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Our volunteer citizen scientists are making waves in Scotland

I'm lucky enough to do a job that I love. For the last seven years...

Our volunteer citizen scientists are making waves in Scotland

I’m lucky enough to do a job that I love. For the last seven years I have been managing Shorewatch, our incredible citizen science project in Scotland.

The world of whales, dolphins and porpoises is elusive. Some species live at great depths, spending only brief moments at the surface of the water to allow a glimpse into their world. This makes watching them and researching them even more alluring. At WDC, Whale and Dolphin Conservation we are big on citizen science, and we have a team of dedicated volunteers who are stationed across the Scottish coastline on headlands, beaches, and harbours all trained and equipped with binoculars to spot whales, dolphins, and porpoises. We call these heroes WDC Shorewatch volunteers.


If you live in Scotland, get involved!

Is it common to find whales and dolphins in the UK?

It's incredible to see whales and dolphins wild and free, and between them, our Shorewatch citizen scientists have been lucky enough to encounter 15 of the 28 species of whales, dolphins and porpoises seen around the UK.  You might think that the UK is an unlikely place to see such an array of marine wildlife and you would not be alone. When I was young, I had visions of working in tropical climates surveying whales in crystal clear seas, but in fact I have recorded 10 different species of whales, dolphins and porpoises without going far from my home in the north east of Scotland.

Young dolphins playing in front of our Scottish Dolphin Centre in northeast Scotland.
Young dolphins playing in front of our Scottish Dolphin Centre in northeast Scotland.

What is your most memorable moment?

There are too many for me to pick just one but a memorable survey experience for me was watching two humpback whales surrounded by white-beaked dolphins, who were surfing in the wake of the humpbacks. Shorewatch volunteers were watching them with me on a cold November afternoon. As the light faded, we could no longer see the whales, but we could hear their blows in the bay below us.

How does Shorewatch help WDC protect whales and dolphins?

To date, our volunteers have collected 70,000 surveys which equate to nearly 12,000 hours of person-power. The great thing about citizen science is that our volunteers are local to the area so can be out surveying at all times of the day and year.

WDC Shorewatch data helps us better understand the movements of coastal species across Scotland, finding out which species use these waters and where they like to hang out. The waters around Scotland are becoming much busier with traffic, noise, and developments. We can use WDC Shorewatch data to equip developers and policymakers who make the big decision with up-to-date information on whales, dolphins, and porpoises so the best decisions can be made to protect these incredible creatures.

Which is your favourite species to watch?

I have to say Risso’s dolphins. They are incredible. They are big, covered in scars and do not look like that image of the iconic streamlined dolphin we were brought up with. Risso’s dolphins are seen regularly in coastal waters around the Outer Hebrides and our Shorewatch volunteers on the Isle of Lewis spend a lot of time enjoying amazing sightings of Risso’s.

A Risso's dolphin off the coast of the Isle of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides
A Risso's dolphin off the coast of the Isle of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides

Research to protect

Alongside Shorewatch volunteers, WDC scientists head out to the Hebrides every summer to research the Risso’s dolphins. Over the years we have built up a photo ID catalogue of 80 individual dolphins and discovered that this is a vital area for Risso’s all year round as well as being an important feeding and breeding ground. We were delighted when the Scottish government used this data to designate the waters around Lewis as a marine protected area for Risso’s.

Who can take part in Shorewatch and how does it work?

Our citizen scientists come from all walks of life, we have volunteers who are complete novices and have never picked up a pair of binoculars before, to already seasoned wildlife watchers.

While surveying we are scanning for any clues that whales or dolphins are around. We look out for things like flocks of feeding birds, disturbances on the water, blows from a whale, splashes, or ‘footprints’ on the water where a whale or dolphin may have surfaced, a dorsal fin or dark back surface out of the water. Once we’re certain we have seen a dolphin or whale, we note down information about where we have seen them, what species they might be and what behaviour we see.

A sighting is always exciting and it’s what makes Shorewatching so compelling, but we often have many days when we see nothing but a vast blue sea with little visible life, although these days are still important. Collecting information on when we don’t see whales and dolphins gives us an insight on potential hotspots for certain species at particular times of year, feeding into our understanding on how to protect areas and individuals.

How you can help whales and dolphins

As communities we have a lot of power and can make our voices heard, I have seen time and time again communities standing up for the wildlife they watch.

You can help protect the wildlife around you in many ways:

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