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Bay of Biscay

By Ivan Hurst

Photo Galleries   The photo gallery links open a new site, use the back button to return here or press the ‘Lightroom’ header to return to the home page.

Google Maps provides the engine for the maps show below, acknowledged with thanks.

I did have some difficulties with the automatic pagination in Google Maps. With the help of the forums I found out that there is a maximum number of points on a page so as not to slow the map drawing unduly. I therefore could not get the trip on one map. That is not a problem as it is better shown in phases. However, just so you are aware tracks or active logs recorded by a GPS represent a lot of points and it seems the best way is to have a replica in an overview and the GPS track on its own map. I hope this is of help and explains the numbers of maps. Thanks again to Google Maps and Google Maps Help.

The Bay of Biscay Whale watching trip 2010

View 2010 The Bay of Biscay Whale Watching Overview in a larger map 


Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

Part 4

Part 5

[ Portsmouth and English Channel ]

 [ Bay of Biscay Southbound ]

 [ Bilbao ]

    [ Bay of Biscay        Northbound ]

 [ English Channel and Portsmouth ]




      Sunday - Monday           19th - 20th Sept 2010

          Monday                    20th September 2010

             Tuesday                     21st September 2010   

             Tuesday                            21st September 2010       

           Wednesday                       22nd September 2010      

Sail time; 21:15


Dock; 07:00 - Sail


Dock; 17:15

Day 1

Day 2

Day 3

Day 3

Day 4

The relevant dates are in blue
September 2010
Sun Mon Tue Wed Thu Fri Sat
1 2 3 4
5 6 7 8 9 10 11
12 13 14 15 16 17 18
19 20 21 22 23 24 25
26 27 28 29 30



Local time and world clock




Link to clock source

GMT + 1hrs BST + 1hrs











The Bay of Biscay Whale Watching trip 2010 overview




A good friend of ours, Sara, went on a similar trip a few years beforehand, and suggested that we would enjoy this trip.






She was quite right, it was an amazing trip. I never realized just how many different species of whales and dolphins lived or visited the Bay of Biscay. I was also surprised by how much wild life could be seen from a normal, scheduled cross channel ferry.

The Biscay Dolphin Research Programme (BDRP), in association with P&O Ferries have been carrying out research in the Bay of Biscay since 1995.


In association with P&O Ferries, BDRP will be running four special Whale and Dolphin theme cruises this year, sailing over four days from Portsmouth to Bilbao and back, through one of the best localities in the world for whale watching. These follow the success of previous trips. Check the sightings from previous Whale and Dolphin Special trips as well as BDRP's news and sightings, as a good diversity of wildlife was recorded for the region last summer.

Prices are from £99, inclusive of cabin (based on 2 people sharing an inside ensuite 2 berth cabin) and the trips are running on the following dates:

* 9-12 July 2010
* 12-15 July 2010
* 16-19 September 2010
* 19-22 September 2010


The BDRP sightings list can be found by following this link and is reproduced to the right. The BDRP also produced a CD specifically for our trip at the princely sum of £10. Unfortunately there were virtually no photos of our trip other than the group photos of the people on the Monkey Deck. However, some of the photos were taken on the trip immediately preceding ours and others are very striking. One of which is below and others can be seen by following this link. The copyright of these photos are acknowledged as being with BDRP and their staff. This is the iconic image of whales, the fluke preceding a deep dive. This one is the fluke  of a sperm whale believed to have been taken in the Azores on 15/07/2006.
BDRP - Azores 2006 - Sperm Whale


BDRP Whale & Dolphin Themed Cruise: Portsmouth-Bilbao ferry Pride of Bilbao 20 - 22 September 2010 - John Arnott, Emma Webb, Tom Brereton, Fraser Paterson, Laura Fletcher, Andrew Boulden, Hugh Venables

Fin Whale Balaenoptera physalus 9, Minke Whale Balaenoptera acutorostrata 7, Rorqual Sp. 37, Sperm Whale Physeter macrocephalus 4, Northern Bottlenose Whale Hyperoodon ampullatus 1, Cuvier's Beaked Whale Ziphius cavirostris 7, Long-finned Pilot Whale Globicephala melas 119, Common Dolphin Delphinus delphis 282, Striped Dolphin Stenella coeruleoalba 212, Bottlenose Dolphin Tursiops truncatus 32, Dolphin Sp. 395, Harbour Porpoise Phocoena phocoena 70

Ocean Sunfish Mola mola 6, Shark Sp. 3, Tuna Thunnus sp.

Manx Shearwater Puffinus puffinus 2, Sooty Shearwater Puffinus griseus 40, Balearic Shearwater Puffinus mauretanicus 3, European Storm-petrel Hydrobates pelagicus 12, Wilson's Storm-petrel Oceanites oceanicus 1, Leach's Storm-petrel Oceanodroma leucorhoa 3, Gannet Morus bassanus 237, Cormorant Phalacrocorax carbo 1, Red (Grey) Phalarope Phalaropus fulicarius 3, Great Skua Stercorarius skua 40, Pomarine Skua Stercorarius pomarinus 1, Parasitic (Arctic) Skua Stercorarius parasiticus 4, Skua sp. 7, Black-headed Gull Larus ridibundus 3, Yellow-legged Gull Larus cachinnans 1120, Lesser Black-backed Gull Larus fuscus 17, Sabine's Gull Larus sabini 3, Sandwich Tern Sterna sandvicensis 1, Common Tern Sterna hirundo 3, Arctic Tern Sterna paradisaea 2, 'Commic' Tern Sterna hirundo/paradisaea 100, Black Tern Chlidonias niger 5, Guillemot Uria aalge 1


The article on the right about the history of the Pride of Bilbao is extracted from Wikipedia and can be found here. Further reading on the Pride of Bilbao can be found by following these links.

Bilbao Ferry

BBC News

The News

Further reading on Peninsular and Oriental Steam Navigation Company can also be found here on Wikipedia, and on P&O’s Ferries own web site.

The Portsmouth sign could still be seen on the ship on our trip, but over painted in white.




MS Pride of Bilbao was a cruiseferry owned by Irish Ferries and operated by P&O Ferries on their Portsmouth – Bilbao service. She was built in 1986 as MS Olympia by the Wärtsilä shipyard in Turku, Finland for Rederi AB Slite, Sweden for use in Viking Line traffic.

The ship was launched on 26 April, 1986 under the name Olympia, and operated between Stockholm and Helsinki for Viking Line. Olympia was built as a sister ship to MS Mariella.

In 1993 Rederi AB Slite suffered financial problems and was forced to declare bankruptcy. Olympia was sold to Irish Continental Group and chartered to P&O European Ferries who renamed her the Pride of Bilbao.

From 1994, Pride of Bilbao was registered in Portsmouth, but since November 2008 she has been registered in Nassau, Bahamas.

In 2002 she received a major refurbishment, during which the vast majority of public spaces were updated and brought in line with P&O Ferries new corporate branding of onboard facilities, as well as updating her livery. In addition to this, all Club Cabins and Suites received new carpets and textiles as well as having their en-suites remodelled and refurbished.

On 15 January 2010, P&O ferries announced that the Portsmouth - Bilbao route would be closing, with the last crossing from Bilbao 27 September 2010, when the lease for MS Pride of Bilbao expires. P&O announced that the route was loss-making and could not fund a new-build replacement for the Pride. Equally, no other existing ships are available for purchase/charter.

P&O states that for the past three years they have tried to do 'all they can' to make the route profitable.

P&O's charter of the Pride of Bilbao is due to end in September 2010. The Pride of Bilbao completed her last sailing on 28 September 2010



Class and type:

Mariella-class cruiseferry


37,799 GRT
3,420 metric tons deadweight (DWT)


177.10 m (581 ft 0 in)


28.40 m (93 ft 2 in)


6.51 m (21 ft 4 in)



Installed power:

4 × Wärtsilä-SEMT Pielstick 12PC2-6V diesels
combined 23,000 kW


22 knots (40.74 km/h; 25.32 mph)


2500 passengers
2447 berths
580 cars
1115 lanemeters

The Pride of Bilbao was previously named the MS Olympia and is shown above in Viking Line  livery in a photo from a Swedish ‘faktaomfartyg’ site. This is a very informative site with plenty of photos in both Viking and P&O liveries together with interior photos. Thanks to faktaomfartyg for maintaining a site with so much information.




Most of the external shots in the YouTube video above were taken from the helicopter deck, deck 11. This is the highest deck normally open to passengers and is located directly behind the bridge. In the opening sequence of the video, the people lining the rails on the skyline are on the helicopter deck, as the Pride of Bilbao enters Portsmouth harbour. The night scene is of Portsmouth ferry terminal with the vehicles loading. We sailed at 21:15 so this is not dissimilar to our sailing.

Our cabin was an inside two bunk so was not as luxurious as those shown. However, we did not spend much time in the cabin other than to sleep, so it was perfectly adequate.

Most of the whale watching takes place from the helicopter deck. You can see that there are three information panels on the back of the starboard name panel.



The positions between the name panel and the bridge, on both sides, are the favoured locations for whale watchers. The tripods and spotting scopes are set up here, the folding chairs and binoculars prepared, and the waiting begins. On the special whale watching themed mini-cruises there are even more people, two or three deep.  This is also where the BDRP researchers observe and help out.

The BDRP have a long standing relationship with P&O ferries and have special privileges including the researchers being allowed onto the bridge, use of the PA system and being allowed to escort small groups of registered whale watchers up onto the monkey deck for a couple of hours. The video shows a group descending the ladder at the end of their allotted time on the monkey deck.


v-- Helicopter deck, deck 11 below  --v.    v-- -----------v  The Monkey deck

The deck elevation and plans are taken from previously mentioned MS Olympia site. Deck 8 is the first outdoor deck with the terrace at the rear. It is not a full promenade deck, as the front of deck 8 is an enclosed viewing area, shown in the plans, just in front of the cinemas, part of the green area. I suspect that some of the stormy weather shots were taken from the observation windows.

I believe the ship has had a refit since these plans where draw as some of the areas have changed. For instance the Horizon buffet restaurant has been considerably reduced is size to squeeze in the International Food Court, and the Horizon renamed to the Four Seasons Carvery and Buffet.

Back to the outside, which is only accessible by passengers from deck 8. Deck 8 is also the highest internal passenger area. The higher decks, used for sun bathing and whale watching, are accessed by external stairs, one deck at a time. Deck 11 has stairs just behind the bridge and from the sun deck, towards the rear. The funnel sprouts from deck 10, and the mast from the Monkey deck.

Additional equipment has been installed on the Monkey deck, some of which we were advised to keep away from as they have the radioactive symbol showing. The equipment is also used in research, but by NOCS National Oceanography Centre, Southampton.           

The MS Olympia was originally built as a ice breaker RO-RO ferry in Turku on the southwest coast of Finland at the mouth of the Aura river. Since becoming the Pride of Bilbao she has plied the route Portsmouth- Bilbao through the English Channel and Bay of Biscay until her withdrawal from service on 28th September 2010. Not a lot of ice breaking required.

She now faces an uncertain future.


The equipment is part of the Ferrybox project on Pride of Bilbao.  The FerryBox equipment was first fitted on the P&O Pride of Bilbao in April 2002. Since then data has been transmitted to NOC using the Orbcomm satellite system and displayed on this webpage in real time. (Graphs of data accumulated via the satellite through 2002 to 2006 are available through links to the site above). In 2002 the sensors for measuring water temperature, salinity, and fluorescence were installed. In 2005 extra sensors measuring turbidity, the concentration of dissolved oxygen and the partial pressure of carbon dioxide were fitted along with sensors monitoring the movement of the ship. The graph on the right show the raw un-quality controlled data from the ferry as it is being collected over the real-time link. This is an example of what can be found on the site.



A lot of data is collected from the ship including the route taken on each trip taken by the Pride of Bilbao. The information is available on the NOCS site for download. Right is a plot of our trip as extracted from the NOCS Ferrybox project site.

The plot clearly shows the deviation to the west taken on the southbound part of the trip to get to the deeper water and the larger whales sooner.

The map also shows how quickly the sea bed shelves down to the deep abyssal plain from the continental shelf . The area of the close contours is the continental slope.

More details about the Ferrybox community across Europe can be found at


To the right is a link to YouTube with the Pride of Bilbao in rough seas. Fortunately we escaped this sort of weather. The worst seas we had were encountered just after leaving Bilbao where sea and land breezes met. Plenty of instances of hats and sun glasses traveling across deck without their owners. In one instance I saw a couple lose a piece of paper, which may have been meal vouchers. They chased after it but it went through the deck railings. They assumed lost forever, and sat back down. But it actually landed on the boat deck two decks below. It did not stop there and moved towards the side again. The paper soon got to the railings again and it was blown over the side destined to plummet the 8 decks down to the sea. Only to be caught by an updraft and land at a passengers feet back on deck 8. She picked the litter up and placed it in a near by blue rubbish bin. The couple went down and retrieved their wayward piece of paper from the rubbish bin, returned to the helicopter deck and sat back down again. Happy endings.






We took two GPS devises to help track our location. One was a Garmin which was able to show where we were in real time on the screen. The other was specifically designed to record the track taken using GPS and subsequently locate the latitude and longitude of photographs taken by cross referencing the date and time taken. It is a little blue plastic box without a screen, called  i-gotU Travel Logger 

The photos and recorded track are correlated on the PC and the trip edited with captions and tags. When complete the trip record can be published to a common sharing site called @trip. Our Bay of Biscay trip can be found at

The map is also shown below. Click on the map to jump to the trip record. The photos are generally the same as on this site but accurately located in latitude and longitude together with sequence and time. From this you can see the correlation between the change in depth at the Continental Slope and the change in the size and type of whale / dolphin.

Parts of both the Southbound and Northbound trips are recorded but not the entire trips in either direction.











Portsmouth and English Channel

















MS Pride of Bilbao leaving Portsmouth harbour in July 2003. Photo from here.


























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The Bay of Biscay Southbound














Rotating Picture




As is common with dolphins a small pod of dolphins came in towards the ship to play however due to the speed of ship they did not reach the bows but did put on a fantastic display of acrobatics repeatedly porposing, the action of jumping completely out of the water and diving back in such as in the photo.


As is common with dolphins a small pod of dolphins came in towards the ship to play however due to the speed of ship they did not reach the bows but did put on a fantastic display of acrobatics repeatedly porposing, the action of jumping completely out of the water and diving back in such as in the photo to the left.











Due to the calm waters and almost cloudless sky, I know this sounds impossible compared to the bays reputation but there were some amazing patterns of light across 12 miles of sea to the horizon.







This whale came within 250m of the side of the ship as we were traveling along, coincidentally it was also the closest whale sighting of the trip, allowing us to identify it without the help of the experts. The whale was lunge feeding a bait ball of small fish when first sighted. One of the guides managed to get a photo including the fish. The whale surfaced a few times before diving down to continue to feed in the shallow waters above the continental shelf, allowing for some amazing views, unfortunately most of these were not caught on camera. The photos to the right show some of the better photos taken and plays through an entire surface roll.

The whale seen is a Minke Whale and is on average 7 - 10 meters (20-30 feet) in length making it the smallest Baleen Whale to be found in the European Atlantic.

The continental slope is the underwater cliff leading down from the shallow waters of the continental shelf to the deep waters of the abyssal plain.


Rotating Picture



Look closely for the Minke Whale just under the surface of the water.



This sighting was at 2010/09/20 16:14:33 N 46.85116, W 5.270616










Monkey Island visit



The deck above the bridge is called Monkey Island.








We took a video camera with us as well as the digital SLR. Video is not a particularly easy medium for use at sea. I have had a video camera wrecked by a couple splashes of sea water thrown up from the bows of the boat. Unlikely to have that problem on such a calm sea as we had on our outbound trip. Also the Monkey Deck is very high, a long way from the spray, but not out of reach in a different sea as you may have seen on the above video clips. Below is our attempt of movie making on a moving platform. Towards the end of the clip, the sea view without any ship in view , a pod of Long-finned Pilot Whale Globicephala melas can just be seen approaching the ship.  At this distance they only appear to be waves breaking but the BDRP people identified them for all of us using their experience and powerful binoculars. As you can see from the clip the movement becomes too great well before you can achieve the magnification required to actually get a decent image of the whales or dolphins. Just before we came down from the Monkey Island there were some dolphins bow riding. I had a look through the camcorder but even though they were close and the camcorder has image stabilization, it was not worth recording.







The video was taken on 20/9/2010 between 17:48 and 17:50 GMT corrected time, which equates to a mean location of N46.4145466 E5.072631 with a course of 156.3 degrees and a GPS speed of 20.7mph, which as we are at sea is 18 knots.






There she blows. This is not our first sighting of whale blows on this trip but is the first with photos worth including. Before this sighting we had sailed by a pod of sperm whales. They have a very distinctive blow which is a lot smaller and is angled forward at about 45 degrees. I believe this blow to be that of a Fin Whale. It is over a mile away from the ship, the tall, columnar blow may be as high as 25 feet / 8m and takes several seconds to dissipate.









This sighting was at 2010/09/20 18:13:23 N 46.30563, W 5.004688










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The Bay of Biscay Northbound












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The English Channel and Portsmouth



After breakfast on the last day we went on deck to join the other whale watchers. The western English Channel is one of the areas of observation for the BDRP. However, we were not likely to see anything as fog reduced visibility to less than 100m. As the fog got thicker the fog horn started to sound. From the observation gallery just under the bridge it was difficult to see much beyond the bows. Time for another coffee in the warm. We did not get to see the Needles. Fortunately visibility had cleared significantly by the time we rounded the east of the Isle of Wight and started to head towards Portsmouth on the final leg of the journey.

Sailing past Sandown on the Isle of Wight on approach to Portsmouth as the fog clears, but still obscures the town. The GPS confirmed the location which is just as well as there was nothing to be seen in the town to identify it definitely. Not a lot better at Culver Down, but the white cliffs show through the remaining mist.



Sailing past Sandown on the Isle of Wight on approach to Portsmouth


Culver Down white cliffs


As we arrived back at Portsmouth we sailed towards the War Memorial at Southsea












D34, HMS Diamond with Spinnaker TowerArriving back at Portsmouth sailing past HMS Diamond, a type 45 Stealt Destroyer with Spinnaker Tower in the background













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 Some of the Photos on the BDRP CD of our trip



The copyright of these photos are acknowledged as being with BDRP and their staff.



Group photos of the people on the Monkey Deck.















Some of the photos were taken on the trip immediately preceding ours.












A selection of striking photos on the BDRP CD.












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