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Sunday, 1 April 2012

The Bay of Biscay!

Personal Blog

Welcome to my Blog!! As you might know already, I am ORCA’s new Wildlife Officer on board Brittany Ferries Cap Finistere, teaching passengers and helping them spot Whales, Dolphins and Porpoises, collectively known as Cetaceans, in the Bay of Biscay. Hopefully there will be plenty of wildlife to blog about!

The journey began on the train down to Portsmouth the night before I started my training, and upon arrival, I had an unexpectedly long walk to the Backpackers Lodge I was staying. Here I am, on the train, with my Ian Beale shaped head.


My feet were sore by the time I arrived, but I got a nice view of Portsmouth at dusk…

I had finally arrived at the Backpackers Lodge, but I wish I hadn’t.
Shit. Hole.
I was sharing the dorm with two Spanish guys and a snoring homeless person. By this time I couldn’t be arsed with food. All I could think about was how much I hate people. Just humans really. Especially lots of them. I barely slept after my small roll and hummus. Partly because it was too hot even with the window open, partly because the homeless guy snored unbelievably loud (I thought he was choking and dying a few times - probably wouldn’t have been a bad thing!), partly because the Spanish revolution waltzed in at 02:30, and partly because I feared for my life as I lay in the top of a rotting bunk bed.
Nothing like a bright sunny morning to lift a dampened spirit!

It was great to get to finally meet everyone. Mike, last years Wildlife Officer, was there to help train me for the coming season. He gave me the ~40 minute presentation that I would be giving to ferry passengers two days later… I was excited to be shown the ropes, and get out there and spot some cetaceans!

Trip 1: Portsmouth – Bilbao & Bilbao – Portsmouth

I have to thank both Mike and Sophie who came onboard with me for the first trip; they were a great help, and great company as well. We left Portsmouth for Bilbao, the sea was calm-ish, and the weather great. It was only the strong wind that posed any problems. Over the whole trip, we spotted in total of around 40 Common Dolphins, 10 Striped Dolphins, a Beaked Whale, and maybe a Pilot Whale. Where the Common and Striped Dolphins would normally approach the ship at speed, then breach and ride across the bow waves, these all tended to be dead set on a direction, un-phased by the ships presence. Could have been on the hunt. Below is my first attempt to photograph my first Common Dolphin. It had broken away from the rest of the pod briefly, and as you can see, I was slow on the trigger (a.k.a - tosser)!  

First and foremost, I am here for the cetaceans, but there are always going to be plenty of other forms of wildlife that are going to catch my eye. Pretty much constant companions on the majority of trips, the Gannet is a huge bird, with a wingspan of up to 2 metres. Particularly impressive when they dive like torpedoes through the surface of the sea to catch their prey. A fantastic predator!

On the return trip I gave my first presentation, which, despite a few nerves, I managed to do really well, and even got a guy to donate £10 a month! That, with donations, meant I had earned the charity well over £120 on my first presentation!
My brain has been completely fried with information over the past three days, so I will talk about life onboard in a bit more detail once I have experienced it for a bit longer. I can tell you that the French food is great – even the Pigs trotters!

Trip 2: Portsmouth – Roscoff – Santander, & Santander – Portsmouth:

Over the next evening, after I had said my goodbyes to my mentors, the ship docked in Roscoff, where a change of crew took place. The conditions after leaving Roscoff were almost perfect for whale watching. Despite this, the best part of the trip, where you are most likely to see more cetaceans, was during the night. So, after my first presentation on my tod, I was determined to spend as much time on deck during daylight hours as I could. About 6 hours looking out to sea, and I only sighted a single Common Dolphin the whole day - unusual to see one by itself as well.

There was one other sighting as the sun went down, and for the life of me I couldn’t tell you exactly what it was, but the closest description I can find is of the Pygmy Sperm Whale. Which would be very rare indeed and makes me question what I actually saw.

A thrush joined the ship for a while, fluttering across the deck. Quite incredible, considering we were in the middle of the Bay of Biscay, well over 100 miles from land. And a Wheatear, a bird species that migrates North for the summer, tagged along for a few hours too…


And then… the sunset... A blazing ball of flames, gently dipping into the ocean...

By the time I had awoken, we had crossed the deep underwater canyons, and had docked in Santander, where, because of the switch from Winter to Summer timetabling, we got to spend pretty much the whole day there. But before that could happen, we had ‘alert’, ‘alarm’ and ‘abandon ship’ scenario rehearsals. Which meant I was shouted at in French for an hour while I bumbled around the ship mindlessly with a life jacket wrapped around my head. Here is the Cap Finistere, docked in Santander. My room is just to the left of the lifeboats on Deck 9 (the orange things)!

Going out on deck after dinner was a very wise move indeed. Especially because not only was there another spectacular sunset, but six Striped Dolphins popped up under the ship, and literally as the sun was doing this…

… two Beaked Whales popped up right beside the ship as well!! Then they left. Swimming off into the wonderfully lit dusk skyline…


I tried to wake up early and get out on deck, but there was something wrong with my eyes, so I went back to sleep for a little bit longer…

No luck with cetaceans today, just lots of balloons (only arse holes let go of balloons and let them blow away) and plastic… as I write this we are just about to dock in Portsmouth and I will now end this blog with my favourite photo of the trip so far, just because the clouds look totally awesome. Until next time…

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