Over 25 species of whales, dolphins and porpoises (collectively known as cetaceans) live in UK waters, and many more are occasional visitors to our shores. The limit of UK territory extends up to 200 nautical miles from the coast, and encompasses the ‘whale highways’ to the north and west of Scotland. Species seen include: blue whales – the largest animals ever to have lived on earth; fin whales; humpback whales; sperm whales; pilot whales; orcas (killer whales); harbour porpoises; deep-sea beaked whales; and several species of dolphins, including bottlenose dolphins.
Most whales and dolphins are commonly found in the deeper seas, only occasionally venturing into shallower waters. However, some populations of harbour porpoises and bottlenose dolphins live much closer to shore. There are two resident populations of bottlenose dolphins in UK waters – one centred on Cardigan Bay, Wales and the other in the Moray Firth, Scotland and coastal waters extending south from this. A small group is also known from the southwest coast of England. Harbour porpoises have been sighted all around the UK coast, with increased sightings in the northern North Sea, the west of Scotland and West Wales. Risso’s dolphins and minke whales are also known close inshore in many areas including Cardigan Bay and the Moray Firth respectively.
However, this rich diversity of marine wildlife on our doorstep is being adversely affected by various human activities. Whales, dolphins and porpoises are being killed and needlessly harmed every year in UK waters. Everyday they face being entangled, poisoned, harassed, starved, or evicted from where they feed, breed or take shelter. In the seas, we may be in danger of repeating the mistakes made on land for many terrestrial species – driving them from their natural habitats and depleting or even extinguishing populations.
The directed capturing or killing of any cetaceans in UK waters was made illegal under the 1981 Fisheries Limits Act, the Wildlife and Countryside Act (1981) and the EU Habitats Directive (1992). However, in waters beyond the jurisdiction of the UK and of other EU Member States, cetaceans can legally be hunted. Current Norwegian whaling operations include lethal takes of minke and humpback whales in areas adjacent to UK waters. These migratory animals may inhabit UK waters for part of the year and travel to Norwegian waters at other times. Unfortunately, there is currently no available information regarding migration patterns or population structure of these species using UK waters. Norwegian whaling vessels are also under no obligation to divulge details on where their catches were taken. For these reasons, the impact of commercial whaling upon UK cetaceans remains unknown but provides cause for concern. Further information on the main threats to UK cetaceans and legislation to protect them can be found below:
UK Conservation Projects
South West England - Various species: Marijke de Boer investigates the cetacean fauna off the south west coast of England.