Whaletrip: Scotland - Dolphin watching from land: a road trip along the Scottish cliffs and lighthouses.


Dolphin watching from land: a road trip along the Scottish cliffs and lighthouses.


Dolphin watching from land: a road trip along the Scottish cliffs and lighthouses.


Theresa at Neist Point on the Isle of Skye. We’ve been there several times. Always great!


We can see the first dolphins after only a few minutes. They swim right along the beach, less than five meters from shore.

Moray Firth, Chanonry Point, a small pebble beach in the north of Scotland. If you want to see dolphins from land, this is the place to be. There are almost two hundred Bottlenose Dolphins living in the Moray Firth – and they swim past Chanonry Point almost every day.

»If you have a little patience, chances are high that you’ll see the dolphins right here from the beach,« says Charlie Phillips, and Charlie Phillips really has to know, after all, he’s been having a little patience here for years.

Charlie Phillips possibly has the best job in the world: From mornings to evenings he stays at Chanonry Point, taking pictures of dolphins all day. With his giant camera and the huge tripod he’s standing there like a statue, in wind and weather, becoming one with the beach. His beach.

Charlie is field officer at Whale & Dolphin Conservation (WDC), and he speaks the most beautiful Scottish you can imagine. In this video, he explains what his job is all about:

Charlie Phillips explains what he does for a living. With a very, very beautiful Scottish accent.

During our visit to Scotland we come to Chanonry Point three times. And each time we see dolphins, each time almost at the same time. You could set your clock after them.

Charlie tells us that it is probably due to the tides: The dolphins of the Moray Firth mainly hunt salmon, and when the tide rises the salmon often gets caught in a traffic jam on its way into the inner Moray Firth – right here at Chanonry Point. And Charlie’s dolphins seem to like it very much when the salmon gets caught in a traffic jam.

The enormously fatty salmon is also the reason why the Bottlenose Dolphins get along here at all – they actually prefer warmer waters. To live so far north throughout the year, they need a thick, warming layer of fat. The Bottlenose Dolphins of the Moray Firth are probably the fattest dolphins in the world.

During our visit to Scotland we come to Chanonry Point three times. And each time we see dolphins, each time almost at the same time. You could set your clock after them.

Despite their overweight, the Bottlenose Dolphins of the Moray Firth are quite agile. They hunt in groups, are extremely playful and perform impressive breaches. It doesn’t get boring with them.

I realize (once again) how difficult it is to photograph dolphins. Whales are easy – they are huge and move slowly and predictably through the water. Dolphins, on the other hand, buzz around at a crazy pace. It’s hard to keep an eye on them.

In a bookshop I discover Charlie’s book. It’s called »On a rising tide« and contains a selection of his most beautiful dolphin photos. The pictures are spectacular. Pictures that only a person can take who has spent a lot of time with these animals for many, many years.

Theresa usually is not too enthusiastic about the idea of buying heavy books while travelling – but there is always room in my travel bag for beautiful whale or dolphin books.


Dolphin watchers at Chanonry Point. On the left: Charlie Phillips with his cameras.


Lunch break at Chanonry Point.


From Chanonry Point we head east to the Scottish Dolphin Centre. An old cottage right next to the beach of Spey Bay. A place to stay.

Sitting on the beach, it doesn’t take long until we see some dolphins: Huge Bottlenose Dolphins, breaching and playing around some distance from shore. Left to us a few Seals splashing, above us an Osprey circling – Theresa says that on our next visit to Scotland it would be great to spend a few extra days at Spey Bay.

Scotland is one of the best places in Europe to observe dolphins and whales from land. Between Aberdeen in the east, the Shetlands in the north and the Hebrides in the west there are 27 Shorewatch Sites, where you have the best chances for a sighting.

Nearly thirty species of whales and dolphins live in Scottish waters, and a good twenty of them are regularly spotted – most frequently Bottlenose Dolphins, Minke Whales, Harbour Porpoises, Common and Risso’s Dolphins, but also Orcas and Fin Whales on a regular basis.

Volunteers are regularly on the lookout for what’s going on at sea all along the 27 Shorewatch Sites. A huge Citizen Science project.

At the Scottish Dolphin Centre we learn that volunteers specially trained by WDC are regularly on the lookout for what’s going on at sea all along the 27 Shorewatch Sites. A huge Citizen Science project.

The procedure is always the same: you look at the sea for ten minutes – four minutes with binoculars, one minute with the naked eye, the whole thing twice. The sea is divided into four quadrants, each quadrant is observed for the same length.

When observing whales, I have always simply looked at the sea, sometimes here, sometimes there, as it just occurred to me, with no specific plan. I’ll try to observe the sea in a more concentrated and systematic way in the future.

It has become widely known that on the beaches of the Moray Firth you have a wonderful time sitting in the sun watching dolphins. We meet some of the other dolphin observers again and again.

In a half-day training session, the volunteers will learn to identify the different whales and dolphins, what they have to pay particular attention to and how to document their observations so that they can be used afterwards.

The observation shifts are as regular as the volunteers’ living conditions allow. This can be once an hour, once a day, once a week or even less frequently. The most important thing is not only to report if you have seen whales or dolphins – but especially if you have not seen anything.

This is the only way to establish valid population and sighting rates that provide information on how many individuals of a species actually inhabit these waters and how likely it is that they will be travelling along a certain coast at a certain time of year. And this data is essential if we want to better protect certain species or areas in the future.

We also learn that many Scots are not really aware of how many whales and dolphins live right on their doorstep. The Shorewatch project achieves both: attention and awareness – attention to the beauty of the environment and awareness of the need to protect it.


The fin of a Bottlenose Dolphin. Almost as impressive as an Orca’s fin.


We're heading west towards the Hebrides. There the Hebridean Whale Trail has just opened. Exactly the right thing for us.

In Tobermory on the Isle of Mull we meet Morven Summers of the Hebridean Whale & Dolphin Trust (HWDT), a local organisation that has been working to protect whales and dolphins in western Scotland for more than twenty years.

Morven and her colleagues collect data about the Minke Whales, Harbour Porpoises, Risso’s Dolphins, Orcas and Basking Sharks of this area. Their big goal is a »Marine Protected Area« between the Inner and Outer Hebrides, it would be the first of its kind in Scotland – and for this goal, of course, you need relevant data, too.

So there is also a big Citizen Science project going on here, where the inhabitants of the island are trained to collect data. And here, too, the aim is to create awareness and attention and to encourage people to become actively involved in protecting the oceans and their inhabitants.

The great thing about the Inner Hebrides: In the evenings you can see the sun setting behind the Outer Hebrides. Very special! But of course, the Isles of Mull and Skye are extremely beautiful during the day as well.

This starts with the youngest: With the »Silurian«, the HWDT has its own sailing vessel that is not only used for research, but also for education: »The children of today are the fishermen of tomorrow,« says Morven, »and it is important that they develop an awareness of the sea and the ecological connections at an early stage.«

But it is not only about the children, captains, fishermen and local guides – but also about the many people who visit the Hebrides every year: In June, the Hebridean Whale Trail was opened, which includes thirty places on the west coast where whales and dolphins can be observed.

We are sitting in the sun, waiting for the dolphins. Below some Seals paddling in the water, Gannets and Razorbills flying by. And not a soul for hours.

One of these places: the beautiful old lighthouse of Adnamurchan. We are sitting on the cliffs. On the horizon, the craggy peaks of the Isle of Skye rise into the sky, behind them the gentle contours of the Outer Hebrides. A great place to watch out for whales and dolphins.

Often, Minke Whales are spotted here, sometimes even directly below the cliffs. We sit in the sun and wait. Below some Seals paddle in the water, seabirds glide slowly (Gannets) or flutter hectically (Razorbills) past us. Not a soul for hours. Very relaxing. After a few hours there is still no whale or dolphin in sight.

We let it go. At least for today.


Puffins are sometimes also called »The clowns of the sea«. Maybe because of their appearance, maybe because of their behaviour.

Scotland PUFFINS

A few times we still hop on the boat - but not to see whales or dolphins: We visit the Puffin colonies!

Puffins are little seabirds that come ashore every year between the end of April and mid-July to breed on the most beautiful cliffs of the Atlantic. In Scotland there are some colonies, especially in the north on the Orkneys and Shetlands – but here on the Hebrides they are also easy to reach, at least by boat.

On the Isle of Mull we drive from Tobermory to Treshnish and Staffa, on the Isle of Skye from Elgol to Canna. On all three islands we have several hours ashore – time that really flies in a Puffin colony.

I’ve already written down and explained a few times on this website why Puffins are probably the best birds in the world, why it’s so much fun to watch them – and why it still doesn’t get boring after several hours.

So this time, here are just a few more pictures:

Some Puffin pictures. The problem with Puffin photography is that you can produce really huge amounts of Puffin photos in just a very short time.

The Scottish Puffins are quite open to visitors. It doesn’t seem to bother them at all that we sit down nearby and watch them for a while.

Our guides say Puffins are smart: They would know that most birds of prey are more likely to avoid humans, and that they are therefore protected as long as humans are around them.

But I don’t think Puffins think that far. I guess they are just too busy to even worry about anything. They don’t have time for such things. Puffins have work to do.

Puffins always seem to me as if everything got a bit out of control - but they are neither alarmed nor discouraged by that at all. Great birds!

Puffins always seem to me as if everything got a bit out of control, but they are neither alarmed nor discouraged by that – and I think that is a wonderful basic attitude, not only for Puffins.

On each of our Puffin tours we spend several hours on the water. And every time we see dolphins. Once they even ride the bow wave and dive under our boat. You won’t experience such things while watching whales and dolphins from land.


You can’t miss them while visiting the Isle of Skye: the world famous »Old Men of Storr«.


Watching dolphins from land: I wasn't too sure at first. After two weeks in Scotland I maybe have to change my mind.

During her research for this trip Theresa had discovered a map on the Hebridean Whale & Dolphin Trust website where you can see for each whale and dolphin species exactly where they are sighted most frequently. And such maps are, of course, exactly what Theresa needs to plan her trips.

On the HWDT’s Orca map there were some blue and some orange dots – and exactly one red one: the Orca hotspot, directly on the northwest coast of the Isle of Skye. So it was probably no coincidence that Theresa had booked accommodation for a few days right there. With the best view to the sea.

It’s about the possibility: knowing that a dolphin, Minke Whale or Orca could swim past here at any moment. It’s not about the result, it’s about the observation itself.

In Scotland we have spent a lot of time sitting on lonely beaches, rugged cliffs and abandoned lighthouses just looking at the sea. Sometimes in a concentrated and systematic way, and more often without a plan and just casually.

Always with us: our new Notes and Travel Notes, which were finished just in time before the trip, so that we could take some nice photos of them in Scotland. These notebooks are available in five great colours in our shop, and they are especially meant for small and big whale-watching trips – but at home they are just as nice and useful.

This is what they look like:

Theresa with the Travel Notes on the Isle of Skye. Our new Whale-Watching notebooks are now available in five great colors.

About a week after sitting at the Adnamurchan lighthouse for a whole day and not seeing anything for hours, we learn that an Orca has just been spotted there: John Coe, with his battered fin probably the most famous Orca of the whole North Atlantic.

Theresa is at first a bit disappointed that John Coe didn’t stop by a week earlier. But I don’t think that’s what land based whale watching is about.

It’s about the possibility: knowing that a dolphin, Minke Whale or Orca could swim past here at any moment. This slight tension and constant anticipation. It’s not about the result, it’s about the observation itself. If no whale or dolphin has been seen, it was »only« a relaxed day in a spectacular landscape.

To not see any whales or dolphins on a boat trip is just bad luck. On the other hand, seeing whales or dolphins from land is: an incredible luck. And I think I’ve learned in Scotland that this is quite a difference.

P.S.: In our questionary Charlie Phillips explains to you what you should absolutely pay attention to while watching whales and dolphins. You can also win a copy of Charlie’s great dolphin book – handsigned!

P.P.S.: From Scotland we drove on to the Shetlands, because Theresa had heard that there you can watch Orcas directly from land – read the full story here.

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