Dolphins in British waters


Dolphins in British waters

Around 30 different species of whales and dolphins have been seen around the UK coastline. The species most commonly sighted around the UK coast are bottlenose dolphins and harbour porpoises.

There are populations of bottlenose dolphins in Cardigan Bay in Wales and the Moray Firth in Scotland, but smaller groups or individuals may be seen almost anywhere. Harbour porpoises are small and shy but found around most of the UK coastline.

Bottlenose dolphins are relatively large, chunky individuals with a dark grey back and paler belly. They have a short, stubby beak and that endearing mouth shape that makes them look as though they are smiling. Individuals can be recognised by distinct notches and markings on their dorsal fin, as unique as our fingerprints.

The bottlenose dolphins found in UK waters are the biggest bottlenose dolphins in the world – their size helps them cope with colder seas. The best places to see them are the Moray Firth in Scotland, Cardigan Bay in Wales and the coasts of Cornwall, Northumberland and North Wales. They are very social animals and can often be seen in small groups of up to 15 dolphins. They love to jump out of the water and will happily approach boats to bowride (surfing in the waves created by the boat). They feed on fish, often working as a team to hunt.

Each common bottlenose dolphin has his or her own name. This is a unique set of whistles used by the other dolphins to refer to or attract the attention of a particular individual.

The English word ‘porpoise' is derived from the Latin word for pig – porcus. Rather unflatteringly, the harbour porpoise used to be known as the 'puffing pig', because of the sneeze-like puffing sound they make when they breathe!

Harbour porpoises are relatively small compared to other dolphins. They have small, rounded heads with no beak and dark lips and chin. They have dark brown backs with a pale grey or white underside, blending half way up their sides. A small triangular fin set just past the centre of the back is one of their most distinctive features.

Harbour porpoises mature at an earlier age, and have a shorter lifespan compared to other dolphins and porpoises. Their high metabolic rate in cooler waters means that they need to feed continuously both day and night to provide the energy needed to survive.

Mostly seen on their own, harbour porpoises are sometimes found in small groups. The most common social grouping is that of mother and baby.

Further reading

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