Historic whale and dolphin stranding data made public for the first time

Between 1913 and 1989, the coastguard, fishermen and members of the public sent the Museum their sightings of whale and dolphin strandings from around the UK coast.

Now for the first time this data is being made public, allowing anyone to search the historic cetacean (whale, dolphin and porpoise) strandings records. 

Ellen Coombs is studying whale evolution for her PhD at the Museum, and has been delving into the strandings data to see what can be learnt from these historic records as part of a new scientific paper.

‘It is one of the longest systematic cetacean stranding data sets in the world,’ says Ellen.

Between 1913 and 1989, all records of stranded whales and dolphins on UK shores were sent to the Museum. Since 1990, the dedicated UK Cetacean Stranding Investigation Programme (CSIP), funded by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, took over the recording of these data, although strandings can still be reported to the Museum. Around the same time, the Irish Whale and Dolphin Group was set up in Ireland to record cetacean strandings there.

In the 106 years represented by the full data set, there have been more than 20,000 reported strandings from 28 different species of cetacean. There are about 90 cetacean species in the world – so roughly a third of them have been spotted in UK waters.

The first UK stranding card dating to 1913.
The first strandings card dates to February 13, 1913, and details a harbour porpoise found on the coast of County Cork © The Trustees of the Natural History Museum, London

The majority of these strandings represent the most common species found in UK waters: the harbour porpoise, short-beaked common dolphin and long-finned pilot whale.

Yet the benefit of strandings records, as opposed to counting living whales and dolphins, is the opportunity to document rarer, shyer and more transient species that may be found around the country.

Hidden among the records are some more unusual sightings, including some of the deepest-diving mammals in the world. Cuvier’s beaked whale has been known to descend 2,992 metres for up to 137 minutes at a time. It’s rarely sighted on the surface, but the species does keep cropping up in the stranding records.

Similarly, while there was a lot of excitement surrounding the appearance of Benny the beluga in the Thames estuary this winter, there are actually two other records of beluga washing ashore in the UK in 1932 and 2014, while in 1949 two narwhals stranded.

Most common whale and dolphin strandings 1913-2015

  •  Harbour porpoise (Phocoena phocoena): 8,265
  • Short-beaked common dolphin (Delphinus delphis): 3,110
  • Long-finned pilot whale (Globicephala melas): 1,606
  • Minke whale (Balaenoptera acutorostrata):  621
  • Common bottlenose dolphin (Tursiops truncatus): 595
  • Atlantic white-sided dolphin (Lagenorhynchus acutus): 565
  • White-beaked dolphin (Lagenorhynchus albirostris): 539
  • Striped dolphin (Stenella coeruleoalba): 487
  • Risso’s dolphin (Grampus griseus): 402
  • Sperm whale (Physeter macrocephalus): 285

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