The last time I went to the Pyrenees was way back in September 1998, taking my motorbike and Del on the Plymouth-Santander crossing.
But first a bit about Biscay crossings. From the mid-90s I got hooked on Biscay trips - it was then possible to go from Plymouth (conveniently only 25 miles away) to Santander return trip and see a great selection of cetaceans and seabirds, all for a modest price, using Brittany Ferries. The summer-early autumn period being best, although that said I've had good spring and late autumn crossings. The boat at the time was the Val de Loire - still to this day the best cross-channel ferry I've been on for marine-life observation. This was down to the design of the boat, which had a small open front facing deck, giving almost 180 degrees of forward observation from a reasonable height. Coupled with this, the sailing timings meant it was possible to cover a complete transect of Biscay by adding the outward and return trips together. But as the 90's moved on the sailing got more popular with seawatchers and the front facing observation area would fill up pretty quickly - there were even squabbles for space! Luckily for me on one of these early trips I met Dave Curtis (who has/had surveyed Biscay on the Val every month March-November for over 10+ years!!), so for a few years I became involved in systematic recordings with him. For this we were allowed to sit above the bridge (so no need to fight for a place on the lower deck), which had an even better 270 degrees field of view. Another factor which made the Val so good was she only used to do around 18 knots unlike the 24 knots of the modern ferries now on the route, which meant more time in Biscay and more time for observing a passing seabird or cetacean. So for a few years the Val became a regular venue, getting to know the various Captains and the many crew as well as the ferry terminal staff on both sides. But alas in 2004 they built a bigger, faster ferry which took over, the Pont Aven; which IMO has never been so good in terms of the route timing from Plymouth (OK to Portmouth) or as an observation platform! From 2004 we persevered with the Pont Aven, being allowed to watch from the bridge, but as it no longer did a return Plymouth-Santander trip it was not as convenient. Brittany Ferries even let me put my car on free, so we could go Plymouth-Santander, then Santander-Portsmouth (which gave the best crack at Biscay) and then drive home from Portsmouth. However, soon after Orca took over the route and still survey it to this day, so we called it a day doing the original survey. So since I've had very few Biscay crossing, though I did a double header back in August 2013 - that's Plymouth-Santander-Portsmouth-Santander-Plymouth, watching with some Orca colleagues I've got to know.
Anyway back to the 2017 trip. Armed with a bit of previous knowledge we studied the ferry times and decided as we were taking a car we needed the best compromise between maximum time in Biscay and cheapest price. So ended up booking a slot that would take us on two ferries I've not been on before, both going Bilbao and returning to Portsmouth - as discussed above leaving or returning to Plymouth is not good for Biscay time anymore. I would have preferred going to Santander for old times sake, but using Bilbao was both more economic and gave us better time in Biscay.
The outward bound ferry, was the economy Baie de Seine. Leaving Portsmouth at 08:45 on 19 September. A quick investigation found it was only possible to watch looking out from the port or starboard sides, but still a reasonable view but only effectively 50% coverage. So we picked port as it had the least glare. Leaving Portsmouth we saw the new aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth complete with police guard.
The English Channel was pretty boring with just Gannets and a few Bonxies, but as we neared Ushant we did see some Common Dolphins and a juvenile Sabine's Gull.
|juvenile intermediate phase Long-tailed Skua|
For me a close-ish Lt Skua I could photograph was the best bird of the crossing.
We arrived at Bilbao at 14:15 (13:15 English time) and headed off on the next part of our holiday, heading for the western Spanish Pyrenees.
Part 2 to follow.