Marine mammal monitoring can be simple, in this article you will know what is important to look for at sea.

A friend of mine used to say that basically to study whales and dolphins all you need is a pair of good eyes. During our journey, we will use our eyes indeed but also apply repeatable protocols to record our sightings. The intent of this article is to share a brief summary of these protocols with you so that you can learn about what we do.  In addition to these visual methods, we will record acoustic readings, thermal imagery and drone footage. 

Pictures from an Expedition in the Mediterannean Sea with the Swiss Cetacean Society. Eco-volunteers come on voluntary boats during a week to learn how to spot cetaceans and contribute to monitoring the wildlife.

What tools do you need?

Minimal toolset:  A notebook and a pair of eyes.

Tools to record a sightings: Binoculars, a compass, a device with a GPS (for example a cell phone), a camera

Prior to setting out for observations.

Start a new logbook page with the date time and general location.   If possible record the following.

  • GPS coordination
  • Planned route
  • Weather conditions

During the observation

A marine mammal observer records 

  • the weather conditions every hour and also everytime that weather changes, 

Each hour the weather change starts a new leg

  • For every leg, there should be two observers looking at sea in opposite directions
  • Record the time of starting the effort (actively looking at sea), 
  • the boat speed and heading, 
  • the beaufort, cloud coverage (,
  • the glare angle (link to what this is)
  • visibility and the general weather conditions (see Beaufort link above)

Recording.parameters like swell direction and height as well as wind speed and direction are very important to calculate the population abundance. Because in ideal conditions (Beaufort 0-2 with no glare, no swell and good visibility) you are supposed to see every marine mammals present. On the other side if there is a big swell or lots of wind it is more difficult to see the animals and we might miss some. 

When you encounter an animal:

  • Obtain gps coordinates
  • Record the position of the animal in relation to the vessel 

Example 500 meters southwest of the vessel

  • Record any behaviour

            Is the animal attracted or moving away from the vessel?

  • Obtain a picture if possible

If the animals are far away it’s important to keep them in the binoculars, observe their behaviour (jumping, porpoising, travelling, foraging) and try to determine which species it is and what are their heading. A camera shot is always handy as sometimes our eyes won’t catch the detail that can identify the species. You may be prohibited from approaching closely (< 500 meter to 1km) so familiarize yourself with local laws and act accordingly. 

What to look for for a good photo identification pictures

Photo ID of Killer Whale (Orcinus Orca)

If you have any questions, don’t hesitate to get in touch with us! 

Happy sightings!