Andrew Eames explores the best places to spot these magnificent marine mammals
The Minch, Inner Hebrides
Shipping often ducks through this spectacular channel between the Isle of Skye and mainland Scotland, so it’s hardly surprising that whales and dolphins do too. You don’t even have to go on a specific wildlife cruise out of Mallaig, the main port, to see them. Passengers on the CalMac ferry across to Skye will have their attention drawn to whatever the skipper spots, but the best option is to make the small-ferry crossing from Mallaig to the remote peninsular of Knoydart, with bottlenose dolphins surfing the bow wave. The slow roll of pilot whales is common further out in the Minch from April to September, and minkes arrive a little later. Doune Knoydart has its own boat and the staff are wildlife experts.
Moray Firth, Inverness-shire
A famous pod of up to 200 bottlenose dolphins has been resident in the Moray Firth, just to the east of Inverness, for decades. The ease of access — the dolphins can often be seen in the narrows from Chanonry Point on the Black Isle — makes this one of the best places for land-based dolphin-watching in the world, not just in the UK, particularly on a rising tide. The pod is carefully studied, and the two visitor centres run by the Whale and Dolphin Conservation — one just off the northern end of Kessock Bridge and one in Spey Bay — help identify some of the key matriarchs and recommend approved boat operators. Viewings are all year round, although summer is best, when they come very close to the shore.
Cardigan Bay, Wales
You don’t have to go all the way to Scotland for a reliable pod of bottlenoses: the 250-odd dolphins of Cardigan Bay have been there for decades and they too are resident. They’re not so visible from the land, though, so seeing them will depend on boat cruises, which are typically out of New Quay or Aberystwyth, and usually from April to October. The Cardigan Bay Marine Wildlife Centre is the focal point of local expertise, and sits in a lovely old building in the resort of New Quay, with its generous beach and traditional seaside cheerfulness. The centre’s survey cruises take passengers, and in summer there’s the chance of seeing harbour porpoises, basking sharks and even ocean sunfish.
The Pentland Firth, Scotland
The firth is the stretch of water separating the Scottish mainland — Caithness — from the Orkney islands. Strong tides and stronger winds mean that it is often rough so viewing conditions are rarely ideal, but the headline-grabbers here are the orcas (killer whales) in transit to feeding grounds, visible all year but more so in summer. There’s also the chance of seeing humpbacks, minkes, harbour porpoises and Risso’s dolphins. Ideal viewing conditions are a rising tide and a calm sea, and Duncansby Head is the best land-based viewpoint. The John O’Groats ferry runs wildlife cruises from May to September.
Land’s End, Cornwall
The high cliffs and coastal path around Land’s End offer good viewing possibilities, particularly for basking sharks, which are most commonly here in May and June. But there are all sorts in these waters: common and bottlenose dolphins, minke whales, harbour porpoise and ocean sunfish, plus plenty of seals — you just need good sea conditions and a powerful pair of binoculars. Alternatively, Marine Discovery operates wildlife cruises out of Penzance on its sailing catamaran Shearwater between March and November.