Monday, 6 September 2010

Pride of Bilbao – from Wales for whales

Sunshine, cockles and chips on a bench behind HMS Warrior then a stroll round Victory. Ark Royal, namesake of the flagship that defeated the Spanish armada, moored nearby. Alongside was Dauntless, a strange mix of geometry and paint making the stealth ship invisible to radar. Then there she was, Pride of Bilbao, poking above the warships as she rounded the corner and edged in to dock.

Inside the terminal building we met up with the rest of our party, all of us linked some way to the Snowdonia Mammal Group. With ‘priority’ white boarding cards we were ill prepared for the departure lunge as hordes of colour blind plankton jammed the exit. On board was an odd mix of cheap mini cruise, posh car ferry and nature lovers toting tripods and Swarovski scopes.

Our guides from The Company of Whales briefed us in Cinema 1 with slides of what to see and where. If the whale has 2 blow holes it’s toothless, sieving food through ‘baleen’ plates. A forward blow to the left is the mark of a sperm whale or other whales with a wind over their right shoulder. Pilot whales are dolphins with a fin that look like a Smurf’s hat. Fin whales, the 2nd largest animal on the planet, are seen but their numbers have dropped dramatically over the last couple of years and no-one knows why.

Armed with the theory we climbed onto monkey island, the top deck on the roof of the bridge with spongey floor tiles, softening sound so as not to distract the captain and comfy to sit on. At 118 feet above the sea, that’s 10 double-deckers, our horizon was a huge 23 km. Water, water everywhere but ....

If we saw something we were to point to it as a percentage distance to the horizon - 50% would be 500m away and 90% 2 km away with the final 10% covering a massive 21 km. As for direction, straight ahead (of the ship, not you) was 12 o’clock, 90 degrees left was 9 o’clock and the other side 3 o’clock. Needless to say there was much confusion in our collective and excited minds when that first dolphin popped up.

Rounding the tip of Brittany we practiced our technique on gannets with a diving gannet being of particular note, it could be a signpost to ‘cetaceans’ (whales, dolphins & porpoise) chasing fish.  Pretty soon we were in to the common dolphins. ‘1 o’clock, 50%, right to left’ and there was a gang of 5 racing over and through the water straight into our bow. Their speed and our 20 knots made it a fleeting sight. Some bottlenose, then more common, some with calves swimming like a small shadow of their mums. By the end of the day we estimated 230 dolphins had swum past.

A blow was seen about 60% out and this was judged to be a large ‘rorqual’ – that’s a baleen (toothless) with throat grooves, maybe a fin whale? A few sightings of sunfish, great big dustbin lids that swim on their sides with one eye looking up and a thalidomide looking fin.

Our planned route should have taken us over the continental shelf, into the abyssal plain, with 4,000 metres of water beneath. On previous cruises this area, with its diverse underwater habitat, has produced some of the best sightings but alas our captain was sticking to the 130 metre depths of the shelf, presumably because of the wind.
A possible whale sighting had us all on our feet for what turned out to be even more rare, a leatherback turtle, just managing to paddle out of the way. Looking down from our great height big things seemed small but there was no mistaking this was a large creature, maybe the size of a small car. At one moment it was mainly covered in water and the next it was sliding down the side of a wave, with legs clear to see, and its head tilted up at us as if to say ‘watch where you’re going’. It looked so slow and lonely as it swam towards the west coast of France.

Beautiful sun setting into the Atlantic, a collective countdown with a cheer as it finally slipped below the horizon. Was there really a flash of green as the rays shone through the curve of ocean? Down the steps and back into the body of the ship, a strange reality after the windswept vigil of the day, then deep sleep dreaming of what might be below in the abyss.

Cloudless dawn as we cruised into the port of Bilbao, wind turbines to the right, transporter bridge ahead and to the left a fleet of solitary fishermen bobbing in their boats. A rugged backdrop of Basque mountains.

Our nature guides led us through the backstreets and soon we were on a narrow lane with hairpins climbing a fortified mountain with its strategic views over the bay. Two massive chimney towers, painted in red and white hoops, looked rocket like but I’m sure the hoops had been added to aid bird watchers .... ‘right hand chimney, bottom of 2nd red hoop, ladder on left hand side, peregrine falcon’. Butterflies in the foreground, griffin vultures in the distance and all sorts in between ... a pied flycatcher posing on a branch. Maybe this one was on its way south from Snowdonia?

Midday sun was beating down, the floor of the top deck felt hot enough for cooking. In a refuge of shade we ate our lunch before setting off on the return voyage. This first stretch is home to all sorts of cetaceans, including beaked whales, with depths plunging from the shallows over a range of underwater canyons. The calm waters of the harbour gave way to wind whipped waves and the bad news that the captain had declared it too rough for us to go up to the monkey island. Wherever we watched it was unlikely that we’d spot anything with so much spray. Even yesterday’s common dolphins deserted us, no longer drawn to the bow of the ship like a playground.

Overnight the wind and waves dropped giving OK conditions and by 07:30 we were in position with the ship above Brittany about 4 hours from the Channel Isles. Someone said ‘monkey island’ was where the powder monkeys were based but it more likely takes its name from the agile monkey like sailors that climbed the rigging from this vantage.

Within minutes the blow and fin from a suspected Minke was sighted dead ahead, but it dived, and was gone before most of us saw it. Then a few harbour porpoises, racing past, small and dark – less playful and not so curious as dolphins.

We stayed up top for another 6 hours, straining eyes, clutching at straws, entertained by gannets and rewarded by occasional shearwaters, skuas, terns, petrels and fulmars. First the Jurassic coast of Dorset then the white cliffed Isle of Wight was plain to see – busy shipping lanes and unlikely water for whales. Time to snooze before the long drive back to Snowdonia.

As for the rusting Pride of Bilbao it’s the end of the line. After 18 years and 2 or 3 million miles of cruising P&O is taking her out of service. Hopefully The Company of Whales will offer something similar on another ship and route.

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