Marine Wildlife- a Voyage of Discovery
Ruth is a Wildlife Officer for ORCA, a conservation charity, which aims to protect whales and dolphins, and educates, inspires and motivates others. We are very fortunate to have her on board with us, with her extensive knowledge of the marine life that inhabits the ocean on which we sail. She is monitoring the whales and dolphins that we encounter, along a scientific transect that starts and ends with the voyage. Ruth has educated and enthused us to join her in scanning the seas for the plumes of spray or unusual splashes that may indicate the presence of these marine mammals. She keeps a close eye on the ocean and, when the call goes out that a dolphin or whale has been sighted, she is, quick as a flash, on the deck with her camera and her GPS device, recording and monitoring the event. She is also a voyage crew, so she too keeps watch, helms the ship, changes the sails and undertakes mess duties.
Our first sighting was in Torbay where three harbour porpoises swam into view. This was later followed by common dolphins, whose appearance at the bow of the ship had us in raptures of pleasure and reached a peak as we approached Porto where there were hundreds in the waters all around. Altogether, in the Bay of Biscay and along the Portuguese coast, Ruth estimated that we saw over three hundred common dolphins, over sixty striped dolphins and over forty bottlenose dolphins. Ruth gave us
a talk to illustrate the differences, so that we learned to look carefully in order to identify them by their shape, colour and
behaviour. After leaving the Canaries, Ruth was pleased to identify the rough-toothed dolphin, (four of these), a new sighting for her, along with the more common Atlantic spotted dolphin, of which to date more than thirty have been sighted.
The edge of the continental shelf, where the water depth drops off from two hundred to over two thousand metres was a particularly rich area for sightings and we were delighted to identify the blows of several fin whales, with the vertical plumes of their blows clearly visible even at a great distance. Some of these came close enough for positive identification and we were thrilled to see them slip through the water close by the ship. Ruth taught us to identify them by their swept back fins and, by the time we had reached Gran Canaria there had been nine confirmed sightings.
A sad moment came when we spotted what turned out to be the carcass of a dead whale. Unsure of what we had seen, (it looked like the upturned bottom of a dinghy), we turned the ship, (we were motoring at that point) and went to have a look. There was no telling what had brought about the death of the whale but, with so much shipping around, from cruise liners to container ships, one could only imagine that one of these might have been the cause of the demise of this beautiful creature.
Further along the Spanish/Portuguese coastline, eagle eyes spotted a Sei Whale, smaller, with high arching back and she added that to the list of sightings. As we are now travelling towards the mid-Atlantic ridge we are hopeful of seeing more whales: perhaps a sperm whale, with its blow, low and bushy and angled to one side. How exciting it would be to see a Blue Whale, which can get up to thirty three metres in length and whose tongue is the same weight as an African elephant. We may also
see whales with names as diverse as Cuvier’s beaked whale, Sowerby’s beaked whale, or Trues beaked whale, which, as well as sperm whale, feed on deep-diving squid. Then there are pilot whales, melon-headed whales, humpback whales and indeed the well-known orcas. Did you know that orcas are not whales at all, but members of the blackfish family, and also dolphins?
As we watch the dolphins, Ruth points out how their shape varies from the slender, streamlined, striped dolphins to the squat bodies of the rough-toothed dolphins. As the individuals get older they have scars and markings such as mottled backs and white lips. One individual had notches out of its fins, which Ruth has studied from her photograph, and she thinks these were made by a Cookie Cutter Shark. As for sharks, we will be keeping an eye out for those too. Perhaps we will encounter them
in the Caribbean. Ruth has also identified seabirds: gannets, fulmars, kittiwakes, black-backed gulls, storm petrels and shearwaters and it is a pleasure to have her with us. The information she is gathering, all logged precisely as to time and position on her GPS will add to our knowledge of the marine life of the oceans. We consider ourselves privileged to share in her delight in the appearance of these amazing creatures and we are spellbound as the dolphins breach and fluke as they travel through the water. Call us anthropomorphic, but, like generations of sailors before us, we think they are interested in us too, as we hang over the rails of our sailing ship, whooping with pleasure as we watch them surface and dive, jostling for position as they swoop along, riding our bow wave.