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Blue Ocean Dreaming

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In my previous blog I discussed my fascination with albatrosses, but alongside that I also have a deep affinity for cetaceans, and I’ve spent the best part of the past two decades in pursuit of encounters with these aquatic mammals.

As someone with a tendency to gravitate toward rocky headlands on the extremities of this sceptred isle I have enjoyed numerous encounters, albeit mostly distant, with many a cetacean over the years. Despite my best efforts my species list remained remarkably small, just three species, consisting of Harbour Porpoise, Common Bottlenose Dolphin and Short-beaked Common Dolphin. Whales eluded me completely.

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Short-beaked common dolphin off Cornwall © Jeff Clarke

My luck began to change 16 years ago when I cruised up the ‘Inside Passage’ to Alaska from Vancouver aboard the MS Volendam. Anyone who has made that journey will know it is a stellar route for cetaceans and you would probably have to wear a blindfold to miss the carnival of Humpback Whales you encounter. Alongside those glorious cavorting humpies, I also enjoyed my first Orca sightings. I’m not a fan of their alternative name of Killer Whale, which is a corruption of Whale Killers anyway and is imbued with negative connotations. Yes, they are apex predators, but all cetaceans are predators of one sort or another, and even ‘Flipper’ has a penchant for killing Harbour Porpoises. I’ve been lucky enough to see Orcas many times since then and it never fails to thrill when you spy the big black and white dolphin king.

By the end of that trip, I had become utterly hooked on seeking out cetaceans and I’ve spent much of the intervening period in pursuit of them across the world’s oceans. There are currently ninety recognised species. Some I’ll never see, such as the Yangtze River Dolphin which is functionally extinct and the Vaquita (AKA Gulf of California Porpoise) which is perilously close to the same fate. In both cases human actions are the direct cause. I’m also unlikely to ever catch sight of many of the beaked whale species as some are only known to exist because of strandings and have never been encountered at sea. That still leaves something in the region of 70 species that I could possibly find and maybe even photograph and at the time of writing I’m more than half-way towards that goal. It’s not just a box-ticking exercise, it’s about understanding their habits, requirements, ecology and identifying features. The latter is not as easy as it may seem, after all you may only see a small part of an animal very briefly and often getting a good image can be essential to solve the puzzle of the animal’s identity. This was certainly the case with my one and only encounter with a Gray’s Beaked Whale – it surfaced three times in the Tasman Sea as I cruised between Australia and New Zealand in 2012 aboard the MS Oosterdam. My photographs clinched the identity as an adult male. I’m still one of a small number of people to have ever seen this whale alive at sea. A real privilege.

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Gray's beaked whale Tasman Sea 2012 © Jeff Clarke

Most of my big cetacean encounters back in the early 2000’s came courtesy of the ‘Pride of Bilbao’, a ‘super-ferry’ that used to ply between Portsmouth and Santurzi and therefore crossed the notorious Bay of Biscay. I enjoyed many amazing crossings, sometimes the ocean seemed thick with Fin Whales and you rarely failed to find a Cuvier’s Beaked Whale during calm seas. Of course, for every calm trip you usually got a real stomach-churner next time out. It was more endure than enjoy in those conditions. Whoever designed that ship was a real sadist, they put the restaurant right at the bow!

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Fin whale in Bay of Biscay from Pride of Bilbao © Jeff Clarke

Having had some astonishing cetacean encounters whilst aboard cruise ships, I decided to become a speaker on cruise liners as a way of getting around the world’s cetacean hotspots, so I could maximise my whale and dolphin opportunities, alongside the albatross encounters. I was fortunate to be taken on as a speaker by PR Cruise and later with Peel Talent as my agents. I am truly grateful for the opportunities they have afforded me for the past five years, and long may it continue, COVID-19 aside.

One thing that always strikes you when scanning the big blue for cetaceans is how massive the ocean is, particularly if you are on a long crossing of the Atlantic or Pacific. Even when you know you are in ‘favourable’ waters you realise just how lucky you must be to spot something and the more eyes scanning, the better the odds.

When I’m working the ships, I like nothing better than getting my first lecture scheduled early in the trip, so that I can prime the passengers as to the possibilities and from there build a posse of watchers as the days at sea progress. Seeing a whale, or dolphin pod, on you own is magical but there is something about the shared experience that transcends and enhances the experience.

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Jeff with his posse of dolphin watchers off Komodo Island aboard MS Boudicca © Jeff Clarke

One of the ethical questions I often get asked is about swimming with dolphins. Where do I stand? Well, I’m unequivocally opposed to keeping cetaceans in captivity. These are supremely intelligent animals with extra-ordinary cognitive skills, and they suffer terrible mental and physical stress in captivity. So, it follows that I do not support swimming with captive dolphins. However, its different in the wild. Around the world there are some outstanding ethical operators who provide the opportunity to swim with wild dolphins, but things should always be on the dolphin’s terms and strict codes of practice adhered to. I’ve had the good fortune to swim with wild dolphins a number of times and two localities in New Zealand stand out. One is at Akaroa, where Black Cat Cruises take you out to commune with the delightful and diminutive Hector’s Dolphin, a genuinely spellbinding experience. Further up the east coast of South Island you come to Kaikoura and the fabulous Dolphin Encounter take you out to experience the thrill of the playful Dusky Dolphins. At times here you can be in the midst of upward of 300 dolphins. Truly unforgettable. If you plan to try this, do your research and make sure the operators follow strict guidelines and put the dolphins first.

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Hector's dolphin off Akaroa 2012 © Jeff Clarke

Before I submit my requests for a cruise leg I always do my homework. The routes are more important than the land destinations, in most cases. I look at seabed profiles, species opportunities and distributions. I also try to find tour opportunities at the ports we are stopping at. By doing this I have been lucky enough to find some rarely observed species in some of the remotest and most spectacular places on the planet. From Commerson’s Dolphin in the Magellan Strait, Gervais’ Beaked Whale off the Canary Islands, Melon-headed Whales in the Lombok Strait and Fraser’s Dolphins off Komodo Island, to name but a few.

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Gervais' beaked whale off Lanzarote © Jeff Clarke

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Fraser's dolphin of Komodo Island © Jeff Clarke

From a British naturalist’s perspective, it sometimes seems that all the ‘best’ stuff is only to be found somewhere exotic, thousands of miles away, but the truth is quite different and waters around the UK are superb for cetaceans. The seas off Cornwall and the western approaches, also off Wales and Scotland; even parts of the North Sea as far down as the Norfolk coast can bring many possibilities.

If I were to advise anyone where to visit to guarantee a cetacean sighting in the UK, a number of places spring to mind. Land-based encounters are often at a distance, but a visit to Chanonry Point in Scotland brings Common Bottlenose Dolphins so close to land that you can get good pictures just with a smartphone. The west coast of Scotland has many great locations, the Isle of Mull and Gairloch, Wester Ross both offer boat tours to meet Minke Whales, and a sea watch from Tiumpan Head on the Isle of Lewis can furnish you with an assortment of cetaceans from Risso’s and White-beaked Dolphins to Humpback and Beaked Whales. My most exciting hour of cetacean watching in the UK came as I cruised on Fred. Olsen’s MS Black Watch off Tiumpan head. I’d been lucky enough to persuade the Navigational Bridge team to come within three miles of the head as it cruised north and we had six species in less than an hour including my first UK Fin Whale.

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White-beaked dolphin off Tiumpan Head, Lewis © Jeff Clarke

Further north, Shetland provides the best opportunity in the UK waters to observe Orca. I’d suggest watching from Sumburgh Head to witness Orca pods seeking out seals.

From my various cruise experiences, I soon discovered that watching for cetaceans in areas of ocean comprising endless abyssal plain, with depths of 4km or more, are a desert, sightings are rare, and it is probably better having regular breaks as you’re unlikely miss anything. Conversely, areas with complex seabed topography can be very rewarding, and you’ll probably regret taking that much-needed ‘comfort break’.

Crossing the Atlantic on an ocean liner has a certain romantic appeal, possibly linked to the tragic story of Titanic, but if cetaceans or seabirds are your thing I’d lower your expectations for most of the trip. The deeps are deadly dull as a rule, but as soon as you get near the mid-Atlantic Ridge things take off considerably. Sadly, all of my crossings so far have run out of light at the critical moment. I’d love it if one day a cruise company came up with a themed cruise of ‘running the ridge’ in the same way as they sometimes run the equatorial line. I’m sure there are fascinating encounters just waiting to be discovered.

Whale and dolphin encounters can be immensely uplifting experiences. Just look along a vessel’s safety rail as a pod of dolphins are porpoising towards the bow - everyone is smiling! Sometimes the experience is so intense it moves people to tears. I can remember cruising up the coast of Mexico towards San Diego and when one of the passengers alongside me spotted a distant blow. As we got closer the whale blew again, it was a huge columnar blow typical of a large rorqual whale. My instinct told me this was something a bit special. It blew again and I thought I spied a distant tail fluke as the whale sounded. I was now on red alert. Would we see it again before the ship passed it? A few minutes ticked by, surely we were close now? Suddenly ‘BOOM’ a massive blow erupted just ahead of the ship. The animal rolled and you could see a turquoise shape under the water. It then began to surface right next to the ship, it’s distinctly bluish mottled skin broke clear and a voice, that turned out to be mine, started shouting “It’s a Blue! It’s a Blue!” Jacquie, the passenger next to me, burst in to tears she was so thrilled. The animal seemingly rolled forever, until finally the tiny nub of a dorsal emerged, followed eventually by the tail fluke that lifted clear of the water in characteristic fashion. Jacquie started to apologise for crying, “don’t apologise Jacquie that’s ‘your’ Blue Whale, the biggest animal on the planet.” Definitely worth getting emotional about.

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Blue whale © Jeff Clarke

My emotion tends to come out slightly differently, usually punching the air, clapping vigorously and shouting exultations. The sense of well-being that nature can instil in you is truly life enhancing. Just writing these lines makes me yearn to get back out on the ocean and feel that sense of space and possibilities. If I was at risk of getting blasé about encountering the ocean leviathans then COVID-19 has re-focussed my desire more than ever. So if, in a few months from now, you spot a chap acting a bit giddy near the bow of a ship there is a strong possibility it will be me. I’ll be delighted to show you just what I’m getting so excited about.

I’d like to extend acknowledgements for the invaluable opportunities I’ve been given to commune with passengers on various cruise lines, that allows me to wax lyrical about cetaceans, seabirds and many other natural history related topics. Listed in no particular order. Fred. Olsen Cruise Lines, Saga Cruise, Cunard Cruises, Tradewind Voyages. As the dolphins said in ‘Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy’ “So long and thanks for all the fish”.

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