Way back in 2014, I (Dawn) saw an advertisement for a ‘Sea Safari Cruise’ to Spain with Brittany Ferries and ORCA. It sounded amazing and it was. I took along my Mum, who though partially sighted and unlikely to spot much, would nevertheless I know, enjoy a mini-break. I’d heard about our hosts ORCA and was keen to learn more about their work. The first evening we had a lecture in the bar (handy!) which definitely warmed us up for our main event, the deck watches. I had little expectation, after all this wasn’t the Gulf of Mexico or the Azores, this was just that notorious stretch of water called the Bay of Biscay.
The following morning we awoke to perfect weather, with a glass-clear sea sparkling from the reflection of a cloudless turquoise sky. There were several ORCA spotters on deck and slowly but surely shouts increasingly rang out as the hours passed alerting us to so many sightings. We saw orca and pilot whales, sunfish and even a turtle. Dolphins regularly jousted with the bow of the ship and whale blows galore erased the razor-sharp line of the horizon. There were seabirds everywhere, often joining the frenzied feeding of a pod, or simply just following the ship, fish leapt out of the water and we were utterly enchanted.
This continued until the end of our journey, and though weary after three days of staring out to sea, we left the ship in awe of not only our hosts but because our short journey had yielded a final count of over 1,500 cetaceans. Mums parting words to a member of the ORCA team were “I’ve had the most wonderful time of my life and I only saw a gannet!” She meant it in the nicest possible way although they must have been completely bemused, in fact, make that ‘bewildered’ by such a strange comment – we still smile about it now.
So who’d have thought, nearly ten years later that here I am, an ORCA Ocean Conservationist aboard Brittany Ferries’ newest ship Santoña, pointing out the wonderful cetaceans for others to enjoy? I’ve had some absolutely amazing days and I hope that my enthusiasm has rubbed off on the passengers I’ve spoken to. One of the great things about being an Ocean Conservationist is spending time with passengers, and through lectures, workshops or just a chat on deck we are able to raise awareness of the threats that are facing whales and dolphins. Bycatch, for example, is a particular problem in the Bay of Biscay and bycatch of common dolphins (Delphinus delphis) in this region alone is numbered at approximately 10,000 a year. Worldwide, annual bycatch is responsible for the death of an estimated 300,000 whales, dolphins and porpoises - it’s a sobering figure and a huge threat facing cetaceans.
It can feel hard sometimes to be optimistic about the future of our beloved whales and dolphins, and not feel somewhat helpless, particularly when you add ship strike, plastic pollution and climate change to the equation. But I have hope for the future of whales and dolphins and with ORCA, anyone who cares about whales and dolphins can have an active role in safeguarding their future.
As Ocean Conservationists, our daily surveys using the ORCA OceanWatchers app are helping to identify cetacean hotspots, seasonal distributions and trends. You can join us too by supporting ORCA or joining our army of citizen scientists. Now more than ever it’s important ORCA continues the vital research needed to protect cetaceans, to unravel some of the mysteries surrounding these charismatic creatures and ultimately, to keep oceans alive with whales and dolphins.
We’re heading to the end of the season now in the Bay of Biscay. Along the way I’ve laughed and cried, I’ve met some absolutely amazing people, and had some tricky conversations, but it has been a privilege.
I’m often asked “What’s your best sighting ever?” well that’s easy – the next one.
Dawn Thompson - ORCA Ocean Conservationist (Santoña, Brittany Ferries)