Whale watching in the Bay of Biscay

A Growing Reputation for Whales

Dylan Walker of planetwhale takes the rough with the smooth in the Bay of Biscay. See also his immensely pratical guide Whales & Dolphins of the European Atlantic.

Fin whale

The voice over the radio was cool, calm and collected, yet it did nothing to ease my nervous excitement. “And now the area forecasts for the next 24 hours……Biscay Southwest 3-4, decreasing later. Visibility good.” It doesn´t sound like much but as I parked my car at Plymouth Ferry Terminal, my mind was racing with the possible outcomes of this news. It was going to be a flat calm sea in the Bay of Biscay. Perfect whale watching conditions yet again!

Ironically, I remember the comments from my friends from ten years ago, warning me of my impending doom prior to my maiden whale watching cruise in the Bay. “Are you crazy!” they said, “haven´t you heard that the Bay of Biscay is famous for its atrocious weather!” I believe that this rather unfair but widespread generalisation has probably been inherited from those interested in whales for historically commercial reasons – whalers! The emblems of the North Atlantic right whale still embossed on the coats of arms of several fishing towns along the Basque coast of northern Spain are testament to the earliest known large-scale whale hunt, not only in Biscay, but the world, which began in the 11th Century. Prior to commercial extinction, right whales may have appeared close to shore with their calves during the wilder months of the year, when the weather was at its worst. Eight hundred years later, the northern European whaling fleets also crossed Biscay during the darkest months, en-route to newly discovered whaling grounds in the Southern Hemisphere. Given sailors tales of sea serpents and mermaids back then, it is hard to know which was wilder, the Bay, or the imaginations of those who sailed across it.

Male Cuvier’s beaked whale

Whatever the origins of the superstition, my experiences are somewhat different. Sure, temperate waters are temperamental in nature. As with the rest of northern Europe, gales occur frequently in winter, but high pressure systems dominate from June through until September, bringing ‘millpond’ conditions for persistent periods. Nowhere else can I recall picking out a pair of dogfish three kilometres away through my binoculars, their tiny dorsal fins cutting through an oily sea until they passed lazily by several minutes later.

Thankfully, it is not just dogfish that are responsible for the current change in the public’s perception of Biscay. Since the early 1990s, when P&O Ferries and Brittany Ferries set up two routes crossing the Bay, from Portsmouth and Plymouth on the south coast of England, to Bilbao and Santander on the north coast of Spain, the area has developed a new and exciting reputation – as one of the world’s premiere whale watching locations.

Between 1993 and 1995, three independent research organisations began collecting ferry-based data on marine mammals and spreading the word. These were Brittany Ferries Surveys (BFS), Biscay Dolphin Research Programme (BDRP) and ORCA – Organisation Cetacea. In 1996, the first commercial whale watching operator, The Company of Whales, began running holidays in partnership with P&O Ferries. Since then, a plethora of holiday companies, charities, and educational establishments have made use of the ferries as whale watching platforms, whilst the general public have booked in their thousands. Increasingly, scientists and whale watchers have also hired out other vessels in order to find out more about cetaceans (the descriptive term for all whales, dolphins and porpoises) in the Bay, whilst dedicated watching from coastal headlands is also taking off.

Common dolphins

So what makes Biscay so special? Perhaps most importantly, it boasts variety of habitat. The shallowest waters, including estuaries and harbours, support resident populations of ‘inshore’ bottlenose dolphins at locations from Santander in Spain to Brest in France. Beyond the intertidal zone and out over the shallow fishing grounds, minke whales, harbour porpoises, and ‘offshore’ bottlenose dolphins encircle fish schools whilst clouds of gannets linger overhead, or join the hunt with spectacular dives. Further from land the flat seabed of the continental shelf is suddenly thrown into sharp relief as the ground falls away rapidly to reveal an immense sub-marine cliff. Water depths descend from hundreds to thousands of metres within just a few kilometres of crossing the continental slope. Here, long-finned pilot whales, short-beaked common dolphins, and fin whales take advantage of prey concentrated in areas where nutrient-rich currents are forced from the depths by the mountainous sea floor landscape.

The central Bay has a relatively flat sea floor under an immense amount of water, at four kilometres in depth. Roaming this vast wilderness are sperm whales, killer whales and striped dolphins, all nomadic hunters seeking out oases of life in the desert-like deep ocean. Finally, as the continental slope begins to rise again towards the Spanish landmass, the walls of enormous canyons and towering seamounts rise towards the surface like New York skyscrapers. These steep slopes are home to high densities of vertically migrating squid, the quarry of Risso’s dolphins, Cuvier’s, Sowerby’s and True’s beaked whales.

And if this chocolate-box selection of cetaceans were not enough, Biscay has also developed a reputation for rarities from across the North Atlantic. This is most likely due to its temperate geographical location and a number of circulatory systems operating within the Bay, bringing cool water from the north and warm water from the south to a varying degree each year. Consequently, species with a high-latitude summer distribution such as sei whale, blue whale, northern bottlenose whale, white-beaked dolphin and Atlantic white-sided dolphin are occasionally recorded. Conversely, warm-water years may be responsible for the appearance of tropical species such as Blainville’s beaked whale and melon-headed whale, both of which have stranded along the French coast in recent years.

One of the more interesting aspects of oceanic circulation occurring in the Bay involves a markedly seasonal current that runs north along the Portuguese continental slope and into the southern Bay of Biscay between October and March, pushing warm water along the coast of northern Spain. This is due to a relaxation of southerly winds that are persistent off North Africa and Portugal during the summer months. It may be no coincidence that this coastline has received winter strandings of both short-finned pilot whales and false killer whales; two species generally distributed well to the south of mainland Europe.

Having spread eastwards, this current pushes north again, injecting warm water offshore to form anticyclonic eddies. Like slow-motion underwater hurricanes, these eddies swing westwards, probably entrailing nutrient-rich coastal waters and mixing them with deeper, colder currents to create a volatile soup ideal for the proliferation of marine life. Sperm whales and Risso’s dolphins are known to concentrate within these rings, where prey availability is high. Given that the Biscay eddies may persist for up to a year, they probably contribute significantly to the high abundance and diversity of cetaceans in the region.

Just how rich the Bay is for cetaceans can be assessed with a quick number crunching session of the ORCA database. This database includes over 50,000 km of survey effort from volunteers working aboard both ferries between February and November 1996 – 2008. During the period 1996-2004, for example, cetaceans were encountered on 3,429 occasions involving 15,725 individuals of 21 species. This equates to an average of one encounter every 44 minutes of ferry cruising – a very high return for any whale watcher!

I feel extremely fortunate to have witnessed a significant number of those encounters during my own travels offshore in the Bay of Biscay. Amongst them are so many vivid memories, and some of the best days wildlife watching I have ever had. They include peregrine falcons hunting migrant birds far out to sea, a migrating hummingbird hawkmoth mistaking somebody’s nostrils for a drooping flower, watching frisby-shaped ocean sunfish leaping (how is that possible?), gazing at a sleeping fin whale resting within a few feet of the ship, and the thrill of tracking 1000 common dolphins racing across a sun-scorched sea. One particularly memorable highlight involved a blue whale we encountered in 1999. It was the first to be filmed and photographed close to mainland Europe in living memory, and later became a national celebrity in Spain, appearing on the evening news of two television stations. But the best day so far was in July 2001, when we watched a True’s beaked whale breaching 21 times next to our ship. I was shaking as I reeled off the last few photographs on my camera, but fortunately the images were good enough to confirm the existence of this one-ton whale at sea for the first time ever in the eastern North Atlantic.

With so much time spent at sea also comes an inevitable awareness of how we have managed to degrade even the most distant ocean wildernesses. The endless stream of plastic bags, bottles and other rubbish, the fresh carcasses of dolphins floating near trawler vessels, and the serious body injuries to cetaceans from interactions with propellers and fishing gear, represent just a few of the most obvious signs that man is having a negative impact on pelagic ecosystems on an industrial scale. Thankfully though, there is also room for optimism, with an ever-increasing number of people involved in watching, studying and working to protect marine mammals and their habitats within the Bay. They serve to remind us that the future of this enchanting stretch of ocean is in our hands.

More about the author

Dylan Walker was the first person to run whale watching holidays in the Bay of Biscay and instantly fell in love with the place. He spent the next ten years conducting research and raising awareness about the conservation priorities for the region. A founder member of ORCA – Organisation Cetacea, which continues to conduct research in the region, he has chaired two international workshops on conservation research in the Bay of Biscay. Now, having completed over 200 crossings of the Bay, along with several scientific reports, a Master´s thesis and a field guide to the region, Dylan divides his time between his work as Project Development Manager for ORCA and co-owner of Planet Whale. He is considered one of the leading experts on the Bay of Biscay and its marine mammals.

Further information

Ferry companies

  • P&O Ferries: Pride of Bilbao operates a continual service between Portsmouth and Bilbao between February and December. Return crossing takes 3 days. BDRP have excellent display boards and a full-time wildlife officer providing expert assistance. Public viewing area on deck 11. Tel: 08705 202020.http://www.poferries.com/
  • Brittany Ferries: Sails between Plymouth and Santander twice a week, each leg taking 18 hours. The newly built Pont Aven, a luxurious £100m flagship ferry, replaced the Val de Loire in March 2004. Although this vessel has received widespread acclaim, it is fast and provides only limited viewing opportunities compared to its predecessor. The opportunities for whale watching are therefore much reduced. 08703 665 333.http://www.brittany-ferries.co.uk/

Whale watching operators

  • Planet Whale: Sailing onboard the Brittany Ferries flagship vessel Pont Aven across the Bay of BiscayPlymouth and Santander, Planet Whale runs three-day whale watching cruises onboard an exclusive viewing platform. The ship sails through some of the richest waters in Europe for cetaceans, with between 6-8 species and several hundred animals seen on a typical trip. As part of their commitment to conservation, Planet Whale and Brittany Ferries donate a proportion of each booking to UK-based charity ORCA. Tel: 01273 739284. between www.planetwhale.com
  • The Company of Whales: The Company of Whales has developed a long-term partnership with P&O Ferries which includes exclusive access to the most panoramic area of the ship, above the bridge. Cruises are led by highly experienced naturalist guides. Tel: 01950 422483. www.companyofwhales.co.uk
  • Wild Oceans: Offer four whale watching minicruises onboard the Pride of Bilbao each year as part of their comprehensive range of responsible whale and dolphin watching holidays. Tel: 0117 9658 333. http://home.btconnect.com/wildwings/wildoceansintro.html

Research Organisations

  • ORCA – Organisation Cetacea: Encourages volunteers to conduct cetacean surveys onboard a range of vessels in the Bay of Biscay. Database is available to the public and utilised by schools and universities. Also hosted two international workshops on research and conservation in the Bay of Biscay, reports of which are available from the European Cetacean Society. www.orcaweb.org.uk
  • Biscay Dolphin Research Programme (BDRP): Regular year-round seabird and cetacean surveys from P&O’s Pride of Bilbao. Full-time wildlife officer onboard to assist with watching and offer educational talks. Theme cruises also provided for the public. Co-founder of the Atlantic Research Coalition (ARC). http://www.biscay-dolphin.org.uk/
  • Brittany Ferries Surveys: The longest-running cetacean monitoring scheme in the Bay of Biscay, conducting monthly surveys with Brittany Ferries since 1993. Database utilised for research. Co-founder of the Atlantic Research Coalition (ARC). Contact: david.curtis@virgin.net

Identification Guides

  • Whales and Dolphins of the European Atlantic. The only comprehensive photographic guide to the cetaceans of the English Channel and the Bay of Biscay. Fourteen remarkable colour plates depict typical views of cetaceans at sea. Text covers key identification features, information on status, behaviour and distribution. WILDGuides: Tel: 01628 529297. www.wildguides.co.uk
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