Portsmouth to Bilbao – via the Carribean!

by Julie Gibbons on June 20, 2010


We were surprised to learn that the route from Portsmouth to Bilbao across the Bay Biscay is home to one of the world’s hotspots for whales and dolphins – and that it was very likely that we would be able to spot said wildlife from the ferry. Over a quarter of the world’s 90 recorded species of whales and porpoises have been recorded in the Bay of Biscay!

Clive Martin is the charismatic Director of UK based charity Marinelife (www.marine-life.org.uk) and uses the Pride of Bilbao ferry crossing to introduce the work of the organisation to those passengers that feel so inclined. His lively presentation introduces us to some of the species we’re likely to see on the trip and gives just enough detail about the research work they carry out on board the vessel – the world’s longest running deep sea scientific whale and dolphin monitoring programmes. And we all get terribly excited when Clive announces that he’s organised for a slight detour of the ferry, towards the Carribean (huzzah!) and some deeper waters more suited to whale-spotting.

Emotions (and expectations) are raised amongst the captured audience – most of whom were completely unaware of this unique opportunity to spot whales and dolphins in the wild beforehand – and it’s satisfying to see the long snake of passengers ready to part with much needed funds for the charity, in exchange for a few fluffy dolphins and fridge magnets.

Of course, we are also in the queue, with a fluffy dolphin and some other promo goods tucked under our arms. And a request for an interview with Clive – a very busy man!

Clive & Martin

We don’t have time for a video interview, but via a brief chat are able to gain a deeper insight into the passion this man has for the wildlife and the research that his programme undertakes. With a core team of professional staff and trained volunteers, Marinelife works on a number of  projects including;

Balearic Shearwater: distribution and fishery interactions of critically endangered seabird.

Cuvier’s Beaked Whale: habitat use in Biscay by this poorly understood seep sea species.

White-beaked Dolphin: photo-id and population study.

Western Channel Survey: in-depth survey of cetaceans (dolphins, whales, poprpoises) and seabirds.

Clive explains that as with most NGO’s (Non Governmental Organisation) they are particularly strapped for cash – and fund-raising is one of their uppermost priorities (after the research and education, of course). The pride of Bilbao will stop being a functioing route after the summer and so he has to work out which vessel to move the research and presentations on to. But the work will continue – and so the funds still need to appear!

Anyone over 18 can volunteer to participate in the research – and after some intial training, you can get yourself on the boat and spend the day spotting whales and dolphins from the very top deck of the ferry (equivalent to an 11-storey building).

We were on top deck afterwards, and thrilled to spot the antics of common dolphins as they charge into the ferry to play in the bow waves. Gasps of awe and emotion emit from everyone that has braved the elements to go see. After Clive’s lesson we can now spot a common dolphin from quite far away, with it’s distinctive yellow patch on the side, but without our binoculars (locked in the boot of the car) we’re unable to tell the calves from the adults. It’s still pretty special, though. As Clive said, “you see a dolphin and you can’t help but smile.”

There was also a few sightings of sperm whales and minke whales, but alas, we were in the wrong place and without the proper training to identify the great beasts. Still, even to know they were swimming underneath us was wildly exciting -  such was the emotion stirred by Clive’s presentation.

Marinelife Information

So, what can you do? There’s still time to book a special mini-cruise – from Portsmouth to Bilbao where you can spend your weekend sighting cetaceans for only £99 per person. Apparently, the cruise northwards offers up some splendid species close to Bilbao. There are also some special ID cruises available – and worth checking out.You can also set up a monthly standing order (I will be).

As an Organikal, you will probably already be contributing in a small way as Pollution is one of the biggest issues facing these fantastic creatures. Marinelife explains that “chemicals, heavy-metals and plastics cause dangerous algal blooms, impact on cetacean immune systems and cause direct damage from ingestion.”

By-Catch and Over-Fishing are two more issues which you can directly affect by making Organikal choices about the type of fish you eat. Did you know that every one in two catches contains a dead dolphin? Check out the MSC list of sustainable fish and make sure the fish you eat is not harvested by harmful trawling nets. Line-caught fish is the way to go, if you want to see these species preserved (or better still, don’t eat anything with a mum and a bum).

Lastly, global-warming may be forcing “changes in the distribution of cetaceans and seabirds, to areas with unsuitable habitat or fewer food sources”. Every individual really can make their contribution to fighting global warming. You know it. Every time you leave an extra light on, or your computer on stand-by, think of the dolphins and switch-off :-)

Thankfully, there are organisations out there doing vital work to help understand and preserve these magnificent beasts. They could use your support www.marine-life.org.uk

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