As a young boy visiting my grandparents in Perthshire, I was told the story of a white rabbit which supposedly lived wild in a small glen just outside Gleneagles.
My old Papa told the story with such excitement and wonder that I insisted my folks drive through this area every time we visited. We’d get out of the car and stand staring across the glen at a steep hillside pock-marked with rabbit holes, eyes trained on each detail of the terrain, hoping to catch a glimpse of the albino beast. I reckon I was three-years-old the first time we went, and we probably went looking for the white rabbit a dozen times in the subsequent five or six years. I never saw it. Often, my eyes would trick my brain into believing a flash of white darting down a burrow was our quarry, but I’m sure this was a case of the wish being the father of the thought. Average lifespan for a normal brown rabbit in the wild is around three years – lifespan for an albino would be a year at best, especially when this land is home to foxes, badgers, stoats, weasels, ospreys and the golden eagle. So, the odds were emphatically stacked against us. No matter. The time I spent staring at open wilderness searching for a mythical mammal no bigger than a loaf of bread instilled in me an appreciation of wildlife, a love of the outdoors and, most importantly, patience.
Last month, we (my wife, six-year-old son and I) took the train from Manchester to Newcastle, and then made the short taxi journey from the railway station to the ferry port at North Shields (train delays meant we missed the scheduled shuttle bus, which we took on the return leg – very handy). We were about to sail across the North Sea from North Shields to Amsterdam on a DFDS marine wildlife mini cruise run in collaboration with ORCA, a charity which works to observe and protect porpoises, dolphins and whales around the UK, Europe and adjoining waters.
ORCA’s work involves small teams of volunteers, led by a trained staff of marine biologists, scientifically monitoring, identifying and recording marine wildlife activity – ensuring a constant picture of the health of our seas. Past and present routes on ferries and cruise ships have taken in the Bay of Biscay and the North of Spain, beyond into the Atlantic in the waters around Cape Verde, and through the Strait of Gibraltar into the Mediterranean. More northerly areas include the seas surrounding Iceland, Norway and close to the Arctic Circle around the Svalbard archipelago. Journeys such as these would take far longer than the one we were about to embark on but still, over the whole of 2014 our route recorded sightings of hundreds of harbour porpoise and white-beaked dolphin, around 50 minke whales and even a solitary humpback.
Having dumped our luggage in our cabin, we made our way up to the ORCA Wildlife Centre for a short lecture on the birds, whales and dolphins of the North Sea. We were able to handle a sperm whale’s tooth (MASSIVE) and a piece of baleen from a humpback, and our wildlife officer answered questions from the group before we headed up to the deck for our first observation session. The North Sea was relatively calm so our chances of seeing something were, well, better than if it was chucking it down and blowing a gale.
As the ship eased its way out of port, we began to get our eye in. I decided to concentrate on one particular area of the water. I’d noticed a couple of gulls circling and thought they might have spotted some activity below the waves (sardines or anchovies perhaps?) which could signal dinner time for some hungry dolphins or porpoises. My son declared that he’d spotted a fin. Had he? It would have been a spectacular start to the trip as we’d only been looking for around ten minutes. We continued to examine the waves and I became aware that the more I looked, the more the waves looked like fins. Time to change strategy (yes, I had strategies). Instead of honing in on one particular area, I would scan the entire area and hope that any unusual activity (a dorsal breaking the surface, a jet of spray) would register in my peripheral vision. I would point and yell “there be a whale over the starboard bow!” and the rest of the watchers would rush over to our edge of the deck, gasping and cheering as we watched a huge tail fin present itself above the surface and then slip down into the deep.
Yeah, this didn’t happen. The light had started to fade, the sky was becoming pink, and we were all a little hungry. Oddly, I didn’t fancy fish.
The ferry has several dining options and we decided to go for the à la carte Blue Riband option. Starters included pork terrine with truffle mayonnaise, crab bisque and grilled white asparagus, with the menu boasting such mains as confit of poussin, veal medallion à la Romana, and pan-fried Dover sole. All of our dishes we terrific and, despite the fancy pants nature of the restaurant, the staff catered for our six-year-old’s requirements without question. In fact, Gabe made a great friend in the head waiter, Edguardo. A selection of four delicious ice creams cemented the relationship and when the obligatory orca cuddly toy was bought at the end of the trip, he was named Edguardo.
Replete, and following a trip outside to watch the sun set over the wind turbines of England’s east coast, we retired to the lounge where a pretty decent singer was belting out the songs of Simon & Garfunkel, The Pogues, Van Morrison and Buddy Holly. A splendid way to end the day, despite the bar costs. Bottles of beer and cider were your standard city centre prices – the cost of a large glass of wine made me do a double take at the receipt. I think I actually winced.
A beautiful meal, couple of drinks and the power of sea air, and we were ready to turn in for the night. Our cabin was pretty basic but functional. Two bunk beds and a small shower room with toilet. Basic, but more comfortable than most hotel rooms I’ve stayed in. We all had a cracking night’s sleep. The rumble of a ship’s engines is better than a lullaby and we woke up rested and refreshed. The shower was a belter as well.
After a hearty breakfast (I went for the standard full English, but the continental and ‘healthy’ looked just as good), we headed up to the viewing deck to try our luck again. The sun was out and the sea was as calm as the previous night. I employed both of my tried and trusted viewing methods but to no avail. I did, however, catch a glimpse of my favourite bird, the gannet. Sturdy and imposing with a no-nonsense flying style, this bird is stunning, especially when fishing. They turn themselves into feathered javelins when diving for fish but, unfortunately, the solitary birds sighted in the morning weren’t bombing towards the water. No matter, we were approaching the port at Ijmuiden and the weather was continuing its good form, the sun glinting off the wind turbines and giving exquisite definition to the smoke billowing from the mammoth port-side chimneys.
We disembarked and hopped onto the connecting coach to Amsterdam – a 30 km journey through some beautiful, fascinating and typically Dutch countryside (Windmills? CHECK. Canals? CHECK. Extreme flatness? CHECK.). We arrived with around four hours to spend in the Dutch capital so we decided to do the most touristy activities possible. First stop was a pancake house. Second stop was a canal tour. Third stop was a wander around the flower markets, where we also bought some mature Gouda and a truckle of goats cheese.
First time I was in Amsterdam was around 1987 with a school trip. Second time was 20 years later to attend a conference for cinema exhibitors, looking at box office systems (I spent three hours in Amsterdam before flying back the same day).
This time, I was struck by the similarity to another city. Not Copenhagen, Paris or any other European capital. The Dutch capital felt like Manhattan. Bustling, vibrant and perilous for pedestrians (the trams don’t stop for anything; the cyclists, as our coach driver advised us, “hate you and want to kill you”), it was exciting and terrifying in equal measure – especially with a six-year-old in tow. But it was beautiful, exhilarating and I look forward to spending more time in this wonderful city.
Back on the ship, we headed straight to the viewing deck. A bit choppier this time, we were less likely to spot any wildlife. Still, we persevered and were rewarded with more gannets and more possible/probable/unlikely sightings of fins/waves/tails. A belting meal in the Steak House set us up for another beautiful night’s sleep. Up early doors, we went back to the observation deck. This morning, the wind was blowing a hoolie. Waves were fierce, giving little opportunity to spot anything. The birds were flying sideways and at one stage my glasses nearly blew off my face.
Time to go home.
The verdict? A relaxing sea journey to a beautiful city was made all the better because of the enthusiastic staff (from DFDS, ORCA and the various restaurants and bars on board), the stunning food, a fantastic night’s sleep and the remote possibility of spotting an aquatic leviathan. Did we see anything? Did we spot a minke or a humpback? Was that wave actually the dorsal fin of a white-beaked dolphin?
Doesn’t matter. I don’t think I saw anything. Gabe is convinced he did. And because of that, he’s more likely to spend time looking out to sea (or across a glen), patiently waiting for a whale (or a rabbit).
Incidentally, take a closer look at the title photograph at the beginning of this article. You’ve heard of Where’s Wally? Now try Where’s Whaley?…
Words and images by Chris Payne
Chris Payne travelled with DFDS. For details of DFDS ferry routes, click here.
Find out more about ORCA and the valuable work they do here.