Review: ORCA Marine Mammal Surveyor Course

Where better to be on a cold rainy Saturday in November than at Plymouth University Marine Station, learning all about surveying for whales and dolphins! Clearly I’m not the only person who thought so anyway, as the room was packed with marine mammal surveyors to-be.

ORCA are a charity who survey whales and dolphins in European waters from ‘platforms of opportunity’ – ferries and cruise ships who agree to have surveyors onboard. They have been surveying for years and produce an annual report on the state of European cetaceans which helps to inform protection and policy.

If this sounds right up your street (like it’s definitely right up mine) then the good news that pretty much anyone can be a marine mammal surveyor for ORCA. You have to carry out the one day marine mammal surveyor course (£80) and be an active member of the charity (£5/month). And that’s it.

This course has been on my bucket list for a really long time and all I can say now is I wish I’d done it sooner. The service from ORCA beforehand was great, they emailed with lots of information about timing, what to bring, parking, etc. They also said that to reduce waste they would not be providing plastic cups/mugs so everyone had to bring a water bottle and a travel mug for tea and coffee. I really appreciated this as it’s always a bit jarring when conservation charities will provide you with single-use plastics!

The course started at 9.30am and was a pretty full on day of classroom-based lectures, mostly dedicated to European cetacean identification. It also covered the work done by ORCA and the logistics of actually carrying out a survey, as well as a brief (thankfully not too mathematical) dip into the premise of distance sampling.

I found the ID really interesting, and although I thought I was pretty up on my European cetaceans I was still amazed by the number and variety of species that ORCA record on their surveys. I’m embarrassed to admit that I had no idea you could see beaked whales in Europe. And of course although whales and dolphins really don’t have any time to concern themselves with where humans think they ‘should’ be, a picture of a humpback breaching in front of the white cliffs of Dover also took me by surprise.

(I took this one in Costa Rica though…)

The day finished with a ‘virtual’ survey, and although ORCA’s VR technology might be slightly lacking (think PowerPoint) it definitely gave a taste of how difficult surveying could actually be, as well as waking us all up and getting us laughing.

I was really impressed by the emphasis on robust scientific method throughout the sampling, which is of course what allows ORCA’s data to be used in scientific study and policy.

There were regular tea and coffee breaks, lots of biscuits, and enough time at lunch to grab a tasty baguette and cheesy chips at the Queen Anne’s Battery pub (NB: cannot guarantee your course location will have this option).

All the people delivering the course were great. They had brilliant stories from all their experiences and definitely got me fired up to attend some surveys next year!


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