Guide to Britain’s dolphins, porpoise and whales – facts, how to identify and where to see them

Learn all about Britain's dolphins, porpoise and whales – including identification, the best places to see them and boat excursions – with our guide to the UK's most common cetacean species

Dolphin

From majestic killer whales and pods of bottlenose dolphins to common minkes and enormous fin whales, Britain’s waters are home to a range of cetacean species.

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Bottlenose dolphins in the Moray Firth
Bottlenose dolphins in the Moray Firth near Cromarty ©Getty

Dolphins

10 amazing facts about dolphins

  1. At least seven species of dolphins have been sighted in British waters – the easiest the spot include bottlenose and common dolphins.
  2. Studies show that dolphins can see in shades of grey, as well as the blue-green spectrum.
  3. Pink river dolphins live in the Bolivian Amazon.
  4. Dolphins usually stay in shallow water but are capable of diving down to depths of 260 metres.
  5. The dolphin is the only mammal that gives birth to its baby tail first.
  6. Each dolphin’s dorsal fin is totally unique.
  7. A group of dolphins is known as a pod.
  8. Bottlenose dolphins have bigger brains than humans (1600 grams versus 1300 grams), and a brain-to-body-weight ratio greater than great apes.
  9. Dolphins can communicate with various noises, usually in the form of clicks and whistles.
  10. Endangered dolphins like the Maui’s dolphin are on the brink of extinction due to entanglement in fishing gear. All dolphins are threatened by pollution, climate change, and commercial harvest.

Britain’s dolphin species

Our waters are home to a number of dolphins species – here are some you’re most likely to see.

Common dolphin, Delphinus delphis

Common Dolphin (Delphinus Delphis). (Photo By Encyclopaedia Britannica/UIG Via Getty Images)
Common Dolphin (Delphinus Delphis). (Photo By Encyclopaedia Britannica/UIG Via Getty Images)

Length: 1.6-2.5 metres

Features/body type: Slim beak and slender body

Fin: Dorsal fin curved and slim

Appearance: Lightly coloured underneath

Distribution: English Channel, south-west and north-west England, west Scotland, Ireland and the Irish Sea

Threats: Fishing gear entanglement, pollution

Interesting fact: These dolphins have a pattern on their sides that looks like an egg-timer

Bottlenose dolphin, Tursiops truncatus

Bottlenose Dolphin (Tursiops Truncatus). (Photo By Encyclopaedia Britannica/UIG Via Getty Images)
Bottlenose Dolphin (Tursiops Truncatus). (Photo By Encyclopaedia Britannica/UIG Via Getty Images)

Length: up to 4 metres

Features/body type: Circular head with stubby beak

Fin: Distinctive dorsal fin, located centrally

Appearance: A grey or brown appearance, paler underneath

Distribution: South-west England, west Ireland, Moray Firth and Cardigan Bay

Threats: Habitat degradation

Interesting fact: Bottlenose’s are known for their acrobatic breaches (leaps) out of the water

Risso’s dolphin, Grampus griseus

Risso'S Dolphin (Grampus Griseus). (Photo By Encyclopaedia Britannica/UIG Via Getty Images)
Risso’S Dolphin (Grampus Griseus). (Photo By Encyclopaedia Britannica/UIG Via Getty Images)

Length: Up to 3.8 metres

Features/body type: Rotund head

Fin: A high, curved dorsal fin, dark grey in colour

Appearance: Light grey, particularly on head, whitening with age, with a pale grey-white belly. Scars visible

Distribution: South-west England, north and west Scotland, west Ireland and Irish Sea

Threats: Marine litter, pollution, acoustic disturbance

Interesting fact: These dolphins have no beak

White-beaked dolphin, Lagenorhynchus albirostris

White-Beaked Dolphin (Lagenorhynchus Albirostris)
White-beaked dolphin ©Getty

Length: 2.5-2.8 metres

Features/body type: A sturdy dolphin with a stubby beak

Fin: A tall, arched dorsal fin

Appearance: Largely black with white colouring on the end of their back and their sides

Distribution: Scotland, Atlantic coast of Britain and Ireland

Threats: Overfishing and fishing gear-related difficulties

Interesting fact: Local to Britain’s north-west

Killer whale or orca, Orcinus orca

Female killer whale, artwork

Length: Males can grow up to 9 metres

Features/body type: Very large, can in excess of 6 tonnes

Fin: Tall and black in colour. Males’ fins are particularly tall

Appearance: Black with characteristic white patches behind eyes and fin

Threats: Marine pollution, scarcity of prey and consuming contaminants

Interesting fact: Killer whales are the largest member of the dolphin family

Striped dolphin, Stenella coeruleoalba

Striped dolphin (Stenella coeruleoalba) breaching, Maldives, Indian Ocean, Asia
Striped dolphin (Stenella coeruleoalba) ©Getty

Length: Up to 2.6 metres

Features/body type: Stubby beak

Appearance: most obvious feature is a stripe linking the beak to the the rear of the body

Distribution: Western side of British waters

Interesting fact:  they have a gestation period of 10 to 12 months

Britain’s porpoise species

Harbour Porpoise, Phocoena phocoena

Harbour porpoise
Harbour porpoise (Phocoena phocoena), Shetland, Scotland ©Getty

Length: Up to 1.8 metres

Features/body type: A small, rounded head

Fin: Triangular, blunt dorsal fin, located just behind the centre of the back

Appearance: Robust dark body with a pale-grey underside

Threats: Accidental capture in fishing nets

Interesting fact: Harbours are the only member of the porpoise family found in European waters

Britain’s whale species

Minke whale, Balaenoptera acutorostrata

Minke whale
Minke whale, Balaenoptera acutorostrata ©Getty

Length: 7-9 metres in length

Features/body type: Large body with pointed, triangular head

Appearance: Flippers marked with white slash

Threats: Accidental collisions with UK ships and overfishing

Interesting fact: Can be seen near the shoreline

Fin whale, Balaenoptera physalus

Fin whale
Fin whale, Balaenoptera physalis ©Getty

Length: An overwhelming 18-24 metres long

Features/body type: A vast whale with pointy head

Fin: Relative to their body size, their fin is only minute

Appearance: Bottom jaw on the right-hand side is white

Threats: Overfishing and marine pollution

Interesting fact: Fin whale’s blows are up to 6 metres high

Long finned pilot whale, Globicephala melas

Long-finned Pilot Whale (Globicephala macrorhynchus)
Short-finned pilot whale, Globicephala macrorhynchus ©Getty

Length: 4- 6 metres in length

Features/body type: Lengthy flippers and a rotund head

Fin: Angled towards their rear, this is a low-level fin

Appearance: Black in colour

Threats: Accidental collisions with ships and fish gear difficulties

Interesting fact: pods found in deeper waters

Sperm whale, Physeter macrocephalus

Sperm Whale
Sperm whale, Shyster macrocephalous ©Getty

Length: 8 to nearly 16 metres long

Features/body type: Lower jar is only small, relative to a larger square head

Fin: More akin to a pointed hump

Threats: Plastic pollutants, fish gear difficulties, acoustic disturbance

Interesting fact: Sperm whale’s blows can reach 5 metres high

Humpback whale, Megaptera novaeangliae

Humpback whales
humpback whales, Megaptera novaeangliae ©Getty

Length: 11.5- 15 metres long

Features/body type: Sturdy whale, with bumps across bottom jaw and head

Fin: Short dorsal fin over half way along the whale’s back

Appearance: Tail is white underneath with a jagged edge

Threats: Noise pollution, fish gear difficulties, chemical pollutants.

Interesting fact: This whale is known to flipper slap

Northern bottlenose whale, Hyperoodon ampullatus

Length: 7-9 metres long

Features/body type: Sturdy whale with a rotund head and stubby beak

Fin: Dorsal fin is tall and angular

Appearance: Light to dark shades of brown

Threats: Plastic pollution, fish gear difficulties, overfishing and its impact on food supply, acoustic disturbance

Useful fact: These are curious mammals known to happily approach non-moving vessels

Cuvier’s beaked whale, Ziphius cavirostris

Cuvier’s beaked whale
Cuvier’s beaked whale ©Getty

Length: 5.1-6.9 metres long

Features/body type: Sturdy whale with a little head

Fin: Pointed to mildly angular dorsal fin

Appearance: Their back is a dark colour; be it brown or grey, with the more mature whales having a paler head

Threats: Acoustic disturbance, plastic pollution, overfishing

Interesting fact: This rare UK visitor enjoys deep, warm waters

Sowerby’s beaked whale, Mesoplodon bidens

Length: Around 5 metres long

Features/body type: Slim body with a little head

Fin: Fin is pointed or slightly angular/hooked

Appearance: Deep grey colour body

Threats: Ship collisions, plastic pollutants

Useful fact: Male sowerbys have two outward pointing teeth on their jaw

Spot them for yourself

From Land’s End in England’s far south to the Orkneys off the coast of northern Scotland, here are seven go-to destinations renowned for both on and off-land whale, dolphin and porpoise sightings.

1

The Islands of Northern Scotland

Sea Cliffs at Marwick Head, Orkney
Marwick Head on the west coast of the Orkney Islands ©Getty

Some of the most spectacular whales and dolphins mentioned in our guide can be found off the coast of Orkney and Shetland. Keep an eye out for risso’s dolphin, minke wales and even awe-inspiring orcas throwing their prey up in the air.  Take a NorthLink Ferry from Scotland’s mainland to reach Shetland and Orkney’s marine mammal hotspots.

2

Cardigan Bay, Wales

Starling murmuration around a pier.
The seaside town of Aberystwyth is the perfect place to spot dolphins ©Getty

Bottlenose dolphins form one of Cardigan Bay’s so-called ‘big three’, along with harbour porpoises and Atlantic grey seals, and hence this area of Wales is a hotspot for catching a glimpse of these acrobatic mammals.  The Wildlife Trust of South and West Wales works closely with Dolphin Survey Boat Trips offering an eco-tourism tour led by experts in the field.

3

Anglesey, North Wales

Anglesey lighthouse
Anglesey lighthouse ©Getty

Head to Anglesey’s Point Lynas and Puffin Island for a dolphin watching session. Seacoast Safaris dock at the historic town of Beaumaris in Anglesey and with a range of cruising times.

4

Land’s End Peninsula and St Ives Bay, Cornwall

St Ives
St Ives ©Getty

For those after nearshore sightings, The Sea Watch Foundation recommends headlands and bays as the place to be. Hence, it’s no surprise that Cornwall’s Land’s End Peninsula and St Ives Bay are ideal for spotting bottlenoses. In fact, this region boasts England’s only resident population of bottlenose dolphins.

5

Torry Battery, Aberdeenshire

If it’s a humpback sighting you’re looking for, then a trip to Aberdeen is a top spot. There’s parking at the site: AB11 9DA

6

Bispham, Lancashire

This year, the little village of Bispham, Blackpool was fortunate enough to catch a glimpse of bottlenoses. Why not take a visit – you might have a lucky encounter too.

7

Berry Head and Dartmouth, Devon

Berry Head Lighthouse
The 1906 Berry Head Lighthouse near Brixham Torbay Devon England UK ©Getty

Large groups of common dolphins can be observed from the iconic coastal headland of Berry Head in Devon. For those wishing to be closer to the water, head further south to Dartmouth for a historic, wildlife-enriched tour. The Dartmouth coastal cruise is one hour long and offers the possibility of dolphin sightings.

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Main image: ©Getty