Whale watching in Spain (part 2)

How many hours had I spent at sea?  It was impossible to tell. Time moves differently aboard a catamaran whilst you are waiting to spot marine life. Waves roll by, the sun beats down and there is a strange silence, broken only by the gentle waves as they bump the boat.

It was my second time aboard the catamaran Edmaktub, helping a team of local scientists track and record the local fin whale population. In my first visit I had seen nothing. Now once again, I was staring at the sea. Though in constant motion, it seemed as blank and unchanging as a brick wall.

Then I saw something, something unusual.

I paused. I picked up my binoculars. Was it just another illusion, a sharper-than-usual wave or the shadow of a cloud? No, this was different. It was glistening and grey, cutting gently through the water. I cried out to the crew: “There’s something here!”

Then at last we saw a small pod of dolphins skimming through the water. Though they were a dull grey to my eyes, the captain identified them as striped dolphins.

They were only there a moment and then they were gone. I returned to my watch happy that at last I seen something, if only for a moment.

Then it happened again. Perched on the side of the boat, I spotted a black fin shivering in the water. There was another one next to it. Dophins again: I was sure of it. I called the captain and pointed them out.

Before, he had been mildly interested, but this time, he froze.

“There’s something different about these,” he said. “Look at the fins. They are very close together. This is …”

Before I knew what was happening, he had dashed across the deck and pulled on a wetsuit. The next thing I knew he had thrown himself off the side and was paddling madly towards the animals with a video camera attached to a pole. Daringly, he swam quite a distance out from the boat while I and the crew watched from the side.

Finally, we saw the animals close at hand: one, two, three and four long flat shadows, floating along the waves like flags that had been ripped from masts and left to drift over the sea. Manta rays.

They were enormous. Filter feeders, they posed no risk to us. We watched them for a while as they swam around our boat. One came right underneath my feet as I was balancing on the net that ran between the blades of our craft. I quickly snapped this rather inexpert picture:

Manta ray

Manta rays are a rare sighting in those waters. We managed to get about half a minute of film from the encounter, although, just like in sightings of bigfoot or the Loch Ness monster, the camera battery ran out just as we got close.

In the space of a morning, I had already had more sightings of animals than I had had in my whole first day, but there was more to come. As we sat down to lunch, prepared on a fold-out table at the back of the boat, the captain looked out into the distance and said something that I didn’t really understand, except for the word saltant, meaning ‘jumping’.

Everyone scrambled into position, digital cameras and video cameras to hand. I always loved those moments on board when the inactivity suddenly stopped and everyone became alert, standing still and looking in different directions like predators ready to pounce on prey.

A pod of dolphins was swimming right towards us, leaping out of the sea so that the sun rippled on their backs. We slowly manoeuvred the boat towards them and they came close, swimming all around us for more than an hour. At one point, they ran before the boat,  gliding gently just below the surface.

Striped dolphins

It was an incredibly hot day with not a scrap of cloud anywhere and the pod seemed as listless as us, just bobbing up and down as though the sea were one huge hammock. As they rose out of the water, they exhaled with a distinctive <<poff>> sound; the leader always appearing first and then its six or seven companions afterwards.

After a long time spent in the company of the pod, we finally had to turn home, somewhat elated by our extended encounter. The captain had even used a sort of mini-helicopter to make observations. It rose from the ship like something out of Thunderbirds. This device buzzed above the dolphins taking aerial images, although our cetacean friends seemed unimpressed, sinking to the depths as soon as the apparatus was airborne.

Helicopter to observe dolphins and whales

Though we still had had no sighting of whales, it had been a hugely successful day. It now appears that the fin whales leave those waters in midsummer, so I shall return in the winter to try my luck one more time.

As we turned back to port, the sea was as smooth and flat as a mirror. All of sudden, a pair of flying fish shot out of the water and chopped up and down as they headed away into the sunset. It makes me wonder what else there is to see off the coast of Vilanova.

11 responses to “Whale watching in Spain (part 2)

  1. It is the unknown that drives us…one minute its extinct and then the next minute a coelacanth pops up…gotta love the mystery and the Thunderbird gadgets…you don’t need a big budget for a good film!

    • It is fascinating to think that there may be lone survivors of a species out there, floating around looking for the rest of their kind. Just this year both a rare goblin shark and megamouth shark were caught by fishermen so we have no idea what else might crop up. At the moment, I’d just be happy for a sight of a fin whale!

    • It was amazing! Especially being with the scientists because I understood so little about these creatures. One of the dolphins was making an unusual >>boff<< type noise and they hypothesised as to whether it might have a cough or something like that (I couldn't tell the difference between a healthy dolphin or a hoarse one to be honest).
      I can't wait to go back in winter, but it's going to be freezing. I might need a thermos.

  2. What a great experience.
    Dolphins are just a wonder to behold.

    “…although, just like in sightings of bigfoot or the Loch Ness monster, the camera battery ran out just as we got close.”

    Really enjoyed that.

    • He he! On the theme of monster sightings, on my first trip I did think I saw a grey hump rise out of the water at one point and I pointed it out, but after thinking about it, I decided it must have just been a hallucination. Honestly, staring at the sea for so long does funny things to your mind!

  3. Hey Alastair, I just did a trip from Ilulissat to Nuuk, where we saw a bunch of seals and a few whales… however they were nowhere as close as this! I hope one day to experience swimming with dolphins – I’ve done swimming with great white sharks, but that was in an aquarium… rather scary still!

    • Oh wonderful! I’ve been watching some TV shows on the Arctic Circle and it’s clear that you have some astonishing wildlife up there. I believe over half of the world’s killer whales live in the region for example, so perhaps next time, you’ll have a close encounter of your own!