A keen team met on a bright sunny afternoon with enough time to take advantage of the cafe at the Plymouth ferry terminal, where we were soon reminding ourselves of the protocol over a hot beverage before our first watch.
The sea conditions were not ideal for spotting small cetaceans as we undulated through a sea state 4, rising to a 5 and moderate swell for most of the first watch. Unfortunately, no cetaceans were spotted and the only birds putting in an appearance were the occasional gannet, fulmar and manx shearwater.
The lack of sightings the previous evening failed to dampen our optimism for sightings on the second day. Our plans to be on the bridge just after sunrise, though were thwarted with, “Can you come back in an hour? We’re expecting a helicopter”
The team eagerly sat by the window seats in the café on deck 7 armed with a hand held GPS in the hope of at least an incidental sighting or two.
Once on the bridge we realised we were in the shallow water of the continental shelf much further east than normal. But every cloud has a silver lining – this meant we had to cross back over the shelf edge, which yielded our first sightings of common dolphins. Once across the shelf, we refreshed before crossing the canyons. The canyons yielded more small groups of common dolphins but sadly no large or beaked whales.
Keeping up with ORCA tradition the team enjoyed various flavoured ice creams from the “heladeria” and returned to the Pont Aven to relax before a late afternoon departure which would still permit surveying the canyons in good light. We were blessed with excellent visibility, sea state 2 dropping to 1 occasionally and a light swell. This watch contrasted with previous ones as pods of common dolphins zoomed towards us from both sides every few minutes – it was common dolphin heaven! Sadly still no large or beaked whales made it to the score sheet. However, a few striped dolphins sneaked in with one of the pods common dolphins.
We retired for the evening somewhat elated and armed with the knowledge that we would be passing through the French islands the next day at about 7am. Although we’d been surveying for the previous two hours it was the islands that broke the deadlock with a single harbour porpoise. As we sailed through the French islands we saw 100+ Manx and Balearic shearwaters - it was quite a sight! The rest of the trip was punctuated with two more pods of common dolphins and several fog banks. The final sighting was of a sunfish under the bridge wing staring back at the observer.
It was a pleasure to lead such a diligent team especially given the unexpected schedule. Many thanks are due to the crew of the Pont Aven for their helpful answers to questions and warm welcome. We couldn’t do this without their support.
Marion Smith, Cheryl Yarham, Maija Marsh, Jackie Shaw