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Common dolphins © Peter GH Evans/Sea Watch Foundation.

Ground-breaking citizen science results with Sea Watch Foundation’s National Whale and Dolphin Watch 2020

The 2020 National Whale and Dolphin Watch (NWDW) event organised by the Sea Watch Foundation involved hundreds of volunteers from all around the British Isles, and it ran between 25th July and 2nd August.

The event enables Sea Watch, a charity which has been running for over 30 years, to take direct action to protect species. Sea Watch’s sighting data of bottlenose dolphins helped lead to two areas in Cardigan Bay being recommended as Special Areas of Conservation (SACs) for the species. Since 2001, the organisation has monitored the semi-resident bottlenose dolphin population in Cardigan Bay, providing data for the Welsh & UK Governments through Natural Resources Wales.

Who was involved?

Over 750 volunteer observers from all over the UK joined last year’s event reporting casual sightings and conducted dedicated watches from land and from the sea. The 2020 NWDW event marks also the great collaborations with twenty-nine different conservation and recording organisations including ORCA, Hebridean Whale and Dolphin Trust (HWDT), Yorkshire Wildlife Trust, MARINELife, and Manx Whale and Dolphin Watch, who have contributed data collected from boats (inshore and offshore) and from land stations in different parts of the British Isles.

Very special thanks go to Rip Curl, Made of Sundays, and Williams Art who sponsored the 2020 event by donating free gifts for the participants.

What was sighted?

1,348 sightings of cetaceans totalling 9,784 individual animals were reported. This number of sightings is lower than the estimates recorded in the last four years but circumstances in 2020 clearly differed markedly from any other year when the event was run. Nine different cetacean species and four non-cetacean species were recorded during NWDW 2020 around the UK, a number previously recorded in 2006 and 2009. The lowest amount of species (eight in total) was recorded in 2007, and the highest (13 species) in 2015.

England recorded the highest number of sightings (n=643, 48% of all records), closely followed by Scotland with 510 sightings (38% of records), then Wales with 194 sightings (14% of records). One sighting was also recorded in Northern Ireland (0.1%).

In England, Cornwall (n=187), South Devon (n=137), and North-east England (n=113) were the top three regions with the highest number of sightings. In Scotland, the regions with the highest number of sightings were North-west Scotland (n=138), Inner Hebrides (n=104), North-east Scotland (n=92), and Shetland (n=71). In Wales, the highest number of sightings was collected on the north coast including Anglesey (n=139).

“Humpback whales off Grishipoll in the Inner Hebrides, Risso‟s dolphin groups off the Outer Hebrides, Shetland, Orkney and NE Scotland, killer whale pods off Shetland and around Caithness, common dolphins and large pods of Atlantic white-sided dolphins around Shetland were particularly notable sightings”, reports Dr Chiara Giulia Bertulli, Sightings Officer and lead organiser of the NWDW event for Sea Watch Foundation.

What effort was necessary to make this project happen?

For the past 18 years, the work of Sea Watch has been spearheaded through an annual national recording event, the National Whale and Dolphin Watch, which marks the long-lasting collaboration between citizen scientists, wildlife enthusiasts, the general public, and researchers alike.

During the 2020 NWDW, volunteer observers all across the UK spent a total of 1,739 hours collecting effort-related data (including information on environmental conditions collected at regular intervals throughout each watch) stationed at 185 land watch sites and on 50 vessels around the British Isles. An additional 25 observers reported casual sightings both from land and at sea.

Why is it so important that our local communities get involved as citizen scientists and join National Whale and Dolphin Watch?

The aim of the survey has been to obtain a snapshot picture of the status and distribution of some of the species of cetaceans (whales, dolphins and porpoises) recorded in UK waters through systematic watches from both land and sea, as well as casual watches, whilst also raising public awareness of the wealth of marine mammals we have around our coasts.

It is my job to piece together all the records of cetaceans you send us including number of species and where and when they occur which can increase our knowledge of cetacean distribution, habitat use, anthropogenic pressures, and long-term population trends, allowing us to better conserve and protect them in our waters” says Dr Chiara Giulia Bertulli, Sightings Officer and lead organiser of the NWDW event for the Sea Watch Foundation.

What is next for Sea Watch and National Whale and Dolphin Watch?

Sea Watch Foundation are seeking volunteers to take part in National Whale and Dolphin Watch 2021 this summer, which takes place 24th July – 1st August.  They will also be producing a research paper related to this event spanning the decades of survey effort on cetaceans assembled in order to help provide better informed cetacean conservation measures in UK waters.

“The collation of information on abundance and distribution of whales, dolphins and porpoises is valuable in many ways. Besides increasing our general knowledge of the cetacean fauna that inhabit the seas around the British Isles, it can inform us of important areas and times of year for particular species, enabling better decision making on the risk of harm to local populations from certain human activities. It may also indicate where dedicated research should be directed, or draw attention to possible status changes on both a regional and national basis” says Dr Peter Evans, Director of the Sea Watch Foundation.

If you want to download a copy of the full 2018 National Whale and Dolphin Watch report:

Visit for details, or contact


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