off Cork, who leisurely floated between a flock of birds that were settled on the water. At first, it was difficult to distinguish the seal from the birds with only its stomach visible at the surface, but once its head turned it was unmistakeable. We watched it for a while, with its long slender nose and inquisitive eyes staring up at the ship before it decided it was time to swim, surprisingly gracefully, away.
From Portsmouth to Santander, to Plymouth, Roscoff and Cork, it’s always an adventure. And although it may take us a few minutes in the mornings to figure out where our destination of the day is, we’re always happy to be up on deck. So, hopefully I’ve left you with a bit of insight into why we wildlife officers stand up on deck 10 of the Pont-Aven, come rain or shine, fog or glare – because you never quite know what’s going to leap out of the water and surprise you.
We’ll see you on deck 10!
Wildlife Officer, Pont-Aven