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Issue 86 - The Uncertain Future of Scottish Dolphin Watching

Scotland Magazine Issue 86
April 2016


This article is 2 years old and some information provided may be time sensitive. Please check all details of events, tours, opening times and other information before travelling or making arrangements.

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The Uncertain Future of Scottish Dolphin Watching

Christopher Coates sails in search of Scotland's elusive marine life

Scotland is one of the best land- based dolphin watching hot spots in the world.” That’s very high praise, especially when it comes from Simon King OBE, the esteemed BBC presenter and wildlife filmmaker. However, in a country where historic castles, dramatic glens and picturesque distilleries often take centre stage, it’s a fact that isn’t often appreciated – even by Scotland’s residents. Visitors, who generally research what the country has to offer, are also often only peripherally aware of this natural aquatic jewel. Recently, while conducting research into facts surrounding Scotland’s coastal environment, I was truly in awe of the incredible variety of marine life that can be found so close to home; but also I was saddened to learn that, as with many fragile ecosystems, this invaluable natural environment is under constant threat.

I was, of course, captivated by dolphins as a child, and blissfully unaware that they were in any sort of danger. For me, dolphins and whales held a unique appeal that I still find quite difficult to put into words, as they are, after all, really quite alien in the most fantastic way. However I was clearly not alone in my childhood appreciation, as these aquatic mammals seem to hold a somewhat treasured place in the human psyche, and one that has been expressed repeatedly in film, literature and art. Dystopian sci-fi, in particular, often cites the loss of Earth’s cetaceans as a significant turning point in the world’s decline. Thankfully, such drastic circumstances are still far off on the horizon and Scotland remains one of the most attractive destinations for anyone seeking out these much loved creatures.

In his recent book On a Rising Tide, marine photographer and conservationist Charlie Phillips has outlined many of his insights into the dolphin community of the Moray Firth, which he has had the privilege to experience first hand on a daily basis, as he fulfils his role of photo-documenting the area on behalf of the NGO Whale and Dolphin Conservation (WDC). As it happens, the book is named for the optimum tidal conditions in which the author feels an onlooker is most likely to spot one of the 195 or so Bottlenose dolphins that call the shores of the Black Isle home. As I’m sure you can gather from the exceptional photographs printed on these pages, which Charlie has kindly shared with us, it is a captivating read.

It has also been released at a particularly poignant time, as in the past few years there has been a renewed international call for greater protection of cetaceans. This follows hot on the heels of a recent peer-reviewed study that suggested, after studying their brains and behaviour, that dolphins are in fact more intelligent than chimpanzees, and that they communicate in a manner that is remarkably similar to that of humans. It has also shown them to be self aware; that is to say, they are able to recognise themselves in a mirror, learn and teach new forms of behaviour and also use available information to inform future decisions. This paper led to the proposal of a ‘declaration of rights’ for cetaceans by a team of researchers at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, who argued that morally they shouldhold the same rights to life, freedom and wellbeing as human beings.

Their proposal was remarkable and has been cited on a number of occasions subsequently, particularly in discussions surrounding the ongoing whaling activities of Norway, Iceland and Japan. Although the International Whaling Commission banned the practice in 1986, these states continue to conduct annual dolphin and whale hunts, despite significant international pressure to cease the activity. Thankfully, organisations such as the WDC, who operate the Scottish Dolphin Centre near Fochabers in Moray, are working to protect populations of bottlenose dolphins, harbour porpoises, minke whales and other species that rely on the UK’s coastal waters. Unfortunately, even Scotland’s cetaceans face threats, albeit generally of a different sort than those aforementioned.

Closer to home, dolphins face a broad range of threats: oil and gas exploration and production; a surge in sizable marina developments; chemical pollution; complications caused by fishing and – controversially – proposed plans for offshore wind farms. Most recently, the Cromarty Firth Port Authority (CFPA) has applied for an oil transfer licence from Scotland’s Maritime Coastguard Agency (MCA) that, it has been argued, could put thousands of marine animals and birds at risk. The proposal would see the ship-to-ship transfer of up to 8,640,000 tonnes of oil across an area of the Firth. Scottish Green Party MSP John Finnie launched a petition against the move, which gained some support. However, unfortunately the deadline for objections has passed and the decision now lies in the hands of MCA.

Thankfully, at present the cetacean populations remain stable and visitors to the region may enjoy any number of guided whale and dolphin watching tours, both on land and water. Whether you see anything is of course up to the beasts themselves! For those interested in supporting the cause, Whale and Dolphin Conservation also operate an ‘adopt a dolphin’ scheme; the six individuals, named Moonlight, Kesslet, Sundance, Mischief, Rainbow and Spirit are in fact the primary focus of Charlie’s work. Those living close by are also able to participate in the WDC Shorewatch, an initiative that sees volunteers carry out regular 10 minute watches at specific sites to help glean valuable, up to date information on the aquatic population.

Needless to say, if you find yourself visiting Moray, or passing north of Inverness to the Black Isle, the opportunity to catch a glimpse of one these majestic creatures is one that should not be missed.

About the book On a Rising Tide by Charlie Phillips is pub- lished by Ness Publishing and is available on- line at £19.50 ($27.50) from:

Dolphin & whale watching experiences

There are a whole host of experiences open to visitors who wish to seek out Scotland’s marine life for themselves. Below we have outlined some of the best for those who want to get out on the water, stay firmly on dry land, or are looking for something truly unique.

Scottish Dolphin Centre

Seven days a week, guests can take guided coastline tours with an expert from the WDC Scottish Dolphin Centre, these waterside walks offer a fantastic opportunity to spot the Moray Firth’s resident dolphin population and much more besides. Back at the centre, visitors can see and touch their fantastic collection of huge whale bones, collected in the local area, and take a dry dive beneath the waves of the Moray Firth to see the marvels that live below the surface. The thrilling multi-media experi- ence takes you from the airy sunlit world of the river, down into the depths of the sea, where you will see the world through a dolphin’s eyes. Birds clamour above, jellyfish drift like ghosts, dolphins and porpoises dart about. You might even see the UK’s largest fish, the basking shark. All without even getting your feet wet!

Scottish Dolphin Centre Spey Bay, Fochabers, Moray, IV32 7PJ
+44(0) 1343 820 339

Skeabost, Duisdale & Toravaig Hotels

Uniquely, this charming and privately owned hotel group on Skye offers its guests the opportunity to sail the open waters of the Inner Hebrides on their yacht, Solus a Chuain. Own- ers Capt. Ken Gunn and Anne Gracie act as Yachtmaster and Day Skipper respectively, tak- ing guests on a journey of discovery to nearby isles – it’s a truly special experience. “We often see dolphins and sometimes even Orca whales while sailing the waters around Skye. No mat- ter how many times I see dolphins swimming alongside us, it is never any less awe-inspiring,” says Ken. During the summer season, Anne and Ken are taking guests out on the yacht almost every day and even sometimes hold intimate weddings aboard!

Skeabost Hotel Skeabost Bridge, Isle of Skye, IV51 9NP
+44(0) 1470 532 202


Join local skipper Sarah, who has nearly 20 years experience running trips in the waters of the Moray Firth, and enjoy the thrill of exploring all the area has to offer aboard her custom built, wildlife watching RIBs (rigid-hulled inflatable boats), Saorsa. Founded in 2004 and operating from the historic town of Cromarty, Sarah and her small, friendly team will share with you the scenery, wildlife and history that makes the area special. Whales, porpoises, dolphins, basking sharks, otters, golden and white-tailed sea eagles – all can be seen, if the time is right, on an Ecoventures tour. Importantly, the Ecoventures team have a real passion for conservation and are accredited operators with the Dolphin Space Programme, a voluntary initiative set up by a number of organisations to safeguard the welfare of the cetaceans in the Moray Firth. Over the years they have been actively involved in developing best practice guidelines for dolphin watching in this area.

Ecoventures Harbour Workshop, Victoria Place, Cromarty, IV11 8YE
+44(0) 1381 600 323