Dolphin spotting

P&O's mini cruise from Portsmouth to Bilbao sails though the best area of the world's oceans for whale and dolphin diversity, making the return ferry trip a popular in itself.

By Tracey Sparling

P&O's mini cruise from Portsmouth to Bilbao sails though the best area of the world's oceans for whale and dolphin diversity. Travel editor TRACEY SPARLING takes the return ferry trip which is proving popular as a holiday in itself.

MENTION dolphins, and wildlife lovers the world over crack a spontaneous smile.

People love their grace, intelligence, and joyful jumps, and who wouldn't want to ride the waves with them?

Add in the chance of spotting ten varieties of whale - including the blue whale which is the largest animal ever to have lived on our planet - and anyone keen to see wonders of nature will be right there with you, on the top deck aboard P&O's Pride of Bilbao.

As the huge ship powers across the Bay of Biscay en route to Spain, experts from the Biscay Dolphin Research Programme tell passengers on the outer decks where to look.

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So as we sailed over the edge of the Amorican Shelf - a massive underwater cliff where the sea bed drops from 80m deep to 4000m which is deep enough to submerge the Swiss Alps.

Whalespotters dared not leave their posts for a coffee, preferring to unwrap packed sandwiches rather than enjoy the fabulous Langham's restaurant and other eateries inside. A buzz spread around the deck and you could hear a pin drop. Binoculars focused, cameras clicked, and triumphant fingers pointed my eyes in the right direction.

Three hours later, I'd only seen a few puffs to signify a whale 'blowing' (breathing out). The spurts were several metres high, but dwarfed by the distance of about 5km away.

Oh, and a glimpse of two dolphins alongside the ferry, so brief that blink and you'd miss it. They were 11 storeys below me, so they looked looked tiny.

Clive Martin, the wildlife officer on board consoled us: “Whales and dolphins are free spirits in the world's ocean. There are never any guarantees as to what you will see, but you have to keep looking.”

By the end of the return trip, dedicated Clive has clocked up an incredible list of sightings from his vantage point on the bridge of the ship. Eight common dolphins, seven bottlenose dolphins, 207 striped dolphins, three Risso's dolphins, harbour porpoise, five pilot whales, 31 fin whales, three sperm whales, pygmy killer whales, minke whales, tuna, a beaked whale, the list goes on.

Plus a turtle dove, migrating meadow pipits, a grey heron, and a cormorant which crash landed on the top deck for a rest.

I had seen about seven whales in the distance - but that included a fin whale silhouetted against a glowing pink sunset. On the ship's previous outing Clive had seen 3,000 dolphins.

Many passengers spend just a few hours ashore in Bilbao before returning to their en-suite cabins to start the return trip, but we stopped off for a couple of nights and caught the ship home the next time it pulled in to port.

The first sight of Bilbao is ugly reminders of its former steelworks. Today the smog has gone, but the seven mountains surrounding the valley trap clouds, which form a grey mist usually burned off by lunchtime.

Bilbao has undergone an amazing transformation during the past ten years. It was once a polluted, soot-covered, industrial centre full of foundries and shipyards. In the 1980s the provincial government came up with a plan to revitalize the city as an artistic and tourism centre.

A new metro system designed by Sir Norman Foster was constructed, a new airport was built and most importantly, the new Guggenheim Museum was designed by Frank Gehry and completed in 1997 which put Bilbao on the map.

The Guggenheim is the one must-see in the city. Inspired by a fish, it rises up like a giant piece of titanium origami, with a giant flower dog at the front door, occasional fog displays and light shows.

If that all sounds weird trust me, you just have to see it to appreciate it. I decided the building was far more attractive than many of the art exhibits it houses, although The Matter of Time by sculptor Richard Serra plays quirky tricks with your mind as you walk among the giant rusted steel spirals.

We crossed the city's famous Transporter Bridge which looks flimsy from the ground, but is actually quite sturdy once you're up there at 50m high. You can take a lift rather than climb the stairs, and come back via a ferry 'gondola'.

In Bilbao I stayed at the ultramodern Mirohotel within sight of the Guggenheim, which was stylish, clean and friendly - but ask for an outside room if you don't want a room with no natural daylight.

One afternoon we enjoyed a feast of pincho, small bite-sized appetizers, spread out on the many colourful plates in a succession of tapas bars. Like a box of fine chocolates, it's a lottery whether your choice is going to be great.

My verdict is it's definitely worth stopping off from the Pride of Bilbao, to find out what the city has to offer.

Where:

Bilbao in northern Spain is the capital of Vizcaya, one of three provinces that make up the 'Basque country.'

What to do:

Whale watching, trying the pincho, visit The Guggenheim.

Accommodation and cost:

Pride of Bilbao has restaurants including a carvery, Italian deli and brasserie, gym, small pool, cinema, beauty salon, casino and cabaret. 3-night cruises from Portsmouth to Bilbao cost from £64pp. Two-for-one until December 21, on all standard minicruises from Portsmouth and Hull.

Mirohotel has double rooms from 108 euros, free use of spa and gym.

The Guggenheim, adult ticket: 10.50 euros

Contact:

www.poferries.com

www.guggenheim-bilbao.es

www.mirohotelbilbao.com

Hospitality:

The author was a guest of P&O.

A blue whale's heart is the size of a VW Beetle car. Its tongue is the size of an elephant and a young child would be able to swim through its arteries and fit through its blow hole.

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