by firmm Team

Text: Marleen Caris, photos: Albert Rietjens

It’s a beautiful day today in Tarifa. The whole last week really, with lots of sunshine and calm water. While we sail out, I’m reflecting quite content on the last week as a volunteer at firmm. We’ve seen a lot of striped dolphins. A few times even large, stretched out groups of hundreds of animals with a lot of young ones; sometimes with small groups of common dolphins mixed in. And families of bottlenose dolphins, also with young ones, sometimes jumping out of the water and imitating the adults. It’s lovely to watch. Our guests – and me – are very touched by all this young life. These marine mammals really affect our emotions.

Common dolphin Bottlenose dolphins

Despite all these beautiful sightings I secretly miss my favourites since I’m volunteering…….a bit worried as well. Where have all the pilot whales gone? The Strait of Gibraltar is supposed to be their home? The whole week on the water I haven’t seen any pilot whales at all despite Katharina’s efforts. Only 11 pilot whales have shown themselves on all the boat trips and often the same individuals: Fernando with his white spot and Dientes, also Gorro and Lola with her injured dorsal fin. As always they are swimming next to each other, almost touching, as is fitting for a Family. Where are they this week? So many large cargo ships are crossing the Strait at the moment...

Pilot whales

For quite a while already we are cruising, seeing a lot of sunfish jumping, yet still no dolphins......... I‘ve again given up the hope to see pilot whales on this trip. Regularly we have to slow down a bit because a large ship has right of way. Suddenly, the firmm Vision changes direction and starts really to speed up. And finally Katharina calls the words I was longing for: “Pilot Whales at one ‘o clock, still far away”! At once my heart starts to beat faster. Finally, we also see clearly more and more large black dorsal fins, a big family of pilot whales, swimming very calmly in the beautiful quiet water. The whole crew is excited and very happy to see them again! And with calves as well, what a bonus!

Totally at ease the pilot whales approach in the clear water and show themselves off by swimming close to the boat, at the same time being curious as well. Especially the calves, they try spy hopping and are really looking at the boat and us, humans, coming very close.

Then, all of a sudden, the family decides to dive under the boat. We hurry downstairs and are rewarded with an extraordinary view through the submarine windows of the firmm Vision. Very slowly, very close together, almost touching, swim and drift a few big males, the smaller females and the calves under the boat. It’s magnificent, statuesque and impressive. I count 18 individuals, a truly big Family. When the guests grow quiet we clearly hear the click clicks and squeaking sounds. Some pilot whales look directly at me………true contact, these are highly intelligent eyes........ I get goose bumps all over my body.

When they finally surface again, quite a surprising spectacle unfolds. Not for us, the pilot whales are now involved only with themselves. A very special sight indeed because almost always they swim calmly and float around, resting. Now they swim vigorously and on their sides and backs as well, breast fins above the water, splashing with their tailfins, diving, splattering……and then...... mating! Willy, a big male, with a young female and the firmm Vision as a floating centre. What an exceptional and rare event to witness up close, truly amazing!

Eventually, with regrets, we have to leave this special family of pilot whales. Slowly we sail back to Tarifa and unexpectedly we see one family of pilot whales after the other. So many pilot whales on this one boat trip……… after such a long time of almost not seeing any of them. Nature again proves to be totally unpredictable and I realise: we humans are nothing more than bystanders. Sailing into the harbour I’m thoroughly satisfied knowing that, with all the young calves born, the next generation for all these families is already on the way: they have come full circle again.

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