People keep asking about the whale thing. It started in 2006. I was newly single and some friends and I took a ferry to Spain for a fun getaway – 24 hours from Portsmouth to Bilbao, 4 hours ashore and 24 hours return. All for £4 through a tabloid offer!
What we didn’t know was that the P & O ferry, The Pride of Bilbao (sadly decommissioned in 2010) was equipped to monitor the sea conditions for dolphins, with observation sensors measuring sea temperature, chlorophyll production and salinity. On-board experts gave talks on the whale and dolphin species in the Bay of Biscay and tannoy alerts broadcast any sightings. The top deck was painted with comparative size indicators of various whales from the Blue Whale down, ingenious ways for scientists to obtain monitoring data at the same time as raising public awareness about creatures we understand so little of.
On the outbound sailing I left my friends to some after-dinner privacy and went out to watch the sun go down. It was an average sunset but there was a deep calm on deck. The sea was rolling but quiet and there was gentle, hair-ruffling wind. It was a powerfully rejuvenating few minutes, just me, the air and the ocean.
The tranquillity was shattered by the sudden crack of the tannoy – there had been a sighting to starboard.
‘Which side’, I considered? ‘Port Out Starboard Home,’ (it’s an incorrect tale of the origin of posh; the rich paid more to get the cabins with the best view, and their luggage was labelled POSH) but that didn’t explain which side was which? Some memory of port and left being short words whereas starboard and right were longer was all I had to go on so I dashed to the right hand side of the boat, scanning the sea. Nothing. Was I on the wrong side? The tannoy blasted again with a directional ‘2 o’clock’ location and there I saw a spout. Small, quick; a jet of water expelled through the blowhole. A whale!!
The wave of emotion was indescribable. In the space of 45 seconds I experienced quiet contentment on deck, irrational anger at the blasting tannoy, a bereft sense of loss at the empty ocean and then pure joy and excitement – all at spotting a fountain of water in the sea?!
To be allowed a glimpse into the life of a creature who spends all it’s time under water (the element of soul), who allows us only fleeting moments to witness a fragment of its existence before disappearing deep into an area of our planet we barely understand is a profound, profound privilege. Unforgettable.
Cuvier’s Beaked Whale, Sei and Fin whales
It was a Cuvier’s Beaked Whale, a small cetacean I’d not previously heard of.
We also saw Sei, Fin whales and dolphins on the return journey.
The Guggenheim museum visit in Bilbao was a mini adventure in itself with just a 4-hour window to get there and back but for me, the whales stole the show, and also my heart.
In 2007 I spent a month visiting my sister in New Zealand where we saw dolphins in Milford Sound and later Sperm Whales at Kaikoura on the east coast. The sperm whales made me cry again but not the dolphins, which got me wondering.
Street art, Kaikoura and Common Dolphin, Milford Sound, NZ
The crying thing
Apart from the immense size of the whales, perhaps the root of the emotion stems from their disappearance? We left the dolphins, we sailed away from the pod while they were still playing whereas the whales left us.
They briefly interact with our world and then they disappear. With a magnificent flourish of gigantic body and massive tail they are gone from us, hundreds of metres below, where we can not follow. They show themselves momentarily, teasing, tantalising but without giving us a chance to know them.
I wonder how this translates to the human psyche? What is it that we choose to show the world and what of ourselves do we keep hidden in our own depths that the world may not, or only occasionally, be allowed to see?
The moment the tears flowed, Sperm whale, Kaikoura, NZ
So now you know; I cry! And probably always will when witnessing these animals, and I will never be anything but proud of those uncontrollable tears. I’ve been lucky enough to see other whales and dolphins in California, Florida, the Canaries and the UK and maybe one day my dream of kayaking with Orcas will be fulfilled. Until then, the few moments I have already been granted with these most majestic of nature’s giants are memories I’ll treasure forever.
What is a whale?
noun: whale; plural noun: whales; plural noun: whale
a very large marine mammal with a streamlined hairless body, a horizontal tail fin, and a blowhole on top of the head for breathing.
Whale and dolphin facts
- Whales and dolphins are Cetaceans (from the Latin for whale and huge fish)
- The Blue Whale is the largest animal EVER to have lived, bigger than the dinosaurs.
- A Blue Whale’s heart is the size of a VW Beetle and a whole football team can stand on its tongue
- Sperm whales can dive down to 2000m for around 2 hours
- A Fin whale expels up to 970 litres of wee a day, about 3 baths-full
- Blue whales are the loudest creatures on earth, singing at up to 188 decibels, louder than a jet which only reaches 140 dB!
- Orcas are actually dolphins, the biggest dolphin species
- Dolphins can live up to 40 years, Orcas 70 while some whales may live up to 200 years
- Dolphins use clicks, squeaks and whistles to communicate using echolocation
- If dolphins fall asleep they stop breathing and drown so they go to sleep ‘in half’ – half their brain shuts down to rest while the other half stays alert and maintains breathing
- Check out the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Trust for more incredible facts and pictures including anatomy diagrams using these links Whale facts Dolphin facts
Learn about other animals and wildlife on our Wildlife page.