I run Wild Scotland, the Scottish wildlife and adventure tourism association and as part of job I get to visit some of the most beautiful places in Scotland and see our amazing wildlife. When I was younger, I was crew for a wildlife watching boat trip on the island of Mull. Every day we would see amazing wildlife, including whales, dolphins, sharks and seabirds and so let me try and inspire you to watch wildlife when you are in Scotland.
Most people do not know that Scotland is one of the best places in Europe to see whales and dolphins. Perched on the edge of Europe and the Atlantic, over 20 species of cetacean (i.e. whales and dolphins) have been spotted off Scottish coasts. The most common species and the ones you might see during your visit to Scotland are bottlenose dolphins, minke whales, harbour porpoises and in the far north, killer whales or orca. Scotland is home to the world’s most northerly population of bottlenose dolphins. These are the same species as the famous TV ‘Flipper’ however our dolphins are much bigger, up to 2m, in order to keep warm. Dolphins are most frequently spotted during the summer months, although I have seen them off the coast of Oban on New Year’s Day. The best place to see them is the Moray Firth, near Inverness. This is large estuary where the dolphins like to feed. You can enjoy them from one of the dolphin-watching boat trip or take a picnic to Chanonry Point near Fortrose just outside Inverness where you can sit on the beach and watch them from the shore.
Minke whales, which are the smallest of the baleen (or filter-feeding) whales are most commonly seen off the west coast during the summer. Further off-shore than the dolphins, you need to take one of the boat trips from Mull, Arisaig, Skye, Gairloch or the Outer Hebrides to get the best views. Two other species that you might see are the shy and small harbour porpoise and, if you are very lucky a killer whale or orca. Although orcas are seen every year along the west coast, they are most commonly sighted around Shetland, Orkney and Caithness during the summer months so keep your eyes peelled. An expert recently told me that Scotland is the best place in the world for watching basking sharks. Basking sharks are the second largest fish in the world, second to the whale shark and can reach lengths of over 8m. That’s a big fish! Like the whale shark and unlike the great white shark, basking sharks feed on plankton and not fish (or people!). Their large mouth sieves the water through their gills and they can often be seen at the surface feeding. The west coast is the best place to see these amazing creatures between May and September, and particular hot spots are off the islands of Mull, Coll, Tiree, Canna and Rum.
For your best chances of seeing these amazing creatures come any time from May to September. If you are visiting any of the islands, use the ferry trip to look for cetaceans. That is what I always do, and you never know when one might surface. If you are taking a wildlife watching boat trip, make sure you choose a reputable operator and one who knows how to behave around wildlife. Look for the Wild Scotland and WISE logos as an indication.
If you would like any help with where to watch wildlife in Scotland, do contact me at Wild Scotland. I’d be delighted to help.
Manager, Wild Scotland
Scottish Wildlife and Adventure Tourism Association