Last Saturday I spent an enjoyable and highly-educational day learning about cetacean and seabird ID. The location: Dorset Wildlife Trust's Chesil Beach Centre, between Weymouth and Portland, with panoramic views of Portland, Portland Harbour, the Fleet, and of course, Chesil Beach. The trainer: Adrian from MARINElife, a UK charity dedicated to cetacean and seabird conservation through research and education.
The aim of the course was to provide a grounding in identification techniques and skills, whether for vessel-based surveys or land-based observation. MARINElife - formerly known as Biscay Dolphin Research Programme (BDRP) - operates volunteer-based surveys at monthly intervals on nearly all the international ferry services around the British Isles. And believe it or not, surveyors have to be familiar with 37 different whales, dolphins and porpoises (cetaceans), because that is the astounding number that we should expect to see around the UK!
It might come as a suprise to many people, but UK waters are home to 37 cetacean species, as well as some globally-threatened seabirds. Some of the cetaceans are common and widely-distributed; others are less frequently seen. Did you know, for example, that fin whales ('the second-largest whale in the world') can be seen around Britain? Actually I did hear reports last summer of a pod off the northeast coast of England, but I didn't know until the MARINElife course last weekend that sightings like that are not particularly unusual. Ditto humpbacks.
I had always had an interest in cetaceans, but it took a MARINElife training day to focus the mind, absorb lots of new information, and begin the process of learning a new identification skillset. This course was well-attended by around 40 people, and a bargain at £30. MARINElife (www.marine-life.org.uk) hopes to convert much of the interest into new surveyors for its formal vessel-based survey programme, and I for one will be putting 'bids' in for survey slots on the new Poole to Santander route this year, and possibly others. The deal for surveyors is a free return crossing, with berth if needed, and sometimes meals thrown in too; and your survey station is the bridge. How cool is that?
So what did I learn at the course, and was it enough to become a surveyor? I learnt an awful lot, and I gather that trainee surveyors are well-supported and mentored, so hopefully the course did the trick. I would say my cetacean ID skills improved many-fold, and my seabird ID knowledge too - though as a non-birder, I started at a very modest level anyway. I feel I could now identify many seabird species from a decent view or picture, and of course I am now practising. I have always 'known' my large whales, but I now feel confident in species-level ID of dolphins too. And the course really does enable you to have a crack at recognising a whale or dolphin from a mere glimpse of dorsal fin, back, fluke or blow. The important thing to remember though, we are told, is not to guess.
I've seen dolphins in several countries, including breathtaking 'spinners' off Bali; and I've seen sperm whales off Kaikoura in New Zealand. I've even seen dolphins (unknown species) from the cliffs of Bournemouth; most recently from the comfort of our home on Southbourne cliffs, Bournemouth, last May. But now with my new ID skills and renewed enthusiasm, I find myself glued to binoculars, looking out of the window. Remarkably even the gulls are interesting now, and who knows - there may yet be a cetacean sighting before tea!