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Dolphins, whales and porpoises

The waters around Scotland are among the finest in Europe for seeing dolphins, whales and porpoises, collectively known as cetaceans.

More than 20 cetacean species can be seen in Scottish waters, but seven species are relatively common close to our coasts:

  • bottlenose dolphin
  • harbour porpoise
  • minke whale
  • white-beaked dolphin
  • Risso’s dolphin
  • common dolphin
  • orca (killer whale)

Bottlenose dolphin

Bottlenose dolphins are perhaps the best-known cetaceans found around Scotland. They can be seen close inshore on both the east and west coasts, and are spotted less often on the north coast and in the Northern Isles.

The Moray Firth supports the North Sea’s only known resident population of bottlenose dolphins. This small population of about 195 animals ranges throughout the Moray Firth and down the east coast, at least as far as the Firth of Forth.

Moray Firth Special Area of Conservation (SAC) – a marine Natura site – was created to protect the bottlenose dolphins that use this important area.

Harbour porpoise

The harbour porpoise is the

  • smallest cetacean found in Scottish waters
  • most abundant cetacean in inshore waters

Harbour porpoises tend to be seen alone or in small groups. They may form larger groups where there’s an abundant food source. They feed mainly on small fish species as well as squid, octopus and shellfish.

Harbour porpoise range widely around the coast of Scotland. The west of Scotland is home to a higher density of harbour porpoise than is found elsewhere. The Inner Hebrides and the Minches candidate SAC was created to protect the animals in this region.

Minke whale

The minke whale is the most common of the baleen whales around Scotland, and also the smallest. Even so, individuals may grow up to 8.5m long – still impressively large.

Minke whales feed mainly in shallow water over the continental shelf, but will often come close to land to forage on sandeels, herring, sprat and other small fish. In Scotland, they’re most often spotted between July and September, but may be present year-round.

White-beaked, Risso’s and common dolphins

White-beaked dolphins are found throughout northern European waters. In Scotland, they’re most often seen in the Minch and to the north of the Outer Hebrides, in the outer Moray Firth and off the Aberdeenshire coast.

The large Risso’s dolphin is most commonly seen off the west coast of Scotland and the Outer Hebrides. This species feeds mainly on squid, octopus and cuttlefish.

Common dolphins tend to be summer visitors to Scotland, and are mainly recorded here between May and October, when food is most abundant. They can sometimes be seen in large schools and are highly acrobatic, often leaping clear of the water.

Orca

Orcas (killer whales) are the largest species of dolphin. Their distinctive black-and-white coloration makes them easy to recognise. Orcas can be seen in coastal waters off the west coast of Scotland and in the Northern Isles. Some groups of orca feed on fish, while others target seals.

Threats to cetaceans

Threats include:

  • chemical pollution – when ingested, chemicals can build up in the blubber
  • entanglement – minke whales in particular may become entangled in nets, ropes and lines
  • collisions – with shipping vessels, marine renewable devices and other infrastructure
  • noise pollution – noise made by marine traffic, seismic testing for oil and gas, military activities, construction, acoustic deterrent devices and other sources can cause injury and disturbance
  • disturbance – while it’s great to see dolphins and whales from a boat, too much attention from boats can disturb and displace them from feeding areas

Protection of dolphins and porpoises

Find out about dolphins, whales and porpoises as protected species.

Learn about licensing for dolphins and porpoises.

The Scottish Marine Wildlife Watching Code explains how best to watch marine wildlife with minimal impact on the animals.

Planning a marine wildlife tour? Choose an operator accredited by the WiSe (Wildlife Safe) Scheme.

You may also wish to read the Marine Scotland publication, The protection of Marine European Protected Species from injury and disturbance: Guidance for Scottish Inshore Waters.

Report a sighting

You can report sightings of live cetaceans to the Sea Watch Foundation or to your local biological recording scheme.

To report an injured or stranded live animal, call either the:

To report a dead stranded marine animal, call the Scottish Marine Animal Stranding Scheme on 07979 245 893 or 01463 243 030.

Find out more

Naturally Scottish: Whales, Porpoises and Dolphins