Wildlife Officer Placement Tom reflects on his first two weeks in the North Sea
Hi all, Tom the Wildlife Officer Placement here with my first full blog post! My second week on board the KING Seaways is coming to an end and although this brings a well needed rest, I will be eager to get back on and continue the rest of my placement.
This week has seen a large variation in weather and sea states, experiencing both the best and worst over my time on the ship. With bad weather towards the end of the week I had my first very wet deck watch, but before this bad weather came in we did get some conditions which enabled brilliant sightings.
One calm evening allowed multiple sightings of over 30 harbour porpoise in total in around half an hour! During one of the sightings, Alex was also lucky enough to sight a minke whale, almost by accident when taking a picture of the splashing porpoise. You could even say that this sighting was not on ‘porpoise’! This was the first sighting of a minke whale from a deck watch during my time on board which I unfortunately missed as I was running the quiz below! The quiz did go well however, with many passengers enjoying the evening as well as learning a few things, but it was probably best they didn’t know what they had missed upstairs!
The multiple sightings and good numbers of harbour porpoise we’d been seeing led me to look further into the lives of the only European porpoise and smallest species of cetacean we see.
These small animals grow up to only around 1.9 metres long and up to 65kg in weight with a small triangular dorsal fin that sits slightly behind centre on their back. They have a shy disposition, often avoiding large ships and noises, and much less inquisitive than many other marine mammal species. This behaviour and size, coupled with the slow swim and characteristic ‘rolling’ motion as it surfaces makes for difficult observation. This gets increasingly harder when the sea is unkind in its conditions, with sightings quickly disappearing into the waves. Although it’s blow is rarely seen when coming up for air, observers from smaller vessels can sometimes hear this as a sharp sneeze like sound. This sound, as well as the short and stubby appearance, is where the harbour porpoise picks up its other name ‘puffing pig’.
The harbour porpoise is known by the scientific name Phocoena phocoena, of which it shares a genus with just three other porpoise species. One of these species is the Vaquita porpoise of the Gulf of California. Recent studies and surveys have predicted that less than 20 of this species are alive and many believe they will become extinct in around 5 years time. Thankfully, North Sea surveys such as ORCA’s show stable populations of the harbour porpoise in this area, which is supported by other large surveys including SCANS. Over the years there has been an observed shift in their range, however, with their distribution shifting lower in the North Sea and extending into the English Channel. Reports of numbers of certain species dwindling highlights the need for ongoing conservation efforts and collection of data, showing the importance of work by organisations such as ORCA.
I’ve really enjoyed my first shift on the North Sea with some exciting deck watches, intriguing conversations and also running the quiz and presentations. I can’t wait to see what the next shift brings!
ORCA Wildlife Officer Placement – The North Sea