Marine Creature: Harbour porpoise (Phocoena phocoena)
Kindly compiled by Gemma Cave & Olivia Harries of The Hebridean Whale and Dolphin Trust
Harbour porpoise are found in coastal waters in the northern hemisphere, between about 10° to 70° N. They are a relatively common, and resident, species of the west coast of Scotland.
They are sometimes known as ‘puffing pigs’ because of the noise they make when they surface. The Scottish Gaelic name for harbour porpoise is peileag. They are not considered to be a sociable species and are not thought to vocalise, but they do echolocate.
- Food: Small schooling fish such as herring, sprat, sand eels, as well as some cephalopods.
- Lifespan: Up to 24 years
- Size: 1.4 – 1.7m long, 50 – 80 kg, females are slightly larger than males.
Reproduction: Harbour porpoise are quite short-lived so, once females reach sexual maturity at about three years, they can then produce a calf each year for several years. Gestation lasts for up to 11 months, meaning females can be pregnant and lactate at the same time.
Feeding & Hunting: Usually forage alone or in small groups, although larger cooperative feeding aggregations are sometimes seen.
Conservation Status & International Protection
The harbour porpoise is protected under UK and EU law, principally under Schedule 5 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981, the Nature Conservation (Scotland) Act 2004 and by the 1992 EU Habitats and Species Directive. The populations in the Black and Baltic seas are thought to be the most threatened. Like other cetacean species, harbour porpoise are important indicators of overall ecosystem health.
By adopting environmentally responsible attitudes, we can all contribute to more sustainable uses of the marine environment. Simple lifestyle changes, such as recycling, using environmentally-friendly products and choosing responsibly sourced seafood, will help to improve the overall health of our oceans. If you encounter harbour porpoises at sea, be considerate in the way you approach them. They are elusive animals that usually steer clear of vessels, so enjoy them from a safe distance, and keep a constant speed and heading so as not to disturb them. If you see harbour porpoise off the west coast of Scotland, you can report your sighting to the Hebridean Whale and Dolphin Trust via the online sightings form at www.hwdt.org to contribute to a better understanding of this remarkable little cetacean.
Best places in the world to see these creatures:
Within their geographic range, look for harbour porpoise close to the coast and in bays, estuaries and harbours. Patience is required as they are elusive animals that can be hard to spot, as they surface only briefly to breathe and can be particularly tricky to see in rougher seas. In the UK, look for tour operators with the ‘WiSe scheme’ accreditation to ensure responsible wildlife-watching. For ethical reviews and rating system for whale watching trips to see Harbour Porpoise visit www.planetwhale.com
Scientist Profile: Olivia Harries, Biodiversity Officer
Year(s) Founded: 1994
Description/Background of work
The Hebridean Whale and Dolphin Trust (HWDT) is dedicated to enhancing knowledge and understanding of Scotland’s whales, dolphins and porpoises and the Hebridean marine environment through education, research and working within Hebridean communities as a basis for the lasting conservation of local species and habitats. Specifically, HWDT conducts long-term monitoring of cetacean abundance, distribution and habitat use, engages a wide range of people in marine environmental education through hands-on, outdoor learning experiences and provides local communities with volunteering and training opportunities to promote sustainable management of marine resources.
Importance of work
As the only long standing research organisation on the west coast of Scotland, HWDT’s projects are vital to the effective management of marine megafauna populations. Our research is at the centre of marine spatial planning, and the construction of aquaculture sites and renewable energy sources can depend on the results from our analyses.
Because of the high degree of behavioural and social flexibility that some species of cetaceans (mostly dolphins) have demonstrated throughout their range, it is essential to understand factors affecting local cetaceans, if their populations are to be managed and conserved. Information on habitat use also seems applicable to coastal management plans.
Websites: www.whaledolphintrust.co.uk / www.hwdt.org
Volunteer /Paid Work Opportunities