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Water, water everywhere and far too much to drink

PUBLISHED: 16:56 22 July 2009 | UPDATED: 10:57 12 August 2010

SPECTACLE: The

SPECTACLE: The

THE Bay of Biscay is renowned, quite unfairly, for having some of the Atlantic s stormiest weather. But, thanks to calm mirror-like seas to the north coast of Spain and back during my four-day mini cruise aboard the Pride of Bilbao, that wasn t a problem

THE Bay of Biscay is renowned, quite unfairly, for having some of the Atlantic's stormiest weather.

But, thanks to calm mirror-like seas to the north coast of Spain and back during my four-day mini cruise aboard the Pride of Bilbao, that wasn't a problem yet it was the trip itself that left me feeling somewhat off-kilter.

P&O are offering three nights on board their 'luxurious' ship ferrying approximately 1,400 passengers over to Bilbao and back from Portsmouth.

But when we checked in, after a couple of hours delay due to freak thunder storms for that time of year, it soon appeared to be more booze cruise than continental liner.

The "host of leisure activities" promised turned out to be a casino, cinema, hairdresser and duty free shop - no sign of the gym and swimming pool of yesteryear.

For those who would rather be frugal in these troubled times than throw all their earnings on the roulette table, distractions consisted of a children's play room the size of a cabin, chess on deck or the prospect of square eyes watching scores of films.

For anyone aged over seven and under 60, the only options for on-board entertainment seemed to be shop 'til you drop or drink 'til you do the same.

Dinner at the Four Seasons carvery (costing £17 per person) was welcome however, with a spread of roasts and curries to compliment a vast amount of gooey and delicious desserts.

After popping up on deck to bid farewell to Pompey at night, we sampled the on-board entertainment at Silverstone's Show Bar where we were treated to a quintet called the P&O Players that can only be described as Butlins in lycra.

Their offerings included the Magic of Musicals (think Step does musicals) one night followed by the Power of the Imagination show (think Steps does pop favourites in outlandish costumes).

Both shows were punctuated by a shouty compere telling mother-in-law jokes and offering out drinks vouchers for 'name that song'.

While watching these performers, images of the Titanic would float through my mind, possibly because a watery end would be a welcome relief from listening to such warbling.

I was clearly in a minority, however, as every night the venue was filled to the rafters and after a few classics like I Want To Break Free (very apt I thought) the audience nearly brought the house down.

There was always the POSH bar though, named for Posh Out Starboard Home as opposed to any snobby connotation, with perfectly nice plinky plonky piano.

But entertainment that came in between tacky seaside resort and Park Lane hotel was sadly absent.

Returning to my cabin, I was filled with trepidation on how I was going to entertain myself with three whole days stretching ahead of me with no real respite.

...Thank goodness for the dolphins.

Having supported the Biscay Dolphin Research Programme (BDRP) since 1995, the Pride of Bilbao also plays host to year-long observational research.

The 458-nautical mile route to Bilbao stretches over caverns hundreds of kilometres below the surface home to some 30 different marine species out of estimated 85 in the world.

The BDRP are a lovely, majority volunteer group, whose passion for the mammals and birds in this part of the world is infectious.

Whales and dolphins are at the top of the food chain so by monitoring them you can get an idea of what is going on down there, they told us.

July to October is the best season to spot a flipper and after an hour-long presentation of the creatures of the deep I was raring to go.

That said I was a trifle disappointed when, after an hour-and-a-half of eagerly waiting up on Monkey Island, binoculars in hand, there was no chuffing dolphin or even a big fish to be seen.

"It's the worst it's been in six years," said BDRP researcher Peter Hutchinson before cracking some joke about taking a toilet break - that's when they all come out you see.

And he should know, the last time a Blue Whale was spotted by the team was when he volunteered to usher a visitor, who was caught short, below deck just minutes before this creature decided to make an appearance.

A life-changing sighting gone, all because somebody "didn't go before they got there".

As if they'd heard us, two common dolphins made a break for it and leapt towards the front of the ship.

They were coming into 'bow ride', fixing their tail to hit the pressure coming from the front of the ship to ride it like a surfer - but they showed off for half-a-millisecond and when I blinked, they were gone.

With much the same brevity came Bilbao, the beautiful Basque coastal city that greeted us on the morning of Day 3.

Arriving at 8am Spanish time, we had a quick breakfast before opting for one of the excursions on offer.

For an extra fee of £15 to £17, you can visit the amazing Guggenheim museum of modern art designed by North American architect Frank O Gehry, visit the Spanish fishing village Castro Urdiales or do your own thing in the port town of Santurtzi.

We opted for the nature ramble, but were told that it took too long before 'ship's ahoy' - so instead for the city tour, taking in the sights of the new and old Bilbao.

Our tour guide Carlos proudly showed us around the city, the largest most economically and industrially active part of the region which spreads along the Nervion River.

Following massive urban renewal, intriguing sculptures are dotted around the gothic city alongside original frontages of old buildings that stand alone, reminding residents and tourists alike of their proud heritage.

Coming off the coach we were shown around the medieval town - known as Las Siete Calles (seven streets) which was once walled off until the 19th century.

Reminiscent of Paris, the gothic architecture hangs over you as you amble past small shops and cafes, taking in the aged churches San Antón and San Nicolás, the Arriago Theatre and the three-storey stained glass windowed market Mercado de la Ribera.

Grandest of them all is the Santiago Cathedral, built before the city itself in around 1300, that dons shells on the outer walls as a signal to the Santiago de Compostela pilgrims that they could get food and shelter at the church - a tradition that Carlos assures me doesn't happen today despite the religious voyage still going strong.

This beautiful city had so much to offer that I was slightly resentful when ushered back on the coach to return to our ship.

I couldn't help but feel that there is far more pride to Bilbao than a ship that drops off over a thousand sunburnt Brits to plunder supermarkets, filling their empty suitcases with whisky and tobacco.

After 39 hours at sea, I was aching to return to my landlubber self and jump ship to enjoy more of the hunky city rather than return to water, water everywhere with plenty on board to drink.

Despite fine dining on board - we were treated to a lovely meal in Langans on our return - just two hours in this dazzling city hardly gave us time for tapas and a cerveza.

I decided to make up for my sadness at the brevity of my Bilbao encounter by making a date with the dolphins in Biscay.

This time I was not going to take no for an answer, and I refused to be stood up.

And they were worth the wait, those gorgeous creatures.

Very soon after moving away from Bilbao, we were treated to a veritable line-up of common dolphins, Curvier's beaked whale, Fin whales and in the very distance the sign of a Sperm Whale.

Even when there is a pause in the action, it is surprisingly infectious just waiting for them to put in an appearance.

Hours can roll by with you staring out to sea, silently stalking the waves like a marine peeping Tom until someone spots a splish and yelps and calls 3 o'clock.

Quickly a crowd gathers behind a pointing finger as people straining to focus on a whale 'blow' on the horizon or an energetic dolphin showing off.

I made my first successful 'call' about two hours after our departure back to Blighty, leaping out of my seat and shouting: "Oooooooh dolphin, dolphin," and babbling excitably as a crowd forms only to be told that it is actually a bottlenose whale.

While whales may be the rarest creatures of the deep, it has to be said that no matter how common these dolphins are, you can't help but delight by their acrobatic enjoyment.

Stripy dolphins tend to stay away from the bow - it is the common ones that surf - but nevertheless they love to horse around making massive springy jumps into the air.

We were treated to an amazing synchronised swim of a pod numbering between 80 and 100 commoners that in formation jumped in to bow ride (babies in tow riding in their mum's slip stream by their side) - that alone is a treasured memory that even pros like BDRP's Emma Webb can never tire of.

The 32-year-old, who has been working for the project for three-and-a-half years said: "We once saw a superpod of dolphins, over one thousand of them, all around us as far as I could see which was phenomenal.

"To see a killer whale a few kilometres away is absolutely amazing as you don't see them very often - I was lucky enough to see one rolling on its side and looking up to us, that is one of my greatest memories."

Usually, the most you are going to see of a whale is it's mucky exhalation from its blowhole, like a kettle boiling on the horizon, or if you're lucky a glimpse of a fin and part of a submerged log-like body.

If you are exceptionally lucky you spot the flute of the whale waving goodbye - I missed the Sperm Whale doing that but thanks to some expert photographers on board, I can marvel at it now.

Despite being less overt than those flirty dolphins, there is a sense of gratitude of spotting these bulky beings.

It is somewhat befuddling that something so massive (Sperm Whales are as long as ten people lying head to toe, their tails alone as long as three, as we proved on deck) can be such a rare sight.

Spending most of their time underwater, they are the 'cheetahs' of the sea, recuperating from a hunt on the surface, taking in oxygen for a prolonged period of time before sinking underwater again.

It is the shallower waters that you are more likely to see the bottlenose dolphins and the 'stinky' Minke Whales while nearer Spain the likes of Pilot whales, Risso's dolphins and if you're lucky an Orca (after some debate, we didn't).

The BDRP reported a plethora of cetacea, mostly on our Northbound return journey, recording at least 829 whale and dolphin and more than 200 birds including gannets, fulmars and one kittiwake.

Among them, there is a real dedication to these creatures and those interested in the friends of the deep should find out more at www.biscay-dolphin.org.uk.

As for the Pride of Bilbao itself, I couldn't help but feel that it is a ship attempting to revitalise its image while making no real effort to entertain any other punter than those looking for a bargain beverage.

Next time, I would leave the cruising to the boozers and opt for a single so I can both wave a quick hello to the dolphins and experience the real delight of Bilbao.

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