Where can you watch whales without flying to the Californian coast or unsuccessfully bouncing around in a small boat off Mull? One place is the Bay of Biscay. In September 2005 we took the P&O ferry from Portsmouth to Bilbao and back. These days it is a bit more complicated as the ferry runs Portsmouth-Bilbao-Plymouth and then Plymouth-Bilbao-Portsmouth. So you then have to get a coach between Plymouth and Portsmouth (or vice versa) . Our ferry was due in to Portsmouth at five o’clock and when I saw it approaching I told the rest of our group. The front of the boat looked for all the world like a square ten storey building.
We didn’t need long to settle in so soon headed up onto deck to watch our departure from Portsmouth. Because the boat was pressurised opening the sliding door onto the deck created a gale nearly blowing you off your feet! We watched in near darkness as the warships and docks of Portsmouth slid past. These ranged from a couple of aircraft carriers to HMS Victory. Once we were out in the Solent we found somewhere to eat and had a quick meal.
Next morning we were heading down the English Channel but would soon turn south and head across the Bay of Biscay. While part of the bay is continental shelf less than 200 metres deep there is a great gash running diagonally across it where the water is twenty times that depth. This is fertile ground for whale and dolphin watching since this is where these animals feed in the depths. They of course have to surface every so often to breathe.
The dolphins often approach the ship and take great delight in riding the bow wave. The whales keep their distance but can be spotted some miles away from the cloud of water when they surface and blow – this hangs around for up to half a minute and is really just a cloud of whale snot. A better way of dividing up the cetaceans was not to split them into porpoises, dolphins and whales but into baleen cetaceans (who feed on krill and other smaller fish by filtering gulps of water though baleen) and the other cetaceans. One other pointer to distinguish between fish such as tuna and dolphins was that the cetaceans had horizontal tales (which the flapped up and down) whereas the fish had vertical tales (which they flapped from side to side).
We might also see a number of fish including the sun fish which looks like a large floating plastic bag and not to be confused with the false sunfish (often sponsored by Tescos or similar organisations). Although the focus of the trip was whales we would also see a number of birds – some of them not at all expected – migrants hitching a lift for a while. On one occasion a starling had landed between someone’s legs and a short time later a peregrine falcon had landed on the ships rail. They eyed each other for a while but the falcon was not going to invade human space even for an easy meal. After a while the falcon flew on followed a short while later by the starling.
We had access to Monkey Island which is the highest point on the ship with an all-round view. Because it is the roof of the bridge any noise we made on our deck would be heard by the Captain and crew and if there was too much they would withdraw our privileges and we would not be allowed up there. A stream of people going up and down would also be distracting so access to (and exit from) Monkey Island was only allowed on the hour and at a quarter past the hour. Thus you could leave the island for a quarter of an hour (enough for a comfort break) or for an hour or hour and a quarter (enough for a meal). There were a hundred or so passengers on the ferry who were only making the trip so as to see whales and seabirds and our group of twenty eight were the only ones allowed on to Monkey Island.
Late morning and we had been given permission by the Captain to go onto Monkey Island. We ascended as high as we could within the boat and then went outside and climbed the stairways to deck 11. Just behind the bridge we passed through a gate and up the final set of stairs on to Monkey Island. At various points on the way up there were strong winds and on the Island itself there was a strong crosswind. Once we turned south this would be a headwind and we would be in the lee of the boat – the wind would be diverted by the front of the boat up and over us and it would be relatively calm.
It was a bright morning although with some haze which meant that the horizon was somewhat undefined. We had a clear view in all directions and could see the water gushing under the bows. Halfway between us and the horizon was 700 metres away and halfway between that and the horizon would be twice that distance. Anything close to the horizon was likely to be several miles away.
Whale watching meant long periods of inactivity followed by bursts of excitement. The first flurry was for dolphins. Over the next couple of days we would see over 900 dolphins. It was possible to estimate the number in a group on the basis of what they were doing. If they were just swimming around having fun then about a third of the group would be on the surface whereas if they were feeding then maybe only a tenth of the group would be visible.
Early afternoon we heard a shout of “Dolphins coming in, 700 metres at one o’clock” and we spotted a pod heading our way. They were coming towards us like a group of playful children skipping in and out of the water. They were soon leaping around under the bows and then disappeared off down the side of the boat. The boat was moving at close to twenty knots and they could easily out swim it, but equally soon disappeared astern if they only paid us a brief visit. They were always a delight to see whether going about their normal business when we happened to be passing or when they were deliberately seeking us out, having heard us coming from miles away.
Whenever we spotted anything of interest there would be excitement on deck eleven where everyone would dash to whichever side of the boat we were congregated on. They of course could not see ahead and could only watch wildlife as it passed down the sides. They did have the ships wildlife officer to help them and she was also given information from the bridge. Occasionally the deck eleveners would move to one side before we were aware of an animal and we would follow their lead.
Because there is no point in arriving in Santurzi in the middle of the night there is about seven hours free time in the southbound journey so there is some freedom to vary the route. The divert route (which we were on) travels south for longer before bearing east a little and so gets to the Biscay abyssal plain sooner. Here the sea’s depth increases from some 200 metres to 4000 metres and so is good feeding ground for whales.
The first sighting of a whale was a brief one about a kilometre away. I just about saw it and then a short while later there was another sighting and we all got a good view.
What we hadn’t known until this trip was that when the whales surface they will blow about half a dozen times a minute or so apart separated by a shallow dive before diving again. The blow will remain hanging in the air for about twenty seconds. So, after the shout of “blow” we trained our binoculars on it and watched and the whale swam forwards and dived. There would be a long dark back sliding through the water with a fin at the end – a Fin Whale which might be eighty feet long. We would watch a number of blows before the final blow preceding the terminal dive when the whale would be heading for the 4,000 metre depths. Ten or twenty minutes later it would resurface by which time we would be long gone.
At times there were up to half a dozen whales blowing and the blow could be visible at anything up to three or four miles away. On one occasion there were two blows very close together with one rather smaller than the other and we realised that this was a mother Fin Whale with her calf. We watched for some time as they surfaced more frequently than the others had – it seemed that the calf could not stay under for as long as the adults.
We also had a pod of Pilot Whales swimming past the boat. These are much smaller than the Fin Whales perhaps only three times the size of a dolphin but still fun to watch. Of a similar size is the Cuvier’s Beaked Whale a few of which were spotted. There were also quite a number of ‘blows’ spotted too far off for us to be able to identify which whale it was.
On the return leg we had left Spain at midday and headed across southern end of the Bay of Biscay we enjoyed watching more whales and dolphins. At one point the sea seemed to be boiling in a small patch. It was hundreds of small fish leaping out of the water. Something was hunting them under the surface. We then saw some fish about the same size as dolphins leaping through the water but with vertical rather than horizontal tailfins – a group of tuna.
On both legs we also saw quite a few seabirds as well as the odd warbler hitching a lift. Most common were the shearwaters and gannets. They seemed to be able to overtake the boat with very little effort even though it was steaming along at eighteen knots. For me the highlight of the bird sightings was watching a gannet fold its wings as it dived into the sea just in front of the boat.
The final day was spent heading up the English Channel and there was not much to be seen. Mid-afternoon and the Isle of Wight comes into sight. We stand on deck as we head up the Solent towards Portsmouth and eventually turn in towards our berth. We pass the naval dockyard and the historic ships. This time it is daylight so we get a good view of HMS Victory 200 years after its most famous encounter – the Battle of Trafalgar. It is dwarfed by the modern day warships.
The ship docks just before five. Since disembarkation is a slow process we take our time and are possibly the last to leave the deck and head down to our cabins to pick up our luggage. Eventually we are told that foot passengers can leave and we make our way to the waiting bus on the dockside (but not before I have taken the wrong corridor and ended up at the wrong end of the ship). Outside the terminal a trolley is waiting with our duty free purchases. There are no queues so we are quickly through customs. We start the trudge to the carpark with an ill-behaved luggage trolley. Traffic is not too heavy and we get home just before nine.