Bottlenose dolphin

  • Scientific name: Tursiops truncatus
  • Length: up to 4m
  • Marine mammal type: cetacean
  • Family: Delphinidae
  • IUCN Conservation status: Least concern
  • Protected by: CITES


A coastal or pelagic species, measuring up to 4.0 metres in length, generally dark grey/ brown dorsally, light grey on sides and white ventrally, with a stubby ‘beak’.

Bottlenose dolphins have a gestation period of 12 months. Calves are born in the spring and summer, measuring 1.0 to 1.3 metres, are dependent for up to 18 months and are around 1.75 metres in length when weaned. The species is usually found in groups of less than 250 individuals in British waters and they feed on a wide variety of fish, including salmonids, herring, sprat, mullet and mackerel, squid and cuttlefish.

Where to see them

This species is found in resident populations in British coastal waters, located in the Moray Firth, Cardigan Bay, and south-west England, with others found in western Ireland and between the Channel Islands and France. Photo-identification studies and other research projects are ongoing for all of these groups to help increase conservation management and protection measures.

There are also transient groups that live further offshore and range over a much wider area that may occasionally be encountered.


It is thought that because the bottlenose dolphin is a coastal species it is more used to currents and tide patterns, and therefore is a rare animal to strand through simple navigational error. Animals which do strand tend to be old, sick, injured or separated newborns, which all have a low chance of survival.

A known member of the Moray Firth resident population, called Spirtle, was found live stranded on mud flats in the region a few years ago and was successfully refloated after a long rescue operation by the BDMLR team despite a significant patch of sunburn on her back. She has since been seen multiple times over the years since and the injury recorded to heal successfully while she thrived.

In 2019 Spirtle took everyone by surprise by turning up in Ireland, making one of the first known excursions of what was thought to be a resident animal that lived only within a specific region of Scotland to completely different area. She returned to the Moray Firth a few weeks later, and proved we still have much to learn about our bottlenose dolphin populations around the UK and Ireland.

What to do if you find a stranded animal?

A whale, dolphin or porpoise stranded on the beach is obviously not a usual phenomenon. These animals do not beach themselves under normal circumstances, and they will require assistance. Please DO NOT return them to the sea as they may need treatment and or a period of recovery before they are fit enough to swim strongly.

01825 765546 (24hr)
RSPCA hotline (England & Wales): 0300 1234 999
SSPCA hotline (Scotland): 03000 999 999

You will receive further advice over the phone, but important things you can do to help are:

  • Support the animal in an upright position and dig trenches under the pectoral fins.
  • Cover the animal with wet sheets or towels (even seaweed) and keep it moist by spraying or dousing with water.
  • Do NOT cover, or let any water pass down the blowhole (nostril), sited on top of the animal’s head. This will cause the animal great distress and could even kill it.
  • Every movement around a stranded animal should be quiet, calm and gentle. Excessive noise and disturbance will only stress it further.
  • Estimate the length of the animal and look for any distinguishing features that may give clues as to the species you are dealing with.
  • Look for signs of injury and count the number of breaths (opening of the blowhole) over a minute – this can give important clues as to how stressed the animal is.
  • Take great care when handling a dolphin, porpoise or whale; keep away from the tail, as it can inflict serious injuries – this is particularly the case with whales and it is advisable to leave handling larger whales until experienced help arrives. Avoid the animal’s breath, as it may carry some potentially nasty bacteria.
  • Provide information: Give the hotline an exact location for the animal – this can save valuable and perhaps critical time. If you have a mobile, give the number to the hotline.
  • Give an accurate description of the animal, including its breathing rate, and whether it is in surf, on rocks or sand, in the shade or in the full glare of the sun.
  • Information on weather conditions and sea state are also helpful.
  • The hotline should be informed of any attempts already made to push the animal back into the sea.
  • Maintain control.
  • Keep all contact, noise and disturbance to a minimum.
  • Under no circumstances, release the animal into the sea before the rescue team has arrived. It is fine to support a smaller dolphin or porpoise in the water, as long as the blowhole is kept above the water at all times, and as long as it is carried to the water carefully, e.g. in a tarpaulin (do NOT drag it or lift it by its fins or tail).
  • However, actually releasing the animal before it has received an assessment and first aid from experienced personnel can do more harm than good.

If you find a dead cetacean

The Cetacean Strandings Investigation Programme (CSIP) collects a wide range of data on each stranding found on UK shores. If you discover a dead animal, please contact the CSIP hotline and give a description of the following where possible:

  • Location and date found
  • Species and sex
  • Overall length
  • Condition of the animal
  • Your contact details should further information be needed

Digital images are extremely helpful to identify to species, as well as ascertaining whether the body may be suitable for post-mortem examination. 

CSIP has produced a useful leaflet that can be downloaded by clicking here.

CSIP hotline: 0800 6520333. Callers are given a number of options to ensure they reach the correct department. You can also use this number to contact BDMLR as there is an option for live animal strandings that transfers directly to us.