About the Species
White-beaked dolphins are found throughout the cold waters of the North Atlantic Ocean. They are active swimmers and often “surf” the waves created by vessels. They are usually found in groups of five to 30 individuals but sometimes travel in groups of up to 1,500.
White-beaked dolphins hunt for food both near the water’s surface and along the ocean bottom. Some fishermen in Canada call these dolphins “squidhounds” because they eat squid and octopi.
White-beaked dolphins, like all marine mammals, are protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act. NOAA Fisheries and its partners are working to conserve white-beaked dolphins and advance our understanding of this species through research and conservation activities.
NOAA Fisheries estimates population size in its stock assessment reports.
The worldwide population of white-beaked dolphins is unknown.
To manage white-beaked dolphins in U.S. waters, we have placed them into a western North Atlantic stock. Based on recent surveys, our scientists estimate that there are about 2,000 dolphins in this stock.
- Throughout Its Range
White-beaked dolphins are about 8 to 10.5 feet long and weigh about 395 to 770 pounds. Males are usually larger than females. Both males and females have a streamlined, robust body with a small beak and a large, tall, curved dorsal fin. Their body is mostly dark gray or black on the upper sides and back with light gray or white patches on their sides, back, and underside. The dorsal fin, flippers, and flukes are mostly dark. Their beaks, which are very short and thick, also have white “lips.” White-beaked dolphins have 22 to 28 pairs of small, cone-shaped teeth in each jaw.
Behavior and Diet
White-beaked dolphins usually travel in groups of five to 30 individuals but are sometimes found in groups of up to 1,500 individuals. These groups can be organized by age and sex. White-beaked dolphins are sometimes seen in groups with other species, such as fin whales, humpback whales [link to /species/humpback-whale], and other small dolphins such as bottlenose and Atlantic white-sided dolphins.
White-beaked dolphins are active swimmers. They often breach and jump at the water’s surface and will sometimes "surf" the waves created by vessels.
White-beaked dolphins eat schooling fish (e.g., haddock, cod, and herring), crustaceans (e.g., shrimp and crabs), and cephalopods (e.g., squid and octopi). They typically work together to catch fish at the water’s surface but will also feed along the ocean bottom. They have 22 to 28 pairs of small, cone-shaped teeth in each jaw.
Where They Live
White-beaked dolphins are found in colder temperate and subpolar waters throughout the North Atlantic Ocean. Their range includes the waters of eastern North America (Massachusetts to Newfoundland), northern Europe, Scandinavia, Greenland, the United Kingdom, and the Barents Sea. Their distribution in U.S. waters is limited. They prefer waters less than 650 feet deep.
The distribution of this species varies with the seasons. Most white-beaked dolphins move south and farther offshore during the winter months. They then return north and closer to shore once the ice recedes during the warmer summer months.
Lifespan & Reproduction
The estimated lifespan of white-beaked dolphins is unknown. They reach sexual maturity when they are 7 to 12 years old. Females are pregnant for about 11 months and give birth to a single calf, usually between May and September. Calves are about 4 feet long and weigh about 90 pounds at birth.
One of the main threats to white-beaked dolphins is becoming entangled or captured in commercial fishing gear such as gillnets, cod traps, and trawl nets. These interactions can cause dolphins to be injured or killed.
White-beaked dolphins are sometimes targeted and hunted for meat and oil in waters off Canada (Labrador and Newfoundland), Greenland, Iceland, and Norway.
White-beaked dolphins rely on sound to communicate and echolocate. Noise interference from vessels, as well as industrial and military activities, disturbs white-beaked dolphins’ feeding, communication, and orientation. Increasing evidence suggests that exposure to intense underwater sound in some settings may cause some dolphins to strand and ultimately die. If loud enough, noise can cause temporary or permanent hearing loss.
White-beaked dolphins, like all marine mammals, are protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act. In the United States, NOAA Fisheries works to protect all stocks of white-beaked dolphins.
Overseeing Marine Mammal Health and Stranding Response
We work with volunteer networks in all coastal states to respond to marine mammal strandings, including dolphins. When stranded animals are found alive, NOAA Fisheries and our partners assess the animal’s health. When stranded animals are found dead, our scientists work to understand and investigate the cause of death. Although the cause often remains unknown, scientists can sometimes identify strandings due to disease, harmful algal blooms, vessel strikes, fishing gear entanglements, pollution exposure, and ocean noise. Some strandings can serve as indicators of ocean health, giving insight into larger environmental issues that may also have implications for human health and welfare.
Addressing Ocean Noise
NOAA Fisheries is investigating all aspects of acoustic communication and hearing in marine animals, as well as the effects of sound on dolphin behavior and hearing. In 2016, we issued technical guidance for assessing the effects of anthropogenic (human-caused) sound on marine mammals’ hearing.
Educating the Public
NOAA Fisheries aims to increase public awareness and support for white-beaked dolphin conservation through education, outreach, and public participation. We share information with the public about the status of white-beaked dolphins, as well as our research and efforts to promote their recovery.
All marine mammals, including white-beaked dolphins, are protected in the United States under the MMPA.
NOAA Fisheries conducts various research activities on the biology, behavior, and ecology of white-beaked dolphins. The results of this research are used to inform management decisions for this species.
Determining the size of white-beaked dolphin populations helps resource managers determine the success of conservation measures. Our scientists collect population information and present the data in annual stock assessment reports.
Monitoring Population Abundance and Distribution
Scientists observe white-beaked dolphins to record their numbers and distribution. By comparing numbers collected over multiple years, scientists can look for trends—e.g., whether the population is increasing, decreasing, or remaining stable during a given period.