Spotting Marine Mammals off the Tees to Tyne Coast

Local marine biologist, Emily Cunningham, takes us through the marine mammals you’re most likely to spot off the coast from Tees to Tyne.

There are 2 seal species found in UK seas, both of which can be seen off our coast and sometimes even hauled out on our beaches. Seals regularly “haul out” when they need to rest or digest their food, so always give them plenty of space.

Grey Seal
The larger of the 2 UK seals. Grey seals have a flat, elongated nose and parallel nostrils. Unique patterns in their fur mean scientists can identify individual seals and track their movements. Their scientific name is Halichoerus grypus, which means “Hook-nosed sea pig”! Grey seals in the North East give birth to a fluffy white pup in Autumn.

Grey Seal – Stephen Marsh BDMLR

Common Seal
The smaller of the 2 UK seals, they are also sometimes called harbour seals. They have a concave forehead and V-shaped nostrils. There is a breeding colony of common seals just down the coast at Seal Sands, Teesmouth, where they give birth in June and early July.  Common seals are known to swim into rivers to hunt and in January 2017 one was spotted by DWT member Michael Heron in the River Wear at Fatfield – 8 miles upstream!

Common Seal – Stephen Marsh BDMLR


“Cetaceans” means all whales, dolphins and porpoises. 30 different species have been recorded in UK waters, but you’re most likely to see the following types off our coast.

Harbour Porpoise
The smallest and most numerous UK cetacean, they grow to a maximum length of 1.7m – about the same height as the average British woman. Look out for a stubby, triangular fin breaking the waves and the loud “chuff” as it exhales – giving them the nickname “Puffing Pig”!

Harbour Porpoise – Niki Clear

Bottlenose Dolphin
The largest UK dolphin species at 4m in length, look out for a tall, sickle-shaped fin. They’re highly sociable, so don’t be surprised to see leaps and splashes! Scientists can use the pattern of notches on a bottlenose dolphin’s fin to identify individuals – a bit like a fingerprint. Like in grey seals, we can use this to track a dolphin’s movements and activities.

Bottlenose Dolphins -Emily Cunningham

White Beaked Dolphin
A cooler water species that comes inshore during the summer months. Look out for a flash of white along their side or the bright white beak that gives them their name. They are often seen with young calves when close to shore, suggesting the North East coast might have importance as a nursery area – though we’re not yet entirely sure and research continues.

White Beaked Dolphins –
Caroline Weir/Ketos Ecology

Minke Whale
The smallest UK whale at 9m long. Look out for bright white “armband” markings on the pectoral fins. Minkes follow large fish shoals inshore, especially in late summer. They are baleen whales, meaning they have baleen plates instead of teeth. Baleen is a fibrous material made out of keratin – the same stuff your hair and nails are made of. Baleen plates act like a big filter, so when the whale takes a mouthful of fish, it can push out all the seawater but keep and swallow all the fish.

Minke Whale – Amy Lewis

Humpback Whale
A large whale with a small, knobbly dorsal fin and long white pectoral fins (front flippers). Humpbacks are well known to breach clear of the water – so keep your eyes peeled! Humpbacks were hunted extensively during the whaling era, but have their populations are recovering well and are now regularly sighted from UK shores – including from Whitburn and Tynemouth in recent years.

Humpback Whale – Whit Welles/CC by 3.0

Killer Whale (or Orca)
Orca are unmistakeable – their large black and white bodies distinct from any other UK species. Their tall black dorsal fins can reach 6ft in height, so you’ll spot them if they’re around! These top predators range huge distances in search of food but are occasionally spotted off the North East coast – they’ve been spotted off Whitburn and Hartlepool, so keep an eye out in between!

Orca – Gail Hampshire/CC by 2.0

Surprise sightings
A common dolphin was spotted in the River Wear in January 2017, sparking quite the media frenzy! Common dolphins are normally found further offshore, but are known to swim upstream – though we don’t know if it’s on purpose or because they’re a bit lost. This individual stuck around in the river for a few days before heading back out to sea. So, although this blog gives the list of the the species you’re most likely to spot, you just never know what you’ll see…

Common Dolphin, River Wear – Lynn Burlace

Anyone and everyone can be a marine mammal spotter – it’s free, easy and you don’t need anything more than a bit of patience (and a pair of binoculars if you have them). The best place to watch from is high ground, like a clifftop or harbour wall. Scan the waves with your naked eye, then investigate any suspicious splashing with your binoculars. And remember to let us know what you spot!

We love to hear what you’ve seen off our coast, whether it’s a whale or a whelk! Send us a photo, we’re on Facebook and Twitter, or you can email us on

About the Author

Emily is a marine biologist, passionate about opening people’s eyes to the amazing wildlife hiding in our seas. When not “in the office” doing marine conservation, Emily is sure to be found outside: hiking, searching for wildlife or seeking her next dose of Vitamin Sea.

Emily Cunningham

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