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Shorewatchers at the Knab, Lerwick, Scotland.
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Celebrating three years of Shorewatch in Orkney and Shetland

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.

Since Shorewatch began at our Scottish Dolphin Centre near Inverness 19 years ago, volunteers have been helping us learn more about the whales and dolphins who live around Scotland so we can protect them. But there’s always more to know, so we added two new regions to the Shorewatch programme and it’s been a great success! 

Three years ago, we set out to expand our Shorewatch citizen science programme to the Northern Isles of Scotland: Shetland and Orkney. It’s been my job to set up new sites, train lots of new volunteers and create connections with partner organisations to help Shorewatch succeed. I’d like to share some of the highlights, celebrate our achievements and thank everyone involved.

Shorewatch volunteers watching from land at Ness Point in Orkney
Shorewatch volunteers conduct regular 10-minute surveys from more than 50 sites across Scotland.

Shorewatch focuses on gathering long-term data on the presence and absence of whales and dolphins all around Scotland’s coast. We rely on volunteers who survey their local waters, helping to build a comprehensive picture of whale and dolphin activity, such as which species are present and when. Shorewatch runs year-round, and to keep things fun and interesting, we run the Winter Watch Challenge, which like Shorewatch in the Northern Isles, has also been running for the last three years.

Belmont shorewatch site at sunset
During the winter months Shorewatchers brave the rain, frost, and snow to gather the data we need.

In Orkney and Shetland, we've trained almost 200 new Shorewatch volunteers . These dedicated individuals have conducted an astounding 6311 surveys, resulting in 1,943 whale, dolphin and porpoise sightings. Recently, Shorewatch volunteers across Scotland reached the incredible milestone of 100,000 Shorewatch surveys – that's a whopping one million minutes of eyes on the water! These numbers are more than just statistics; they represent countless moments where someone has picked up a pair of binoculars, enjoyed moments of calm, sometimes excitement, and most importantly, connected with nature. 

Shorewatch volunteers surveying for whales and dolphins in Burravoe, Yell
Our volunteers are dedicated to protecting whales and dolphins around our coast.

Our volunteers in the Northern Isles have encountered an impressive 12 different species including orcas, Risso’s dolphins, harbour porpoises, white-beaked dolphins, minke whales, and humpback whales. We've also had sightings of rarer species such as a beluga whale and northern bottlenose whales. Each sighting adds valuable data to our records and underscores the rich biodiversity of these waters.

Common dolphin leaping out of the water
Orca breaching

Scotland is home to around 28 whale and dolphin species © Neil Macpherson

The data gathered is already helping to prove how important these waters are for marine mammals, with both Orkney and Shetland identified as Important Marine Mammal Areas earlier this year. Without the evidence provided by citizen science projects, including Shorewatch, achieving this recognition would not have been possible.

Beyond data collection, Shorewatch volunteers also play a crucial role in community engagement. They have spoken with 3,240 people about whales and dolphins, helping to raise awareness and foster a deeper local connection to the marine environment.

© Charlie Phillips
© Charlie Phillips

Can you help protect whales and dolphins around our coast?

Many volunteers have also contributed to other projects, including the Scottish Vessel Project, monitoring the presence of boat traffic and interactions with marine life and in our Risso’s dolphin Photo-ID project, helping us understand more about the individual Risso’s dolphins present in these waters. In Shetland, volunteers have participated in additional porpoise watches to support PhD research, enhancing our knowledge of this shy species.

Shorewatch volunteer taking part in vessel survey in Mousa Sound
Risso's dolphin in Orkney

These are real people, doing real science!

Shorewatchers go above and beyond to protect these species and I’m always amazed when a volunteer lets me know that they’ve written to their MP, attended a local protest to ban harmful gillnet fishing, taken samples from a washed up whale or dolphin body for the strandings team or written to politicians in whaling counties to ask for change.

Shorewatch volunteers protesting against industrial gillnets
Shorewatchers are giving whales, dolphins and porpoises a voice. © Carole Davis

The progress of Shorewatch in the Northern Isles wouldn't have been possible without the dedication of our volunteers, partners and the support from the National Lottery Heritage Fund. To all our volunteers, your commitment and hard work are what make Shorewatch successful. Thank you for your invaluable contributions.

Shorewatchers at the Knab
We couldn't do what we do without these amazing people!

As we look to the future, I am filled with excitement for what lies ahead. The next three years promise even more opportunities to gather data, engage communities, and build a greater understanding of the whales and dolphins who call our waters home – because the more we know, the better we can protect them. Together, we will continue to make a difference, one survey at a time.

Please help us today with a donation

If you are able to help, every gift, whether large or small, will help us create a world where every whale and dolphin is safe and free.