Plymouth – Santander Big Whale Watch

Amazing cetacean encounters on the first….ORCA Big Whale Watch

PlymouthSantander ferry 28 – 30 September 2008

See also their totally pratical guide Whales & Dolphins of the European Atlantic.

We all knew it was a great way to start our first Big Whale Watch – an event run by Brittany Ferries and ecotourism experts from Planet Whale, in partnership with whale and dolphin conservation charity ORCA. As we sailed away from Plymouth the sea was a serene blanket, calm enough to pick out the odd Harbour Porpoise as we headed out in to the English Channel past yachts and fishing boats, with Gannets and Great Skuas circling high.

After sunset and an introductory presentation, we took the chance to catch up with so many new faces and old friends. Still, we didn’t stay up too late, as we would be starting watch the next morning at 6:30am in the middle of a calm Bay of Biscay. For this we were well prepared, with four Planet Whale guides on our exclusive whale watching platform, an ORCA survey team on the bridge and an ORCA wildlife education officer working in the public areas giving wildlife presentations and deck watches. Everybody had a walkie talkie to ensure that nothing was missed.

Not that we barely had time to use them for our first sighting. Two Sowerby’s Beaked Whales appeared close alongside and moved quickly in to the wake of the ship. An incredible start! Almost nothing is known about these rarely seen deep-diving whales, which only occur in the temperate North Atlantic and live at great depths.

Almost immediately afterwards, as the sun rose on a placid sea, somebody shouted “whale blow”, as our first Fin Whale slid past, showing its immense back and sloping dorsal fin. Several more blows soon appeared, all of which became Fin Whales as we approached. Then suddenly, four Cuvier’s Beaked Whales surfaced close alongside the ship, rolling gently and revealing cream-coloured heads and small bushy blows in the early morning sun! All this in the first 30 minutes of watching! The big problem now was who would dare to go down for breakfast! When whale watching is this good, people often decide to ‘crash diet’!

The sightings continued thick and fast as the morning progressed, with large schools of Common and Striped Dolphins feeding alongside leaping tuna, more fin whales and several more beaked whale encounters. Indeed we recorded an exceptional total of seven encounters with Cuvier’s Beaked Whales during the day, including two pods with very small calves. The Bay of Biscay has developed a reputation as possibly the best place in the world to encounter this species. Like the other beaked whales, our understanding of Cuvier’s Beaked Whale is very poor, but we do know that they dive to over 1,000m in search of squid, fish and crustaceans, tracking prey items in the inky blackness with the use of sonar before drawing their quarry in to the mouth at close range using suction!

In the blink of an eye the morning had gone and we had arrived in Santander. Time for a walk to MagdalenaPark or to relax at a seafront tapas bar. The weather was glorious as we took a stroll through the woods and along the coastline, taking in some birds, butterflies and wild flowers before returning along the beach and taking our chance to dip our toes in the sea!

Back onboard we were soon sailing north and heading out once more in to the Bay. No sooner had we exited the harbour than a group of eight Bottlenose Dolphins appeared behind the ship and commenced an incredible breaching display, with leaps in excess of 15 feet!

Before long we were amongst Cuvier’s Beaked Whales and Fin Whales once more, as we sailed over deep-water canyons. This is towards the end of the ‘Fin Whale season’ in the Bay of Biscay, but there were still lots of animal around. Between July and September Fin Whales traditionally arrive in the Bay in large numbers in order to feed on large schools of fish, and, to a lesser extent, small invertebrates and possibly squid. Where these whales spend the rest of the year is one of the great mysteries of nature that we have yet to uncover. You would think that it might be difficult in modern times to simply lose the whereabouts of hundreds, if not thousands, of animals weighing in at over 50 tonnes each, but such are the mysteries of the ocean that we still don’t know.

As the afternoon progressed we had even more eyes watching as the ORCA wildlife officer completed her lecture and was joined on the back deck by a large crowd. Within five minutes of the start of their watch a group of 10 Risso’s Dolphins appeared along the port side, large dorsal fins and blunt heads raised above the water as they surfaced leisurely.

As we entered even deeper water we were constantly in the company of Fin Whales; some near, others so distant that we could only see their blows. Finally, as the day drew to a close, we spotted a distant Sperm Whale, its angled blow the only thing visible as it lay resting just below the surface, probably recuperating from a dive that could have taken it to depths in excess of 3km!

After such an amazing day, we retired to dinner, completed a summary lecture on our sightings, and finally, hit the bar for a celebratory drink!

On our final morning in the English Channel the weather deteriorated, making whale watching difficult. At least the seabirds were glad of the wind, and we enjoyed watching Gannets, Great Skuas and Manx Shearwaters sailing past before we arrived in Plymouth once more mid-morning.

In two days we had encountered 9 species of cetacean, including rare beaked whales, leaping Bottlenose Dolphins, large tuna, the second largest whale on earth, and ghostly white Risso’s Dolphins. We can only hope that future Big Whale Watch events will be as good!

We would like to say a particular thanks to Brittany Ferries for all of their help and assistance before and during the voyage, and also for supporting the work of ORCA onboard the Pont Aven.

Further Big Whale Watches are being planned for 2009, and will be posted on the ORCA website at and at in the near future.

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