Sometimes things turn out differently than you might think

by firmm Team

Text: Stéfanie Goth, Photos: firmm

I've been in Tarifa for 2.5 weeks already and had completed numerous boat trips in the Strait of Gibraltar through my work as a volunteer for firmm. I had by the time had great experiences on the boat and had seen many dolphins, orcas, pilot whales and sperm whales. Nevertheless there was one whale species still missing which, although it is to be found here the whole year round, can be seen rarely on a trip: the fin whale.

I was happy like a little child every time we saw huge groups of fast striped or common dolphins, or the playful bottlenose dolphins, who love to swim around the boat curiously. Also it was always a real experience to observe the fight between the orcas and the Moroccan fishermen for the red tuna, or the elegant submersion of a sperm whale, which caused a murmur on the boat every time when his tail fluke slowly plunged into the water. Nevertheless, I secretly hoped on every tour that this time I would see a fin whale.

One morning we once again went out with the firmm VISION on a three hours orca-trip. Since the orcas have not been seen very often in the last few days, I was a bit worried and hoped very much that we would see them today, so no one would be disappointed. On board I talked to a nice German family who asked me about my work as a volunteer in Tarifa. The question arose whether I had already seen all the species of whales and dolphins in the Strait; “No” I said, “the fin whale is still missing”. The woman replied jokingly that maybe it would happen on this trip today. I smiled and shrugged my shoulders, maybe I said, but I didn't really believe it. A fin whale on an orca exit, that didn't seem logical to me. As you go far out towards the Atlantic Ocean to search for the orcas, almost leaving the Strait, and regarding the fact that when you find them you stay with them, you hardly see any other species - unless you encounter them by chance on the way there or back.

We were still in the middle of our conversation when suddenly our captain Antonio turned the boat around 180° and gave full throttle. Everyone looked around in amazement; I also interrupted the conversation to ask a Marinero what was going on. "Un rorcual, un rorcual!" he answered me enthusiastically. I couldn't believe my ears: "Un rorcual - a fin whale? I asked incredulously. But I had not misunderstood - in fact the SPIRIT, the other firmm boat, had seen a fin whale not far from us and now we were on our way at full tilt to this impressive animal, which is the second largest animal on earth after the blue whale. Excitedly I went back to the family and told them what was going on. We all had to laugh because we had joked about it just before. My heart was pounding like wild and like all other passengers on the boat, I searched the wide sea impatiently for a grey fin whale fin or a big blow. After 10 minutes we heard Katharina, the founder of the foundation shout enthusiastically, through the microphone that she had seen the fin whale. "A la izquierda - on the left!" And indeed, there he was. Not far from the boat, a huge figure rose out of the water, whose size you could only guess - the fin whale. Even although only a small part of the back and the dorsal fin were visible, I got goose pimples by the sheer size and strength, this animal radiated. The boat followed the fin whale parallel and at the same height and one realized how fast this gigantic animal was swimming. The fin whale didn’t let himself be disturbed by the many enthusiastic observers and so we could follow him for a long time and marvel at him.

Fin whale Blow of a fin whale 

When the boat slowly turned around again to continue its way towards the orcas everyone sat down satisfied and excited and I could hardly believe my luck either. But it should not be everything we would experience on this trip. As previously suspected, the orcas were not to be found on this day. After we passed all the Moroccan fishing boats and drove a bit towards the Moroccan coast without meeting one orca family, we had no choice but to drive back into the heart of the Strait of Gibraltar and hope to see one or another species. Since the experience with the fin whale was so impressive there was still an excited and happy vibe on the boat - it almost seemed as if the people had forgotten the orcas altogether. Suddenly the boat stopped and you could hear Katharina calling through the microphone: "At 12 o' clock you can see a large group of small dolphins! It seems to be a mixed group of striped and common dolphins!" - And indeed, a short time later we saw them too. All around us they swam at an incredible pace; jumped out of the water from time to time, sometimes several of them together. It was certainly a group of up to 1000 animals and no matter on which side of the boat you were standing, everyone could watch them perfectly.

Common dolphins Striped... dolphins 

After many minutes full of joy, we continued our journey. Until now, the trip was perfect despite the lack of orcas - but that still should not be all. A short time later Katharina's voice sounded through the loudspeakers again: “At 3 o' clock are pilot whales! And I' can see some bottlenose dolphins, too! ” Everyone ran excitedly to the right side and once again there was an enthusiastic murmur on the boat, when the black pilot whales rose comfortably from the dark blue sea and in the middle of them a few lively bottlenose dolphins swam curiously towards the boat.

Pilot whales more pilot whales 

While the pilot whales let themselves be carried by the waves, the bottlenose dolphins had great fun being pushed by the bow waves of our boat. And so they swam around the boat again and again or underneath it or jumped out as soon as they had gained enough speed.


From now on there was no holding back - the children squeaked happily, the adults could not decide between taking pictures like mad and observing. The positive suspension on the boat was tangible. This pure zest for life of the animals was transmitted to all of us and there was no one left on this boat who wasn't smiling or wasn’t delighted. As the boat went on, we all felt thrilled. It even made a little tired to have so many experiences full of adrenaline and joy one after the other. But still there was more to come. Since the time was almost over, the boat set off for Tarifa. A short time later, however, the boat went full throttle anew and once again everyone on the boat looked surprised, because everybody knew this meant something. And indeed, shortly afterwards, Katharina called: “We have seen a sperm whale! We must now be quick so that we can reach him before he disappears!” The short hint of fatigue quickly flew away. Everyone was looking enthusiastically for a sperm whale blow. I couldn't hide my excitement either. After the fin whale, the common and striped dolphins, the pilot whales and the bottlenose dolphins - now also a sperm whale?!

Ready... for diving 

What was going on today? During all my past trips I had seen two to three species of animals at most - six species of animals on one trip seemed to be a small miracle. Now I was hoping, like the other passengers on the boat, that we would reach the sperm whale in time. And that's what happened. We made it in time and could watch the amazing animal for a few minutes before it blew out deeply once more, bent its back and dived down vertically, that was when you could see his fluke perfectly, which elegantly dipped into the water. Awesome! Katharina was also extremely enthusiastic and shouted through the microphone: “What a perfect ending to a great tour." When the VISION returned to the port of Tarifa, only happy and content people sat on the boat, who would probably not forget this trip for a lifetime. When I said goodbye to the German family, the child said with delight: "Good thing we didn't see the orcas, so we have a reason to come back soon and make another tour!" Sometimes things happen differently than you think, and sometimes it's even better!


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