The State of European Cetaceans Report

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.

ORCA's first report, 'The State of European Cetaceans (2006 - 2015)', is the culmination of 10 years’ worth of sightings and environmental data collected during the 376 ORCA surveys conducted between 2006-2015 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.

This is the report infographic:

Download the report [PDF]

The report highlighted a series of interesting findings including:

The Bay of Biscay is a critical cetacean habitat

One of the fundamental parts of this report solidifies the importance of the Bay of Biscay for many cetacean species, with ORCA surveyors having observed 16 species in this area; the highest species diversity of all areas surveyed.Recorded species included blue whales, sei whales, false killer whales, orcas and the elusive beaked whales. The southern Bay was clearly identified as the preferred habitat for beaked whales. All sightings of Cuvier’s beaked whale occurred here, therefore measures to reduce the impact of known threats to this species, such as military sonar must be implemented.

This report highlights the Bay of Biscay as a critical cetacean habitat and we are calling for it to be designated as an Important Marine Mammal Area. 

Serious fishing threat to harbour porpoise

The harbour porpoise is one of the most threatened cetaceans in Europe due to its preference for coastal zone habitats, with its principal threat being accidental catches in fishing gear (by-catch). The North Sea remains a hotspot for harbour porpoise and an apparent shift in distribution from northern to southern areas was noted. With invasive commercial activities increasing and posing a serious threat, harbour porpoise sites must be flexible and dynamic enough to respond to emerging evidence, with the ability to place immediate restrictions in the zones designated for protection.

Minke – most common whale

The minke whale was observed in all sea regions and was the most frequently sighted whale. The highest numbers were recorded in Arctic Waters followed by the North Sea and 85% of sightings were of a single individual. Most sightings were recorded in coastal and shelf regions and peaked in July and August in the North Sea. This strongly suggests that these animals are migrating up to colder Arctic seas, which means the whales we are seeing in UK waters are at serious risk of falling victim to commercial whaling operations in Norway and Iceland. 

High white-beaked dolphin numbers in North Sea

White-beaked dolphins typically prefer the cool temperate climate of the North Atlantic around Iceland, Svalbard and Norway and this was reflected in ORCA’s data with the highest encounters (125) being recorded in Arctic Waters. However, over 40% of white-beaked dolphin sightings occurred in the North Sea with group sizes reaching up to 100 individuals; pod size is generally reported to consist of 5-50 individuals. A seasonal occurrence in the North Sea was also noted, suggesting the inshore waters around North Shields to be important nursery grounds.

Thank you to 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 on social media

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?  Let us know:

 @ORCAweb           #SOEC

Download the report [PDF]