Friday, 7 December 2012

Biscay 4th - 6th December 2012

This week I had the offer of a trip down through the Bay of Biscay on the Brittany Ferries ship Cap Finistere, and despite it being mid December, and the weather looking quite grim at times, I decided to go. The trip was to follow that of the old P&O ferry, Pride of Bilbao, travelling from Portsmouth, in the UK to Bilbao, on the north coast of Spain, and then back again. The trip was slightly delayed due to bad weather in Biscay on the previous trip, but undeterred we eventually boarded and were soon underway. Not really surprisingly, given the time of year, our group of seven and two other people, were the only foot passengers to board, along with only 74 vehicles, so the upper decks were fairly empty.

Over night the weather was rough and the ship was given a bit of a hammering by the angry sea, but by morning, the rain had stopped, but there was still a mighty swell and a high sea state. Given the poor sea state, it was undoubtedly going to be difficult to see cetaceans, but within the first hour 10 common dolphins had come into the bow to ride the bow wave. 

First Winter Kittiwake

Bird wise there wasn't much going on other than a few black-legged kittiwakes that made for the back of the ship, in search of any scraps in the wake. There was a good mix of both adult and first winter birds, a colleague suggested that first winter birds, with their strong black 'W' on the upper wing were a much better looking bird than the adult birds, but I wasn't convinced. I really like the neat black wing tip, pale grey upperwing and mantle, and grey nape of the adult birds.

Adult Winter Kittiwake

Other birds included the occasional great black-backed and herring gulls, and a few northern gannets. The weather was actually quite pleasant and surprisingly mild for the time of year, but in the distance a few storm clouds were gathering.

Great Black-backed Gull

The first storm passed by the back of the ship, and other than a slight increase in the sea state and a light shower we escaped. A good feature of this ship is an under cover section at the stern, which means that even in bad weather you could stay out and sea watch.

First Storm Passing the back of the Ship

The next storm was heading straight for us, forcing several northern gannets and fulmars ahead of it as it came, but no other sea birds, which was a shame.

Northern Gannet

This second storm was fierce, and the driving rain and strong winds made viewing very difficult. We persevered for a while but with very little visible we decided to have a short break.

Second Storm in full Swing

As we continued south the sea state calmed and the sun came out, just for a while before it set, but as we approached Spain, in the dark, it began to pour with rain, and did it rain. Unlike the Pride of Bilbao, it only takes two hours to turn this ship around, and therefore we were not allowed to disembark. When we asked why, we were told that there was no where to go, and when we looked out we could see that the ship had docked in the new part of the port, and there really wasn't anywhere to go in two hours and it was pouring with rain anyway.

Approaching Sunset of the Southward Journey

The ship set sail in the dark, and after another stormy night we awoke to a blue sky and calm seas, not what we were expecting so we quickly got up and headed out. The ship was taking a different route to previous trips and was just off the French coast, where we had excellent views of the westernmost tip of the Brittany peninsular, Point du Raz and its stunning little light house 'La Vielle'

La Vielle, Point du Raz, Brittany

There was much fishing activity in this area also, and subsequently many more birds, including more kittiwakes, some guillemots and puffins and then some Balearic shearwaters. Initially just a few but as we moved moved north we had soon seen over 40 birds, some of which gave some excellent views.

Balearic Shearwater

This is the first time I had seen so many of this species on a trip across the bay, and presume they had been pushed in close to coast by the bad weather. Other bird species included more than a dozen Mediterranean gulls, a mixture of adult and second winter birds, which was nice, although this is a species I now see every time I go out birding at home.

Balearic Shearwater
Continuing north we were soon passing the lighthouses of St Mathieu and enjoying some spectacular scenery....

Lighthouses at St Mathieu

                          ....................before passing the marker of Grande Vinotiere, which provided the ideal place for great cormorants and shags to rest up.

Grande Vinotiere

Once away from the coast and the Channel Islands, and back in open water, we were soon seeing more cetatceans; a lone bottle-nosed dolphin rode the bow wave for a while and several more common dolphins joined in the fun. Several bonxie's (great skuas) provided some bird variety, and then it was dark again and time to retire back the cabin and pack.

So despite the variable weather, we had had an enjoyable trip, with the star bird for me being balearic shearwater. The limited number of cetaceans seen was disappointing, but I suspect that in part was due to the weather, but it may be due to cooler waters at this time of year and therefore less food, I will just have to go again to find out!

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