I had been planning to go on a Biscay trip for several years after checking out trip reports and the Birdguides Website.
I booked the trip with my parents and Helen, leaving Portsmouth on Wednesday 15th August and returning on 18th August. These dates should provide reasonable numbers of cetaceans and seabirds without the rougher seas that may occur later in the year when seabird numbers may be higher. The trip was booked via the P & O website (www.poferries.com)which offers minicruises on the Pride of Bilbao Ferry at a reasonable price of £73 per person in August.
We checked the weather forecast before leaving and to our dismay the forecast for Wednesday was force 5-6 gusting to 7 with a fair smattering of rain. It was set to improve slightly for Friday and Saturday but the outlook was not brilliant.
After waiting in the Ferry Terminal with a hoard of other passengers we finally embarked at around 8 o clock in the evening. We found our bunk on Deck 5, which can only be described as cosy and dumped our baggage and headed off for a recky round the ship. We found Deck 11, which is the prime spot for wildlife watching before finding Olivos Restaurant for Panninis and coffee. This was followed by a drink in the “Posh Bar” and a look around the Cetacean information room next to the bar.
A couple of beers later and deciding we were going to be on deck for 4-30 in the morning, we headed for bed and a very poor nights sleep due to the juddering of the ships engines.
I roused myself on Thursday morning and headed up on deck to check out the weather. Due to a slight miscalculation on our part it was still pitch black outside. I wandered back down to the cabins to warn the others not to bother for at least another hour.
At around 5-30 we headed up to Deck 8 and found some comfortable seats to wait for the sun to come up. Eventually after chatting with a Welshman who was still drinking from the night before we headed up to Deck 11 at 6 o clock anticipating the day ahead.
It was dry on deck but the wind was blowing a gale. Deck 11 was closed to the public so we stood around Deck 10 towards the rear of the ship for an hour or so. There was very little out to sea except for the odd Herring, Common Gull and a few Gannets. This was to be the case for a good few hours until midway through the afternoon. On hindsight we should have had a few more hours in bed.
Half way through the afternoon we joined a group of Belgian birders on the starboard side of Deck 9. One of the Belgians was a brilliant sea watcher and was calling out birds at great distances from the boat. We managed to get onto a few Manx and Balearic Shearwaters but missed a Minke Whale that was called out.
The wind dropped during the afternoon so we headed back up to deck 11 with the Belgians and our newfound friend Cliff who had been on the trip 5 times previous.
The group “In The Company of Whales” were on the Monkey Deck above the Bridge, which gives a 360-degree view around the ship. This deck is not open to the public. Their leader was prepared to call out anything they spotted to us mere mortals down on Deck 11. We positioned ourselves on the port side of the ship.
In the late afternoon a fin was spotted along the Starboard side of the boat of which we had a very short glimpse. Apparently, it was a group of 8 Long Finned Pilot Whales. The views at this point were not very satisfactory.
We stuck to the Port side and watched the choppy sea with plenty of white horses at the surface. A few Shearwaters were noted as we headed into the northern part of the Bay of Biscay including Cory’s and Sooty Shearwater. Two Fulmars were noted on the water surface and on checking them out a small dark bird with a white rump could be seen fluttering around them over the surface of the sea. This was my only British Storm Petrel of the trip. The Belgian contingent managed many more petrels further out from the boat but these were too distant for identification and I didn’t bother looking for them. Up to this point the whales however, were few and far between.
Towards the evening the ships captain kindly headed out towards the continental shelf, which is the best area for Cetaceans. Clive Martin, the ships wildlife officer working for the Biscay Dolphin Research Program (BDRP) began to call out some sightings over the Tannoy system. The next Cetaceans to appear were a small pod of Striped Dolphins that came in to bow ride the ship. I managed to catch a glimpse of one as it leapt clear of the water on the starboard side near the bow. Several small pods of dolphins appeared from time to time but were extremely difficult to see. At one point a pair of Common Dolphins went under the boat and appeared just below the surface of the water close to where we were standing on the Port side.
As the sun dropped lower in the sky the first blows were called out. These were distant Fin Whales. We managed to spot some of the blows out towards the horizon but there was no way of seeing the actual animals at that distance as they surface very low to the water. As the sky darkened blows were called out much closer to the ship and we managed our first but unsatisfactory views of the second largest animal on the earth, the Fin Whale. As we were about to leave the deck a Fin Whale was called out directly ahead of the ship. Clive guessed it would surface along the starboard side. Everyone on deck charged to starboard and sure enough the whale surfaced right alongside the ship blowing as it did. The view was fantastic, the blowholes could be seen and smelly whale breath drifted over the deck. The sight of this enormous whale lifted our spirits at the end of a slightly disappointing day. Speaking to Clive later in the trip apparently the ship had come very close to hitting the whale.
Olivos bar was our next stop for more Panninis as all the other restaurants were closed. This was followed by a couple of beers in the “Posh Bar” and bed.
After a good sleep we all arose to the ships announcement that we were an hour from docking at Santurzi. We quickly gathered up all our gear and met Cliff on Deck 6 ready to disembark near the front of the queue so we could grab a taxi before the rest of the birders. We followed Cliff’s instructions and picked up a boarding pass on the way out and headed for the two taxis he had commandeered. We soon arrived at El Mazo picnic site near the top of the “Hill” above Santurzi to begin a 4½-hour Spanish bird watch.
The first birds in evidence were numerous Red Backed Shrikes. These were by far the commonest birds of the area. Stonechat, Tree pipit, Goldfinch and House Sparrow were also common.
Viewing from where the taxis had dropped us off, across a paddock area a pair of Hoopoes suddenly flew across and disappeared behind some trees. Several pairs of Serin were also seen in flight around this area and a couple of White Wagtails were feeding in the short grass in the paddock. We walked uphill from the drop off point and spied a gorgeous Wryneck sitting sunning itself in a bush quite close to the path. From the vantage point of the hillside a couple of Griffon Vultures could be seen over the adjacent mountains.
The hillside abounded with butterflies including Clouded Yellow, Common Blue, Adonis Blue, Red Underwing Skipper, Wall Brown, Meadow Brown, Hedge Brown, Marbled White, Small Heath and Grayling. Peacock, Red Admiral and Speckled Wood were also seen lower down the hill. The walk back down the hill produced a Black Redstart on a ruined building, Barn Swallow, House Martin and Swift. The sun was out and the heat was keeping the small birds well under cover and we didn’t manage to find either Melodious or Sardinian Warbler.
We strolled back through the town following Cliff who new the route to the terminal and after a cold beer we were back on the ship.
Back on Deck 11 scopes were brought out as we stood amongst the sun worshippers and a scanning session began. In the harbour were around 4 Sandwich Terns, several Herring Gulls and a few Yellow Legged Gulls.
Scanning the surrounding hillsides produced a few raptors including Black Kite, Kestrel, Honey Buzzard and Booted Eagle. As I was scoping a Booted Eagle in flight in front of the hills I noticed a bird with a vivid black and white wing pattern flying rapidly in the opposite direction. To my complete surprise I had picked up a male Little Bustard in flight across the hillside.
The ship was delayed leaving the harbour due to some numpty leaving a bag in the car hold. Well it could have been a bomb.
As we left passed the breakwater the wind picked up but the sea was like glass and the sun was beating down. This all boded well for the afternoons wildlife watching from the boat.
Soon after leaving the harbour someone picked out a couple of Great Skuas (Bonxies). On finding them in my binos I noticed a small raft of shearwaters sitting on the sea. As the ship drew closer I could make 2 species. There were around 7 Sooty Shearwaters and 5 Great Shearwaters. The numbers of shearwaters were not vast but we had several more sightings of Great and Sooty Shearwaters in flight and a single Balearic Shearwater. Along with a couple of Bonxies we picked up a juvenile Pomarine Skua and much later in the day a pair of Arctic Skuas were seen.
The ship passes over a deep marine canyon in the southern bay, which is an excellent area for the rare Cuviers Beaked Whale. After around 2 hours Clive Martin announced 2 or 3 Cuviers on the starboard side. We rushed from our port side position over to starboard but couldn’t pick the whales out as they passed by the ship. On previous trips only low numbers of these animals had been seen so I began to doubt whether we would see any more. These doubts were needless as shortly after a call of 5 Cuviers was announced. This time we all had excellent views of an old bull with possibly three cows and a calf. In total along the canyon we managed to see 22 Cuviers Beaked Whales giving a ship total of 25. This was an excellent record mainly due to the sea being so calm.
We continued to watch the sea intently and as we continued northwards several small pods of dolphins were spotted including Striped and Common. I was fortunate enough to receive an earpiece walkie-talkie from Clive on the way north and was able to listen in on all the cetaceans being called out by various observers on the boat. The Belgians were at it again calling out Bottlenose Dolphin at 5 km and several Sperm Whales even further out.
Whilst watching a small group of Dolphins on the port side I noticed a larger dark fin and back appear out of the water. I called in Pilot Whale. There was a pod of about 10 individuals. Around this time the first blows of large whales were being called in and all went mad for a time, as there were dolphins and whales in all directions.
As the whether became decidedly chillier my mum nipped to their cabin to fetch more clothing. Unfortunately for her, Sperm Whale directly in front of the ship was announced. We remained solid in our position on the port side to see a Sperm Whale blowing at the surface about 100 yards from the boat. After several blows the whale turned and looked up at us on the ship then threw its tail flukes into the air and dived below the surface. Sorry mum you missed that one.
As the sun started to sink towards the horizon we encountered the Spanish Tuna fleet. There were baitfish jumping out of the water followed by Tuna (Benito and Yellow Finned) and several small pods of dolphins. The blows from the Fin Whales was increasing in number and at certain times 20 to 30 blows may be seen at various distances around the ship. As the sun set a couple of Fin Whales appeared close in by the ship and surfaced several times before diving under the ship.
The close sightings and numbers of whales on the journey north certainly made up for the slow start on the first day travelling south. We headed for a celebratory two-course meal in the food court followed by a couple of pints in the “Posh Bar” before heading for bed.
The final day did not promise much as the far northern end of the bay and the English Channel are not noted for sightings of cetaceans at this time of year. However, we were up with the lark or rather the petrels at around 6.
Today was more for birds than cetaceans. We began picking up a few Fulmar and smaller shearwaters, Balearic and Manx plus a couple of Sooty Shearwaters and Bonxies. The good old Belgians had counted around 20 plus Storm Petrels at this point. I think their final total was over 70. I assume many were too far out to positively identify.
At some point my parents hit the lower decks in search of breakfast. I stayed up top with Helen and Cliff. After a short while a Little Tern appeared alongside the boat and as I watched it heading away from the boat with my binos I noticed a petrel flying closer in. I didn’t dare take my binos down for fear of losing it but eventually got Cliff onto the bird as it passed a gantry on the ship. As it banked and turned I managed to pick up the plumage details and identified the bird as Wilson’s Storm Petrel. The old folks weren’t too happy at missing that one when they arrived back on deck.
We headed up the channel into worsening weather and less and less birds. We didn’t even manage to see Harbour Porpoise let alone Minke Whale, which can be found in the channel. The final mammal of the trip was a Grey Seal, which popped its head out of the water as we were waiting to make the final turn into the Solent and dock at Portsmouth.
All in all, the trip was inexpensive, gave us some great views of several species of cetacean and I managed two life species of birds.
If you are planning a similar trip I would suggest taking warm clothing and waterproofs and some T shirts and shorts as the weather can vary from cold rain and blustery winds to scorching hot sunshine.
Do not expect to see all the birds and cetaceans that are called out on the trip because it is difficult to cover both sides of the ship and many are a long way out. However, I would fully recommend the experience.