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 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).

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