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Birds and Balaenopteras

Updated: Aug 29, 2023

The Bay of Biscay is calm and sunny – so there’s a chance for a quick video call with the Darwin 200 team and Stewart McPherson. Experiments involving microplastics – or spiderlings – and tracking of birds and mammals are all underway. We’ve seen 20 types of birds already, from Arctic Terns to Eurasian Oystercatchers, Shearwaters, Shags and Fulmars. The Northern Fulmar is actually a little petrel (Patricia – we’re looking out for the Monty Python Stormy Petrels too!) – which flies like a shearwater and actually looks quite like a gull. The Sandwich Terns are beautiful, with a black cap and black beak with a golden tip: otherwise pure white and swooping so gracefully.

Later in the day – when we are 100 miles from land in any direction – right in the middle of the bay – there are two tiny song birds who land on the ship. One is a young reed warbler and one an Iberian ChiffChaff. Grant thinks that the little warbler – which should be heading on it’s migration south in a month or so – may have got caught in a bluster of the impending gale, and blown offshore. It would normally travel at night, when there are far fewer predators. You can see how vulnerable it looks in this incredible picture, taken by Rhodri Hall (who is the expedition photographer with Tom Dixon, who does a lot of the drone photos).

All the pictures will be uploaded on (the account is “Darwin200Voyage”) and you can see the birds mapped to our global position throughout the expedition.

We crossed the continental shelf which runs NW to SE – you can see it in the map below - and seabed went off a cliff with the depth under the boat plummeting from 200m to 4,000m. In this deep sea, we have had dolphins keeping us company for the whole day – usually in families of 4-5 but occasionally in much larger groups of 15 – 20. But the big morning excitement was the whales. A pod of four or five surfaced nearby and stayed with the boat, playing with each other and with us, for half an hour. The boat has books and expert naturalists on board and from all the drone footage and photos, we have concluded these are Fin Whales. These are the largest mammal in the world after the blue whale and are usually 20 meters, or so, long. It can be hard to visualise what 20m looks like – but it’s the same as the distance from the deck to the little triangular platform at the top of the schooner mast in the last picture here.

Here are some of the incredible professional shots from Rhodri and Tom - including a stunning drone shot of the whale leading us out to sea ....

As the fin whales sloped out of shot, we saw 2 or perhaps 3 long finned pilot whales off the stern of the boat too. Altogether, this was an emotional moment for Grant, who is leading all the scientific projects on board. Despite adventuring around the globe and seeing rare and wonderful things – he had never seen a whale before. Nor, it seems, has he ever tried the English habit of dunking biscuits in your tea! No-one explained the 2.5 second rule (to save your biscuit melting away) before Grant dunked his and ended up with a droopy, but still delicious stroopwaffle!

The sea stayed settled but the sky turned from blue to white and the wind freshened. It’s good to have constant weather updates and a reliable forecast to plan around. An incredible day for our sealife safari – especially since there has been no land on any horizon all day …..

A very different sunset though

Back at home, it is Jo’s birthday – and we are near enough to the shore for me to make a quick birthday call – which is lovely. On the boat we are celebrating Gunter’s 80th and Hannah getting her place at Glasgow University. Good to be celebrating and sending hugs home to London

(along with the low pressure storm which may reach England tonight :) )

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