Feature : On the track of dorsal ﬁns
by Vincent Mallart
Audio version : www.lesun.fr/AUDIO/dolphins.mp3
The proud and majestic Mediterranean sea is above all a magniﬁcent natural reserve for a wide variety of endangered species, offering us the possibility of witnessing them in all their splendour. Today, in La Grande Motte, we are climbing aboard a large catamaran called ''Le Picardie'' in the hope of spotting one of the most popular sea mammals: the large dolphin.
10.30 am We lift the moorings and head out to sea. The sea is calm, ideal for animal observation according to the 'Découverte du Vivant' team who are leading our trip today. As soon as we leave the harbour, a squall of yellow-legged gulls are already following our boat as we toss them small ﬁsh from the back of the boat. They will follow us for the rest of the day, squawking and calling to each other.
We are told an important piece of information: four days earlier, ten large dolphins were spotted by some ﬁshermen off the coast of Carnon. So we immediately head west.
10.45 am Our ﬁrst sighting! Not far from our boat we spot two razorbill penguins. With their black and white winter coats, these birds are more commonly found off the coasts of England and are considered endangered here in France. They duck and dive playfully around our boat. Unlike their common penguin cousins, the razorbill can ﬂy and they have migrated to the warmer climes of the Mediterranean for the winter.
11 am Intrigued by the cloud of gulls, a gannet joins the group. Soon to be followed by a second. Spectacular to observe, they hover very high up before diving down at great speed into the water. This unique ﬁshing bird who has excellent eyesight and whose wingspan can be up to 1.6 metres, is one of the largest sea birds in Europe and is capable of covering more than 450 km in a single day.
11.30 am A black-legged kittiwake displays the yellow tip of its beak and the black spots of its wings. Nesting in the north, it is used to living as part of a group on the coasts of Scotland, Ireland and Island. It like many others has headed south in search of warmer weather. Lunchtime is approaching and still no sign of any ﬁns on the horizon...
12.15 pm We are now sailing off the coast of Frontignan with Sète and le Mont Saint-Clair in the distance. Some yelkouan shearwaters approach the boat displaying their brown backs and pale tummys. These birds normally live at sea and only come towards land once a year to reproduce in small burrows on the cliffs.
A group of about thirty pygmy gulls spread out over a hundred metres on the port side of the boat. Originating from the lakes of central Europe, they come to winter in the region and they often indicate the presence of tuna. In fact, they are hungrily feeding themselves on the herrings and sardines that the tunas have knocked out with their tails!
And they are right because around 1pm we spot the backs of a few blueﬁn tuna in chase. Very fast, they jump and dive away as soon as our boat comes near. The skipper is optimistic, “when tuna are around there are often dolphins too.” Will we get to see them?
2.45 pm Some large black cormorants come up to the back of the boat. Their body weight and their inertia means that they can dive very deep under the surface, swimming under the water to catch ﬁsh, popping back up to the surface with their catch.
4 pm We have a new visitor — a parasitic jaeger — otherwise known as the pirate of the sea, this bird attacks seagulls who carry ﬁsh in their beaks and pursues them until the gull regurgitates its catch. As we start to head back towards La Grande Motte, a group of pygmy gulls indicate the presence of tuna.
4.45 pm One of the group lets out a shout. The pirate of the sea is attacking a gull. Survival at sea is a continual struggle.
5 pm Another shout! Another pirate attack? Everybody rushes to port, leaning against the rail... three shiny grey backs emerge on the surface. Pointing their dorsal ﬁns to the sky, the large dolphins have ﬁnally decided to pay us a visit!
Dipping under the boat and then coming alongside it, the dolphins seem to be dancing. Our group is suddenly very excited and we rush from port to starboard and back to port. We’re clicking madly with our cameras and trying to count — a difﬁcult task — are there 7, 8, 9? The dolphins follow us for nearly half an hour. They are playful and curious — this is a childhood dream come to life!
Much as we love these friendly and fun mammals, they are, after all, wild and so with reluctance we leave our new found friends to the open seas and head back to port.
6 pm Back on dry land we are still reeling from the marvels of the day, discussing other trips perhaps to see whales from Sanary-sur-mer. We are smitten and can’t wait to head off once again into the blue distance in search of the wonders of the wide ocean.
DÉCOUVERTE DU VIVANT
Nature trips and nature photography courses.
Contact: Thomas Roger
Next outings : 13th May (11h to 19h) and 26th May: (9h30 to 17h30).
Departing from La Grande Motte, Quai Charles de Gaulle (Quai d’Honneur) in front of the Bar Restaurant Le Clippers.
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The sun is out, bank holidays are in, we all want to go and explore, although this can sometimes be ruined by the dreaded mistral (p14). But let’s not spoil things. How about a visit to St Jean du Fos (p20) or if you’re feeling more urban, a nice shopping day in Avignon with a healthy tea break (p23) or a visit to an art gallery in Nîmes? (p17) If you’re feeling extra energetic like me, how about entering the Pont du Gard race on 30 June to raise money for a fantastic local charity? Also in this issue, the remarkable story of a simulated space mission by Claire (p18) and a very funny article by Bernice on her pathological inability (or so she says) to learn languages (p22).