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Unprecedented effort to protect Orcas with citizen science: the 2019 Orca Watch event results are out!



For ten days in late May, tourists, wildlife enthusiasts and local businesses around Caithness, Orkney and Shetland support Orca Watch, a citizen science project organized by the Sea Watch Foundation now in its 8th year, hoping to catch a glimpse of killer whales otherwise known as orcas, and any other species of cetacean (whale, dolphin and porpoise) visiting the  waters of the Pentland Firth.

They stand endlessly from cliff tops and from the John O’Groats ferry decks, collecting sightings, behaviour, geographical positions and photographs of orcas and any other cetacean  species which passes by.

The idea of organizing this event started with Colin Bird, Sea Watch’s long-standing Regional Coordinator for North-East Scotland, and was influenced by concerns over the possibility of underwater turbines installed in the Pentland Firth. This initiated the first seasonal watch in 2012 to gather information on how orcas use this area and what might be the consequences of such an installation.

Without knowing how orcas or other cetaceans use the Pentland Firth, or which role they play in the ecosystem in the area, it is impossible for scientists and conservationists to know how to develop plans to protect them” says Dr Chiara Giulia Bertulli, Sightings Officer and lead organizer of this year’s Orca Watch event.

The Sea Watch Foundation in collaboration with eight other organizations (Whale and Dolphin Conservation, Scottish Natural Heritage, John O’Groats Ferries, Pulteneytown People’s Project, RSPB Orkney, Sanday Development Trust, High Life Highland Countryside Rangers, and the Hebridean Whale and Dolphin Trust) aims to change that with a research project that enlists the help of citizen scientists from all around Scotland and its offshore Isles.

During the 2019 Orca Watch, hundreds of volunteer observers spent almost 200 hours (100 more than in 2018) collecting 122 sightings of seven different cetacean species, stationed at 30 land watch sites (main site at Duncansby Head, Caithness) and aboard one vessel (operated by the John O’Groats Ferries) around Caithness, Orkney, and Shetland. Orca sightings were also sent in from the west coast of Scotland and the Hebrides.


Species seen includes orca, Risso’s dolphin, humpback whale, harbour porpoise, short-beaked common dolphin, minke whale, long-finned pilot whale.

This looks like being the best Orca Watch event of the last few years”, reported Dr Chiara Giulia Bertulli.

Harbour porpoises were the most commonly sighted species during Orca Watch. This species was recorded 46 times (38% of all records).

The Orcas were the second most commonly sighted species during Orca Watch, with 27 sightings (22%). Groups varied in size from a single individual to a group of 10 with an average group size of 3. Sightings were distributed around Orkney and Caithness, with few sightings also reported from Sutherland (Handa Island) and from the Outer Hebrides (Isle of Lewis). Orcas were first spotted on May 17st from Hoxa Head (Orkney) and on May 19th they were sighted off both Handa Island and Gary Beach, Isle of Lewis. On May 20th they were sighted from three different location around Orkney (Buwick, Hoxa Head, Lidell) and then in Caithness on May 21st during the morning ferry ride onboard the Pentland Venture (John O’Groats Ferries). After two days of bad weather and no further sightings morale seemed low. However at dusk on May 24th they were finally sighted at the Stacks of Duncansby and remained in the area through May 25th and 26th. Two known orcas were also sighted on May 26th from Burwick and Duncansby and from onboard the John O’Groats ferries. They are commonly referred to as “Hulk” and “Nótt”, which are orcas that are known to travel between Iceland and Scotland on foraging trips.

Image: Robert Foubister

Minke whales were the third most abundant species recorded during Orca Watch, with 26 sightings being made, accounting for 21% of all records.

Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine it would be that amazing! – spending the whole day watching them swimming off Hoxa Head as the light started to fade was something I am not going to forget easily” said Christina Worth, a Sea Watch Volunteer Observer, who sighted the orcas during her land-watch off Hoxa Head.

Other interesting sightings from this year’s Orca Watch week included a humpback whale sighted off Nista Skerries, Uyea, a lone common dolphin encountered on May 21st off Gletness, Shetland, and many close encounters with minke whales sighted off Duncansby Head”, added Chiara.

We are very pleased with the amount of information we have gathered during this year’s Orca Watch and our immense gratitude goes to our lead volunteer organizers from all of the groups (particularly Anna Jemmett, Lucy Baldwin, Steve Truluck, Rob Lott, Karen Hall, Emma Neave-Webb, Colin Bird, and Karen Munro), to all our network of volunteer observers, regional coordinators, to our partners and to all the local businesses that have pitched in, offered generous discounts and taken great care of all our Orca Watchers”, concluded Chiara.

For more information on the work of the Sea Watch Foundation visit their website by clicking here.

Marine Life & Conservation

UK Shark Fin Trade ‘dead in the water’



The government has today signalled the end of the UK’s involvement in the global shark fin trade with an announcement that new legislation will require all imported and exported shark fins to remain attached to the shark carcass and only traded as a whole commodity.

The news has been welcomed by Bite-Back Shark & Marine Conservation and its supporters including wildlife TV presenter Steve Backshall MBE and chef Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, who both endorsed the charity’s No Fin To Declare campaign, calling for a post-Brexit ban of the personal import allowance of shark fins to the UK.

Before Britain left the EU it had been bound by outdated legislation that permits anyone to carry up to 20kg of dried shark fins into and across European borders as part of their personal import allowance. According to Bite-Back, this loophole has been exploited by the shark fin trade to legally ‘smuggle’ fins undetected for decades.

Campaign director at Bite-Back, Graham Buckingham, said: “This news puts the UK at the forefront of shark conservation and represents a further blow to a global industry that is forcing sharks closer to the brink of extinction. We applaud the government for using Brexit to side-step this archaic EU legislation and instead lead the world in the conservation of sharks and the oceans. We hope and believe this announcement will encourage other European countries to impose similar constraints.”

It’s estimated that global fishing fleets hunt and kill 73 million sharks every year. As a result one in four shark species is now either endangered or threatened forcing populations of iconic shark species including great whites, hammerheads, oceanic whitetips and threshers to a tiny fraction of those recorded 50 years ago.

Over the past decade shark fins — used as the title ingredient in shark fin soup — have become one of the most valuable seafood items in the world, a fact the charity says, has created a ‘marine gold rush’ to catch and separate sharks from their lucrative fins.

Shark fin soup is widely regarded as a controversial dish. Not only are the cartilaginous strands from the fins tasteless, fishermen are known to cut the fins off the sharks they catch and throw the rest of the shark overboard to die.

Bite-Back first exposed the personal import allowance loophole in 2015. Alongside the detrimental environmental impact the NGO also highlighted that no other item on the ‘green channel’ list compared in terms of volume or value. In fact a 20kg consignment of fins is enough to make 705 bowls of shark fin soup and has a black market value of around £3,600.

Spain, France, Portugal and the UK all feature in the top 20 shark fishing nations in the world. Remarkably though, for years, the UK has exported around 25 tonnes of shark fins to Spain for processing and onward sale to the Far East.

However, it will soon become illegal to import or export individual shark fins making it extremely costly and inconvenient to buy and sell a product that is contributing to the decimation of vital shark populations.

Wildlife TV presenter and Bite-Back patron, Steve Backshall MBE, said: “Today’s news is a fantastic outcome for shark conservation and the culmination of years of campaigning from Bite-Back. The government’s decision to effectively ban the trade in shark fins will be significant in helping to restore the balance of the oceans. At the same time it sends a clear message to the world that shark fin soup belongs in the history books and not on the menu.”

Support shark and marine conservation at

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Protecting England’s Wreck Sites: Site Security Protocols Launched



The security of heritage assets is of the utmost importance; a monetary value cannot be attached to the significance of a site or its associated artefacts. This statement is true for both on land and underwater sites.

The policing of underwater sites however, is often a trickier affair, with out-of-sight often equalling out-of-mind. Unfortunately, a site’s underwater location does not stop thieves from stealing or damaging artefacts.

To aid in the protection of our underwater cultural heritage, a selection of sites of historical, artistic and archaeological importance have been protected by law under the Protection of Wrecks Act 1973 ( Historic England manage these sites on behalf of the Department of Digital, Culture, Media, Digital and Sport (DCMS), and a team of Licensees, effectively voluntary custodians, play a key role in their ongoing management.

The licensees work tirelessly on the wrecks and have had a special relationship with them since the very first days of the Protection of Wrecks Act. If it wasn’t for them, many of the sites would still be unknown and we would have very little knowledge of many of the existing sites. Their presence on the sites acts as a deterrent to anyone thinking of accessing the sites illegally and their monitoring ensures that the sites are understood and enjoyed by many people.

To further aid in the physical protection of these significant sites, Historic England funded a partnership project between the Protected Wreck Association (PWA and MSDS Marine ( This national-level project has seen the development of Site Security Plans for protected wreck sites. The model developed is based on the highly successful model developed by Ron Howell and the SWMAG team who are Licensees for the Salcombe Cannon and Moor Sands protected wreck sites.

A Site Security Plan is the end result of a process which assesses how secure a site is from illegal access. By completing two very easy to use but highly specialised forms, the site is given:

  • Its own Site Security Champion
  • Its own Heritage Crime Officer in the Police
  • A level of risk of heritage crime occurring to enable appropriate response to be put in place and to allow targeting of resources
  • Quick win opportunities to decrease its level of risk
  • A protocol for the licensees to follow every time they access the site
  • Specialist guidelines to enable crime reporting to enforcement authorities
  • A toolkit consisting of: A High Vis vest, to help identify the Site Security Champion to the public / authorities and pocket-sized card, summarising guidance on reporting crimes.

The project team will be supporting Licensees and their teams in completing a Site Security Plan and Risk Assessment for each Protected Wreck Site. MSDS Marine will be contacting Licensees inviting them to book a slot to work through the process. Individual Licensees and teams can also follow the guidance to complete the documents on their own with MSDS Marine on hand to support as required.

The Site Security Forms are accessible on the Protected Wreck Association website, in the members only area . If you are not a member and would like to join, this is an excellent time, as its free!

Assessing the security of a wreck site will inform Historic England of any sites which are at a high risk of heritage crime, and aid them in the future management of these sites. It will assist Licensees in highlighting areas for concern and in turn offer positive actions that can be taken to reduce the threat. It is hoped that the scheme will help put practical measures in place to ensure that the sites are protected from illegal activity in future.

Alison James, Project Manager at MSDS Marine said: “I spent ten years working at Historic England managing England’s protected wreck sites and at times was incredibly frustrated by being unable to ‘police’ the sites. The model we have developed is based on the highly successful model developed by SWMAG which has been shown to work on a number of occasions. We hope this will make a real difference to the sites and the teams that work on them.”

Professor Mike Williams, Chair of the Protected Wreck Association said: “We are delighted and grateful that Historic England has funded this project. It will enable us to undertake valuable work to support our members, who are dedicated volunteers protecting our maritime heritage.”

Hefin Meara, Marine Archaeologist at Historic England said: “We are pleased to support this important project and recognise the enormous contribution that licensed volunteer divers are making to help protect England’s fascinating marine historic environment.”

For more information please visit ,, and

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Explore the amazing triangle of Red Sea Reefs - The Brothers, Daedalus and Elphinstone on board the brand new liveaboard Big Blue.  With an option to add on a week at Roots Red Sea before or after. 

Strong currents and deep blue water are the catalysts that bring the pelagic species flocking to these reefs. The reefs themselves provide exquisite homes for a multitude of marine life.  The wafting soft corals are adorned with thousands of colourful fish. The gorgonian fans and hard corals provide magnificent back drops, all being patrolled by the reef’s predatory species.

£1475 per person based on double occupancy.  Soft all inclusive board basis, buffet meals with snacks, tea and coffee always available.  Add a week on at Roots Red Sea Resort before or after the liveaboard for just £725pp.  Flights and transfers are included.  See our brochure linked above for the full itinerary.

This trip will be hosted by The Scuba Place.  Come Dive with Us!

Call 020 3515 9955 or email

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