Whale watching – Bay of Biscay

ORCA and Brittany Ferries run a 3 day mini cruise I-spy whale watching trip from Portsmouth to Santander, then back to Plymouth. Guided by experts who help spot and identify marine mammals, it is a great way to get involved with citizen science.

ORCA are gathering information on whales and dolphins with the aim to protect them from threats such as shipping, fishing, marine litter and noise pollution.

Going on one of their trips was a great way to learn more about marine wildlife, get a chance to see some of these magnificent animals, as well as taking part in collecting data that will help protect whales and dolphins.

Day one – Once onboard the MV Pont-Aven and the ship had left port, we were given a safety talk and shown where we would be whale watching from.

An hour long talk later in the evening gave us lots of information about the topography of the Bay of Biscay, the shallow continental shelf and the deep canyon that reaches 4700m deep that we would be crossing.

We heard where each different species was likely to be seen and why. We learnt a few facts about recognising each species, how to tell them apart from size and shape of water spouts, position of fins on their bodies and their behaviour.


We watched slides on what signs to look out for, such as water spouts, flukeprints, disturbance in the water, splashes and fins.

I was now really looking forward to a couple of days of whale watching.

Day two – This was the main day, the guides were up on deck at 6am and before I had finished breakfast and arrived up on deck 10, three orca’s had already been sighted.

Up on the whale watching deck, around 50 of us took up our positions around the rails. As soon as one person called a possible sighting, everyone rushed to that side of the ship to get a good view. The guides were always on hand to identify and talk about the species in more detail.

Fin whales were the main highlight of the day. From 30m above the water and with the ship travelling around 26 knots it was quite hard to take photographs and it was difficult to decide whether to concentrate on taking photos or enjoy the moment of actually whale watching.


Fin whales are the second largest living mammal. They are up to 80 feet long and weigh around 80 tons. Their dorsal fin is two thirds of the way along their back. They can dive to 200m. Watching them throughout the day we learnt that they blow about 2 to 5 times with a 20 second gap between each blow then they dive for around 15 minutes, but by that time the ship had travelled away so we never saw them resurface.

Fin whales occasionally breach, they can twist in mid air, landing on their back or one side, we were very lucky to witness this.


Breaching fin whale



3 Fin whale water spouts


Yellow fin tuna

Other wildlife spotted during the day were Cuvier beaked whales, sunfish, yellow fin tuna, striped dolphin, common dolphin and various dolphins and whales that couldn’t be positively identified.

Day 3 – Day 3 was the journey back from Santander. After seeing plenty of whales and dolphins during the previous day, we had left port over night being followed by rough weather. A lot of the passengers were feeling or being sick and the wind made it hard to stand up on the whale watching deck.

For those who managed to do some whale watching it was mostly dolphins and sea birds.



Pied flycatcher resting on the ship for a few minutes

Overall it was a great trip – here are the lists of marine wildlife that was spotted during the mini cruise.



About Alex White - Appletonwild

This is my diary of the wildlife where I live in Oxfordshire, and sometimes the places I visit. My passion is for British wildlife, especially Badgers and Hares. This year my debut book "Get Your Boots On" was published I am a keen amateur photographer. All the photographs on this blog are taken by myself unless stated otherwise. I am a member of A Focus on Nature, the network for Young Nature Conservationists, BBOWT, The Oxon Mammal group and The Oxfordshire Badger Group. You can also follow me on Twitter @Appletonwild Instagram appletonwild
This entry was posted in Citizen science, nature, Uncategorized, Whale watching, Wildlife, Wildlife photography and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Whale watching – Bay of Biscay

  1. Pingback: Review of 2016 | Appleton Wildlife Diary by Alex White

  2. Alex Gibson says:

    Thanks for sharing this – I did not know such trips existed, or about the trench which makes sightings more likely on this route. I’d echo New Moons for Old on the photography front – and sometimes you are so caught up in the moment it can be over before you’ve pressed the shutter release. Well done though!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. New Moons For Old says:

    What a fantastic voyage! I had no idea fin whales were so large – asked to guess the second largest, I would probably have gone for the humpback, or perhaps sperm whale. I can completely understand the dilemma of whether to photograph or simply watch – what a difficult decision, swept up in the magic of the moment!

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.