Dolphin scientists look like you and me – citizen science in action
Our amazing volunteers have looked out for dolphins from the shores of Scotland more than 75,000 times. That’s 75,000 dolphin watches carried out as part of our citizen science Shorewatch programme!
I tried to process that huge number in a bunch of different ways. A ‘Shorewatch’ is a 10-minute land-based survey for whales and dolphins. So, 75,000 watches is like saying 750,000 minutes or 12,500 hours of volunteer eyes on the sea. That’s almost one and a half years of continuous watching or six years of work for a full-time member of staff.
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But what really astounds me is thinking about what this incredible number actually looks like in practice. I’m picturing the 75,000 times that someone has picked up a coat, a woolly hat and some gloves to stand out in the cold or slathered on some sunblock and walked their dog to a local Shorewatch site to watch in the sun … or maybe both the hat and the sunblock because this is Scotland after all!
I’m imagining the rushed meals to leave the house early before work or slip away on a lunch break on the chance that they might see a dolphin … and perhaps being late back to work when they were in luck and just couldn’t tear themselves away. I can see kit boxes being opened time and again, data sheets unfolded, binoculars hung around necks and held up to eyes and the timer started on 75,000 different occasions, always with the bubbling excitement of what might be seen.
It’s these little vignettes that make the 75,000 watches so incredible to me – each one represents a real person, with somewhere else they could be, instead choosing to watch out for whales and dolphins.
Data that makes a difference
Last autumn, we were thrilled to publish our analysis of a portion of these watches - data collected by 584 WDC Shorewatch volunteers between 2012 and 2018 - in the scientific journal Frontiers in Marine Science.
This new analysis establishes that Shorewatch data can be used to show patterns and changes in how often the five most commonly seen species of whales and dolphins are sighted in Scottish coastal waters over time and between sites. These include bottlenose dolphins, harbour porpoises, minke whales, Risso’s dolphins, and common dolphins. It also demonstrates that this data, collected not by scientists but by ordinary local people all around the Scottish coastline, is high quality and of a standard that can feed into national and regional government processes to understand trends over the longer term and to assist with conservation and protection efforts.
So rock on, Shorewatchers, you are amazing!
But we’re not just shouting about what the data has done so far, we are also shaping how Shorewatch will move into 2022 and beyond. Our analysis highlighted that the data is strongest when it is spread out as much as possible: across different sites, different seasons, different times of day.
It may be no surprise to you that a lot of traditional research to spot whales and dolphins – particularly when boats are involved – takes place in the summer when the weather is more predictable and the daylight hours are long. And, if a survey is to be repeated many times over different days or years, it also needs to take place somewhere fairly accessible for the researcher. It can be hard to collect data from locations that are cold, dark, or remote.
As it turns out, Shorewatchers are one answer to this problem. (I sometimes think that Shorewatchers are the answer to everything!) Local volunteers around the Scottish coastline are ideally suited to make the most of short stints of good weather in the winter and to access sites early in the morning and just before dark. But again, let’s think about what winter watching looks like in practice for our amazing volunteers – leaving a warm house for the cold coastline, thicker gloves and extra socks, feet stomping away the cold, a thermos of hot coffee, numb fingers scribbling notes about sightings before they freeze entirely.
Rising to the challenge
To make winter watching more rewarding, we have set some challenges to increase the spread of effort between December and March: 20 watches by an individual or 20 watches per month by a team of Shorewatchers at a given site. These are harder than they might seem when contending with short daylight hours and unpredictable weather. Nonetheless, we have been blown away by the uptake of these challenges and can’t wait to see how everyone gets on. Bring on a winter of crystal-clear skies and still seas!
Working with Shorewatch volunteers is amazing. Not only do we get real-time reports about sightings in Scottish coastal waters but, with thousands of watches every year, we can also create a powerful voice for whales and dolphins. This is about real people doing real science and it goes to show that every watch counts.
Meet some of our brilliant Shorewatch volunteers
A small town girl from Buckie, Scotland I grew up by the coast. I work for the NHS, am a student with The Open University, and mother to a beautiful seven-year-old daughter. I often take my family out Shorewatching with me and my partner had never seen a dolphin before he accompanied me on a watch! I often use Shorewatch to clear my head after a long day and find it does amazing things for my mental health.
Born and raised in Transylvania, Romania and currently living in the Highlands, I enjoy playing guitar and bass and listening to a lot of heavy metal. I've studied Ecotourism, obtained a master's degree and I got interested in marine mammals after finishing my studies. Travelling to the Isles of Scilly for a seasonal job I spotted a pod of common dolphins from the ferry and that was the start of it all!
Mum to four amazing kids, three dogs, a cockatiel and two guinea pigs, I am a medically retired pupil support assistant from Fife. For 20 years, my family has been holidaying in the Black Isle, and going to Chanonry Point to watch the dolphins. My husband and I love watching and photographing them so that’s why I became a Shorewatcher. Watching them from Fife is an amazing bonus.
As a surfer I have a strong affinity with the ocean and four years ago I finished a degree in Environmental Management with the Open University and moved from rural Somerset to a clifftop house in Caithness. I didn't know at the time that it was a whale and dolphin hotspot. I've surfed in Fuerteventura, snowboarded in Finland, stood atop El Castillo, Chichen Itza, Mexico, but nothing beats watching orcas in their natural environment from your front garden!
I've been a Met Office weather observer, worked with children and now I work in tourism. One of my three adult children is Shorewatch trained and the staff where I work are given the opportunity to train with Shorewatch. The excitement of seeing dolphins never fades and it’s great showing wildlife to visitors. My best ever sighting was a fin whale, although I didn't realise that until later when another Shorewatcher described one.
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