The Moray Firth in Scotland is a triangular inlet of the North Sea next to the city of Inverness. The Firth is one of the most important places in the UK for observing whales and dolphins. The main draw is the large population of bottlenose dolphins that live in the Firth year-round. Although there are also chances to see grey and harbour seals, and even minke whales. One of the unique features of the Moray Firth is that the dolphins feed close to the shore – meaning you can get great views of these spectacular creatures without getting wet! Alongside the marine mammals, the Firth is a great spot for birdlife and is also home to cormorants, herons, and oystercatchers.
Average rating: 3.3 (good)
Average cost: it’s free to see the dolphins from the shore, with Chanonry Point being the best spot. Alternatively, you can take a boat trip for around $26 to $52 depending on the size and type of boat.
Best time to visit: you can see the dolphins from April to October although the best time is July at the height of the salmon migration.
How to get there: the Firth is easily accessible from Inverness – and if you’re in the city and have a spare hour or two it’s a must! Boat trips run from the Inverness Marina and you get can there by bus, taxi, car, or foot. If you’re heading to Chanonry Point, which is a bit further out, check out this handy guide.
Typical activities: animal watching, bird watching, boat trip, whale watching
Number of reports: 7
Last updated: 2022
WILDLIFE IN Moray Firth
According to reports submitted to WildSide, the most popular species that can be seen here are:
Bottlenose dolphin – 71% OF Wildside users (5/7) REPORTED SIGHTINGS
The Moray Firth is home to a population of around 130 to 200 common bottlenose dolphins. Apparently, they are some of the biggest in the world due to the rich feeding grounds and the need for extra blubber to survive the cold waters! The dolphins can be seen from land at several points around the Firth including Merkinch Local Nature Reserve, North Kessock, Fort George, the WDC Scottish Dolphin Centre, and Cromarty Firth.
The best spot is Chanonry Point, just north of Inverness. This is because the Point juts out into the Firth creating a bottleneck for salmon returning to the rivers to breed and there is comparatively deep water close to the shore where the dolphins come to hunt. The best time to see them is a rising tide (around 1 hour after low tide) so check out the tide times before your visit. You can find full details in this guide or you can check the latest updates on the Facebook page.
Alternatively, you can also do a dolphin watching trip by boat. There are a number of companies offering cruises, Moray Dolphins offers an up-to-date list. The boats aren’t allowed to disturb the dolphins so take some binoculars!
Grey seal – 57% OF Wildside Users (4/7) REPORTED SIGHTINGS
Around 1,300 grey seals visit the Firth in the summer months. They are somewhat shyer than the dolphins so getting in a boat is a good bet to see them. We went with Dolphin Spirit based in Inverness who run two options: a comfortable cruise in a 60 seater, or a more adrenaline-fueled trip in an inflatable speedboat. We saw both grey and harbour seals hauled out on sandbanks in the Firth although they were at a distance (like the dolphins!). Still, the boat trip is an exhilarating way to explore the area – especially given the wild and windy weather off the coast of the Scottish Highlands!
Harbour Seal – 57% OF WildSide users (4/7) REPORTED SIGHTINGS
The Moray Firth is also home to a population of around 900 harbour (or common) seals. When the tide is out, seals are visible resting on the shoreline or on exposed offshore rocks. At sea, they can be glimpsed snatching a breath before diving to hunt for fish. As well as on boat trips through the Firth, harbour seals can be seen hauled out on the sandbanks from Helmsdale to Findhorn. Loch Fleet, the Dornoch Firth, and from Ardersier to Culbin are all reported to be good places for shore-based viewing. Sadly, the population of harbour seals is declining in the Firth and elsewhere. They can be distinguished from grey seals by the unique V-shape of their nostrils. They are also much smaller than the larger greys.
Minke whale – 0% OF Wildside users (0/7) REPORTED SIGHTINGS
Minke whales are the most commonly seen baleen whales in Scotland. They are mainly found in the waters over the continental shelf and can often be seen close to shore. In the Moray Firth, common minke whales are typically seen in the summer. Later in the year, they leave to feed in areas where sandeels and other fish are abundant. While it is possible to see minke whales in the Firth, reports on TripAdvisor suggest that sightings are rare. Sightings also vary from year to year depending on how far in the whales are feeding. Reports from tour operators in the area suggest they are most commonly seen between July and September, although there are occasional sightings throughout the year.
great cormorant – 86% OF Wildside users (6/7) REPORTED SIGHTINGS
Great cormorants are commonly found around the UK’s rocky coastline – which supports internationally important populations of this species. They are easy to spot around the Firth. There is also a breeding colony at North Sutor that is home to 4% of the UK population. Boat tours to the colony are possible, with the best times to visit being late April until the middle of July. Cormorants are around the size of a goose with large bodies and long thin necks. Adults are black, with white on their faces and thighs. They are most easily spotted when sitting perched on a log or rock, stretching out their wings to dry in the sun.
Grey heron – 29% OF Wildside users (2/7) REPORTED SIGHTINGS
Grey herons are large, unmistakeably graceful birds with long slender necks and legs. They are wetland birds and are commonly found in the watercourses in and around the Firth. They overwinter in the UK so you can spot them year-round. Herons are most often seen stood as still as statues in the shallower edges of lakes or ponds, patiently waiting for their next meal to swim by. Check out the Merkinch Local Nature Reserve if you want to spot one.
oystercatcher – 29% OF Wildside users (2/7) REPORTED SIGHTINGS
Oystercatchers are large black and white wading birds, with long red bills and pink legs. They breed along the coasts of the UK and have started to breed inland in the last 50 years. In coastal areas, you will likely see them searching for mussels and cockles to eat, while inland they mainly eat worms. Look out for them wading along the shoreline on the way up to Chanonry Point, or have a wander around the Merkinch Reserve.
Photo credit: WildSide team member Chris White