Expedition to the Bay of Biscay and Picos de Europa

Over the months of October and November 2009, artists Chris Wallbank and Shenaz Khimji travelled across the bay of Biscay and the Picos de Europa mountain range in Northern Spain. Sponsored by the SWLA Society of Wildlife Artists, bursary scheme this expedition aimed to traverse the extremes of depth and altitude that characterise Northern Spain and its wildlife. This blog documents their discoveries using extracts from Chris Wallbank’s journal and the artists’ sketchbooks. Click on images to open in a larger window

Thursday 8.10.09 Crossing the Bay of Biscay

Our ferry the Pont Aven is heavily delayed. This positions us favourably in the Bay of Biscay and fast approaching proven whale watching territory by first light.

We leave our cabin at 7.am and choose a post forward on the top deck. It is not long before our first sighting; a pod of 6 to 8 common dolphins exploding out of the turbulent sea 300m ahead, racing to meet the ships bows. In a second the dolphins are upon us attempting to bow ride, but with the ship reaching 20 to 24 kn, near top speed, they roll under or along the hull and are quickly left biting at our wake. A larger pod (15 to 20) foraging in the same area approach from port and I'm ready to run aft in time to see a mass of planing dorsal fins casually sinking out of sight. After this initial sighting the day is plagued by high winds, squally showers and a sea state of mainly 4 or 5, making observations difficult.
A break in the weather at 11 a.m. somewhere over the Torrelavega Canyon (3944m in depth) allowed me to glimpse three enormous blows bending backwards in the wind. The shallow angle of its trajectory suggests to me a possible sperm whale blow (as opposed to straight up blow of most rorquals), but with so much distortion from the wind it is impossible to be certain.
The whale blows I have seen in my short career watching have always first appeared distant, small and silent. I wouldn’t go as far as to say they are vague but they always leave me wondering what fluke led my eyes to fall on them? It seems unjust that the biggest animals in the world live in the environment with the widest horizons and no fixed reference of scale. Even a 40 tonne sperm whale can be dwarfed by the illusion of an ocean rolling endlessly towards the horizon. This instance was no exception as merging sea and sky added to my disorientating struggle to contextualise the wispy blow. However, even with the roughest calculation of distance and scale I am soon bristling with the inevitable awe that accompanies any whale sighting. I am looking (through binoculars, but even so) at a mammal that lies roughly between me and the horizon as I see it. That’s about two kilometres between us, and yet I can see the water it projects skyward through the force of its lungs, there is even a cloud of vapour momentarily hanging on the wind. Although its body is obscured, somewhere where I am looking is an animal so big I can effectively see its breath from 2 km away. Whenever I remember the whale blows I have seen, they don’t appear as quiet ‘blink and you miss them’ wisps on the horizon but noisy clouds of explosive water that linger in the air as they expand and dissipate above lurching black bulks.

This particular whale did not surface again before the ship had passed so we never got a clear ID of the species. But for me the confirmation I get from seeing a blow, to witness first hand the presence of such a colossal animal living in an environment that’s practically alien is what really gets my blood racing.
We think this is our last sighting, but as a final surprise, a fanfare of twisting and tumbling bottlenose dolphins meet us as we make the last turns into the sheltered bay of Santander.

Road to Arenas De Cabrales

After a few pinchos in Santander we catch a bus two hours to Pannes, passing from maritime suburbs to farmland. Plastic bags drowned in boggy verges or snagged in bushes, line this busy road out of the city, though some turn out to be brilliant white cattle egrets delicately picking through the debris.

The highway steadily climbs into a more mountainous landscape. However at one town called San Vicente, we meet the sea again as it infiltrates rolling green hills capped with medieval fortifications. At this point we are treated to our first and very spectacular glimpse of the Picos as the clouds break and shards of shattered sunlight define the jagged outline of the great massifs beyond San Vicente’s glistening lagoons.
It is evening by the time we reach Pannes and find a taxi to take us the last leg of our journey to Arenas. The road from here negotiates a landscape of pinnacles, domes, spires, cliffs and other limestone obstacles as it chases the river Cares through a narrowing gorge.
Our taxi driver negotiates this twisting road with a worrying lack of belief in driving while your talking; lifting his hands off the wheel and turning to look me in the eye whenever we passed something he thought I should know about. I probably exacerbate the situation further by only half listening to him as I become clearly more distracted at every corner of the deepening gorge and ever more fantastical limestone formations are revealed. With no real measure of perspective or distance save for a fading of the limestone from white to blue towards the horizon, I find myself in a landscape illusion reminiscent of an early renaissance painting. It is as if we are wending our way through Andrea Mantegna or Giovvani di Paolo’s tempura hilltops. Gradually the gorge opens up enough that beech trees have found room to grow below the stubby cliff top bonsais. In turn woodland is replaced by pasture and eventually a scattering of houses marking the boundary of Arenas De Cabrales where we find our campsite (Camping Naranja de Bulnes).

Friday 9.10.09 Arenas de Cabrales

Even before we unzipped our tent this morning the light melody of grazing cow bells punctuated with the intermittent snare of falling chestnuts had set the alpine tone of our surroundings.

Our campsite is in a grove of horse chestnut trees overlooking a short span of valley peppered with orange beech wood and gnarled altitude loving oaks. But it is the single blunt dome of limestone that dominates our view. Griffon vultures drift through the thickening air as midday approaches, without exception they are drawn like satellites to this imposing lunar peak. I count eighteen, though some are lost from sight down the back of the mountain, whilst others crick their wings and dive earth bound, their shadows throwing ghoulish shapes against the cliff face.
We watch and paint throughout the day and occasional village wanderers stoop to collect chestnuts from around our feet without the slightest interest in our work or attempts at small talk.

Cabeza Turruecu by Shenaz Khimji

Saturday 10.10.09 Torbina (1317m)

The first major climb in our itinerary, Torbina stands between the coast and the Picos range and should therefore offer good views of both… or so the theory goes.

After a walk up 4kms of asphalt hairpins to the hamlet of Arranga, it is a steep scramble through scrubby rock gardens before we find ourselves painfully wading up heather slopes towards sheer walls of limestone. The sun is hot and we are at all times accompanied either by powder blue, acid yellow or tortoiseshell butterflies.
The path eventually reappears near friendly goats, where it zigzags up a cliff pass for one hour. By this time the weather has degraded, reducing visibility to seven or eight metres. Not wanting to be beaten so close to the summit, we make a mad scramble up into the mist to successfully find an unceremonious cairn marking the highest peak (although only by using an altimeter can we be sure this is the summit).
We never see the impressive panoramas that the map promises. On our way back however, the cloud breaks to offer tantalizing views of peaks and valleys snared in mist (pictured in the sketch below). Stop for a beer in Arranga, which later becomes a free lift down the road to Arenas!

Sunday 11.10.09 Arenas De Cabrales

Painting griffon vultures orbiting the dome shaped peak of Cabeza Turruecu (922m)

Monday 12.10.09 Bulnes

Old Bules by Shenaz Khimji
Bulnes is a cluster of terracotta tiled houses nestled in the head of a steep sided valley. Although the entire settlement predates the Roman period, the first cluster of barns and houses we reach is called new Bulnes and is separated from old Bulnes by a 500m path that doubles back towards the centre of the valley.

Old Bulnes is perched on a rocky outcrop that commands a 360° view of its encompassing mountains. From here we can see all the way down the neck of the funnel shaped valley to the main road we set off from three hours previously. Only accessible by foot, the path through this valley was until recently the main route into Bulnes. Now a funicular railway, opened in 2004, provides Bulnes with a more rapid link to the outside world, much to the delight of its small population but condemnation of conservationists who want to see the traditional mountain way of life preserved.
Apart from the tasteful cafes and small hotel that caters for the handfuls of tourists arriving each day on the funicular, there is little to suggest that the rural character of Bulnes has undergone much change. The houses are ancient and each one roofed with the customary terracotta tiles. They are still shared with livestock, and outside wood smoke mingles with the smell of manure. Cattle walk shoulder to shoulder with people down cobbled streets and goats were penned into one corner of the main plaza.
There is something unsettling about Bulnes however, which we soon put down to an absence of youngsters. Children who have grown up here board during the week at the local school in Arenas. Usually they return at weekends but it is unlikely many will ever return to settle. One couple in their 90s tell how their children travel from the city each autumn to drive the goats down from summer pastures they cannot themselves reach.
We are staying in the village Auberge, basically the upper storey of a barn with mattresses on the floor. At 6 p.m. the last funicular of the day leaves and we smugly enjoy the idyllic village under a starry sky all to ourselves. We are blissfully unaware however, that the cafes will not open again until the first load of day trippers arrive late tomorrow morning, until which time we will have to rely on our meagre rations. Rations which are being diminished further by the Auberge’s resident mice, as we romantically gaze at the stars.

Tuesday 13.10.09 Bulnes

We have been introduced to some of the mountain birds and spend the day drawing them. Rock buntings, serins, yellowhammers, grey wagtails, chiffchaffs and griffon vultures are all easy to see. However, my attention is mostly focused on the black redstarts that flit and fidget amongst the tiled roofs. These birds seem to favour this terracotta scree over their more natural mountainside habitat. Baring in mind its willingness to adopt urban habitats, I find myself drawn to the black redstart as an emblem of Bulnes’s precarious position on a boundary between the wild and habituated, past and present worlds.

At the end of the day we make arrangements to eat after hours with one of the cafe proprietors, Rafa, a relationship which over the next few days proves invaluable not only because his willingness to feed us allows us to stay longer in Bulnes but because his knowledge of the mountains determines our next steps towards crossing the Picos.
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