Archive for the ‘Sea mammals of Spain’ Category

Killer whales in Cadiz

Tuesday, June 8th, 2010

BBC documentary of killer whales off the coast of Cadiz attracted by huge tuna captured by the almadraba fishing technique.

From The Natural World – Wild In Spain. Unfortunately it features Micheal Portillo.

The almadraba is an elaborate and age-old Andalusian technique of setting nets in a maze that leads to a central pool called “copo”. The maze uses just two net lines, called “raveras”. One net is connected to the shore and other line is secured in deeper water. Those lines have smaller oblique lines which leads to the central pool. Tunas are not able to see the exit from the central pool and remain inside. This simple maze works because tuna tend to go into the Mediterranean during spring and the beginning of summer. The floor of the central pool is raised in order to catch the tunas and when that floor is up, there is little room for tunas and they are then caught easily and slaughtered. Wikipedia

From Dolphins and whales in the Strait of Gibraltar

Killer whales (Orcinus orca) visit the Strait of Gibraltar during the tuna migration season in July and August. At the same time Spanish and Moroccan fishermen fish for yellowfin tuna, using longline fishing technics, they lower their fishing lines, armed with several hooks, vertically to the sea bottom. This fishing procedure is possible only in a limited area, where the depth of sea is only 100 metres. Killer whales, being intelligent animals, found out that it is much easier to take a tuna already caught on a fisherman’s hook, than to race with a fish in all its strength. Fishermen must often be satisfied with no more than the head of a tuna; orcas never eat the head of the fish as it contains a metal hook. This is the most dolphin safe of all methods of tuna fishery.

The killer whale population of the Strait of Gibraltar is only 12 animals (2006). There is a photo-identification catalogue of them. They are rather difficult to observe: they can only be found easily if tuna fishermen are on the sea, and the orcas hang around them. In any other instances, whale-watchers only can come across them by chance.

Monk seal record

Wednesday, March 17th, 2010

The largest surviving monk seal population in the world, at Cabo Blanco (between Western Sahara and Mauritania), has broken its modern record with 51 pups born in 2009. The breeding season began in May and the maximum number of births took place in August and September with 13 births each. Also, a new group of young females were identified this year as reproductive individuals, increasing the reproductive potential of the colony. Crónica Verde Blog

The conservation project is led by Spanish scientists. Spain sees the conservation of Cabo Blanco colony of monk seals a priority as the species was once common off its coasts. A small group of monk seals survived in Cabo de Gata, Almeria until the 1960s. In 2009, for the time in 50 years a Monk seal was spotted off coast of Mallorca.

The Cabo Blanco colony saw the birth in 2008 of 46 pups, practically the same as in 2006, and doubling those of previous years. The colony is now made up of 180? individuals of which some 50 are breeding females, demonstrating that it is finally beginning to recover from the mass epidemic caused by a toxic seaweed of the late 1990s which killed off 75% of the colony.

Distribution of monk seals. From The Monachus Guardian.

14 killer whales spotted in the Canaries

Wednesday, June 24th, 2009

14 killer whales were observed yesterday for almost eight hours by scientists in the Canaries off Tenerife.
El Pais

Monk seal population rises

Wednesday, July 2nd, 2008

Two weeks ago we heard the news of the appearance of a monk seal in the Isla del Toro, Mallorca. This possibly isolated event coincides with some good news of the seal’s populations slow but hopeful recovery. The Cabo Blanco colony (between Western Sahara and Mauritania) saw the birth last year of 46 pups, practically the same as in 2006, and doubling those of previous years. The colony is now made up of 180 individuals of which some 50 are breeding females, demonstrating that it is finally beginning to recover from the mass epidemic caused by a toxic seaweed of the late 1990s which killed off 75% of the colony.

Elsewhere, in 2007 in Greece 28 pups were born, and in the Desertas Islands (Madeira), there are just three breeding females. The Algerian and Moroccan coasts support no more than 15 individuals. Source: La Crónica Verde

Distribution of monk seals. From The Monachus Guardian.

Figures of a world population of 500 Mediterranean monk seals are being quoted in the press though I can find no “official” figure. The Monachus Guardian states

“Thousands of islands, inaccessible coastlines, and a species that shies away from human contact have all conspired to make distribution and abundance assessments for the Mediterranean monk seal (Monachus monachus) an extraordinarily inexact science. Conventional wisdom, however, suggests that fewer than 600 individuals survive, making the Mediterranean monk seal Europe’s most endangered marine mammal

Loggerhead turtles hatch in Almeria

Sunday, October 21st, 2007

40 eggs of loggerhead turtles (tortuga boba – Caretta caretta) hatched last week on a beach in Cabo de Gata, Almeria. Another 40 are expected to hatch these days. The eggs came from Cabo Verde and form part of a reintroduction programme of the Junta de Andalucía and CSIC. The aim is for the same turtles to return to lay their eggs on the same beach, though the high mortality of the species means that very few if any of these young hatched in Almeria will reach adulthood.1000 eggs were taken from Cabo Verde, where a third of the world’s population lives. 800 were left in the Canary Islands and 200 were brought to Andalucia. 120 have been raised in incubators in Sevilla. Small populations of loggerhead turtle in the Mediterranean exist in the Turkey and Greece.

El Mundo

El Mundo

Overfishing leading to dolphin deaths

Tuesday, October 9th, 2007

Overfishing along with pollution is now also being blamed on the rising toll (192) of striped dolphins (delfín listado – Stenella coeruleoalba) in the Spanish Mediterranean, as their resistance to cetacean measles is weakened through hunger. See Possible dolphin epidemic for more details. (El Mundo)

Whale deaths in the Canary Islands

Thursday, September 27th, 2007

One in three deaths of whales, dolphins and porpoises in the Canaries Islands are caused by human activities (El Mundo). This is the findings of a study on 233 Cetaceans beached in archipelago between 1999 and 2005. 14% died from interactions with fishing, 9.4% associated with military maneuvers and 4.5% due to resulting pathologies The remaining 62% died from natural diseases or 4.3% for unknown reasons”. Antonio Fernández, the researcher in charge of the study noted that many deaths from natural causes may also result from a weakening of their immunodeficiency due to pollution, and suspects that the proven 4.5% could be the tip of the iceberg. The same team gained international recognition with their study published in nature on whale strandings due to military sonar in the Canary Islands. This cause of death appears to have fallen with the prohibition of sonar use within 50 miles of the Canaries.

fin whale

Photo of beached Fin whale (rorcual común – Balaenoptera physalus) in Las Palmas

Possible dolphin epidemic

Sunday, August 26th, 2007

Experts are on the alert to a possible dolphin epidemic after numerous dolphins have been found dead on the coast of Valencia. In the last two months 29 striped dolphins(delfín listado – Stenella coeruleoalba) have been found dead with a a virus known as cetacean measles, similar to a virus which caused a high death rate among Risso’s dolphin (calderones tropicales) in the Mediterranean last winter. An epidemic decimated striped dolphin populations in the Mediterranean in the early 1990s . Experts hope that this will not occur this time. Many cetaceans in the Mediterranean have very low immunity levels due to pollution. El Mundo

Striped dolphin in Almeria

Humpback whale beached in Huelva

Monday, July 23rd, 2007

A Humped back whale has been found beached in Palos de la Frontera, Huelva. The whale was eight metres long and was a young individual. Its undernourished appearance indicates that it may have become separated from its mother. It had numerous injuries probably from drift nets El Mundo. Stop press.The whale has unfortunately died. Humped-backed whales are considered rare off Andalusia’s coasts. 156 marine animals were found beached on Andalucia’s coasts in the first 6 months of 2007. (species list here)

In Spanish ballena yubarta

By the way, I’ve set up this page on whale watching in Spain


Basque whaling tradition

Tuesday, June 5th, 2007

This is a bit from The Basque History of the World by Mark Kurlansky, an interesting if somewhat nationalistic portrait of that remarkable corner of the Iberian Peninsula. There’s a big section on whaling, from which I leave you all:


Seal of the Basque town of Biarritz, 1351, with whaling scene and two-flued harpoon. (

An important feature of the Basque whale was that, like the sperm whale, but unlike many whale species, it floated when dead. The whale’s back shone obsidian black in the water, though the belly was a brilliant white. Averaging about fifty to sixty feet in length, a quarter of which was the huge head, a single animal could weigh more than sixty tons. Such a whale would yield thirty tons of blubber, which could be cooked down to an oil valued for centuries as fuel. Most coastal Basque communities established facilities along their beaches for cooking down whale blubber. As with most things Basque, it is not certain when this oil trade began, but in 670, at the end of the age of the Visigoths, there was a documented sale in northern France by Basques from Labourd of forty pots of whale oil……
……The first commercial whale hunters were the seventh- and eighth-century Basques, who found an eager market for this meat in Europe. Whale meat became a staple of the European diet partly because the Catholic Church forbade the eating of “redblooded” meat on holy days-about half the days on the calendar including every Friday-arguing that it was “hot,” associated with sex, which was also forbidden on holy days. But meat that came from animals-or parts of animals-that were submerged in water, including whale, fish, and the tail of the beaver, was deemed “cold” and therefore permitted. So with the exception of beaver tails and the occasional seal or porpoise, whale was the one allowable red meat. The Basques became the great providers of this holy red meat. They sold the leaner meat fresh or preserved in salt. Fattier parts were cured like bacon. In Paris, where these cuts were a Lenten specialty, they were known as craspois. Tongues, fresh or salted, were regarded as a particular delicacy and served with peas. Being the choicest part, the only good part, according to some medieval writers, whale tongues were often demanded by local church or government officials as tribute. The port of Bayonne jealously guarded its monopoly on the tongue trade.

Replica of a txalupa, the original Basque whaling boat (

In the seventh century, the Basques, no longer content to await for ailing whales to beach themselves, built stone whalespotting towers along the coast from Bilbao to Bayonne, manning them between October and March. One still remains on a mountaintop near San Sebastian and another in Guethary in Labourd. The whale’s undoing was the fact that it is a lunged mammal and must rise to the surface to breathe. When it does, a tall column of vapor is released. Spotting the spout of an approaching whale off the coastline, the lookout in the tower would let out a prolonged yell. His shouts were actually coded signals that told whalers the exact type of whale sighted, and whether it was a single whale or in a group. Five oarsmen, a captain, and a harpooner would then row out in a lightweight vessel.
The oarsmen would row as silently as possible, muffling the oars in their locks and even the oar blades in the water with oiled cloth. Then, having sneaked up on the unsuspecting giant foundering along the coast, they would strike suddenly with wooden-handled spears and harpoons. The oarsmen had to row, close enough to the whale for the harpooner to plant the har•
goon deeply into the body just below the head. Harpooning became the trade of the largest, strongest men. After harpooning the whale, the oarsmen had to row furiously in reverse, turning a fast circle, for an enraged whale could kill a dozen men with a flick of its huge tail. Or, instead of turning on its attackers, the whale might try to dive to the safety of great depths, dragging men and boats with it. The whale would dive with harpoon, line, and buoys until, out of breath, it had to furiously resurface, only to be harpooned again. The process was repeated numerous times until the whale spouted blood and died or the whalers capsized and drowned. Sometimes the boat and fishermen would just sink under the weight of the wet ropes.
By the late thirteenth century, whales marked the town seals of Bermeo and Fuenterrabia. Among the other towns that included whales in their town seals were Biarritz, Hendaye, Guetaria, Motrico, and Lequeitio. Not only did these towns keep the whale on their seals, but, from the use of whaling launches, they developed an early and enduring passion for rowing regattas.

More books about the Basque Country I have read

The Basque Country: A Cultural History by Paddy Woodworth: Full of fascinating facts. An excellent balanced account.