I am now officially trained as a Shorewatcher for Whale and Dolphin Conservation (WDC). I’ve been wanting to learn more about my local wildlife and contribute to marine conservation now I’m living in Scotland, so when I found out about the Shorewatch programme I was keen to get involved. Luckily I managed to complete my training in Inverness earlier this month, only a couple of weeks before the new regulations that now prevent us from going out for anything other than food shopping and exercise. Although I now won’t be able to start Shorewatching for a while, I’m going to use my time to get better at identifying British cetaceans using books in preparation for when I can get started properly.
Shorewatch is a citizen science project that’s all about scanning an area of ocean for ten minutes and recording the presence or absence of cetaceans (whales, dolphins and porpoises). The areas are especially assigned Shorewatch sites, which are found all over northern Scotland. The data collected is sent to WDC and used to monitor populations of cetaceans and flag up potential problems that may be occurring, such as deep-diving species that are straying into the shallows or a noticeable lack of sightings in an area where we might usually expect them.
Shorewatch is particularly beneficial because it is a completely non-invasive way of surveying. As the volunteers are positioned on the shore instead of in boats, the cetaceans show natural behaviour. WDC also don’t believe in tagging animals, so prominent scars and nicks in dorsal fins are used to identify individuals. For example, the team can recognise Spurtle, a female bottlenose dolphin, from the large area of sunburn on her side.
I haven’t seen any cetaceans in Moray yet, but I’m sure that will change over the coming months. The season will hopefully kick off properly in May, and going by the incredible photography I’ve seen, the bottlenoses really go to town with their acrobatics! However, when all you see is the flick of a tail or the subsequent splash, it can be tricky to figure out what species you’ve seen, so I’m learning how to identify different species in the water. The Moray Firth is famous for its bottlenoses, which are both the largest and most northerly in the world, but many other species have been spotted from Burghead shores including harbour porpoises and even orcas and humpback whales! I would definitely cry if I saw an orca in my local patch, but I shouldn’t get ahead of myself. Hopefully I’ll get to see the resident dolphins soon. We all went to Chanonry Point after our theory training to do a practice Shorewatch, and although there were no dolphins, we saw a common seal and a white-tailed eagle! I haven’t seen one since my trip to Carna in 2016, so to be able to watch the “flying barn door” on the east coast was a real treat and a fabulous introduction to Shorewatching.