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In recent years it has become clear that one of the easiest, cheapest and most comfortable ways to see good numbers of highly sought-after seabirds is from the ferries between England and northern Spain that cross the Bay of Biscay.
The ferries run from Portsmouth to Bilbao or Plymouth to Santander and both routes round the island of Ouessant before heading south across the eastern half of Biscay. South of Brittany the ocean floor drops from the relatively shallow Continental Shelf to the much deeper Abyssal Plain and deep oceanic trenches before once again meeting the Shelf close to the coast of Spain. It is this variety of water depth and seabed topography that gives the region its abundance of wildlife.
In addition to the seabirds this is the best area in Europe for cetaceans and there are special trips with guides to cater for those interested in whale-watching.
During the early stages of the trip, in the western part of the Channel, Northern Fulmar, Northern Gannet and Kittiwake are numerous with Great Skua also seen frequently. Smaller numbers of the other three skuas are usually present as well as European Storm-petrel and shearwaters. Sooty Shearwater, Manx Shearwater and Balearic Shearwater are commonest but Cory's Shearwater and Great Shearwater can be seen after strong westerlies.
Heading south into Biscay the numbers of birds increases, especially when approaching the edge of the Continental Shelf. Great Shearwater and Cory's Shearwater become much more numerous and with the right combination of timing and winds this is one of the most regular areas in Europe for Sabine's Gull. Where the water is deepest the numbers of birds tends to decrease but once the southern edge of the shelf is reached they appear once again and here Macaronesian Shearwater and Wilson's Storm-petrel are possible.
In September 2003 a Masked Booby landed on a Biscay ferry, possibly only the second record of this species in European waters.
Birds you can see here include:
Northern Fulmar, Cory's Shearwater, Great Shearwater, Sooty Shearwater, Manx Shearwater, Balearic Shearwater, Macaronesian Shearwater, Wilson's Storm-petrel, European Storm-petrel, Leach's Storm-petrel, Northern Gannet, Great Cormorant, Grey Phalarope, Pomarine Skua, Arctic Skua, Long-tailed Skua, Great Skua, Mediterranean Gull, Sabine's Gull, Black-headed Gull, Lesser Black-backed Gull, Herring Gull, Yellow-legged Gull, Great Black-backed Gull, Black-legged Kittiwake
The most numerous cetaceans seen on these voyages are usually Common Dolphin Delphinus delphis and Bottle-nosed Dolphin Tursiops truncatus but Common Porpoise Phocoena phocoena Long-finned Pilot Whale Globicephala melaena, False Killer Whale Pseudorca crassidens, Risso's Dolphin Grampus griseus, Fin Whale Balaenoptera physalus, and Minke Whale Balaenoptera acutorostrata are regularly seen.
Less common are Sei Whale Balaenoptera borealis and Northern Bottlenose Whale Hyperoodon ampullatus, Striped Dolphin Stenella coeruleoalba, Sperm Whale Physeter catodon and Killer Whale Orcinus orca while even the mighty Blue Whale Balaenoptera musculus has been recorded.
The deep trenches off northern Spain are also home to some members of the least-known cetacean group, the beaked whales. These species are rarely stranded and make very occasional and brief appearances at the surface. However, Cuvier's Beaked Whale Ziphius cavirostris is regularly seen and the even rarer True's Beaked Whale Mesoplodon mirus has recently been photographed, probably for the first time alive, from a Biscay ferry.
Late summer to early autumn trips are generally the best for birders and also whale-watchers with the optimum time being mid-August to mid-September.
Access and Facilities
P&O have two sailings per week throughout the year from Portsmouth to Bilbao. One ferry leaves England at 20.00 on Saturday, arrives in Spain at 08.00 on Monday and leaves again at 12.30 the same day to arrive back at Portsmouth at 16.30 on Tuesday.
The other sailing follows the same times but leaves England on Tuesday and arrives back on, Friday. Brittany Ferries sail the Plymouth to Santander route twice weekly from March to November leaving England at 08.30 on Mondays and 11.30 on Wednesdays, the voyage taking about 24 hours each way.
Content and images originally posted by Steve