The Isle of Skye is the second-largest of Scotland’s islands and the most famous. Skye gets its name from the old Norse ‘sky-a’ meaning ‘cloud island’ in reference to its mist-enshrouded hills. Reaching out of the mist is some of Scotland’s most spectacular scenery – including the soaring peaks of Cuillin Hills, the dramatic geology of the Old Man of Storr, and the extraordinary pinnacles of The Quiraing. The stunning scenery is the main draw for tourists, however, Skye’s wildlife is equally spectacular. With the island supporting populations of golden and white-tailed eagles, otters, grey and harbour seals, common and bottlenose dolphins, porpoises, and even minke whales.
Average rating: 5.0 (very good)
Average cost: a ferry to Skye costs around $10 to $50 depending on which route you take. The timetables and fares can be found on the Calmac website. Once on the island, there are countless locations to go wildlife watching, all of which are free to visit. Alternatively, you can hire a local guide or take a boat tour which can cost around $50.
Best time to visit: the best time for weather and wildlife is May to September, although the island’s eagles and otters can be seen year-round. There’s a nice guide here.
How to get there: Skye is a remote island off the main coast of Scotland. There are no airports or train lines that go there – so your best bet is usually hiring a car and crossing the bridge or taking the ferry from Mallaig (mainland) to Armadale (Skye). You also have the option to travel to or from the Outer Hebrides via the other ferries – Sconser (Skye) to Raasay, and Uig (Skye) to Lochmaddy (North Uist) or Tarbert (Harris). Make sure to book your ferry in advance, particularly during summer as they can get busy. There are loads of details on transport options here.
Typical activities: bird watching, boat trip, camping, cycling, hiking, whale watching
Number of reports: 2
Last update: 2021
WILDLIFE IN Skye
According to reports submitted to WildSide the most popular species that can be seen here are:
Bottlenose dolphin – 50% OF Wildside users (1/2) REPORTED SIGHTINGS
One of the highlights of visiting Skye is witnessing the incredible abundance of marine life around this spectacular island – including pods of bottlenose dolphins. These playful mammals are commonly sighted off the coast of Skye from April to October. The best place to spot them from land is Neist Point in Glendale, particularly during June and July. Bottlenose dolphins also frequently swim beside ferries. So if you’re travelling from the mainland by boat, make sure you get a window seat! Alternatively, you can take a dedicated wildlife watching trip by boat. There are a number of companies offering cruises on the island – we went with Stardust which was fantastic!
Common dolphin – 50% OF Wildside users (1/2) REPORTED SIGHTINGS
Alongside bottlenose dolphins, you can also find common dolphins around the coast of Skye. They are easily recognised by their unusual colouring. While bottlenose are grey, common dolphins have dark backs with white stomachs, and on each side, they have an hourglass pattern that is coloured light grey, yellow, or gold. You can see them in any of the places where bottlenose dolphins can be found. One thing that sets them apart is that they travel in much larger pods than bottlenose dolphins. So if you’re lucky, you may catch a glimpse of a ‘super pod‘ with hundreds of dolphins swimming together!
minke whale – 0% OF Wildside users (0/2) REPORTED SIGHTINGS
Minke whales are relatively common in Hebridean waters between May and October. They are most likely to be seen breaching the water with their dorsal fin. While they may appear dolphin-like from a distance, they are much larger, growing up to 10m in length. You have good chances of seeing minkes on wildlife watching boats leaving from Skye. Alternatively, Neist Point in Glendale is a good place to look for them on land. Minkes are resident from May to September, with a peak in June and July when sightings are almost daily. Amazingly, the whales approach within 5 to 10 metres of the shore, giving the opportunity to hear them ‘blow’ as they surface! To get the best views, visit when the sea is calm and find a comfortable rock with a good view either side of the point and the lighthouse, then wait patiently!
Eurasian otter – 0% OF Wildside users (0/2) REPORTED SIGHTINGS
Eurasian otters can be encountered along much of Skye’s coastline. Wherever seaweed is draped on rocks, otters are likely to be close by. They rest in the seaweed and catch their food in and around it too. Otters can be difficult to spot as their dark brown coats mean they’re expertly camouflaged. It’s sometimes easier to spot them swimming or diving with a flick of their long tails. Coastal otters such as those on Skye can be observed at any time of day, although typically rest at high tide. If you want a chance to see these fascinating creatures check out the Kylerhea Otter Hide – although TripAdvisor reports suggest it can be hit and miss. Alternatively, reviews suggest that Isle of Skye Wildlife Tours offer a good chance of seeing otters. Or try looking out for the local otter family from your bedroom at Skye Picture House!
GOLDEN EAGLE – 100% OF Wildside users (2/2) REPORTED SIGHTINGS
There are around 30 pairs of golden eagles breeding on Skye so you have a reasonably good chance of seeing one. That said they can be challenging to spot. They tend to favour remote areas of mountains and moorland away from human disturbance. Check out the Red Hills around Torrin, the Suardal Hills off the Broadford to Elgol road, or Loch Coruisk, but be prepared to sit still in a spot just below the skyline with a pair of binoculars. Otherwise, you could try the Isle of Skye Wildlife Tour which seems to get a lot of eagle sightings on TripAdvisor.
Golden and white-tailed eagles can both be seen on Skye but it’s easy to tell them apart. White-tailed eagles are bigger, have broader wings, and wedge-shaped tails. Their heads are a pale colour and their tails are white. Golden eagles, on the other hand, have smaller heads and longer tails. Their heads are golden and their tails dark. It can be trickier to tell juveniles apart as they can have a broad white band on their tails. If you’re unsure check out this helpful video.
Grey seal – 100% OF Wildside users (2/2) REPORTED SIGHTINGS
The UK is home to around 40% of the world’s Atlantic grey seals, with the Hebrides supporting the largest colony in the British Isles. They can be seen on Skye year-round. During high tide, they are most likely to be spotted swimming and bobbing around the islands looking for food or playing. During low tide, it’ll be hard to miss them lounging and basking on the island’s rocky shores. The best chance of seeing them is on one of the many wildlife watching boat trips – which virtually guarantee sightings.
harbour porpoise – 50% OF Wildside users (1/2) REPORTED SIGHTINGS
Another aquatic mammal you can spot in the rich waters off Skye is the harbour porpoise. These are similar in shape and colour to dolphins but much smaller. They tend not to break the surface for long, or leap out of the water like dolphins do, and are often found in shallow waters. Another way to tell them apart is that porpoises have small, upright, triangular fins, while for dolphins these fins curve backwards. Porpoises are fairly common sightings on boat tours around the island, although they are most often seen in the mouth of Loch Pooltiel, off Meanish Pier, with pods of up to 12 being found throughout the summer. Another good spot is Moonen Bay, close to the shore where Loch Mor flows into the sea.
Harbour seal – 100% OF Wildside users (2/2) REPORTED SIGHTINGS
Alongside the greys, Skye is also home to harbour seals. Again, the best way to see these creatures is to hop aboard one of the seal-watching boats. Alternatively, you can take a trip to Dunvegan Castle and combine historical ruins with a trip to a colony of hundreds of harbour seals! They can be distinguished from grey seals by the unique V-shape of their nostrils. They are also much smaller than the larger greys. There’s a nice guide to help you tell them apart here.
WHITE-TAILED EAGLE – 100% OF Wildside users (2/2) REPORTED SIGHTINGS
White-tailed eagles became extinct in the UK in 1918 due to hunting and habitat loss. In 1975 they were reintroduced to the Isle of Rum in Scotland. Over time the population grew and they spread to Skye. Since their arrival, Skye and the other islands of the Hebrides have become an eagle watching destination. The cliffs around Skye are widely recognised as one of the best places to see these birds in the wild. In particular, the cliffs near Portree offer some of the most reliable sightings. For an almost guaranteed chance of seeing sea eagles take one of the local boat tours from Portree. Stardust Boat Trips offer a dedicated sea eagle watching tour where they toss fish out to attract the eagles and gets great reviews on TripAdvisor.
Photo credit: FrankWinkler under a Creative Commons licence from Pixabay