It felt like history repeating, and I had an ominous feeling of de ja vu. It is mid-September and the first storms of the autumn are sweeping across the Atlantic heading for the UK and Ireland, and once again I am heading out on the ferry to Santander across the Bay of Biscay with the marine charity ORCA.
I have a sinking feeling when just like last year the ferry is delayed leaving Portsmouth. Progress through the night is slow, and a lumpy, and just like last year we awake among the islands off France in the northern Bay of Biscay.
Unlike last year however, dawn is pale and bright. The scattered clouds above the ship are tinged pink to gold as the sun rises over the ocean and the French coast. Sure it is windy, with numerous white caps at the crests of the dark blue waves, and some spray whipped off their tops, but the swell is not too bad and the ship only rolls slightly. Standing on one side of the boat the wind pummels you, tugging at coat and hat, pushing you like some kid in the school playground. But it is not nearly as bad as it could be. It’s incredible the difference a clear sky and rising golden sun will make.
Like last year, there are loads of shearwaters in the northern part of the bay. Sooty, great and manx all skimming over the waves, shooting up into the air, like some extreme sports loving, thrill seekers.
Then comes the shout we have been wanting to hear, the reason why we are here on the top deck at the crack of dawn, staring out at that tumultuous sea. ‘Dolphins’. A group of 10 or so common dolphins come racing towards the ship, leaping out of the waves that are molten gold in the rising sun. We are off the mark.
As the morning progresses the ships makes its way over the shallow waters of the continental shelf towards the slope where the seafloor drops away and will eventually reach depths of over 1000 m. There are more sightings of common dolphins streaming through the waves towards the ship, delighting the passengers on board. The patch of ochre yellow on their side flashes in the sunlight which catches on the splash of white water they create as they leap clear and then re-enter the waves.
Late morning and we finally head over the slope. There is not visible sign on the water’s surface that we are crossing into deeper water. The deep blue waves remain capped with white as the wind continues to whip the sea up. But our electronic mapping system shows our position over a tight bunch of wiggly lines, which are actually depth contours, each line representing a drop in depth. Plus for the first time that day there is different shout. Simultaneously myself and another guide cry out as a distinctive, vertical spray of condensed water vapour shoots into the air. There is no mistaking it, even amongst the white caps, it is the breath of a whale.
There is a flurry of sightings. Blows appear on both sides, most distant but some closer to the ship. There is another shout for dolphins. But these do not rush into the vessel, remaining at a distance, surfacing close together before leaping out of the waves behind us. They are striped dolphins.
Then there is a lull in sightings. The ship steams on. The passengers stand at the rails, deliberating when to head down for lunch, that perpetual nagging thought of ‘what if’. What if I go down for lunch and a whale appears! Growling stomachs generally wins out for most of the passengers, and even the guides must pop down to grab sustenance. Personally I nip down to grab a sandwich and drink, reappearing on deck with hands full in time to see a beautiful fin whale surface a few hundred metres from the ship. I may not have been able to take a picture, but the image of that beautiful dark grey body, sliding through the waves, water streaming from its back, before it disappears beneath the dark blue ocean is one I never tire of.
Noticeably the wind has dropped. There are fewer white horses capping the tops of the dark blue waves. The sightings pick up again. The shouts of ‘blow’ comes from both sides of the ship. The crowd of passengers criss-crosses the deck at each call. One particularly good encounter is of three Fin Whales. The blows go up in quick succession one after the other, making it easy for lots of passengers to get onto the whales. They are also not moving too quickly, remaining in the same place, perhaps having found some food. They are close enough to see their dark bodies roll through the water. There are shouts of excitement from all on deck. Among the whale sightings there are more dolphins. Tight groups of striped dolphins that seem to come alive once the ship has past, leaping high into the air from the ships wake.
Late afternoon, and the ship should be docking in Santander. Instead we are just approaching the southern canyons of the Bay. The whale watchers keep their vigil, despite having been on deck for nearly 12 hours. There is no leaving the deck now, the southern part of the Bay is particularly good habitat for beaked whales. We stand and stare. Scanning and searching the small dark waves. A couple of whale surface close by. Their size, shape and behaviour suggest beaked whale, but they do not surface again and we are unable to identify them.
The sun dropped low in the sky, turning redder as it moved inexorably towards the sea. A blow on the distant horizon catches my eye and then suddenly a huge shape lifts clear of the water, landing with a massive splash. Lifting my binoculars I see a whale breach completely clear of the water for a second time, landing in a plume of white water. Even with the binoculars it is too far to identify any more than ‘big whale!’ Still it is an exciting end to a long, but successful day’s whale watching in the Bay of Biscay.