Ultimate Guide to Whales and Dolphins in the UK

Ultimate Guide to Whales and Dolphins in the UK

I have seen dolphins off the coasts of the UK many times, but they were never ‘planned’ sightings. By this I mean that I just happened to be looking out over the sea wherever I was and there they were - particularly at Brighton around the piers on the south coast of England.

In addition, while I was in the area, had paid a visit to see Fungi, the dolphin who lives in Dingle bay, just off the south-west tip of The Republic of Ireland. And it’s always amazing, even if you just about see a fin.

But I wanted to do it properly this time, I wanted to search for wild dolphins and whales in UK waters, rather than just catch a glimpse. I began researching the most likely places to see resident dolphin populations and the best time of year to see whales breaching, etc, and then go on a vacation specifically for this.

How To Do It

Now, you can either do this off the coast or you can hire boats, either yourself or as part of a guided tour - the latter being closer to them and more likely of a sighting, so I wanted to look at a combination of both. I’m not too keen on the sea myself - and it’s so cold in the UK - so if I can see them from dry land, I would prefer it. Below are the some places I found for both types of sightings and what species you might see, starting with the southern-most locations (as they are that bit warmer):

Around Lands End - Cornwall: Bottle-nose dolphins are very common here, but it’s also possible to see sperm whales off to the west, but they tend to stay away from the rocky shore.

Around Cardigan Bay - Wales: Common porpoises and minke whale are frequently seen in these waters, along with the long-finned pilot whale out at sea.

West coast of Scotland: It is possible to sea orca here (killer whales) between the mainland and the Hebrides, along with minke whales and common porpoises. Slightly more to the south you may catch a glimpse of sperm whales and pilot whales.

East coast of Scotland: Moray Firth is well known for it’s dolphin populations including bottle-nose, white-beaked and common porpoises. Slightly south of here at sea, you may find minke and ling-finned pilot whales.

Northern Scotland and the Shetland Isles: Orca and Risso’s dolphin are common here, as well as some others found elsewhere in Scotland, and around the Orkney’s a sighting from land of orcas is becoming more frequent.

Further Tips

It would be worthwhile watching or studying pictures of breaching whales and dolphins before you go you you are aware of what you are likely to see, as without a guide you are on your own. Make yourself familiar with their activities, like dolphins ‘bow riding’ at the front of a passing boat, to maximise your chances of seeing them. Which species will be alone and which will be in groups? What shape are their dorsal fins? Are there any other aquatic species I could mistake them for?

It goes without saying to take some binoculars and a water-proof jacket!