Harbour Porpoise – Phocoena phocoena
Size: 1.5 – 1.7 m
Key feature: Smallest European Cetacean
Behaviour: Slow and unobtrusive
The Harbour porpoise is the smallest cetacean and the only porpoise to be found in European waters. It has a dark grey colouration on its back and a white belly. Its head is small and round, with no beak. The dorsal fin is also recognisable, in the centre of the animal, with a short triangular shape.
Harbour porpoises are slow, unobtrusive swimmers and can be unobvious to an observer, particularly in stormy weather. They tend to surface gently 3 or 4 times and then dive for a few minutes. They are shy, unlike many of their dolphin relatives and will avoid boats where possible. Harbour porpoises travel alone, or in small groups of up to 6.
Harbour porpoises have a distribution over cold temperate and subarctic waters in the northern hemisphere. They are found in shallow and coastal areas. They are often encountered in the western English Channel, along Welsh and Irish coasts and the Brittany coast. They are easily seen from many headlands around the British Isles. Specific locations include Flamborough Head (Yorkshire), Strumble Head (Pembrokeshire), Porthgwarra (Cornwall), and Sumburgh head (Shetland). They are also encountered frequently on ferry trips to the Bay of Biscay, Isles of Scilly, Isle of Man and in the North Sea.
There have been significant declines in the European population of harbour porpoises over the last 40 years. The primary threat is accidental capture in fishing nets, but pollution and loss of prey by over fishing also play a role.