The wonder of whales

Fin whale by Dave Chilcott
Fin whale by Dave Chilcott
Dr John Steadman, archivist of Portsmouth History Centre based at Portsmouth Central Library     Picture:  Malcolm Wells

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Next time you’re on a ferry trip, look out to sea and you might see something special - whales or dolphins. RACHEL JONES finds out more.

A geyser-like spray had appeared above the surface of the water – a sure sign that a large sea creature was about to reveal itself.

Sure enough it was a whale’s blow – the spout of air and vapour the animal gives off when it surfaces and breathes out.

And that was followed by a sighting they had never expected when they embarked on an ordinary ferry trip. A mighty fin whale – at 25m in length the world’s second largest animal – leaped from the water, rolling until the awe-struck passengers could see her head and then her dorsal fin.

And the spectacle didn’t end there, This enormous creature, visible beyond the rear of the boat as it journeyed through the Bay of Biscay, was travelling with her calf.

It was a special moment for Richard Bull, who as a wildlife officer for marine conservation charity Orca, has spotted many wonderful creatures out at sea.

‘It was one of the best things I’d seen. This is the largest animal in the world that can clear the water, the blue whale is just too big. So to witness that was wonderful,’ says Richard.

But it was even more amazing for the passengers gathered around Richard. They were simply taking a ferry crossing between Portsmouth and Santander in Spain, not an expensive wildlife-watching trip.

Sights of cetaceans are more common than most people think around the UK and in European waters, and the Bay of Biscay off the coast of France is a hotbed for wildlife.

So Orca is working with ferry companies to help passengers spot the different species. The charity’s wildlife officers take ferry crossings, including Brittany Ferries’ routes between Portsmouth and Santander and Bilbao, helping passengers look for signs of wildlife and giving talks and information about the creatures and conservation.

‘We’re trying to give ferry passengers a great experience. We usually have a good mix of people on deck looking for whales and dolphins, from truck drivers to children,’ says Richard, a conservation biologist by profession.

‘We also talk to them about the importance of cetaceans and the threats to these animals. We’re keen for people to have a personal experience of whales and dolphins because if they have seen them and learned more about them, they’re more likely to think about helping to conserve them.’

One of the aims of the charity is to get people to realise just how much wildlife there is in our waters. Dolphins can be a common sight for ferry passengers and the friendly sea mammals are more than happy to be noticed.

‘You see them coming in, leaping about and rushing towards the boat,’ says Richard.

‘They’re very inquisitive and they like to play around the boats, splashing around and diving underneath. They keep well away from the propellers, they know how to avoid those, and then you see them leaping around in the wake at the back.’

There aren’t guaranteed sightings on every crossing and it largely depends on the sea state. But in the summer months particularly, the likelihood of spotting something is very high.

Richard says that last year he saw upwards of 1,000 dolphins in one crossing, frequently spotting large pods. Another trip gave him sightings of 12 fin whales. There are many species in the waters of the Bay of Biscay, where even the blue whale – the largest animal on the planet – has been spotted, although this is very rare.

Another way to see these creatures is to become a volunteer for Orca. One aspect of the charity’s work is conducting scientific surveys for conservation purposes. Volunteer surveyors assist in counting the species they see and observing and recording their habitats and behaviour.

The results of these surveys are often used by scientists within government bodies and other organisations and may ultimately be used for policies to protect marine life.

‘The data is really important for providing an atlas of cetacean distribution,’ says Sally Hamilton, director of Orca.

‘The reason for this is that relatively little is known about the distribution and habitat preferences of whales and dolphins. It can be very difficult to collect so it’s great to have the support of the ferry companies.’

The charity’s work is vital for the protection of species that are being affected by over-fishing and noise pollution, which can lead to deafness.

Orca has been dedicated to addressing these problems since 2000, when it was set up by a team of scientists. The charity, now based at the Brittany Ferries offices in Portsmouth and working with ferry companies around the British Isles, has recently received a generous grant and is looking to develop its activities. The support of these firms is vital and they in turn say that the presence of Orca is a big bonus for their passengers.

Chris Jones, communications executive at Brittany Ferries, says: ‘People see things they really weren’t expecting and it’s a wonderful surprise. They are travelling through this wilderness so it’s great that they have the opportunity to take advantage of that and see these wonderful creatures.’

Richard believes it’s a better way of watching wildlife than booking an expensive whale and dolphin-spotting holiday.

‘They’re looking for the animals so sometimes it’s like they’re chasing them. This is a far better way of watching wildlife because the animals have the choice of whether they want to interact. And all species act differently; some will ignore the boat and others are more interested.’

For him, the sightings of all types have importance but he also values the reactions of the passengers. ‘That’s one of the best things about this work, being with people when they first see something like the fin whale. That’s a real joy.’

Some species to see in the Bay of Biscay

Common dolphin

Pods of this strikingly-patterned dolphin can number as many as 500. It is one of the fastest dolphins, reaching speeds of up to 30mph.

Bottlenose dolphin

The most familiar and acrobatic dolphin present along our coasts.

Fin whale

The second largest animal on the planet and sometimes called the greyhound of the sea , this is a slim, streamlined whale with a uniquely coloured lower jaw: the left side is black and the right side is white.

Sperm whale

‘Moby Dick’ – a migratory squid hunter that can dive to over 1000m and remain under water for the duration of a football match.

Cuvier’s beaked whale

The heavily-scarred, white headed males are battle-hardened, and probably fight other males for access to harems of females.

Information and pictures have been supplied by WildGuides UK. The not-for-profit publisher generates funds for wildlife charities through the proceeds of sales. For further information and products, visit wildguides.co.uk

Whale and dolphin spotting and volunteering

‘They’re so cool, that’s one aspect,’ says Orca volunteer Dr David Smith, explaining one of the reasons why people set sail for a spot of whale and dolphin monitoring

David, an ecological consultant, has been volunteering for the charity since 2002 and co-ordinates and leads surveys on ferries.

The surveys are carried out by volunteers who pay to do a day course on land and then take free ferry trips to view wildlife from the bridge.

‘It’s great fun. You might go for a few hours without seeing anything or you might have a crossing where it’s non-stop action. When you do spot things, it’s really rewarding. Even the ship’s crew gets involved,’ says David.

But it’s a serious business too. Volunteers collect all kinds of data than can be used for scientific purposes and aid conservation.

Those who like to keep their feet firmly on land or simply don’t want to take part in surveys, can still support the charity by becoming a member. Anyone who signs up receives a free whale and dolphin spotter kit. This includes a guide to species and a UK map detailing areas where whales and dolphins can be spotted from the sea and land.

There’s also the opportunity to join the Orca event I Spy Whales from August 2-4, which includes wildlife watching with an Orca officer and several talks and presentations.

For further information visit orcaweb.org.uk or brittanyferries.com. Also contact Orca on 023 9283 2565 or at info@orcaweb.org.uk