ORCA: protecting whales and dolphins

Bottlenose dolphin #
Photo by Theo Vickers

ORCA is one of the UK’s leading whale and dolphin conservation charities dedicated to the long-term protection of whales, dolphins and porpoises (collectively known as cetaceans) and their habitats in UK and European waters. Founded in 2001, ORCA work to monitor vulnerable cetacean populations and help to protect threatened marine habitats. Working with governments, research institutions and other conservation charities, ORCA aims to create safer places for cetaceans ultimately promoting the health and well-being of the wider marine ecosystem.

Marine conservation and education with ORCA

Alongside its dedication to cetaceans, ORCA is passionate about people; the charity’s work is as much about people as it is about whales and dolphins. What makes ORCA unique is the way we combine accessible marine education with our conservation activities, allowing us to give people from all walks of life the opportunity to take an active role in marine science and conservation.

We train volunteers to join our survey teams and recruit Wildlife Officers and Cruise Conservationists to support our education programmes. ORCA’s projects reach over 150,000 people of all ages each year, providing memorable education activities and remarkable wildlife experiences both on and offshore. By doing this, we are empowering local communities to become stewards of whales and dolphins and the marine environment in which they live.

ORCA wildlife officer and passengers onboard DFDS ferry

Wildlife Officers in the North Sea

Volunteer Marine Mammal Surveyors are the back bone of ORCA’s research and since 2001, have boarded ferries and cruise ships crossing the North-East Atlantic and beyond, recording the marine wildlife they observed. These dedicated volunteers help ORCA’s work by donating their valuable time so that important marine mammal habitats can be studied and monitored.

In addition to the dedicated efforts of volunteer survey members, Wildlife Officers have been employed by ORCA and have collected data since 2014. Operating for up to nine months of the year, Wildlife Officers live on board ferries, providing educational content to passengers and collecting scientific data, often every day for the entire season. ORCA and DFDS have been working together in the North Sea for 12 years, with Wildlife Officers on board the KING Seaways enhancing passenger experience on board by running activities for all ages about marine wildlife and conservation and also helping passengers spot some incredible wildlife out on deck.

The KING Seaways crosses the North Sea between Newcastle and Ijmuiden. The maximum depth of the North Sea is 700m (near Norway) but on average it’s only 90m deep with the shallower parts at only 25m deep to the southern end. Because the North Sea is so shallow, light from the sun can penetrate all the way through the water column, creating an explosion of life beneath the waves. It can also be rough at times, which churns up nutrients and provides a plentiful food supply for all the creatures that the North Sea call home. The North Sea is unique in terms of its sheer diversity and abundance of marine wildlife. It supports over 230 species of fish, thousands of seabirds and an exciting variety of whales, dolphins and sharks.

Harbour porpoise
Bottlenose dolphin
Photo by Peter Andrews

Cetaceans worldwide

There are around 90 species of cetaceans worldwide. This number can fluctuate as new species are still being discovered, but species are also becoming extinct. The last cetacean extinction became official in 2008 when the Yangtze River dolphin could no longer be found. Cetaceans can vary wildly in size, shape and colour. The smallest cetacean in the world is the Vaquita porpoise, which can only be seen in the Sea of Cortez in Mexico. Unfortunately, this species is critically endangered and current estimates are that there may be as little as 10 individuals left in the wild. Comparatively the largest cetacean and the largest animal that has ever lived is the blue whale. The blue whale is 33m long when fully grown and can weigh up to 180 tonnes!

Marine life in European waters

Neither of these two species are seen in the North Sea, but ORCA have recorded 12 different species of whale, dolphin and porpoise and even seals, sunfish and otters! One of the most common species recorded is the harbour porpoise. This is the smallest and most common species of cetacean in Europe. They are a coastal species and are seen frequently close to land and in shallow water. They are very shy, only likely to be seen in calm seas as they do not jump like dolphins do but simply roll through the water without creating much splash, quickly taking a breath before disappearing.

Another common species we see in the North Sea is also one of the most recognisable – the bottlenose dolphin. They can measure up to 4meters long and reach speeds of 40km per hour! Minke whales are also regularly recorded during crossings and on occasion, even humpback whales breaching have been sighted.

Threats to marine life and ecosystems

There has never been a more important time for ORCA, in a world that is experiencing rapidly expanding threats to the marine environment and a society that is increasingly exploiting the ocean, whales and dolphins have never been more at risk. On a daily basis whales, dolphins and porpoises are faced with significant and emerging threats, many of which are caused by humans, these include the increasing risk of whales being hit by ships, the devastating consequences of both small and large cetaceans when they become victims of bycatch, the continued barbaric practice of commercial whaling and the growing impact of noise pollution.

There is still a lot more to be done to protect our whales, dolphins and porpoises and this is why ORCA’s work is so important. Half of all cetacean species are considered data deficient in the International Union for Conservation of Nature (ICUN) classification. ORCA’s work is vital in identifying critical habitats for whales, dolphins and porpoises in UK, European and adjoining waters.

How to make a contribution to ORCA and marine conservation

It’s not just ORCA that can help. There are also numerous ways you can get involved to help protect these amazing animals. You can train to be a Marine Mammal Surveyor and volunteer on our offshore surveys, survey for sea mammals as an ORCA OceanWatcher whenever and where ever you can see the sea, or simply become a member of ORCA and help us to continue the vital work that we have built over more than fifteen years of protecting the marine environment.

Find out more about ORCA and how you can get involved.

Please follow us on social media, subscribe to our newsletter, and/or support us with a regular donation