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The word Cetacea is the scientific term for the order of marine mammals that includes whales, dolphins and porpoises. Cetaceans are separated into two suborders, the Odontoceti (toothed cetaceans) and the Mysteceti (baleen whales). The ASCOBANS agreement is relevant to all small cetaceans common to the agreement area, which means all toothed cetaceans except the sperm whale.

Species present in the SCANS-II continental shelf survey area

Harbour porpoise (Phocoena phocoena)*

A small porpoise with a low triangular dorsal fin and blunt head. Its distribution is circumpolar in the Northern Hemisphere, mainly in coastal waters over the continental shelf. It is the most abundant species in the North Sea. They tend to occur singularly or in small groups and eat a variety of fish including gadoids and clupeids.


Whitebeaked dolphin (Lagenorhynchus albirostris)*

A robust dolphin with a large, falcate dorsal fin and distinct black and white markings. This species is endemic to the cold-temperate waters of the North Atlantic. It occurs on the continental shelf and feeds on a variety of schooling fish and squid.


Atlantic Whitesided dolphin (Lagenorhynchus acutus)*

A gregarious species often seen in large aggregations of small groups. It has a tall dorsal fin and a thick tailstock with a striking yellow/tan band. In the eastern North Atlantic this species tends to occur in deep waters offshore, although there may be some seasonal movements onto the continental shelf during summer. The diet consists predominantly of fish and squid.


Short-beaked common dolphin (Delphinus delphis)*

A slender dolphin with an hourglass pattern of tan and white along the flanks. Its distribution changes seasonally and occurs both on and off the continental shelf. Small groups to ones of several hundred are common. It eats a wide variety of fish species and squid.


Bottlenose dolphin (Tursiops truncatus)

The size of this species varies geographically with the largest animals occurring off northeast Scotland at 4m. Dark grey colour grading to white from the dorsal to ventral surface. In northern European waters, this species occurs in coastal waters and further offshore. It feeds on a varied diet of pelagic fish, cephalopods (e.g. squids) and crustaceans (e.g. shrimps).


Striped dolphin (Stenella coeruleoalba)

A slender dolphin easily confused with common dolphin when seen at a distance. Close up, a distinctive "grey-finger" sweeps forward along the flank beneath dorsal fin. Distributed mainly along the continental slope and offshore in temperate waters. In northern European waters, it is more common at lower latitudes with warmer waters. Commonly occurs in small-medium sized groups. Feeds on fish and cephalopods.


Risso’s dolphin (Grampus griseus)

A distinctive blunt-headed dolphin with tall dorsal fin. The dorsal surface is grey and often bears white scratches and marks, particularly in adults. In the northeast Atlantic, this species is mainly distributed in coastal and shelf waters. Tend to occur in small groups and feed mainly of cephalopods.


Killer whale (Orcinus orca)

The largest species within the dolphin family. Adult males are larger than females and are easily recognised by a very tall, black dorsal fin. The black and white colouration of this species is striking. They tend to form family groups called pods that are either resident in an area or they travel vast distances between areas. The diet varies geographically but includes fish and other species of marine mammal.


Long-Finned Pilot whale (Globicephala melas)

A blunt headed species, which is black or dark grey along the back and flanks with a lighter grey saddle behind the dorsal fin. Males have a distinctive low, thick and backward sloping dorsal fin. They occur in groups and are distributed in offshore waters. They feed on squid.


Minke whale
(Balaenoptera acutorostrata)*

The smallest species of Mysticete and the females are larger than males. It has a small dorsal fin some two-thirds down the length of the back. The North Atlantic minke whale has a distinctive white band across the flippers. It occurs both on the continental shelf and in offshore waters and feeds on schooling fish and crustaceans. It is the most common mysticete in Northern European shelf waters.


* abundance estimated during SCANS.