ORCA Survey Blog – our first Bay of Biscay ferry survey of 2024

Whale & dolphin sightings


On Sunday the 24th March a team of four ORCA Marine Mammal Surveyors set sail on Brittany Ferries Pont-Aven, for the first Bay of Biscay survey of the season. Sailing from Plymouth to Santander; Karen, Terry, Magda and Steve departed in the late afternoon. There was insufficient daylight to warrant surveying from the bridge of the ship that first evening. However, the team ran a short survey using the ORCA OceanWatchers app from the top deck, as soon as they left Plymouth Sound. Within minutes the first of several small pods of common dolphins were recorded. The team were also delighted to see several hundred Manx shearwaters.

The ORCA team began their first bridge survey at 05:50 the following morning, and were pleasantly surprised to find the sea conditions to be relatively calm for early spring in the Bay of Biscay. This allowed the team to survey for eight hours, from first light until they started approaching Santander. During this first survey of the trip the ORCA team recorded 60 common dolphins, 35 striped dolphins, three long-finned pilot whales, a fin whale, a probable humpback whale and four other unidentified large whales. One of the whales resurfaced within one kilometre of the bow of the ship and it was great to see the crew steering gently away from its course to minimise the risk of a ship strike. The highlight of the survey was a pod of seven bow riding striped dolphins which stayed with the ship for several minutes.

Bow riding striped dolphins

The ORCA team had another early start the following morning, for another eight-hour survey back from Santander to Plymouth. The team were able to see the beam from a distant Finistère lighthouse to their North-East in the half light. The weather forecast had been for high swells on the final day of the survey however, the ship had passed through the worst of the poor weather overnight and the seas were good for surveying. The ORCA team recorded fewer cetaceans on their way back to Plymouth, but were still thrilled to record three bottlenose dolphins, a single common dolphin and a distant unidentified whale.

The bird highlights included over one hundred Manx shearwaters and 15 great skua sightings: encouraging numbers of the latter species given their numbers have been badly impacted by avian flu over the last two years. It was a wonderful start to ORCA’s 2024 survey season in the Bay of Biscay!

A big thank you to Brittany Ferries for their continued support of ORCA’s vital monitoring work, and to the Captain, bridge crew and all the staff on board the Pont-Aven for being so welcoming.

The only way we can protect whales and dolphins is by understanding their distribution, and so monitoring is vital for effective conservation. Donate today to help ORCA continue to identify and study important whale hotspots around the world by visiting www.orca.org.uk/donate

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