[an error occurred while processing this directive]

More to Explore

Did You Know?
Related Links
NGS Resources

Harbor Porpoise Rescue On Assignment

Harbor Porpoise Rescue On Assignment

Harbor Porpoise
Step into the world of writers and photographers as they tell you about the best, worst, and quirkiest places and adventures they encountered in the field.

Harbor Porpoise Rescue @ National Geographic Magazine Zoom In

Get the facts behind the frame in this online-only gallery. Pick an image and see the photographer's technical notes.

Harbor Porpoise Rescue Zoom In Thumbnail 1
Click to ZOOM IN >>

Harbor Porpoise Rescue Zoom In Thumbnail 2
Click to ZOOM IN >>

Harbor Porpoise Rescue Zoom In Thumbnail 3
Click to ZOOM IN >>

Photo caption by
Joel Bourne

Harbor Porpoise Rescue @ National Geographic Magazine Map

A Porpoise on the Go

Map Thumbnail

Click to enlarge >>

Text and photographs by Bill Curtsinger

Scientists and fishermen in the North Atlantic join forces to save the elusive cetacean.

Read or print the full article.

An odd thing happens when a harbor porpoise swims into a net. It doesn't spin like a shark or fight like a tuna. It calmly and quietly gives up.

That's not what I expected from a marine mammal that, in the wild, seems as highly strung as an Irish setter. But the North Atlantic's smallest and least studied cetacean is full of surprises. Hard to spot with their hand-size black dorsal fins, harbor porpoises are also fearful of boats and divers, making research and photography difficult. No underwater images exist of harbor porpoises in their natural habitat, though pictures of dead ones abound. In the early 1990s up to 3,000 a year drowned in the Gulf of Maine region, mostly in gill nets. A hundred or so also died in herring seines. That prompted Duke University biologist Andy Read to work with herring fishermen on Grand Manan Island to rescue the animals—and learn something about them in the bargain.

"Where there are herring, you're gonna find those little porpoises," Grand Manan fisherman Herbert Lambert told me, dispensing a bit of local knowledge that has endured around the Bay of Fundy for centuries. Passamaquoddy and Micmac Indians caught herring in brush weirs and also ate harbor porpoises that preyed on the herring. Today's porpoises are merely bycatch, a nuisance in modern weirs and gill nets. Fence-like weirs can hold 20,000 dollars' worth of herring and often a dozen porpoises or more. As fishermen seine out the catch, herring and porpoises jam into a roiling ball. "It's a frightening environment for them," says Andy Read, who started the rescue program in 1991. "There's a lot of noise, and it's the first time in their lives they've been restrained." A decade ago most harbor porpoises trapped with the herring died. Now fishermen call Read's team when they spot a porpoise in their weirs and head out in their boats to help free it. Fishermen are paid for their time, scientists get valuable data, and the survival rate has hit 95 percent. Thanks to such conservation efforts—and to a steep decline in gillnetting—population estimates in the Gulf of Maine have doubled in the past decade to nearly 90,000.

Subscribe to National Geographic magazine.

E-mail this page to a friend


More to Explore

In More to Explore the National Geographic magazine team shares some of its best sources and other information. Special thanks to the Research Division.

Did You Know?
Transatlantic Travelers

Elusive and shy, harbor porpoises have proved difficult to study in their natural habitats. Even so, scientists have long believed that those habitats mainly encompass shallow coastal waters including—as the common name implies—harbors and bays. Over the past decade satellite telemetry studies in the Gulf of Maine have confirmed that harbor porpoises spend much of their time along the northeastern coast of the U.S. and Canada. Individual tracking data has also shown the large range the porpoises cover. "Essentially the entire Gulf of Maine serves as their home range," says Duke University biologist Andy Read, who started the satellite tracking study in 1991.

In addition to using satellite tracking devices, Read and his team of researchers—along with the help of local fishermen—have been tagging many of the harbor porpoises that they rescue each summer from herring weirs off the coast of Grand Manan Island in Canada. Some startling information has come to light as a result of these tags: The range of harbor porpoises may be vastly larger, and the waters they travel in deeper, than scientists have believed. Tagged harbor porpoises from the Gulf of Maine have been sighted as far away as the coasts of Scotland and Ireland. Although these sightings have yet to be confirmed, according to Andy Read they come from reputable sources. Noting the "tremendous mobility of these little animals and the scale over which they live their lives," Read says he "wouldn't be surprised if they went on a walkabout."

—David Brindley

Did You Know?

Related Links
Bill Curtsinger Photography
See a gallery of photographer Bill Curtsinger's work, and learn more about his various projects.

WhaleNet Satellite Tagging Program
Track recently tagged harbor porpoises and other marine mammals, create your own maps from archived data, and find out more about satellite tracking at this interactive site.

Grand Manan Whale & Seabird Research Station
Learn more about the Harbor Porpoise Release Program that saves dozens of animals each year.
Find scientific and conservation information on harbor porpoises (Phocoena phocoena) and other species in the Phocoena genus.

Cetacean Bycatch Resource Center
Join a virtual community of fishermen, conservationists, researchers, and the public working together to eliminate whale, porpoise, and dolphin bycatch.


Koopman, Heather. "Harbour Porpoises and Blubber." Available online at

National Marine Fisheries Service. "Harbor Porpoise Take Reduction Plan." 1998. Available online at

Read, A. J., and A. J. Westgate. "Monitoring the movements of harbor porpoises (Phocoena phocoena) with satellite telemetry," Marine Biology (1997), 315-22.

Read, Andy. Porpoises. Voyageur Press, 1999.

Reeves, Randall R., and Stephen Leatherwood. Dolphins, Porpoises, and Whales: 1994-1998 Action Plan for Conservation of Cetaceans. Gland, 1994.

Trippel, Edward A., and others. "Mitigation of harbour porpoise (Phocoena phocoena) by-catch in the gillnet fishery in the lower Bay of Fundy," Canadian Journal of Fisheries and Aquatic Sciences (1999), 113-23.


NGS Resources
Whales, Dolphins and Porpoises. National Geographic Books, 1995.

Conly, Robert Leslie. "Porpoises: Our Friends in the Sea," National Geographic (September 1966), 396-425.

Zahl, Paul A. "The Giant Tides of Fundy: A Naturalist and His Family Explore the Shores of a Restless Bay Where World-record Tides Wash Canada's Maritime Provinces," National Geographic (August 1957), 153-92.


© 2003 National Geographic Society. All rights reserved. Privacy Policy       Advertising Opportunities       Masthead

National Geographic Magazine Home Contact Us Forums Shop Subscribe