Survey Reports

2019-06-16 - Plymouth-Santander-Portsmouth

Survey details

Survey route: Plymouth-Santander-Portsmouth

Company: Brittany Ferries

Sea region: English Channel, Bay of Biscay

Survey start date: 2019-06-16

Number of nights: 2

16 June 2019: English Channel / South West Approaches sea state 4 with fair to poor visibility


Our weather forecast looked promising for the next few days. A high-pressure front was expected to move into the Atlantic Ocean and English Channel giving everyone a break from the rainy start we’ve had this summer.


Due to the Pont Aven schedule change we commenced our survey just after 18:00 hrs. We were faced with long waves, frequent white caps, moderate to slight swell, intermitted glare, haze and mist which made spotting mammals more challenging for us. Although we had no sightings the collection of effort and weather data is just as important.


17 June 2019: Bay of Biscay sea state 2–4 with excellent to poor visibility


After a good night’s sleep, we awoke keen to get on watch; this was after all, the area all Marine Mammal Surveyors love – the Bay of Biscay.


The waves and swell had settled overnight to small wavelets (ideal spotting conditions) and we had a clear view all the way to the horizon. Within 24 minutes of being on watch, we had our first sighting of a pod of 3 fin whales. Within 20 minutes another sighting, this time common dolphins, followed by distant whale blows (unidentified whales), more common dolphins and bottlenose dolphins – what a start to our day.


Although the sea conditions and visibility started to deteriorate, we had a steady flow of sightings; fin whale, Minke whale, pilot whale with a calf, lots of distant whale blows, common, bottlenose dolphin and even a 2-metre shark. Wow what a day, as you can imagine we could not wait to get back on board and commence our next watch.


17 June 2019: Bay of Biscay return sea state 3-2 with moderate visibilty


We departed Santander a little later than scheduled. During our time ashore, the waves had subsided and the high-pressure front had created misty conditions – never mind, you can’t have everything! 


As soon as we started our watch, we sighted common dolphins, heading towards the ship; common dolphins are attracted to ships as they like to bow ride, play/show off in the wake and we were lucky to have numerous sightings of small pods making our evening watch go too quickly.


As the light faded, a whale breached in the distance, it was definitely a large baleen whale, though the fading light meant we could not make a positive identification on the species.  A couple of minutes later, a large blow and body roll – a beautiful fin whale; what a way to end our watch.


18 June 2019: Return South West Approaches / English Channel sea state 2 - 4 good visibility  


We awoke refreshed and ready to start our watch. Overnight the waves had settled and our visibility was good. We were just north of the continental shelf and all was quiet.


Two hours into our watch, we had a sighting of common dolphin, shortly followed by a single unidentified dolphin; then back to being quiet. After a few hours, birds feeding in the distance, and right on cue more sightings of common dolphin. Feeding birds are a good indicator and just one of the cue’s that surveyors will look for, as quite often cetaceans will also be seen feeding. 


Then the rain was back… However, this did not prevent further sightings of common dolphin and unidentified dolphins. Just before the end of our watch a Minke whale travelling from starboard to port, body rolled in front of our ship; absolutely beautiful and a memorable end to our survey.  


Cetacean and fish sightings:
Fin whale x6 
Minke whale x2
Unidentified whale x17 (distant whale blows, no body seen)
Pilot whale x4 (including 1 calf)
Common dolphin x 217
Unidentified dolphin x4
Bottlenose dolphin x15
Shark x1 (may have been a blue shark looking at identification after survey)


Bird sightings from sea and land: 


Herring gull, cormorant, manx shearwater, juvenile gannet, adult gannet, storm petrel, great skua, great black-backed gull, lesser back-backed gull, guillemot, hen harrier, swift and, sparrow.


A very big thank you to Brittany Ferries, the Captain and crew on the Pont-Aven for allowing ORCA and surveyors to conduct our survey. 

Survey team members

Jayne Dobner (Team Leader) Hannah Ramsey-Smith, Andrew Anderson and Chris Wardle