Creatures of the Deep: Training to be a Marine Mammal Surveyor

img_1904The first place I saw a seal was here, off Deal Pier. The Channel’s Grey Seals, with their proud long noses are often mistaken for swimming dogs, just ask my sea-swimming husband, who was once asked why he had left his Labrador in the water. However, this was no land mammal. No dog could swim with such confidence, no dog could dive (and dive and dive) like that. It was definitely a seal, and a grey one at that.

The Grey Seal is our most observed sea mammal at the Beach School. They often hunt on the surface, close to the shore and can be very inquisitive. At Walmer Beach one spent a good ten minutes swimming close by and watching our paddling Under 5s. But seals aren’t the only sea mammal we could see from our beaches – the English Channel is also home to many porpoises, dolphins and even the occasional humpback whale.

I adore sea mammals. For want of a better phrase, it blows my mind that so many of them are out there, in our seemingly un-exotic Channel, in the busiest shipping lane in the world. They are our mammalian cousins, birthing and milk feeding live young, yet they are so otherworldly, living their lives in an entirely different medium to us. And the fact they are out there – largely out of our sight, yet always there, enveloped in the big blue…

I needed to know more about them, I just need to see them more, to get more of a taste of their world. So last month, I undertook Marine Mammal Surveyor training with the wonderful ORCA. On the day-long course, I learnt how to spot the signs of cetaceans (whales and dolphins) and other marine mammals. But also how to record the sitings, so they can be used by ORCA to monitor marine mammal populations around Europe. ORCA’s volunteer surveyors board ferries and cruise ships leaving ports across the UK to conduct scientific surveys to record the species seen, where they are and what they are doing. So this Summer, I hope to be up on the bridge (on the bridge! Like the actual Captain!!) of our cross-channel ferries, looking for whales, dolphins and seals and recording data for this incredible and important work. I’ll update the blog when I have been on my first survey.

In the meantime, whenever I am on our shore, I shall be looking out to sea carefully. Is that object a dorsal fin of a dolphin? Was that ripple from a diving porpoise? Is that a brave dog swimming close to shore or is it actually a seal? Because these creatures of the deep are out there and they’re not as illusive as you might think.


If you’d like to know more about marine mammals of the English Channel – we have a free educational resource, which you can download and keep here. Happy spotting!

Mammals of the English Channel

Published by Rachel Stevens

Nature Lover. Educator. Fascinated with people, spaces and places. Lover of life.

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