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Harbour Porpoises

About AquaFacts: AquaFacts are a resource for students who are looking for information on the animals at the Aquarium or other Aquarium-related topics. Here, we’ve compiled some of the most frequently asked questions that we’ve received about killer whales. The answers come from our biologists and from reputable sources that we reference at the end of this page. If you have a question about killer whales that’s not addressed in this page or the references below, please feel free to email our librarian.

Harbour Porpoise

Questions & Answers

What is a porpoise? 

A porpoise is a member of the order Cetacea meaning that it is related to whales and dolphins, Porpoises fall into their own catagory under cetaceans due to the differences that set them apart from the dolphins and whales. Porpoises tend to be smaller in size than most dolphins, have a triangular shaped dorsal fin (a dolphins dorsal fin is more crescent shaped), a blunt and rounded snout and flat "spade" shaped teeth (contrasted with a dolphins cone-shaped teeth). There are 7 known species of porpoise in the world including: harbour porpoise, Dall's porpoise, vaquita, spectacled porpoise, Burmeister's porpoise, narrow-ridged finless porpoise and the Indo-Pacific finless porpoise.

What does a harbour porpoise look like? 

Harbour porpoise tend to have a dark grey back which fades into a light coloured belly down their sides. Their dorsal fin is small and triangular, which can be used in identification in the ocean, but can also be tricky as these animals don't spend much time with their backs out of the water. There is a distinct dark line that runs from the corner of their mouth to the top of their pectoral (side) flipper.

Where can they be found? 

Harbour porpoises can be found distributed through northern Europe, the sub-Arctic and in the northern cooler parts of the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. There is also a group that lives in the Black Sea

Harbour porpoises can be found in cool-temperate to sub-Arctic coastal waters of the North Pacific which includes the Bering Sea, and into the North Atlantic and Baltic Seas. They have also been located in the Black sea north of Turkey, the Chukchi sea and the Beaufort sea.

Do they swim in groups? 

It is rare to find a large group of harbour porpoise together (up to 100 animals), however they are typically seen in groups of 3-5 animals. 

What does a harbour porpoise eat?

Harbour porpoise eat a wide variety of fish including herring, anchovy, mackerel, capelin and squid.

Do harbour porpoise face threats in B.C.?

In Canada, harbour porpoises are listed as a species of special concern. They seem to be sensitive to human activities like fishing (they can become bycatch in nets), marine noise pollution (by shipping traffic). Porpoise are also affected by contaminants that make their way into the ocean and can contaminate their food sources. 

Key Facts

  • Lifespan - 13 years (both males and females)
  • Length: 1.6-1.8 m long (females tend to be longer than males)
  • Sexual maturity: 3-4 years old
  • Gestation: 7 - 11.4 months
  • Weaned: 8 -12 months

Did You Know?

  • Harbour porpoises are able to breed with Dall's porpoises, and hybrids have been seen along the coast of B.C.


  1. http://wildwhales.org/harbour-porpoise/

  2. [Marine Mammals of British Columbia by John Ford]

  3. http://www.arkive.org/harbour-porpoise/phocoena-phocoena/

  4. http://www.iucnredlist.org/details/17027/0

  5. https://www.marinemammalscience.org/species-information/list-of-marine-mammal-species-subspecies/

Permission is granted by the Vancouver Aquarium Marine Science Centre for classroom teachers to make copies for non-commercial use. This permission does not extend to copying for promotional purposes, creating new collective works, or resale.


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