Sophia Bolton, WCA Intern
12/08/2016: “Hola from Turmares!”
This is Sophia writing from Turmares in a very windy Tarifa! Remember when there was that crazy trend a few years ago when everyone was using salt spray to get surfer girl hair? Yes? That’s EVERY DAY in Tarifa, no effort involved! I mean I knew this place was windy but this is insane. Especially when the “levante” wind blows from the east as it has done for 10 out of the 20 days I have been here, it’s pretty much impossible to do anything and even the harbour was closed for a few days last week. Because of this Tarifa is an incredibly popular wind surfing destination, it’s also famous for Tarifa Island; as you walk along the causeway you have the Atlantic Ocean on your right and the Mediterranean Sea on your left (which, being a geography student, I think is awesome!).
The Straits of Gibraltar are a unique environment not only because of the conjoining of waters and strong winds but also due to its depth. The channel is on average 500m and reaches depths of 1000m near Ceuta. This is due to the collision of tectonic plates; as the African plate pushes northwards it is moving below the Eurasian plate in a process called subduction which creates these great depths. This is part of the reason why seven species of cetaceans reside in this area.
Out of these seven species so far I have seen, bottlenose dolphins, common dolphins, striped dolphins, sperm whales, pilot whales and orcas! But have not had the chance to see fin whales as it’s currently the wrong time of the year. I have had many great encounters so far. Top of the list has to be my first ever sperm whale. It was a 9am trip, we were enjoying watching pilot whales and I was busy speaking to some English tourists about the work of the WCA (they’d actually exhibited at Whalefest 2015 – it’s a small world!). Suddenly I hear a long stream of excited Spanish accompanied by gesturing from Ezequiel, another guide from Turmares. Now I won’t lie, my Spanish isn’t great but purely by his tone of voice and one word “cachalote” (meaning sperm whale in Spanish), I knew I had to excuse myself and hastily made my way to the Captain’s cabin. We carefully moved away from the pilot whales before the Captain stepped on the accelerator (I feel like there is a better term for this with boats?) and we zoomed away in the direction of the blow hole that had been spotted. I managed to grab and focus my binoculars just in time to see the second blow hole before the sperm whale made a spectacular dive showing us its tail as it went. A truly fantastic sighting!
We have been lucky enough to see orca’s nearly every day we have sailed since I have been here and every time it is truly amazing! Due to the migration of their main food diet, the Bluefin tuna we find them very close to the Moroccan coastline and quite far to the west. The tuna migrates along the Spanish coastline into the Mediterranean during the winter and then back along the Moroccan coast during the summer out to the Atlantic. For this reason there is currently no fishing in Tarifa, we only ever see Moroccan fishermen. Every sighting we have had, the orcas have been either stealing tuna off the fishermen (a fantastic sight) or the pod has remained static as they serve and eat the food. This is my personal favourite because you can easily see the dorsal fins of all the individuals at once which is not only spectacular but also makes them easier to count!
In my first week, one of the boats belonging to Turmares (named Pirata) saw a humpback whale! This was unbelievable since they are not a resident species in the Straits. The last sighting was in April and prior to that two years ago. I was aboard another boat (Jackelin) and we received a phone call from a guide on Pirata explaining the situation. We all rushed to the back of Jackelin and could see Pirata only half a kilometre away! It was incredibly frustrating for all of us since we were heading back to Tarifa and were already behind schedule so unfortunately didn’t have time to go back, however there are some fantastic pictures taken by Jose on the Turmares Facebook page.
Personally my favourite animal to watch is the striped dolphins. They are incredibly curious about boats and very playful; so we always see a fantastic show from them. Just recently especially we have had some amazing sightings where there have literally been hundreds surrounding the boat, jumping and playing. It is always lovely to see the reaction of the passengers especially the children; I had one little girl burst into tears on my shoulder because she was so happy!
All the time I have been here I have been searching the beaches in the area for ghost gear and kept my eyes peeled whilst on the boat; there is actually very little around here. However, we very commonly see animals with scars. Especially pilot whales and the other species of dolphin, it’s very rare to see any individuals without scars. This is helpful when it comes to photo identification but incredibly distressing. Quite often these are put down to propeller collisions since The Straits of Gibraltar is an incredibly busy stretch of water, especially for industrial container ships. However I feel this is not the only cause, having read papers on ghost gear from Turkey and Portugal both of which are within the migration paths of many of the animals we see, I believe that ghost gear also plays a huge part here. I am getting a great reaction from passengers when I speak to them about the Net Effect Campaign, I am especially finding that there is a greater reaction from people who live close to the sea and these are the people I am encouraging to get out there, do a beach clean and consider upcycling ideas. Another thing I have found is that the issue of ghost gear entanglement is associated greatly with turtles but not with cetaceans which is something I am trying to change through showing photos’ from all of our whale watch partners.
I’d like to thank everyone at Turmares for welcoming me to this incredibly wonderful, huge extended family (Tarifa is relatively small; it turns out once you know the staff of Turmares you have mutual friends with pretty much all of Tarifa’s residents!). I’d especially like to thank my flat mates (Iris, Tania, Deisy, Eryka and Olaf) for helping me improve my Spanish (though google translate has played a part in this as well) and for introducing me to some fantastic places to party. I hope it goes without saying but I will say anyway a huge thank you to Dylan, Amanda and my family for all their support, oh and Russell for getting me into this in the first place; thanks dude.
Gracias por leer, hasta luego! Thank you for reading, see you later!