Sea Watch Foundation:  Sussex News 2001
by Stephen Savage, Sussex Coordinator

It has been an eventful year for the Sussex Regional Group regarding cetacean sightings, dead strandings, awareness events and a new education programme. This is a summary of our recent work.

Training Workshop

We are in the process of setting up three new satellite groups for monitoring cetaceans locally between Worthing and Shoreham thanks to funding from Adur District Council, Worthing Borough Council and English Nature. This was achieved through a three-part training workshop, the last session was a group watch held on Lancing Beach. Now that we have these new smaller more manageable groups in place it is hoped that they will develop with the help of each groups volunteer liaison providing a two-way flow of information.

For the last 10 years, the Sussex Regional Group of the Sea Watch Foundation has recorded information about the whales and dolphins off the Sussex Coast. Apart from recording the live Cetaceans, we also have an interest in dead strandings. This is partly due to my overlapping role of Sussex County Recorder for Marine Mammals and Regional Rescue Co-ordinator for Southern Marine Life Rescue. However, a collaborative project set up by the Sea watch Foundation in 1994 ‘the Channel Dolphin Workshop’ identified 135 bottlenose dolphins that were identifiable as individuals by natural markings. It became important that all bottlenose dolphin strandings were checked to see if they matched any of these known animals.

Stranding Network

This year we have developed a workable network locally for dealing with dead stranded cetaceans in Sussex. The network involves myself, Southern Marine Life Rescue, the Booth Natural History Museum in Hove, Environment Agency and London Natural History Museum. When a call arrives we are able to coordinate our efforts together to help reduce the loss of important data due to the animal being disposed of or washed out to sea before it can be attended. As Regional rescue coordinator for Southern Marine Life Rescue we will continue to be on the alert for live strandings, although live stranded cetaceans are rare in this region, we have been called to seals and seal pups on occasions.

Local strandings

In the latter part of 2000 and early 2001 came a batch of strandings starting with a reported 15 foot pilot whale washed up on Shoreham Beach (West Sussex) on the 30th October. The head and fins were missing and identification was only confirmed following an autopsy. On the 20th December 2000 a striped dolphin was washed ashore at Bognor Beach (West Sussex). A small cetacean was washed ashore at Worthing sometime at the end of January 2001 (we only knew about it when it was reported in a local newspaper sometime later linked to a more recent stranding). The animal was reported as a juvenile but could well have been a porpoise, however it was disposed of by the council before it could be identified etc. This problem has been addressed and we hope that any future strandings will be reported.

On the 8th February 2001 a dolphin, possibly a common dolphin (by second hand description), was washed ashore at Pevensey Bay. Sadly due to the late reporting of the dolphin we were unable to attend. The original person who reported the stranding lives in Pevensey but works in Brighton. He only reported the stranding after he had got to work and by then the animal had been washed back out to sea. The Pevensey office of the Environment Agency checked the beach that day and the two following days but nothing was ever recovered.

On the 12th February 2001 I was called to another stranding on Shoreham Beach, not far from the whale last year. The two dolphins were common dolphin, however they were in a bad way and showed signs of by-catch.  On the 13th February 2001 a common porpoise was washed up on Bexhill on Sea.

Cetacean Observations

On a happier note, it was a good year for ‘live’ sightings. The species we see is usually the bottlenose dolphin and may come as close as 50 – 200 metres from the shore. Most sightings occur between May and July. Group size range from a single dolphin to a group of 12 although analysis shows that groups containing between 2 and 4 dolphins are most common. Almost all sightings are of cetaceans heading east.

Two sightings occurred off the Brighton Marina in March and another sighting in May. A further sighting was reported off Newhaven. Eight sightings occurred in June. This included a sighting on the 5th June when 2 bottlenosed dolphins were spotted feeding 100-200 metres off Hove beach heading towards the Brighton Marina. Another observer watched the same dolphins half an hour later feeding 400 metres of the Brighton marina where a rocky outcrop attracts fish, fishermen and occasionally dolphins. A group of 4 dolphins were seen off Worthing beach in July. (Three sightings between August and September are still awaiting further details).

Two other sightings of particular interest occurred this year. Firstly, a solitary bottlenose dolphin was seen off the shore at Hove and Brighton between 19th June and 14th July. The place it was seen most frequently was just west of the west pier in Brighton. On the 2nd July I observed the dolphin in this location twice between 10.55am and 12.00pm. This followed a sighting reported at 7.30am, 10.00am and 10.30am. My first sighting at 10.55am confirmed its close proximity to the shore only 30 metres. However it headed further out to sea as a canoe came racing over to its position. It was met by several boats as it rounded the west pier and headed further out to sea, heading east. During an observation I made on the 4th July I followed the same dolphin along the coast as far as the Brighton Marina at which it turned round and headed west. On three occasions it headed out to sea to avoid vessels that tried to circle it. The dolphin came back to its distance, about 250 metres each time.

Further dolphin sightings await more information from the observer.

Earlier in the year we received information about the sighting of 3 large roquals, possibly Humpback whales off Hastings from Andy Philips of the Sussex Biodiversity partnership. We have links and share information with the Sussex Biodiversity Records Centre through my role as Sussex County Recorder.

Education and Awareness

An exciting edition to the activities organised by the Sussex Regional Group has been the development of a more formal education programme, thanks to an environmental award from the Transco Grassroots scheme.

With the help of a few local teachers we were able to transform the basic outline of themes into a topic web, which provided a framework to build on using my skills (from my day job so to speak) as a marine educator, natural history author and lecturer. We decided to concentrate on Key Stage 2 as it was felt that they would make best use of the cross curriculum interactive nature of the programme.

The Sussex programme links together various subject areas including science, math, English, art and geography. I wanted the children to experience whales and dolphins as much as possible short of bringing one into the classroom. I was keen to provide as much real data as possible that the children could work with, allowing them to use some of the methods used by scientists. This would include observational and problem solving skills. A real study of cetaceans would also require a knowledge of many of the subjects included, e.g. math etc.

The central part of the programme is a school visit by myself, which provides an introduction and links to various follow up activities. The work I do with children on the day are activities that the children will benefit best from direct contact. After instigating a short discussion to get the children to suggest what features make cetaceans mammals (which also gets the children into the idea that there is going to be a lot of participation), a class activity leads them to be aware of different UK species. This activity is based on a simplified version of the observation techniques that whale and dolphin watchers use. This directly links with a follow up activity where the class can produce a wall-sized map of the UK and placing drawings/paintings of various species in the correct locations.

Many other activities include how to measure a whale in the ocean (and then having a go on paper). The school visit provides the initial stimulus and a springboard for various follow up activities. Children can handle a killer whale vertebrae, a piece of baleen and a sperm whale tooth as part of their understanding of whale and dolphin natural history, feeding and food chains. Other biological knowledge is also acquired through activities, for example understanding how dolphins are adapted to an aquatic life by comparing a dolphin with themselves. Sound tape and video footage of cetaceans taken in UK waters are also used. There are also activities to raise awareness of threats and conservation. One such activity is based around a dummy pinger devise used on fishing nets.

Awareness displays

However, education is not just for schools. Some of the activities from the education programme have been adapted and used as part of our awareness display at events, many of which are attended by families. The UK map activity described earlier has been used successfully at events both this year and last, which generated a lot of interest as well as being a lot of fun. The name and the age of the child, plus the species drawn, was added to each picture before it was cut out and attached to the map. Each child received a small pack of information sheets about the 11 most frequently seen species. Amanda Truett (Sea Watch Project Manager until end of 2000) helped turn the identification activity into a simple electronic game that allows children to match surface picture of cetaceans with species pictures – a buzzer sounds when the match is correct. Each winner received a small Sea Watch Foundation badge and a certificate. Major events include, Booth Museum Coastal Portraits Exhibition, Lowtide Ecofare, Adur World Ocean Day Event and Nature Watch at the Sussex Wildlife Trust.

This added to the new display stand, also produced with the Transco grant, plus the whale and dolphin artefacts, vocalisation tapes and dummy ‘pinger’ make a fun and interactive display stand. As I write this article, we are in the middle of a whale and dolphin Saturday workshop for children, using many of the activities from the education programme. We are currently looking at adapting elements of the programme for Key stage one and Secondary levels. However, apart from initial funding to produce the programme like everyone else, the implementation relies largely on voluntary time, so we are hoping to seek funding for a 2002 schools programme.

Adult education

We have continued our adult education partnership with Northbrook College and the Brighton College of Technology and in January 2002 we will be working with a new partner Sussex University and presenting an undergraduate level course, which will award students with 12 credits towards higher education.

I have been involved in the formation of a nature reserve at Shoreham largely due to the flora, a rare shingle plant habitat. As a focus for marine wildlife, it would provide an ideal site to monitor cetaceans, and raise awareness through the proposed visitors centre. A decision should be made later this year.

Further details about any of the above is available from the Sussex Regional coordinator Stephen Savage. More information about Sussex sightings are available on the Sea Watch Foundation website and the British Marine Life Study Society website.
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