But booking the trip through Company of Whales, they provide guides (Glenn and Matt on this trip) to help you with identification. Most useful for a first time visit like mine.
You also get access to an exclusive viewing area of the ferry, known as Monkey Island (I thought that was a computer game?) directly above the bridge. It's also a surprisingly calm spot as well, as the air kind of hits the bow of the ship, and blows up and over the bridge. Meaning that the open deck a bit below is much windier.
After breakfast and a presentation that detailed what we were likely to see, and whereabouts on the journey, we were eventually allowed onto Monkey Island. Being a bit behind, going past Brittany and into the north of the Bay of Biscay, it was a bit of a quiet start on the bird and cetacean front, although plenty of Gannets and a single Fulmar.
During this quiet period, to my surprise, I spotted a celebrity:
It's TV's Mike Dilger! What originally was to be a holiday turned into a wildlife film piece for a programme on the telly called "The One Show". I'm sure you've heard of it, it's on BBC1 in the week at 7pm. You know the hosts, Adrian thingy, the brummy who does "Match of the Day" on Sundays? And wossername, you know, from Northern Ireland, her with the teeth?
Anyway, it turned out that the TV crew were to join us on Monkey Island:
The Dilgemeister doing his stuff, along with acclaimed wildlife programme producer, Stephen Moss.
Things started to pick a bit heading south, with a Grey Phalarope and a couple of Great Skuas. Then the first Sabine's Gulls and Cory's Shearwaters appeared but were too distant for me, but eventually picked out a couple of adult Sabine's.
When we reached the edge of the continental shelf we started hitting the jackpot, a group of 8 Cory's Shearwaters close to the boat, pods of Common Dolphins coming in to ride the bow wave, and 10 Pilot Whales. Then right at the end of the day, a group of seven adult Sabine's Gulls, and three large Shearwaters. Two Cory's and magnificent Great Shearwater, I think I have a new favourite bird!
Not long after that, just before dusk, Mr Dilger shouted out "Two more Cory's". Er, no, they're immature Gannets Mike.
The next morning, the ferry docks in at Bilbao. My first time on Spanish soil, you get four hours before the return journey. The usual excursion that the guides do is a walk up to a nearby hillside, full of scrub and grassland, to look for birds and other wildlife. It reminded me a little bit like Berry Hill Fields actually, except warmer!
Some good birds were seen, including 6 Griffon Vultures, 1 Booted Eagle, a Savi's Warbler, 5 Red-Backed Shrikes and more common migrants like Pied and Spotted Flycatchers, Wheatear, Whinchat, Blackcap, Whitethroat, even a decent view of a Cetti's Warbler. Also a small cliff with about a dozen European Wall Lizards.
Time is limited so it was a pity to miss out on regular birds here, such as Sardinian Warbler, Fan-Tailed Warbler (or is it Zitting Cisticola?), Serin and Cirl Bunting.
There's the boat, we've got to get back!
I didn't realise when taking this picture leaving Bilbao harbour, but thankfully it misses out on the rather unpleasant sight of various "beached whales" on the sun lounger deck, with varying amounts of tan and sunburn!
It doesn't take long out at sea when you're into deep water. Large numbers of Yellow-Legged Gulls on the sea, then Cory's Shearwaters appear quickly, with two more Great Shearwaters and one Sooty Shearwater seen today.
This part of the trip also provides the largest numbers of Cetaceans. Plenty of Common Dolphins and acrobatic Striped Dolphins, a few Bottlenose Dolphins, two more Pilot Whales, at least 10 Cuvier's Beaked Whales (plus a few others that could've been Sowerby's Beaked Whale) and 3 Fin Whales (only the Blue Whale is larger). One of the Fin Whales found by yours truly while no-one else was looking behind, which prompted a "good spot" from the Dilgemeister.
The final morning finds the ferry around the northern edge of Biscay and to Brittany again. Large numbers of Gannets again give the game away that you're further north. Highlights today were 4 Storm Petrels. Whilst watching two together, across flies a Shearwater which turns out to be a Balearic Shearwater! Also 3 Great Skuas, 1 Shag, 1 Sandwich Tern and 12 more Pilot Whales. There were also a few small migrants on deck this morning, which included a Chiffchaff, 2 Willow Warblers and a White Wagtail. I assume it was White, I suppose it could've been Pied Wagtail.
Once back in the English Channel, the lack of seabirds is noticeable. So its a case of waiting for the ferry to dock back in Portsmouth. A trip like this may not be everyone's cup of tea, I found it near impossible to get any sleep the whole time, from either the swell or just the vibrations of the boat. But definitely a memorable three days of wildlife watching.
In this blog entry I've only mentioned my personal sightings, there were a few that I missed. The totals of all wildlife seen on the trip can be found on Company of Whales News Page, for the 24th - 27th August.
Oh and by the way. Coming soon on EBay, Mike Dilger's shades!