Whales seen around the British Isles

One thousand years ago, you could have seen whales in the English Channel. Subfossil evidence suggests that grey whales once lived in the coastal seas of at least south-west Britain. More than likely, they also roamed the North Sea. But being a coastal dweller and slow swimmer, the grey was probably one of the first whales to be hunted by us.

Descriptions suggest that northern right whales were hunted in the North Sea and English Channel from at least the ninth century. The grey whale is thought to have become extinct in the Atlantic in the early eighteenth century, while in Europe, the northern right whale is on the verge of extinction.

The demise of these two giants is attributed to hunting, but natural changes probably played a part, too. The few bones of grey whales that have been identified from Europe come from the two periods of dry, warm, storm-free weather, followed by the Little Ice Age of 1550 to 1850.

The vanishing grey and right whales

As the climate became cooler and more unstable, greys and rights would have experienced hard times, not helped by increasing human exploitation. Both species’ dietary inflexibility would have made it difficult for them to adapt to a changing marine ecosystem. This may finally result in the extinction of the northern right whale, which in the Atlantic numbers about 300 individuals.

Looking across the Channel 100 years ago, you’d have seen grey and northern right whales replaced by fin, sei and sperm whales. But, by the 1950s, hunting had probably reduced European populations to a fraction of their former size.

The last decade has seen a number of rare species recorded around our coasts: the first Blainville’s beaked whale and Fraser’s dolphin in the UK, and the second Gervais’ beaked whale in north-west Europe. All three species have offshore subtropical or warm temperate distributions. Changes in ocean currents, perhaps as part of present-day global warming, may explain the occurrence of these unusual species.

The return of the humpback and sperm

After a few decades of protection, the humpback – rarely seen from the 1930s to 1980s – has become an annual, mainly summer visitor to the Shetlands, Irish Sea and the south-west. Two species in particular may have benefited from the end of commercial whaling.

Over the past two decades, sperm whales have increasingly been observed, with some well-publicised live strandings. Every summer since 1994, two to five northern bottlenose whales have been recorded around the Isle of Skye.

Though hunting now affects few species in North-west Europe (notably the minke whale), other human activities almost certainly have an influence. Bycatches in fishing gear, high concentrations of pollutants, disturbance by ocean vessels, and seismic and military activities may affect many species. If natural climatic conditions change to the detriment of a species, these factors may just tip the balance from population stability into decline.

Whales, Dolphins, and Porpoises seen around the British Isles


  • Atlantic white-sided dolphin
  • Beluga
  • Blainville’s beaked whale
  • Blue whale
  • Bottlenose dolphin
  • Common dolphin
  • Cuvier’s beaked whale
  • False killer whale
  • Fin whale
  • Fraser’s dolphin
  • Gervais’ beaked whale
  • Harbour porpoise
  • Humpback whale
  • Killer whale
  • Long-finned pilot whale
  • Minke whale
  • Narwhal
  • Northern bottlenose whale
  • Northern right whale
  • Pygmy sperm whale
  • Risso’s dolphin
  • Sei whale
  • Sowerby’s beaked whale
  • Sperm whale
  • Striped dolphin
  • True’s beaked whale
  • White-beaked dolphin