As we celebrate a clutch of medals at the Rio Olympics in aquatic events and bask in a mini heatwave this week – a rarity during the school summer holidays, you must admit – I thought this might be a good time to celebrate other links to Britain and water: namely, the many opportunities to view whales and dolphins in our waters this summer (and often year-round).
With more than a passing nod to Peaty, Daley and our other Olympic stars, the 29 species of whale and dolphin currently recorded in our waters are also champion divers and swimmers! Even better, for anyone prone to seasickness, it is possible to see many of them from land.
So, which species are you most likely to see, and which are the best vantage points? Starting at the top, Scottish waters are home to a wide variety of species, including minke whales off the Isle of Mull; humpback whales, orcas and white-beaked dolphins off the Shetland Isles and Risso’s dolphins off the Isle of Lewis.
Every summer, WDC participates in Orca Watch, joining a host of other orca buffs stationed at Duncansby Head and other vantage points along the beautiful Caithness coastline near John O’Groats. Orcas are typically seen in this region between April and July, but are also recorded in other months and this year’s Orca Watch also clocked up sightings of minke whales, harbour porpoises, common dolphins and even a possible humpback whale.
If you are in Scotland this summer, probably the best place to head if you fancy watching energetic and playful bottlenose dolphins – and incidentally, those found in Scottish waters are the world’s largest – is the Moray Firth, on the north-east coast. I’ve taken boat trips from several harbours between Inverness and Buckie and experienced some great encounters with these dolphins as well as porpoises, grey seals and even a glimpse of a minke whale; but I’ve enjoyed equally good sightings from land!
Charlie Phillips, our Adopt a Dolphin Field Officer, is based at nearby Chanonry Point, Cromarty, a favourite feeding spot for the dolphins, along with nearby Kessock Bridge and Fort George. You may even be lucky enough to spot one of the newest additions to the resident population!
Just down the road and well worth a visit is our Scottish Dolphin Centre, winner of the Family Venue of the Year prize at the 2016 Scottish Hospitality Awards. Our Centre welcomes nearly 100,000 visitors each year and hosts some great exhibitions and events. It also happens to be another great place to view the dolphins and, if you are very lucky, otters and ospreys!
Further south, at New Quay, Cardigan Bay, West Wales, the UK’s biggest pod of bottlenose dolphins are the stars of the show and again, may be viewed from land as well as sea. In my opinion, nothing quite beats sitting on the harbour wall at New Quay with a bag of chips at the end of a hot day, watching the dolphins feeding in the bay. Sightings are pretty reliable, especially between June and October. You can also walk along the dramatic coastal path just up from the village and spot harbour porpoises and seals in the waters below.
One of my all-time favourite encounters happened in this area too. I was leading a group of dolphin enthusiasts on a boat trip off New Quay and chatting to a young girl who was desperately keen to see a wild dolphin. Suddenly, in one of those serendipitous moments, my eyes locked on two tiny bodies porpoising directly towards us through the waves: a mother and baby harbour porpoise! For an instant, I just drank in this amazing sight: then, they were gone. Too late to alert the rest of the passengers, but a quick glance at the little girl sitting next to me showed that she, too, had caught this precious moment – her smile was as wide as the sky!
For that is what watching whales and dolphins in the wild is – a precious moment, something that cannot just be ordered up and, therefore, something to be treasured.
There are many other hotspots for whales and dolphins around the British Isles, almost too numerous to mention, but including bottlenose and common dolphins, pilot whales, orcas and minke whales off the coast of Cornwall and the Scilly Isles. Ferries crossing the Bay of Biscay offer sightings of fin and sperm whales and even deep-diving and elusive beaked whales; whilst off the south coast of Ireland, huge nearshore pods of common dolphins may be seen during the winter months, and bottlenose dolphins are resident in the Shannon Estuary on the south-west coast.
The main thing to remember is that you are viewing wild whales, dolphins and porpoises so, naturally, sightings can never be guaranteed: which, in my opinion, simply makes every encounter that much more special. Patience and perseverance are often rewarded! If you do take a boat trip, ask questions and choose an operator who will handle their vessel responsibly and thoughtfully.
I hope I have whetted your appetite to get out and see the wonderful whales, dolphins and porpoises around our coast this summer. Check out our new whale watch guide for lots more information on whale and dolphin watching in the UK and elsewhere, as well as tips on what to look for in a good whale watch trip.
You can support our work by adopting a dolphin!