Learn to recognize them
Numerous species of marine mammals occur in French metropolitan waters, some of which still remain offshore. There are 2 main families: Cetaceans (dolphins, porpoises and whales) and Pinnipeds (seals).
Common dolphin Delphinus delphis
Distinct and fine beak, black back, ochre front flanks, grey back flanks. Abundant in the Atlantic, common in the English Channel, rare in the Mediterranean. Coastal and/or pelagic, frequent jumps.
Striped dolphin Stenella coeruleoalba
Distinct and thin beak. Grey stripe running up the back. Black line running from eye to back of body. Abundant in the Mediterranean, common in the Atlantic and rare in the English Channel. Pelagic, frequent jumps. Average size: 2m
Harbour porpoise Phocoena phocoena
No beak, small triangular dorsal fin, dark grey back, lighter flanks. Common in the Atlantic and English Channel, absent in the Mediterranean. Coastal, very shy and therefore very difficult to observe. Average size: 1.5m
Distinct, stocky beak. Grey pigmentation more or less darkened. Common in the English Channel, Atlantic and Mediterranean. Coastal and sometimes pelagic. Average size: 3m
White-beaked dolphin Lagenorhychus albirostris
Distinct, stocky beak. Grey pigmentation with white on flanks, caudal peduncle and beak.
Regular in the English Channel, occasional in the Atlantic and absent from the Mediterranean. Rather coastal.
Average size: 2.5m
No beak. Grey striped with white (young grey, old sometimes very white). Common in the Mediterranean, occasional in the Channel and Atlantic. Pelagic and sometimes coastal, shy.
Average size: 3m
Long-finned pilot whale Globicephala melas
No beak, curved forehead, long and low dorsal fin, black pigmentation, common at certain seasons in the English Channel, Atlantic and Mediterranean. Pelagic, occasionally coastal.
Average size: 4 to 5m
Orca Orcinus orca
No beak, dorsal fin very high in males, black back, white patch above the eye, grey patch behind dorsal fin, very rare off the French coast. Cosmopolitan, Pelagic, Average size: 5 to 8m.
Beaked whales: Mesoplodon, Ziphius, Hyperoodon
Small triangular dorsal fin, colour varying from grey to brown.
Very rare and discreet. Pelagic on marine canyons. Average size: 4 to 6m
Minke whale Balaenoptera acutorostrata
Tapered head, dorsal fin in the back third of the back, dark grey pigmentation and a very visible white band across the pectorals. Common in the Atlantic and English Channel, rare in the Mediterranean. Coastal to pelagic.
Average size: 6 to 8m
Sperm whale Physeter macrocephalus
Massive head, no dorsal fin but a sort of ridge at the back of the back, visible breath: oblique forward and to the left, grey-brown back. Occasional in the Atlantic, rare in the Channel, regular in the Mediterranean. Pelagic. Average size: 12m
Fin whale Balaenoptera physalus
Tapered head, dorsal fin in the back third of the back, dark grey pigmentation, breath visible upwards.
Common in the Atlantic, English Channel and Mediterranean. Pelagic.
Average size: 20m
Grey seal Halichoerus grypus
Profile of the muzzle straight (“horse’s head”), brown-grey spotted pigmentation.
Mainly on rocky coasts (Brittany and Normandy).
Fearful. Average height: 2 to 3m
Harbour Seal Phoca vitulina
Profile of the muzzle round (“dog head”), brown-grey spotted or all brown-beige pigmentation.
On sandy coasts (North of France until the Normandy).
Fearful. Average size: 1.5 to 2m