Dumfries and Galloway is seldom considered a hotspot for watching whales and dolphins, yet some species can be seen all year round in our coastal waters.
The Harbour Porpoise Phocoena phocoena is the smallest and most numerous cetacean in the region’s waters. It has a small, stout body, with dark grey colouring on the back and a paler patch on the flanks. Unlike a dolphin, it has a small blunt head with no beak and a small triangular dorsal fin. Harbour Porpoises eat a wide variety of small fish and often occur in small groups. Rarely leaping clear of the water, they can be seen in all months of the year.
Two dolphin species can be seen occasionally in the Solway Firth. The Bottlenose Dolphin Tursiops truncatus is a large dolphin (up to 4m in length) with a robust head and a distinct short beak. This species has a uniform dark brown or grey back with a tall, centrally placed dorsal fin, which is usually sickle shaped. The underparts are light grey, changing to white moving towards the belly. The Bottlenose Dolphin often breaches and bow rides. In recent years this species has been sighted regularly along the Solway coast in the summer months, and even in the winter. The Common Dolphin Delphinus delphis is a small animal (c. 2m long) with a distinct light-coloured hourglass pattern on the flanks and dark upper body. This species also has a dark triangle below the dorsal fin and a pronounced beak. It is more agile than its larger relative, and, if encountered from a boat, often breaches and bow rides as the boat moves along. Sightings off the Dumfries and Galloway coast are very infrequent.
The largest cetacean likely to be seen around the Dumfries and Galloway coast is the Minke Whale Balaenoptera acutorostrata, which can grow to 7-8.5m in length. Minke Whales have a slender, pointed triangular head, with a central ridge, with a dark-grey to black head and body, and distinguishing white bands on the flippers.
Occasionally rarer cetaceans are sighted in the region’s water. In spring 2006 a large male Fin Whale Balaenoptera physalus was stranded on the Kirkcudbrightshire coast. Records of such strandings should be reported to the Scottish Marine Animal Stranding Scheme.
It is also possible to see both of the UK’s seal species around the Dumfries and Galloway coast, though neither are particularly common. The Common Seal Phoca vitulina is less than two metres in length and has v-shaped nostrils. They regularly haul themselves out of the water onto rocky shores or sandbanks to rest. The Grey Seal Halichoerus grypus is larger, with the male reaching lengths of up to two metres, and has a long muzzle, which resembles a ‘roman nose’. This species also hauls out, usually between tides, onto rocks or isolated mainland beaches. The isolated beach at Mullock Bay is one of few regular sites for this species.
The following are some of the best watch points, although anywhere with some elevation and a good all round view of the coast is fine: Corsewall Point (NW9872), Burrow Head (NX4534), Dunskey Castle (NX0053), Balcary Point (NX8249), Mull of Galloway (NX1530) and Southerness Point (NX9754).
Visit the SeaWatch website for more information about whale and dolphin identification.
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