Efforts underway to protect whales and dolphins in the North Sea

A new wildlife conservation centre in the North East is helping to monitor the numbers of whales and dolphins in the North Sea

With more than 30 years’ experience filming the natural world, acclaimed cameraman Doug Allan knows only too well how important it is to protect wildlife.

The 64-year-old has worked extensively with Sir David Attenborough on documentary series’ such as The Blue Planet, Planet Earth, Life and Frozen Planet.

During his tours, he has come up close and personal with a variety of marine species including many whales, and feels it is vital to monitor the habitats of sea creatures and help to preserve marine environments.

In March, the award-winning photographer made a trip to the North East to unveil a new conservation centre on board a ferry.

The ORCA facility, which aims to protect whales and dolphins, is on the DFDS King Seaways ship, which travels between North Shields and Amsterdam.

Passengers can visit the centre, take part in activities, spot marine life and help to record their numbers with the help of experts.

Mr Allan said the charity’s work was vital as their data helps to identify the hotspots where whales and dolphins can be seen. This in turn can inform on whether their numbers are growing or falling, and appropriate action can be taken to safeguard them if needed.

He believes whales are amazing creatures and recalls the first time he saw one face-to-face.

He said: “I went to South America and was asked to film Right Whales. They are so named because they were considered the right whales to hunt - they were slow, easy to keep up with and rich in oil and other products. Now they are protected species.

“On my trip, I met a friendly female. I had been around her for about an hour when she put her nose on my chest and gently pushed me. She wanted me to rub the sides of her head gently.

“I started doing that, like scratching a dog, and she seemed to like it. Every time I tried to move away, she pushed me on the chest and wanted me to do it again. This was a 45ft whale, its head was about 7ft or 8ft and it weighed about 50 tonnes. It was a great experience.

“We are in a privileged position because we are working with scientists who know all about these creatures. We know how to approach them and how to behave.

“But you have to be aware of the fact that they are whales. You have to know when to leave them alone.

“They could hurt you if they wanted to. However I have never been with an aggressive whale.

“I have come across ones that wanted to protect their calves - they will put themselves in between you and their calves and gently take them away.

“Whales are amazing animals, which is why ORCA’s work is so important.”

Since 2007, the charity has recorded hundreds of sightings in the North Sea between North Shields and Amsterdam.

Between 2011 and 2014, there were 1,664 sightings of harbour porpoises, 540 white-beaked dolphins and 87 minke whales.

Among the more unusual incidents was the spotting of a humpback whale in July 2013 and a super-pod of more than 100 white-beaked dolphins in June last year.

Figures show that significantly more animals have been seen in the North Sea year on year. The number of porpoises went up from 106 in 2011 to 759 last year, while minke whale viewings increased from just five in 2011 to 54 in 2014.

And there were only 20 white-beaked dolphins seen four years ago, however the number rose to 179 last year.

ORCA official launch at DFDS Seaways in North Shields
ORCA official launch at DFDS Seaways in North Shields

Since the launch of the dedicated facility on the DFDS ferry in March, ORCA’s community wildlife officers Rachael Forster and Ruth Coxon have already seen 38 white-beaked dolphins, two Harbour porpoises, several grey seals and many bird species such as puffins, petrels and gannets, at various points between Newcastle and Amsterdam.

The team conducts deck watches with passengers, helping them spot any wildlife, and also holds presentations for children and adults who are eager to learn more about sealife.

The onboard centre has various displays informing people about the types of species that can be seen in the North Sea as well as activities for children, such as a harbour porpoise version of snakes and ladders.

A special piece of artwork is also displayed at the site. Created by artist Rory McCann, it shows various types of creatures that can be seen in the North Sea. Catherine Bowley, the charity’s supporter development manager, said: “We and our volunteers help protect these inspirational animals in a number of ways by educating the general public through our Your Seas programmes onshore and our wildlife officer programmes offshore.

“We freely share our extensive data with governments and other research institutions. Our work is all about creating safer places for whales and dolphins, ultimately promoting the health of the wider marine ecosystem.”

Stephen House, DFDS North Sea campaigns manager, said: “We love the wildlife centre on the ship. When people are going on holiday on this ferry, they can come and see what is happening in the centre and join in with the activities.

“People are amazed to see whales and dolphins, and it makes it a fun trip as well as being educational.”

ORCA official launch at DFDS Seaways in North Shields
ORCA official launch at DFDS Seaways in North Shields

ORCA believes marine conservation is decades behind land conservation and there is a lack of data about the species in our oceans.

Half of the whale and dolphin species globally are considered to be “data deficient” by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, including beaked whales and orcas.

Whales and dolphins are also considered great indicators of the general health of our oceans and ecosystems.

Monitoring activities are taking place throughout European waters, including the North Atlantic, English Channel, Celtic Sea and Irish Sea.

The information collected by ORCA’s volunteers is used by the UK Government to help define the conservation status of whales, dolphins and porpoises in British waters.

For more information, visit www.orcaweb.org.uk

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