Species Profile and Threats Database

For information to assist proponents in referral, environmental assessments and compliance issues, refer to the Policy Statements and Guidelines (where available), the Conservation Advice (where available) or the Listing Advice (where available).
In addition, proponents and land managers should refer to the Recovery Plan (where available) or the Conservation Advice (where available) for recovery, mitigation and conservation information.

EPBC Act Listing Status Cetacean as Phocoena dioptrica
Listed migratory - Bonn as Phocoena dioptrica
Adopted/Made Recovery Plans
Information Sheets Australian National Guidelines for Whale and Dolphin Watching (Department of the Environment and Heritage, 2005e) [Information Sheet].
Federal Register of
    Legislative Instruments
List of Migratory Species (13/07/2000) (Commonwealth of Australia, 2000b) [Legislative Instrument] as Phocoena dioptrica.
Non-statutory Listing Status
IUCN: Listed as Data Deficient (Global Status: IUCN Red List of Threatened Species: 2013.1 list)
Scientific name Phocoena dioptrica [66728]
Family Phocoenidae:Cetacea:Mammalia:Chordata:Animalia
Species author (Lahille,1912)
Infraspecies author  
Reference Zoo. Cat 5 Mammalia (1988)
Other names Phocaena dioptrica [32]
Australophocoena dioptrica [66729]
Distribution map Species Distribution Map

This is an indicative distribution map of the present distribution of the species based on best available knowledge. See map caveat for more information.

Illustrations Google Images

Scientific name: Phocoena dioptrica

Common name: Spectacled Porpoise, Spectacled Dolphin

Lahille (1912) described the Spectacled Porpoise as a member of the genus Phocoena on morphological grounds in 1912. In 1985, Barnes (1985) erected a new genus for the species, Australophocaena, in recognition of similarities between it and Phocoenoides dallii. In the same year, however, genetic analyses of the cytochrome b gene and the control region of mitochondrial DNA of the Spectacled Porpoise found support for the inclusion of species to the genus Phocoena (Rosel et al. 1995). The generic name Australophocaena has received mixed support, and is used by some authors (e.g. Bannister et al. 1996) but not others (e.g. Rice 1998; Ross 2006). The generic name Phocoena is used here in accordance with its EPBC Act listing status.

The Spectacled Porpoise has a typical porpoise-like body shape, but with a large rounded dorsal fin. A two-tone colouration divides the dark blue-black dorsal (bottom) half from the white ventral (top) surface at eye level and along the flank midline, with the white colour extending upwards at the tail stock. The flippers are white, as is the underside of the tail flukes. The upper surface of the flukes and the dorsal fin are black. The lips are black, and there is a dark gape-to-flipper stripe. A line of tubercles, as in other Phocoenidae, are present on the leading (front) edge of the dorsal fin (Evans et al. 2001).

The Spectacled Porpoise is one of the smallest and least known cetaceans of the Southern Ocean. Physical maturity is attained at around 2.0 m in males. The maximum weight is about 80 kg, while maximum lengths for males and females are 2.24 m and 2.04 m respectively (Leatherwood & Reeves 1983; Ross 2006).

Spectacled Porpoise are seen singly and in groups of two to three, the latter generally comprising male, female and calf aggregations. This species is not known to school in larger numbers (Ross 2006).

Spectacled Porpoise are probably distributed circumpolar in Australian pelagic waters of the subantarctic and Antarctic zones, south of the subtropical Convergence. Most records fall between 45° and 65° S (Rice 1998). The first records for continental Australian seas were made in 1997 (Tasmania and South Australia; Evans et al. 2001). They are also known from south-east of New Zealand and from outside Australian territorial waters to the south of Australia.

Their occurrence at Heard Island is known from a confirmed record (skull) and unconfirmed sightings. Spectacled Porpoise have also been sighted in the vicinity of Macquarie Island (Bannister et al. 1996; Kasamatsu et al. 1988). The apparent concentration of records near subantarctic islands is possibly due to higher observer presence in these areas. It is unknown whether the few widely scattered Australian records represent animals moving northwards from areas to the south or populations resident in waters close to Australia (Bannister et al. 1996).

The current extent of occurrence of the Spectacled Porpoise is estimated to be greater than 20 000 km² (based on the Australian Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) (>200 nm, south of 34º S)) (V.M. Peddemors & R. Harcourt 2006, pers. comm.). No past declines are known, and none are anticipated in the future. However, increasing ocean temperatures predicted by climate change scenarios could potentially decrease the extent of occurrence, with warmer water extending southwards.

The area of occupancy of Spectacled Porpoise cannot be accurately calculated due to the sparsity of sighting records for a large proportion of the range. However, it is likely to be greater than 2000 km² (V.M. Peddemors & R. Harcourt 2006, pers. comm.). No past declines in the area of occupancy are known, and none are anticipated in the future.

Populations of Spectacled Porpoise are anticipated to occur in one location as deep water is not a barrier to movement, and there are no known unsurpassable ocean boundaries. As such, no distribution fragmentation is anticipated for populations of Spectacled Porpoise in Australian waters.

The Spectacled Porpoise occurs in the Southern Hemisphere, where it is thought to be distributed circumpolar in subantarctic latitudes (Goodall 2002, cited in Culik 2000c). It inhabits offshore Atlantic coasts off South America, northwards to around 34° S, and is present at the Falkland Islands and around South Georgia. It has been recorded in the Pacific Ocean south of New Zealand, and at Auckland Island, Antipodes Island, Macquarie Island and in the open ocean to the west at about 56° S, 175° W. Spectacled Porpoises have also been recorded in the Indian Ocean at Heard and Kerguelen Islands (Ross 2006). The apparent concentration of records near subantarctic islands possibly reflects observer bias rather than habitat preference.

Records from offshore islands (mostly of dead animals and skulls), hint at a circumpolar distribution and suggest that the range may also include large areas of open sea. It is not known whether these represent isolated populations, or whether they mix with mainland coastal animals by migrating across the open sea (Carwardine 1995, cited in Culik 2000c). Sightings have occurred in offshore waters, as well as in rivers and channels (Jefferson et al. 1993).

There is insufficient evidence to assess possible seasonal north-south movements (off South America) or east-west movements at higher latitudes.

No estimates of the global population size are available, but it is reportedly locally common off Patagonia, particularly off Tierra del Fuego (Goodall & Schiavani 1995; Shirihai 2002).

It is likely that Spectacled Porpoise move between Australia and other countries due to the lack of any permanent deep water barriers.

This species is not well surveyed. However, the current distribution is believed to be a true reflection for the species.

Although there are no population estimates available for Spectacled Porpoise, it is likely that numbers are at or near original levels within Australian waters. This is because the species has not been the target of any direct exploitation by Australian fisheries.

The lack of abundance and distribution data prohibits a definitive assessment of the likelihood of subpopulations of Spectacled Porpoise, but elsewhere in their range their distribution is contiguous. It is therefore likely that the species occurs in one population within Australia (V.M. Peddemors & R. Harcourt 2006, pers. comm.).

The paucity of survey data also prohibits accurate analysis of population trends for the Spectacled Porpoise. However, ongoing incidental captures in Southern Ocean driftnet fisheries outside Australian territorial waters, plus in 'ghost' nets, are the most likely causes of population decline.

All cetaceans are protected within The Australian Whale Sanctuary under the EPBC Act. The Sanctuary includes all Commonwealth waters from the 3 nm state waters limit out to the boundary of the EEZ (i.e. out to 200 nm and further in some places). This species is also subject to International Whaling Commission (IWC) regulations within the Indian Ocean Sanctuary and the Southern Ocean Sanctuary. The most relevant area under protection would be the EEZ off Macquarie Island.

This species appears to prefer subantarctic and Antarctic waters (between 1–8 °C), and continental seas in the cold temperate region influenced by cold currents, such as the Falkland Current off Argentina.

Very little biological or habitat information is known for this species. Although the Spectacled Porpoise is believed to be an oceanic species, it has also been recorded in estuarine waters (Culik 2000c; Shirihai 2002). In Australia, Spectacled Porpoise strandings have occurred following below average sea levels associated with an intensifying of the Southern Ocean gyre, bringing a cold current to Tasmania and south-eastern South Australia (Evans et al. 2001).

Female Spectacled Porpoises reach sexual maturity at about 1.85 m. The timing of male sexual maturity is unknown, but presumably occurs prior to them reaching physical maturity at about 2.0 m.

There is very little information on natural mortality, but they are possibly vulnerable to predation by Killer Whales (Bannister et al. 1996; Ross 2006).

Spectacled Porpoise are born at lengths longer than 0.48 m (information from a near term foetus), probably closer to 0.70–0.80 m at full term. No data are available on calving interval, mating season, gestation period or length or age at weaning. No important mating or calving locations have been identified. The calving season possibly occurs from late winter to summer (Bannister et al. 1996; Evans et al. 2001; Jefferson et al. 1993).

The extremely small sample size indicates Spectacled Porpoise eat fish and cephalopods including squid and cuttlefish (Sepia species: Evans et al. 2001). The sole record of prey remains are of anchovy (Engraulis sp.) and small crustaceans (possibly stomatopods) found in the stomach of a six year old male stranded in Chubut, Argentina (Brownell & Clapham 1999, cited in Culik 2000c).

The Spectacled Porpoise is highly distinctive with its unusual pigmentation, small head and facial features and the large male dorsal fin (Culik 2000c).

Spectacled Porpoises display characteristic porpoising behaviour, consisting of a slow roll or two at the surface followed by rapidly swimming just under the surface, which should aid in detection and identification (Shirihai 2002). They typically arch their back strongly on diving, leading to the dorsal fin becoming more prominently identifiable, as opposed to being generally inconspicuous when surfacing (Jefferson et al. 1993). However, the small group sizes and small size of the species may make detection difficult at sea.

Recommended methods
Cetacean surveys are constrained by several important factors including weather (e.g. sea state and light conditions), area to be covered, aim of the survey (abundance estimate versus ecological studies), the activities of the animals themselves (e.g. travelling, resting, surface versus deep feeding), and the type of craft used for the survey.

Surveys for Antarctic dolphins have primarily been boat-based transects, although some aerial surveys have been conducted. Almost no dedicated cetacean surveys have been conducted in Australian waters of the Southern Ocean, but surveys associated with the Australian Antarctic Division (AAD) research have been used as platforms of opportunity for a long-term cetacean database. The minimum recommended requirement for surveys aimed at detecting Spectacled Porpoise is for continuation of a sighting program to be operated from existing cruises, particularly those in Antarctic or subantarctic waters. Placement of minimum two observers on appropriate vessels (e.g. AAD) is also recommended. Basic biological information and a GPS position from incidentally-caught animals from fishing vessels should be also obtained. One biologist on Southern Ocean fishing vessels for one year is recommended (V.M. Peddemors 2006, pers. comm.).

In the past, the Spectacled Porpoise was threatened by incidental capture in tanglenets set for crabs and fishes in Tierra del Fuego. However, these nets are no longer used (Bannister et al. 1996). Current threats to the species include entanglement in driftnets set outside Australian Territorial Waters and in lost or discarded netting, and incidental capture in gillnets set by artisanal (traditional) fishermen on Argentine coast. The extent of capture in artisanal fisheries is unknown, although the fishery has been expanding since 1988 (Bannister et al. 1996). In addition, there has been some exploitation (direct catch) off southern South America (Chile and Argentina), but the effects of this industry are unknown (Jefferson et al. 1993).

Potential threats to the Spectacled Porpoise include incidental captures in the expanding fisheries of the Southern Ocean, especially in areas adjacent to subantarctic islands; disturbance and pollution resulting from coastal and offshore oil and mineral exploration (particularly relevant to Argentina); and pollution of preferred habitats, leading to accumulation of toxic substances in body tissues (Klinowska 1991).

Bannister and colleagues (1996) and Ross (2006) recommended the following measures to be taken to better understand the threats to Spectacled Porpoise:

  • Increase observer program on pelagic fisheries working in Australian EEZ.
  • Obtain information on distribution using platforms of opportunity, e.g. observers on oceanographic research vessels and Antarctic Division re-supply vessels.
  • Obtain estimates of abundance by dedicated field surveys, e.g. by expansion of IWC whale sighting cruises.
  • Maximise basic biological information gained from strandings and incidental captures by making speciems available to museums and research organisations.
  • Further investigate status of population and possible subpopulations, by opportunistic biopsy sampling for genetic analysis.

Disentanglement workshops and action plans are currently being trialed, and may be particularly relevant for high-seas fisheries (Bannister et al. 1996).

The Action Plan for Australian Cetaceans (Bannister et al. 1996) and the Review of the Conservation Status of Australia's Smaller Whales and Dolphins (Ross 2006) provide brief overviews of the biological information, threats and threat abatement recommendations for this species. In addition, Australian National Guidelines for Whale and Dolphin Watching (Department of the Environment and Heritage 2005e) have been prepared.

The following table lists known and perceived threats to this species. Threats are based on the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN) threat classification version 1.1.

Threat Class Threatening Species References
Biological Resource Use:Fishing and Harvesting Aquatic Resources:Harvest by gill netting Phocoena dioptrica in Species Profile and Threats (SPRAT) database (Department of the Environment and Heritage, 2006tl) [Internet].
Biological Resource Use:Fishing and Harvesting Aquatic Resources:Illegal fishing practices and entanglement in set nets Phocoena dioptrica in Species Profile and Threats (SPRAT) database (Department of the Environment and Heritage, 2006tl) [Internet].
Biological Resource Use:Fishing and Harvesting Aquatic Resources:Mortality due to capture, entanglement/drowning in nets and fishing lines Phocoena dioptrica in Species Profile and Threats (SPRAT) database (Department of the Environment and Heritage, 2006tl) [Internet].
Pollution:Excess Energy:Disturbance and pollution resulting from coastal and offshore oil and mineral exploration Phocoena dioptrica in Species Profile and Threats (SPRAT) database (Department of the Environment and Heritage, 2006tl) [Internet].
Pollution:Pollution:Pollution due to oil spills and other chemical pollutants Phocoena dioptrica in Species Profile and Threats (SPRAT) database (Department of the Environment and Heritage, 2006tl) [Internet].

Bannister, J.L., C.M. Kemper & R.M. Warneke (1996). The Action Plan for Australian Cetaceans. [Online]. Canberra: Australian Nature Conservation Agency. Available from:

Barnes, L.G. (1985). Evolution, taxonomy and antitropical distributions of the porpoises (Phocoenidae, Mammalia). Marine Mammal Science. 1(2):149-165.

Culik, B. (2000c). Phocoena dioptrica Lahille,1912. Review on Small Cetaceans: Distribution, Behaviour, Migration and Threats. Page(s) 1912. [Online]. Report compiled for the Convention on Migratory species (CMS). Available from: [Accessed: 10-Oct-2007].

Department of the Environment and Heritage (2005e). Australian National Guidelines for Whale and Dolphin Watching. [Online]. Available from:

Evans, K., C. Kemper, & M. Hill (2001). First records of the Spectacled Porpoise Phocoena dioptrica in Continental Australian waters. Marine Mammal Science. 17:161-170.

Goodall, R.N.P. & A.C.M. Schiavani (1995). On the biology of the spectacled porpoise, Australophocaena dioptrica. Report of the International Whaling Commission (Special Issue 16). Page(s) 411-453.

Jefferson, T.A., S. Leatherwood & M.A. Webber (1993). FAO species identification guide. Marine Mammals of the World. [Online]. Rome: United Nations Environment Programme, Food and Agricultural Organization. Available from: [Accessed: 15-Aug-2007].

Kasamatsu, F, Yamamoto,Y, Zenitani, R, Ishikawa, H, Ishibashi, T, Sato, H, Takashima, K & Tanifuji, S. (1988). Distribution of Cetacean Sightings in the Antarctic: Results Obtained from the IWC/IDCR Minke Whale Assessment Cruises, 1978/79 to 1983/84. Reports of the International Whaling Commission. 38:449-482.

Klinowska, M. (1991). Dolphins, Porpoises and Whales of the World: The IUCN Red Data Book. IUCN, Gland and Cambridge.

Leatherwood, S. & R.R. Reeves (1983). The Sierra Club Handbook of Whales and Dolphins. San Francisco: Sierra Club Books.

Peddemors, V.M. (2006). Personal Communications. Sydney: Graduate School of the Environment, Macquarie University.

Peddemors, V.M. & R. Harcourt (2006). Personal Communication. Sydney: Graduate School of the Environment, Macquarie University.

Rice, D.W. (1998). Marine mammals of the world. Systematics and distribution. Special publication number 4. Kansas: Society for Marine Mammalogy.

Rosel, P.E., M.G. Haygood & W.F. Perrin (1995). Phylogenetic relationships among the true porpoises (Cetacea: Phocoenidae). Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution. 4(4):463-474.

Ross, G.J.B. (2006). Review of the Conservation Status of Australia's Smaller Whales and Dolphins. Page(s) 124. [Online]. Report to the Australian Department of the Environment and Heritage, Canberra. Available from:

Shirihai, H. (2002). The Complete Guide to Antarctic Wildlife. Princeton & Oxford: Princeton University Press.

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This database is designed to provide statutory, biological and ecological information on species and ecological communities, migratory species, marine species, and species and species products subject to international trade and commercial use protected under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (the EPBC Act). It has been compiled from a range of sources including listing advice, recovery plans, published literature and individual experts. While reasonable efforts have been made to ensure the accuracy of the information, no guarantee is given, nor responsibility taken, by the Commonwealth for its accuracy, currency or completeness. The Commonwealth does not accept any responsibility for any loss or damage that may be occasioned directly or indirectly through the use of, or reliance on, the information contained in this database. The information contained in this database does not necessarily represent the views of the Commonwealth. This database is not intended to be a complete source of information on the matters it deals with. Individuals and organisations should consider all the available information, including that available from other sources, in deciding whether there is a need to make a referral or apply for a permit or exemption under the EPBC Act.

Citation: Department of the Environment (2014). Phocoena dioptrica in Species Profile and Threats Database, Department of the Environment, Canberra. Available from: Accessed Wed, 23 Jul 2014 08:02:59 +1000.