ORCA Marine Mammal Surveyor Training course

Report by Jenny Hubbard

Just to do something different, on Saturday, 23 January 2016, Andrew & I attended the ORCA Marine Mammal Surveyor Training Course which was held at the City Museum in Portsmouth.  Andrew had received an email about this and when he realised that there was the possibility of travelling on the bridge of various passenger ferries keeping a look out for marine mammals was quite keen to attend!

There were more people attending than we had anticipated, probably around 50, which included quite a lot of university students who were obviously studying marine biology or similar courses and this was a complementary course.

In the morning we found out how to search for marine mammals and how to identify the different species.  This was quite a challenge.  We were surprised to hear that in UK and European waters it is possible to see 1 species of porpoise, 8 species of dolphins, 2 of which are called whales (!) and 9 species of whales. We learnt the difference between dolphins and whales, and specific behaviour or colouring which can help to identify them. 

After a sandwich lunch we had sessions on the sampling protocol and how to record data.  On sighting a cetacean notes have to be made of the time, current gps position, distance and angle from the ‘ship’ and then make an identification! 

We then had a quiz on Cetacean identification and found we had forgotten everything from the morning. 

This was followed by a virtual survey where photos of different cetaceans were shown or moved over a ‘sea’ picture for us to record in groups.  The ‘surveyor’ reported the sighting, distance, angle, identification and one person recorded the data.  As there were 2 surveyors, one ‘port’ and one ‘starboard’ in each group this was a very interesting (and noisy) exercise.

This was difficult enough but then actual video footage was shown and this was almost impossible.  Sometimes there was just a splash or brief look at a dark shape and we had to try to make an identification.

One of the current surveyors then told us of her experience on one of the ferries and we were told how we could apply for a place on a ferry if we wanted to.  Certificates to say that we had successfully completed the course were then made available.

We found the course very interesting but are not really sure if we could put into place our identification skills in reality.

ORCA works in partnership with Brittany Ferries to deliver I-Spy Whale Watching trips and Andrew and I are thinking of doing one of these in the summer to see if we can use our identification skills in reality. Anyone fancy an alternative to a couple of days diving??  You don’t have to have done the surveyor course to book these trips.


  • Portsmouth – Santander – Plymouth Biscay Triangle cruise
  • 2 nights on board with en suite cabin accommodation
  • Expert whale watching and dolphin spotting advice
  • Wildlife presentations
  • Time ashore in the elegant port city of Santander
  • To begin and end your cruise in Portsmouth, an optional coach transfer is available from Plymouth to Portsmouth on Day 3 (£28 per person)
  • Cost from £170 per person (4 berth cabin)
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