White-beaked dolphin (Lagenorhynchus albirostris)

French: Dauphin À Bec Blanc, Lagénorhynque À Bec Blanc De L'Atlantique
Spanish: Delfín De Pico Blanco
GenusLagenorhynchus (1)
SizeMale length: 2.4 - 3 m (2)
Female length: 2.4 - 3 m (2)

Classified as Least Concern (LC) on the IUCN Red List (1). Listed on Annex IV of the EC Habitats Directive, Appendix II of the Bonn Convention (North and Baltic Sea populations) and Appendix II of the Bern Convention (3). All cetaceans (whales and dolphins) are listed on Annex A of EU Council Regulation 338/97; they are therefore treated by the EU as if they are included in CITES Appendix I, so that commercial trade is prohibited. In the UK all cetaceans are fully protected under the Wildlife and Countryside Act, 1981 and the Wildlife (Northern Ireland) Order, 1985 (4).

Despite the common and Latin names (albirostris means 'white beak' (2)), the short, stocky beak of the white-beaked dolphin is not always white. It may be black and white, grey and white, completely white or even black in colour in certain parts of the range (5). This large dolphin has a rotund body, with a high dorsal fin placed in the centre of the back, behind which there is a characteristic greyish white patch that allows this species to be easily identified (5). The back, tail and flippers are black or grey in colour, and the belly is white or pale grey (5).

Inhabits northern oceans (5), the distribution reaches north to Iceland, the Greenland Sea and around central-west Greenland (4), but this species is rarely seen further south than Britain and Ireland (5). It is common in UK and Irish waters, most often seen in the central and northern North Sea to north-west Scotland, but it also occurs less frequently in southern Ireland, the western Channel, and the Irish Sea (4). This species is most common in UK waters between June and September, but it is present throughout the year in northern British waters (4).

Prefers cool waters (6), and spends most of the year in deep offshore waters, but may move closer to shore in summer (5). It is found widely over the continental shelf, but especially along the shelf edge (8).

The white-beaked dolphin is an extremely active, fast-swimming species. They often ride the bow of boats and may be seen breaching (leaping out of the water and landing back in the water with a splash) or clearing the water when swimming fast (5). It is a social species that forms groups of between 1 to 35 individuals, but occasionally groups of up to 1,500 have been observed (6). It feeds on schooling fish, crustaceans and cephalopods (2). A single calf is born in summer (7), measuring 1.2 metres in length at birth (2). A range of vocalisations including bursts of clicks and squeals are used to communicate, and may also be important in detecting prey and navigation (7).

Known threats include environmental changes and the risk of entanglement in fishing nets (by-catch) and subsequent suffocation (5). Furthermore, this species has been hunted in Norway, the Faroe Islands and Greenland; this still persists in some areas (5).

A UK Biodiversity Action Plan priority species, the white-beaked dolphin is protected in UK waters by the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 and the Wildlife (Northern Ireland) Orders, 1985; it is illegal to intentionally kill, injure, or harass any cetacean (whale or dolphin) species in UK waters (4). The Agreement on the Conservation of Small Cetaceans in the Baltic and North Seas (ASCOBANS) has been signed by seven European countries, including the UK. Provision is made under this agreement to set up protected areas, promote research and monitoring, pollution control and increase public awareness (4).

To learn more about the conservation of whales and dolphins see:


Information authenticated by WDCS, the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society.

  1. IUCN Red List (November, 2008)
  2. Carwardine, M., Hoyt, E., Fordyce, R.E. and Gill, P. (1998) Whales and Dolphins, the Ultimate Guide to Marine Mammals. Harper Collins Publishers, London.
  3. Council of Europe: Bern Convention (June, 2002)
  4. UKBAP (June, 2002)
  5. WDCS (June, 2002)
  6. Animal Diversity Web (June, 2002)
  7. Carwardine, M. (1995) Whales, Dolphins and Porpoises. Dorling Kindersley, London.
  8. Burnie, D. (2001) Animal. Dorling Kindersley, London.