The Moray Firth is one of the most important areas in UK waters for dolphins, porpoises and whales (collectively known as cetaceans). The species most often seen from the shore are Bottlenose dolphins and Harbour porpoises. This has led to several locations around the coast becoming well known for 'dolphin watching' (see map).
Minke whales and White-beaked dolphins are the next most likely species to be encountered, usually further out to sea, although White-beaked dolphins have been seen from the shore at Fraserburgh. Pilot whales, Killer whales and Risso's dolphins are also present in the Moray Firth, but only Killer whales are likely to be spotted from the shore, with sightings reported from the coastline around Aberdeen and Banff.
Bottlenose Dolphins are widely distributed in warm and temperate water throughout the world, although they are relatively uncommon around the UK coast. The Moray Firth dolphins are extremely important as they represent one of only two or three resident populations known to exist in UK waters and probably the only one in the North Sea. There are thought to be over 100 Bottlenosed dolphins living in the Moray Firth.
Adults have a clearly defined beak and a tall sickle-shaped dorsal fin which curves backwards. They are between 3.1 and 3.8 metres in length, about twice as long as Harbour porpoises, and weigh between 180 and 300 kilograms.
They typically live for 25 years, although animals as old as 50 years have been recorded. Females reach sexual maturity between the ages of 5 and 12, and may give birth to a single calf every 2 to 3 years, look out for newborn calves any time between March and September. The calf may be helped to the surface by its mother for its first breath of air. If the mother is weak, other female dolphins in the herd often look after her.
Bottlenose dolphins are sociable animals and usually live in groups of 2 to 4 individuals, although sightings of larger groups are not uncommon. In the Moray Firth herds of 20 to 30 animals can sometimes be seen during the summer months. Some individuals can readily be indentified by notches on the dorsal fin and patterns of scarring. They appear playful and can often be seen leaping out the water.
Harbour Porpoises are widespread in the cooler, shallower North Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. In UK waters they are more widely distributed and common than the other species of dolphins and whales. However, in recent years they have become much less frequent in our coastal waters and are now relatively uncommon in the Moray Firth. The reasons for this decline in numbers are not fully understood.
Adults have a rounded snout and a small triangular dorsal fin. They are usually between 1.4 and 1.7 metres long and weigh between 54 and 65 kilograms.
Their normal life span is 7 to 9 years, although some animals can live for up to 15 years. A female porpoise begins to breed when 3 to 4 years old, but breeding can occur as early as 14 months, and a single calf is born every 2 years or more. Mating takes place in mid to late summer, the young being born 10 to 12 months later around May to June.
Harbour Porpoises usually occur singly or in small loosely formed groups of between 2 to 10 individuals. Unlike dolphins, they rarely show much above the water and their curved back and small triangular fin are often all you will see. (Continued on next page.)
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