The State of European Cetaceans

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

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 the results mean 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.

376 surveys / 9 sea regions

ORCA's second report, 'The State of European Cetaceans (2017)', is the culmination of 10 years’ worth of sightings and environmental data collected during the 376 ORCA surveys conducted between 2006-2017 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.

The State of European Cetaceans

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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 support pivotal cetacean research
  • Over 7,500 cetaceans sighted during the 2016 survey season
  • High numbers of white-beaked dolphins in the North Sea

  • Bay of Bay top for species diversity
The State of European Cetaceans report

Report summary

2016 a record breaking year

2016 saw a record number of cetacean encounters for ORCA teams, with 1,780 encounters totalling 7,572 individual animals throughout the year.

This new landmark for our ferry and cruise surveys shows the growing presence ORCA has across European waters and the increasing impact the charity’s work is having in the region.

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.

Citizen science has a critical role to play in marine conservation

This edition of the report includes a detailed analysis of common dolphin data collected by ORCA between 2005 – 2016 in response to the increased levels of common dolphin mortality from bycatch.

This analysis, conducted in conjunction with Plymouth University, aimed to establish if there were significant changes to the density around the UK and to create a valuable baseline for future monitoring of common dolphin populations. The analysis was compared to the Small Cetaceans in European Atlantic Waters and the North Sea (SCANS) III survey from July 2016, with ORCA’s data supporting the findings of this pivotal piece of research for UK and European marine protection policy.

White-beaked dolphins common in the Celtic Seas

A record eight species were seen in the Celtic Seas in 2016. This included three species never before recorded by ORCA in the region. A humpback whale and orca were seen on the Isles of Scilly route in March and June respectively, whilst white-beaked dolphins were seen on 10 separate occasions during July. White-beaked dolphins were common in 2016; it was the first time that ORCA have recorded white-beaked dolphins in the Irish Sea, and there were also frequent sightings of this species in the Minches and West Scotland.

Threats to cetaceans still critical despite diverse population

Though some many 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 porpoises killed in UK fishing nets in 2015 alone, 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.

ORCA’s work cannot live in isolation and it is incumbent on all, including industry and government, to do their part to help protect our wonderful whales and dolphins and safeguard their habitats for future generations.


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

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 the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) and 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...
The State of European Cetaceans

The State of European Cetaceans

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ORCA OceanWatch