Harbour Porpoises & Other Cetaceans

Harbour Porpoise and Calf_Richard Shucksmith

Nia Jones, our Living Seas Manager introduces some handy tips to viewing cetaceans from North Wales' shores.

Whales, dolphins and porpoises, collectively known as cetaceans, can be seen from nearly anywhere along the Welsh coastline, but rocky outcrops and headlands are particularly good spots to spend some time seawatching, particularly at this time of year when the weather for sitting patiently on a sea cliff is a little more reasonable. It’s well worth taking a picnic and heading to the coast to have a look for some of these creatures - even if you don’t see them it wouldn’t be a day wasted!  For the best chance of seeing something head to the north coast of Anglesey or the Llŷn Peninsula. For me, the stretch of coast between Bull Bay and Cemaes on Anglesey has always been the best but there are plenty of other hotspots along the North Wales coast.

 

Here in North Wales Harbour Porpoises can be seen all year round. Bottlenose Dolphins are less commonly seen but are routinely spotted, often in large pods. The Risso’s Dolphin, a wonderful species to watch, can be seen toward the end of the Summer and hotspots include Bardsey Island on the Llŷn Peninsula. Minke Whales are occasional visitors.

Girl and Porpoise_Nia Haf Jones

Girl and Porpoise_Nia Haf Jones

Girl and Porpoise_Nia Haf Jones

affectionately known as “puffing pigs”, due to the explosive noise they make whilst surfacing to breathe

 

Harbour Porpoises, the smallest and by far the most common cetacean seen in Welsh waters, are affectionately known as “puffing pigs”, due to the explosive noise they make whilst surfacing to breathe. The name porpoise actually derives from the Medieval Latin word porcopiscus which means pig (porco) and fish (piscus).

 

Porpoises are easily distinguishable from their more boisterous cousins by their size, shape and behaviour. Dolphins have large sickle shaped dorsal fins whilst a porpoise’s is smaller and triangular. Porpoises tend to surface in a rolling motion. In size, porpoises are less than 2m long and are dwarfed both by the Bottlenose Dolphin and the Risso’s Dolphin which may reach lengths of up to 4m. Whilst porpoises (and Risso’s Dolphins) tend to avoid boats, Bottlenose Dolphins will often approach them to play and ride on the waves, a playful ritual known as bow riding. For ID videos see our Dolphin day post.

 

Some spotting tips!

 

Always take your binoculars to the coast!

Even if you are not watching out for marine mammals, chance encounters are rewarding.

 

Watch out in tidal races where currents move against each other to create upwellings and rough patches!

Porpoises love to feed in these areas as fish are concentrated in the strong currents.

 

Keep your eye on areas where seabirds are diving and feeding.

There is a classic association between seabirds and cetaceans. Seabirds follow cetaceans to feed on the same food source.

 

Take a picnic!

You are more likely to spend a bit more time on the coast if you are comfortable and well fed, although there’s a good chance of seeing marine mammals it isn’t guaranteed and the longer you wait the better your chances.

 

Keep safe!

Keep to paths, coastal cliffs can be unstable and dangerous! Wear sun-cream and take plenty of warm clothes!