Little did the team know when we met at Plymouth Ferry Terminal on a misty Sunday afternoon that a truly amazing survey across the Bay of Biscay and the English Channel awaited us. We would experience stunning wildlife encounters that every surveyor dreams of and during disembarkation at Portsmouth, we would be asking each other ‘did we really just see that’?
The weather forecast was good, and we were keen to get underway. We cheerfully chatted as we made our way to the Pont Aven about what we might see and once onboard we settled into our cabins. With a blast of her horn, the Pont Aven left her berth and entered Plymouth Sound or ‘The Sound’ as it is known locally and sailed into open sea.
We arranged for access to the bridge and upon our arrival we were warmly greeted by Joseph, one of the officers and after retrieving our equipment and a quick chat with the crew we settled into our survey. Since leaving Plymouth, the weather had deteriorated, and we were encountering reduced visibility due to fog, a sea state 4, moderate swell and slight glare on the starboard side. Despite the conditions, we had our first sighting (one of many!) when out of the fog two dorsal fins broke the surface 320 metres ahead of the ship off the starboard bow. Common dolphin! They enjoyed a quick bow ride and disappeared down the side of the ship and into the wake. A brief and wonderful sight. We continued to survey, but as the weather deteriorated further, we decided to end our first watch due to the heavy fog that had developed and left the crew to their work.
After a good night’s sleep, we awoke early and were making our way to guest services to organise bridge access when we were stopped by a gentleman who had spotted our ORCA t-shirts and he asked us if we were onboard to carry out a survey. During the conversation he revealed that he was an ORCA member and was onboard to look out for whales and dolphins and was on his way to the outside observation deck to begin his search. After a lovely chat, we said our goodbyes and we headed to the bridge. The weather was fantastic, and we had visibility all the way to the horizon, a sea state 3 and little to no swell. So much better than the previous evening and perfect conditions to look for cetaceans.
The sightings during the second watch came in quick succession with the first sighting being ten unidentified dolphins charging towards the ship, followed by several large groups of common dolphin, striped dolphin and bottlenose dolphin leaping, bow riding and playing in the ships wake as they continued their journey.
Taking a GPS reading and looking at the navigation charts, the Pont Aven was now sailing over canyons that were 3000-4500 metres deep which meant we could now possibly start seeing large or beaked whales. We didn’t have to wait long before we started seeing distant blows and we had a very close encounter with a fin whale that had surfaced with a massive exhalation 380 metres ahead of the ship off the port bow. As we stood there watching the sea, the whale surfaced with another massive blow next to the ship and at its side was a juvenile! The whales were so close we could see the vertebrae in their spinal column, their bodies and blows clearly visible as they moved away from the ship in unison.
Just when we thought it couldn’t get any better, we had three beaked whales surface under the starboard bridge wing and as we watched them travelling down the side of the ship, the whales began playing in the wake, riding the waves and then began breaching. One after the other, breach after breach and at times altogether leaving huge splashes when they crashed back into the sea! We stood there with our mouths open, we just couldn’t believe what we were seeing and as we continued to look at the wake, we saw on the outside railing the ORCA member we had been talking to earlier. He had been watching the breaching whales too and he gave a thumbs up and a huge smile when he looked at us. Seeing cetaceans in the wild can bring so much joy.
We had a couple of further sightings before our arrival in Santander of beaked whales and dolphins, and after finishing our survey we headed to the outside observation deck to talk to the ORCA member about the breaching beaked whales. We asked if he had seen any identifying features and he thought they were Cuvier’s as he could clearly see scratches on their bodies and the head shape as they made their way down the side of the ship. Brilliant!
After a quick lunch in sunny Santander, we were back on the ship and beginning watch 3. The conditions remained excellent and we had further sightings of common dolphin, distant whale blows and two Northern bottlenose whales that were casually swimming 800 metres off the starboard bow, their bulbous heads clearly visible as they surfaced. We retired for the evening feeling happy and content from such an amazing day.
With a sea state fluctuating between 1-3 and intermittent fog for our final watch, we were on the bridge for sunrise and just off the Brittany coastline. We thought after the excitement of the previous day it might be a bit quiet whilst travelling up the English Channel, but the first few hours were really busy! We had common dolphin, a Minke whale that surfaced a few times on the port side, a group of harbour porpoise swimming and travelling together down the side of the ship and a solitary dolphin bow riding.
We could see the Spinnaker Tower of Portsmouth Harbour in the distance and knew that was our cue to start preparing to leave the bridge so that the crew can ready the ship for arrival. Just as we were about to end the survey, a group of ten bottlenose dolphin surfaced ahead off the port bow and approached the ship. We could clearly see them underneath the water as they approached and with a quick turn they began riding the pressure wave on the bow. One individual broke off to start leaping clear of the bow whilst two calves remained nestled between two larger animals as they swam in unison, moving between either side of the bow, playing and leaping clear of the waves. The Captain asked us if we would like to make an announcement to let passengers know about the dolphins, which we did and when we looked back from the bridge wing, we could see the railings packed with happy passengers who had gathered to see them. What an amazing way to end an extraordinary survey.
We were still talking about our sightings as we disembarked in Portsmouth and as we bid each other farewell at the terminal, our parting words to each other were ‘did we really just see that’? as we waved each other goodbye.
We would like to say a massive thank you to Captain Gilles Marre and the crew of the Pont Aven for making us feel so welcome and for their hospitality, and to Brittany Ferries for their continued support of ORCA.
Marine Mammals Seen (443):
Bottlenose Dolphin x 30
Common Dolphin x 302
Fin Whale x 2
Harbour Porpoise x 10
Minke Whale x 1
Northern Bottlenose Whale x 2
Striped Dolphin x 50
Unidentified Beaked Whale x 5 (3 Possible Cuvier’s)
Unidentified Dolphin x 29
Unidentified Whale x 12
Great Black-backed Gull
Lesser Black-backed Gull
Emma Howe-Andrews (Team Leader), Becci Owen, Christina Eland