On the trail of whales

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It’s barely light, rain is spattering our faces and an aggressive wind is sending us staggering across the deck.

But soon we’re rewarded for rising early as several dolphins spring from the waves and jump joyfully alongside the ship.

A whale pictured in the Bay of Biscay

A whale pictured in the Bay of Biscay

They’re followed by more and more until we’re surrounded by over 100 playing in the ship’s spray.

Bow riding and guiding us through a watery wilderness, these streamlined, sleek and gregarious creatures cheer everyone up and make us forget that cooked breakfasts are being served in the cosy cafe a deck below.

I’ve joined about 60 other people on a whale-watching cruise with Portsmouth-based charity Orca. We’re somewhere in the Bay of Biscay on our return journey from northern Spain and have been treated to an abundance of cetacean (that’s whales, dolphins and porpoises to you and me) sightings.

The charity, which collects scientific data for conservation purposes and educates us land-loving mammals about our sea-dwelling friends, runs these trips with Brittany Ferries.

On the company’s ship Pont Aven we are helped to spot everything from the common dolphin to the mighty fin whale (25 metres and the second largest creature on the planet) and given information about the amazing variety of marine mammals in these waters.

Stephen Marsh is vice chairman of the charity and is delivering talks and acting as a wildlife guide on this voyage. He says people are frequently amazed by what’s out there.

‘A lot of people have no idea that these creatures are here. They think you have to go much further afield and that we don’t have them around the UK, France and Spain.

‘But there are huge animals close to us and they’re quite accessible. People have come on this trip having never seen a whale before, well they certainly have now.’

This is the last day of the two-night voyage and despite the fact that we’re sailing into a strong wind, the sea state is fairly calm – perfect for viewing the early morning performance from our marine visitors.

This ‘choreographed display’ of common dolphins is one of the most visually spectacular on the journey but there have been plenty of impressive sightings.

Much larger species, including the fin whale, have made their presence known – initially with their blows (jets of air, respiratory gas and water vapour), which rise like puffs of steam above the waves in the distance.

On our first full day (which is thankfully clear and sunny), we learn to spot these ethereal spurts as we head south to Spain.

It’s a case of blink and you’ll miss them and I suspect many a passenger on this route would never notice these signs of mammoth marine life under the waves.

They may, however, be wondering what an earth’s going on as there are frequent cries of ‘blow’ from the upper deck. This is when someone spots a whale spout and alerts everyone else. Then all binoculars are trained in the same direction – and more often than not I miss it.

Just as I’m reminding myself that I should have my eyes tested, I manage to spot one and it’s very distinct from the white surf of the waves.

Seeing the huge back and fin of a whale as it rolls just above the surface raises the fascination factor and soon all thoughts of those great wine deals in the duty free shop are forgotten.

One of the most exciting sightings is a fin whale rolling above the water about 150 metres away from the ship, so close in fact that you barely need binoculars. ‘I’ve seen the second largest creature on the planet,’ is what everyone is thinking.

The mighty blue whale – the biggest creature that ever lived – remains elusive, but they have been spotted on this journey. It’s so rare, however, that the Orca guides promise a Champagne moment if one is sighted.

Elfyn Pugh, a charity trustee and wildlife guide who organises these trips, describes what it was like when one of these magnificent creatures was spotted.

‘It was a fantastic sighting, most passengers saw it. And they went absolutely mad, cheering and crying. The blue whale is the holy grail of whale-watching. To see them in home waters is remarkable.’

We have seen several species in coastal waters and then around the deeper waters along the edge of the continental shelf.

As we approach Santander we are over deep canyons which promise an abundance of species. ‘These canyons are fantastic pantries because prey is contained,’ explains Stephen Marsh.

One of the best moments of the trip is when a Cuvier’s beaked whale appears close to the ship. Stephen explains that this is the gold star of sightings. ‘It’s an enigmatic species and rarely seen,’

Unfortunately I’m on the other side of the deck and don’t make it across in time. Such is life on a wildlife-watching trip,

We have also spotted bottlenose dolphins, surely the most appealing of marine mammals with their permanently etched smiles. The reality, Stephen reveals, is that they’re quite aggressive and have been known to kill other species.

It’s most upsetting but the knowledgable Orca guides have seen more delightful behaviour. Spyhopping is when a whale pops out of the water to look at you and drops down. Breaching is when they leap out. ‘Seeing a 25 metre fin whale breaching is absolutely spectacular,’ says Stephen.

Bird-watchers are also drawn to the I-Spy trips and the charity’s patron Chris Packham joined a recent voyage.

For the Orca guides there’s a very serious side to all this. They give people the opportunity to learn about whale-watching surveys.

Trained Orca volunteers collect and record data which, along with sightings colleced by other groups, is used by students, researchers and European governments.

The volunteers build up years of expertise in spotting and identifying species from behaviour, dorsal fin, location, colour and pattern.

The aim is to protect the species and their habitats, which are being increasingly affected by man. ‘By looking at sightings, we have knowledge of where these animals are. By looking at environmental factors we can build a picture of an ideal habitat for these creatures,’ says Stephen.

And while there seems to be an abundance of these marine mammals, there is no doubt that they are increasingly threatened. Chemicals and other pollution affect breathing, muffle communication and push whales and dolphins in areas they don’t want to be.

Orca hopes to get the word out to ordinary people with cruises like this and, such is the enthusiasm of the group of whale-watchers, it certainly seems to be working.

We can’t crack open the Champagne but sightings of fin whales, sperm whales, Cuvier’s beaked whale, ocean sunfish and four species of dolphin have made for an impressive two days.

There are several ways of becoming involved with the work of Orca and supporting the charity.

One of these is joining the I-Spy whale watching trip. Run in partnership with Brittany Ferries, the trips allow people to spot impressive species on the Brittany Ferries route between Portsmouth and Santander in northern Spain.

The voyages on the company’s Pont Aven ferry run from July through to September but details of next year’s cruises are yet to be finalised.

Keep an eye on brittany-ferries.co.uk/offers/mini-cruises.

From March to September, there are also Orca wildlife officers on board Brittany Ferries ship Cap Finistère, which sails between Portsmouth and Santander and Portsmouth and Bilbao.

These experts give presentations to passengers, help them spot species and are available to answer questions.

The wildlife officers are volunteers and there will be recruitment opportunities from January.

Another way to get involved in Orca’s core work is to join their offshore surveys. These are scientific whale and dolphin-watching surveys. Teams collect data in the English Channel and Bay of Biscay, North Sea, Irish Sea and further afield.

Visit orcaweb.org.uk/get-involved/volunteer.

Those who simply want to support the charity can donate or become a member. For information visit orcaweb.org.uk/support-us.