Swan Hellenic

Sightings Archive

Sightings Archives: November 2008

Towards Salvador

Posted 28 November 2008

Tuesday saw our final full day at sea before arriving in Salvador Wednesday lunchtime. Travelling over the continetal slope for the majority of the day we had high hopes for sightings of both dolphins and some of the larger whale species.

The day started off fairly slowly with just a few Cory's and Great Shearwaters to entertain us as well as a Magnificent Frigatebird which spent a great deal of time perched on the mast of the ship waiting for passing Shearwaters to pounce on. At one point, it very purposefully flew off towards a Great Shearwater which it harried and harrassed until the poor Shearwater regurgitated its breakfast..... warm fish, yum! The Frigatebird was so determined it even picked the Shearwater up in its beak at one point! After, this tasty (if you are a Frigatebird) meal, it came back onto the mast and perched preening for several hours before finally leaving us for good.

Magnificent Frigatebird on the mast

Cetacean-wise, we were fairly quiet again with just 2 sightings all day. The first happened very quickly. I happened to glance down over the bridge wing whilst sitting down and suddenly noticed a big turquoise coloured blob in the water right below us - a subsurface small whale! A quick shout to Clive and we were both tracking the animal subsurface which was very easy to pick out in the clear water. However, it frustratingly didn't surface until well aft of the ship, despite us both yelling "surface" to it very loudly to no avail. The views and photographs indicate that this was a probable Antarctic Minke Whale - a small whale with a very pointed rostrum, small, hooked dorsal fin and no white marking on the pectoral fins.

Probable Antarctic Minke Whale

We had to wait several hours for our next sighting, which again was frustrating, but another new species to add to the growing list. We picked up the blow of a large whale dead ahead of the ship, about halfway to the horizon moving from right to left. Well positioned with camera in hand, we waited patiently for the animal to resurface off the port side. Not disappointed, the animal surfaced several times, size, colour and dorsal fin shape indicated either a Bryde's or Sei whale. The photograph shows a somewhat erect, but very hooked dorsal fin. Due to the distance from the ship, we were unble to confirm this as a Bryde's whale whose diagnostic features are 3 longitudinal ridges on the head.

Probable Bryde's/Sei Whale

Wednesday morning saw us making our final approach into Salvador and we were surprised with a variety of sightings. An early report of a Hammerhead Shark from a passenger and then a good sighting of a large Turtle species started the morning well.

Suddenly, Clive and the Captain both picked up the remnants of a blow ahead of the ship. We kept scanning, with camera on stand-by and relocated the animal still ahead of the ship, but now much closer. The roll of the body showed a small dorsl fin on a hump - Humpback Whale! A big flukeprint indicated this animal had probably made a deep dive, but we were hopeful it would resurface again soon. Suddenly, another blow - this time obviously V-shaped, with a smaller one beside it. The roll of these animals showed a huge girth to the animal and no dorsal fin - Southern Right Whale! A little confused now, we scanned around further, but could only relocate the mother and juvenile Right Whale again, there was no sign of the Humpback Whale which appeared to be in association with these other 2 whales.

Humpback Whale


Southern Right Whale Mother & Juvenile Pair

A report from the Captain after our arrival in Salvador of 4 Bottlenose Dolphins coming into the bow was logged and we were accompanied by several Brown Boobies who were again using the ship as a fishing aid!

After Salvador, we have a 2 day sail to Rio so will hopefully add to our sightings during this period.

Best regards, Emma

Land Ahoy......

Posted 26 November 2008

Well, a group of volcanic islands actually! Monday we passed very close to Fernando de Noronha which is an extremely important breeding ground for many seabirds in the Atlantic. It also has a resident pod of Spinner Dolphins which reside in one of the many coves on the Archipelago.

Magnificent Frigatebird

At first light we awoke to accompanying Magnificent Frigatebirds who were hovering over the ship waiting to harrass (very successfully) any of the Boobies for their breakfast. A close scan of the Boobies revealed we actually had 3 different species amongst them - Masked Booby, Brown Booby and both the pale and dark morph Red-Footed Boobies.

Pale Morph Red-Footed Booby

By mid-morning, Fernando de Noronha was starting to peak over the horizon and the numbers and variety of seabirds was increasing. As we passed close by the islands, it was easy to see where the birds were nesting - the trees and bushes were turned white by the nesting Tropicbirds and Boobies as were a great many of the rocks (as well as us from the Boobies above the bridge wings)!

As we sailed close by the main island, we were able to record thousands of Black and Brown Noddy, as well as White Tern and Sooty Tern. Right at the end of the encounters, we also had an amazing encounter with 3 Tropicbirds which flew directly overhead.

Brown Noddy

Unfortunately, we did not encounter any cetaceans directly, although with the increase in the number of eyes scannings the waters as a consequence of our on-board passenger education programme, we believe one of the passengers observed 2 probable Pilot Whale off the port side of the ship whilst we were monitoring the seabirds off the starboard side. A large shark was also sighted cruising slowly just beneath the surface.

As we moved away from the Archipelago, the variety of bird species dropped away. However, the Boobies stayed with us until after dark and were seen using the ship as a fishing aid. They would hover over the bridge wings waiting for Flying Fish to be put up by the passage of the ship and then plunge down to get them. One dark phase Red-Footed Booby was particularly adept at this and caught the majority of the fish he went for.

Red-Footed Booby Chasing Flying Fish

I must finally tell about the night sky out here.. it is amazing! In the evening, whilst the rest of the passengers were enjoying a concert, we sat on the back deck with the Captain and he arranged for the deck lights to be switched off. The sky was full of stars and it became difficult to pick out the constellations, amongst the stars we don't usually see due to light pollution. We were also treated to awesome shooting stars as we go through the tail end of the Leonids meteor shower.

Best regards, Emma

Across the Equator!

Posted 24 November 2008

No cetacean sightings over the last 2 days, but amazing migrations of sea birds being picked up! Saturday morning we woke up to yet more Intermediate Egrets aroud the ship. This time 2 birds decided to stick with us for most of the morning and were seen pitching down onto the ship from time to time. It still amazes me the journey these land birds are making - 2000 miles TransAtlantic!

Many Cory's and Great Shearwaters are being seen primarily tracking right (west) to left (east). We have also recorded many Leach's Petrel and Bulwer's Petrel. From 15.00 onwards on Saturday we appeared to come across a major migratory route for the larger Shearwaters, with many hundreds of Cory's and Great Shearwaters continuously tracking through southwards - these shearwaters are probably the same birds we encounter earlier in year migrating through Biscay.

We have been kept quite busy over the last couple of days, recouperating and releasing Leach's Petrel and 2 Great Shearwaters which have come down onto the back decks overnight. I am pleased to say they all seem to have been released successfully and really just need a helping hand getting off the ship.

Leach's Petrel being released

The passengers are really interested in the birds we are encountering, many of which they will never have seen before - they therefore fit their descriptions of the birds to what they look similar to from what they know, be that Swan's, Geese or Ducks. We are providing on-going advice and education to help them recognise the differences between the key species we are encountering and with birds landing on deck, they are often treated to very close views!

Sunday saw us finally 'crossing the line' into the Southern Hemisphere and I am very pleased to say that I avoided any pool dunking during the 'Crossing the Line' party which was put on by the crew in the afternoon.

Crossing the Line Party - even the Captain got wet

Sunday morning saw us again crossing through many Great and Cory's Shearwaters and by the afternoon we were starting to pick up large groups of Sooty Tern's also. The best sight of the day for many people was the view of 2 Masked Booby's drifting slowly around the ship for several hours. One adult and one juvenile clearly showed us the plummage differences shown in the various stages of life.

Masked Booby

We crossed the equator at 17.56 in the evening accompanied by Masked Booby. As the Captain counted down over the tannoy and the ship's whistle sounded to mark the crossing we were treated to a spectacular sunset. A small Green Flash was also seen at the exact same time we crossed the line - we couldn't have timed it better if we'd tried!!!

On the Equator!

Tomorrow see's us taking in the Fernando de Noronha Archipelago on our way south and this could potentially be a good area for dolphins and breeding sea birds.

Hope the snow isn't too bad in the UK (we've got high humidity and at least 30 degrees heat!). It's going to be a bit of a shock coming home!

Oh, and by the way... the water really does run down the plughole the wrong way here!!!!

Best regards, Emma

Crossing the Atlantic (and Happy Birthday!)

Posted 22 November 2008

Before we tell you about the extremely interesting day we had yesterday, we must wish Pam (Clive's wife) a very happy birthday for yesterday also! Unfortunately, a temperamental internet connection yesterday precluded us from being able to update the blog until now.


The first full day at sea crossing the Atlantic has prove most interesting. sightings started shortly after sunrise, with a very close sighting of 2 adult Sperm Whale with a tiny calf. Photographs show that one of the females has an extremely unusual dorsal fin shape which is showing in the photograph below.

A small group of Short-Finned Pilot Whale was also recorded in waters 5350 metres deep. Again this small group had a small juvenile with them.

The best and most confusing sighting of the day however, came towards late afternoon in fantastic viewing conditions. We were crossing over a small sea mount which was around 550 metres in height when I suddenly spotted a big flick up of water well out to the horizon ahead of the ship. This had to have been caused by something as there was no white water about at all. We kept scanning and just a couple of minutes later, 3 small whale species surfaced travelling very fast down the port side of the ship. The light conditions made identification challenging, but they were the size of a large beaked whale or Minke whale. Clive suddenly called a cetacean close by the ship - a False Killer Whale moving fast in the same direction. The lone animal surfaced just the once, but offered good views of the conical-shaped head. As this was happening, I got onto yet another cetacean further out which was very brown in coloration, but gave nothing else away. We couldn't understand why there only seemed to be one False Killer Whale hunting, but a passenger later reported another 2 cetaceans off the starboard side at the time of our sighting which, from the description, were also probable False Killer Whale. It seems we split the group as we sailed by.

Bird sightings have been plentiful and we have recorded many Great and Cory's Shearwater as well as Leach's Petrel. However, the very best and most amazing sighting of the day was reserved until sunset. A flock of 12 Intermediate Egrets overtook the ship close by, following on from the 5 we recorded at lunchtime.

Today sees us still north of the Equator over the deep waters of the Abyssal Plain. Connection permitting, I will update you on sightings today later this evening.

Best regards, Emma


Posted 21 November 2008

5 Intermediate Egrets have just been recorded 600 nm west of Africa and 260 nm southwest of Cape Verde. The birds tracked along with the ship (on a course of 190 dgrees) for approximately 1/2 an hour before we lost sight of them.

Photographs to follow!

Best regards, Emma

Cape Verde bound and the sun is shining!

Posted 19 November 2008

Well, after a very pleasant day in Gran Canaria where we managed to see African Blue Tit, Canary Islands Chiff Chaff and plenty of Monarch butterflies, we were on the move again - this time bound for Sao Vicente on the Cape Verde Islands. This is a journey which will see us at sea for 2 days.

Day 1 saw us tracking along the lower edges of the continental slope off the west coast of Africa. Hopes were high for some of the larger whale species, but again we were disappointed with no sightings of the large Rorqual whales or Sperm Whale. However, early sightings of dolphin started the day of well and a early lone probable Atlantic Spotted Dolphin was recorded close by the ship.

Probable Atlantic Spotted Dolphin

A very frustrating small blow was seen then ahead of the ship, but it disappeared no sooner than it was sighted! We then went for many hours without a sightings at all - even the sea birds were quiet today. However, as we know so well from the Bay of Biscay, patience really can be rewarded and in mid-afternoon we certainly were. A large group of 100+ dolphins was sighted in the 11 o'clock position ahead of the ship (12 0'clock is dead ahead of the vessel and we use the 12 hour clock face for directions of sightings) and it soon became obvious from their very characteristic longitudinal spins that we were looking at a large school of Spinner Dolphins. They were very actively chasing fish and paid us no attention at all. 2 very different animals were sighted racing in to the bow - initial glimpses favoured Pan-Tropical Spotted Dolphins as these are known to associate with Spinner Dolphins, but with better views and photographic analysis, we confirmed Atlantic Spotted Dolphins. Who said whale and dolphin researh or watching had to be easy?

Atlantic Spotted Dolphin

Throughout the day, a probable Loggerhead Turtle was reported to us from a passenger and we also had several sightings of Flying Fish. Bird life was minimal although we do have a stowaway on board. A Collared Dove has been with us for a day now (and was still on board this morning). The bird is either a Eurasian Collared Dove (which is the same as we get in the UK) or an African Collared Dove. Plummage-wise they are moreorless identical and the books we have indicate that neither species should be heading towards the Cape Verde islands! We will keep you updated on this one!

Collared Dove

The strangest sighting of the day has to be this bizarre beast - which we are fairly sure is a locust! It was found on the window of the bar and had obviously not been sampling the stock as it was climbing up the window with no effort at all!


Into the North Atlantic

Posted 16 November 2008

Well, it goes to show what can happen when you get it horribly wrong and decide not to get up at 2.30 in the morning to watch us travelling through the Straits of Gibraltar - at a more sensible hour of the morning, a very dedicated passenger reported to us that she and the Captain watched dolphins bow riding and leaping around the ship as we came through this hot spot for cetaceans in the early hours of the morning!

Saturday morning saw us back in the North Atlantic travelling off the coast of Morocco bound for Gran Canaria. The number of Gannets picked up throughout the day and travelling through some deep water areas we were expecting to pick up some of the bigger whale species as well as some of the lesser known Beaked Whales. Our first sighting was of 2 small Mesoplodon type beaked whales with the rostrum clearly visible first as the animals rolled at the surface - however, frustratingly they were rolling away from us so a profile of the head was never completely seen making it virtually impossible to positively identify these animals. A later sighting of another larger Beaked Whale was seen as the animal breached away from us at least 5 times at a distance of about 2 km. The animal was probably a Cuvier's Beaked Whale from it's size - Northern Bottlenose Whale was ruled out as the animal did not have a bulbous melon. Beaked Whales are notoriously difficult to identify and both these sightings highlighted this fact perfectly.

A late sighting of 2 Sperm Whale delighted many of the passengers. The animals were clearly seen blowing ahead of the ship with the characteristic 45 degree blow clearly visible. However, frustratingly they disappeared under the surface before we reached their position.

Sunday brought us 2 new species on this trip. Our first sighting of the day was a very active group of Atlantic Spotted Dolphins which were very energetic in the bow wave.


Atlantic Spotted Dolphin bow-riding

Atlantic Spotted Dolphin

Atlantic Spotted Dolphins were seen again 3 times throughout the day and the biggest group was seen mid-afternoon where at least 50 animals raced in towards the bow. These energetic little dolphins are great fun to watch and really entertained the passengers today.

We sighted one small group of 8 Short-Beaked Common Dolphin who were not overly interested in the ship. They appeared to be travelling and at least 2 of the animals broke away from the group to come into the bow. However, unlike the Atlantic Spotted Dolphins seen today, they did not linger at the bow and quickly fell back behind the ship.

At the same time we were watching the large group of 50 Atlantic Spotted Dolphins racing in to bow-ride, a small group of 5 probable Short-Finned Pilot Whale were seen in the distance. There was at least one Bull in the group who was surging through the water and at least one juvenile also. These animals appeared to be in association with the Atlantic Spotted Dolphins who were at the bow of the vessel at the same time.

We have been picking up many migrant birds still and over the past 2 days we have recorded Song Thrush, Pipit species, Pied and Alba Wagtail, Chiff Chaff and Blackcap on the ship. Seabirds have remained somewhat quiet although today we did record Madeiran Storm Petrel.

Female Blackcap

Alboran Sea and Sunshine!

Posted 15 November 2008

Friday 14th November saw us travelling through the Alboran Sea, a known hotspot for many species of cetacean. Thankfully, the weather cleared overnight and we woke to glorious sunshine although the sea state was still not ideal - this did improve gradually throughout the day.

Still, today we have seen several groups of active dolphins. Early morning saw a duo of Striped Dolphin racing into the bow to play in the bow-wave. Out on the Bridge wings we are able to see the bulbous bow and actually observe the bow-riding taking place - something we certainly can't see on the Pride of Bilbao. It was also interesting to note that at a slower cruising speed, the dolphins are able to catch us up and come into the bow from the side of the ship as well as the front.

A lull in sightings followed, but we were treated to some fantastic bow-riding in the afternoon. Lunchtime was disrupted by an active group of Striped Dolphin and then in the mid-afternoon we had a mixed group of both Striped and Short-Beaked Common Dolphin at the bow. Passengers were able to get fantastic views of these animals as they peeled away from the bow. It was very pleasing to record Common Dolphin as they are classified as Endangered in the Mediterranean. The final group of Striped Dolphin which came in to bow-ride stayed with us for nearly 10 minutes before moving on and offered fantastic photographic opportunities.

Striped Dolphin bow-riding Minerva

Common Dolphin bow-riding

We also recorded many more sea birds today and both Mediterranean Gulls and Cory's Shearwaters were relatively frequent sights. We also recorded 1 Razorbill and just one Gannet which was seen towards the end of the day.

Arrival in Malaga was after dark and we had a pleasant evening strolling around the city and sampling tapas in some of the local bars before departing in the late evening. It is unfortunate that we will be travelling through the Gibraltar Straits in darkness (3am!) as this means we will be unable to survey this important area. However, tomorrow will see us travelling some interesting waters off the coast of Morocco so we will see what this brings!

Best regards, Emma

Postcard from the (not so) sunny Mediterranean

Posted 13 November 2008

Once again, we are on the move and currently travelling the western Mediterranean area towards Malaga and the Straits of Gibraltar. Yesterday saw us giving our introductory presentation to all passengers on the ship and this was very well received and generated a great deal of enthusiasm with everyone.

However, viewing any cetaceans has been difficult, partly due to our location at present, but also a small depression over Corsica has increased the wind speed up to near gale 7 on the beaufort scale and sea conditions have obviously worsened which does make it much harder to spot smaller animals. For the past two nights we have seen terrific thunderstorms with the night sky being lit up by amazing lightning displays. However, the forecast indicates that skies should clear now though and conditions improve so as we move nearer to the Straits of Gibraltar the likelihood of sightings increases.

We have recorded dolphins though. This afternoon a small group of just 4 probable Short-beaked Common Dolphin raced in towards the bow to play in the bow-wave. This was a brief sighting as the animals moved fast and didn't show overly well. However, their size and behaviour indicated that these were probable Common Dolphin, although we were unable to be any more accurate with the identification.

Bird sightings have been sporadic and the highlight so far has been a small Chiff Chaff stowing away on board yesteray afternoon. Africa-bound, the bird was making good use of the sun lounges and tables by the pool bar!

Chiffchaff on the Promenade Deck

Other passerines have been seen today including a Wagtail and a report of at least one more Chiff Chaff and a Robin from passengers have been received. Seabirds have been very few and far between and the only sighting of note was a lone Cory's Shearwater this afternoon drifting very lazily across the bow of the ship.

Tomorrow sees us arriving in Malaga in the early evening. We will be sailing through the most westerly parts of the Mediterranean during daylight and this is a very important area for many species of whales and dolphins including Long-Finned Pilot Whale, Orca, Short-Beaked Common Dolphin, Sperm Whale and Striped Dolphin. This area is proposed as a Marine Protected Area as part of the Global Whale & Dolphin Network and is known to be a hotspot for cetaceans so fingers crossed for some good sightings!

Best regards, Emma

Caio from Naples!

Posted 11 November 2008

Well, what a difference two hours makes! We left Gatwick on a very cold, extremely wet and windy Monday morning and two hours later were on our final approach to Naples which was enjoying basking in glorious sunshine. Landing at Naples airport offered amazing views of Vesuvius, the active volcano which overshadows Naples and the surrounding area.

Vesuvius from the plane as landing at Naples

A very smooth journey escorted through arrivals by Swan Hellenic saw us being met by coaches to ferry us to the Port of Naples where we got our first glimpse of our home for the coming weeks, Minerva where we were immediately made to feel very welcome by extremely efficient and friendly staff.

MV Minerva on her berth (dwarfed by Grand Princess!)

Unfortunately, due to some technical difficulties with a new generator on the ship, our departure has been delayed by 24 hours (although I am now pleased to say we are underway and very excited about what sightings lay ahead) whilst we awaited certification from the Italian authorities. The delay was expertly handled by Swan Hellenic and it did mean we had the added bonus of time in Naples to look round this beautiful city as well as time to enjoy this stunning ship bathed in sunshine.

Fort overlooking Naples Harbour

However, now we are on our way so please do keep checking back for updates. Hopefully, tomorrow will bring us calm seas, blue skies and plenty of whales and dolphins!

Best regards, Emma & Clive