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Ecocorps Scotland Ltd

Cetaceans: Bottlenose dolphin and minke whale research in the Moray Firth, NE Scotland


You could say that Ecocorps Scotland Ltd is a kind of travel agent, but the experience that this company aims to provide is certainly not your average holiday experience. In collaboration with the Cetacean Research & Rescue Unit (CRRU) a small, non-profit research organisation dedicated to the understanding, welfare, conservation and protection of cetaceans in Scottish waters Ecocorps Scotland aims to provide a holiday experience with a mission. Through the active recruitment of "Ecovolunteers" green or conservation volunteers who care about nature, wildlife and animals this social enterprise provides a financial and working grant for the CRRU's projects in whale and dolphin research, conservation and rescue (much of which is only made possible by this financial and physical contribution).

Ecovolunteers joining the CRRU team have the opportunity to learn about the whales and dolphins of the Moray Firth animals and their marine environment through first hand guidance from professional marine biologists. As teams are small and intimate (a maximum of 6 volunteers at any one time), a very personal experience is certainly guaranteed. The volunteers learn and apply the principles of field research design as they participate in the CRRU's ongoing field studies, undertake training to become a marine mammal medic, and gain a personal understanding of the conservation issues which drive such research and rescue activities. Students and recent graduates can benefit from this educational opportunity to obtain valuable work experience with these animals, whilst gaining college or university credits in the process. But the unique opportunity provided by this partnership is open to anybody committed to nature conservation and animal protection, and who has a positive attitude towards living and working in a small group of enthusiastic people from different backgrounds and cultures.


Located on the outer coastline of the southern Moray Firth, the project is based in the picturesque fishing village of Gardenstown, in Gamrie Bay near Banff. Surrounded by majestic cliff lines and rolling farmland, the village boasts commanding views of the Moray Firth - the largest firth (or embayment) of its kind on the east coast of Scotland, measuring approximately 5,230 km2. With its rare seabird colonies, myriad of coastal flowers, and ancient rocks, Gamrie Bay is a remarkable site and base for the project - the whole countryside is truly the undiscovered north with few tourists, but a wealth of history and natural heritage. East of the village of Gardenstown lies Pennan, made famous as the main location for Bill Forsyth's affectionate comedy movie "Local Hero".


Fed by warm and cold waters from the Atlantic and Arctic oceans, the Moray Firth supports an abundance of wildlife. At least 9 species of cetacean occur regularly in the research area, including the bottlenose dolphin, harbour porpoise, minke whale, Atlantic white-sided and white-beaked dolphin, and occasionally orca and pilot whale, particularly in offshore waters. Both common and grey seals breed and haul out in the firth, and nationally important concentrations of seaducks, sawbills, auks, cormorants, shags and numerous other species of offshore and nesting seabirds can be found (including a mainland gannetry just a few miles from the base, and a local puffin colony). These animals are supported by the rich, turbid waters of the firth, which attract numerous fish and cephalopod (squid and octopus) species. The area also plays host to a fantastic diversity of wild coastal flowers, rare birds of prey (red kite, osprey and merlin), and many other interesting flora and fauna such as orchids, otters, badgers, buzzards, foxes and roe deer.


The Moray Firth contains one of just two known resident populations of bottlenose dolphins in British waters and the only population in the North Sea. As such, this area is of both national and international importance. The coastline of the southern firth consists of tidally exposed mudflats, dune systems and cliffs, and a composite of headlands and small bays. Afforded protection by the Scottish Highlands, these features provide a relatively sheltered environment and a great diversity of habitats. Considering its northerly latitude, the climate of the area is well favoured by high sunshine totals and below average rainfall for the United Kingdom.

Travel info

Volunteers joining the team need to arrange their own transport to Banff. An hourly coach service is available from Aberdeen to Banff (approx. 1 hr 15 mins journey from Victoria Street in Dyce a 5 min taxi ride from the Aberdeen airport in Dyce or 1hr 35 mins from Aberdeen Railway Station). New arrivals are met in Banff by the team and transported the remaining 10 miles along the coastline to Gardenstown village.


Researchers and ecovolunteers are accommodated in one of several furnished houses, providing a living arrangement conducive to open discussion and interaction as evenings are usually a continuation of the day in the field. Rooms are usually shared with up to two or three other persons, and volunteers may need to be flexible regarding sharing of bathroom facilities etc with others. Household duties include cooking and cleaning, and everybody sharing the accommodation (ecovolunteers and research staff alike) are all expected to do their share when it comes to these domestic tasks. Food is included in the price; but alcohol is additional and a kitty may be set-up for this purpose.


As an Ecovolunteer, your working day will be much the same as the researchers themselves. The project staff will familiarise you with the whales and dolphins commonly seen in the area and how to identify them. Under scientific supervision, you will assist the team in the field: counting animals, recording behaviour, determining geographical positions and taking photographs from one of two 5.4 metre research RIB's. Back on shore, time may be spent identifying animals, cataloguing slides, and inputting data into the computers (full training provided). As teams are kept small and intimate, there will be many opportunities to discuss methodologies, findings and experiences, and you will be encouraged to formulate your own interpretations with researchers and other volunteers during open group discussions.

Out with the fieldwork, Ecovolunteers may wish to initiate social outings or tours. On days when sailing is not an option, public awareness activities may be organised, and opportunities to train in marine mammal rescue techniques will also be available. Should an actual rescue situation occur, however, participants may be expected to assist the team at short notice and sometimes, unsociable hours.

Evening meals will be prepared by all team members in rotation and taken together. Evening entertainment and barbecues are optional, and slide shows and lectures can be arranged on request. Alternatively volunteers may simply want to take time out for themselves. We wish to create an informal, relaxed environment, and by mutual arrangement many things will be possible. In short, a very rewarding and fun-filled introduction to whale and dolphin identification, data collection and wildlife viewing can be expected.


You should be committed to nature conservation and animal protection and have a positive attitude towards living and working in a small group of enthusiastic people from different backgrounds and cultures. A reasonable level of physical fitness is required and, as a basic guide, participants should be able to swim at least 50 metres and walk on a steep path to reach land observation points. Individuals with poor eyesight, problems with their balance organ or respiration, problems with walking or their weight, or problems with fluency in English may experience difficulties in fully participating in the programme. In preparation for the project, volunteers might wish to raise their fitness level and swimming ability. The minimum age for participation is 18.

For further information, contact:
Dr. Kevin Robinson
Project Leader
Cetacean Research & Rescue Unit (CRRU)
P.O. Box 11307
Banff AB45 3WB
Tel: (+44) 01261 851696
Volunteer programme:


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Company Registration No. 278156. Scottish Charity No. SC 029210