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WDC's Emma Steel winter watching in Orkney, Scotland
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Beyond the frost: Shorewatch volunteers rise to our three-year winter watching challenge

Emma Steel

Emma Steel

Emma is WDC's Shorewatch coordinator. She works with volunteers to learn more about the whales and dolphins that live around our coast, so we can better protect them.

Understanding more about the whales, dolphins and porpoises who live around our coast is essential if we want to protect them. But to truly unravel their mysteries, we need to have eyes on them all year round. And we can’t do that alone. Even in the unpredictable Scottish winter, our Shorewatch volunteers brave the rain, frost, and snow to gather the data we need.

Who knew we had so many whale and dolphin species right on our doorstep?
Who knew we had so many whale and dolphin species right on our doorstep?

Scotland is home to around 28 whale and dolphin species, but there are many unanswered questions about where they breed, feed and travel. By observing them in their natural habitat, we can begin to unlock these secrets. That’s why in 2005, we set up Shorewatch - a network of volunteers, trained and supported by us to conduct regular 10-minute surveys from more than 50 sites across Scotland. For the past 15 years, we’ve relied on this amazing community of volunteers to record every watch, even when there are no whale or dolphin sightings, providing us with a wealth of data that is instrumental in our efforts to protect them.

Bottlenose dolphins leaping

Can you help us understand more about whales and dolphins?

How does Shorewatch help whales and dolphins?

Aside from being a thrilling and unforgettable experience, sightings of whales and dolphins can give us valuable insights into their behaviour and which areas of the sea are important to them. The waters around Scotland are becoming much busier with traffic, noise, and developments, so we use the survey data to ensure the best decisions can be made to protect them. By identifying important habitats, we contribute to the designation of marine protected areas (MPAs) and provide governments with the data needed to make informed decisions about conservation measures. And by understanding the whales’ and dolphins’ movements, we can advise developers on the timing and location of their activities to minimise potential harm.

With the help of our Shorewatch volunteers, in 2020, a marine protected area (MPA) around the Isle of Lewis was officially designated to keep the Risso’s dolphins safe.
With the help of our Shorewatch volunteers, in 2020, a marine protected area (MPA) around the Isle of Lewis was officially designated to keep the Risso’s dolphins safe.

When do our volunteers watch?

While traditional research typically takes place during the summer, most Shorewatch volunteers live near the sea and can collect this important citizen science data year-round.

This is essential for our understanding of seasonal variations in activity and habitat use. For example, if we carry out Shorewatches every month throughout the year but only see large groups of harbour porpoises during watches in the autumn, we can be sure that autumn is a really important time for porpoises. However, if we didn’t survey year-round, we wouldn’t be able to establish autumn as a critical time for harbour porpoises coming together – sometimes we see up to 200 individuals. 

Harbour porpoise © Nicola Hodgins/WDC
Harbour porpoise © Nicola Hodgins/WDC

Winter watching

Our Shorewatch volunteers are the eyes and ears of Scotland's coastal waters. They’ve always surveyed throughout the winter months, but over the last three years, we’ve been running a dedicated Winter Shorewatch Challenge to encourage more data collection between December and March. It’s been wonderful to see so many Shorewatch volunteers rise to the challenge, collecting vital data and enjoying nature over the colder, darker months.

Emma Steel watching from land in snowy
It may be cold, but it sure is beautiful!

Were the cold days worth it?

Our volunteers have nearly reached 100,000 watches – that’s the equivalent of one million minutes of survey effort – and more and more of these are during winter. By braving the cold, they are doing real science creating a powerful voice for whales, dolphins and porpoises around our coast. 

Over the last three winters, our volunteers have recorded harbour porpoises, orcas, humpback whales, bottlenose dolphins, common dolphins, Risso’s dolphins, white-beaked dolphins, fin whales, sei whales and even a beluga whale. Neil Macpherson, a Shorewatch volunteer in Orkney was lucky enough to see a pod of orcas only 100 metres offshore on New Year’s Day, and he captured this beautiful picture. Male orca dorsal fins can grow up to six feet tall, meaning that even in the choppy January waters, they’re hard to miss!

Orca at the surface
What a way to start the new year!

Fiona Johnston, a Shorewatch volunteer at Chanonry Point near Inverness has had some fantastic days surveying and said: ‘It has been cold but exhilarating, particularly the day a humpback whale appeared close to shore and fed in the area for around four hours. It’s always such a privilege to experience’.

Humpback whale fluke
humpback-music-breach_c_ucludewig

Imagine catching a glimpse of this ocean giant from right here in the UK.  Humpback whale fluke © Roger Houghton

Not only does the Winter Shorewatch Challenge help collect important data, but it also encourages everyone to get outside and be in nature, particularly at a time of year that can be extra challenging for people's mental health. Jo Booth, a Shorewatch volunteer at Spey Bay on the Moray Firth where our Scottish Dolphin Centre is located said: ‘I love the contrasts of winter watching, it's frequently cold and windy but the calm days are such a gift. Shorewatching is a great excuse to just watch the ocean and the birds, hoping for seals and fins. I love these watches for the serenity they bring me and the knowledge that my tiny data contribution adds to a bigger picture’.

As one of the Shorewatch coordinators, I’m lucky enough to spend some time out Shorewatching with lots of our lovely volunteers. My personal favourite winter Shorewatch day has to be an incredibly calm and sunny day in November last year, when I was surveying with volunteers in Shetland – we were lucky enough to see big groups of harbour porpoises, two humpback whales and an energetic pod of common dolphins all in the same day.

Two Shorewatch volunteers observing from land
Scotland is an amazing place to see whales and dolphins safe and free; local Shorewatchers are taking action to make sure that it stays that way.

Through their meticulous observations and dedication, volunteers have contributed to identifying key habitats and informing conservation policies, ensuring a brighter future for marine biodiversity. A huge thank you to all of our WDC Shorewatch volunteers. If you’re interested in volunteering for Shorewatch, and surveying from one of our spots along the Scottish coastline, visit whales.org/Shorewatch.

Please help us today with a donation

If you are able to help, every gift, whether large or small, will help us learn more about whales and dolphins so we can better protect them.