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Bay of Biscay

Viewing from height – Bay of Biscay (Spain) and the English Channel
June 2009


Setting off from Portsmouth of the UK, the first thing one has to overcome is to climb up the stairs of 2-3 storeys with your luggage of some 20 kg (So, bring as few things as you can!). Then, you’ll need some physical strength in your legs to climb a further 7 storeys, as the spotting platform called Monkey Island is situated on the 12th floor of the ship, which is one storey above the captain’s bridge. Standing high up at 37m above sea level, it is quite difficult for me to see whales or dolphins, especially that I’ve got poor eyesight. It is always the researchers or others in the tour who spotted whales or dolphins out from the sea.

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As the ship is actually a ferry, it has to follow its route and cannot slow down when whales or dolphins appear. The whales or dolphins, therefore, will only appear for a few seconds and one has to be really quick to see them. Yet, this is a very special whale watching experience. I seldom have the chance to stand that high up above sea level and see pods and pods of friendly dolphins coming over from different directions for a bow ride. It is also like magic that one comes across different species in the vast ocean.
The Bay of Biscay is really nice in terms of whale watching. Different species can be found in different seasons. It is the dolphin season from June to July. In August, the dolphins will move further north and will be ‘replaced’ by the world’s second largest fin whale.
We started our observation on the second day and managed to see 7 species in a day. Although each encounter was really brief and I may not have the chance to take good photos, it was an eye-opening experience. The species we encountered include: Harbour Porpoise, Bottlenose Dolphin, Minke Whale, Orca, Pilot Whale, Common Dolphin and Striped Dolphin.
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beakedwhale We had an amazing experience on the third day. We saw the rare beaked whale mother and calf though we could not identify them.
And we had 36 dolphin encounters, most of which are common dolphins, with striped dolphins mixed in some of the pods.
harbourporpoise On the fourth day, we went to the Monkey Island early in the morning for observation. By that time, we started to get back to the shallower English Channel. The sea was calm like mirror and this gave us better chances to see the harbour porpoises. We met them for quite a few times.

The last species to show up was the bottlenose dolphins. They were as acrobatic as they used to be and rounded off our trip with fantastic memories. This is the distribution map of whales and dolphins for this trip from Company of Whales:
The occurrence of a high diversity of cetaceans in the Bay of Biscay was due to the fact that it is as deep as 3300m. With nutrients being brought up by ocean upwelling, it provides an abundance of food for cetaceans of different habitats.
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Transportation: You can take the National Express from Victoria of London to Portsmouth. When you buy the tickets, do remember to tell them you need to get off at Portsmouth Continental Ferry Terminal.