An Afternoon with Unexpected Encounters

by firmm Team

Text: Ulrike Richter, photos: firmm

On the 24th of April, after several very windy days we finally were able to pull out into the Strait of Gibraltar again. Of course everyone on board of the firmm-Spirit was really looking forward to the encounters with the dolphins and whales.

Shortly after passing the main channel of the cargo ships we came across some bottlenose dolphins. Among them was an eye-catching dolphin with a white patch on the tip of its dorsal fin.

Großer Tümmler

After the initial excitement on board had died down a little, we continued our trip and only ten minutes later encountered six pilot whales with two calves. The guests pulled out their cameras and enthusiastically took photographs of the beautiful animals that were comfortably resting on the water, offering ideal photo motifs due to their slow movements. Of course, everybody was waiting anxiously for the appearance of the cute little pilot whale babies, who always stayed close to their mothers and regularly showed their little gray heads above the waters surface while taking a breath.

At this point no one anticipated that all of this was merely the beginning of further - quite unexpected - encounters!

Five minutes later we saw more pilot whale families encompassing a total of 45 large animals and 18 babies - we could hardly believe our eyes. We did not know anymore in which direction to look, because pilot whales appeared on the right side, on the left side and at the rear of the boat - it seemed to be a real family reunion. They swam parallel to the ship, turned over on their back, approached the boat with their calves or peered curiously out of the water.
What an afternoon!!

Grindwalgruppe Grindwale

After spending about 20 wonderful minutes with the animals, Katharina announced over the loudspeaker the parting with the whales. We were about to set off on our way home, when Katharina suddenly shouted excitedly into the microphone. She had discovered an only 2-3 day old newborn in the group swimming next to us - and indeed: a really small light gray calf repeatedly emerged with relatively clumsy movements from the water to take its breaths.
It still had birth stripes on its side, which are only visible for a few weeks and was still learning how to swim evenly.
The emotions that were triggered by this encounter in many of our guests on board were recognizable in numerous different faces.


Unfortunately Katharina also made a very sad discovery in this group of pilot whales:

A large animal revealed a severe injury to its dorsal fin. The rear part of the fin was either cut off or torn out at a right angle. Katharina believed to recognize Buckelchen, who had been missing for some years. The sight distressed a lot of the passengers, since they had probably never seen something comparable before. We continued to observe the brave animals evenly up and down swimming movements, then ultimately said goodbye and thoughtfully returned to the port. Inwardly each of us wished the injured pilot whale all the best, which he will certainly need for the future. For our consolation we at least knew that he lived as an integrated individual in a group and more importantly lived in freedom. While evaluating the photos, our marine biologist then discovered that the injured pilot whale probably really was the known individual who had been named Buckelchen in 2005. Already back then he had attracted out attention due to this injury..


Text: Jörn Selling, photos:: firmm

During the first time of its discovery in 2005, the wound was not entirely healed and scared, so for a long period a red sore spot was visible. Even after all these years this seems to not have improved. On the contrary it became worse. It cannot be determined with absolute certainty though, if the wound was ripped open again or a chronic inflammation is in the wound. At least the whale is still alive, even though we had already declared him as dead. This shows that there must be other pilot whale populations close by with whom “our” whales mix. Genetic studies have shown that the pilot whales in front of Tarifa combine traits of the Mediterranean Sea and Atlantic Ocean pilot whales. Therefore they are something like a link between the populations. Some of them commute back and forth, but it is still uncertain if the whole social sub group also does this. We certainly are pleased to have seen Buckelchen and wish he gets better soon.

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