UK Marine Mammals-Where and when to see them

Following the sighting of a pair of killer whales (Orcinus orca) off the coastline of Orkney by Dr Matthew Bishop (@drmtbishop) a couple of weeks ago. I thought many of us may be wondering where and when we may have a chance of spotting some marine mammals in the wild for ourselves!

According to the Zoological Society of London, the UK is home to 26 species of marine mammals. This includes dolphin, porpoise, whale and seal species. So with some luck, we should all be able to see several species of marine mammals this year without leaving the country!


Two species of seal live permanently in the waters around the UK. They are the grey seal (Halichoerus grypus) and the common or harbour seal (Phoca vitulina). Grey seals are the larger of the two species and the UK is home to over half of the world’s population. The harbour seals are very abundant on North Atlantic and North Pacific oceans, although they are actually less abundant around the UK coasts than the grey seals. Some of the best places to see both species are Blakeney in Norfolk (my local spot!), Donna Nook in Lincolnshire and several places in Scotland including the Moray Firth and the Orkney Islands. Being more abundant,  grey seals can also be seen on the Cornish coast, Skomer Island off Pembrokeshire and the Farne Islands. Grey and harbour seals pup at different times of year providing us with two chances to see pubs when visiting seal colonies! Grey seals pup from autumn to early winter, whereas harbour seals pup earlier in the summer between June and July.

If you happen to be in Scotland you may spot several other seal species that live further north than the UK but may occasional visit our northern waters in the pursuit of prey. These species are the ringed and harp seals and even more rarely the bearded and hooded seals.


The common porpoise (Phocoenca phocoenca) is the only porpoise species to be found in the UK. Individuals or small groups of porpoises have been spotted all around the UK in coastal waters. Some of the best places to see them are the along the Northumberland coast including Farne and Holy Island and St Bride’s Bay, Pembrokeshire. The common porpoise is often identified from the ‘puffing’ sound they makes when they surface, earning them the nickname ‘puffing pig’.


Six species of dolphin can be seen around the UK coasts. These are the short-beaked common dolphin (Delphinus delphis), the common bottlenose dolphin (Tursiops truncatus), the striped dolphin (Stenella coeruleoalba), the white-beaked dolphin (Lagenorhynchus albirostris), the Atlantic white-sided dolphin (Lagenorhynchus acutus) and risso’s dolphin (Grampus griseus).

The sociable bottlenose dolphins can often be spotted in the semi-resident population in Moray Firth, Scotland. But there is also a chance to see them in England both in the resident population of Cardigan Bay, Wales and a visiting population around Land’s End, Cornwall between January and April. White-beaked, striped and risso’s dolphins can all be spotted in Scotland, off the Shetland coast, Orkney and Hebridean Islands respectively. Risso dolphins can also be seen off the west coast of Ireland and the UK , where you can also see the Atlantic white-sided dolphin.


To see whales off the UK coast, packing up and heading north to Scotland is our best bet. Minke whales (Balaenoptera acutorostrata), humpback whales (Megaptera novaengliae), long-finned pilot whales (Globicephala melas), killer whales (Orcinus orca), northern bottlenose whales (Hyperoodon ampullatus), northern right whale (Eubalaena glacialis), sei whales (Balaenoptera borealis), fin whales (Balaenoptera physalis) and sperm whales (Physeter macrocephalus) can all be seen depending on the time of year.

Minke whales pass through Scottish waters between May to September on their way from tropical, winter breeding grounds to colder, summer feeding grounds. The best places to see them are the east coast of the Shetlands, the Pentland Firth, Orkney and the Western Isles. Humpback whales can also be seen off the south tip of the Shetlands Islands between these months as they travel from their wintering grounds off the coast of Africa to feeding grounds near Iceland. Between April and September long-finned pilot whales can be seen in the Minch strait between north-west Scotland and the Outer Hebrides. A small, wide-ranging population of killer whales can be seen around Orkney and Pentland Firth and are often spotted closer to shore between June and October. Northern bottlenose whales occur in small numbers off the northern and western isles of Scotland and off the west coast of Ireland.

Some whale species can only rarely be seen off the Hebridean coast when they stray into our food-rich coastal waters during the summer to feed. They  include the northern right, sei, sperm and fin whales.


  • BBC Nature website
  • JNCC website
  • Zoological Society of London website
  • The Mammal Society website
  • ORCA website
  • Hebridean Whale and Dolphin Trust website

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Hannah Lawson

Hannah Lawson

I'm a marine biologist working as an Environmental Scientist for a marine consultancy. I love nature and the marine environment. I try to spend as much of my spare time outside and getting involved with conservation and outdoor activities.
Hannah Lawson

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