Whales and birds in the Bay of Biscay
August 15th - 18th 2007
Authors: Chris Cameron and Julie Dawson
We discovered that P&O accept Tesco Clubcard points in payment for ferry crossings and mini cruises at the excellent rate of ?£ for every £1 of points, so we spent about £70 worth of points and secured ourselves a mini-cruise across the Bay of Biscay, from Portsmouth to Bilbao, with an inside cabin with en-suite facilities and about £70 each in vouchers to spend in the shipboard restaurants and bars.
We had heard that whale watching is encouraged on board and were pleased to find that there is a 'wildlife officer' who announces interesting cetacean sightings over the tannoy to people on outside decks.
The bulk of whale watching goes on from deck 11, the helicopter landing deck, and this is where the bird watchers also tend to congregate in reasonable weather. If it?s raining or very windy there are places on decks 8, 9 and 10 from where the wildlife can be viewed but most of these have the disadvantage of restricted viewing to either port or starboard.
The return trip takes three nights. The Wednesday sailing leaves Portsmouth at about 21:00 and arrives in Bilbao at about 08:00 on Friday, with the return sailing leaving at about 13:00 and getting back to Portsmouth late on Saturday afternoon. This means that you get a lot of daylight hours at sea. The trip south takes longer than the return journey mainly for reasons of comfort. Not many people want to arrive in Bilbao at 3 a.m.
Some useful (?) tips
We didn?t see any ATMs on board although there is an exchange desk and the shops (there are several) and restaurants all take cards.
We were less than impressed by the behaviour of some of the people on the top deck. During busy times (i.e. when lots of whale sightings were being reported) there is an element of selfishness about and people think nothing of running from one side of the deck to the other to get the best sightings and they often don?t seem to mind who they stand in front of. Oddly enough the same people who have charged headlong from port to starboard and pushed and shoved seem puzzled and annoyed when someone else is standing in 'their place' when they decide to come back. The return crossing, when there were rather less people, seemed rather more pleasant.
You can use a telescope on the Pride of Bilbao. It is a very stable vessel, at least under the conditions that we crossed under, that varied from a reasonable swell to flat calm. If you want to stay on deck 11 and use a scope it might be worth thinking about securing it to the guardrail, both to allow you to have free hands some of the time (we must have seen 20 tumbling tripod incidents) and to stake a claim to a particular spot.
Deck 11 is over 110 feet above sea level, so it?s rather like being on top of a ten-storey building. Stuff on the sea and in the air is quite a long way away. And it?s moving. CC completely failed to get on to the first few birds that he saw with the naked eye but after practising on a few gannets it got a little easier.
There's often not much to see and the species list is inevitably small so the following is based on chronological order, rather than any systematic list. Entries in square brackets  are sightings reported by other people that we didn't see ourselves. Gaps in the chronology are when we were having breakfast, coffee breaks etc.
06:30 - 07:20 - Northern Gannets, 5
07:50 - 08:20 - no birds
08:20 - 09:50 - Northern Gannets, 7, Cory?s Shearwater, 1, Fulmar, 1, Herring Gull, 1
10:15 - 10:40 - several Lesser Black-backs and several Northern Gannets
10:55 - Fulmar, 1
13:15 - 13:30 - Cory's Shearwater, 1
13:30 - 14:10 - Cory's Shearwaters, 2, Fulmar, 1, Northern Gannets, several
15:00 - 15:20 - Northern Gannets, c20
15:20 - Sabine's Gull, 1
16:10 - Northern Gannets, numerous, fulmars, several, Cory's Shearwaters, 2+ around fishing boat
16:45 - Great Skua, 1, Sooty Shearwater, 1 ? both close to the boat
16:45 - 17:15 [2 small pods of Common Dolphins]
17:15 - single Long-finned Pilot Whale, Great Skua
17:20 - 8 Common Dolphins
17:45 - [single Long-finned Pilot Whale]
18:25 - 18:55 - many 'blows' from large whales, mainly Fin Whales but at least one Sperm Whale
19:00 - Cory's Shearwater, 1
19:20 - Pomarine Skua close to the boat and level with upper decks
19:40 - Fin Whale within 200 metres of the boat
Gannet numbers were probably under recorded.
A quick walk into Santurzi turned up an Olivaceous Warbler in bushes at the back of a small park on the Bilbao road. Lots of the birders from the boat went up the hillside and did quite well with Griffon Vultures, Wryneck and Hoopoe but we opted for a small bar and some delicious coffee and pinxtos.
The return leg was a bit late starting because of some carelessly abandoned luggage on the car deck ?-a testament to how easy it is for some people to be stupid. The crew even announced the presence of this bag three times over the tannoy before somebody finally remembered it was them!
Whilst still in the harbour:
11:45 - Yellow-legged Gulls, Black-headed Gulls
12:20 - Griffon Vulture, 1, Mediterranean Gulls, 2
12:20 - [Little Bustard - must have been the bird of the trip for the bloke who spotted it in flight]
12:45 - Booted Eagle, 1
12:50 - Sandwich Terns, 2
On the open sea
13:30 - Great Skua
13:40 - Cory's Shearwaters, 5, Sooty Shearwater, 1
14:40 - 2 Cuvier's Beaked Whales, 2 Great Shearwater - a new bird and a new cetacean species for us in the space of a few minutes.
15:15 - 4 Cuvier's Beaked Whales - 1 bull and 3 cows
15:45 - 5/6 Long Finned Pilot whales, 2 Cuvier's Beaked Whales
15:55 - probable Cory's Shearwater (1st bird for well over an hour!)
16:20 - Fin Whale, 1
17:15 - Manx Shearwater, 1
17:20 - Sperm Whale logging (floating on the surface), less than 200 metres from the boat. We had slowed down to get a good look at this because it was so close and the whale dived, showing its fluke, as it drew level with the stern.
17:25 - Great Shearwaters, 2
17:35 - Northern Gannet, 1, 1st of the day
17:40 - 3 unidentified dolphins (distant)
17:45 - Cuvier's Beaked Whale, 1
18:00 - probable Cuvier's Beaked Whale (beaked whale sp.)
18:20 - Basking shark, 1
18:50 - Fin whales, 3+, dolphin sp. 5+
18:55 - Fin Whales, 3+ very close to the boat, small group of Long-finned Pilot Whales, Bonito Tuna
19:00 - 20:25 - almost constant sightings of Fin Whales from singles to groups of up to 6, whilst passing near a tuna fishing fleet - probably 50+ whales sighted, with the best views being just after sunset of a pair almost intercepting the boat?s direction of travel giving prolonged and very close views. They earned a spontaneous round of applause from the dozens of people who?s stayed on deck for the last of the daylight when they dived just before reaching the hull.
07:20 - 08:00 - Northern Gannets, c10, 'Commic' Terns, 2
09:50 - Fulmar, 1
09:55 - Great Skua, 1, Fulmar, 1, Northern Gannets - several
10:10 - Great Skua, 1
10:25 - Great Skua, 1
10:30 - 3 racing pigeons!
11:00 - Manx Shearwater
11:05 - 5/6 Lesser Black-backs (according to a crew member we were about 30 miles from France and 50 from England at this point)
11:05 - 12:30 - about 7 Northern Gannets and a juv. Lesser Black-back
12:40 - Balearic Shearwater, 1 (this must have been quite close to the UK), unidentified auk species
After this the weather closed in and low visibility plus rain meant that it was neither enjoyable nor productive to stand outside, so we did a bit of shopping and packed our bags.
We might have had more luck with the sea birds had we gone a few weeks later, but we were very pleased with what we saw. The Great Shearwaters were lifers for us and of the other shearwaters we'd only seen Manx this year. We were a little disappointed not to see any petrels. Just about every birder we spoke to saw at least a couple of European Storm Petrels and one group saw a Wilson's Petrel on the Saturday morning. The whales were fantastic and the captain announced on the Saturday morning that he?d seen more on the previous day than on any other crossing in the 13 years he's been working on the route. Dolphin numbers were very low, though, possibly due to a huge decline in anchovy numbers. There can be long periods when you don't see anything but sea so a lot of patience is required but the rewards might be well worth it. Would we do it again? Definitely.
One birder we spoke to made us laugh by saying 'I've come to the conclusion that there are three types of people on this boat; yobs, snobs and slobs and we're the slobs.' We'd take issue with being lumped into the last category, of course. We changed for dinner and ate in Langhams on the Thursday night where the food was superb and we washed it down with a bottle of champagne to toast the Sperm Whale. But we have to admit that he had a point. Some people were heading off from Bilbao for expensive holidays in Spain or the south of France and others just seemed to be there for the cheap cigarettes, the bingo and the night time entertainment. You see a few of the former and hardly any of the latter on Deck 11.
We heard one or two people complaining that the whales were too far away to see. Needless to say they didn't have binoculars and certainly not the patience to wait for two hours for a decent sighting. It's not quite the same as Marineland and the dolphins don't play with beach balls or leap through hoops. We saw a disappointing number of people throw stuff into the sea, probably with the excuse that it's biodegradable but we did laugh openly at the weasely little man in the tasteless shirt who casually flicked his cigarette end over the side only to see it blown straight back at him to hit him in the face. He probably didn't learn his lesson, but we enjoyed it.
The evening entertainment was worth sampling if you like that sort of thing. You might need to suspend your sense of irony for a while, of course. There are two cinemas, mostly showing family-type films, a casino and at least three restaurants. Langhams as already mentioned is pretty good and the bistro which is on a help yourself basis has a superb range of starters, although the main courses were a little lacklustre. You could have an excellent meal from the starters section alone though. Wine in both restaurants is reasonably priced. We didn't try the third (cheapest) restaurant but it seemed quite popular.