Amsterdam, a minke whale, and the importance of citizen science

IMG_0943 Applications for ORCA’s Marine Mammal survey routes for this year just closed, and I applied for approximately all of them.

ORCA is a charity dedicated – so its tagline says – to ‘Looking Out For Whales and Dolphins’. What this means in practice is that trained members are able to piggy back, as it were, on ferries and cruises that cross the oceans in regular patterns at regular times. By carrying out marine mammal surveys from these ships with consistent methodologies they build a picture of cetacean species’ – at the very least relative – estimated populations, spatial and temporal ranges, and behaviours around boat activity.

I became a member after I took part in one of their training days December the year before last; once you’ve done so and paid up, you get the ability apply to take part in any of their UK or European survey trips. For free!

Last year I applied, and was lucky enough to be chosen for their Newcastle-Amsterdam route. Only two weeks before I jetted off to Malaysia I went up, visited some family, and then sailed the North Sea for two days. The journey takes a full day and night each way (in which we surveyed) and gave us the better part of five hours in Amsterdam (in which we went on holiday).

You have contact with your allocated team beforehand, organising who will bring the travel kettle and checking that everyone’s trains were arriving in on time, but when I eventually met them in person I could not have hoped for a better group of people to take me under their wing for my first survey. We got on brilliantly. Our fantastic team of ladies was headed by Marion, with Jenny and Bethany having both done a number of surveys between them; I was a proper newbie.

After meeting, in short order we were aboard our vessel the DFDS Princess Seaways, which acts as both transport ferry and mini-cruise, wherein people can do what we were doing as self-contained holiday (this meant that we got to enjoy the provided onboard entertainment when we allowed ourselves a drink in the bar on the second night, who I recall a few of our number finding rather dishy).

The surveying itself is pretty intense. You are constantly scanning the horizon, alternating between the wide field of view afforded by your eyes and the magnification of the binoculars, the later being pretty mycg your only hope of spotting a porpoise. If you do make a sighting, everyone has to be alerted and people scramble to their battle stations, grabbing data off instruments, using the sighting board to take a bearing, and making as many notes as to behaviour and movement as you possibly can.

Though you rotate effort positions (half an hour starboard, scribe, half an hour port, rest) you are on effort as long as the sun is up, and weather and sea conditions remain suitable that you won’t be missing any small cetaceans between big waves. This gave us approximately ten hours sighting time a day, meaning we became both very familiar with and very fond of the bridge. IMG_0947 Ferry bridges are rather plush, all dark wood and gold edging. The contrast of incredibly high tech equipment (which we used only to check the time, and hence were probably underutilising) with the chart tables was incredibly charming, and Captain Jasper Bern gave us a very warm welcome and didn’t seem to mind us sharing he and his crew’s tea and coffee supplies too much.

I did like taking my breaks outside, though. For obvious reasons. I can’t quite explain how breathtaking a towering offshore wind farm is from the middle of it.

As an aside, Amsterdam itself won my heart. It felt like a combination of Venice and the Shire, if such a thing were to exist, and I am desperate to go back. We wandered the twisting streets, went on canal boat tour, drank coffee, and got caught in a torrential downpour while buying fresh bread and smoked cheese from one of the city’s many markets.

IMG_0914 IMG_0886 IMG_0897 IMG_0922 Then we got back on the boat, and surveyed all the way back home.

You can read the official report of our survey on the ORCA website, but it was an amazing experience to say the least. I personally sighted five of the harbour porpoises that made our survey record, and though I was on rest and the official sighting technically went to Marion, I got to watch a minke whale do a long roll at the surface before taking a dive. There were also a plethora of sea birds which would ride the air currents around the ship, our favourites of which were gannets; if you spot one diving, it’s a good place to keep you binoculars trained since any number of dolphins or porpoises might be cashing in on a shoal of fish.

ORCA is only one organisation that utilises everyday volunteers with a marine interest to help collect sighting data. Another is SeaWatch, the freely available public data of which Jess and I handled at length for our project in Malaysia, and which has driven me to think a lot on this topic of late.

SeaWatch takes sighting data, but in a far less quality controlled manner than ORCA. In fact, it is almost entirely unquantitative. The sightings are sent in by regular members of the public who’ve spotted a whale or dolphin while out and about. Even if someone makes the same route to walk their dog each and every morning, that doesn’t exactly constitute a regular survey transect. Estimating populations from surveys are all about a constant search effort in certain spot over a given time, augmented with other known information, such as the regularity with which the animals need to breathe. You don’t exactly get that with a lot of volunteer data – it’s more like, ’10 past 2, Dave saw a dolphin near the lighthouse’.

But that is not to say this data is not useful, not by any means. Some of the SeaWatch data does have very good temporal coverage, particularly for the South West, where regular whale watching cruise trips record the exact time and location of every sighting made. That’s essentially a 12 hour dedicated marine mammal survey, each and every day.

What’s more, studying the data really does reveal some unexpected things. Assuming that laypeople are identifying these species correctly – which is, unfortunately, a fairly significant assumption – then these data really do have the potential to inform what we understand about the distribution patterns of species around our coast. One of Jess and I’s most interesting take homes from our time in Malaysia and playing with their database is that, though the South China sea has a far greater species richness than anything closer to home, the regularity with which they see most of them is pretty low. A two-day survey with ORCA almost always sees the species the North Sea has to offer. Out of the packet of information on 50 species we got prior to a week on the boat in Malaysia, we saw one.

All of this is negligible, however, when you consider one thing. That the people doing this whale watching, this surveying, are just everyday people. People who are thinking keenly about not just the existence of whales and dolphins in our waters, but whether they are maintaing healthy populations. That conservation is more than simply an animal’s presence. Even if it is only for a free trip, people who otherwise might be barely interested in cetacean sightings are given the opportunity to see first hand exactly the kinds of creatures that need monitoring and protecting. It’s hard to remain indifferent to a cause when you see it up close. Citizen sighting schemes increase public awareness, in a very involved way.

Some peer-reviewed literature actively encourages them for that very reason, especially as, in this case, the data collected revealed previously unknown seasonal dynamics in a Sardinian basking shark population. Casual, low-cost science can produce valid findings, findings that can go on to help manage and conserve populations.

Though the ability of data collected by volunteers to inform real scientific study is unquestioned, it is also entirely reasonable to say that the greatest strength of ORCA, SeaWatch, and all those projects like them is that they have the capacity to increase public awareness, and bring investment of not simply money, but time, effort and enthusiasm into the monitoring and conservation of the whale and dolphins that live around the UK.

I’ll send you a postcard from Amsterdam.