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Sunday, 22 April 2012

Fins, Tits and Terns

Cap Fin: Trips 7-10

I am going to have to apologise for the insane amount of photos in this blog. I wanted to get back home before I posted this blog, and it turns out the remaining trips were packed with lots of awesome animals, so I have let the photos do most of the talking (happy Haz??).

Trip 7: Portsmouth – Santander & Santander – Portsmouth

Have been given some binoculars to review…

Great binoculars, but they do mess your eyes up after a while…

Instant weight gain, particularly around the neck, can be an issue after prolonged use…

Highly recommend them!

The sunset amongst a few streets of clouds…

Coming into Santander the next morning, and I was still feeling a bit deflated, particularly as we had crossed the best part of the bay and had only seen a couple of Common Dolphins. I had a wonder along the sea front, and watched the Common Terns as they plucked small fish from the surface of the water.

After watching them for a while, I was quickly reminded of how fond I am of their spindly flight, and charmingly angelic whitish good looks, topped off with a black hat and a forked tail. Phwoar!

And as the ship pulled out, three of these were circling above the sand dunes in the distance…

Black Kites! Darker and slightly less colourful variants of the Red Kites we get back home, but just as impressive!

It was a bit nippy on deck, but all of my negativity was about to be annihilated, and my enthusiasm for whale watching was to be re-ignited, in the form of my first ever FIN WHALE!

Or the blow of one at least! Being the second largest animal on the planet, at up to 25 metres in length, these guys are only just pipped to the post by the humungous Blue Whale (30 metres). This was shortly followed by another blow. A much smaller, bushier blow, that I reckon was of none other than the largest of the toothed whales, the Sperm Whale!

Impressed? Haha – I know, its just a white smear just off of the horizon, it is a shame about the distance from the animal issue. Something that we never seem to suffer from with these acrobatic charmers…

Trip 8: Portsmouth – Bilbao & Bilbao – Portsmouth

Bilbao Bonanza!

We were well on our way into the channel after leaving Portsmouth, the sun was setting (again), the water was insanely calm, and I had just put my feet up by the bar window with a beer, when the Spanish bloke next to me starts wailing and waving his arms to his kids. I asked him what he had seen, he had no idea what I was saying, but he managed to understand my badly pronounced Spanish for dolphin ‘Delfin’. He nodded. And then another one popped up. Harbour Porpoise! I ran for camera, and hit the deck. Missed them. Nothing else, but the sun, setting over the flattest sea so far…

There were tonnes of sightings the next day, mostly from people telling me that they saw blows while I was at lunch, or they saw a load of blows on the other side of the ship. Because the sea was much calmer, I got to see a Fin Whale, with its fin this time!

Once again, a long way off, but nevertheless, a great sighting! Fin Whales are a different colour on one side of their body to the other, called asymmetrical pigmentation, quite a rare thing in the animal kingdom! The right side of their head and baleen plates are pale, almost white, whilst their left hand side of their head is dark grey. A bit like the semi-albino man who used to run the corner shop in Stotfold. Later, more Common Dolphins leapt from the surface, able to reach speeds up to 30 mph!

A huge splash was spotted in the distance, followed by the silhouette of a large whale leaping fully clear of the water, before arching and crashing back down into the sea. Spectacular sight. Repeated at least four or five times before disappearing into the oceans depths. After much cropping and enlarging of some long shots, I reckon it is a type of Beaked Whale, be it Northern Bottlenose, Cuviers’, or something more unusual I have no idea.

A pod of Striped Dolphins bypassed the ship; they seem far less interested in the ship and its bow waves than the similar Common Dolphin. I like them though, an attractive dolphin, with a wonderful anal stripe.

A Whimbrel, a migratory wading bird, moves North along the coasts from Africa to Northern Europe to breed for the summer. This guy passed the ship as we were about to come into Bilbao.

I passed out on my bed after dinner, by the time I had woken, it was dark and the ship had left Bilbao. I woke the next day in the channel. The sea was choppy and the wind strong. Worth a gander, but no luck.

Trip 9: Portsmouth – Roscoff – Bilbao & Bilbao – Portsmouth

Later the next day, after we had crossed around Brittany, and into the Bay itself, we saw probably the largest pod of Common Dolphin to date. At least 30-40 individuals, young and old, popping up everywhere! I didn’t know where to look!

How cute is the tiny (but out of focus) calve in the middle!

Could you imagine how awesome it would have been if I had got the shot about half a second before this, when all four would have been in mid-air? One day I will get a photo that does these amazing animals justice! !

The sea has really got rough, waves are pounding the sides, sea spray smashing into the windows and fizzing over the top of the ship.

Trip 10: Portsmouth – Santander & Santander – Portsmouth

My final trip on this stint, and it feels like I have been on here forever! I am looking forward to walking through a long grassy field, the sound of bird song rippling through the airwaves, kestrels hovering, buzzards soaring, herons squawking, kingfishers diving, tits eating my nuts, just the thought of it… a true thigh rubbing moment!

Zak has joined me on board for this trip, the guy replacing me for the next two weeks. Unfortunately the forecast was terrible, and even more unfortunately, the forecast was correct. Plates crashing off of tables, glasses exploding against the floor, literally anything not tied down flew across the room! Exciting to say the least!

Some Common Dolphins did show their faces before we hit Santander, but I was really looking forward to getting off to see some more of the Common Terns…

Love them!

After a decent train journey home, my pits bursting with sweat from carrying my life on my back, I am currently enjoying watching the Blue Tits nibbling on nuts (peanuts), Long Tailed Tits nibbling on balls (fat balls) and taking Sky over the fields…

Until next time!

Wednesday, 11 April 2012

An Eel, Poo and Rainbows..

 Cap Fin: Trips 3-5

Hope you are all well and enjoyed the previous blog!

Trip 3: Portsmouth – Roscoff – Bilbao & Bilbao – Portsmouth

The inevitable has finally happened. People are falling asleep in the audience!  And then, two hours after one of my lectures, a man proceeds to ask me ‘erm.. have you seen any… ermm… you know… erm… any of them fishes?’ You serious mate!? Shortly after, the ship breaks down and would you believe it, people make jokes about sinking. We see a pod of six Common Dolphins. Here are two of them… ermm… you know… fishes… (One of them juvenile)

 …and then I see nothing else all day. That’s the magic of whale watching. You can stand there, freeze your arse off, stub your toe on the stupid bits of metal that prod out at the bottom of the railings, and not see anything all day. I was only looking for seven hours. Just glad this didn't land on my head… It’s the first photo I have seen with a gull’s excrement literally halfway through being excreted. Like a squirt of full fat milk. Interestingly, birds poo and wee from the same hole, at the same time, hence the more solid squidgy central part, surrounded by a wonderfully white splat.

EELS! Comin atchyaaa! Never seen an eel at the surface before, potential discard from nearby fishing vessels? 

The following day was fairly successful for whaling; smallest crowd at presentation, but at least no one fell asleep. Immediately after the presentation, a pod of six Common Dolphins powered towards the ship…

A (what I think) is a Beaked Whale, breached about two km from the ship. I am going to post the photo, very reluctantly. It’s terrible, if it was a mackerel leaping as this beaked whale did, I would have trashed the photo, never to have to insult anybody’s eyes ever again. So in advance, I apologise, but you must appreciate it is the first breaching whale I have seen so far this year! 

See what I mean! Can you even see it?!

Trip 4: Portsmouth – Santander & Santander – Portsmouth

Starting off in the channel, we wouldn’t be into the bay until late evening. I popped out on deck a few times, but no luck on the cetacean front. Some real nice looking rain clouds on the horizon though…

Early start, but before I could settle in to the deck watch a few hours before we docked into Santander, we had alert rehearsals (luckily no life jackets this time, I just followed one of the barmaids around, lots of French!). After that, I got up on deck, where I was joined by a dedicated bunch, a couple of post grads from Sheffield University, that didn’t mind getting a bit wet in the mean time (they were also pretty good at throwing bean bags into a bucket on each others heads, but not quite as good as the wasted Spanish truckers!). No whales, but after about 10 minutes our first Common Dolphin popped up next to the ship. Followed by a pod that approached from far off. Then another pod joined the ship, followed by more coming from the horizon. Both adult and juvenile Common Dolphins. Totally awesome! Great to see some young dolphins as well, about half the size of the adults which can grow up to two and a half metres. In total, we must have had about 40 Common Dolphins around the ship, making it all worthwhile! Just a shame about the rain… 

Presentation was a nightmare! Had to use posters. Because I am using my sisters’ mac, the cable to the television doesn’t fit. So I borrowed the onboard laptop. The hard drive has been trashed on that. So I borrowed the ship managers’ laptop. The memory stick infected her laptop, leaving me with a poster and my own memory to go through the whole presentation. It was shorter than usual.

As we left Santander the weather was still blowing a gale. Managed to see a few Common Dolphins again, difficult in the choppiness though. I wonder how they got their name?

A pair of Robins had joined the ship for the journey to Santander, and as we crossed into the channel heading back for Portsmouth, a Great Skua passed the ship, a huge predatory sea bird that will steal fish from Gannets and even kill smaller gulls, like the Kittiwake.

Trip 5: Portsmouth – Bilbao & Bilbao – Portsmouth

The sightings are getting very frustrating! The weather was ideal and the presentation went much better, I even drew up a map of the Bay, and cut and taped Cetaceans on them where you are likely to see them.

We saw two small pods of dolphins, one on the middle horizon, probably at least 10, but they kept low and moved straight past the ship. The second was of four Common Dolphins. They leaped clear of the water twice, before disappearing, never to be seen again.

In the past four days, I have watched all 24 episodes of ‘24’ season four, courtesy of Gary and Lori. Kept me sane! And now I wake and we are just passing Brittany, and will spend the rest of the day in the channel, heading back to Portsmouth. Cetaceans are highly unlikely. But I will keep my eyes peeled nevertheless, probably more so for the birds…

Oh! Happy Easter one and all! Ignoring the religious guff associated with it, it is a great day for chocolate manufacturers, and chocolate consumers alike. Mmm…

Trip 6: Portsmouth – Roscoff – Bilbao & Bilbao – Portsmouth

The sea was its roughest so far, and the rain made any chance of standing out on deck a lot more difficult. I decided to watch the sea from the window as it swells and falls in white peaks and dark troughs, still fascinating to watch, but a bit frustrating at the difficult viewing conditions. 

On the return trip, patches of sun broke through, like rays of hope, light refracting through the sea spray as it crashed against the side of the ship, and whipped me in the face, as I stood nearly 30 meters above!

From that point onwards, the ship seemed to manage to bypass all the heavy showers…

Rainbows scattered the horizon… 

Another shot of a rainbow!

I probably got a bit carried away with the rainbow shots (poof).

Just need some cetaceans! Until next time… 

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…