It began with Europop, like so many holidays in Spain. I was sitting in the Café de les Arts in Vilanova, forty minutes south of Barcelona. On the TV screen above me, a bestubbled singer was ululating. Around him, scantily clad women gyrated next to the sea in a manner suggesting that the life cycle of large marine mammals was not uppermost in their minds.
It was in mine. I was waiting to join the crew of Edmaktub on a whale-watching expedition. I had first heard of the team whilst watching a local TV show on the local flora and fauna. Flicking from channel to channel, I was stunned to discover that there were fin whales in the Mediterranean, not far from where I was sprawled on the sofa.
The fin whale, known in Catalan as the rorqual, is the second-largest whale on earth (Latin name cut-and-pasted from Wikipedia: Balaenoptera physalus). Imagining that sighting whales would entail a trip to far-flung parts such as the Azores (for sperm whales), Sri Lanka (blue whales) or Mexico (grey whales), I couldn’t believe my luck to find out that they were here, almost on my doorstep. Immediately I logged on to track them down. Less than a week later, I found myself on the railway heading south, in a train carriage that was itself as scratched and scarred as the head of some ancient leviathan.
The voyage began at 9 a.m. Leaving the café, I easily found our catamaran waiting in the harbour. The crew introduced themselves and we were off. The team’s objective was to monitor and record the activity of fin whales and other ceteceans in the seas around Vilanova. This is was no tourist trip: I was volunteering to help with their work.
Before setting sail, I had been warned that it was already late season so that the whales may have left the area (they take their vacations in Italy, apparently, where the krill probably costs three times what it would do at home). Astonishingly, considering how close they are to a major Mediterranean port, almost nothing is known about this population of fin whales: the project itself was only a year old.
It was a calm day with the sun radiating down on the sea like microwaves. I smeared factor 50 all over my face so I was soon covered in white pasty streaks. Somehow, you never see this on wildlife documentaries. Despite the glare, out at sea it was surprisingly chilly. I even had to put on a jumper when it was my turn on watch.
The watch was simple. Each person sat at one of the four corners of the boat peering at the sea. Every thirty minutes, we changed positions, moving anticlockwise. There were six people so two were able to take a break whilst the others gazed at the waves.
It was harder than it sounds. Most of the time, you don’t see anything. Soon, you start hallucinating. Every choppy wave looks like the back of a whale. Every dark shadow moves like a pod of dolphins. I longed to shout “there she blows!” or “whale ahoy!” but luck wasn’t with me. After several hours of inactivity, I found myself falling asleep on watch, like a guard in some old Hollywood movie. It really does happen.
After an hour, we had our first sighting of the day. A rounded grey shape was bobbing out of the water.
“A seal,” I knowledgeably announced.
“Sun fish,” the captain calmly corrected me.
“We don’t have those in Britain,” I said.
The captain thought for a moment.
“That’s because you don’t have much sun,” he replied.
We lingered while the sun fish floated past like a discarded bicycle wheel.
It was about an hour later that we saw our second sign of life. A small turtle was flopping about on the surface, a brown blob, floating back and forth. It looked very different from the turtles that you see in documentaries, which cut through the water with wide, graceful strokes. This one floundered about like a toddler that someone had tossed into the deep end of a swimming pool. We took a couple of photos and moved on.
And that was it. Eight hours at sea, including lunch, and not a blowhole snort of a whale. Not even a lump of ambergris or a clump of scat to scoop up from the surface. Nothing.
Disheartened, I left the boat with my head hanging, although the captain’s enthusiasm was undimmed.
“Come back again!” he cried. “You never know what you might see the next time around!”
At that moment, there was nothing I wanted less. However, as time went on, I changed my mind (especially as they emailed me to invite me back). Fortune favours the bold so I decided to return a fortnight later. I’ll tell you about what happened on that voyage, next time.