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Visit Scotland | Alba
Article published 25/03/2021

Scotland’s Year of Coasts and Waters celebrates every aspect of our beautiful shores and waterways with a programme of activity designed to inspire both visitors and locals to explore and experience everything that makes them special.

This month we spoke to Sadie Gorvett, RSPB Scotland’s Community Engagement Officer based in Aberdeen, to find out more about her passion for Scotland’s marine wildlife.

Tell us more about your role and why you love it so much?

I started working for RSPB Scotland in 2018 as the new Dolphinwatch Community Engagement Officer and spent the next couple of years describing it as my dream job.

The role involved developing the existing Dolphinwatch viewing project based in Aberdeen, into a wider community project by incorporating outreach, a school’s programme and a yearly festival. I think it’s the variety of the job that I love, and of course being outside by the sea watching dolphins, seals, seabirds and anything else that happens to show up.

My best memories are spending the summer months, with our amazing team of volunteers for six hours a day at Torry Battery, with binoculars, activities, games, and advice for visitors hoping to see the bottlenose dolphins. Some of the days were hard, with the weather not always being kind to us, but the people we met and the sightings we had made it worth it.

Two adult dolphins with a calf in 2019 at Torry Battery
Two adult dolphins with a calf in 2019 at Torry Battery

Image credit RSPB Scotland

Why do you love the marine environment and what do you think is so special about Scotland’s coasts and waters?

What’s not to love about the marine environment? I grew up in England, away from the sea and never really visited it that much as a child. Although the whole of the UK has amazing coastlines, I think in Scotland we are incredibly lucky to have the most magnificent, breath-taking, dramatic coastal landscape, with long stretches of beautiful sand dunes, stunning shingle beaches and exciting rocky shorelines.

Every visit to the coast is a new adventure. How has the environment changed with the incoming and outgoing tide? What rockpools will you find and what will be in them? How many different waders are using the estuaries to find food? What seabirds are nesting on the cliff faces after spending harsh winters at sea? And what might you see if you just scan the ocean’s surface for a few minutes - a seal, a dolphin, a porpoise or maybe even a whale?

The marine environment is full of wonder and awe. It’s just an incredibly special place to be.

How has the Covid-19 pandemic impacted your work?

As with many sectors, COVID-19 has impacted my work significantly. I have not been able to do community engagement which is the main focus of my job. We’ve had to find new ways of working to continue helping people connect with the marine environment and take action to protect. We’ve developed short, fun, fact file videos, written blogs and done online Q&A’s.

Of course, one of the biggest impacts was having to cancel DolphinFest in 2020, just 4 weeks before it was to launch. Thankfully, EventScotland have enabled us to deliver it this year, so I’m excited to see how people respond to the festival going online. I’m hoping it will make it more accessible and inspire even more people to engage with and protect the marine environment.

Sadie Gorvett looking out across the south breakwater at Torry Battery
Sadie Gorvett looking out across the south breakwater at Torry Battery

Image credit RSPB Scotland

What do you think the coastal environment does for people’s mental health and wellbeing?

I know from my own mental health and wellbeing the impact that just being close to the sea can have. It’s calming. The sounds of the waves crashing or the gentle tide coming in and out, or the call of the seabirds. It’s freeing. The sea is such a huge expanse, you can look out towards the horizon and any feeling of being trapped fades away.

It also puts things into perspective. Consider the harshness of the ocean, the struggles the wildlife that call home go through just to find food, to survive. It puts my own troubles into perspective and doesn’t make them seem as big.

This is just how I perceive it, but I know others who just get a sense of stillness from being by water, the sounds and smells are soothing and help ground them.

When and where across Scotland are the best places to see marine mammals like dolphins and whales?

There are lots of good places around Scotland to see whales and dolphins, I would say whenever you are near the coast, keep an eye out, just in case, you never know what you’re going to see, when or where. 

Some of my top places around Scotland are:

  • Torry Battery - dolphins can be seen all year round and can spend hours there due to it being a good feeding ground.
  • The Firth of Forth - they get good sightings of dolphins, but is also a popular spot for humpback whales around January-March time. 
  • Spey Bay in the Moray Firth is a great place to visit, not just for the dolphins but it is also a nature reserve and has the Scottish Dolphin Centre there. Keep an eye out anywhere along with Moray Firth coastline, especially around Burghead.
  • Chanonry Point is a very popular location for dolphin watching. It is good spot to visit, as you get close up sightings of the dolphins, but it can get busy, so keep that in mind if you plan to visit.
  • John O’ Groats or along the north coast around May time, as orca can be sighted.
  • Shetland. I have to include Shetland, as it’s an amazing place in itself but is a brilliant place to see whales and dolphins.

I would recommend people to check out Whale and Dolphin Conservation’s Shorewatch map and the Hebridean Whale Trail for ideas on specific places to visit for a chance of  seeing whales and dolphins.

Seal at Ythan Estuary/Newburgh
Seal at Ythan Estuary/Newburgh

Image credit RSPB Scotland

Can you tell us about a marine encounter or place around Scotland’s coasts that has stayed with you and why?

There’s been so many! I had an interesting encounter with a herring gull back in 2018 at Torry Battery. The bins at the time were very full and open top so the litter was easily accessible to cheeky gulls looking for an easy meal. This gull came down and pulled out fish and chip packaging and started eating the leftovers. Once done, I picked up the paper and put it back in the bin. The gull promptly came back down and pulled it back down and continued to munch on whatever scraps were still there. Once again, after it flew off, I returned the paper to the bin. The gull again came back and pulled the paper back out but this time, just started tearing it up before flying off. Again, I put the paper in the bin. The next few times the gull came down, it was as though it waited for me to spot it sitting on the bin, before it pulled the paper out and flew off. I realised it had worked out my reaction to its behaviour and had turned it into a sort of game. We were able to recognise this bird for a couple of weeks due to the ruffled feathers on its wing, and he became a welcome sight to the whole Dolphinwatch team, even earning a name – Gerald.

I had never much cared for herring gulls, but after this encounter, which I’m sure many would say was an annoying situation, I actually now have soft spot for them, as they are inquisitive, cheeky, intelligent birds.

Can you tell us how the Dolphinwatch project went and what’s planned for DolphinFest 2021?

2021 sees the end of the Dolphinwatch project. Dolphinwatch has been running since 2013 with the support of Aberdeen City Council and Whale and Dolphin Conservation, along with support and funding from other organisations throughout the years. It has seen over 30,000 visits to Torry Battery, enabled more than 4000 children to connect with nature, collected over 500 bags of litter and was supported by more than 5000 volunteer hours.

Due to COVID-19, we are unable to deliver a final Dolphinwatch viewing season as we had hoped, but we are excited that DolphinFest this year is now a celebration of the project and a nice way to bring it to an end.

Running from 7-11 April DolphinFest will include a series of online events including; lunch time story time sessions by TV Presenter Rory Crawford, talks and live Q&As by a number of organisations recorded tours to inspire people to get out and enjoy their local environment, quizzes, an online marine game by The Locked Door and a brand new marine inspired musical masterpiece by Big Noise Torry. We’ll also be encouraging people, where they can, to take action to protect the marine environment by taking part in the Big Blue Clean Up, with Turning the Plastic Tide offering their top tips for safe litter picking. 

The full programme is available to download at rspb.org.uk/dolphinwatch and to attend the festival people need to register at https://rspb.eventsair.com/dolphin-fest/reg-form/Site/Register

Although the festival sees the end of the Dolphinwatch project, to celebrate and help people continue to enjoy the area and wildlife, we have created dolphin spotting interpretation boards and a viewing bench at Torry Battery and we will continue to connect people with the marine environment through exciting pop-up activities and self-guided trails coming soon.

Dolphin swimming past Aberdeen beach
Dolphin swimming past Aberdeen beach

Image credit RSPB Scotland

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