Moray Firth Dolphins
World’s Largest Bottlenose Dolphins – Hannah Bird, Wildlife Centre Manager for The Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society (WDCS)
‘Some might think that you have to travel to far and tropical shores to see whales and dolphins in the wild. In fact, there is a little bit of pure wilderness from which you can see acrobatic bottlenose dolphins breaching by rugged steep cliffs, and it is right here in Scotland. And, as I discovered guiding an Out of the Blue dolphin-watching trip to the Moray Firth, it is a great pleasure to share this wildlife gem with others. The four-day trip allowed our small group of 11 excited dolphin spotters to experience the beauty of the Scottish coast from both on and off the waters of the Moray Firth – home to the largest bottlenose dolphins in the world.
Growing up to four metres in length, these great Scottish dolphins proved to be far more worthy of a trip to the North of Scotland than the seldom (if ever) spotted, Loch Ness Monster.
The trip is based in the charming village of Cromarty, an eighteenth century fishing port right on the tip of the Black Isle, near Inverness. The village provides both stunning cliff-top walks along the ‘Sutors’ (named after the great mythical giants that used to protect the Firth), and quaint cobbled streets with cosy tearooms and Scottish arts and crafts. A perfect place to relax – although not for long, as we soon set out on our first exhilarating boat trip.
Travelling in the RIB (Rigid Inflatable Boat), low on the water, really allows you to experience the sea. The great splash as we ducked up and down the waves of the Moray Firth was a thrill in itself – however, as soon as our eagle-eyed Ecoventures skipper, Sarah, shut off the engine, a bated-breath quiet descended upon the group.
Against the grey rock faces of the cliffs of the Firth, we picked out a group of about six dolphins. Watching them breach and hearing the ‘whushhh’ of their blows as they approached the boat had us all enthralled. One of the group was a tiny calf, the youngest I have ever seen, the folds in the skin along its side still very clear from its time curled up inside mum before birth. We were all held in awe as the youngster and mum stayed a little further from the boat, with mum keeping a close eye out for any sign of danger.
Our sightings of dolphins move to some of the best land-based points in the UK; like Chanonry Point in Fortrose and Spey Bay, as well as further boat trips along the coast which allowed us to meet the bottlenose dolphins of the Moray Firth again and again. We were incredibly lucky. Although this is a resident population you are of course never guaranteed a sighting of any wild animal – but this trip really does offer you the best chance. Meeting the people who have been working with these animals for many years, like our ‘Adopt a Dolphin’ Field Officer, Charlie Phillips, really caps the whole trip off. These experts allow us an insight into the world of the dolphins and give us an understanding of their behaviour, which enriches every encounter.’
Seals and Dolphin Spotting in the Moray Firth
Moray Firth is home to four types of dolphins. The Moray Firth dolphins that you see most commonly are the bottlenose dolphin and the harbour porpoise. Occasionally you will catch a glimpse of the common dolphin as well as the Minke whale. Since the coast of Moray Firth is mostly made up of cliff areas, it makes for an excellent viewing spot up and down the coast. In particular Chanonry Point is a popular viewing area for dolphins within the inner Moray Firth. Other fantastic spots where you can do some dolphin watching are Spey Bay and North Kessock. Both are run by the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society which keeps the Moray Firth dolphins in this area safe from harm.
It’s not just dolphins at Chanonry Point – visitors can also see common seals which come onto the shore of nearby beaches to have their pups in winter. Scotland as a whole is home to around 90 per cent of Britain’s seal population, many of which can be seen here at Moray Firth. The common seal, a member of the pinniped family, is often nicknamed a harbour seal as it is frequently found in shallow inland waters and does not usually venture more than 20km from the shore. At around two metres long, with the male weighing up to 250 kilograms, common seals are large mammals with a dark grey back and a lighter, mottled belly. They are carnivorous, opportunistic feeders, diving erratically into the water to hunt fish, molluscs and crustaceans like squid and shellfish.
Two other good places to see them are the Dolphin and Seal Centre, just off the Kessock Bridge, and the Moray Firth Wildlife Visitor Centre at Spey Bay, the largest vegetated shingle habitat in Scotland. The Centre is also home to ospreys, otters, wildfowl and waders.