Oceana on the Water
Atlantic Expedition - Cantabric Sea (2008): Overview
In June 2008, the Oceana Ranger initiated its Expedition in Vigo after having navigated in the waters of the Alboran Sea, Gulf of Cádiz and Portugal.
The team of scientific and submarine photographers investigated the Galician seabeds near Isla de Ons, Costa da Morte, Islas Sisargas and Ría de Ribadeo.
They also visited the Asturian waters of Cabo de Peñas, Cudillero and Ribadesella, as well as Bay of Biscay waters between Suances, Santander and Cabo de Ajo, and Basque waters of Cabo Matxitxako, Urdaibai, Mutriku and Cabo Higer.
With the support of Fundación Biodiversidad, Oceana's objective was to improve knowledge of Spanish seabeds and promote the creation of new protected areas.
Read selected highlights from the expedition diaries, or check out the full list of entries.
Ocean sunfish in Ratón de Guetaria
Ana de la Torriente and Enrique Talledo
Early in the morning, we departed from Zumaia and headed towards Guetaria. Once there, we carried out one of the most spectacular dives you can have in the Cantabrian. This is a coastal area where ocean sunfish appear during the summer months.
After Ignacio San Miguel from the K-sub diving centre showed us the exact location, we descended to a sandy seabed at 22 meters with large rock formations that rise to 15 meters. This area is a place where ocean sunfish come to be cleaned by other fish -- seabreams, black seabreams -- and by gulls on the water's surface.
Apart from enjoying this cleaning session, we documented the presence of a large school of mackerel, grey triggerfishand invertebrates including the gorgonian (Leptogorgia lusitanica) and the polychaete (Sabella spallanzani).
But the surprise came at the end of the dive, when we found a gillnet in which various species of fish, including an ocean sunfish, were caught.
Traveling to Cantabria
Ana de la Torriente
We begin the day by planning a dive in front of Cape Peñas, but we had to suspend it due to the wind and rough seas, and decided to set sail to Cantabria.
We recorded the depth at various points around Llanes Canyon in order to get an idea of the morphology of the seabed and identify possible dive spots.
As we were doing this, we sighted a group of 25 striped dolphins jumping out of the water some seven miles from the coast, possibly hunting. At exactly the same time, the depth probe emitted two signals, one at 150 and another at 500 meters depth. The shallower depth was probably a false alarm caused by the currents. These dolphins, one of the most abundant species in the Cantabrian, are threatened by the use of non-selective fishing gear, such as pelagic trawling, which causes the deaths of many of these animals.
We stayed the night at the port of San Vicente de la Barquera.
White coral in the Avilés Canyon
We reached the Avilés Canyon, 17 miles northwest of Gijón. The canyon drops to almost 2000 meters depth and is one of the deepest in the world, only eight miles from the mouth of the Avilés estuary. It is one of the few places in the world where the giant squid can be found.
This canyon also harbors other treasures -- two emblematic species of white coral, Madrepora occulata and Lophelia pertusa. These corals can form reefs that date back more than 8,000 years, but always in cold waters – they tolerate a maximum of 13-13.5 C.
A marine protected area has been created in Norwegian waters to conserve the enormous reef there, which is located very close to the coast, is various kilometers long and up to 35 meters high. There, the corals occur at 80 meters depth. In the Cantabrian Sea, we’ve found them at 230 meters depth.
Cold-water coral reefs are considered essential habitats because these ecosystems are used by many species during a critical period in their life cycles. The reefs promote reproduction, mating, feeding and offer protection for many species. As such, we were very excited about our discovery. Only five minutes worth of filming and an abandoned fishing line constrained us. It was nerve-wracking until we untangled the robot. We took down the coordinates of the location of the coral in order to return and document it in detail.
Our second day filming the Bermeo seamount was very special. Three minke whales have accompanied our boat for more than an hour, getting as close as 2-3 meters from us.
Two adults and one juvenile were feeding, and the young one came close to us various times. The adults were less curious. This seamount is a hot spot for marine life in the area. We’ve spotted schools of fish, dolphins, marine birds and minke whales feeding.
The minke whale is the smallest and most common of the rorquals. The adults can reach up to 7 to 10 meters in length. Proof exists that these whales have been sighted in the waters of Galicia. Distribution is practically worldwide; these whales can be found in tropical, temperate and polar waters in both hemispheres. We saw its pointed snout as it lifted its head out of the water, and then its back, when it surfaced to breathe.
We also saw the white bands on the pectoral fins that are perfectly visible even when the whale is underwater. In the photographs, we can also see how the transition from the white of the whale's belly to the darker hues of its back form characteristic shapes on the whale’s flanks, different for each individual.
Like a rock
After two and a half days at sea, a familiar image appeared in the distance. At first I was confused as to why the Rock of Gibraltar seemed so familiar. I had certainly never been there before nor could I recall a time ever studying the landscape. Then I remembered that shortly before leaving for the Ranger, Oceana´s Chief Scientist Dr. Michael Hirshfield remarked, “Oh, you´re stopping in Gibraltar? You know that rock inspired the Prudential logo.” What a testament to modern day marketing that the logo of a company I never used could be so ingrained in my subconscious.
Gibraltar is a strange city. Nestled near the southernmost tip of Spain, it is actually part of the British Empire. According to our trusty Lonely Planet guidebook, “Spain ceded the Rock to Britain in 1713, but didn´t end military attempts to regain it until the failure of the Great Seige of 1779-1783...In 1969, Gibraltarians voted by 12,138 to 44 in favor of British rather than Spanish sovereignty.”
Suzannah and I were anxious to set foot on English soil, if only to prove to the crew that we were capable of expressing complete thoughts and knew extensive vocabulary in our native tongue. Our hopes were quickly dashed when we realized that despite English signs and monetary system, the city appeared to be much more Spanish than British and the language of choice was predominantly Español.
After refueling and stocking up on some groceries, the rest of the day was ours to play tourist. No visit to Gibraltar would be complete without visiting the monkeys. Barbary macaques, the only wild primates in Europe, inhabit the Upper Rock Nature Reserve. Once we ascended, we stumbled upon a cluster of monkeys that were clearly indifferent to our presence -- just two more pairs of gawking eyes that posed no threat and thus warranted no attention. The only time one took notice of us was when Suzannah momentarily set down her water bottle and a mischievous monkey snatched it up and claimed it as his own.
Tomorrow morning we set off again, but not before a big meal and a night off from the thrashing ocean.
En route to Vigo
We left Valencia this morning a little after nine, chuffing out of the harbor into a blustery headwind. Maureen and I sat on the prow, watching Valencia slip away behind us. The yachts and racing catamarans quickly disappeared, leaving a skyline of orange, black and red cranes framing the coastline.
Valencia is a major port for international shipping, and as soon as we were underway I saw two massive cargo ships creeping across the horizon. They were like bouyant whales, exposed gullets crammed with a giant´s Legoland of interlocked cargo compartments. One spouted a volcano of exhaust and I wished for a better camera that would make it look like it was and not as a rectangular block inexplicably floating on the horizon.
As we slipped south, the resorts in the seaside towns appeared organized and indistinguished as anthills. Mario and Nuño unfurled the sails and Silvia told me to look for basking sharks, a large tiburon that eats plankton and has moved south earlier than usual this year. I looked out on the placid azure sea, and every tiny whitecap promised more than it delivered. Beside me, a set of curled ropes hung from hooks, each in its place and slumped together like tree snakes. Ternspatrolled the waters surface.
It wasn´t long before I spotted my first bottom trawler. The rust-stained boat moved northward just closer to the shore than we; our depth was 60 meters and we had to guess that they were just somewhere north of 50, the minimum allowed for bottom trawling. There is a plant called posidonia oceanica that is slow-growing and constitutes the largest being on earth in the Balearic Islands, just north of here. This plant is critical habitat for marine life, and so trawling at less than 50 meters is banned. While Oceana is not currently actively pursuing bottom trawlers on this voyage, if we see something suspicious, we check it out.
It was my first bottom trawler, but it was not the last. One after another they came, all along the 50 meter mark. Cabo de San Antonio. White pocked cliffs. Longlines each with a different homemade buoyed flag little more than a colored rag.