September 25, 2021   •  
Bottlenose dolphin

Harbour porpoise

Latin Name: Phocoena phocoena
Family: Phocoenidae
Size: 1.4 - 1.9m
Weight: 50 - 70kg
Group size: Usually alone or in small groups of up to 3 individuals


  • Small with a chunky, robust body shape
  • Body colour merges from dark grey (dorsally) to light (ventrally)
  • Low, rounded triangular fin
  • Blunt head; no forehead or distinct beak


  • Characteristic slow, forward rolling motion in the water
  • Generally uninterested in boats, breaching behaviours uncommon
  • Makes a sneeze-like puffing sound when it breathes


bottlenose dolphin groupHarbour porpoises are the only species of porpoise found in Scotland; they are widespread - but their numbers are in decline. Over 90% of the global population is found in UK waters but no Special Areas of Conservation (SACs) have been designated in the UK to protect them.

Harbour porpoises are the most commonly sighted species in Scotland; seen all year round with a peak in summer when they are known to breed and produce young.Areas which are particularly important for the harbour porpoise include: Mousa Sound, in Shetland; Inner Hebrides; Outer Moray Firth and Firth of Clyde. These areas, as well as many others, are thought to be crucial for feeding, breeding and calving.


bottlenose dolphin groupHarbour porpoises are the smallest (1.8m) and shortest lived (rarely exceeding 12 yrs) of all whale and dolphin species. They are easily recognisable due to their low broad-based, triangular dorsal fin, small size and characteristic slow rolling motion in the water. Harbour porpoises are dark grey on top with paler flanks and belly. Tail flukes are dark and have blunt tips and they have small rounded pectoral fins. Harbour porpoises do not have a beak; the head is relatively small and blunt with a white lower jaw.


bottlenose dolphin groupHarbour porpoises are usually sighted alone, in mother and calf ‘pairs’ or in small groups of 2 or 3 animals. Occasionally large groups are sighted, usually associated with foraging. They are a shy and retiring species; are generally uninterested in boats and are rarely surface active. Harbour porpoise are not easily confused with other cetacean species due to their slow rolling surfacing pattern. The low profile and small size of the harbour porpoise make them considerably more challenging to see in poorer weather and higher seas.

Harbour porpoises are known to feed on the seabed in areas of strong tidal currents, usually near islands or headlands, where currents combine with the seabed topography and prey such as sandeels and whiting becomes aggregated.

Distribution map


(dark blue) Regular/Common
(light blue) Occasional

Harbour porpoise distribution map



Harbour porpoise surface

Surface Animation

Video Feature

More Species

Further information

WDC Species Guide • Adopt a dolphin