Cetaceans in British waters



Most information on the distribution, movements and ecology of cetaceans in the N.E. Atlantic have come from whale catches mainly in the early part of this century, and from strandings records collected by the British Museum (Nat. Hist.). With the formation of the Cetacean Group in 1973, a scheme for recording live cetaceans at sea was started. This paper summarizes the results of about two thousand sightings involving nearly 25,000 individual animals between the years 1958– 1978 (but mainly from the last 10 years), and relates them to existing information collected from other sources. Difficulties of identification and potential sources of bias are discussed.

Most large cetaceans are present in British waters as part of a latitudinal feeding migration whereas smaller species may be present in the N.E. Atlantic throughout the year with movements being mainly of an offshore-inshore nature. Some species are clearly very rare probably as a result of over-exploitation in the last century and early part of this century. These include the Right whale, Blue whale and probably Humpback whale. Other species are rarely recorded because their usual range is some distance from British waters. These include narwhal and White whale (from Arctic waters), Pygmy sperm whale, smaller beaked whales and Euphrosyne dolphin (from warm temperate to tropical waters). The Harbour porpoise is by far the most common and widespread species in British waters, occurring mainly in inshore waters, although it has apparently declined in certain regions (e.g. Southern North Sea, English Channel, Irish Sea) in recent years probably as a result of pollution, disturbance and/or over-exploitation of food resources. Bottle-nosed and Risso's dolphins are also widely distributed close to the coast, although the latter is restricted to the west and south coasts and the former is associated particularly with some large estuaries. Common dolphins are relatively abundant and widespread, and are more pelagic than the previous three species. White-sided dolphins have a mainly pelagic distribution centred on the Northern North Sea whilst the White-sided dolphin has a wider distribution which includes all the western seaboard.

Of larger cetaceans, the Killer whale is relatively common particularly on the west coasts and the Pilot whale is locally and seasonally abundant at the north and south ends of Britain and Ireland where they probably represent distinct populations. The Bottlenose whale, Minke, Fin and Sei whales are confined to the west and north coasts, all but the Minke whale having a primarily pelagic distribution. Sperm whales although increasingly commonly stranded on British coasts, are rarely sighted in inshore waters.

The west coast of Britain and Ireland are the most important regions for cetaceans whereas the Southern North Sea has the smallest number although in previous decades numbers were probably higher. Most cetacean species occur mainly in the summer months, particularly August and September, although some species, e.g. White-sided Dolphin, Pilot whale and Minke whale show peaks later in the year. A number of species show secondary spring peaks, e.g. Bottle-nosed and Common dolphins, Risso's dolphins, and Pilot whales. Present evidence suggests that only the large whales exhibit definite latitudinal migrations, all other species being resident at high latitudes although they may show offshore-inshore or possibly small latitudinal movements. Many of the movements indicated from the present analysis can be linked to the seasonal changes in food availability and to the timing and geographical location of breeding, and these are described in detail. Many concentrations of a particular cetacean species occur regularly in the same area year after year and these may often be related to spawning concentrations of a particular fish species.

Variations in herd size are noted between species and within species at different times of the year. These are related to aggregations associated with feeding, breeding, and long-distance movements winch will vary according to the biology and ecology of different cetacean species.