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Volunteer Seabirds at Sea Project

Volunteer Seabirds at Sea Project 3

Find out about the Volunteer Seabirds at Sea (VSAS) project which is run by the Joint Nature Conservation Committee (JNCC) as part of our Marine Awareness Programme.

Volunteer Seabirds at Sea Project

The VSAS project is a citizen science initiative which provides free training to allow people to take part in seabird surveys onboard CalMac ferries. The project is run by the JNCC which has been training volunteers and co-ordinating monthly surveys since 2019, as part of our Marine Awareness Programme.

To date, the project has trained over 100 volunteers carried out a total of 30 surveys by the end of 2022. The data collected are used for identifying trends in seabird abundance and distribution at sea and contributing to assessments of marine environment health.


What does training involve?

JNCC offers two types of training courses, each course aimed at a different volunteer skill level. Both courses teach volunteers how to survey seabirds using European Seabirds at Sea (ESAS) methods, which is widely recognised as being the "gold standard" in seabird survey methodology.

Volunteers who can confidently identify all common UK seabirds can take part in JNCC's three-day Mentor training course and those who have less seabird identification experience can take part in its two-day Surveyor training course. Both courses involve a classroom day and either one or two boat-based days. The idea behind these courses is that once trained, experienced Mentors can be paired up with less experienced Surveyors to carry out surveys onboard our ferries together.


What do surveys entail?

Once volunteers have completed their training, they are able to sign-up to take part in regular surveys. A Mentor and Surveyor pair will work together to observe and record seabird sightings during a return ferry crossing. Depending on the ferry, they will either work from the outside deck or (if they're lucky!) from the ship's cosy bridge.

They are provided with a kit bag which contains all the equipment necessary to conduct a VSAS survey. During the crossing, they will take it in turns to look for birds and record the sightings on one of JNCC's bespoke tablets. It's not uncommon to also be treated to some whale, dolphin or basking shark sightings, not to mention the stunning landscape of the west coast.

Volunteer Seabirds at Sea Project 1

Where and when do surveys take place?

At present, JNCC carries out surveys onboard the Kennacraig - Islay ferry once per month, and the Ardrossan - Brodick ferry twice per month. However, from January 2023, it will also be carrying out surveys on the Ullapool - Stornoway ferry once per month and hopes to commence one survey per month on the Oban - Castlebay ferry from mid-2023.

Trained volunteers are invited to sign up for as many or as few surveys as they would like and are provided with free return travel courtesy of CalMac to complete their survey. In 2023, JNCC has estimated that it will be able to offer volunteers the opportunity to take part in around 60 surveys across the four fantastic routes listed above.


Volunteer Seabirds at Sea Project 2


How can I get involved?

The JNCC team has been working hard over the last few years to deliver training courses that enable people to get involved with the project. So far, 12 courses have been delivered whichmgiven volunteers of all backgrounds, ages and abilities the chance to get out and see the fantastic diversity of marine wildlife we have around Scotland. Courses are held near to the ports which surveys run from and committed volunteers from all over the UK are welcome to join.

To register your interest in VSAS training, please complete this short registration form. JNCC will then be in touch with information on upcoming courses, as and when these become available. Alternatively, you can contact Emma Wilson directly at if you have any questions, and you can visit the JNCC VSAS website for further information. 


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