Tag Archives: Lagenorhynchus acutus

Dolphin or Porpoise?

Over at the very excellent Good Morning Gloucester blog, much has been written recently on the topic of Harbor Porpoise and Atlantic White-sided Dolphin sightings in Gloucester Harbor. And coverage of the seven harbor porpoises washed ashore on Massachusetts beaches, six dead and one rescued (recovering), have been well-covered in the print media. Purportedly, mortality amongst juvenile Harbor Porpoises is not atypical at this time of year, however the high number in one week is exceptional. These sightings reminded me of an adventure experienced while visiting my grandmother on Cape Cod and I thought what better time to share my favorite story, told so often to our children that they can surely recite it word for word.

Common Bottlenose Dolphin Tursiops truncatusCommon Bottlenose Dolphin (Tursiops truncatus)

Atlantic White-sided Dolphin Lagenorhyncus acutusAtlantic White-sided Dolphin (Lagenorhyncus acutus)


Harbor Porpoise (Phocoena phocoena

While living in Boston and attending art school, I would often visit my grandmother Mimi at her summer home in Dennis—a lovely cottage it was, perched high on a bluff overlooking Cape Cod Bay, shingled and shuttered, with a picket fence garden—and built my grandfather. Many of my fondest memories are of those spent with my grandmother and I loved her dearly. She was a paragon of creativity, wonderful teacher, and gave of herself fully to her family.

By late October, she (my grandfather had passed away many years earlier) would be there alone and readying the cottage for winter. Porch furniture needed painting, gardens laid to rest, and furnishings tucked away and draped in old sheets. And, gratefully so, long walks on windswept deserted beaches, a welcome respite from a hectic work and school schedule. As I was walking along the shore on an overcast afternoon I distinctly heard what sounded like a baby crying. A friend working on one of the cottages above saw me and dropped down to say hello before leaving for the day. While talking I asked him several times if he, too heard a baby crying.” He just shrugged and, and I think, thought I was a little crazy. We said good day and I continued on my walk, which very quickly turned into a sprint as the sound of the crying baby became more clearly audible, apparently coming from the tangled lump ahead. I raced towards the shape and discovered a very large and beautiful Bottlenose Dolphin washed upon the shoreline, and it was crying. He had, what appeared to be only a small cut, and after stroking and fruitlessly trying to console, I tore back to my grandmother’s and called the Cape Cod Museum of Natural History, which I knew to have an aquarium. Fortunately, my grandmother’s phone had not yet been turned off for the season in this pre-cell phone era. I told the gentleman on the other end of the line that there was a porpoise washed ashore and where we were located. He said he would be there shortly with a rescue truck and in the mean time, to keep the porpoise wet with towels soaked in seawater.

I ran back and did as instructed. It was getting late and dark and I was soaked through and very cold and the truck seemed to take forever. When finally help arrived I was dismayed to see just one driver and he was doubly dismayed to see a Bottlenose Dolphin, because I, in my ignorance, had told him it was a porpoise. He took one look at my then 110 pound frame and said what the &*^%, and that everyone else had left the aquarium for the day, and how were the two of us going to lift a dolphin onto the stretcher and into his truck?

Little did I know then that the male Bottlenose Dolphin (typically larger than the female) weighs between 330 and 1,400 pounds as opposed to the Harbor Porpoise, whose maximum weight is 168 pounds! After much struggling (and more of his cursing) the two of us did manage to roll the dolphin onto a stretcher and then lift onto the truck bed. His parting comment to me, “Well you’re skinny but you sure are mighty strong!”

I later learned that my dolphin was a juvenile male weighing only approximately 750 pounds instead of his potential 1400 pounds. The folks at the aquarium named him Smitty. His cut healed and he survived the winter beautifully. He was released the following spring, coinciding with the time of year when he would most likely find a pod to join.

After reading about the sightings of the Harbor Porpoise and Atlantic White-sided Dolphin I am struck again how essential it is for we who live at the edge of the sea to learn all we can about the creatures that dwell along the shoreline and ocean deep. When learning about and identifying plants and animals and trying to distinguish between species, I find it helpful to compare side-by-side pictures. The illustrations posted above don’t however portray accurately the difference in scale. I find graphics, like these found on wiki, come in handy and provide yet another clue in discerning differences.


Harbor Porpoise Phocoena phocoena

Harbor Porpoise (Phocoena phocoena)

Atlantic White-side Dolphin (Lagenorhynchus acutus)Atlantic White-side Dolphin (Lagenorhynchus acutus)

Common Bottlenose Dolphin Tursiops truncatusCommon Bottlenose Dolphin (Tursiops truncatus)