25 Mar 2024

25 Mar 24 - To Santander For An Ice Cream With ORCA

The 2024 season of ORCA ferry survey has just started. I am now training as a team leader for ORCA and part of the training is to gain additional experience of each of the routes I could be team leading on in the future. My first team leader training was on the Plymouth to Santander route. I met the others, Karen Griffin (team leader), Terry Carne & Magda Debiec, in late afternoon of 24 Mar at the Brittany Ferries terminal at Plymouth.
Magda Debiec, Karen Griffin & Terry Carne in Santander
We quickly boarded and we were pleased to see that we were going to get the best part of an hour before it got dark. However, by the time we had cleared Plymouth Sound and been allowed onto the bridge, there would only have been the time for a thirty minute survey. Therefore, the decision was we would pop up to the top deck and run a deck survey from there for that thirty minutes.
The outer breakwater & fort: Work on the breakwater was started in 1811 & completed in 1814. Work on the fort was started in 1860 and completed in 1865 (24 Aug 24)
None of us had brought enough clothes for a deck watch and so it was a chilly early evening. But it was worth getting cold for our first Short-beaked Common Dolphins of the trip, as well as, a Great Northern Diver & good numbers of Manx Shearwaters.
Eddystone Lighthouse: The Eddystone Lighthouse lies eleven miles outside of the breakwater. To the right is the base of the third lighthouse which was completed in 1759. It was superseded in 1882, when the current lighthouse was finished (24 Aug 24)
The top of the third Eddystone Lighthouse on Plymouth Hoe: The stone from the upper part of the third lighthouse was dismantled and rebuilt to acknowledge the revolutionary design of that lighthouse (16 Aug 18)
It was an early start on 25 Mar and we were on the bridge in the half-light about 05:50. With it being an early spring trip, we had already crossed the continental shelf in the dark and we were over the deep abyssal plain. We were all pleased to find the sea was relatively calm for the Bay of Biscay: there was a large swell, but not too many white-caps, with overcast conditions which minimised the glare during the crossing. As soon as there was enough light to survey we started the bridge survey at 06:00. Within the first twenty minutes of the survey, I picked up the first of several pods of Short-beaked Common Dolphins on the starboard side.
Striped Dolphin: In the books, their range extends up to the top of the Scottish mainland. But in reality, they are hard to see in UK or Irish waters
After I completed my first thirty minute survey on the starboard side, I was officially off survey and able to rest or more generally switch to Birding. This was followed by a thirty minute port survey. My final thirty minutes was spent recording the following: the start time for each rotation; the ship's position; the sea state; swell; glare and visibility. Subsequent changes to any of these conditions are also recorded, along with any sightings. This two hour cycle was then repeated until we reached Santander. As we were over the abyssal plain I didn't see many Seabirds, apart from the occasional Lesser Black-backed Gull moving North for the breeding season and a few feeding Gannets.
Striped Dolphin: The same individual
At one point we saw two distant Whale blows. Terry saw one of these Whales breach and confirmed it was a Humpback Whale. A few minutes later, we picked up one of these Whales a few hundred metres ahead and on the port side. It was good to see the crew manoeuvre the ship away from the Whale to reduce the risk of a collision. I also saw a couple of Long-beaked Pilot Whales: which unusually for Pilot Whales didn't give good views. But the clear highlight was a pod of six Striped Dolphins which came in to bow-wave the ship for several minutes. I've seen a lot of Striped Dolphins over the years, but I think this is the first time I've seen them bow-waving: although I have seen them approach the ship before.
Striped Dolphin: A close up of the same individual. I was surprised how good these pictures were considering they were photographed through the thick bridge windows
Striped Dolphin: Another close up of the same individual
Striped Dolphin: A different individual with a thinner black stripe and not showing a diffuse pale band on the top of the body in front of the dorsal fin
Striped Dolphin: One final leap before they were off
After eight hours surveying, we were about twenty minutes away from the Spanish coast and we stopped the survey and left the Pont Aven bridge before she entering the port of Santander. There was time for a late lunch in the restaurant, before we were heading off the ship. On paper the ship is in port for three hours, but with check-in closing about one hour before the ship departs, the reality is there was only enough time to have a quick stretch of the legs ashore. The custom seems to head to a small ice cream cafe which is just across the quayside park. We were all pleased to find the cafe was open, despite it being a chilly day in late March.
Magda Debiec, Karen Griffin & myself outside the ice cream shop in Santander
There was a good selection of ice cream to choose from
Lemon & Lime on Mint Chocolate: A good combination
After that there was time for a short walk around the nearby streets, to have a look at the cathedral from the outside and discover a good-looking pizza restaurant, where we only had time for a coffee. Perhaps a future venue to check out.
Santander Cathedral
The Santander Cathedral entrance
There wasn't time for more than a few minutes of watching from the top deck before it got dark. But it was pelting it down and so we skipped that option.
Leaving Santander in the rain: It was a lot worse than this photo suggests
The day before we left Plymouth, the forecast was for a low in the Bay of Biscay with a four metre swell on the return journey. I woke in the early hours of the morning to find that the swell had got up & it was choppy. Fortunately, the sea had quietened down by 05:50, when we reached the bridge in the half-light. We were all relieved to find we were ahead of the front. Again, we had crossed the continental shelf in the dark and we could see a lighthouse off the South West corner of the Brittany coastline on our starboard side. A couple of hours after dawn we were cutting between Ile de Sein and the coast. This was followed by cutting between Ushant Island and the coast, which is another spectacular journey.
The Phare de la Vieille Lighthouse on the Brittany coast (26 Mar 24)
The Tevennec Lighthouse: This is actually a small lighthouse, albeit it looks more like a small chapel on this rock near to the Phare de la Vieille Lighthouse (26 Mar 24)
Overall, it was a quieter than the previous day for Cetaceans, but we saw a few pods of Short-beaked Common Dolphins and three Bottlenose Dolphins. It was also great to see fifteen Bonxies in the Western Approaches, albeit some of the sightings could have been duplicates by the Bonxies flying on ahead and then dropped back onto the water. Again there were good numbers of Manx Shearwaters off both coastlines.