From the tops of the mountains, down through moors and forests to the sea below, Inverness is a perfect base to explore the diverse wildlife of the Highlands. With their playful antics, one of the most remarkable animals to watch is the wild bottlenose dolphin, and the waters around Inverness offer several prime viewing locations. At all these sites it is well worth bringing binoculars and a camera. With patience, planning, and a little luck, your chances of seeing wild dolphins are greatly increased.
Merkinch Local Nature Reserve
Situated in the heart of Inverness itself, this spot is an excellent place to start dolphin spotting. Simply look out across the water to the north and wait. The best time is on a rising tide, when the dolphins swim along the Beauly Firth further inland, following the fish. The nature reserve also offers many other wildlife viewing opportunities, including otters, common seals, roe deer, and a wealth of birdlife.
Merkinch Local Nature Reserve, South Kessock, Inverness +44 7795 253727
On the opposite shore of the Beauly Firth from Merkinch is North Kessock. This is another good spot to sit and scan the waters for dolphin activity. There are plenty of parking spaces here and several places close by to have a drink or a bite to eat. As with Merkinch, the dolphins are not the only thing to see here, with a variety of wildlife and excellent views of Inverness and the Kessock Bridge.
For many, Chanonry Point is the best place to watch dolphins, unless you head out to sea. As it is a narrow spit of land jutting out into the Moray Firth, the dolphins come very close to the shore itself, especially when the salmon are migrating into the rivers to spawn. The car park can get quite full at times, but the rewards for getting there early can be truly remarkable, with hunting dolphins sometimes a stone’s throw from the beach.
The 18th-century defences of Fort George offer a great chance of seeing dolphins. The height of the walls provide a wonderful vantage point and, like Chanonry Point, the local currents mean the dolphins come very close to shore. The Fort is still a working military installation, but is open to the public at certain times of day. If you need to warm up, the museum is well worth a visit. Check the website for admission prices and opening times, as these can vary depending on the time of year.
Fort George, Ardersier, Scotland +44 131 310 8702
WDC Scottish Dolphin Centre
A little further afield from Inverness, situated in Moray on the mouth of the River Spey, is the Whale and Dolphin Conservation (WDC) Scottish Dolphin Centre. As well as a guided walk to look for the dolphins out in the waters of the Moray Firth, the centre has a café, a shop, and provides a fantastic educational experience. There is large collection of whale bones from the local area, and interactive features explaining the ecology of Spey Bay. Open from March until the end of October, and admission is free.
WDC Scottish Dolphin Centre, Spey Bay, Scotland +44 1343 820339
This is a narrow inlet of the Moray Firth, and dolphins are regularly spotted in the waters, sometimes passing beneath the Cromarty Bridge, or chasing the fish just offshore. The two headlands that flank the entrance to the Cromarty Firth, the Sutors, offer substantial elevation from which to scan the waters of the narrow firth for dolphins.
The Moray Firth is one of the best places in the UK to see dolphins, and the chances of seeing them up close are greatly improved with taking to the water. A little local knowledge goes a long way, and the dolphin tour cruises operating from Inverness and other coastal towns are worth the risk of getting wet. The dolphins themselves can ride the bow waves of the boats, keeping up with seemingly little effort and often leaping high out of the water. An adult bottlenose dolphin can jump six metres (twenty feet) into the air, a sight once seen, never forgotten. There are over a dozen companies offering cruises, some in fast powerboats, others at a more sedate pace, Moray Dolphins offers an up-to-date list of these. There are also some amazing beaches surrounding the Moray Firth, with ample opportunity for walks and further exploration.