20 Aug 2018

15 Aug 18: Return To Biscay: Cuvier's Beaked Whale

I had already seen good numbers of Short-beaked Common Dolphins, at least half a dozen Fin Whales (plus more blows), a Minke Whale, as well as, large numbers of Great Shearwaters & a handful of Cory's Shearwaters during the first few hours on the first morning on the Pont-Aven while I was looking from the front of the top deck. After checked with the Orca team, I realised that despite the rear top deck being more open it was actually a bit more sheltered as the deck was narrower than the front of the top deck. There was also the benefit that with observers on both sides of the deck, then it was possible to quickly hear if there was something good seen on the other side of the deck. The reality was often there was a shout & all we heard was Dolphins or Whale with no identification. Still I hadn't been getting any news of sightings from my initial possible near the front of starboard deck, so overall it seemed the rear of the top deck was a better viewing position.

About 10:00 UK time, there was a shout for a Whale on the port side. I crossed over to look for it & only had a brief view of a medium sized Whale. Unfortunately, I didn't get onto it again & it remained unidentified, but it was either another Minke Whale or a Beaked Whale (it had been a very brief view). I'm not sure if anybody else figured it out either. As it was more sheltered on the port side, I decided to stay there. About fifteen minutes later, another medium sized Whale was picked up close off the port side. I quickly got onto it & as it looked interesting, I very quickly swapped to the camera to grab some photos. Through the camera, it looked medium sized, dark & slim-bodied with a noticeable curved-backed dorsal fin. It appeared several times, but every time I picking up with my naked eye & then raised the camera to get as many photos as possible. I never saw it again with the binoculars. Finally, it disappeared & I was starting to check the photos when I heard it had been identified as a Cuvier's Beaked Whale. As I zoomed into the photos I could see the head & front of the body was off-white & heavily scarred and I was happy I had just seen my first male Cuvier's Beaked Whale. I had hoped we would see one or two, but hadn't expected to see one so soon at the Northern end of the continental shelf drop off. It was a good job that we did see it, as there weren't any Cuvier's Beaked Whales seen later in the afternoon as we got closer to the final canyon off Santander. The reality is when Beaked Whales dive then can be down for quite some time & therefore, if they dived a mile in front of the ship they would next reappear well behind the Pont-Aven.
Cuvier's Beaked Whale: Male. The first photo shows the pale front of the body & the extensive scarring
Cuvier's Beaked Whale: Male. It quickly put the front of the body underwater & looked noticeable darker in appearance
Cuvier's Beaked Whale: Male. The vertical white scar on the dorsal fin must be distinctive enough to allow this individual to be easily recognised
Cuvier's Beaked Whale: Male. It seemed to sink in the water, rather than roll forward & dive whilst showing its tail
Cuvier's Beaked Whale: Male
Cuvier's Beaked Whale: Male
Cuvier's Beaked Whale: Male. With just the dorsal fin showing it wouldn't be possible to identify it on this view
Cuvier's Beaked Whale: Male. When it came up again it was possible to see the large white melon & the dip in the head shape after the melon which is another of the features for Cuvier's Beaked Whale
Cuvier's Beaked Whale: Male. It is just possible to see the dorsal fin & the melon together in this shot
Cuvier's Beaked Whale: Male. Looking at the photos, it's easy to see why I didn't see the white at the front of the head & the scarring when I was using my naked eye before quickly switching to the camera. Once I press the button to start taking photos, it's not possible to see anything other than the general shape of the subject 
I was glad to have finally seen a Cuvier's Beaked Whale on my fifth trip through Biscay in the autumn. I had also hoped to have seen one on the Atlantic Odyssey or West African Pelagic, but the only one seen was a short sighting by Marijke from the other side of the Plancius as we passed through the Canaries. This was my 38 species out of 90 extant species of Cetaceans.

19 Aug 2018

15 Aug 18: Return To Biscay: Dolphins & Fin Whales Galore

I was on deck for 06:15 & found that the sea was already busy. In the first 15 minutes of light, I had already missed a Fin Whale, as well as, several groups of Short-beaked Common Dolphins. The ship had already passed between Cap Finistere & the offshore islands in the dark between 04:00 & 05:00 & we were already heading for the continental shelf.
The Pont-Aven's position at 06:15: As indicated by the red & white S. The ship was travelling at 23 knots which was a lot faster than the 11 - 12 knots of the Plancius (when I was on the Odyssey). It was also travelling several knots faster than I think the Pride of Bilboa sailed at
The following maps help to indicate why Biscay is so good for Cetaceans. The route passes across the continental shelf & into the deep waters, before following the canyon off Santander until very close to the coast. I've read that 31 species have been seen in Biscay over the years, which is over a third of the world's pelagic Cetaceans. Many of the Dolphins & some of the Whales are typically seen before we dropped off the Continental shelf. Sperm Whales & Beaked Whales typically feed in the Bay of Biscay's deeper waters as they dive deep to chase their prey of Squid: which are typically several hundred metres deep during the daytime. Generally, the deep canyons off Santander & Bilbao are also very good for Cetaceans.
Map of Biscay showing the water depths: The pale blue shows the continental shelf where the water depth can be up to 200 metres deep. The green shows where the continental shelf drops off & the pale yellow is the really deep water where the depth is over 4000 metres. The red area indicated the very deep canyons that continue close to Santander & Bilbao. The black line shows the normal route for the Pont-Aven into Santander
A close up of the Santander & Bilboa canyons
I spent the first couple of hours of the morning sheltering behind some emergency life rafts on the starboard side. It provided a reasonable amount of shelter & a good view forward of the Pont-Aven. Despite the seas being flat calm, there was still a noticeable wind, as well as, wind from the 23 knots the ship was doing. However, as it was a forward position I was away from most of the other Birders & Cetacean watchers on the ship & had no idea what was happening on the port side. But for the first few hours of the day, I didn't think I was likely to miss a Cuvier's Beaked Whale shout so was happy where I was. It wasn't long before I starting seeing Short-beaked Common Dolphins. There were a number of pods of six to fifteen individuals in each pod. However, they weren't photogenic as they were feeding & quickly passed astern. It didn't help that the Pont-Aven was travelling too fast for the Dolphins to keep up with the ship & enjoy some bow-waving.
Short-beaked Common Dolphin: A typical view of one of the early pods of feeding individuals that didn't do more than just break the water's surface
Short-beaked Common Dolphin: Some of the pods were more inquisitive like this pod which had at least two youngsters in it. There is a youngster with the left hand mother & a second youngster had just gone down by the right hand mother
Short-beaked Common Dolphin: Another female with a youngster which I saw about 20 minutes after the previous photo
There were a decent number of Fin Whale sightings throughout the morning in Northern Biscay from both sides of the ship. I saw at least six Fin Whales, but could have seen twice that had I been prepared to rush across the ship to see every individual. However, by the time the shout has gone up & it has been confirmed as a Whale (& not a Dolphin) shout, then the railings were usually packed. Thus, racing across the deck didn't always give a great position for views or photographs. I preferred to stay on one side & keep a better viewing position. While I missed a few Fin Whales & more Short-beaked Common Dolphins, it gave me a better position to scan from.
Fin Whale: Blowing as it surfaced
Fin Whale: The dorsal fin finally appears towards the end of the blow confirming there is a lot of back in front of it
Fin Whale: It's a small dorsal fin considering the size of the body
Fin Whale
Fin Whale: Neither the dorsal fin not the head are visible as it starts to disappear
This second individual provides a better view of the overall dorsal fin shape.
Fin Whale: The overall size of the Whale & this not too steep dorsal fin shape help to separate Fin Whales from the much scarcer (in the Bay of Biscay) Sei Whales. Sei Whales have a much steeper dorsal fin
Fin Whale: Showing a reasonable of back after the dorsal fin as it starts to go down
Fin Whale: Just a little bit of the dorsal fin before it goes
There were several hundred Great Shearwaters seen in Northern Biscay. However, it very difficult to accurately count them, given I wasn't looking closely enough to try & work out how many were keeping pace with the Pont-Aven, compared to the individuals that we quickly passed by. It didn't help that the Cetaceans regularly distracted me.
Great Shearwater: The main deck on the Pont-Aven was deck 10 & it was a long way above the sea. Generally, the Seabirds weren't coming close to the ship, but occasionally some gave better views
Great Shearwater
Great Shearwater
Fulmar: I only saw a handful each day
There were good numbers of fishing boats on the horizon: A clear sign of good numbers of Fish to keep the Seabirds & fish-eating Cetaceans happy
I was pleased to spot a Sunfish travelling unobtrusively down the starboard side. I saw three on the Atlantic Odyssey & West African Pelagic cruise, but didn't success in getting any good photos. This individual was a bit more photogenic.
Sunfish: This individual is swimming on its side with the head to the left of the photo. The dark eye is also visible in this photo. They are one of the most bizarre Fish I've seen
Sunfish: Looks like it has now opened its mouth
Sunfish: This photo has less distortion from the water which gives a better image of the real body shape. They can grow to 1.8 metres long & weight up to a metric ton. They are a pretty flat fish with a very rounded body & two large fins at the back of the body. When swimming vertically all you see is the dorsal fin sticking out of the water & often flapping from side to side. At other times, like in this photo, they swim so the body is horizontal & at a first glance could they easily be overlooked as rubbish floating on the sea
Floating Seaweed: There were a lot of patches of this Floating Seaweed which one of the Orca volunteers called Wrack. Generally, the patches were a couple of feet across, although I did see a couple of patches several metres across. Unfortunately, I didn't see anything feeding in these patches of weed
It had been a good start to the morning. It was a pity about the poor light initially, but the clouds finally started to clear & the light improved. Unfortunately, we also lost the flat calm seas & started to see whitecaps on the waves. Eventually, I decided to go & fill up the insulated mug with some more coffee & check in with the Orca team to see what they had been seeing & I had missed. I also wanted to check on a Whale I had seen just after 06:30 close to the ship on the starboard side. My feeling was it was a Minke Whale, but I had only had a single quick view of it. Fortunately, the Orca team were able to confirm my tentative identification. I've only seen four before in 2000 & 2001 from the Pride of Bilbao so was pleased to have seen another.

18 Aug 2018

14 Aug 18 - Return To Biscay: The First Evening

During the Atlantic Odyssey & West African Pelagic trip earlier this year, I was already planning in my mind a return trip to Biscay this Autumn. This is an excellent & relatively cheap way to see a good selection of Whales, Dolphins & Seabirds. On four consecutive four Autumns from 1998, I was one of a group of Poole Birders who took the P&O ferry Pride of Bilbao ferry from Portsmouth to Bilbao. I was abroad in 2002 on a year off travelling so missed the trip that year & there wasn't a lot of interest for further trips in subsequent years as the regulars all looked to do different holidays. We went as foot passengers on the three day trip. Typically, a four berth cabin cost each of us £30 if booked early with a voucher. We generally took snack food on the ship to eat during the day, so allowing some money for hot & cold drinks & an evening meal & car parking, it generally didn't cost more than £60 or £70 for the three day trip. I had heard on the Odyssey that the Cetacean trips were still being run on Brittany Ferries, but with the complication that the cruise now went from Portsmouth to Santander & returned to Plymouth. However, I could book on the mini cruise on the Pont-Aven ferry with the Orca charity & they laid on coaches to get the mini cruise passengers back to Portsmouth at the end. The ferry is capable of carrying around 2000 passengers on board & seemed a lot plusher than the Pride of Bilbao. Orca put a number of their volunteers on to help with the identification of the Cetaceans, collate sightings & help educate the punters. Some of the passengers were veterans of the Biscay cruises, while others were on their first ever trip & weren't particularly experienced on their Cetacean identification. Other bonuses were as having plenty of eyes on both sides of the top deck & the agreement with the ship that half of the top deck would be roped off for the Cetacean passengers. While this was the rear half, it was generally the more sheltered half of the top deck & did allow easy access to both sides of the ship, the Pont-Aven. The cabin worked out at £265 (including a £30 single cabin upgrade) & another £39 for three days parking at the ferry terminal in Portsmouth. This included the cost of the coach back. It was still possible to take snack food on board, so I only needed to pay for coffee on board & some food & drink during the early evening run ashore at Santander. Gone are the days of the silly prices for the Pride of Bilbao trips, but overall it was still a reasonable price for a couple of days in Biscay.
Portsmouth's Royal Navy dockyard: With the Spinnaker Tower in the background
Part of the historic remains of Portsmouth's Royal Navy dockyard
Confirmation this is the Royal Navy dockyard
Brittany Ferries run from the terminal right next to the Naval dockyard & affords excellent views of a few of the original Royal Navy ships right up to the latest in the fleet. Having spent a few years in the late 80s working on software in use on the Type 42 Destroyers, visits to the dockyard & trips to sea generally off the Isle of Wight were an essential part of testing the new software. I still have an interest in seeing the replacement ships.
HMS Bristol (D23): The first ship I went on board only five days in the job. A bit daunting at the time, but I soon gained experience & was leading my team for the last few years of software testing at sea. It was a great time. She is the only Type 82 Destroyer & was designed to be a carrier protection ship, but the rest of the Type 82 Destroyers were cancelled as a cost saving exercise. She was launched in June 69 & entered active service in Mar 73. She was the prototype ship for some of the new weapons systems that were ultimately deployed to the Type 42 Destroyers & Carriers. She remains based in Portsmouth & has been used as a training ship since 1987
HMS Daring (D32): She is the first of the Type 45 Destroyers & was launched in Feb 06 & entered active service in Jul 09. The Iron Duke (F234) is in the foreground
HMS Dauntless (D33): Getting some much-needed TLC. She is the second of the Type 45 Destroyers & was launched in Jan 07 & entered active service in Jun 10
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HMS Defender (D36): She is the fifth of Type 45 Destroyers & was launched in Oct 09 & entered active service in Mar 13
HMS Duncan (D37): She is the sixth & last of the Type 45 Destroyers & was launched in Oct 10 & entered active service in Sep 13. She is named after 1st Viscount Adam Duncan who defeated the Dutch at the Battle of Camperdown in 1797
HMS Iron Duke (F234): She is the fifth of the Type 23 Frigates & was launched in Mar 91 & entered active service in May 93. She is named after the nickname for the Duke of Wellington (of Waterloo fame)
HMS St Albans (F83): She is the sixteenth & last of the Type 23 Frigates & was launched in May 2000 & entered active service in Jun 02
HMS Kent (F78): She is the fourteenth of 16 Type 23 Frigates & was launched in May 98 and entered active service in Jun 2000. I saw HMS Kent in the Plymouth dockyard whilst looking for the Risso's Dolphin at Torpoint. In the background on the right is HMS Forth (P222)
HMS Forth (P222): She is the first of five Offshore Patrol Vessels designed for anti-smuggling, counter-piracy, fishery protection, border patrol & maritime defence duties
HMS Forth (P222): She was launched in Aug 14 and entered active service in Apr 18
HMS Queen Elizabeth (R08): She is the largest (284 metres) which compares to HMS Illustrious & HMS Invincible which were 210 metres long & HMS Ark Royal which was 245 metres long. She is the most expensive ship ever built for the Royal Navy. She was launched in Jul 14 & was commissioned into the Royal Navy in Dec 17
HMS Queen Elizabeth (R08): Ultimately, she will carry up to 36 of the brand-new F-35B Lightning II aircraft & 14 helicopters
HMS Queen Elizabeth (R08): A final view with the Portsdown Hill in the background
HMS Queen Elizabeth (R08) emblem
Having sailed past the working Royal Navy dockyard, it was now time to admire the Navy ships of the past, all of which are worth a visit.
The new museum for the Mary Rose: She was Henry VIII's flagship & after 33 years at sea, she sunk off Portsmouth in 1545 whilst fighting off an attack from a French invasion force. She had been extensively rebuilt in 1536. It is thought this rebuild contributed to her loss as it reduced her stability. Accounts at the time were contradictory, but the current belief is she sunk quickly when water poured into the lower decks whilst turning in the heat of the battle on a gusty day. The wreck was relocated in the late 1960s & she raised in 1982. I saw her when she was first opened to the public in 1984, but I need to go back & have a look around the new museum
HMS Victory: Nelson's flagship at the Battle of Trafalgar in Oct 1805, which was probably the most important battle the Royal Navy has fought in
HMS Warrior: She was the first of the Navy's amoured-plated, iron-hulled ships & was launched in 1860 & decommissioned when obsolete in 1883. After an eight year restoration, she officially joined the National Historic Fleet in 1987. It's well worth a visit if you are in the Portsmouth area
The Spinnaker Tower: Portsmouth's Millennium was scheduled to be built by 1999, but delays to the project meant building didn't actually start to 2001 & it wasn't opened until 2005. Still it made it for the Millennium using the Ethiopian calendar which is about 7.5 years behind the generally accepted calendar used by most of the rest of the world. Perhaps Portsmouth should also adopt the Ethiopian calendar
The Round Tower forms the entrance to Portsmouth harbour: This area gets packed whenever a Royal Navy ship leaves for or returns from an active deployment
The Square Tower & the old harbour defences: The locals were very imaginative with their names for the forts
The War Memorial on Southsea Common
Southsea Castle
The history doesn't stop as you leave Portsmouth island, as there are several historic forts in the Solent that were built as additional protection to the dockyard. Three are now owned by Solentforts.com which have renovated them into luxury hotels & visitor attractions. Two are currently open to visitors & the third Horse Sand Fort has recently been bought & is being renovated to convert it into a museum. I will definitely be visiting when it is opened.
Horse Sand Fort: It was built between 1865 & 1880. The granite walls are up to 18 metres thick & further reinforced with concrete & armour-plating. It even has its own well to provide fresh water. It was bought in Mar 12 & it is good to see that it being restored & converted to a museum
Finally, we left the Solent & headed South West past the Isle of Wight. I didn't expect much in the way of Seabirds or Cetaceans & wasn't surprised when there were only a few Gannets & a couple of Mediterranean Gulls. Still there were a few final views of the Isle of Wight to enjoy in the early evening.
The Yarborough Monument on Culver Down, Isle of Wight: It was built to remember the first Earl of Yarborough in 1849 who was an MP & large landowner on the Isle of Wight & founding member of the Royal Yacht Squadron at Cowes
HMS Tyne (P281) with Sandown in the background: She was launched in Apr 02 & entered service in Jul 03. She is another of the Offshore Patrol Vessels which I've seen off Studland in the past
St Catherine's Point: The Southern most point of the Isle of Wight. A good place & heavily under-watched place to go Birding. However, it's not cheap when you consider the logistics of taking a car over from the mainland. I was one of two people who went on to look for the last UK Wallcreeper in May 85. It had been seen flying in off the sea by seawatchers who carried on seawatching after it headed inland. Not surprisingly, we didn't relocate it, but a flyover Serin that circled us twice before heading inland was reward for our efforts
It was quickly getting dark & time for an early night so as to be on deck for dawn the following morning when we would be to the South of Cap Finistere on the Brittany coast with the promise of Cetaceans & Seabirds.