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.

775 surveys / 12 sea regions

ORCA's fifth report, The State of European Cetaceans 2021 is the culmination of 14 years’ worth of sightings and environmental data collected during the 775 ORCA surveys conducted between 2006-2019 using vessels of opportunity (namely ferries and cruise ships). This includes 659 ferry surveys and 116 cruise surveys.

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.

Key Survey 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.

The 2021 report presents key survey findings from 2019. In normal circumstances, the 2021 edition would be presenting findings of the previous year’s survey season (2020), but at the time of writing the UK remains in lockdown and the publication of the State of European Cetaceans 2020 edition along with the 2020 survey season were put on hold due to the global COVID-19 pandemic. 

This latest report highlights a series of interesting findings from the 2019 survey season including;

  • The recording of 14,112 animals representing 29 species of cetacean

  • Common dolphins were the most frequently encountered species followed by the harbour porpoise, humpback whale and fin whale

  • The bowhead whale, gray whale, Antarctic minke whale and Fraser’s dolphin were all recorded for the first time by ORCA

  • The Southern Ocean and North Pacific Ocean were surveyed by ORCA for the very first time

  • Wildlife Officers covered an incredible 76,565 km of survey effort over five sea regions

  • Wildlife Officers recorded 3,651 cetacean encounters, of which 2,662 were identified to species level, totalling 17,060 individual animals

Download your copy

ORCA The State of European Cetaceans Report 2019

Report overview

2019 - Another record breaking year

2019 saw a record amount of survey effort with more coverage than ever before. In total 14,112 animals were recorded, 29 different species of whales, dolphins and porpoises were seen.

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 is vital for appropriate conservation management

Over the last 14 years we have undertaken 775 surveys across 12 sea regions and 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 2021 report builds upon the first four editions and includes new analyses sections and contributors. In particular, this publication looks at how citizen science can be used to better understand why in recent years more common dolphins have been observed inshore around the coast of West Scotland and the Hebrides.

We continue to showcase the work that our Wildlife Officers have done over many years in the in the North Sea, English Channel, Celtic Sea, Bay of Biscay and the Hebrides. Collecting data almost every single day, for up to nine months of the year, providing a treasure trove of data.

We’ve summarised this data and in 2019 the Wildlife Officers covered an incredible 76,565 km of survey effort over five sea regions and recording 3,651 cetacean encounters, of which 2,662 were identified to species level, totalling 17,060 individual animals. Work continues using this data to map areas of importance for our European cetaceans.

Threats to cetaceans still critical to some species survival

Another important part of this report is an examination of the multiple and growing threats facing whales, dolphins and porpoises within UK and European waters.

The wide-ranging and cumulative threats that cetaceans face both on a regional and global scale are highlighted by expert contributors. These include the increasing risk of whales being hit by ships, the devastating consequences of both small and large cetaceans when they become victims of bycatch, the continued barbaric practice of commercial whaling and the growing impact of noise pollution.

Whilst citizen scientists can provide an army of watchful eyes thanks to the (extra) ordinary people who volunteer their free time in the name of science and conservation, we also need a commitment from governments to take swift and decisive action when evidence shows the growing threat to these animals and the habitats in which they live.


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.

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...