The State of European Cetaceans

Critical cetacean habitat

The State of European Cetaceans is ORCA's report series, documenting the results of its survey findings, and more importantly, drawing conclusions about what this means for whales, dolphins and porpoises in the wild.

With significant and emerging threats continuing to adversely impact these animals and their habitats, ORCA's findings are crucial in providing evidence to conserve these animals in the future.

558 surveys / 9 sea regions

ORCA's fourth report, The State of European Cetaceans (2019), is the culmination of 13 years’ worth of sightings and environmental data collected during the 558 ORCA surveys conducted between 2006-2018 using vessels of opportunity (namely ferries and cruise ships).

This report summarises the distribution and range of cetacean populations in and around Europe’s waters and identifies marine areas and species that are of greatest importance. This insight is crucial to make authoritative and informed decisions about the protection required for cetaceans.

ORCA Inspiring and Educating People

Report Findings

These reports are produced by ORCA each year and are based on marine survey data collected by its volunteer network of Marine Mammal Surveyors from 2006 to present day.
These reports highlight a series of interesting findings including:
  • Citizen science supports pivotal cetacean research
  • 12,966 cetaceans, representing 29 species, were recorded during the 2018 survey season
  • Wildlife Officer data showed that there are clear hotspots for harbour porpoises in the North Sea and around the Hebrides
  • Overall, harbour porpoises were the most frequently recorded species, followed by common dolphins, humpback whales and fin whales
  • Northern right whale dolphins were recorded for the first time by ORCA surveyors, along with 6 other new sightings

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ORCA The State of European Cetaceans Report 2019

Report summary

2018 - Another record breaking year

2018 saw a record amount of survey effort with more coverage than ever before 12,966 animals were recorded.

The growing presence of ORCA across European and adjacent waters is evident, with the charity’s work having more impact than ever before.

The report validates the role citizen science has to play in supporting and enhancing wider cetacean research, and demonstrates that volunteers using platforms of opportunity can gather long-term data within smaller areas to show spatial and temporal trends not picked up by more dedicated, but less frequent, surveys conducted once a decade.

Ongoing monitoring vital for appropriate conservation management

This report continues to demonstrate why ongoing regular monitoring of cetaceans is vital.

The compilation and analysis of real-time, long-term data are essential to make effective and informed decisions about the protection of our whales and dolphins so urgently need.

Utilising ferry and cruise platforms is a highly effective tool to estimate density, distribution and range of these animals in near real-time so that worrying patterns can be identified early.

Citizen science has a critical role to play in marine conservation

This report builds upon the first three editions and includes new analyses, sections and contributors.

We’re showcasing the work that our Wildlife Officers have done over the last five years in the Bay of Biscay, Celtic Sea, English Channel, North Sea and the Hebrides. Collecting data for almost every day, for up to nine months of the year, there is a treasure trove of data that hasn’t been looked at in any detail before.

We’ve summarised the data that have been collected over this time, and have started to use this for novel analyses that investigates areas of importance for our European cetaceans.

Threats to cetaceans still critical despite diverse population

Though some may interpret this report as an indication of a thriving population of diverse species of cetaceans in Europe, there are still critical threats continuing to impact their numbers.

Bycatch is responsible for an unprecedented number of deaths, with 1,500 small cetaceans killed in UK fishing nets a year, whilst ship strike is of serious concern to fin whale populations having already decimated north Atlantic right whale numbers.

Whaling continues to present a clear and present danger despite the global ban, and although public awareness of plastics and pollution being higher than ever, cetaceans are still falling victim with alarming frequency.


Thank you to our volunteer surveyors, our shipping partners and Plymouth University.

Thank you ORCA...

ORCA continues to play a critical role - quietly and unassumingly - in efforts to care for whales, dolphins and porpoises in European waters.

I still marvel at the way it so successfully relies on an outstanding and tireless army of trained volunteers: people, from all walks of life and of all ages, who give their time to make a real difference. Quite simply, they get the job done. The world would certainly be a poorer place without them.

Mark Carwardine

Mark Carwardine ORCA patron

Our volunteer surveyors

ORCA volunteers have freely given their time and effort to generate the citizen science which is the foundation of this report.

They have all done so with the selfless objective of creating a more complete picture of our whales, dolphins and porpoises, so that they can be afforded greater protection and conservation where this is required. One of the notable findings of their research has been the fluid and transitory nature of whale and dolphin populations, in terms of geography, the seasons, location of prey species and so on.

We anticipate just as much change and movement in the future, and look forward to welcoming new generations of volunteers to map the mercurial habits and life cycles of these mysterious animals.

A very special thank you

This report would not have been possible without the support of Plymouth University.

Share your views

How do you think we can we take this data forward? What should those in power be doing to protect our whales, dolphins and porpoises more? Please get involved and let us know...