Ocean Conservationists Chrissy and Ellie talk about how patience pays off whilst onboard Fred. Olsen’s Bolette sailing around the British Isles.
As Ocean Conservationists, we are certainly living the dream, but it’s not always easy to spot whales, dolphins and porpoises, especially when we can’t see underwater! Understanding the autonomy of the animals as well as their behaviour, we are trained to know what indicators to look out for on the surface, but weather conditions and sea state play a big part in our ability to spot them. Often, it’s a combination of luck and persistence.
Travelling through the immense habitat of the ocean, there are days when you can look for hours and not see anything. As well as pointing out animals we see to guests, we are also collecting data to help protect marine mammal habitats and although it’s a thrill to see an animal and record a sighting, seeing no animals is still important data to collect as we try to understand what’s going on in our oceans. It can be an emotional rollercoaster sometimes, but as I always say, if you’re not looking, then you’ll never see them. They are all wild animals which we’re searching for, and although we can take an educated guess as to what we might find, our oceans are vast, and anything can appear anywhere. It’s that not knowing that personally drives the passion and excitement for me and many others to keep looking.
The Shetlands have been a place I’ve been wanting to visit for a long time. Not only for its’ beautiful landscapes but also for the wildlife, in particular one special species. Orca. Leading up to us setting sail, both Ellie and I had seen reports that a pod of orca who had come down from Iceland to feed on seals were around Lerwick, one of the places we would be stopping off at. Neither of us has been fortunate enough to see orca, and because the species is classed as data deficient, we were eager to document valuable data on their population numbers. So, with binoculars at the ready, we kept our eyes peeled for the iconic tall, black dorsal fin, and white eye patch.
Heading up to the Shetlands, we rose early to make the most of the daylight and increase our chances of spotting these highly intelligent creatures, but they were nowhere to be seen, and neither was much else. The sea state made it difficult to spot cetaceans, but we were surprised not to see anything through the North Sea. Not even the population of bottlenose dolphins, who are said to be residents in Moray Firth. We seemed to be just out of reach of seeing anything, which highlights how lucky you are when you do see something! Heading into Lerwick, we were greeted by minke whale, bottlenose and white-beaked dolphins, maybe this is where the cetaceans had all been hanging out! We asked locals if there had been any more sightings of the orca, but sadly, we seemed to be a week too late. We didn’t give up hope and were joined by guests onboard Bolette as they helped us in search of the iconic species heading into the Hebrides, however even with the extra pairs of eyes on the seas, our luck seemed to be dwindling. Missing our chance to get a glimpse of John Coe and Aquarius, who were spotted a few days before in the Minch as we made our way through the Hebrides, we did come across an unusual pairing of species. The equilateral triangled dorsal fin of a harbour porpoise alongside an otter swimming quite a distance from the shore. It certainly wasn’t something we expected to see.
As we headed into the English Channel on our final sea day, we began to admit defeat with finding orca. They are the most widely distributed cetacean, able to adapt to live, hunt and breed in every ocean on our planet, but with little known about how many individuals exist potentially, there are less out there than we think. However, we sensed our luck was about to change.
Our morning was filled with common dolphins attracted to the ship as three welcome blows appeared in the distance. The blows were large and bushy, so although we couldn’t be certain of the species, we could tell they were large whales. The afternoon brought chaos as we watched a large pod of common dolphins feeding in the English Channel. Then further up, we spotted long-finned pilot whales amongst more common dolphins seemingly heading west on route to join the feast, followed by some Risso’s dolphin! They were coming out of the English Channel, but pilot whales prefer the continental shelves and cold and sub-polar waters 2000m deep, as opposed to the shallow habitat of the English Channel, which at its deepest part only reaches 180m. So, as you can imagine, it was a bit of a surprise to see them. A pilot whale’s diet can vary by region, and whilst I’m sure they wouldn’t pass up an opportunity to feed on the small fish the dolphins were feasting on, pilot whales and Risso’s dolphin are more known to feed on squid, as well as cephalopods which include cuttlefish. This is why these particular encounters with the pilot whales and Risso’s dolphin are really interesting
Living on the South Coast of the UK when I was younger, we would always find cuttlefish bones washed up on the beach, but now there don’t seem to be many at all. Between 2008 and 2017, fishermen were catching cuttlefish at an unsustainable rate, which forced the rapid decline of populations in the English Channel. Cuttlefish is mainly eaten in Europe as a cheaper alternative to squid and as a result of the population decline, the Marine Conservation Society (MSC), who produce the Good Fish Guide, listed trawl-caught cuttlefish from the English Channel as a red-rated ‘Fish to Avoid.’ Our Marine Mammal Surveyors as well as Ocean Conservationists are regularly collecting data within the English Channel, which has one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes, so we will keep an eye out for any more sightings of pilot whales in this area, because this could indicate that cuttlefish numbers are on the rise.
Humans are said to be at the top of the food chain. This means the choices we make about the food we eat has the potential to negatively impact other species who rely on specific food sources. By making sustainable choices about the food we eat, hopefully, it will allow all cetaceans to thrive in our oceans. Although we didn’t see orca, patience did pay off, and we had some incredible sightings. We both continue to search for orca, as well as the unusual and unpredictable encounters which aim to surprise us!
Ocean Conservationist Chrissy