Did you know that you can see dolphins swimming in the wild off the coast of Scotland?

Charlie Phillips is an award winning professional wildlife photographer, lecturer, and author who was Scottish Nature Photographer of the Year 2012 and is the Field Officer for marine mammal charity, WDC.

He describes what it’s like following these illusive but incredible mammals and how to go dolphin watching in Scotland yourself. 

Dolphin jumping up in the air. Photo by Charlie Phillips Dolphin watching in Scotland

What I do

The Moray Firth and North East coast of Scotland is home to a resident population of Bottlenose dolphins – around 200 or so in number – and I am fortunate to spend my working life studying and photographing these big, charismatic predators.

I am again fortunate in that boat access is not always necessary to get access to these dolphins, as they can hunt for seasonal migratory salmon only a few metres from the shore of one particular peninsula – Chanonry Point on the Black Isle near Inverness.

I am able to monitor which individual dolphins are using the area by recognising them through their very individual dorsal fins.

This technique is called “mark recapture” and I often share pictures and data with my friends at Aberdeen University’s Lighthouse Field Station at Cromarty who run the official Photo ID project.

Two dolphins swimming together in Scotland photo by Charlie Phillips Dolphin watching in Scotland

Dolphins with personalities

These dolphins are also highly individual in nature, not just in dorsal fin appearance and have very distinct characters that you get to know when you study them for an extended period – we are talking decades here though as these are long lived mammals – 50 years or so for females isn’t uncommon.

I have the honour of having a young male dolphin named after me ID#1025 “Charlie” who is the son of “Kesslet” who I have studied for most of her 20 years of life.

The work that I do for the charity Whale and Dolphin Conservation (formerly WDCS) is to study 6 individuals in particular that the public can “adopt” and support us.

It might sound all very romantic, studying dolphins for a living – but up here in northern Scotland it can be hard, arduous work, especially in the winter when the weather is challenging and the dolphins are farther out to sea hunting winter prey like herring.

Dolphin swimming in Scotland photo by Charlie Phillips Dolphin watching in Scotland

Where and how do you photograph dolphins?

To photograph these dolphins from the shore I use some of my professional photography top grade “toys” to get as good images as I can.

You will see me throughout the year maybe standing at Chanonry Point with my huge white Canon 500mm lens and high frame rate IDX camera body mounted on a big carbon fibre tripod getting pictures of the dolphins and observing their behaviour as they move in and out of the area.

If I am lucky enough to get out with Aberdeen University or maybe one of the local tour boats in good weather then I can top up my image bank of dolphins out at sea using much smaller zoom lenses.

When out on the Moray Firth I can come across individuals that I might not encounter around Chanonry very often as some of these dolphins have their own favourite areas and might not visit my “office” that frequently.

Dolphins swimming and playing in Scotland photo by Charlie Phillips Dolphin watching in Scotland

Why I do it

Its great fun catching up with other dolphins that I haven’t seen for a while, especially the females if they have had new babies. Although I have been doing this for a long time now, I still feel my heart rate increasing whenever I see a dorsal fin and I never get tired seeing them – I just love being in the company of my dolphins.

School of Dolphins swimming and playing in Scotland photo by Charlie Phillips Dolphin watching in Scotland

Dolphin watching in Scotland – top tips

Land watching at Chanonry Point near Fortrose on the Black Isle is the number 1 location in Europe as the dolphins come hunting for salmon only a few metres from the beach on a rising tide.

Next best for land watching in the summer months would be North Kessock opposite Inverness, again on a rising tide then third favourite would be Spey Bay and the WDC Scottish Dolphin Centre where dolphins can be seen from the shore at any time of day.

There are good quality tour boats for wildlife and dolphin spotting all along the coast from Inverness to Banff – go to Moray Dolphins for more infomation.

 Charlie’s book on these dolphins “On a Rising Tide” is available to buy from his website along with images of the dolphins.