Yesterday I had the pleasure to partake in a cetacean identification course hosted by Orca, a fantastic charity dedicated to researching whales, dolphins and porpoises in British waters and further afield. All in all, the day was a roaring success; engaging presentations from Orca staff and a friendly atmosphere making for a great few hours. Having now completed the course; I am delighted to say that I am now officially able to volunteer aboard Orca associated vessels and hopefully, with a little luck, will be out surveying marine mammals in the North Sea before long! Hurray!
Excited flapping aside, a few people have asked me to sum up just what the day entailed and the opportunities that come hand in hand with attending. As such, I thought I would post a brief summary here. Following the obligatory introductions from the Orca staff and a motivational video courtesy of the great Chris Packham, the first part of the course was spent familiarizing ourselves with the species likely encountered from Orca vessels. Among these; familiar species such as Minke Whale and Harbour Porpoise and much more exotic creatures such as Cuvier’s Beaked Whale – a species I now long to see in the wild, they’re beautiful! This identification session was nothing short of enthralling; stressing the fact that ID should never be made based on one factor alone, rather a combination of numerous ones. We learnt about the shape of dorsal fins, the height of various species “blow” and various other factors such as colouration and behaviour. All of this was followed by no end of interesting stories and intriguing facts courtesy of Orca staff. For example; did you know that the characteristic scars of Risso’s Dolphins may well be inflicted as a means of identifying that animal as part of a specific pod? Sort of tribal tattoos for Dolphins, amazing!
Next came an indepth look at Orca surveying methodology, all of which seemed complicated at first but quickly became clear as we took part in a mock survey. Here, in groups of three, we alternated roles between starboard surveyor, port surveyor and scribe. The latter role involving immediate recording of everything from GPS location and the angle of the animal to direction of travel and behavior. I actually found the methodology very similar to some bird surveys; the codes allocated to each species similar to the species codes issued by the BTO. The surveys themselves involve line transects on a number of set routes including Newcastle/Amsterdam and Portsmouth/Santander and seem thoroughly exciting! These take place from the bridge of the vessels in question, something which obviously involves a certain level of maturity and manners so not to disturb the ships crew. Though I doubt this would ever be a problem for those truly interested in this kind of work.
So, what next? Well based on a conversation with a lovely Orca rep things seem relatively straight forward. We wait a few weeks until the opportunities come up and apply to take part. You will then be allocated a team with a number of experienced surveyors who will be more than happy to offer advice and ensure the experience is a positive one. Once you have taken part in a localized survey or two it becomes possible to “build your Orca portfolio”, increased experience leading to more exciting survey opportunities and, in the future, the chance to take part in month long surveys to fantastic locations around the globe. Simple!
The skills to be gained from such surveys seem too numerous to count. Obviously taking part will better your ID skills associated with many species but may also present opportunities to engage with the public and enthuse others as to the majesty of cetaceans. All of this comes on top of the obvious sense of gratification gained from contributing to Orca’s vast data bank. Who knows, maybe the data you help collect could be used to set up marine conservation zones in the future? The possibilities are endless! I would advise anyone to take part, you really will not regret it. Please note; you also have to sign up as an Orca member but this is relatively cheap and can be done on the day of the surveys.