BootsnAll Travel Network

Pilot Whales: A Close Encounter

Tarifa, 5th October 2012
Waiting for the Next Trip
Naturally, on my last day there was hardly a breeze blowing. Should I put my backpack into storage and go out again?

No. The hostel was too unwelcoming. Unlike any other I’d stayed in during this trip they didn’t even offer storage. Rather the signs on the walls proclaimed—in no uncertain terms, and in both English and Spanish—that check-out was by 10:30 at the latest: you and your luggage!.

The bus station didn’t have any left-luggage facilities either.

Part of me thought I should try the firmm office, but then I thought better of it. Talk about being unprofessional.

Mistake? To be sure…

But you know me by now, don’t you? I spent another three minutes vacillating, then shouldered my backpack and marched back to the hostel a toda prisa as they say in Spain. Luckily the place was only about 7 minutes from the bus station, on the way into town. The receptionist grudgingly agreed that I could leave my bag, provided I paid 2€ upfront. I kept hopping from foot to foot and popped a Valium while she went on with her cleaning. When I followed her into the courtyard she finally relented and led me to the first floor where she locked the backpack into a shower stall. One thing that can be said about the hostel was that it had a lot of showers.

“Come back soon,” she said and I hurriedly assured her that I would be back around noon.

By now it was almost 9:40 and I marched to the harbour to find the meeting point devoid of people. The first trip would not leave before twelve.

Oh no! My flight wasn’t until the evening, but buses from Tarifa are a rarity. Having missed the 9:30, the next bus would leave at 11:50 and after that times were a little hazy. There was only one thing for it: march straight back to the bus station to check the timetable.

At this time I almost wished that it had been windy and this dilemma would never have arisen. I wished for it even more when I arrived to find the bus station closed. I could see the timetables through the glass door. My binoculars (which turned out to have many surprising uses) brought them tantalisingly close. But they were at an angle and I could not read them.

What now? The station might open again at eleven, but by then the trip might have sold out. I stood—binoculars in hand—pondering what to do next when a man in a green striped COMES shirt and tie stepped up and gave me a strange look.

“I was just having a coffee,” he said.

And I was able to check that—yes—I should be able to make the 15:30 bus to Algeciras and connect with the 16:30 bus to La Linea, hopefully getting to the airport by 17:30, if I did not get get frisked at the border. Failing that, the 16:55 would go directly to La Linea, but that would be cutting it mighty fine.

This was one of those days. If I decided not to go there would be orcas and sperm whales and even migrating finwhales in addition to all the dolphins and long-finned pilot whales that are resident in the strait. The last time I’d seen pilot whales was on my trip to Bilbao, more than seven years ago, and I missed them.

On the other hand, if I stayed the wind might pick up, we’d all get drenched and I’d miss my flight.

But Nina at the firmm reception assured me that conditions would remain calm, so I parted with my last 30€. My multiple-trip discount meant that I received just about enough change for my bus tickets.

It felt like providence.

T. truncatus
Tursiops truncatus

The sun came out, leaving only a grey haze in the east. The palm leaves where barely rustling and I felt that all was well. Particularly since the Valium was kicking in. It takes ages to reach full efficacy, but I finally stopped worrying and fretting about my luggage and the bus times and—most importantly—the possibility of suffering another panic attack.

It was quiet in the harbour but the wind was a light easterly and I kept a close eye on the flags, wondering about conditions out in the strait. However when we went out the sea state was a calm 2. There was glimmer on the eastern side, so this time I positioned myself on the right side of the boat and started sweeping the waters ahead with my binoculars. But as it has been the case on any of these trips they proved to be useless as the dolphins appeared right in front of us. This time it was a a school of Tursiops, but they did not engage with us. Although they remained close for over fifteen minutes, I failed to get a single decent picture of them surfacing, but it hardly mattered. There were dozens of them and there would be more to come!

We had barely left the school behind when—ahead of us—we saw out first pilot whales (Globicephala melas).
Globicephala melas, close encounter.

There was a mother and calf pair which surfaced frequently over the first five minutes or so, then fell back a little as several of the adults came closer.
G.melas Mother & Calf
Globicephala melasMother & calf.

The group was relaxed, with several of the whales interacting with each other or drifting on the surface for a while, which is a resting behaviour.
Globicephala melas interaction.

G. melas Adult drifting
Globicephala melas drifting.

Apparently we were following ‘Gorro’s’ group but the names can be a little confusing as some of them are similar. We stayed with the pod for almost twenty minutes when the guide said we’d move on to find another group, but I’m not sure that we ever did because the next sighting happened two minutes later!

This group included an injured male who goes by the name of ‘Curro’, and also another mother and calf (or were they the same?) ‘Nina’ and her baby, born in May.
Globicephala melas injured male.

We saw ‘Curro’ drifting on the surface over several minutes, closely accompanied by two other whales. Meanwhile, the calf came close to the boat, first on the left side, then moving away again, only to surface spy-hopping further to the right and then popping up right in front of us!

Encounter with Calf!
Globicephala melas curious calf!

I crouched down and stuck my head through the railing and we all shrieked with laughter as the tiny calf was doing back-flips right in front of us, but when I looked at my camera, the read-out was zero.

We’d spent over twenty minutes with the whales before it was time to return to the harbour where the next group was waiting. I was a little surprised that we hadn’t seen any striped dolphins which are usually common here, but I’d spotted some splashes in the distance which I did not manage to focus on with my binoculars.

Overall this has been an unforgettable encounter, and it was definitely the right decision to go for a crazy, last-minute whale-watching trip, not least because my flight was delayed by several hours.

But more about that later.
Globicephala melas fluke.

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