Anyone crossing the Bay of Biscay by ship is well aware of the tendency of heavy swells and atrocious weather. So much so, that if you are a person to easily get seasick, then a bout of seasickness for you is often a guarantee!
However, if you are interested in whales, then you are visiting the right area. A fact that a representation of the North Atlantic Right whale is included on the coats of arms of some of the Basque fishing villages on Spain’s northern coast, is actually a reminder from the days when commercial whaling was allowed, a commercial ‘sport’ that began as long ago as the eleventh century. The right whales, together with their calves, came in close to the shore in the bad weather for protection, and so did the whaling fleets, but not for protection. Now, since new whaling regulations have come about, and the whales a protected species, seikatsusuidosos the Bay of Biscay has become a premium area for whale watching trips to observe and enjoy the activities of the gentle giants of the sea.
Research organisations started collecting data from about 1993 and then the first organised whale watching tour started to visit this area in 1996. Since then many whale watching cruises of companies, charities and scientists, make use of the ferry trips to watch the whales and gather data on the cetaceans of the region, and on the shore, many interested spectators gather to observe them as well.
Bottle nosed dolphins are residents of shallow waters of estuaries and harbours of Biscay, and further out in the deeper fishing grounds, minke whales, porpoises and dolphins that prefer deeper water, encircle the plentiful fishing schools, accompanied by flocks of gannets overhead, focusing their beady eyes on the fish below for a quick catch.
The seabed slopes sharply further out and long-finned pilot whales, fin whales and dolphins take advantage of the prey on offer in the nutrient-rich currents of the deep Bay of Biscay. As the sea slope begins to rise again towards the shores of Spain, one finds Cuvier’s, Sowerby’s and True’s beaked whales.
With so many different species of whales that make their habitat here, no wonder there are so many enthusiasts taking whale watching cruises to the Bay of Biscay. Occasionally, sei whale, blue whale, northern bottlenose whale and white-beaked dolphin have also been sighted and recorded for scientific purposes.
Learn more about whales and dolphins and find whale watching tours in the Bay of Biscay
It is common knowledge that rampant overfishing (whaling) in the 18th – 20th centuries nearly drove many whale species to extinction. While whaling certainly existed prior to this, technological improvements allowed the industry to become much more efficient in harvesting whales. Now that the global whaling industry has nearly disappeared, whale populations have been able to slowly recover. Conservation efforts and eco-tourism (centered around whale watching cruises or dolphin interaction tours) are working to fund recovery efforts, but is it too late?
The majority of the great whale species are still on the endangered species list. The United States Endangered Species Act (ESA) still lists the northern right, southern right, bowhead, fin, blue, sei, humpback, and sperm whales as endangered species. The population of the northern right is reported to be less than one thousand animals remaining. One big problem is that, even without a major impact from commercial whaling, many interactions between humans and whales mean further losses in the population.
Commercial fishing vessels pose a great danger to whales. While their target is not the whale itself, the cetacean can often become entangled in the fishing lines or nets that are in active use or have been discarded at sea. This is not a fatal condition immediately, but the entanglement can slow down the animal, impacting its ability to dive and surface or to feed. A whale that cannot surface cannot breathe, and drowns.