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Published on : 24th July 2017

How to Spot Marine Mammals

It’s no secret that the world is in love with the charismatic behaviour of whales and dolphins. It can be truly exciting to spot marine mammals in the wild, but doing so will take some patience and an enjoyment for the outdoors. Here we’ll go over insider tips and tricks that you’ll use to help find these magnificent creatures in the wild.



It just so happens that the UK sees annual aggregations of many different species throughout the year. Perhaps one of the most adored species: the Bottlenose Dolphin can be found relatively easily all year round along the coasts of East Scotland and West Wales. However, this is not to say it’s the only species that can be seen in the UK. There are in fact around 18 different species of marine mammals that can all be found at least partly throughout the year, all over the country.

Click here for a collection of the best spots to look for a variety of these whale and dolphin species

Armed with this tool, let’s get started!


What You Might Need:


  • Warm clothing
  • Binoculars/telescope
  • ID book (we recommend: Whales, Dolphins and Porpoises by Mark Carwardine & Martin Camm)
  • Camera
  • Packed lunch
  • (Optional) friends


Step 1: Knowing Where Best to Look for Animals


There are pockets of land across the UK that are a mecca for wildlife enthusiasts, knowing where they are however, is something of insider knowledge. The Finding Nature homepage that we just linked you to is a collection of the best areas where you can go and look for all sorts of UK species, whether it be deer or dolphins. Handy info like nearby toilets, car parking, as well as food and drink, is also provided so that you can be fully prepared for your day out.


Step 2: Arriving at Your Watching Location


First thing’s first, marine mammals are most active during the day and are most commonly spotted in the late morning and early afternoon (10am-1pm). However, saying that, they are quite unpredictable and are sometimes reported as being spotted at the last minute of daylight.

Next, it would be a good idea to choose a high vantage point with unobstructed wide views of the sea. If possible, it’ll be best to avoid areas with heavy boating traffic. Timid species such as the Harbour Porpoise are prone to avoid areas with lots of traffic.


Step 3: Spot Marine Mammals


Once you have set up a temporary spotting station it’s time to keep a lookout. To spot marine mammals, start by scanning the area. Make sure to familiarise yourself with any distinguishable features so that they can act as a reference in case you eventually spot an animal and quickly lose sight of it.


When monitoring the area, do so in a slow sweeping motion, going from left to right (or right to left). As you go, gradually begin to look further offshore. Note that the further you are looking with any binoculars, the faster you will scan an area, in this case, try to slow down your sweeping motions and hold your equipment as steady as possible.


Sweeping motion for spotting animals


If you spot anything, congratulations! Proceed to step 4.


Step 4: Identifying the Animal


Successfully identifying species based just off of some features breaking the water’s surface is something of an art, it will take some trial and error. To be able to identify species you need to start by establishing whether it is actually a marine mammal.

Chances are, if you’re lucky enough to see a fin poking through the surf, it’ll be a whale or dolphin. However, Basking Sharks are often found in the upper few meters of water. They’re found here feeding on plankton that eats small photosynthetic organisms. This makes them sometimes mistaken for a dolphin or a whale. Luckily, Basking Sharks are fairly easy to distinguish from marine mammals because of their relatively straight-angled dorsal fins.

Look at the image below to help illustrate what we mean.


Is the Fin Curved or Angled?

So, you can now tell a potential shark from a potential dolphin. The next step in identifying the animal can come from asking yourself:


Is There Any Spray Coming from the Animal?


The height at which the blow is able to reach is a great indicator of the animal’s size. The higher it is able to reach, generally means the larger the animal. For instance, a Minke Whale is going to produce a more impressive and taller blow than that of something like a dolphin.

Hopefully, this guide has taught you some handy tips and tricks to help you go out and spot some whales and dolphins as well as a basic introduction to identifying species. Since this article is by no means an exhaustive guide to identifying every species of marine mammal, the Seawatch Foundation has produced an excellent guide that can show you what key signs to look for when trying to ID species.

Click here for their ID knowledge.


We hope you enjoyed this article and that it’s been able to provide you with some invaluable information. If it did, let us know on Twitter @Finding_Nature and tell us what topic we should cover next.


Read our next article:

Swim With Basking Sharks in the UK

Swim With Basking Sharks in the UK


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