Saturday, 1 October 2016

Back in the Bay of Biscay - September 2016

There is not a year that goes by without me taking a trip out on the open water in search of seabirds and cetaceans. This year I chose Biscay, and a late season visit at that. As with recent years I travelled on the Pont-Aven, departing Portsmouth on the evening of 27th September, arriving in Santander late afternoon on the 28th and then into Plymouth on the late afternoon of 29th September. 

I had arranged to go on the trip with my good friend Dylan Walker, hoping for a relaxing time catching up on seabirds and cetaceans. But unbeknown to us there was an Orca trip on the same ship, and as we arrived at the ferry terminal I immediately saw two people, Glenn Overington and Elfyn Pugh, who I knew and had guided with back in the days of the Company of Whales and trips on P&O's Pride of Bilbao. It was great to catch up with these guys again, and good to know that there would be some experienced eyes looking out.

Day 1 - Portsmouth to Santander
On the morning of the 28th the sea was like a mill pond and the 'oily calm' made for perfect cetacean watching conditions.  Unfortunately as we headed south the weather slowly deteriorated and by mid afternoon the choppy sea and strong swell made viewing difficult.

This trip turned out to be excellent for seabirds and by the end of day one we had seen over a thousand shearwaters. Great Shearwater was probably the most numerous species, Sooty was the next and then Cory's. Balearic was present in smaller numbers and at least two Macaronesian (Barolo's) were reported but we did not see any. 

Great Shearwater
Great Shearwater
Great Shearwater
Cory's Shearwater
Mixed Shearwater flock  
Mixed Shearwater flock

Shearwaters were most numerous in the southern bay where towards the end of the day we encountered several large feeding flocks. European Storm-petrel numbers were as high as I have ever seen and I estimate that we must have seen over 300 birds. Other species recorded included Northern Gannet, Sabine's Gull, Great Skua, Sandwich Tern and Arctic Skua.

Recent trips into the Bay of Biscay have proved pretty fruitless for me for the large rorqual whales, but I had heard that Fin Whales were now being seen in good numbers. It is great to report that this trip was indeed much more like the trips of old, and we did in fact have eight encounters with Fin Whales and numerous unidentified rorqual blows. It is always frustrating not to clinch an ID but the nature of the whale watching experience on a ferry is very different to a bespoke whale watching trip where it is possible to approach species more closely. It was even more frustrating when we were shown some images that Glenn had taken in the Bay the week before, which clearly showed a Blue Whale. A couple of Minke Whales and a small group of Pilot Whales were also recorded, but unfortunately on the opposite side of the ship to us.

Fin Whale - blowing
Fin Whale
Fin Whale - preparing to dive
Fin Whale

The rough sea state made looking for Cuvier's Beaked Whales difficult, but we still managed to see several although getting prolonged views was not easy. We saw two large beaked whales swimming in parallel, which were suggestive of Bottle-nosed Whale but unfortunately after three tantalisingly brief views we passed them by and they were lost to view. Dolphin numbers were good, but not spectacular; we recorded Common, Striped and Bottle-nosed

Common Dolphins
Common Dolphin
Leaping Bottle-nosed Dolphins
Striped Dolphins

Other species recorded over the course of the day included several Ocean Sunfish, a shark species, Tuna and Moon Jellyfish.

Day 2 - Santander to Plymouth
The second day starts well clear of the deep water canyons of the Bay and as such the species encountered are more limited.

Northern Gannet was the most numerous species, with the most numerous shearwater being Balearic. We did also add Manx to the shearwater list but other than a few Sooty's there was little of note. In fact bird wise the most noteworthy species was a flock of nine Grey Phalaropes which were put up as the ship passed and circled close several times before heading off.

Common Dolphin was the only species we encountered, and we did so on several occasions. Others on the ship recorded Harbour Porpoise and Risso's Dolphin, but on the opposite side to us.

All in all it was a cracking trip with a great mix of seabirds and cetaceans, and I will certainly be booking a trip for next year.

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