Wildlife Watch with P&O Ferries

Teeming with aquatic life, the Bay of Biscay is a magnet for naturalists - and there is no better place to catch a glimpse of a dolphin than aboard the P&O Pride of Bilbao. John Hillman explains what you can expect to see.

The English Channel is familiar to anyone who’s spent a childhood weekend on the South Coast, or a debauched three years at one of our coastal universities. It is instinctively recognizable, as English as fish and chips. But once P&O’s the Pride of Bilbao steams out beyond Land’s End and into the Bay of Biscay, heading to Bilbao, you soon become aware that you are entering a whole new world.

This stretch of the Atlantic Ocean, known to the Spanish as the Mar Cantabrico, is a much livelier place than the more genteel English Channel. Deep water canyons and extended shallow areas, from the protruding continental shelf, contrast to produce a dramatic waterscape with an abundance of marine life that gives it the feel of an aquatic rainforest.

The first thing you’ll notice as you leave the channel and move into the Bay is that the water around you has changed colour. Gone is that familiar thick silvery-grey shimmer of the English Channel and in its place appears a blue colour that is so dark in its intensity that it’s almost black.

It’s an impressive place for anyone with a propensity for being impressed by nature, and its ferocious personality has protected England throughout history as effectively as a Spartan shield. Indeed, this Bay probably did more damage to the Spanish Armada than 100 Francis Drakes put together, so much so that Elizabeth should have probably given it an honorary knighthood.

Always an area of geostrategic importance, from the Napoleonic to the Cold Wars, it has seen its fair share of conflict, but is the conflict between nature and modern man where today’s battles are being fought.

The area is home to over a quarter of the worlds different species of Dolphins, Whales and Porpoises and an almost countless number of different seabirds, all of which are monitored aboard P&O’s Pride of Bilbao by the Biscay Dolphin Research Programme. When you are next on board have a look for them, they’ll be at the bow of the ship looking through binoculars and furiously scribbling down data.

This charity of volunteers has been in operation since 1995 and monitors seabirds and Cetaceans from the ship’s decks for the purpose of education and research. The main concern for them are the problems of noise pollution and commercial whaling, but perhaps most invidiously the practice of catching juveniles for the purpose of using them in public shows.

Many cetaceans such as the Mink Whale and the common Dolphin are spotted on almost every crossing while more rare and exotic species, such as Sperm and Killer Whales, or White Beaked Dolphins, are just occasionally sighted. It makes P&O’s Pride of Bilbao actually one of the most convenient ways to see cetaceans in European waters.

Also of huge interest are the 100s of different species of sea-birds, who spend much of their lives at sea and only come ashore to nest on remote and rocky sea-swept islands. We actually know very little about them, even in today’s modern world of adventurous high-tech nature films.

With so many of our creature comforts catered for on board P&O Ferries we forget that we are actually venturing out into one of earth's great wildernesses, but the volunteers at Biscay Dolphin Research are there to remind us that every trip across the Bay of Biscay to the Basque Country of Northern Spain is actually a true voyage of discovery.