My first ORCA Marine Mammal Surveyor survey


For as long as I can remember, I have always been fascinated by the ocean and its majestic inhabitants. There is something particularly captivating about cetaceans, from the widely recognised common bottlenose dolphin (Tursiops truncatus) to the more elusive Cuvier’s beaked whale (Ziphius cavirostris), much of their behaviour still remains a mystery to us. My curiosity for cetaceans and a desire to contribute to their conservation led me to book a place on the Marine Mammal Surveyor course with ORCA. I am so glad I signed up for the course as it was very engaging, fun, well-structured and informative. I loved the cetacean identification workshop and was interested to learn about the data collection methods utilised for surveys. It was also a great opportunity to meet like-minded people from a variety of backgrounds all connected by a shared love of marine mammals.

The Marine Mammal Surveyor course further ignited my passion for cetacean conservation, and I couldn’t wait to start applying for surveys! Once I had been selected for the Portsmouth to Caen ferry route I could hardly wait and made sure to go over my notes from the course in preparation. The day of my first survey finally arrived, and after a very warm greeting from the other ORCA team members at the port, we boarded the ferry and awaited further instructions from the crew. It was quite surreal being escorted to the bridge for the survey and I felt very privileged to be there for the purpose of cetacean conservation. The weather and visibility was excellent which can certainly help when trying to spot cetaceans, although there are many factors that can make spotting them tricky.

Scanning the sea surface was very exciting, and I couldn’t help but imagine what wonderful creatures were out there hidden beneath the waves and wondered if we might be lucky enough to catch a glimpse of any. Sadly, there are so many threats to cetaceans across their global range, many of which are caused by human activity, from ship strike to bycatch and acoustic disturbance. It is essential to collect data on the behaviour and distribution of different species, identify key habitats and inform appropriate conservation measures to mitigate threats. This is what makes the work that ORCA does so important as the data gathered can help to inform policy to protect cetaceans. Completing the Marine Mammal Surveyor course has given me the opportunity to be a part of ORCA’s vital data collection efforts which has a great deal of personal meaning to me.

I felt so well supported by the ORCA team members throughout the survey who often checked in with me and were very happy to answer any questions I had which made my first survey experience even more enjoyable. Although I didn’t spot any cetaceans myself, one of the team had a sighting of what appeared to be a harbour porpoise (Phocoena phocoena), which is the smallest cetacean in UK waters identifiable by its triangular dorsal fin, stocky body shape and lack of beak. You really do have to be quick to spot these fast moving animals and have a good understanding of key features that can help to identify them, which is taught in detail on the Marine Mammal Surveyor course.

Overall, I couldn’t have had a better first survey experience thanks to the ORCA team members and I am excited to apply for more surveys next season! The ORCA Marine Mammal Surveyor course is an absolute must if you love cetaceans and want to get involved with marine conservation.

Gemma Rae - ORCA Marine Mammal Surveyor

If you’ve been inspired by Gemma’s blog, then there are still a few places on our November and December Marine Mammal Surveyor training courses up for grabs. Click here for more details.