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Force 10 to Funchal

Updated: Jan 29, 2022

After a series of false starts, thanks to COVID-19, a team from Ocean Wildlife Encounters finally boarded ship, the Fred Olsen owned MS Borealis on the 6th January 2022. Our task was to show the passengers the superb array of marine wildlife on offer during our cruise. The team, Jeff Clarke, Anthony Brandreth and David Chilcott are all vastly experienced marine naturalists and wildlife speakers.

OWE Team - Anthony Brandreth, David Chilcott, Jeff Clarke © Ocean Wildlife Encounters (LRD)

Our planned itinerary was due to take us across the Atlantic to the Caribbean and Central America but circumstances beyond the control of the cruise line would thwart that plan. As we set off from Southampton, we anticipated a lumpy start. Out in the Atlantic a monster was brewing and as the ship reached the Western Approaches the beast unleashed a Force 10 storm. The route to the Azores was looking seriously uncomfortable and the Captain made the decision to head south towards the Canary Islands instead.

Force 8 Southern Biscay 8th January 2021 from MS Borealis © Ocean Wildlife Encounters (JJC)

Wildlife watching on the first full day at sea was pretty much a non-starter, standing upright was a challenge and a handful of Kittiwake and single brief view of a Common Dolphin alongside the ship seen by Anthony was the only reward. Anthony and David carried out the first introductory talk.

1st winter Kittiwake from Borealis © Ocean Wildlife Encounters (JJC)

By day two (8th January 2022) the weather had improved dramatically to a Gale Force 8. Anyone familiar with whale and dolphin watching will know that weather like that is not conducive to spotting marine mammals so it was no surprise that despite our best efforts we failed to spot any. Birds were also in very short supply. We struggled to make double figures of Kittiwake, the commonest species encountered all day.

It was a big relief to wake up to slightly calmer seas on the 9th. Still Force 6 early in the morning but gradually subsiding to Force 4 by the end of the day. Thankfully, dolphins were much more obvious as we transited parallel to the Galician coast and the indicative splashes were considerably easier to locate among the whitecaps. A huge columnar blow on the port side belonged to a leviathan rorqual whale, it was probably a Fin Whale but it was too distant for certainty. A few distant pods of dolphins remained unresolved but just before 9am a dispersed pod of Striped Dolphin tracked down both sides of the ship.

Common Dolphins race to the bow of Borealis © Ocean Wildlife Encounters (DSC)

A short while later Common Dolphins powered into the bow right on cue for the gathered audience who had joined us for the deck watch. At 11am, Dave was scanning through the telescope and a beaked whale appeared distantly in his field of view. ‘Beakies’ are hard to identify to species at the best of times, but at extreme range and without decent views of the head it was destined for the ‘Beaked Whale sp.’ column. The same thing happened with a second probable Beaked Whale, spotted by Jeff, off the starboard side in mid-afternoon.

Seabirds were still in surprisingly low numbers, and we struggled to top fifty Kittiwake all day and just two adult Gannet was well under expectations.

By the time dawn had broken on the 10th January we had docked in Funchal, Madeira. Once we were allowed to go ashore the team wasted no time in walking around to the VMT Madeira offices in the harbour to sign up for a whale watch excursion. By 10.30am we were underway. Whilst out on the boat we saw a single Manx Shearwater. Slim pickings bird-wise. Shortly after 11am we were enjoying the delights of an active pod of Short-finned Pilot Whales. I’m pleased to say that the boat closely observed the safe-whale watch guidance. It’s imperative that you should only book whale and dolphin watching tours with rigorously ethical companies like VMT Madeira. The safety and treatment of the animals is paramount. As a rough guide, if they have an on-board marine biologist, they are generally a reliable company to go with.

Short finned Pilot Whale (male) off Funchal © Ocean Wildlife Encounters (JJC)
Short finned Pilot Whale pod of Funchal © Ocean Wildlife Encounters (JJC)

Once back on terra-firma we strolled to the ‘Parque de Santa Catarina’ in Funchal in proximity of the port. It’s always a worthwhile place to spend some time when visiting Funchal. It’s a sure-fire bet to catch up with Madeiran Wall Lizard, every stone wall has its contingent. The small pond in the park is a focus for birds and here we encountered the local sub-species of Grey Wagtail as well as Little Egret and a motley crew of Yellow-legged and Black-headed Gulls. Elsewhere in the park Atlantic Canaries were observed at distance and the local race of Blackcaps, though busily flitting in just about every tree, resolutely declined to be photographed.

Madeiran Wall Lizard - Funchal © Ocean Wildlife Encounters (JJC)
Yellow legged Gull - Funchal © Ocean Wildlife Encounters (JJC)
Little Egret - Funchal © Ocean Wildlife Encounters (JJC)

Thankfully the butterflies were more compliant and Lang’s Short tailed Blue and Monarch butterflies could be seen among the flower beds.

Lang's Short-tailed blue - Funchal © Ocean Wildlife Encounters (JJC)
Monarch - Funchal © Ocean Wildlife Encounters (JJC)

As we exited the park, we passed a bed of Aloes and Bromeliads, the area is renowned for exotic species of plants from every continent, and strung between their spiky succulent tips were a myriad of spider webs, complete with their equally spiky residents. By far the most abundant spider was Cyrtophora citricola also known by various common names including Prickly pear spider, Tent-web spider or Dome-web spider. A rather splendid looking beast whatever you call it. It was, however, out glammed by the nattily attired Banded Argiope Argiope trifasciata. Which looks uncannily like it is wearing a banded sweater fashionable in the 1920’s.

Prickly pear spider Cyrtophora citricola - Funchal © Ocean Wildlife Encounters (JJC)
Banded Argiope - Funchal © Ocean Wildlife Encounters (JJC)

Once back aboard we received a letter informing us that our intended trip to the Caribbean and Central America had been thwarted by increasing COVID-19 restrictions and the upshot was we’d be returning to Southampton. We were obviously disappointed, but hey-ho, the safety of the ship, passengers and crew come first and this did mean we would be staying a second day in Funchal.

On 11th January we divided our efforts. David opted to head back out with VMT Madeira. This time he was rewarded with exceptional views Common Bottlenose Dolphins, playing on the bow wave of the catamaran. Photographing them proved challenging as the sea was very lumpy.

The rest of us (Jeff, Anthony and Laura) headed for the Madeira Botanic Gardens and jumped in a taxi to get ahead of the crowds. The gardens are a delight. Thankfully the abundant Blackcaps were more co-operative on this occasion, as was the Atlantic Canary.

The botanical gardens are perched high up above the town with some viewpoints overlooking a ravine. From one of them we picked out a Common Buzzard of the local race harterti. It soared up quickly to eye-level allowing a distant record shot. We scanned the ravine below and were delighted when we picked up a flock of approximately 40 Trocaz Pigeons in flight far below us. This was a new species for all of us and Madeira is the only place on earth they occur. A true island endemic. They were headed uphill, presumably to the native laurel forests, their favoured habitat.

Atlantic Canary - Funchal © Ocean Wildlife Encounters (JJC)
Blackcap female - Funchal © Ocean Wildlife Encounters (JJC)
Blackcap male - Funchal © Ocean Wildlife Encounters (JJC)
Common Buzzard race harterti - Funchal © Ocean Wildlife Encounters (JJC)

Before leaving the gardens and heading further uphill ourselves we took time to photograph Atlantic Darter dragonfly. This is, arguably, a separate species from the Common Darter, though you’d be had pushed to separate them visually.

Atlantic Darter - Funchal © Ocean Wildlife Encounters (JJC)

We jumped into a cable car and headed for the hilltop village of Monte. From the cable car we continued a little higher on foot, as the time would allow, and had close-up views of Canary Red Admiral, and the Madeiran Speckled Wood. We tootled around a scrubby patch of an abandoned garden with a once grand, but now ruined, building at its centre. It was here that we had a close encounter with a pair of Common Kestrels of the canariensis race. Each footstep in this scrubby grass patch had insects leaping in all directions. We eventually succeeded in photographing one of them and identified it as Aiolopus strepens, a short-horned grasshopper.

Canary Red Admiral - Funchal © Ocean Wildlife Encounters (JJC)
Madeiran Speckled Wood - Funchal © Ocean Wildlife Encounters (JJC)
Short-horned grasshopper Aiolopus strepens - Funchal © Ocean Wildlife Encounters (JJC)
Common Kestrel race canariensis - Funchal © Ocean Wildlife Encounters (JJC)

We were soon out of time and heading back downhill to Funchal via the cable car. The full team reassembled in the town park for another look at the spiders before boarding the ship.

Cable car to Borealis - Funchal © Ocean Wildlife Encounters (JJC)

As we sailed out for our return north the wind was increasingly fierce, and the sea was strewn with lumpy whitecaps. Just a single Manx Shearwater put in a brief appearance. Cetaceans were notable by their absence.

Leaving Madeira © Ocean Wildlife Encounters (JJC)
Sunset leaving Madeira © Ocean Wildlife Encounters (JJC)
Green flash as we leave Madeira © Ocean Wildlife Encounters (JJC)

From sunrise on 12th March, we were again dealing with strong winds of Force 7 and very lumpy seas, though thankfully it was sunny. Conditions eased slightly to Force 5 by the end of the day. Thankfully we did see some cetaceans. With several pods of dolphins, those identified to species being Common Dolphin. As is traditional the most notable sighting of the day waits until one of us is giving a talk. Anthony enjoyed a decent view of Cuvier’s Beaked Whale, luckily it breached whilst he was chatting to passengers as it passed down the starboard side.

For a little variety other marine life appeared periodically in the waves close to the ship, this included a billfish, probably a swordfish, five flying fish and three Chelonian type sea turtles, none of which could be confirmed to species due to the conditions.

Common Dolphin power leap © Ocean Wildlife Encounters (DSC)

The seabirds were marginally improved by the addition of a European Storm Petrel to the trip list, Black-legged Kittiwakes and Gannets made up the pitiful numbers, with 10+ and three respectively.

Black legged Kittiwake adult © Ocean Wildlife Encounters (JJC)

Thankfully conditions had significantly improved by the 13th, as we traversed the Atlantic some 63 nautical miles off the Galician coast. The Force 4 and sunlight from behind made for vastly improved cetacean watching conditions and the sightings list and species totals reflected the improvement in the weather. By 8.30am we had spotted our first rorqual whale blow, then another 10 minutes later. We suspected they were Fin Whales. The next at 8.48am left no doubt as to its identity. It blew and showed close on the starboard side. We called the Fin Whale over the two-way radio to Dave, who was on the back at Deck 8, and he managed to get several passengers on to this magnificent animal.

The official deck watch at the front of Deck 6 was then frustratingly quiet, finally a pod of Common dolphin came into bow ride at 9.43; cue the smiling faces.

Jeff went down to give another talk and this heralded a slew of sightings, not least a big dispersed pod of 250+ Common Dolphin coming to the bow in waves. This culminated in another male Cuvier’s Beaked Whale showing reasonably close to the ship five minutes before Jeff made it back out on deck following his talk. Naturally the other team members of OWE find this sort of thing hilarious and begged Jeff to go back down and do another talk.

As the big pod came to play David had been firing off his camera at leaping dolphins. On checking his images that evening he realised he’d captured something very unusual. One of the Common Dolphins was a rare dark morph. We are all long-in-the-tooth cetacean watchers and none of us had ever encountered such an animal before. Though we do know a similar, but different dolphin, was photographed in Hebridean waters, the previous summer. We do know they were different animals as that one was male and ours is probably a female.

Very rare 'dark morph' Common Dolphin © Ocean Wildlife Encounters (DSC)
The team run a binocular workshop for the passengers © Ocean Wildlife Encounters (LRD)

Cetacean sightings slackened off during the afternoon, giving more time to scan for birds, numbers were still pitiful, but we did add our first Puffin, Razorbill and Guillemots of the trip, and an adult winter Mediterranean Gull was something of a surprise so far offshore.

In mid afternoon we reached the southern Biscay drop-off, but it was relatively thin pickings for a time. Late on we picked up another Fin Whale and then just as the sun was setting, we spied the quickly repeated circular blows of a Sperm Whale on the port side. A fine way to end the day’s watching and a nice set up for what would be our final day sea-watching the next day.

Fin whale and dissipating blow © Ocean Wildlife Encounters (JJC)
Sperm Whale blowing © Ocean Wildlife Encounters (JJC)
Sunset in Southern Biscay © Ocean Wildlife Encounters (JJC)

On Friday 14th January we awoke to calm seas. Hallelujah! This was our final sea day. Sunrise found us west of the Brest Peninsula and our course would take us through the western approaches towards the English Channel. Whales would not be anticipated, but dolphins would be on the agenda. Before any cetaceans appeared, it was surprising to see a British-race Pied Wagtail flying over the ship on track for Cornwall. It’s hardly bird migration season, so what was this insectivorous land bird doing more than 60 miles out into the Atlantic?

Throughout the day from 8.50am we had dolphin pods, most coming into the bow. Rarely would more than an hour go by before another pod would appear, every 20minutes or so. By far the dominant species was Common Dolphin with a minimum of 128 being counted, though the true total could well have been double that.

Common Dolphin underwater at Bow of Borealis © Ocean Wildlife Encounters (JJC)

A single dolphin, almost certainly a Common Bottlenose appeared off the port side at 10.30am. The largest pod of dolphins 65+ waited to appear until David went down to the Neptune Theatre to give the wildlife roundup talk. As the big pod scampered towards Borealis’ bow Anthony picked up a single Striped dolphin as it porpoised out of the waves. This is exceptionally far north for the species at this time of year.

OWE enjoying the marine life with the passengers © Ocean Wildlife Encounters (AB)
OWE covering the angles © Ocean Wildlife Encounters (LRD)

It was also a relief to finally see reasonable numbers of seabirds. Eight species recorded and included newbies in the form of Lesser Black-backed Gull and Great Skua. The latter ended the day with over 30 seen. It was also good to see at least 20 Atlantic Puffins during this day, especially considering how many have washed up dead on European shores this winter.

Razorbill in the Western Approaches © Ocean Wildlife Encounters (JJC)
Great Skua in the Western Approaches © Ocean Wildlife Encounters (JJC)

Despite all the trials and tribulations, stormy weather and the foreshortened cruise, this had proved to be a very successful and enjoyable collaboration between Fred Olsen Cruise Lines and Ocean Wildlife Encounters. The team from OWE gave it their all, despite the adverse conditions and it was a delight to transfer our enthusiasm for the natural marine environment to so many on board. We look forward to many such similar collaborative ventures in the coming years.

Capturing the final sunset © Ocean Wildlife Encounters (JJC)
Final sunset © Ocean Wildlife Encounters (JJC)

The final tally for the different cetacean species is shown in the table below. These are minimum totals and we only put a name to a species when we have a very high degree of certainty.

Species Name Total Number of Individual Records

Rorqual sp. 4

Beaked Whale sp. 3

Unidentified small cetacean sp. 1

Fin Whale 5

Sperm Whale 1

Cuvier’s Beaked Whale 2

Short-finned Pilot Whale 12

Dolphin sp. 16+

Common Dolphin 593+

Striped Dolphin 21+

Bottlenose Dolphin 11+

Total number of individual cetaceans - 669+

Below you can see the examples of the cetacean sightings mapping transects we recorded during the cruise.

Three 'day-long' transects off the coast of Portugal and Spain (with a close-up off Galicia)
Example of details regarding a Sperm Whale sighting in Southern Bay of Biscay

We’d welcome constructive comments from any of those people who joined us on board Borealis, we are always seeking to improve on what we do, and we’d love it if you joined us next time we are aboard an ocean-going cruise liner.

OWE would like to extend it’s thanks to the following organisations and individuals: Fred Olsen Cruise Lines, The Entertainments Team and all the crew of MS Borealis, Peel Talent and Sara Andrew.

Ocean Wildlife Encounters (O.W.E.) Team Borealis 6th-15th January 2022 The Team: Anthony Brandreth; David 'Dolphin Dave' Chilcott; Jeff Clarke

You can follow O.W.E. in various ways:

Twitter @OWEncounters

Moon after final sunset in the English Channel © Ocean Wildlife Encounters (JJC)
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