Moored passive acoustic detectors (e.g. C-PODs) are widely used to study harbour porpoise Phocoena phocoena distribution and relative abundance, but their use in tidal-stream habitats is complicated by the need for retrievable flow-resistant seabed fixings and the occurrence of flow-induced noise in the resultant data. In this study, we explored the use of a new method aimed at tidal-stream habitats, which are of increasing interest for marine renewable energy generation. Porpoise detectors (C-PODs) were attached to multiple drifters and repeatedly set adrift at a tidal-stream site in western Scotland during May 2010 and August 2011. Porpoise vocalisations were successfully detected under varying tidal conditions during approximately 63 h of drifting. Harbour porpoise distribution, as determined by the drifting detectors, was similar to that found using the traditional, yet more logistically intensive, visual and acoustic boat-based surveys and to an extent that found by moored C-PODs. Drifting detectors also mapped tidally driven spatiotemporal variability in ambient noise levels which could influence porpoise detection. In summary, drifters equipped with passive acoustic detectors offer a new, rapid and inexpensive tool for investigating porpoise occurrence and behaviour in tidal-stream habitats, and should be considered as part of a comprehensive marine mammal monitoring approach of these energetic environments in the context of marine renewable energy development and other industries.