Everybody not present missed something big!
by firmm Team
Text:Janine Stadelmann and Jasper Linnewedel (Volonteers firmm), Photos: firmm
After the Easter holidays the wind and the waves were mostly too strong to go on boat trips in Tarifa. During that time we were able to do some whale watching trips in the Bay of Algeciras, since there it is relatively sheltered from the strong winds. Most of the time one can see common and striped dolphins in the bay, we have seen both species.
But when the weather finally got better, the whole firmm-team and the tourists as well, were very happy to be able to go whale watching in Tarifa again. The crew brought the firmm-Vision back to Tarifa and business as usual started again. After almost one week of strong wind, grey sky and rain we finally got back on the boat. What was missing on the tours starting from Tarifa was the sighting of pilot whales. Only on the first trip this season we had the luck to see them. Afterwards there was during the whole holidays no sign of their presence on the rare tours, some of which also took place off Tarifa.
When we started our introduction, on the 25th of April 2017, grey clouds were still covering the sun and a fresh breeze was in the air, but already in the port the difference to the last week was evident. The water in the harbour was calm and it was not to be compared with the waves of the week before, when the wind blew them also over the 5-7 meters high harbour walls. So everyone was really looking forward to the trip. After leaving the harbour and driving for some time in direction of Morocco, a school of bottlenose dolphins with young ones was spotted. They were swimming close to the boat for a while. Not long after we could admire the first sperm whale of this tour diving down. The joy grew even bigger when the first pilot whales were seen after such a long time
At first Zackzack and Franzfin, accompanied by a few bottlenose dolphins, were spotted. Both of them swam leisurely in short distance to the boat in the same direction as the firmm-Vision. Zackzack, who is also available for adoption, can be easily identified by her fin, which was injured a few years ago and therefore has a special, unique shape.
The relief about the return of the pilot whales was followed by the excitement of another sperm whale sighting. And as if the trip was not already spectacular enough, another group of pilot whales was swimming parallel to the boat. As Katharina was announcing them they changed their course. They turned 90 degrees and swam directly to the boat. Baby Hook, Pedro and Edu, all of them available for adoption, were approaching the boat, to greet Katharina and the visitors after a long winter break.
This moment was magical; no one said a word and the calmness and serenity these animals exude spread across the whole boat. There often is an almost reverent silence when we visit these animals, also when there are many passengers on the boat, but this encounter was special and one could sense how touching these moments were for everyone on board. Minutes were passing during which the whales lay next to the boat and welcomed us.
Baby Hook was so close to the boat, it seemed the whale was almost touching it. What a nice “Welcome Back”. It was a relief to know that the pilot whales are back safe and sound. Especially Katharina already began to wonder where they might be. Probably, she was thinking, they reacted to an earthquake that took place in the area, or they have searched for a more wind-sheltered place to not be so severely exposed to the storm which prevented us from going out. On the way back to the harbour another sperm whale was waiting for us, and we could marvel at his fluke while diving down. Needless to say there were many smiling faces leaving the boat in the harbour of Tarifa.
I was the guide on the second trip of the day at 1 pm. After the introduction we walked to the firmm-Vision filled with euphoria. On our way to the boat the other group, who had just returned, passed us and I could hear that they saw apart from sperm whales and bottlenose dolphins, finally also pilot whales. As we left the harbour I could see how clear and calm the ocean was. I had not experienced such a quiet boat trip in my first three weeks here in Tarifa. The boat was not swinging back and forth, so the faces of the visitors were all smiling and did not have a greenish colour as they sometimes do when we have a lot of waves. Unlike the other times we did not go to the left when driving out of the harbour but to the right and therefore to the west and in direction of the Atlantic Ocean.
After 30 minutes the boat accelerated suddenly for a short time and then slowed down again. Then the crew were called into the captains’ cabin and the word spread that we have seen something rare. When Javier, one of the marineros returned, he signalled me that they had seen the blow of a Fin whale. Now we just had to wait and be lucky enough to see him again. A couple of tourists heard this as well and the news spread all over the boat in just a few minutes. The excitement could be felt and a lot of the visitors were already at the windows armed with their cameras.
After maybe 5 more minutes the boat accelerated again and you could hear Katharina say: “Fin whale at 11 o’clock, far away”. Immediately the boat inclined to the left, because all 80 visitors ran to the left side. But the firmm-Vision is built specifically for this: to deliver high performance even under more difficult circumstances. I was standing behind the visitors, and could hear them say “Ahhhh” and “Ohhhhh” but only saw the blow of the big whale for a short second before he dove down again. However, besides the rarely seen fin whale, there were also bottlenose dolphins, who accompanied him, diving up and down. After the highlight, the fin whale disappeared; we had to wait again, because usually after breathing he is diving for 8 minutes while he continues swimming. This is very difficult for the captain, who must calculate the approximate speed and direction of the swimming fin whale and has to wait where the 22 meter long whale might surface again. After a few minutes during which we had time to admire the bottlenose dolphins the boat accelerated once again and we could guess that the second biggest animal on earth had once again surfaced.
This was confirmed by Katharina when she said with an euphoric voice that the fin whale can be seen at 3 o’clock, on the right side. The tourists armed with their cameras now ran onto the other side of the boat and the open windows and the other spaces were shared equally between them. This time I could see the fin whale as well. The huge animal could be seen 15-20m away from the boat. He came up to breathe, we could see his enormous back and his fin and dove down again, came up again and dove down another time. This happened about 3-4 times before he dove down for good to swim further into the Atlantic Ocean. It was an amazing moment and everyone on the boat was delighted by the rare sighting of the big whale. We changed our course and decided to leave the only baleen whale we can see in the Strait of Gibraltar to go and find another species.
After about 20 minutes we saw another group of bottlenose dolphins. 10 to 15 animals surrounded our boat and swam interested around us to see what was going on. Some of them jumped out of the water, did spectacular tricks and enjoyed the attention of us, the visitors. A couple of minutes passed by before the dolphins moved on and we decided to not follow them and search for another group of animals in a different area.
We drove in direction of the Moroccan coast. After just a few minutes we could see a few dark fins coming up and down far away. When we came closer we could see that it was a small group of pilot whales. It seemed as if the group of about 5 animals did not notice us at all, they moved calmly up and down. They swam so close to the boat, it seemed as if they would swim against it.Shortly before they touched the boat they dove down and came up on the other side where we could marvel at them again.
After 1 ½ wonderful and fascinating hours in the Strait of Gibraltar it was time to say goodbye to the animals and drive back to Tarifa. But there was a surprise waiting for us on our way home.
About 20 minutes away from Tarifa, everyone was sitting already on the benches, enjoying the sun and the wonderful weather; two more pilot whales came close to the boat. This time, after Katharina told us where we could see them, no one got their cameras out and took pictures. Everyone just looked at these wonderful creatures and enjoyed them just with their eyes.
One of the animals was “Ponce”, a pilot whale you can adopt and which firmm knows since 2012.
Back in the harbour a lot of people thanked us for this amazing and fantastic trip. It was not only a wonderful experience for the tourists, but also for me. It was and still is a very impressive and formative journey for me. To see these animals here in the wild nature and their natural habitat but at the same time to realize how deep their connection with us is and how interested they are in us is an unique and breath-taking experience.