Short beaked common dolphin

  • Scientific name: Delphinus delphis
  • Length: up to 2.5 metres
  • Marine mammal type: cetacean
  • Family: Delphinidae
  • IUCN Conservation status: Least concern


A pelagic species, measuring up to 2.5 metres, black/dark grey dorsally, white ventrally, with a characteristic ‘hour glass’ pattern along its flanks and a long ‘beak’ (rostrum). Common dolphins have a gestation period of 10 to 11 months, calves are born from spring to autumn, measuring 0.8 – 0.85 metres, are dependent for up to 19 months and are weaned at nearly 1.5 metres in length. The species is generally found in groups of 100+ in the Atlantic and they feed on fish, e.g. herring, sardines and pilchard, and squid.

Where to see them

This species is frequently found in the western English Channel, off south west England, Ireland and in the Irish Sea. It is increasingly being reported around Scotland, possibly as a result of climate change and rising sea temperatures altering the distribution of species. Sometimes it is found in the North Sea and the eastern English Channel, but this is rare.

The species often travels in groups (sometimes numbering in the hundreds) and although primarily an oceanic species they can forage close to shorelines.


Common dolphins are one of the most frequently stranded cetacean species in the UK, just behind the harbour porpoise. They can become disoriented by channels, estuaries and tidal movements if close to shore though.

They are also one of the species most likely to mass strand. In June 2008 over 70 animals were rescued by the combined efforts of BDMLR and local emergency services in the Fal Estuary, Cornwall, while two others were put to sleep. A further 24 animals were already dead when found early in the morning though. The following investigation linked this incident, the largest common dolphin mass stranding on record for the UK, to a multinational military exercise that was ongoing in the area at the time, but since then BDMLR has developed a good working relationship with the Navy to respond quickly to incidents of this nature.

BDMLR’s success rate at refloating dolphins is good and as long as the animals are in a healthy condition, and especially if simply caught out by a tidal change or geographical feature.

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.