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Bay of Biscay Sea Safari with ORCA and Brittany Ferries - Aug '18

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Old Friday 17th August 2018, 14:13   #1
MK90
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Bay of Biscay Sea Safari with ORCA and Brittany Ferries - Aug '18

Yesterday I returned home from a three day Sea Safari cruise from Portsmouth to Santander and back to Plymouth with ORCA and Brittany Ferries. In planning this trip I read several trip reports from when these cruises were run by Company of Whales but very few from the new route so I thought I'd write a up a report from my trip to inform people in the future. This is my first trip report so bear with me.

Day 1 (14/08/18)
We met the ORCA guides at Portsmouth Harbour around 1530 and checked-in for the 1715 departure. The accommodation was a little cramped for three people but considering we would only be using the room for sleeping this didn't really matter.

Once the ferry set sail we met the ORCA guides on the top deck for an introduction to the trip where they outlined what we could see where. The sun was now setting so we had dinner in the restaurant before having an early night.

Day 2 (15/08/18)
We were on deck for sunrise around 0600. As soon as we arrived the sightings started with a pod of Common Dolphins swimming with the ferry for several minutes as well as a group of distant Great Shearwaters. Around 0620 we had the first whale sighting with a very close Fin Whale blowing on the port side. A group of Common Dolphins were bow-riding the whale too which made for a great sight. Ten minutes later we had our second species of whale as a Minke came up in the wake of the boat. However, as the whale was already behind the boat when it was spotted we didn't get the best views. Small pods of Bottlenose and Risso's Dolphins were also seen distantly around 0700.

The cetacean sightings then dropped off for an hour or two but frequent bird sightings ensured it wasn't a dull period. The first Cory's Shearwaters were spotted in among the more numerous Great Shearwater flocks and a large raft of around 40 European Storm Petrel was seen close to the ship. Attempts to find a Wilson's in among them were fruitless though. As well as the expected seabirds we also saw a number of migrating species. A Pied Flycatcher was seen several times throughout the day, presumably hitching a ride south on the ferry. Yellow Wagtail and an unidentified Leaf Warbler were also seen on board by other passengers. Two small groups of Whimbrel were also seen migrating south, low over the water.

We were now approaching the edge of the continental shelf where the sea depth drops from around 200m to over 4000m over the course of an hour's sailing. We were told this would be a very productive area but even so I wasn't prepared for the shear number of sightings over the next hour or two. I was on the starboard side when a cry of "Beaked whale!" went up on the port side. I ran over to see a pair of Cuvier's Beaked Whales about 500m from the boat. No longer then 5mins later did we have another pair of Cuvier's; this time even closer to the boat. These two showed incredibly well and allowed those with cameras to get some great pictures. (I wasn't one of these people so apologies for the lack of photos on this report.)

As we made our way over the continental shelf drop-off we started to see more and more fin whales blows on the horizon. One of these blows was picked out directly in front of the ship and as we got closer our views got better and better until we were right alongside the animal. Two more individuals were then seen close on the starboard side followed straight away by another individual on the port side. This was the best views we got of a Fin Whale the whole trip. It couldn't have been more than 50m from the ship and, even though we were on deck 10, you could see the enormous size of it!

Unfortunately things then got very quite for several hours as we passed over the deep water canyons leading to Santander. We had been told this would be the most productive part of the cruise which just goes to show how unpredictable wildlife can be. Eventually things picked up again with a pod of around 100 dolphins joining the ship for several minutes. This pod was made up of both Common and the much more acrobatic Striped Dolphins.

Having docked in Santander we found a nice tapas bar not far from the harbour where we had dinner and a few beers before boarding the ship again for the return journey.

Day 3 (16/08/18)
Due to the evening departure time of the return sailing we had passed most of the productive area by the time we were on deck at 6am the following morning and we were now off the coast of Brittany. The weather had also turned for the worst; dramatically reducing visibility and creating several white horses which made spotting cetaceans much harder. The birding this morning was good though with several Great Skuas seen; one of which was harassing a group of Great Shearwaters. In among a small group of Manx Shearwaters two Balearics were picked out, moments before a pair of Harbour Porpoise broke the surface of the water.

It was now raining heavily which had forced us to take shelter at the bow of the ship. This turned out to be a blessing in disguise as we then had a Minke Whale come up right beneath us. The whale was so close to the ship it was lucky not to be hit! It quickly dived back down again and was then later picked up again in the wake of the boat a few minutes later. This sighting turned out to be the last cetacean we saw on this, a very enjoyable, trip.

I never did the Company of Whales tours so can't compare the two. However, I'd fully recommend this trip to anybody considering it; the ORCA volunteers are very knowledgeable and incredibly skilled at spotting cetaceans. We were very fortunate with the weather on the first day with an almost completely calm sea but our luck ran out into the second day. Despite this we still manged a good number of sightings - these are listed below.

Cetaceans
Fin Whale
Minke Whale
Cuvier's Beaked Whale
Common Dolphin
Striped Dolphin
Bottlenose Dolphin
Risso's Dolphin
Harbour Porpoise

Birds
Fulmar
Great Shearwater
Cory's Shearwater
Manx Shearwater
Balearic Shearwater
European Storm Petrel
Gannet
Great Skua
Black-headed Gull
Herring Gull
Lesser Black-back Gull
Great Black-backed Gull
Yellow-legged Gull
Mediterranean Gull
Common Tern
Sandwich Tern
Cormorant
Shag
Whimbrel
Pied Flycatcher
Woodpigeon

Other
Bluefin Tuna (corrected re: comments below)
Ocean Sunfish
Leatherback Turtle

Last edited by MK90 : Saturday 18th August 2018 at 10:41.
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Old Friday 17th August 2018, 14:38   #2
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Sounds like a great trip. Are you sure that the tuna species that was seen was Yellowfin? That's a tropical species so would be pretty unlikely in that area, whereas Albacore & Bluefin tuna are regular there.
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Old Friday 17th August 2018, 14:41   #3
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Yes, my mistake, it was Bluefin
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Old Friday 17th August 2018, 16:35   #4
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Yes, my mistake, it was Bluefin
Still an excellent species to see; I've seen everything on your trip list except bluefin tuna!
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Old Friday 17th August 2018, 17:04   #5
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I haven't, I still need Cuvier's Beaked Whale and Leatherback Turtle. Nice that such trips are possible again, I enjoyed the two I did on the old route!

What are the odds if you do this trip independently, or does special access (is there special access?) make the difference?

John
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Old Friday 17th August 2018, 18:41   #6
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Does anyone see Blue Whale these days, I remember reading that there had been a small breeding population discovered in Biscay?
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Old Saturday 18th August 2018, 10:27   #7
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Originally Posted by Farnboro John View Post
I haven't, I still need Cuvier's Beaked Whale and Leatherback Turtle. Nice that such trips are possible again, I enjoyed the two I did on the old route!

What are the odds if you do this trip independently, or does special access (is there special access?) make the difference?

John
Being on the ORCA trip gives you the benefits of having the upper deck to yourselves and a group of spotters to point out things that you may otherwise have missed. However, you could definitely do the trip independently and see plenty.
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Old Monday 20th August 2018, 10:14   #8
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A great list - thanks for the write-up! The nearest I've come is ferry trips between Honshu and Hokkaido in Japan, which have few cetacean species (I'v had Minke and Bryde's Beaked whale and dolphin sp), but the added bonus of two expected species of albatross (Black-footed and Laysan).

I've also just seen a report of another regular ferry route in S Japan recording an amazing array of seabirds including the ultra local Bannerman's and Boyd's Shearwaters:

http://seabirdsjapan.zohosites.com/a...sawara-is.html.

This trip also produces Short-tailed Albatross as well as Matsudaira's and Band-rumped Storm Petrels.

Cheers
Mike
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Old Monday 20th August 2018, 11:33   #9
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Being on the ORCA trip gives you the benefits of having the upper deck to yourselves and a group of spotters to point out things that you may otherwise have missed. However, you could definitely do the trip independently and see plenty.
A very useful write up.

What did it cost?
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Old Monday 20th August 2018, 11:53   #10
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It was 210 per person.

More info can be found here: http://www.brittany-ferries.co.uk/of...dolphin-cruise
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Old Wednesday 22nd August 2018, 11:33   #11
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Quote:
Originally Posted by MKinHK View Post

I've also just seen a report of another regular ferry route in S Japan recording an amazing array of seabirds including the ultra local Bannerman's and Boyd's Shearwaters:

http://seabirdsjapan.zohosites.com/a...sawara-is.html.

This trip also produces Short-tailed Albatross as well as Matsudaira's and Band-rumped Storm Petrels.

Cheers
Mike
I did Miyake-jima (Izu lslands) to Tokyo in early March this year - not the same diversity as the Ogasawara route, but I had really frequent sightings of short-tailed albatross including adults and immatures, plus Laysan and black-footed, as well as literally 1000s of streaked shearwaters. I also had a dark-rumped storm-petrel which I soon lost sight of in a wave trough - no chance of ID to species, probably either Swinhoe's or Matsudaira's. Oh, and a few black-legged kittiwakes well offshore, and lots of black-tailed gulls inshore... Would certainly recommend.
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Old Sunday 11th August 2019, 19:39   #12
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Hello -- I'm about to do the same trip Portsmouth to Santander --- would be interested to hear other's reports of their recent sightings on this crossing and any tips would be most appreciated.

we leave portsmouth 08:45am, arriving Santander 14:45 the following day so timings a bit different to above

thanks
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Old Sunday 11th August 2019, 21:06   #13
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Originally Posted by interoception View Post
Hello -- I'm about to do the same trip Portsmouth to Santander --- would be interested to hear other's reports of their recent sightings on this crossing and any tips would be most appreciated.

we leave portsmouth 08:45am, arriving Santander 14:45 the following day so timings a bit different to above

thanks
Probably worth following ORCA on social media to get more information.

I was on a cruise boat that went across Biscay at the turn of the month and we had five species of whale, but not that many dolphins.
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Old Monday 12th August 2019, 05:53   #14
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Just out of interest what does the 210 pp include - is it the ferry trip, overnight accommodation and the services of the guides or is any evening meal included?

Laurie
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Old Wednesday 21st August 2019, 16:15   #15
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Sounds a great trip which I'd love to do at some point.

We spoke to the ORCA guys at Birdfair at the weekend. Possibly our daughter may do their ID course with a view to becoming a research volunteer in the future, to run alongside her (hopefully) future Marine Biology degree course.
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