During the course of the summer, I undertook an internship with ORCA (Organisation Cetacea) – a whale and dolphin conservation charity based in Portsmouth. I was lucky enough to find this internship through the University of Southampton’s Excel Internships scheme, which is a great resource in supporting and helping students find relevant and paid work experience. My role with ORCA as Community Wildlife Assistant, reporting directly to Anna Bunney (Community Wildlife Officer), was mainly focussed around supporting the Your Seas (People & Port) educational programme, which aims to raise awareness of whale and dolphin conservation, especially on a local level.
I am a firm believer that conservation begins with education, and that by providing a better understanding of the importance of our oceans, society is more likely to participate in the future of its protection. This is especially relevant to younger generations – I was inspired to follow a career in marine biology when I was nine years old following a trip to the Great Barrier Reef. But it’s not always necessary to travel so far to find that inspiration, as the marine life found right on our doorstep in the UK and Europe is some of the best in the world, especially in terms of cetaceans (whales, dolphins and porpoises). This is one of the messages that ORCA convey at schools, events and on board passenger ferries/cruise ships.
As Community Wildlife Assistant my main role was educating in schools, where I gave interactive presentations as part of a Wonderful Whales Workshop initiative. Since ORCA is a charity based in Southern England, it is not always possible to visit non-local schools as often requested by teachers, students and parents alike. Therefore, I produced a ‘teacher’s pack’ to enable the expansion of the programme, by providing the resources needed for teachers or ORCA volunteers to present the same workshop around the UK. The pack is currently being finalised, and I will update this blog when it is publicly available.
ORCA uses partnerships with passenger ferries, freight ships and cruise liners to conduct frequent marine mammal surveys around the UK, Europe and across the Atlantic. These vessels take identical routes for each voyage, making their crossings ideal scientific transects. By conducting these frequent surveys, ORCA has created a database of marine mammal sightings, as well as effort data, available to scientists around the world, making it an invaluable resource.
As Community Wildlife Assistant, I was fortunate enough to join a group of biology A-level students aboard the Brittany Ferries ship, the Pont Aven, for an educational trip across the Bay of Biscay to Santander, Spain. The Bay of Biscay is one of the best places to see cetaceans on earth, with sightings ranging from rorqual whales to beaked whales to toothed whales and dolphins. In fact, over a third of the 87 cetacean species can be seen in UK and European waters! The Bay of Biscay is so popular due to the range of habitats available, including deep-sea canyons, the abyssal plain and the continental shelf.
Fin whales (3), common dolphins (153), orcas and sunfish were sighted during what was deemed a ‘quiet crossing’ of the Bay, whilst I was on board the Pont-Aven. It was thought that the Bay was so quiet due to the presence of orcas, a species known to drive other cetaceans away. The Pont-Aven also crossed over the continental shelf near north-west France during the night, an area renowned for its variety of cetacean sightings, due to its close proximity to shallow waters and the abyssal plain. This is another possible explanation for the shortage of sightings. It is typical that the day after my departure from the Pont-Aven, over 2000 animals were sighted including harbour porpoises; common, striped and bottlenose dolphins; minke, pilot and fin whales.
OceanWatch, another of ORCA’s projects, involves training bridge crew on how to spot cetaceans and record their sightings. This initiative trains crews from a number of different vessels and companies to record their sightings over a period of nine days, known as ORCA OceanWatch week. I participated in training the bridge crew of P&O cruise ships, the Aurora and the Oriana. During OceanWatch 2015, nearly 2000 sightings from 16 different species were recorded. I will update this post once data from OceanWatch 2016 are published.
My experience of working with ORCA was extremely rewarding and I look forward to volunteering with them in the future.
If you would like to get involved with any of ORCA’s projects or for more information on whale and dolphin conservation, please click the links below.