Life on the Edge 2016

5th Oct 2016

At sea you are often hostage to the weather and this years’ trip didn’t get the weather windows we would have liked but sadly we cannot control the weather.  Our return to Ireland was spent much of the time battling against northerlies and the weather could have been kinder.  However we did return in glorious sunshine into Bantry Bay and had some interesting sightings along the way.  We timed our departure from French waters to coincide with a forecasted high pressure that diminished as we approached it and spent a few days in the Bay of Biscay yielding fin whale sightings all the way up and into Irish waters.  In total of the 28 fin whale sightings we had 4 sightings with multiple animals feeding, two sightings with what we believe were with calves and 5 sightings of large animals that were either very large fin whales or blue whales.  Unfortunately these large animals invariably moved too fast for us to catch and were too far away to see properly. They all produced clear strong columnar blows typically from 9 to 15m high (the last blue/fin sighting had blows appearing level with the bridge deck of a container vessel as it passed astern of it).  However it is impossible to distinguish between blue or fin whales based on blow alone. In total 55 large baleen whales were seen and of these 9 were definitely feeding, and occasionally feeding at the surface where they were seen lunging on occasion. 

Fin whale in the Bay of Biscay

                                       Figure 1. Fin whale in the Bay of Biscay

This year was marked by the very late arrival of the tuna fleet into Irish waters and when they did arrive they stayed briefly and never went very far north.  It was allegedly related to water temperatures not rising as they normally would.  However, on the two occasions we did manage to get some calm weather with sunshine that facilitated a swim, the water was a very pleasant at 26oC approximately (estimate).  The water was considerably warmer than it is near the Irish coast and considerably warmer than off Ile de Sein on the Breton coast where wetsuits were necessary to stay any time in the water.  We didn’t see any turtles though occasionally saw shapes under the water that were probably turtles.  Turtles are not often seen on the surface except when the sea is very calm.  The waters around the Whittard canyon are warm and abundant with plankton that should in theory attract turtles and other animals, and there were a number of Sunfish sightings throughout the trip as well as albacore tuna in French waters.   

Swim locations

             Figure 2. Showing swim locations in red hexagons.

We took a swim in two locations, the first location on the outward journey was just in Irish waters at about 350m water depth at the top of the canyon systems.  The second was at greater then 4,000m water depth in the Bay of Biscay on the return journey.  Both were in remarkably warm and similar temperatures.  It would appear on the southern shelf and in the Bay of Biscay that there were few large baleen whales on the shelf in water depths of less than 200m, and indeed we didn’t encounter many whales in water depths of less than 1500m, until we reached the Southern Porcupine Seabight.  It appeared that most activity in the Whittard area was in deeper water in which we got very little time in over the nearly two weeks at sea, and it is this area that seems the most interesting. It is a difficult area to study being 200 nautical miles from land in Ireland and slightly more from the Breton coast.  As most depressions sweep north along the west coast of Ireland, weather down here is often better, but not always and when winds are against you 200 miles is a very long tack.  So due to northerly winds on our homeward journey we were forced to tack west into the Porcupine Seabight before taking a course to Bantry Bay.   

French waters provided sightings of plentiful fin whales, and also some bottlenose dolphins and striped dolphins, with perhaps the smallest calf at approximately 45 cm that I have ever seen less than 100km from the Irish EEZ.  So it is possible if not probable that striped dolphins are breeding in southern parts of the Irish EEZ.  September is a bountiful time of year off the Irish coast and consequently a good time for many animals to have offspring.  Though births are certainly not confined to this time of year, the numbers of calves seen was greater than any previous year or at any other time of year in my experience.  While common dolphins are indeed just that, common, the numbers of these graceful creatures and the numbers of calves at the shallow end of the canyon systems and on the shelf adjacent seems greater than elsewhere.  The common dolphin is Ireland’s most abundant dolphin species yet  the most ignored and least studied.

Common dolphin in glassy waters

                       Figure 3: Common dolphin watches us through glassy waters in France.


The bottlenose dolphins in the Bay of Biscay also had two calves still with foetal folds which by all interpretations makes them less than one year and possibly less than 6 weeks. However foetal folds disappear at different rates in different animals regardless of cetacean species so this alone is not a reliable determination of age.

Bottlenose dolphins cow and calf with foetal folds

                       Figure 4: Bottlenose dolphin cow and calf with faint foetal folds.

Bottlenose dolphins

                                     Figure 5: Cow and calf, bottlenose dolphin, Bay of Biscay. 

Of course the highlight of the trip was the pilot whales and calves on the outward journey which came right up to the vessel under sail and two cows guarded a young calf as it approached the vessel.  Another cow joining the mother to guard the open flank of the calf it seemed as it came on to our bow.

Long finned pilot whales cow and calf

                                         Figure 6. Long finned pilot whale cow and calf

There were many other noteworthy sightings with lots of Portugese men of war jellyfish, and at times huge amount of plankton, especially off the Whittard Canyon.  Huge numbers of great shearwaters were again typical of southern Irish waters where we saw them in 2013, especially in the south eastern porcupine seabight and Cory’s shearwaters became increasingly common as you head South.  The Cory’s becoming the predominant species in French waters such that you can tell the jurisdiction of the waters by the type of shearwaters present.

Great shearwaters

               Figure 7. A trio of great shearwaters in the South Eastern Porcupine Seabight

Corys Shearwater

                                  Figure 8. Cory’s shearwater off Jessy’s bow

The Cory’s shearwater breeds in the slightly warmer waters of the Canaries but the great shearwater is just wintering here before returning along the African coast to breed in the South Atlantic islands of  Tristan da Cunha and other less known islands of Gough, Nightingale and Inaccessible.  Each spring they return along the eastern American coasts completing an Atlantic circumnavigation to winter off the South West of Ireland in summer.

The Breton coast and in particular the Crozon peninsula provided an interesting break from time at sea with many iconic lighthouses and seascapes.  Arriving into foggy Camaret and departing Margot.

Phare ile de sene

Phare de Margot

        Grand phare de l'île de Sein

           Phare de Margot/Phare du Kador

                       Raz du Sein

                                         Le Raz de Sein and the phare de la Vieille

Ile de Sein

                                                                       Île de Sein

                                                      Figure 9. French lighthouses


Jessy in Camaret

                 Figure 10. Jessy in the port of Camaret with the Vauban Tower behind.

Jessy crew

Figure 11. Crew of Jessy (right to left) Fiona, Patrick, Sally, Niall, Eleanor, Patricia, Lucy just after arriving in Camaret .

And thanks to the crew who once again, who one and all made it an enjoyable experience. 


Sightings map


                                        Figure 12 . Sightings map 2016

Table 1: Sightings totals.

Sighting totals

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