Dolphins in Scotland
Unsurprisingly, many tourists who visit Scotland want to see some dolphins, probably due to their prevalence in some foreign marine parks and the 1964 Flipper TV show that we all grew up with. Scotland is considered one of the best places in the world to see wild dolphins, and my own area of the Moray Coast is home to a pod of 200, regularly seen from the coast between Macduff, Lossiemouth and beyond.
There is something quite magical about dolphin watching, you are dealing with an incredibly intelligent animal and the Moray Firth dolphins are bigger than normal bottlenose dolphins making their jumps and playful nature all the more impressive.
I once was invited to go out on the Moray Firth in a small catamaran, we encountered seals, a basking shark and dolphins! They came right up to the side of the boat, I looked one right in the eye, it was looking me up and down, definitely a clever and inquisitive animal, a cut above anything else swimming in the sea.
Here's some more info on Scotland's dolphins and particularly those in the Moray Firth colony on the north east coast.
Bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops truncatas in the family of Delphinidae) are the local dolphin species found in the Moray Firth, they are marine mammals that travel in groups called "Pods".
Moray Coast dolphin adaptations
The species found on the Moray Coast are specially adapted to the environmental conditions and are bigger than normal bottlenose dolphins (4-5 m long) and also have a thicker layer of blubber to insulate them from the cold. This extra fat layer means they can weigh between 300-600 kg / 660-1400 lb. They have unusually large brains, 4 to 5 times larger than an animal of their size... and yes their brains are bigger than ours!
Breeding occurs mostly in spring and relationships are polygamous. Gestation is quite long at 12 months and females give birth to a single fully formed calf every 3 to 6 years.
Although they love the salmon in the waters off Moray, they also love eels, shrimp, squid and other fish which they devour whole without chewing. Prey is found via their unique echolocation/sonar ability, bouncing sound via clicks and whistles.
Best place to see dolphins in Scotland (Dolphin watching)
You are never guaranteed to see the dolphins, but knowing the best places to see them will greatly increase your chances. Here are a few of the very best dolphin spotting locations:
Given the popularity of the North Coast 500, it's good there is a great area for spotting dolphins a short distance from the main route. Chanonry Point may be one of the best places in Scotland to see dolphins, the land juts out into the Moray Firth forming a natural peninsula and creates the perfect spot to see them feed (and play if you're lucky).
We visited here a few years ago after seeing absolutely stunning photos of jumping dolphins... unfortunately we must have visited at a bad time and saw nothing, we will plan better next time we go. The best time to see them is when the tide begins to rise again after low tide.
You can check times on the WillyWeather website, click the tide tab. The car park at Chanonry Point is often very busy if you can't get a space try parking in one of the nearby villages and walking over.
If you manage to catch them at these feeding grounds you are in for a treat and many photo opportunities. For the photographers out there a 70-200 mm lens would be ideal, they are that close you will not need to go as long as 400 mm unless you want a close up of part of the dolphin. The faster the lens the better to freeze the action.
If seeing dolphins is on your bucket list, why not stay a few days in Fortrose or Rosemarkie and head down to Chanonry Point at the correct tide time, what a lovely walk that would be.
2 miles north of Chanonry Point is the Fairy Glen Falls walk, with two beautiful waterfalls, well worth a visit before or after seeing the dolphins.
Fort George is an 18th-century fortress near Ardersier and Inverness. Built to stop any further Jacobite rebellions, it was never used after the decisive victory at Culloden. Fort George is directly across the water from Chanonry Point and itself built on another peninsula, so gives another ideal place for viewing dolphins. However you will be a bit further away from the action, but still, you could visit Fort George which is a great day out in itself, and try and view the dolphins from the elevated battlements.
In the event of a zombie apocalypse, Fort George would be ideal, keep that in mind just in case.
If you fancy driving to Chanonry Point from Fort George, it will take you 45 minutes via the Kessock Bridge, Inverness.
To the east of Fort George is Spey Bay, another dolphin-watching hot spot. This is where the River Spey terminates into the North Sea and is a popular feeding ground with dolphins and seals for salmon hunting. This is a lovely spot with a wide variety of habitats for different animals. You can walk over to the Spey Viaduct from Spey Bay, and over to Garmouth, a really nice walk on a sunny day and a great place to also see Ospreys hunting.
WDC Scottish Dolphin Centre
Located at the east side of the mouth of the Spey, the WDC Scottish Dolphin Centre is dedicated to whale and dolphin conservation. There are some nice facilities here including a cafe, gift shop and toilet and a superb exhibition. Car parking is ample here, and a great spot for motor homes.
Boat Trips - Moray Firth Dolphin Tours
Boat tours are on offer from:
- Evoventures - Cromarty
- Dolphin Spirit - Inverness
- North 58 - Findhorn
- Scottish Marine Safari - Buckie
- Dolphin Trips Avoch - Avoch
All of these businesses are accredited with the "Dolphin Space Programme" which sounds very fancy and futuristic, but all it means is giving the dolphins more space and minimising disturbances to their lives.
As mentioned before, I have had the pleasure of seeing dolphins from a boat, and it truly is a special experience if they come up close to the boat and say "hello". However no boat tour can guarantee that you will see the dolphins, and at around £150 for a family of four, it's quite expensive if you don't get to see what you want. However just being out on a boat is an adventure in itself, and you will nearly always see the seals as a consolation prize. Dose up on motion sickness medication before your boat trip, I felt very unwell.
West Coast of Scotland
Different species of dolphin frequent the west coast of Scotland, as well as the Scottish Isles.
Harbour porpoise and white-beaked dolphins are found in higher densities here, especially around the Inner Hebrides. The Isle of Mull gives the opportunity to see Risso's dolphins, which is amazing as they normally don't come this far to land and prefer deeper water.
Can you swim with Dolphins in Scotland?
No, legislation was passed in 1990 which basically outlawed controlled swimming with dolphins in the UK. You could try swimming with wild dolphins at your own risk, but if they had young they might not like your presence amongst them. They are wild animals and probably wouldn't take kindly to human interference. Watch dolphins from a respectable distance and they will be happy. Divers can see them while scuba diving in many of Scotland's coastal areas, but it is rare.
When is the best time of year to see dolphins in Scotland?
May to September. Dolphins prefer calmer and sunnier days and seem the most active then, however, you can see dolphins in Scotland at all times of the year.
Are there dolphins in Edinburgh?
Yes, they can sometimes be seen in the water off Portobello Beach, north Edinburgh. Sightings further out in the Firth of Forth are common.
How long can dolphins live?
The average lifespan can be as low as 17 years old, but some have been known to live for 40 years, and those in captivity have lived as long as 51 years.
What other large aquatic lifeforms can be seen in Scotland?
- White-beaked dolphins
- Common dolphins
- Risso's dolphins
- Orca / killer whale
- Harbour porpoises
- Basking whales
- Minke whales
- Pilot whales
How to photograph a bottlenose dolphin?
I'm afraid your mobile phone won't cut it in this instance, dolphins are quite a difficult subject to capture.
You really need a DSLR or mirrorless camera with a telephoto lens between 200-400 mm. Try F6-8, 1/500, ISO100 on a well lit day and alter your settings from there. If it's really bright, try 1/1000 to stop that action perfectly. On duller days try F4 or faster if your lens will allow, 1/250 and ISO400. Tripods will likely be too slow to "get the shot", you could try a monopod but the best way is handheld, give those upper arms a workout!
Locally everyone loves dolphin watching, sometimes photos will be posted up to local Facebook groups or Flickr and there is always a great deal of interest in these beautiful cetaceans.
Plan a couple of days near Chanonry Point in June to maximise your chances of seeing these awesome creatures in their natural environment.
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