At around 1.2 metres long, the harbour porpoise is much smaller than its dolphin relatives and much, much smaller than the minkes and other great whales that swim in Scottish waters. Harbour porpoises are widespread around Scotland, and you might see them from a boat, harbour, beach or clifftop almost anywhere from Shetland to the Borders .
What to look for
In addition to being small in overall size, the harbour porpoise has a small, triangular, fairly upright dorsal fin (a dolphin’s dorsal curves backwards). It doesn’t break the surface for long, so you have to keep looking at a patch of water where you think you’ve seen some action to catch glimpses of the same animal - or others in its group - surfacing again. Harbour porpoises can use quite shallow water. So scanning the nearby sea from a harbour wall, or watching from the deck of a ferry as you draw near the land, can be ways to glimpse a porpoise.
Harbour porpoise need to watch their backs in case a larger relation is out to get them. Bottlenose dolphins in the Moray Firth sometimes catch and kill them. In many parts of Europe, porpoise numbers have slumped because of drownings in fishing nets, but the population around many parts of Scotland still seems to be fairly strong.
When and where to see
Go on any accredited wildlife-watching boat tour around Scotland and you’ll have a good chance of seeing harbour porpoise.
For more information see the harbour porpoise on Marlin.