15 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.