Dolphins Dolphins

Dolphins

Playful dolphins are a popular attraction and several species can be spotted passing through Orkney in the summer months. These include Risso’s dolphin, the Atlantic white-sided dolphin, white-beaked dolphins and the common dolphin. Dolphins have just one calf after a ten or 11 month pregnancy, depending on the species.

A dolphin at play in Orkney waters
A dolphin at play in Orkney waters

The white-beaked dolphin (Lagenorhynchus albirostris) is one of the most commonly seen dolphins around Orkney. It grows to around 2.5-2.7 metres at adulthood. It is characterised by its short thick creamy-white beak and curved dorsal fin. White-beaked dolphins are acrobatic and social animals which frequently ride on the bow wave of high-speed boats and jump clear of the sea's surface. The dolphin may easily be misidentified as the Atlantic white-sided dolphin, although the white-beaked is more common here. The white-beaked dolphin is also typically larger, and does not have yellow streaks on its side.

The Atlantic white-sided dolphin is common offshore in deep Atlantic waters around Scandinavian and Nordic countries, Orkney, Shetland and the north of Scotland. On the small side, at up to 2.8m, it has a sloping head and short thick beak. It has a large sickle-shaped dorsal fin. They often breach and sometimes bow-ride. Uniquely amongst dolphins it has a yellow patch behind its dorsal fin.

A pair of dolphins - a common sight in Orkney
A pair of dolphins - a common sight in Orkney

Risso’s dolphin has frequently been seen around Orkney. Larger than the white-beaked dolphin, at up to 3.8m in length, it has a tall sickle-shaped fin, a blunt rounded head and no beak. This type of dolphin is distributed from Orkney down to the Mediterranean in small numbers and visits here between May and September. It is the kind used in marine parks for displays. Recent sightings include Eynhallow, Birsay and South Ronaldsay.

The short-beaked common dolphin is one of the most playful and often breaches. It is found in the Atlantic off Orkney and Scotland with sightings all year round but mostly between July and October. Seen recently in Hoxa Sound between South Ronaldsay and Flotta, it is up to 2.6m long, has a long slender beak, sometimes tipped white and a distinctive hourglass pattern of tan on lower flanks with a grey back. It lives in large groups.

The bottlenose dolphin is extremely rare in Orkney but it has been sighted recently east of the island of Shapinsay.