One of the highlights when travelling Scottish Highlands and around the North Coast 500 is seeing the dolphins.
In this guide, we’ll take you through the most likely locations around the NC500 for you to catch a glimpse of them.
Simon King OBE, BBC presenter and wildlife filmmaker said “Scotland is one of the best land-based dolphin-watching hot spots in the world.”
There’s something unexplainable about watching a group of dolphins play in their natural habitat. With the long stretch of the NC500 route, it’s undeniable that there are a lot of places to see dolphins.
But where are the best places to spot these magical creatures? We’ve listed them here for you!
Why Are There So many Dolphins Around the NC500?
The Scottish Highlands (for which the NC500 route takes you around) is home to a variety of dolphin species, including bottlenose dolphins, common dolphins, and Risso’s dolphins. These waters provide a very suitable habitat for these animals due to several factors.
Firstly, the Scottish Highlands have a rich and diverse marine ecosystem, with an abundance of fish and other marine organisms that dolphins feed on. The area is also known for its strong tidal currents, which can create upwellings of nutrient-rich water, supporting a thriving food chain.
Secondly, the coastline of the Scottish Highlands provides sheltered bays and inlets, just stop to consider for a moment how jagged and rough the coastline can be in the highlands, which can offer protection from rough seas and strong currents. These areas can also provide a safe haven for dolphins to give birth and nurse their young.
Note: Dolphins can be spotted all around the United Kingdom. For example, bottlenose dolphins (very opportunistic feeders) are known to frequent Cardigan bay further down the coast. See here.
Finally, the Scottish Highlands have a relatively low human population density, and many of the coastal areas are protected as nature reserves or national parks. This means that the waters are less disturbed by human activity, creating a quieter and more peaceful environment for dolphins to live and thrive.
All these factors contribute to making the Scottish Highlands a very attractive habitat for dolphins, and this is why the waters there is home to a significant number of these beautiful marine mammals who call the coastline their home for large parts of the year.
When Is The Best Time To See The Dolphins On The NC500?
The best time of the year to spot dolphins in the Scottish Highlands is generally from April to October.
During this time, the weather is typically milder and the waters are calmer, making it easier to spot dolphins and other marine life. However, it’s worth noting that dolphins can be seen in the area throughout the year, with some of the best sightings occurring during the summer months when there are more daylight hours to spot them.
Additionally, it’s important to keep in mind that dolphin sightings can never be guaranteed, as these are wild animals that may move around and change their patterns depending on various factors such as food availability and weather conditions.
Remember the North Coast 500 is a +500 mile route, so do not feel dismayed if you don’t spot them right at the start, there will be lots and lots of opportunities to grab the binoculars and hunt for them splashing around out there all along the coastline.
Huge Dolphin Spotting Tip:
The best time to see dolphins is during a rising tide. From around 1 hour after low tide, the tide turns and dolphins start chasing fish, which means higher chances of a dolphin sighting!
Moray Firth is the most famous spot for watching dolphins in Scotland
It is a triangular inlet of the North Sea and can be found on the North East Coast of Scotland. The most common species to watch in Moray Firth are the Bottlenose Dolphin and Harbour Porpoise, all of which are among the dolphins you will see along the bay.
What’s more, is that the waters surrounding Moray Firth are rich making it the best feeding grounds for dolphins, some of which are the biggest dolphins in the world. With the vast number of salmon in the North Sea, it is no wonder how these dolphins can reach up to 4 meters in length and up to 650kg!
Hopefully, these dolphins are big enough to catch easily on camera.
Scottish Dolphin Centre
There is a dedicated Dolphine centre in Scotland, although technically not on the NC500 route as it’s located over in Spey Bay in Moray (East of Inverness).
If this is on your itinerary while in Scotland, the best time to visit the Scottish Dolphin Centre is during the summer months, particularly from June to August, when the weather is generally mild and the waters are calmer.
The Dolphin centre is open every day from April to October, its free to enter and visitors can take advantage of the onsite cafe and gift shop. There is also a range of guided tours and educational activities available for children and adults.
You can find out more about the Scottish Dolphonie centre here https://dolphincentre.whales.org/
Moray Firth covers most of the coast of North East Scotland but one of the best viewing spots for dolphins in this area is Chanonry Point. A group of up to 50 dolphins can be seen along this viewing point if your time of visit is just right!
The main viewing area in Chanonry Point is along the stony beach behind the lighthouse which can be accessed by walking along the beach or through the path near the entrance to the carpark. If you’re lucky enough, you’ll see the dolphins incredibly close and only a few meters away because they feed the dolphins in the channel.
Chanonry Point offers parking space in the old lighthouse but gets crowded quickly due to the number of people visiting the place to watch dolphins. There are also no available facilities at Chanonry Point but you can always go to Fortrose or Rosemarkie, which is 5 mins away, to access toilets, more parking, restaurants and cafes.
One of the highly recommended restaurants in the area is the Crofter’s Cafe in Rosemarkie where you can continue watching dolphins during lunch in their large window overlooking the sea. Hurry, though, because the window seats often get occupied fast due to its promising view and the chance to watch dolphins while enjoying good food. There are also tables outside the Cafe if you missed the chance to sit beside the window.
The Dolphin Mile at Chanonry Point
Another better way to get to Chanonry Point without the hassle of parking close by is by renting a bike either at Rosemarkie Beach Cafe or at Fortrose Bay Campsite. You can take the “Dolphin Mile” along the coast to Chanonry Point.
If you park in Rosemarkie and walk to the lighthouse at the Point, you’ll complete the “dolphin mile” that encircles this cozy sandy bay.
However, you can park in Fortrose and walk from there, you’ll take the Cod Hole path, which is more exposed to the wind and features remnants of abandoned WWII structures being eroded by the tides and shingle.
Chanonry Point, which is open year-round and free of charge, provides panels that describe its history and wildlife. It should be noted that there are no amenities such as toilets or refreshments at the Point. The nearest ones are available in either Rosemarkie or Fortrose.
The postcode for the Sat nav is IV10 8SD for the “dolphin mile”.
Inverness sits beside the Moray Firth and is also one of the best places to watch dolphins. Its coast is within walking distance from Inverness City Centre and approximately a 40-minute walk to Inverness Railway Station.
Merkinch Local Nature Reserve is one of the dolphin-spotting areas in Inverness. Dolphins can be seen here anytime but are often seen when they move upstream from Chanonry Point.
Inverness is the starting point of the NC500 route and can be a good viewing point for watching dolphins, as well as, a good place to stay overnight with its various accommodations and restaurants.
Don’t panic if you don’t spot any dolphins here, the further you go North around the North Coast 500 route, the more coastline you’ll see and the chances of spotting dolphins will get greater and greater.
Over the Kessock Bridge, just North of Inverness lies the village of North Kessock. This place offers a great dolphin spotting area along its shoreline over the Beauly Firth.
Dolphins are often seen here as they usually travel up the Beauly Firth after Chanonry Point. There is also an old ferry jetty in the area which is also a good viewing point. Restaurants, pubs and cafes are also available in the area.
There is plenty of space to watch dolphins here. If not, you’ll be graced by the great views of the Kessock Bridge and Inverness here. Plus, it’s a lot calmer here and easier to park.
Although an entrance fee is required, Fort George is another excellent place to watch dolphins.
Fort George is located approximately 1,000 metres from Chanonry Point across Moray Firth (25 miles by land). This place offers a great view of dolphins as dolphins travelling to Chanonry Point has to travel past Fort George.
Fort George is run by Historic Scotland, since it is a historic site built just after the battle of Culloden, and there is also an admission fee if you decide to go telescoping.
Here there are plenty of things to see including audio-visual presentations, prison, barracks and arms stones. There are also a few cafes in the area that offers refreshment and reflection on whether one got to see the dolphins today or not (It’s worth eating cake either way!).
ALL the Beaches & Bays on the NC500 Route
If you haven’t seen it yet, we have all the beaches and bays listed on the North Coast 500 route in our “Things to See & Do” directory on our site. perfect spots for Dolphin spotting while enjoying your journey around the NC500.
Dolphins are AMAZING, But Remember…
Dolphins are wild animals. There is absolutely no guarantee in seeing them even on the best time to see them.
This is just part of the dolphins’ charm. They are majestic, mysterious creatures that will give you an experience of a lifetime when you spot them.
Don’t forget to keep your camera at the ready. Or better yet, just enjoy watching them and create memories in your mind only you can remember and appreciate.
Dolphin watching is the epitome of the NC500 Experience. The photos, the experiences and the memories you take home with you when you go back home, leaving you wanting to come back again, as soon as possible.
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