Where to see dolphins
Scotland has the biggest bottle-nosed dolphins in the world. Like some of the locals, they have an extra layer of insulating blubber. Best places to see these cetaceans? The Moray Firth, probably.
This page is about where to see dolphins in Scotland. The short answer is probably to go to view the resident dolphins of the Moray Firth.
The Firth is that big bite or sea inlet up near the top of Scotland. ('Firth' and Norwegian 'fjord' are linguistic cousins, by the way.
Why does everyone love dolphins?
Is it those half-remembered Flipper television shows from childhood? Or is it because they are always drawn with big smiles on their faces?
Some time ago, when I the manager of the marine aquarium in Macduff, Aberdeenshire, (in the eastern end of the Firth), if dolphins appeared offshore, the staff could empty the place in seconds simply by walking round and shouting ‘dolphins spotted outside’.
I used to try countermanding this by yelling ‘Stop, stop, you haven’t been in the gift shop yet!’ But no, there was this mad stampede of exiting visitors every time.
The Moray Firth colony are just part of the ambience of the Firth - seen often enough to be kind of reassuring that all is well out there on the water (possibly).
Yet they are also seen infrequently enough to make each viewing one to be enjoyed, appreciated, or later remarked upon...'Saw the dolphins today'....'oh, well done - lucky you!'
And a close viewing is unforgettable, especially if it's from the shore.
Find out more on whale and dolphin conservation right here.
Are our dolphins easy to photograph?
No. Here's my confession about dolphins in Scotland. Though I live by the shores of the Moray Firth, somehow these highly intelligent creatures know only to appear when I don't have my camera. I mean, how do they know? They are amazing.
As I write this, I am trying to outwit them by always carrying it on Moray Firth coastal walks, but inconspicuously, so I have high hopes.
Still, you may ask, why bother when the local branch of Whale and Dolphin Conservation (WDC) have a Field Officer who manages to nail them on regular occasions?
Where To Spot Dolphins In The Moray Firth
One summer, I remember walking the dogs at Spey Bay on the Moray Firth coast, between Buckie and Lossiemouth in the north of Scotland.
Surprise. Dolphins leaping around, right at the mouth of the River Spey. (That’s a good place - they hunt salmon there.)
I had no camera. So I went back the next day and they were still there, only a bit further out. (A surprise in itself.)
They were just close enough for me to take one of the worst-ever dolphin photographs.
Yes, I agree, it’s pathetic. It’s half a dolphin - the back half. But I feel obliged to share it with you.
Actually, come to think of it, I could put it on my Loch Ness Monster page – as it wouldn’t be the first time that the back-half (or the dorsal fin) has been photographed, then made into the neck of Nessie.
Look, she’s even got two horns, wouldn’t you say? I expect dolphins turn up at river mouths, such as the Spey, to waylay inbound salmon.
Anyway, back in the real world, I’ve lost count of the number of times over the years I’ve had to write about these dolphins – in important symbol of wildlife in Scotland.
The best-known of our cetaceans are the bottlenose dolphins of the Moray Firth colony.
These are some of the biggest individuals anywhere in the world because the feeding grounds are rich and also, because the water is cold, they need an extra-thick layer of blubber.
(Treat that as good advice if you plan to swim here yourself.)
Dolphin-spotting, Moray Firth
You could start your dolphin-spotting quest at the Scottish Dolphin Centre at Spey Bay. They have all the expertise to need to point you towards the most up-to-date sightings.
Check out their 'latest sightings' board. They have an exhibition centre and a cafe too, for a warming bowl of soup, perhaps. Spey Bay is a short drive from Elgin, east of Lossiemouth.
Ospreys along the River Spey as well
Anyway, even if you don’t see the Moray Firth dolphins right at the river mouth at Spey Bay, on the east side if the Spey estuary, then in summer you can often see fishing osprey even before you’ve climbed out of your car .
And there are waders and ducks and sometimes pieces of temptingly arty-crafty pieces of driftwood cast up on the massive, stony storm-beach.
Finally, except in high summer, a knitted woolly hat (or toorie as we would call it) is also advised, should you wish to blend into the background and to keep your ears from falling off in the wind.
Actually, I exaggerate. The Moray Firth, south shore, actually has a kind climate.
Dolphins at Chanonry Point near Inverness
Most Moray Firth residents who notice these things reckon that, statistically speaking, Chanonry Point by Fortrose, just north of Inverness, is the best place to see dolphins in Scotland.
This is mainly because Chanonry Point sticks out into the Firth and that there is comparatively deep water close inshore.
Local wisdom says the resident dolphins come here to fish on a rising tide - so, obviously, that’s the best time to see them. Check tide times before your visit.
However, as with everything to do with dolphins in Scotland, it isn’t that simple and predictable. You might see them very close to where you stand on the shoreline.
On the other hand, you may spend some time prowling up and down the beach and see nothing at all by way of marine mammals. That’s the, uhmm, charm of dolphin watching.
Local author Elizabeth Sutherland describes the feelings on encountering the animals as ‘the sightings of these gentle sociable mammals are rare and joyful’.
As for the actual population size, it depends on what you read. Some say as low as 130, others give a figure of around 200.
Anyway, it’s Chanonry Point that has the reputation as a dolphin hot-spot and for a few years now has had a large car park by the shoreline and also the ultimate sign of a tourist congregation: an ice cream van.
The Point also gives a good view of the slightly sinister-looking long defensive walls of Fort George, on the other shore of the Firth (and itself another good dolphin watching vantage point).
You might find the plaque that commemorates the death of the Brahan Seer here. (I didn’t on my last visit!) He was a kind of Nostradamus of the Highlands who came to a sticky end. (He was burned to death in a spiked tar barrel at Chanonry Point. But that’s a whole other story.)
Otherwise, while waiting for the cetaceans to show, you’ll find yourself wandering by the lighthouse (private) and sheltering from the sea-breezes (euphemism) while regretting not wearing an extra wind-proof layer.
Oh, how the weather comes up from the often gloomy Great Glen to the south-west!
And you certainly won’t get the place to yourself.
Everyone wants a piece of the dolphins
Naturally, every place and tourism organisation wants to give the impression that the Moray Firth dolphins are on their patch.
Besides Chanonry Point on the north side of the Firth by Fortrose, as mentioned above, the Kessock Bridge at Inverness is said to be worthwhile…then going eastwards, it’s Nairn, Burghead and, well, it seems they can pop upanywhere.
Even the city of Aberdeen claims that it's the best place for dolphin-spotting - and it isn't even on the Moray Firth.
The last time I was in Aberdeen, I managed to stalk a dolphin that was hanging about the old quad at Marischal College. (Pictured here) Lucky shot, wouldn't you say?
See? Everyone wants a piece of the dolphin action. There are also plenty of nice places to stay in and around the Moray Firth too.
Dolphins in the outer Firth too
I’ve seen the Moray Firth dolphins east of Macduff quite frequently and once, while walking the shoreline just west of Portsoy, I actually heard them before I saw them.
There was a kind of gasping exhalation – which I knew right away wasn’t me – and I turned round to find a few of them breathtakingly close inshore.
Or perhaps I mean taking a breath close inshore.
Naturally, I had no camera. No matter, the point is you’re never sure where you’ll see your next dolphin. That’s part of the fun.
Dolphin cruises and the Dolphin Space Programme
There are lots of seagoing types based around the Moray Firth who will take you out in their boats to see them.
Check that these businesses all comply with the recommendations in the code of practice known as the Dolphin Space Programme.
I know it sounds as though these clever cetaceans are planning their own discovery of outer space (trying to get away from us, probably) - but it's actually about giving them personal space, if you happen to find yourself afloat next to a pod of dolphins.
This allows the dolphins to concentrate on - for example - avoiding moronic jet skiers, a phrase which some may consider tautology.
(Pictured here) With all of the Moray Firth to play in, the local dolphins can turn up anywhere – and in flat calm days they can be spotted, ooh, miles and miles out.
This pic was taken from a high point west of Covesea lighthouse, Lossiemouth. And those dots are dolphins. Trust me.
And the smallish mountain is Morven, looking big because of the telephoto. It lies behind Dunbeath on the north shore of the Firth.
Finally, just in case you have been given the impression that the Moray Firth has exclusive rights to cuddly cetaceans, another cetacean hotspot is the Isle of Mull.
In fact, there are other places, especially in the west, where dolphins of various species put in an appearance.
These distant pics were taken at Inverie, Knoydart, near Mallaig, while we were enjoying lunch outside the local pub.
(Changed hands since then - now important to check TripAdvisor. Just sayin…)
Anyway, these Knoydart dolphins look a bit like common dolphins, but I wouldn’t dare to label them definitively.
Besides, the excitement they caused that warm July day indicated they must have been anything but common.
Wait, they’re not harbour porpoises, are they? Naah. I think the dorsal fin isn’t ‘blunt’enough.
Though they were quite small. Hmm.
Bottom line is that, unlike seals, say, you can’t guarantee a sighting of dolphins in Scotland.
Sure, places like Chanonry Point on the Moray Firth increase the chances, but it’s their unpredictability that make the encounters special. Actually…unforgettable.
Discover more about visiting Moray.
Where exactly is Moray? Is it part of the Scottish Highlands? Probably. It's got a bit of everything - for instance, it has a superb coastline (with low rainfall). And whisky distilleries galore. And it offers a real Scotland experience. But you have to turn east at Inverness and not west!