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.
- 1 Meeting The UK’s Dolphins
- 2 Fascinating Dolphin Facts We Learned On Our Trip
- 3 Where to Spot Dolphins In The UK
- 4 Marine Conservation
- 5 Where To Spot Dolphins In The UK: Tips For Finding Dolphins
- 6 Our Trip To See The Bottlenose Dolphins Of Cardigan Bay, Wales
- 6.1 What to Expect From Your Trip
- 6.2 Where to Spot Dolphins In The UK: Our first Sighting Outside The Harbour Walls
- 6.3 Continuing Down The Ceridigion Coast
- 6.4 Where To Spot Dolphins In The UK: Second Sighting By The Feeding Grounds
- 6.5 Spotting Atlantic Grey Seals
- 6.6 Where To Spot Dolphins In The UK: Reflecting On The Experience
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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.
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
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
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 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.
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
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
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.
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 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
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 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.
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
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.
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
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
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.