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Fieldwork experience with ORCA, UK

Gemma Rae

Faculty: Science and Engineering
School: Life Sciences
Course: MSc Animal Behaviour: Applications for Conservation
Category: Animal sciences

22 September 2023

MSc Animal Behaviour student Gemma shares her experience of joining the ORCA survey in Portsmouth, to collect data on marine mammals.


After returning from the Bottlenose Dolphin Research Institute and spending most of the summer working on my thesis, I have felt more motivated than ever to pursue a career in marine conservation. My fascination with cetaceans led me to join ORCA’s marine mammal surveyor network so that I could contribute towards their vital data collection efforts, and to experience fieldwork at sea.

Venturing into marine conservation

Front cover of the book, Field guide to Whales, Dolphins and Porpoises

The day finally arrived for my first ORCA survey on the Portsmouth to Caen ferry route. After a very warm greeting from the other team members, we boarded the ferry and awaited instructions from the crew. It felt somewhat surreal to be up on the bridge for the survey and I wondered what species we might be lucky enough to see. I had been brushing up on my cetacean ID skills in the run up to the survey using the beautifully illustrated and very informative field guide by Mark Carwardine.

Learning and purpose

It was really interesting learning about the methods used for ORCA surveys and finding out about the essential work that they do to protect cetaceans from anthropogenic threats. I really enjoyed the experience of surveying from a large vessel out on the open ocean. As I was scanning the sea surface, I watched the sunlight dance across the water and imagined the wonderful creatures hidden beneath the surface. I felt a sense of clarity and true purpose in that moment. As I was looking out across the ocean, I felt with absolute certainty that my true calling in life was to work in marine conservation.

The first ORCA survey

Despite near perfect visibility and weather conditions, I did not spot any cetaceans and this particular route can be variable in terms of sightings. One of the other ORCA members caught a brief glimpse of what appeared to be a Harbour porpoise and another unidentified species. You really have to be quick to spot such fast moving animals, especially from afar! Even though I didn’t see any this time around, it was such an enjoyable experience and a great opportunity to meet like-minded people who all shared a love of cetaceans, and I am very excited to apply for next season’s surveys!  

Reflecting on my academic journey

As my time at ARU is sadly coming to an end with my thesis deadline coming up this week, I have been reflecting on how much the course has helped me develop personally and professionally. One of many aspects of the Animal Behaviour: Applications for Conservation MSc I have really enjoyed is being given the freedom to explore my own personal interests within the topics covered in each module. I have felt so much support and encouragement from the academic staff here to pursue what I am passionate about throughout the year. As I have always been captivated by cetaceans, the course has enabled me to acquire a very good breadth and depth of knowledge by allowing me to tailor my assignments to cover a range of topics related to their behaviour and conservation. The skills and knowledge I have gained have prepared me so well for a range of possible future career and further study options.

Final thoughts

I have met so many amazing people this year and can’t believe how quickly the time has gone. Applying to study the course at ARU has been the best decision I could have made to make a career change into a field that I genuinely care about.  

Explore ARU

Gemma studies MSc Animal Behaviour at ARU in Cambridge. Find out more about this, and other degree courses, at one of our Open Days.


The views expressed here are those of the individual and do not necessarily represent the views of Anglia Ruskin University. If you've got any concerns please contact us.