People ask what’s special about dolphins.  These intelligent and playful mammals demonstrate many attributes that we as humans value: communication skills, curiosity, social bonds, cooperation and altruism.  If you love these fascinating creatures, it’s certainly possible to see wild dolphins from a number of places around the UK coast.  We’ve investigated where to spot dolphins in the UK, and taken you along on our trip to meet the bottlenose dolphins of Cardigan Bay, Wales.

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Where to spot dolphins in the UK

Meeting The UK’s Dolphins

You can see between 25-30 different species of whales and dolphins in the UK’s waters.  The UK’s bottlenose dolphins are some of the biggest in the world, measuring up to 4 meters in length.  When you compare that to your own height, you can see that these are seriously big mammals.  They are also made larger by the layer of blubber needed to insulate them in our chilly UK waters.  Bottlenoses are the acrobats of the dolphin world, making leaps – or breaches – a long way out of the water.  They are mainly found in south west England, the Moray Firth and Cardigan Bay.

Where to spot dolphins in the UK

Common dolphins are around the length of an average adult’s height.  They have a slim beak and slender body and are lighter underneath.  You’ll find them in the south west and north west of England, and in the Irish Sea.

Risso’s dolphins are slightly smaller than the bottlenose dolphin.  You can spot the difference between the two as Risso’s dolphins have no beak.  They also have a skin that scars easily during play, with the scars being highly visible.

North Wales and Western Scotland are also good places to spot the harbour porpoise, distinguished by a triangular fin.

For more information on the different dolphin species of the UK, check out this useful guide.

Fascinating Dolphin Facts We Learned On Our Trip

Where to spot dolphins in the UK

Even if you’ve long been a fan of dolphins, there are still plenty of things to learn about their behaviour and preferred habitat.  These are some of the facts we found researching where to spot dolphins in the UK, plus additional information we learned on board:

  • the easiest dolphins to spot in the UK are the common dolphin and the bottlenose dolphin
  • every dorsal fin is unique, and is used to catalogue the movements and behaviour of pods that are studied by conservation groups
  • dolphins prefer shallow water, but can dive down to 260 meters
  • dolphins eat fish and squid and will work together to gather food
  • bottlenose dolphins have bigger brains than humans
  • communication between dolphins takes place with a variety of noises including clicks and whistles
  • dolphins love company, and will often follow boats
  • dolphins are threatened by climate change, pollution and commercial harvesting
  • baby dolphins are born tail first and nurse from their mum for at least 2-3 years, staying close by until the age of around 6
  • other females may assist in the birth, and babysit the calf while the mum feeds
  • female dolphins mature earlier than males
  • the dolphin lifespan is normally 40 years, although some dolphins have reached 50 years of age

Where to Spot Dolphins In The UK

Where to spot dolphins in the UK

Prawle Point, Devon

This is the southernmost point in Devon, around 15 miles from Salcombe. The area from here to Start Point and beyond is rich in wildlife.  It’s a stopping point for migratory birds.  Be aware that this is coastline for walking, with very few facilities.

Read More: Best Places To Visit In Devon

Porthgwarra, Cornwall

Porthgwarra is noted for its sightings of dolphins, porpoises, basking sharks and whales.

Read more: Top Things To Do In Cornwall

Durleston Head, Dorset

This spot has its own Dolphin and Whale Observatory covering a marine nature reserve running along the Purbeck coastline.  Bottlenose dolphins love the tidal breaks which attract small sea creatures and fish, making great feeding grounds.

Cardigan Bay, Ceredigion

If you investigate where to spot dolphins in the UK, Cardigan Bay is renowned for chances to spot the “big three”: bottlenose dolphins, harbour porpoises and Atlantic grey seals.  The entire bay offers potential sighting spots, from Aberystwyth to New Quay and beyond.  The largest pod of bottlenose dolphins in Europe is located here.

Anglesey

Point Lynas and Puffin Island are great dolphin-watching spots.  Bottlenose dolphins are said to have favourite places at Moelfre and Red Wharf Bay.  Here they feed on herring, whiting and mackerel before heading down to Cardigan Bay.

Moray Firth, Inverness

Dolphin spotting at Moray Firth

This is one of the most reliable places in the UK to spot dolphins, with the first reported sighting being in 1900.  Just under 200 dolphins live in the Moray Firth year round, thought to be the most northerly group of bottlenoses.  For really close up views, try Channonry Point, Culbin Sands and Troup Head for summer boat trips.

You can read about more things to do around Inverness in our Scottish Highlands itinerary.

Read more: Best beaches in Scotland

Aberdeen

There are regular sightings of dolphins around Aberdeen harbour.  Aberdeen is also a great place to spot humpback whales.

Read more:  There’s a great collection of fact sheets covering dolphin spotting regions of the UK at the Sea Watch Foundations pages.

Marine Conservation

Waterfall at Tresaith Beach, Cardigan Bay

We were impressed to hear of the important focus on marine conservation when we took our boat trip.  Clear guidelines were set out and followed about proximity to dolphins during our trip and also the time that we were allowed to spend near them.  Special mention was made of the Sea Watch Foundation and its work.

Sea Watch Foundation

Sea Watch is a national maritime environmental charity.  Its mission is to improve the conservation of whales, dolphins and porpoises in the seas of Britain and Ireland.

As part of this, the charity

  • involves the public in monitoring, including an annual Whale and Dolphin Watch
  • raises awareness of marine mammals and the threats facing them
  • educates, informs and advises for better environmental protection

If you want to get involved in the fundraising effort for Sea Watch, you can adopt a dolphin here, and also find out more about the conservation and monitoring programmes for cetaceans around the UK.

Where to spot dolphins UK

Where To Spot Dolphins In The UK: Tips For Finding Dolphins

We learned these tips on our trip to spot dolphins in Cardigan Bay.  Firstly, settle in and be patient.  Sighting are never guaranteed.  Binoculars and long range lenses can be helpful, and dressing for the weather conditions is crucial.  Don’t forget that sunscreen is even more important on the water.

Dolphins are naturally curious creatures.  So any activity on the water, whether from boats, kayaks or simply natural phenomena may cause them to come and investigate.  The Code of Conduct for dolphin spotting trips requires that boats stay at least 100 metres away from dolphins, although dolphins themselves may come and investigate, drawn by the sound of the boat’s engine.  It’s known for dolphins to play in a boat’s wake.

Early signs of a dolphin may be the breaking of the water’s surface, or a different pattern of ripples.  Bubbles and white water in a smooth sea alerted me to my first dolphin spot of the day.  In fact, the calmer the sea, the easier the dolphins are to spot.  Having a high vantage point can help too if you are spotting from land.

Our Trip To See The Bottlenose Dolphins Of Cardigan Bay, Wales

Departure Point on the Quay, Dolphin Spotting Boat Trips, New Quay, Ceridigion

When we investigated where to spot dolphins in the UK, Cardigan Bay was high on the list.  It’s also home to the largest group of bottlenose dolphins in Europe.  We’d checked out the options for boat trips from New Quay in Ceridigion.  Situated roughly halfway between Cardigan and Aberystwyth, New Quay is a small harbour town of just over 1000 people.  It offers a range of trips from its bustling harbour, and we chose the two hour trip from Dolphin Spotting Boat Trips.  You’ll find the booking office right on the Quayside, or you can book online.

What to Expect From Your Trip

The Ermol 5 Dolphin Spotting Boat Trips, New Quay, Ceredigion, Wales

The Ceredigion Marine Heritage Coast of Cardigan Bay has been nominated as a Special Area of Conservation.  Here we took a two hour trip on the Ermol 5.  The boat took us south to Cwmtudu, home to bird colonies in the cliffs there.  Further south are the seal haul out areas next to the sea caves.   The small bay of Ynys Lochten has the tallest cliffs in Ceredigion, and is one of the main feeding areas for the dolphins.

Sea cliffs near New Quay, Ceredigion, Wales

It’s not all about the sealife though.  We saw Castell Bach, the ruins of an Iron Age settlement.  The geology of this ancient coast is also visible through undulating striations of sedimentary rocks, making the cliffs seem to ripple.

Where to Spot Dolphins In The UK: Our first Sighting Outside The Harbour Walls

Our trip on Ermol 5 began at the harbour with a safety briefing and then we were out past the harbour wall.  Throughout the trip we were kept well informed by the chatty, personable and knowledgeable team.  The crews of the three boats keep in touch during the voyage, advising of dolphin movements.  Our first chance to see the dolphins came after only a few minutes, when a nearby fishing boat attracted them.  We were able to watch evidence of their presence on the surface of the sea, but our skipper elected to move on in order to save our carefully allocated time near the dophins for chances of closer encounters later.

Continuing Down The Ceridigion Coast

Seagull accompanying Ermol 5, New Quay, Ceredigion, Wales

We gathered speed once clear of the dolphins and made our way south.  An inquisitive seagull kept pace, landing on the boat’s shelter at regular intervals, and at one point hoping to investigate the wheelhouse.  We arrived at the seabird cliffs, alive with the flittering of its residents, who we also found bobbing happily on the waves.  The almost-turquoise water made this seem as though we were much further south than the mid-Wales coast.

Marine Survey Ship, Dunbar Castle II, New Quay, Ceredigion, Wales

We passed the survey ship, the Dunbar Castle II, busy collecting data on marine animal movements.  Further south we began to explore the hidden coves and bays, some accessible by land, others not.  We heard tales of smugglers, and farmers rolling limestone boulders up to a kiln to neutralise the acid in the local soil.  We even spotted a lone fisherman on a kayak, busily working his lines.

Where To Spot Dolphins In The UK: Second Sighting By The Feeding Grounds

The boat’s speed slackened, and word was out that there were more dolphins in the area.  We could see two kayaks in the distance: stark orange outlines against the sea.  Then, very close to the kayaks, we could start to see disturbances in the water.  A sudden hush fell on the boat.  We stood, and waited, and held our breath, bracing our knees against the movement of the boat.

Then there they were, arching and twisting in the water.  Four dolphins leapt from the water together in a quadruple breach.  They weren’t close enough for me to take good footage.  And in truth, I was more caught up in the experience through my own eyes than through the camera’s lens.  I’d only ever seen dolphins from a large vessel before.  From water level the experience was entirely different, and even more joyful.  You don’t realise until you get close up just how individual dolphins are.  Nor how shiny, muscular and athletic.  Our allotted time passed swiftly, and we moved on.

Spotting Atlantic Grey Seals

Grey seals on the rocks New Quay, Ceredigion, Wales

Now heading north, we moved along the path of the sea caves.  Their intricate shapes carved dark outlines in the rocks. and it was here that we spotted grey seals.  As they perched on the rocks outside the caves, we learned that a seal that has recently been swimming is way easier to spot than a dry seal.  As natural habitats go, you have to acknowledge that the seals of this coastline have chosen a fine spot to live.  Plus excellent camouflage against the rocks.

Where To Spot Dolphins In The UK: Reflecting On The Experience

Off the New Quay Coast, Ceredigion on Ermol 5

As a card-carrying outdoors lover with a particular fondness for the coast, I expected to relish this experience.   What I wasn’t prepared for was the feeling of awe that remained after the trip and our two sets of dolphin sightings.  In a small outbreak of Britishness, I sat down afterwards with a pot of tea so my head could process what I’d just seen.  The brilliant turquoise water.  The hush that fell over the boat when the second pod of dolphins was spotted.  The concentration it takes to monitor the water for signs of their presence.  Salt spray in my face.  Suddenly distinguishing a seal against the rocks.  Respect for the crew’s knowledge of the area and their rightful concern for conservation.

Later that afternoon, I got chatting to a fellow visitor and started sharing dolphin spotting pictures.  The experience does that to you.

So if you get the chance to see dolphins from a small boat, take it.  It’s an experience that far outweighs, in my opinion, the beautiful but more distant experience of spotting dolphins from land or larger vessels.  It’s the honour of being part – albeit briefly – of the same environment.  And sharing the experience on the dolphins’ terms.

Read more: Sea Fever – Enjoying the British Coast and The Best Beaches In England

Where to spot dolphins UK

 

 

Author: Bernie

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26 thoughts on “Where To Spot Dolphins In The UK

  1. Wow! Maybe I’m uninformed but I had no idea you could even spot dolphins in the UK! I’m so happy to have learned this, it looks like such an amazing and unique adventure that people rarely talk about.
    I also really love the facts about the dolphins at the beginning, I’m an animal lover so this post really resonated with me:)

    Posted on June 29, 2019 at 1:17 pm
  2. Oh wow, I had no idea you could spot dolphins around the UK coast. I love watching dolphins so this is a great list for our next trip to the UK to watch dolphins.

    Posted on June 29, 2019 at 3:57 pm
    1. I found out it was possible a few years back when we were at the Moray Firth. Then I discovered that there were so many different places in the UK to spot dolphins, and was even more excited to head out to see them from the sea as well.

      Posted on July 1, 2019 at 6:45 pm
  3. Thanks for sharing your reflection. I haven’t seen them in the wild (only seen them in zoo / aquarium). Hope I get to experience it like you did one day ! =)

    Posted on June 29, 2019 at 6:27 pm
    1. It’s so very worth it. There’s nothing so good as being (respectfully) in their natural habitat.

      Posted on July 1, 2019 at 6:47 pm
  4. I never really thought about water activities in the UK, but clearly, I should. I love dolphin spotting. They are my favourite animal, so much so that years ago I had one tattooed on my hip. Great tips that I will be using on my next trip to the UK.

    Posted on June 29, 2019 at 11:51 pm
    1. I grew up on the UK coast, so water activities were a big part of my childhood then adult life. Messing around in boats still fascinates me, and I love being on the water. Finding out about the boat trip was a special bonus, as I’d only previously seen dolphins from land or a cruise ship. I’d absolutely recommend a trip when you’re next in the UK.

      Posted on July 1, 2019 at 6:49 pm
  5. I really enjoyed your post. Seeing dolphins up close sounds like an amazing experience and seeing 4 dolphins leaping together in the air must have been a spectacular site. They are such a beautiful animal.

    Posted on June 30, 2019 at 1:00 pm
    1. I was pretty much rendered speechless by the experience of seeing these beautiful beasts at large. I already wish I could do it all over again.

      Posted on July 1, 2019 at 6:52 pm
  6. I go dolphin watching whenever and wherever I can. They are so fun to watch that you can’t help but smile. It’s not something I think of when I think of things to do in the UK so thanks for the info.

    Posted on June 30, 2019 at 1:23 pm
    1. We have such a lot of beautiful coast full of things to do here, and a dolphin watching trip would be a great addition.

      Posted on July 1, 2019 at 6:53 pm
  7. I had no idea you could do this in the UK! Thanks for the post!

    Posted on June 30, 2019 at 7:49 pm
  8. What a great experience! Thanks for sharing it.

    Posted on June 30, 2019 at 10:20 pm
  9. A generally fascinating and well-researched article, but as a local naturalist, I’d like to add a couple of comments.

    Harbour porpoises are certainly fairly common around Pembrokeshire in south-west Wales, so more widespread than you suggest.

    Risso’s dolphins are the largest dolphins – up to 4m. The largest bottlenose dolphins (those in the Moray Firth) are almost this size, but the average bottlenose is smaller than the average Risso’s. However, in terms of weight, the bottle-nosed may just out-do Risso’s

    Gannets, puffins and shearwaters do not have colonies around Cwmtydu. The nearest gannet colony is on Grassholm island, and shearwaters and Puffins breed on Skokmer, Skokholm, Ramsey Islands – 80-100km south west and Bardsey Island 100km to the north. However, all three species will travel considerable distances to feed so there is a very good chance of seeing them from boat trips into Cardigan Bay.

    Great that you had a good trip – good weather always helps.

    Posted on July 1, 2019 at 7:54 am
    1. Thanks for the really useful information, and great to have some local insight into Cardigan Bay’s wildlife. I clearly couldn’t properly read my notes about the bird species on the trip – the boat was a bit bouncy when I made them – so I’ve edited the post regarding the colonies in the area. There were certainly plenty of gannets and a shearwater or two visiting while we were there, and puffins were spotted a couple of days later. As you say, they are all fine travelers for a good feed. Skomer Island is an amazing and fascinating place; I still have the other islands you mention to visit, so have plenty more exploring in prospect.

      Posted on July 1, 2019 at 6:22 pm
  10. I didn’t even realize that there were dolphins in the UK waters — I guess I just never thought about it! They are amazing animals, and it’s great there are so many varieties in the area. Thanks for sharing!

    Posted on July 1, 2019 at 11:31 pm
  11. I am a local to the islands (the UK that is), and traveled all over but only seen dolphins once in my life and that was whilst taking a ferry ride from Penzance to the Isles of Scilly. That was one amazing experience. Still on the lookout for wildlife whilst I travel the islands but no more dolphins spotted yet.

    Posted on July 2, 2019 at 10:51 am
    1. What a great place to explore! The Scillies are incredible, and dolphins spotted on the way could only enhance that.

      Posted on July 2, 2019 at 12:59 pm
  12. Totally agree with if you get a chance to see dolphins from a small boat, take it! It’s the best thing ever. I knew we could see them in the UK, but we didn’t spot any. We weren’t in Inverness long enough. But I’m saving this post for when I return because I totally want to go out and see them! I had no idea there were 25-30 different species of whales and dolphins in the UK (not sure I knew there were that many period to be honest). I saw two different kinds in Argentina back in March and pink ones in the Amazon in Peru! How rough are the waters? If you get seasick will there be a high chance in the UK waters? And what’s special about dolphins? Everything!!

    Posted on July 2, 2019 at 6:59 pm
    1. Pink dolphins? That sounds incredible. I’d say that the waters here are reasonable as far as choppiness is concerned. But a lot of the time you can make your decision to take a trip on the day (certainly mid-season anyway) so you can check out the sea conditions beforehand. Based on the trip we took, be aware that there may be a little motion when you leave the harbour walls, but after that it soon settled down.

      Posted on July 2, 2019 at 9:03 pm
  13. Dolphins are such marvelous creatures to watch both in, below and on the water. I’ve had them around me when diving and that is spectacular. Seen them from a sailboat knifing in front of the bow in the South Pacific. Watched them playing in the wake of our boat in the Antarctica. But never seen them in the U.K. Need to change that next time I visit Cornwall.

    Posted on July 4, 2019 at 6:32 am
  14. These Bottlenose Dolphins are so cute! I did not know they were this common and could be found in so many places in UK. I didn’t know Dolphins could be seen in UK at all. This has been a revelation for me and what a great post!

    Posted on July 4, 2019 at 9:39 am
  15. I had no idea there were so many different kind of dolphins! And that one could spot some of them off the coast of UK. What a great tip for my niece who’s visiting the country in September. She will love this.

    Posted on July 4, 2019 at 4:04 pm
  16. What an informative post, and especially for those that love to see Dolphins in their natural habitat. To learn the number of different species, to know they are located in the waters off UK is all new information to me. It would be a great experience to see them in a smaller boat as you have done.

    Posted on July 4, 2019 at 8:39 pm
  17. thanks for the tips and sweet pictures. 😉 I guess when I think of Wales I think of my favorite things of UK, scones and tea, which I have planned to do plenty of in 2020. I’ll have to add dolphins to my itinerary, too.

    Posted on July 7, 2019 at 3:13 pm
  18. This is amazing! One of our favorite things to do while traveling is dolphin and Whale watching. We’ve only done it a few times but had a great time seeing whales in Alaska and California. I’m still waiting for the day that I see a huge pod of Dolphins or Whales!

    Posted on July 7, 2019 at 6:01 pm