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Fred. Blog in Search of Cetaceans

On the 20th September I joined the Fred. Olsen MS Boudicca at Newcastle (accompanied by my wife Adele) as a Guest Speaker. The cruise tour would take us out to the Azores in the Mid Atlantic, followed by Madeira, then onward to the canaries and then back up to Newcastle via the Portuguese coastline.
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Boudicca in Newcastle

The prospect of so many sea-days; crossing some of the best cetacean waters on the planet, plus the chance of encountering migrating seabirds was too tempting to resist. As we proceeded out of Newcastle and down the North Sea the first of many  Northern Gannets ghosted alongside the ship, some being harried by Great Skuas but the first real highlight was an unidentified beaked whale that breached ahead of the ship in fading light; a tasty appetizer for the upcoming smorgasbord.

The following day was the anti-climax before the storm. The eastern half of the English Channel is usually pretty dull and it lived up to expectations but on the 22nd we crossed the Bay of Biscay, an altogether more appealing prospect, even though we entered it in a Force 8 gale. The rough seas largely curtailed cetacean watching but there was a fine mix of seabirds including a Pomarine Skua complete with spoons. A distant rorqual whale remained unidentified but towards the end of the day I was delighted when a blow close on the port side of the ship emanated from only my second confirmed Sei Whale.

My speaker lectures commenced on the 23rd and from here on I became a recognisable figure on board, not just the ‘weirdo’ staring out to sea with binoculars and camera at the front of the ship. I celebrated by enjoying Common Dolphins bow riding and marvelling at the globe spanning exploits of the 100+ Great Shearwaters that careened past the ship. Later in the day I began to spot the first of many ‘Band-rumped’ Petrels. Few came close enough to be definitive as to their identity but at least one I noted as a presumed Grant’s Storm-Petrel.


A Cory's Shearwater glides past Boudicca's Bow

The 24th was a pivotal day. It was our final full sea day before reaching the Azores and the sea was finally calm. Lots of ‘Band-rumped Petrels pattered across the wavelets alongside the lazy-winged Cory’s Shearwaters. For a time it appeared nothing much was going to happen but a scan half a mile ahead across the bow caused me to utter an involuntary shout of ‘ORCA!’ For a second I thought I’d hallucinated the thing I most wanted to find. Then they erupted exhaling at the surface in a cavalcade of tall arcing fins. The pod of at least 8 included a huge male with a typically massive 2m dorsal fin. They sounded and didn’t resurface until the ship had almost passed them by but nevertheless we had a lot of satisfied smiling faces at the open front of deck 7.


Orca Blowing after passing the ship

Not surprisingly we covered many more miles before any other cetaceans put in an appearance. 3 distant beaked whales remained unnamed before a pod of 10 ‘Pilot Whales’ hove into view. They were probably Short-finned Pilot Whales but Long-finned occasionally turn up in this area so we erred on the side of caution. The next mystery was the medium sized rorqual whale that skimmed the surface a little way ahead of the ship. It was either a Bryde’s or a Sei Whale but the key ID feature remained unobserved. Thankfully the breaching Minke Whale and the bow riding antics of the Common Dolphins left no doubt as to their identity. We also had our first of many Loggerhead Sea Turtles.

I the early morning light we approached the port of Praia da Vitória on the Azorean island of Terceira and I was on deck in time to see a female or immature male Sperm Whale dive just ahead of the ship.


The wader rich quarry of Cabo de Praia

Shortly afterward Adele and I disembarked and headed for the bird rich flooded quarry of Cabo de Praia. Cows were tethered on every roadside patch of green and even close to the town we could hear the liquid notes of Atlantic Canaries and the ‘Wet My Lips’ sound of calling Common Quails. If you like your birding sites to be scenic don’t visit this site but if you want to see birds in Terceira it is a must. The place was full of waders, mostly anticipated species such as Sanderling, Dunlin, Ringed and Kentish Plovers but there was a sprinkling of scarcer species, including Curlew Sandpiper and Ruff alongside a lost American ‘shorebird’ or two, including Semi-palmated Sandpiper. The overflying Glossy Ibis was also something of a surprise.


Semi-palmated Sandpiper at Cabo de Praia

Gossy Ibis at Cabo de Praia

After a wander through the town I prospected the harbour walls in search of terns. The threatening rainstorm caught up with me just as I got into position. After it subisided I emerged like a hermit crab from a shell and had incredibly close views of the terns, mostly Common but also with a few Roseate’s among their ranks.

On the 26th we docked early in Ponta Delgada on the island of Sao Miguel. Here I escorted a tour with Futurismo as we prospected for the local whales and dolphins. The sea was fairly lumpy but we still enjoyed the Short-beaked Common Dolphins and Risso’s Dolphins that graced us with their presence. A nice surprise bird-wise was the Barolo Shearwater we disturbed from the sea close to the boat. No chance of a photo though as the boat was being tossed about like a lettuce leaf in a salad washer.


Risso's Dolphins off Ponta Delgada

After a very quiet crossing of the Madeiran abyssal plain en-route to the said island we made landfall in Funchal on the morning of the 28th. Here I joined the ethical whale and dolphin watching organisation Rota Dos Cetáceos. Before long we were accompanied by Atlantic Spotted Dolphins and once the onboard  biologist was happy that they were settled I slipped into the water with my snorkel and they towed me along as the dolphins checked us out. The water was crystal clear and watching the dolphins effortlessly gliding through the water within a few feet was pure joy. We found several small pods, some escorted with an accompanying flotilla of Cory’s Shearwaters.


An Atlantic Spotted Dolphin blows on surfacing

Cory's Shearwater off Funchal

Lesser Emperor in Funchal

A walk into a park in Funchal added Monarch butterfly and Lesser Emperor dragonfly to our trip list but in short order we were back on the ship and headed for the Canaries. It was now that we finally added Bulwer’s Petrel to the already impressive seabird total and before sunset we added at least twenty more individuals as they twisted over the waves with their raking slender wings.

Sunrise near Tenerife

Up at first light to try and find a gem or two before we reached Santa Cruz de Tenerife. This proved a sensible move as in no time we had 4 Bryde’s Whales in succession close to the boat. At least 30 Short –finned Pilot Whales lolled around in the vicinity of a couple of oil rigs. Common Dolphins came in to ride the bow and a pod of Atlantic Spotted Dolphins porpoised by at the distance.


Punta del Hidalgo - Tenerife

Having previously visited Tenerife I decided to hire a car and head for a location I hadn’t previously visited. With limited time I headed for Ponta de Hidalgo via a route through some Laurel Forest. I was slightly surprised to find that Adele and I were wildlife watching in an area favoured by ‘naturists’. I had to be careful where I pointed my camera.  Thankfully I was diverted in turn by obliging Bethelot’s Pipit, Whimbrel and Atlantic Canary. It was very hot and soon photography became pretty hopeless as there was a significant heat haze even over a very short distance. As we made our way back to the ship we saw hundreds of Plain Swifts fizzing between the high rise buildings close to the port.

Bethelot's Pipit at Punta del Hidalgo

Atlantic Canary at Punta del Hidalgo

Whimbrel at Punta del Hidalgo

We docked in Lanzarote before sunrise. I had my sights set on one target today and it required another car hiring. West of Teguise we entered a low scrubby desert area criss-crossed by tracks and here after a time I found Hoopoes, Canary Grey Shrike, Spanish Sparrows, Lesser short-toed Larks and dozens of Bethelot’s Pipits. A movement in the corner of the eye gave me hope and sure enough Adele had soon refound the cause. There in full view at close proximity was the fabled Houbara Bustard. These islands host an endemic subspecies and I was a truly happy snapper as we carefully tracked this extraordinary bird.


Houbara Bustard on Lanzarote

I guess after that everything else was going to be a bit of an anti-climax though the wader delights of the Salinas del Jubio did their best to compete. A loose limbed falcon immediately grabbed my attention and I was slightly surprised and delighted to find myself watching a pale phase Eleanora’s Falcon. The last occasion Adele and I had watched this fabulous raptor had been over 26 years previously as we honeymooned in Majorca.


Dolphin Watching Heaven

We sailed from Lanzarote at 4.30pm and this gave us 3 hours of daylight to enjoy the flat calm conditions in search of cetaceans. Before too long the fireworks began. The birds did their best to compete with Madeiran and White-faced Storm-Petrel together with Long-tailed Skua, Barolo and Cory’s Shearwaters. But in truth it was a dolphin spectacular. A super-pod of over 1000 Atlantic spotted Dolphins decorated more than a mile of mirror-like seascape as they punctuated the surface with their dorsal fins. Eventually smaller pods headed for the bow and it was possible to track them underwater as they approached the ship and anticipate when and where they would leap clear. I had over 30 people with me on the Lido deck of the Boudicca with smiles a mile wide.


Atlantic Spotted Dolphins heading for Boudicca's bow


An Immature Atlantic Spotted Dolphin goes aerial


An adult Atlantic Spotted Dolphin leaps above the 'mirror-like' sea

We had several small groups of Beaked Whales. 3 were definitively identified as Cuvier’s Beaked Whales but what about the smaller ones? After a time a couple of pods of Striped Dolphins came to the party and I stood back and let the enthused folks just marvel at their antics. Bryde’s whales were also spotted and at least three were confirmed. As dusk approached individual tall fins seemed to be everywhere. All of those I was able to get a good view of turned out to be Risso’s Dolphins, at least 30 in total stretching over several miles with many more not identified to species. It was one of those days when you don’t want the sun to set but all too soon the light was gone.

Striped Dolphin at dusk

October the 1st and we are at sea heading for Lisbon. Could today be just as good? The calm waters of the Atlantic heralded much promise. Birds were remarkably thin on the ground but the cetaceans were making up for it. The dolphins were scarce in these deep waters with just 20 Atlantic Spotted positively identified out of 70+ dolphin observed but the beaked whales would make up for it. Small groups popped up all day, mostly at a distance preventing certain ID but at least 5 Cuvier’s were noted and eventually I secured images of some of the smaller species that proved that most of them were Blainville’s Beaked Whale and latterly I also re-identified one of my images as a Gervais Beaked Whale, from the diagnostic tiger-striping extending down its side from the spinal region. They became my fourth new cetacean species of the trip. A single Fin Whale added another rorqual whale to our already impressive list. The day was also remarkable for another species. Loggerhead Turtles were appearing continuously and we passed at least 20 within a few feet of the ship. So close I was able to get some half-decent images of them, both above and below the water.

Gervais Beaked Whale en-route to Lisbon

Loggerhead Turtle underwater passing Boudicca's bow

We arrived in the the lovely City of Lisbon early on the 2nd October, but outside a trip to the Gulbenkian Museum my mind was really focussed on the seabird and cetacean potential as we departed later that day. With less than an hour of useable light we did well to see over 100 Cory’s Shearwater, 5+ Balearic and our first Sooty Shearwater of the trip. The wind had blown up just before we departed and the choppy water prevented us from finding the resident pod of Bottlenose Dolphin. Not to worry surely we would find them as we moved toward Biscay.

The 3rd of October began with an explosive exhalation. I was just suggesting we might find a Fin whale when the mighty beast itself blew right next to our starboard bow. This 60 foot leviathan had surfaced to check us out. If only I’d actually had my camera in my hand at the time. Never mind the memory lives long. It would be yet another cetacean spectacular but in truth two bird related encounters really marked out the day.

Firstly Great Shearwaters; they were everywhere and it is a conservative estimate of 2000 birds that we enjoyed from Boudicca’s bow that day. At times it was like parting the shearwater sea. Secondly came the Grey Phalarope’s; I’m used to spotting individuals and small flocks on the sea in the autumn but the flock of over 100 was a complete surprise and it was quickly followed by another flock comprising a further 50+ birds.


Great Shearwaters massing in the southern Bay of Biscay

Risso’s, Striped and Short-beaked Common Dolphin all duly appeared as we crossed southern Biscay. Then loafing in the water ahead of the bow we saw the distinctive black shapes of Pilot Whales; based on our latitude it is safe to suggest that these were Long-finned Pilot Whales; our final cetacean species addition to the trip.

Short-beaked Common Dolphin comes to the bow

This day we also had a number of distinctive rorqual blows but the whales could not be positively identified to species due to the distance. The sideways blow toward the end of the day was however completely definitive and resolved into only our second Sperm Whale of the trip.

The following day we awoke to a force 7 and put paid to our hopes of finding a Harbour Porpoise as we processed along the channel. The remainder of the trip to Newcastle was largely uneventful enlived in part by the periodic arrival of landbirds aboard the ship. This included Greenfinch, Meadow Pipits, Song Thrushes, Redwings and Blackcaps. Most stayed for a few minutes before heading out into the murk, bound for the UK.


A Blackcap takes a break on a Boudicca sun-lounger

All in all it was a superb wildlife trip even if Fred. Olsen hadn’t specifically advertised it as such and a conservative estimate of the cetacean total puts it at a minimum of 2,250 individual animals and this covered some 15 different species. My next speaker cruise trip will have to go some to match this.

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