The story goes that Mexican president Ernesto Zedillo was poised to agree to a giant new salt works in San Ignacio lagoon. The pristine spot is vital for gray whale calving area but Mitsubishi were on board and the $100million project was to be a big money-spinner for the country. But then he went whale watching. Out on the water, he saw his wife Nilda kiss a whale on the head and immediately decided to drop the project, protecting the lagoon and winning plaudits from environmentalists all over the world.
Twelve years later, staring out at the uncharacteristically calm waters of the Bay of Biscay, it is easy to understand why being in the presence of these majestic animals prompted Zedillo to make such an unexpected about turn. I’m on a trip organised by conservation charity ORCA and Brittany Ferries. We’re aboard the Pont-Aven, sailing from Portsmouth to Santander in Spain, and all the way there we have been treated to the sight of fin whales, sharks, dolphins, tuna, sun fish and more. Due to the variety of habitats in this stretch of ocean, from enormous underwater canyons to nutrient-rich current streams, the Bay of Biscay is home to over a quarter of the entire whale, dolphin and porpoise species known to man. The spot has now developed a reputation as one of the world's best whale-watching locations.
A yell of: ‘blow!’ and everyone rushes to one side of the deck. We see the explosive, tall, straight blow of the fin whale – the second largest creature ever to exist on earth at more than twice the size of a London bus – and it sets hearts racing. Though we don’t get a close-up, you can easily imagine its colossal ribbed belly, skin covered in barnacles and huge, wise eyes. When juxtaposed with the jangling ferry PA system announcing bingo in the pool bar, picturing the quiet ocean depths which the fin whale calls home is an eerie feeling.
Later, I almost forget to shout, so transfixed am I by the unmistakable outline of a blue shark, basking in the sun just metres from the oblivious holidaymakers scanning the Daily Mail on the deck below. We see a minke whale, pilot whales, fin whales, common and striped dolphins and a whole host of seabirds during the trip – and having the enthusiasm and knowledge of the ORCA crew on hand makes for an unforgettable experience.
‘We love sharing this fantastic resource with people and get them enthused about wildlife,’ explained ORCA vice-chair Stephen Marsh when I asked why the team run these trips.
‘They have allowed us to talk about the threats to marine habitats to well over 10,000 people a year which brings the problems to the fore. People who have come and seen whales and dolphins will go home and hopefully start thinking more about what they're eating, what they're discarding, start looking at the issues and maybe getting involved more in finding solutions.’
The collective name for whales and dolphins is cetacean – Greek for sea monsters – and they are monstrous in both their scale and ability to bring perspective. When it comes to assessing our impact on the environment and bringing about change, seeing these creatures close up succeeds time and time again when teaching and persuading alone often fall short.
Where presidents have been affected before me, I too have fallen under the spell of whale-watching – an incredible once-in-a-lifetime experience.
Visit orcaweb.org.uk and brittany-ferries.co.uk to find out more