A handy guide to help you identify the wondrous creatures in these waters

The common species of whale, dolphin, porpoise & shark found in west Scotland with the Gaelic names in brackets. Click on the images to find out more.

Check out the full whale and dolphin species index, learn about grey or common seals, or identify Scottish seabirds.

 

Check out Whale Track for a map of what has been spotted recently, report your sightings, and download the app to have it all in your pocket!

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Harbour Porpoise
(Peileag)

Length
1.4m – 1.9m

Group size 
1 – 05

Coastal Sightings
All Year

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Common Dolphin
(Leumadair cumanta)

Length
1.7m – 2.5m

Group size 
1 – 30

Coastal & offshore
Summer

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Bottlenose Dolphin
(Muc-bhiorach)

Length
1.9m – 3.9m

Group size 
1 – 10

Coastal Sightings
All Year

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Atlantic White-sided Dolphin
(Leumadair cliathaich-bhain)

Length
2.4m – 2.8m

Group size 
1 – 30

Coastal & offshore
All Year

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White-beaked Dolphin
(Leumadair ban-ghobach)

Length
2.5m – 2.8m

Group size 
1 – 30

In open water
Outer Hebrides

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Risso’s Dolphin
(Cana)

Length
2.6m – 3.8m

Group size 
1 – 15

In deep water
Sometimes Coastal

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Killer Whale (Orca)
(Madadh-cuain)

Length
5.5m – 9.8m

Group size 
1 – 10

Coastal sightings
All Year

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Basking Shark
(Cearban)

Length
6.5m – 10m

Group size 
1 – 20

Coastal sightings
Summer

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Minke Whale
(Muc-mhara-mhioncaidh)

Length
7m – 10m

Group size 
1 – 3

Coastal sightings
Summer

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Humpback Whale
(Muc-mhara-crotach)

Length
11m – 15m

Group size 
1 – 3

Coastal sightings
All Year

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Illustrations © Martin Camm/markcarwadine.com | Information provided is a guide only.

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What to look for

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Diving birds. Seabirds often feed on the same food as whales and dolphins, so looking for lots of seabird activity can help you figure out where these wondrous creatures might be.

 
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Dark shapes. Is it a wave? Is it a log? Is it a whale? Dark shapes on the surface will often catch your eye, and could be a magnificent creature you are hoping to spot.

 
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A glint in the waves. Watch out for glints where the sunlight may be catching the back of surfacing creatures.

 
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A splash! Lookout for any irregular splashing or funny looking waves as these may be whales or dolphins coming up to the surface or moving underwater.

 
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Changes in the surface of the water. Smooth patches or lines might be where water is bringing food to the surface - a great place to look out for some wondrous creatures.

 
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Patience is key. You might need to spend a while looking out to sea hoping to spot something, but its never a wasted trip with stunning views and seabirds and other wildlife to spot.

 

You are by no means guaranteed to see a whale or a dolphin at a Hebridean Whale Trail site; they are wild creatures and can be frustratingly elusive. However, if you take some time, look out sea and breathe in that fresh salty air, you may be rewarded with that one in a million moment when a wondrous creature appears before your very eyes.

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Checklist

When trying to spot whales, dolphins and porpoises from the land it can be handy to know what to take with you when you visit a Hebridean Whale Trail site, and what to look out for when gazing out to sea.

Here’s a quick checklist of what you should have with you when you are heading out to spot marine life from the shore:

Download Whale Track as it has a handy guide to help you identify different species. You can also report your sightings directly to the Hebridean Whale & Dolphin Trust and contribute to important research about the marine environment.

  • Always take waterproofs and warm layers, Scottish weather can be incredibly changeable. It may be sunny now, but it could be snowing in an hour!

  • Appropriate footwear.

  • Binoculars or scopes are amazing for seeing marine life up close, but there is still plenty to see if you don’t have a pair.

  • A camera can make it easier to work out later what species you spotted (and to make your friends jealous!).

  • A flask full of tea can warm you, and some snacks can boost morale if nothing is popping up to say hello.

 
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