Sowerby’s beaked whale

  • Scientific name: Mesoplodon bidens (Male shown)
  • Length: up to 5.5m
  • Marine mammal type: cetacean
  • Family: Ziphiidae
  • IUCN Conservation status: Least concern


A pelagic whale measuring up to 5.5 metres, slim and torpedo-shaped, dorsally grey to brown, becoming paler ventrally. The small, swept-back dorsal fin lies two-thirds of the way along the back and they lack the median notch between the left and right tail flukes. A rounded forehead tapers to a long, slender, dark-tipped or all-dark beak (shorter in juveniles). Eyes are encircled by a dark patch. In adult males, two flattened triangular teeth protrude mid-way from the lower jaw and bodies can be battle-scarred. Females do not have teeth and do not battle, so have fewer scars. They capture their prey by suction feeding, using the throat grooves to quickly expand the oral cavity to suck prey into their mouths.

Gestation is 12 months, with calves born early in the year and measuring 2.4-2.7 metres.

These can be confused with dolphins. Sowerby’s live in groups of 3-10 individuals, feeding predominantly on small squid, molluscs and fish.

Where to see them

Sowerby’s beaked whales are a deep-diving species that favours habitats far offshore out at the edge of the continental shelf and beyond, where they can dive to over 2000m on a single breath in search of their favoured prey, squid.

They are found in the Atlantic from the sub-Arctic down to northern Africa. Sowerby’s beaked whales frequent offshore waters to the west of the UK and Ireland and are only usually seen from boats. It would be very unusual to see them from land.


Live strandings of Sowerby’s beaked whales are rare, but if found alive on the shore then it is almost certain that their health will already be seriously compromised. This is especially true for animals that have entered the North Sea, as they are a very long way from their normal habitat, will be unable to forage effectively, and are unlikely to find their way back out again.

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.