A Winter’s Bay

The sun rose blood red over an ocean that was silvery blue. Despite the saying red sky in the morning sailor take warning the waves were calm and the swell low. The conditions were good for sighting those often elusive whales and dolphins. With the breaking dawn spreading light over the rolling water a couple of figures stood on the back deck of the ferry eagerly scanning out to sea. Having never crossed the Bay of Biscay in February I was not sure entirely what to expect. I know that some species are present in these deep waters year round, but for others like sperm whale and fin whale it felt a little early in the season. There are sightings of these giants at this time of year but they are fewer than later in the spring and summer. Still ever the optimist and always of the mind you just never know, I was one of those figures standing in the cool morning light, watching the blood red sun rise and then disappear behind a bank of cloud, scanning the silver waves.

As morning progressed still no dorsal fin or blow split the waves. The clouds soon vanished leaving a brilliant blue sky and azure ocean. Even though it was February the sunglasses and sun cream both came out.

Then mid-morning and an almost squeal of delight from one of the others gave away our first sighting. Three Cuvier’s beaked whales broke the surface right alongside the ferry, their brown scarred backs rolling and then disappearing again amongst the waves. Four or five times we watched, with each surface met by accompanying squeals that for me only a whale or dolphin could produce in someone.

Cuvier’s beaked whale

As the ferry continued its journey south the snow covered mountains of the Picos appeared almost like billowing clouds on the horizon, growing ever more distinct. More sightings followed; two groups of striped dolphins almost sneaked past, only to leap clear of the blue water once beyond the stern; more beaked whales were picked up at distance, their size and position of the dorsal fin giving away their identity but the distance not allowing certain identification to species level.

Striped dolphins

As more of the Spanish coastline came into view, the wind dropped further until the water was smooth and oily. A small group of bottlenose dolphins broke the surface, mother and calf clearly defined even from this distance and height.

The turnaround in Santander brought more sun and ice cream, it felt more like early summer than February. The return journey started with only an hour or so of light left. Once again the group was back on deck, willing the ferry to get out of the harbour and into the open sea once more. Although light was failing as mist and cloud gathered blocking our setting sun, perseverance was rewarded with a distant group of dolphins, silhouetted against the setting sun, and then a group of long-finned pilot whale, also dark but distinct with their bulbous, round heads and broad swept back dorsal fins.
A wonderful end to a winters day in the Bay of Biscay.

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