Talking whales and dolphins with ORCA’s Rachael Forster
Rachael Forster is the Community Wildlife Officer for ORCA, an organisation working to protect the UK’s whales and dolphins from threats such as shipping, fishing, noise pollution and marine litter. ORCA’s work has helped the UK government identify whale and dolphin hotspots, contributed to the conservation status of species found in UK waters and created a UK network of trained volunteer Marine Mammal Surveyors.
Conservation Careers blogger Hannah De Frond first met Rachael working with Operation Wallacea in Mexico in 2013. In this interview they talk about her exciting new job, how she got there, and her advice for others wanting to work in a similar field.
What key steps have you taken in your conservation career so far?
I have always been an adventurous individual from a young age. I studied a BSc in Geography at university – not a conventional choice for a career in conservation. However I studied ecology with my degree with a particular interest in taxonomy and categorising.
After University and in my spare time I volunteered for a number of organisations including Operation Wallacea, the Washington Wetland Centre and Archelon. I also became a PADI Dive Master, and help out at my local dive centre when I can.
Volunteering led me to the job I have today by providing me with transferrable skills and experiences. I also found that I am very open to taking people’s advice on new projects to get involved in, and this has opened up a lot of opportunities for me which I would otherwise have been unaware of.
What is your job title?
I am the Community Wildlife Officer for ORCA and my position is funded in part by DFDS Seaways, with support from The Garfield Weston Trust. DFDS Seaways is a Danish shipping company operating passenger and freight services across Northern Europe. My key responsibilities are; to forge links between local communities and their sea, as well engaging with passengers on board the DFDS King Seaways ferry, which runs from Newcastle to Amsterdam, conducting data collection and on board talks and events for passengers.
What are the main activities in your work?
My role is split seasonally, between engaging with the local community in the North East to raise awareness of the cetacean species in The North Sea, and coordinating the wildlife officers’ data collection on board the DFDS King Seaways on the route Newcastle – Amsterdam. The community ORCA ‘Your Seas’ project which I lead, aims to increase education and awareness of North Eastern cetacean species. This project has been so successful that we are now starting a second ‘Ports and People’ project in Portsmouth.
Working seasonally on the DFDS King Seaways gives me the advantageous platform of having a captive audience, raising awareness during peak season and doing ground research, surveying cetacean species of the North Sea. Every morning and evening on the vessel we do a Shore watch to collect data on cetaceans, whales and dolphins using equipment including reticle binoculars, GPS, survey boards and cameras. This season there were 54 Minke whales, 179 white beaked dolphins and 759 harbour porpoise sightings on the North Sea route. We also have an on board ORCA centre where we run arts and crafts activities for children, and evening sessions such as ‘Wine and Whales’ where the older clientele can get involved and have a relaxed, educational chat with us whilst on board the vessel. In these sessions people often ask us questions on current affairs in the media such as local strandings and findings in recently published reports.
What is the best part of the job?
Letting people of all ages know the ways they can get involved in a marine conservation charity like ORCA. This can be through our photography competition, attending one of our whale and dolphin talks, training on our Marine Mammal Surveyor course to learn how to collect ORCA data, or by getting involved in Shore watches, which allows people of all ages to go down to the coast to record cetacean sightings, collecting data for the Big Watch Weekend. ORCA can offer a lot of activity and there is involvement opportunities for all age groups. It is always nice to see awareness growing and more people getting involved.
What is the worst part of the job?
As a charity we are often limited with funding which can create obstacles. We have some quite imaginative ideas for events and activities, such as creating interactive objects for children to use in workshops, but often we have to be realistic about what we can achieve with the budget we have. Luckily we’re a very strong team and with continued support of memberships and sponsors, we can continue our vital work protecting whales and dolphins, as well as deliver a fantastic range of activities for the whole community to enjoy.
What are you most proud of achieving through your work?
I am proud to working for an organisation that is dedicated to looking out for whales and dolphins as they face an increasing number of threats. It’s also incredible to be able to help people see their first whale or dolphin in the wild, as some people have no idea that they can actually spot them from the shore. It is great to see the fantastic response you get from children, when you tell them amazing marine facts, or explain how big a Minke Whale is and that they can see them in their local sea. It’s getting people to understand the real threats our cetaceans face and what they can do to prevent them.
What advice would you give someone wishing to follow in your footsteps?
Finding out which organisations work in your local area and events you can get involved with is always a great starting point. Volunteer with and support organisations like ORCA who can offer amazing experiences as well as opportunities that develop a whole range of skills (i.e. boost your knowledge, confidence, public speaking) whilst making some new friends at the same time! Keep doing things that you are good at, but also try and highlight certain skills that you could improve on, and challenge yourself to boost your confidence in these areas. I have found it useful to ask someone who is not that close to you about this, as they will often provide a different opinion on where your strong and weak points lie compared to someone you know very well.
I have found volunteering has been most useful for me to network and gain contacts. Now that I am further in my career I can get in touch with contacts from organisations I have volunteered and worked with in the past, to suggest or organise some collaborative projects and events with ORCA, and the response has been extremely positive.
About the Author
This article was written by Conservation Careers Blogger Hannah De Frond. Hannah has recently graduated with a degree in BSc Environmental Science from the University of Leeds, where through her studies she discovered a passion for conservation. Hannah hopes to gain a career in marine conservation, and has particular interests in education and awareness of conservation issues, climate change adaptation, and protected area management.