Harbour Porpoise

(Phocoena phocoena)



  • a maximum length of 1.8 metres and average adult length is 1.6 metres (smallest cetacean in BC)


  • dark brown to gray, lighter colour on the belly
  • distinct line from mouth to top of pectoral fin

Dorsal Fin

  • triangular, same colour as body

Surface Behaviour

  • does not bring body completely out of the water
  • tend to avoid boats
  • when surfacing, dorsal fin appears to rotate as on a wheel

Group/Social Behaviour

  • more of a solitary animal than the Dall’s
  • normally travels alone or in small group sizes of 2-5
  • occasionally in the spring, large aggregations can be seen in areas with lots of food

Can Be Confused With 

  • Dall’s porpoise

Harbour porpoises are the smallest cetacean found in BC waters.  They have a smooth grey back with a triangular dorsal fin, and are not very surface active. Photo credit: Doug Sandilands

Harbour porpoises can be seen alone or in small loosely associated groups of 2-5. Larger aggregations can be occasionally seen in foraging areas. Photo credit: Doug Sandilands.

Harbour porpoises are dark grey in colour, with lighter grey on their bellies.  Photo credit: Neil Fisher.

Natural History

Harbor porpoise have a circumpolar distribution throughout the temperate and boreal waters of the northern hemisphere. Three isolated groups are recognized: North Pacific, North Atlantic, and Black Sea- Sea of ​​Azov. They prefer being near coastal waters although occasional sightings in deep water are recorded (see map below). They are frequently seen in BC’s many inlets and fjords. Infrequently, they may also be spotted in brackish rivers.

Harbor porpoise are thought to remain resident for extended periods in one area. They are a very difficult animal to spot and individually identify due to their small dorsal fin, cryptic behavior, and minimal surface activity.

Harbor porpoises are generally seen in small groups between 2 to 5 animals. Larger congregations of several dozen harbor porpoises  are sometimes observed, particularly in spring or fall. These large groups are thought to be feeding on prey that is concentrated by strong, seasonal tides. Harbor porpoise feed on small schooling fishes, such as herring, eelpouts, hake, sandlance, salmon and cod, as well as squid. Calves may also feed on euphasiids between weaning and when they begin eating fish.

Male and female harbor porpoises look similar, and while females often are slightly larger, it is difficult to tell the two sexes apart. Harbor porpoises are often described as promiscuous and polyandrous with significant sperm competition. Males have a marked development of the testes seasonally, which may weigh up to 6% of their body weight during the mating season. In British Columbia, mating appears to peak in late summer to early fall. Females are pregnant for 7 to 11.4 months. A single calf is born mainly from May to September. Nursing may occur for up to 8 to 12 months, but is significantly reduced after the first few months.It is unknown when harbor porpoises reach sexual maturity in the North Pacific, but in the North Atlantic it is around 3-4 years. Females have a calf every 1 to 2 years, and both sexes may live to 13 years.

Hybridization between Dall’s porpoise and harbour porpoise occurs occasionally in BC waters with harbour porpoise as the paternal parent and Dall’s porpoise as the maternal parent. Hybrids tend to appear more similar to Dall’s porpoise in body shape, diving characteristics and behaviour, but they lack the white side patches and the colouring is more similar to the harbour porpoise.

Transient (mammal-eating) killer whales and sharks may prey on harbour porpoises, although evidence of the latter has only been observed once in British Columbia. Harbour porpoises are the most frequently reported stranded cetacean in British Columbia though reasons for their stranding are various. In many parts of their range, harbour porpoise populations are heavily impacted by entanglement in fish nets, particularly gillnets. They also appear to very sensitive to noise and other human impacts in more urban areas.

Status in Canada

COSEWIC: Special Concern (2003)
Reason for Designation: They appear to be particularly sensitive to human activities, and are prone to becoming entrapped and killed in fishing nets. They are a short lived shy species that are now rarely seen at the highly developed areas of Victoria and Haro Strait. Continued development and use of its prime habitat by humans are some of the main threats. They are displaced by underwater noise, and could be affected by contaminants in their food chain.

BC Provincial Red List: Blue (have characteristics that make them particularly sensitive or vulnerable to human activities or natural events.)


Hall, A.M. 2004. Seasonal abundance, distribution and prey species of harbour porpoise (Phocoena phocoena)in southern Vancouver Island waters. M.Sc. thesis. University of British Columbia, Vancouver, BC. 109 pp. [PDF]

Willis, P.M., B.J. Crespi, L.M. Dill, R.W. Baird, M.B. Hanson. 2004. Natural hybridization between Dall’s porpoises (Phocoenoides dalli) and harbour porpoises (Phocoena phocoena). Canadian Journal of Zoology 82(5):828-834 [PDF]

Hall, A., G.E. Ellis and A.W. Trites. 2002. Harbour porpoise interactions with the 2001 selective salmon fisheries in southern British Columbia and license holder reported small cetacean by-catch. Selective Salmon Fisheries Science Program Report. Fisheries and Oceans Canada. [PDF]

Keple, A.R. 2002. Seasonal abundance and distribution of marine mammals in the southern Strait of Georgia, British Columbia. Masters thesis. University of British Columbia, Vancouver BC. 81 pp. [PDF]

Baird, R.W. 1998. An interaction between Pacific white-sided dolphins and a neonatal harbor porpoise. Mammalia 62:129-134 [PDF]

Baird, RW, P.M. Willis, T.J. Guenther, P.J. Wilson and B.N. White. 1998. An intergeneric hybrid in the family Phocoenidae. Canadian Journal of Zoology 76:198-204 [PDF – article begins on p.5]

Baird, R.W., and T.J. Guenther. 1995. Account of harbour porpoise (Phocoena phocoena) strandings and bycatches along the coast of British Columbia. Reports of the International Whaling Commission Special Issue 16:159-168.[PDF]

Nichol, L.M., and M.J. Sowden. 1995. The effect of an acoustic deterrent device on the relative abundance and distribution of harbour porpoise (Phocoena phocoena) at a study site in coastal British Columbia. Department of Fisheries and Oceans Contract Report No. FP597-4-3004/01/XSA

Baird, R.W., T.J Guenther, R.J. Lewis, M.L. McAdie, and T.E. Cornish. 1994. An investigation into the causes of an unusual porpoise (Phocoena phocoena and Phocoenoides dalli) mortality event in southern British Columbia. Final report to the Department of Fisheries and Oceans under Contract No. IIHS3-050 [PDF]

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