Differences Between Dolphins and Porpoises: Ted’s Top Tips

For our next installment of Ted’s Top Tips, we’re looking at dolphins and porpoises. These loveable members of the cetacean family – the collective name for whales, dolphins and porpoises – are another favourite on our Scottish wildlife cruises. But how do you tell them apart?

Differences between dolphins and porpoises. Argyll Cruising. Scottish wildlife.

Dolphins alongside Splendour

More than 20 cetacean species can be seen in Scottish waters, but 7 are relatively common close to our coasts: bottlenose dolphins, common dolphins, harbour porpoises, minke whales, white-beaked dolphins, risso’s dolphins and orca. We most commonly see bottlenose and common dolphins and harbour porpoises.

Most people on first spotting these lovely creatures assume they’ve found dolphins, which is a fair assumption as there are 33 species of dolphin in the world and only 6 species of porpoise. But in fact the West of Scotland is home to a higher density of harbour porpoises than anywhere else in the world, so there’s a good chance of seeing them whilst cruising our waters.

Wildlife cruising. Dolphin spotting. Porpoise spotting.

One of the key things to note when identifying the cetacean you have found is that porpoises are smaller. They measure a maximum of 7 feet, whereas dolphins are between 6 and 12 feet. They also differ in their faces, fins, and body shapes. Dolphins have longer noses, more like beaks, whereas porpoise’s faces are rounder. Dolphins also have bigger mouths, more curved dorsal fins, as opposed to the triangular ones of their cousins (this is often the easiest way to tell which you’ve seen) and longer, leaner bodies than porpoises.

Both species are highly sociable and travel in pods. There’s a reason why these animals are so loved. They are hugely intelligent, with complex brains, and they are self-aware. They certainly have big personalities and don’t shy away from interacting with humans and their boats. We often have dolphins and porpoises playing around Splendour and surfing the bow waves. Dolphins do tend to be a little more interested in us, so it’s more likely they will come a bit closer.

Whether you see porpoises or dolphins, though, you’re in for a treat.

Happy spotting!