A Foggy Ferry Ride: My First ORCA Survey

Almost a year after completing the ORCA Marine Mammal Surveyor course, yesterday I was able to volunteer on my first survey, ‘looking out for whales and dolphins’ on the Brittany Ferries route between Plymouth, UK, and Roscoff, France.

Rainy Roscoff

Given the time of year our survey times were quite limited – probably a good thing given how tired I was at the end anyway! We sailed from Plymouth at 10pm on Sunday and went straight to bed before arriving in Roscoff at 7am, British time.

It was pretty grey and rainy in Roscoff but we enjoyed a nice breakfast at a cafe by the old port, a wander around the pretty town, and lunch before embarking for the return journey in the afternoon.

Roscoff old port

Once out of Roscoff we were allowed up onto the bridge to start our survey – wow! The bridge is huge and the field of view was incredible, but there was a fog on the horizon and a considerable swell that was leaving my stomach a few seconds behind the rest of my body.

ORCA surveyors work in teams of four, rotating between starboard and port surveyor, record taker, and on rest every 30 minutes. We managed two hours of fruitless surveying before the fog closed in and forced us to take a break.

I was resigning myself to an uneventful survey when the fog lifted, the sea state and swell calmed, and within ten minutes of surveying again, the dolphins appeared!

Over the next hour and a half we had a few common dolphin sightings, including them coming to play and bow ride the boat, before it quietened down again and the light dipped too low to survey.

Sadly not my pic, but it looked a bit like this!

After dinner and disembarking I made my way home, very grateful to live in Plymouth unlike my survey mates, and collapsed.

ORCA collate data from hundreds of surveys, all using the same methodology, and using distance sampling can build an accurate picture of cetacean populations in our water. Although it wasn’t the busiest of surveys I had a brilliant time with a great team and am happy to have contributed to that dataset. I can’t wait to get more involved when the survey season starts again next year!

A massive thanks to Brittany Ferries for letting us come aboard, and to the rest of the team for guiding me through my first survey.

If you’re interested in becoming an ORCA surveyor, you can find course details here.

Membership: £5/month
Travel: Ferry is free, transport to/from the port is at your own cost.
Food: I spent around £25 on breakfast, lunch and dinner, but this could definitely be done more cheaply if you were on a tight budget and organised.

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