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Introduction to marine mammals of the North East

Some of our largest and most enigmatic mammals, the cetaceans (whales and dolphins), are also amongst the hardest to study. Observations are infrequent and identification often has to be based on just a few seconds of observation, so the potential for misidentification is almost boundless. Many observers are unaware of the importance of submitting their sightings and, apart from a few select species, all of the cetaceans recorded in our waters are best described as rare, very rare or barely believable. All of these factors have made the compilation of species accounts for the cetaceans of the North East a fascinating exercise. The creation of the North East Cetacean Project (NECP) in 2009 was aimed at filling the gaps in our knowledge and this groundbreaking partnership has continued beyond its initial aim of researching the distribution of White-beaked Dolphins Lagenorhynchus albirostris during the winter months.

Conversely, seals are amongst the most well-studied of our mammals and we have access to the sort of detailed information that we still lack for so many species of mammal. Our colonies of Grey Seal Halichoerus grypus and Harbour Seal Phoca vitulina have been intensively studied and there is an apparent propensity for vagrant species to arrive on our beaches and in our harbours (although we could have no end of vagrant seals that pass by unobserved).

Not only are seals some of our most well-researched mammals they are also perhaps the most visible to the public, more particularly as a result of seal-watching trips to the Farne Islands. Awareness of seals among the general public is also starting to build further south on the Tees as guided walks to seal observation hides give the opportunity to view the animals in regular haulout locations. In this way it could be argued that seals contribute to the local economy in a way that few other mammals in the North East do.

The accounts of marine mammals would not have been possible without a few individuals and organisations who really deserve recognition beyond our acknowledgements list: Andy Tait, wildlife cameraman and cetacean obsessive, for inspiring the author to begin searching for White-beaked Dolphins back in 2003; Mark Newsome, county recorder for the Durham Bird Club and diligent seawatcher, who has produced an invaluable annual cetacean report for County Durham for several years; Steve Lowe for digging out some obscure accounts of cetaceans in our waters, all of the NECP partners (MARINElife, Northern Experience Wildlife Tours, Natural England, Northumberland and Tyneside Bird Club with support from the Durham Bird Club, the Northumberland Sea Fisheries Committee (now the Northumberland Inshore Fisheries and Conservation Authority) and the North Sea Wildlife Trusts) and the Cetacean Strandings Investigation Programme (which is jointly funded by DEFRA and the Devolved Administrations in Scotland and Wales) for providing a comprehensive database of strandings from 1989 to 2010.

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Written by Martin Kitching (last updated Nov 12)