“Blow!” The yell comes from the sighting deck with a distinctly Scottish lilt and all the people on board sprint to the bow. It’s the fourth day since we set sail from San Remo with the Tethys researchers and Nicola, our WDCS guide for the week, has just spotted our first fin whale.
At the start of the week all the people on board, consisting of four Germans, two French, three English, one Northern Irish, one Scottish plus the four members of the crew, left the port with high hopes of seeing Fin whales, Sperm whales plus a variety of dolphins. Unfortunately all that greeted us was rough seas and a fantastic sun. These conditions, we were informed, were terrible for sighting in but the weather was to improve throughout the week. The night before we had enjoyed a mouth watering meal at a local restaurant but today we came back to port in time to make dinner, which is all part of the experience, as is cleaning the bins every morning. (On boats you can’t flush toilet paper down the toilet.) After we were all fed we relaxed with the optimistic thought that tomorrow would bring better weather and some cetaceans.
After throwing all the umbrellas on the boat unceremoniously off deck the next two days were much more successful. Each morning we were visited by striped dolphins, who came and bow rode, giving us lovely displays of agility and acrobatics. For many participants this was the first time they had ever seen dolphins in the wild and were particularly moved by the experience. Indeed even if you have seen dolphins every day of your life I don’t think that anyone could ever fail to be touched by these incredible creatures.
At the end of our second day we had come so far from San Remo in out efforts to spot whales our only choice was to continue up the coast to France, where we dropped anchor in St. Jean-Cap-Ferrat.
After dinner, as if to celebrate our achievement of the first spots of the week, a firework display exploded from the shore. It was certainty a very nice scene, sitting on the deck of Pelagos drinking wine and discussing the achievements of the day.
The third day progressed very much in the same way with Nicola remaining our top sighter, a reputation that would be firmly cemented the next day. Those with Digital SLRs spent their time running from port to starboard trying to take pictures while those with cameras of less quality or just not bothered with photographs simply took in the experience.
That afternoon the conditions began to worsen and we came into port sooner than usual, although as we were beginning to discover, there is no “normal” for the Tethys crew. To get us involved in the workings and purpose of the trip we were all on by getting us to photo ID some sperm whales that were sighted the previous week. Six whales had been photographed and it turned out that there where three new comers and the rest were retuning to the area. To our delight we were allowed to name the new whales and we decided on the names Valerie (after one of the German’s half daughter), Luigi (after the Nintendo character), Tina (for no particular reason) and Zoë (after myself). I’d like to point out that I did not suggest that name; Anne, a fellow participant, gave this honour to me.
Our fourth day dawned brighter than the rest, the sea was relatively calm and it was slightly overcast but still very warm, perfect conditions for sighting. The morning was unsuccessful but after lunch our efforts, coupled with what appeared to be telepathic communication with Nicola, were finally rewarded. As the participants flocked to the front of the boat to see the fin whale, Viridiana clambered up the ladder to join Nicola, myself and Peter. While she took the respiration rate we kept a look out to see where it was resurfacing. It soon became clear that there was more than one whale about the boat. We were kept busy, swinging the boat in circles as they all surfaced in different places at different times. Nicola concluded that there were at least two whales, if not up to four. Eventually however, we ended up following just two of them for an hour, any longer and it would have been seen as invasive towards the creatures and their feeding time. When we left them we were thirty-six nautical miles from the coast and it was getting both late and cloudy.
We headed straight back to San Remo and during the journey we encountered two different groups of striped dolphins, one while there was a thunder storm in the distance. It certainly made a striking scene, watching dolphins jump among stormy seas while lighting struck the horizon. We went to bed that night happy, thrilled and eager for our last day of whale and dolphin spotting.
However, the weather was against us. The storm did not blow itself out that night and although the harbour was sunny and clam the next morning we were told that the open sea was rough and likely to get worse. Instead we were to stay in port and see if the conditions would improve early enough for us to get out again. Francesca gave us an informative talk on bioacoustics and we watched a few videos about the threats facing cetaceans in the Mediterranean. As Matt delegated the making of lunch to his hapless Dad and helpers there was an almighty boom making us all jump and a few shout in surprise. As the rain poured down we were suddenly very glad that our Skipper had decided not to set sail that morning and keep us safe at the harbour. The thunderstorm raged as we prepared lunch forcing us to eat indoors for the first time all week. As I am writing this the thunder and lightning has worn itself out and the sun has decided to come out again. Unfortunately it is too late to head out to sea so we have to be content with staying in the harbour.
It seems disappointing that on our last day we were unable to get out to sea and attempt to see something new but such is the life of a whale watcher. In working in the wild you are also subject to the conditions of the wild. Nevertheless, despite the bad conditions of the first and last day this has been an unforgettable and most enjoyable experience, one that I hope to repeat in the near future and would encourage anyone else to take part in.
Text written by Zoë Stevenson
Photographs copyrighted by Matt Allen
Feel inspired by this entry? - You too could join the research team in 2010 with a holiday organized by WDCS's endorsed whale-watching company, Out of the blue.