August 26th - 30th 2004
Authors: Chris Cameron and Julie Dawson
We met Pierre Serra in Costa Rica in 2003 and he told us about his organisation, BDSF (Baleines et Dauphins Sans Frontieres) that takes tourists out into the French Mediterranean to see the whales and dolphins there. We were due to take Alex and James on holiday so thought that this might be something they would remember for a long time. We chose a three-night trip with BDSF and were also able to spend a few nights in other parts of the area. Although this was not a birding holiday we were visiting areas were an abundance of wildlife can be found, so we decided to keep some notes.
We flew to Marseille from Coventry with Thomsonfly. Good, inexpensive flights that departed on time and arrived a little early. We arrived after dark and picked up a hire car and then drove to Martigues to stay for the first night.
The following day we drove via Les Baux de Provence to Les Saintes Maries de la Mere, where we spent the night. In the morning we visited the Parc Ornithologique in the Camargue and took a detour to the Pont de Gard on the way to Bandol, where we met Pierre and joined the BDSF boat, 'Mill Reef'.
The next three nights were spent on board, either in Bandol or anchored off the Les Isles de Porquerolles, and we spent the final night in a Marseille hotel before catching our evening flight back to England.
Some useful tips
If after reading this, you think that you might like to take a trip with BDSF, then try to reduce your luggage to the absolute minimum. You will need very little on the boat - some swimming costumes, a few shorts and t-shirts, a hat and something warmer for the evening. Not much else, really, apart from toiletries and high-factor sun-cream.
A decent camera with a telephoto lens is very useful, both on the Camargue and especially on the boat. James took his 3.2 mega pixel digital camera and got some good results, but Julie's Canon EOS with 300mm lens provided a few really good shots. Excellent light and fast films helped.
Life on board
If you aren't prepared to accept anything less than 4-star luxury, then a trip with BDSF is probably not for you. However if you enjoy camping and aren't too worried about roughing it a little, then you will have no problems. The boat sleeps up to 8 people, in four separate areas. The sleeping places are fairly cramped, because space is at a premium at sea, but there are mattresses for comfort. You are encouraged to bring sleeping bags with you. Sleeping out on the deck is probably an option some of the time.
There is a hand-pumped toilet, but no shower. Fresh water is of course limited to what can be carried, so you are encouraged not to waste it. One of the cabins has a sink, as does the galley. The best way to get clean is to use the shower pipe at the rear of the boat when you get out of the sea.
All food and drink is included in the price. It tends to be simple pasta based meals which are ideal after a long day at sea. Alcohol is not provided and there are pretty obvious reasons for not drinking too much, but I'm sure that should you wish to bring a couple of bottles of wines on board you will not be discouraged - as long as you're prepared to share.
When it is safe, there are opportunities to swim. All of us went in the water several times, with James never missing an opportunity. If the boat is moving, there is a dragline and buoy to hold on to. The sea in late August should have been near to its highest temperature but the strong winds before we arrived had whipped it up somewhat and so the surface had cooled down. Nevertheless it was still pleasant to swim in and a prolonged swim was possible, even very late in the day.
As mentioned above, there is very limited space on board, so try to reduce what you take to the bare minimum. We had more than we needed, because we had brought scopes etc. and clothes for a week. A lightweight waterproof would have been useful on the final day, when the wind rose, because splashes from the larger waves are inevitable. We were seldom uncomfortable though, because even when the wind and waves were at their peak, the sun shone continually and dried clothes and skin quickly.
Would we recommend it? Yes, without hesitation to anyone with a reasonable level of fitness. Young children might get a little bored at the occasional long periods of sailing without much happening, other than the enjoyment of the sea and the sun, but older kids and those who really are keen on wildlife should find it very rewarding. Needless to say, it helps to be a confident swimmer. Mill Reef is a small boat and as a consequence moves about a lot in response to waves, breezes etc. There is safety equipment on board, of course, but you would not want to spend the whole time aboard worrying about youngsters drowning if they fell overboard. Pierre and the team are charming and knowledgeable and speak much better English than we speak French. There are other ways to get to see whales and dolphins, but BDSF are a non-profit making organisation who report all their sightings to local universities and scientific bodies and who put the welfare of the wildlife first. They are easily accessible from much of northern and western Europe, and represent pretty good value for money.
We had spent the night at the unexciting but clean and reasonably priced Bonsai Hotel Marseille in Martigues, about a twenty minute drive from the airport. Martigues is set on a large lake, the Etang de Berre and whilst not being particularly dramatic has a pleasant enough harbour area and is worth a morning visit. We then drove inland to the beautiful village of Les Baux de Provence with its impressive ruined fortress atop a rocky outcrop. We spent a few hours here and then drove down to Les Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer, on the Camargue coast, where we had booked into a small hotel. Les-Saintes-Maries is a very pleasant albeit somewhat touristy village which is on the edge of some good birdwatching areas. Probably worth a couple of days stay. In the evening we took a drive inland to the lakes and reed beds along the minor D779 road. This area is very flat and there were few places to get good views of the wetland areas, but a few interesting species were noted.
After breakfast and finding some baguettes and drinks for lunch, we set off for Bandol, taking a detour to see the lovely Roman aqueduct at Pont du Gard. Out first stop, though was the Parc Onithologique a few kilometres outside Les Saintes-Maries. As well as a collection of interesting and hopefully rescued birds found in the area (close-ups of Stone Curlews were interesting but the larger raptors were a rather sorry sight) there are plenty of wild birds about and we have never been closer to Greater Flamingos, which occur here in hundreds. In addition to the birds there are lots of Coypus to be seen.
We spent the night on the BDSF yacht, 'Mill Reef' and set off for the open sea after breakfast. Although there were few birds around, almost all that we saw was interesting. The first bird we saw after leaving the coastal gulls behind was a Puffin. We saw 4 over the next two days and Pierre said this was unusual. A few days previous to this we had had strong winds around the UK, the last gasps of one of the big hurricanes that had caused havoc in the Caribbean and we assumed that these birds must have been caught up in them. After this we began to see occasional Cory's Shearwaters and smaller numbers of Balearic Shearwaters, but pride of place has to go to the marine life. The first interesting sighting was of a Sunfish (in French Poisson Lune), apparently sunbathing on its side on the surface of the water and this was followed shortly after by a Stingray. More exciting were the groups of Striped Dolphins that approached the boat, often coming close enough to splash us when they jumped out of the water. JD and CC have been lucky enough to see perhaps 10 cetacean species between them, but we would say that these small dolphins with their striking curved 'flames' on their flanks are the prettiest so far. We got into the water to swim with one group that stayed around the boat for a while, but they kept their distance from people. However the water is so clear that it was easy, with the aid of a swimming mask, to see them swimming 50 feet or more beneath our feet.
We had anchored for the night off the Isles de Hyeres, south east of Toulon. CC was first up and noted an Osprey on an early morning patrol of the island's coast. Pierre felt that this was an unusual sighting for the area, presumably a returning passage bird from further north.
We headed out to sea on a day similar to the first, with clear blue skies, very little wind and calm seas and soon came across more groups of Striped Dolphins. In total, over the two days we estimated about 400-450 dolphins, although at least one of the groups was encountered twice. The BDSF get to recognise certain individuals that they encounter repeatedly. More Sunfish and Stingrays were seen and Yellowfin Tuna and flying fish added to the interest, but it was around midday when we spotted a plume of spray in the distance and steered towards it. We soon got close enough to confirm that we had found two Fin Whales, representatives of the second largest species of mammals, after Blue Whales, on the planet. They were truly impressive, swimming slowly along, close to the surface, breaking water every minute or so to breathe. During the course of the day we saw four Fin Whales, including one swimming in absolutely calm water, where we were able to see the whale's 'footprint' - a circular patch of water churned up by the movement of the animal's tail below the surface.
In the afternoon, when we were a long way out to sea, we had what was perhaps the most interesting bird sighting of the week. A small passerine flying northward (i.e. towards the European mainland, from who knows where - Corsica, Africa) came across the waves and over the boat, between the sail and the deck. Sadly it declined to stop for a rest and continued north, low over the sea. From our brief view, the bird had the appearance of a long-tailed ?sylvia? type warbler - something like Dartford or Marmora's Warbler - but we'll never know.
Having spent the night anchored in another bay on the Isles de Hyeres (where we failed to get any of the resident Scops' Owls to return our calls) another early start saw us heading out to sea shortly after first light. We could hear Sardinian Warblers calling from the scrub on the island and saw a large raptor silhouetted against the sky, perched on a rock. When it took off we were able to identify it as Honey Buzzard. Although the morning was fine and calm, Pierre told us that there were Force 9 winds forecast for the area he had intended to head for, so we had a change of plan and decided to look for Sperm Whales at a site closer to the coast. We saw a Fin Whale quite early in the day but the wind quickly increased and we spent much of the rest of the day engaged in long tacks over quite rough seas, to get us back to Bandol.
We arrived back in the port in the early evening and could have spent another night on board at no extra charge, but we had decided to have a look at Marseille. Pierre very kindly drove us up to the railway station from where we caught a train to the city. We arrived in Marseille shortly after dark and got a couple of rooms in one of the hotels at the bottom of the impressive station steps. Definitely not glamorous, but again clean enough and reasonably priced. The area around the station is, as is often the case, a little seedy but we didn't feel threatened in any way, even when walking back to the hotel after midnight.
Our flight back to England was in the evening, so we had a full day around Marseille, a colourful and perhaps under-rated city. There are lots of good places to eat and shop but we didn't see much in the way of birds.
In the following list, the birds English and scientific names are used. The details in brackets indicate the order in which the birds were seen, where possible the number of days on which it was recorded. Thus, Cory's Shearwater - Calonectris diomedea (41,3) was the 41st bird seen and was seen on three days.
CORY'S SHEARWATER - Calonectris diomedea (41,3) - the most frequently seen bird whilst out at sea, although only ever in ones and twos.
BALEARIC SHEARWATER - Puffinus mauretanicus (42,3) - less numerous than Cory's, but seen frequently throughout the three days at sea. The only bird species seen on the trip that was new to CC and JD.
CATTLE EGRET - Bubulcus ibis (14,2) - fairly common in wetland areas.
GREAT WHITE EGRET - Egretta alba (20,1) - one only, on the large pool to the west of the D779.
GREY HERON - Ardea cinerea (21,2) - common in wetland areas.
LITTLE EGRET - Egretta garzetta (12,2) - common in the Camargue.
WHITE STORK - Ciconia ciconia (34,1) - several noted around the Parc Ornithologique.
GREATER FLAMINGO Phoenicopterus ruber (13,2) - very numerous around Les-Saintes-Maries, where feeding flocks can easily be seen from the road.
MUTE SWAN - Cygnus olor - (6,1) - present on the Etang de Berre, Martigues and perhaps at other wetland sites.
MALLARD - Anas platyrhynchos (23,2) - common in wetland areas.
GADWALL - Anas strepera (36,1) - several noted around the Parc Ornithologique.
TEAL - Anas crecca (35,1) - several noted around the Parc Ornithologique.
OSPREY - Pandion haliaetus (44,1) - a single bird, early morning over Isles de Hyeres.
SPARROWHAWK - Accipter nisus (31,1) - one seen at the Parc Ornithologique.
COMMON BUZZARD - Buteo buteo (15,2) - a couple seen in the Camargue around Les-Saintes-Maries.
HONEY BUZZARD - Pernis apivorus (46,1) - one seen on the final morning, Isles de Hyeres, was presumably on passage.
KESTREL - Falco tinnunculus (16,1) - a few on the Camargue.
MOORHEN - Gallinula chloropus (23,2) - fairly common in any suitable habitat.
COOT - Fulica atra (24,2) - as for Moorhen.
BLACK-WINGED STILT - Himantopus himantopus (22,2) - seen on wetlands from D779 and at the Parc Ornithologique.
REDSHANK - Tringa totanus (19,1) - present on the Camargue.
COMMON SANDPIPER - Actitis hypoleucos (33,1) - several at the Parc Ornithologique.
BLACK-HEADED GULL - Larus ridibundus (43,2) - Isles de Hyeres.
MEDITERRANEAN GULL - Larus melanocephalus (40,2) - seen more frequently than Black-headed Gull. Present in Martigues and around the Camargue.
YELLOW-LEGGED GULL - Larus cachinnans (1,6) - as in Thassos and Northern Greece, much the commonest gull.
LITTLE TERN - Sterna albifrons (37,1) - seen at the Parc Ornithologique, where they presumably breed.
SANDWICH TERN - Sterna sandvicencis (5,1) - quite common over the lake at Martigues.
PUFFIN - Fratercula arctica (40,2) - two seen on each of the first two days at sea.
COLLARED DOVE - Streptopelia decaocto (31,2) - surprisingly few recorded, the first being at the Parc Ornithologique.
COMMON SWIFT - Apus apus (27,4) - still plenty about in the Camargue and also present in Marseille. More interestingly several flocks were seen out at sea, heading south.
KINGFISHER - Alcedo atthis (38,1) - a couple observed at the Parc Ornithologique.
CRAG MARTIN - Ptyonoprogne rupestris (9,1) - fairly common on the crags below the castle at Les Baux de Provence. Easily observed from within the castle grounds.
HOUSE MARTIN - Delichon urbica (10,1) - several with Crag Martins as above. Not recorded on other days, but may have been overlooked.
BARN SWALLOW - Hirundo rustica (7,4) - common and widespread.
WHITE WAGTAIL - Motacilla alba (??) - overlooked in records. Definitely seen around Martigues and it's hard to imagine that wagtails were not present at the Parc Ornithologique.
NIGHTINGALE - Luscinia megarhynchos (8,1) - a couple singing on the steep wooded slope below Les Baux de Provence, where there is roadside car parking.
BLACK REDSTART - Phoenicurus ochruros (11,1) - a few seen in similar areas to the Crag Martins.
BLACKBIRD - Turdus merula () - presumably overlooked, because not recorded at all. Hard to believe that we did not see any Blackbirds in a week, even with a few days at sea!
FAN-TAILED WARBLER - Cisticola juncidis (29,1) - quite common at the Parc Ornithologique.
CETTI'S WARBLER - Cettia cetti (30,1) - as per Fan-tailed Warbler.
SARDINIAN WARBLER - Sylvia melanocephala (45,1) - several singing on Les Isles de Hyeres.
LONG-TAILED TIT - Aegithalos caudatus (39,1) - a flock in trees by the Europcar office in Bandol.
MAGPIE - Pica pica (17,2) - fairly common.
JACKDAW - Corvus monedula (18,3) - seen on the Camargue and other mainland areas and on Les Isles de Hyeres.
STARLING - Sturnus vulgaris (43,2) - seen on the Camargue
HOUSE SPARROW - Passer domesticus (3,4) - very common.
GOLDFINCH - Carduelis carduelis (2,1) - only noted around Martigues.
GREENFINCH - Carduelis chloris (46,1) - seen on the Camargue- Les Baux de Provence- 4
Flying fish - 20+
Yellowfin Tuna - lots - Parc Ornithologique de Camargue
Striped Dolphin - c400 - 450
Fin Whale - 5 Provence Photos
Stingray - 2
Red Squirrel - Martigues
House Mouse - Bandol harbour
46 definite records plus White Wagtail and Blackbird is not a huge total for an area like this, even in late August when few birds were singing, but birdwatching was very much a secondary consideration and we spent a lot of time either at sea or sight-seeing.
We would recommend a trip with BDSF to anybody wanting to see whales and dolphins and prepared to cope with on-board conditions. If you can't bear to leave your satellite TV, mobile 'phone and games console behind, you probably won't be reading this anyway. Their prices compare favourably with other operators and the Mediterranean is lovely.
Their website is