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Where to see whales and dolphins in the UK

Dylan Walker discovers that you don’t have to go far to encounter the ocean’s leviathans

Anybody that has had a close encounter with one of the world’s big predators will have experienced a feeling of overwhelming primeval fear and awe. Big cats, wolves, bears, and sharks are animals that command our greatest respect as powerful and accomplished hunters.

You would think that we are safe from such emotions in Britain. By 1700 we had eradicated both Wolves and Brown Bears from the British countryside, and our biggest shark, the Basking Shark, eats only plankton. Imagine my surprise then, when on one fateful June day whilst visiting the magical Shetland Islands in the far north of Scotland, I came face to face with an animal that weighs in at over nine tonnes – the equivalent of a small tank, and bares a set of ferocious teeth. I found myself frozen to the spot with my stomach in knots and my eyes watering. Two enormous bull Killer Whales were heading straight for me!

The Killer Whales (otherwise known as Orcas) were moving quickly. Their enormous dorsal fins – as high as a door and shaped like a sail – knifed through the water effortlessly. Their heads launched over the waves to reveal ominous, dinner-plate-sized white eye patches. Finally, their broad backs rolled forward, all rippling muscle and hydrodynamic efficiency. Both animals were swimming directly towards me at speed, halving the distance between us from 600 metres to 300 metres, and then from 100 metres to 50 metres. My heart was racing, my hands were shaking, and my spine was tingling. How close would they come? When would they alter course?
Common dolphin. © Cetacea publishing
Finally, just 10 metres away, they swept to the right, turning broadside whilst emitting high misty blows that hung in the air in front of me. As they left the scene I realised that I had forgotten to keep breathing, and immediately took a sharp intake of air. I knew it was one of the most incredible wildlife experiences of my life. Not only had I encountered the most powerful predator in the ocean from our shores, I hadn’t even left the shore to do it!

With both feet firmly planted on dry land, I couldn’t have been safer, and yet I had almost been within touching distance of these magnificent and intelligent mammals. I sat back on the rocks to gather my thoughts, but as I looked out to sea, I realised that the Killer Whales were back. In an astonishing display they made encircling movements in the shallows for the next ten minutes, often turning on their sides to flash their white bellies through the water. In time, I realised what they were up to. Shetland’s rocky coastline is inhabited by large numbers of Common and Grey Seals. Each summer, small groups of Killer Whales return to the islands to prey upon these seals, often approaching close to shore in the hope of a surprise attack. On this occasion, they were not successful. Every seal in the vicinity had edged beyond the high tide line, so the Killer Whales headed west along the cliffs to try elsewhere. They may have been out of luck, but I felt like the luckiest man on earth!
Minke whale watching. © Cetacea publishing
Watching whales and dolphins in Great Britain
The opportunities for watching whales and dolphins in Great Britain are as exciting as they are varied. This is not surprising when you consider that our islands consist of 9,040 miles of coastline overlooking the North Sea, English Channel, Irish Sea, Celtic Sea, and westwards to the open Atlantic. Our sailing traditions give away Britain’s impressive maritime location, being superbly situated at the western edge of the European continent and completely surrounded by water. Despite this, it is often assumed that whales and dolphins only exist far from our shores, in clear tropical waters or at the edge of the polar ice.

Nothing could be further from the truth. British waters play host to a plethora of whales, dolphins and porpoises (collectively known as cetaceans). Some, such as the Minke Whale, Harbour Porpoise, and Bottlenose Dolphin, are easily viewed from land or dedicated whale watching boats. Others, including the Long-finned Pilot Whale, White-beaked Dolphin, and Killer Whale, are present in certain locations at specific times. Finally, there are those species such as the Humpback Whale, Fin Whale and Sperm Whale, that are capable of turning up almost anywhere, yet they are all only rarely sighted.
The really exciting thing about whale and dolphin watching in Britain is that, if you know where to look, it is possible to encounter cetaceans anywhere from south east England to north west Scotland. Fancy sipping hot chocolate from a beachfront café in Cornwall whilst Bottlenose Dolphins play in the surf? Or perhaps you would rather go face to face with a friendly Minke Whale off a Hebridean island? Alternatively, you might prefer to take a cruise through the English Channel and watch hundreds of leaping Common Dolphins.

The easiest way to encounter cetaceans is to take a trip with one of the many dedicated whale watch operators. These boats are travelling further and seeing more species every year. But there is another, more adventurous side to whale watching in Britain. This involves taking a ferry, yacht, or other boat and simply going exploring, or picking a remote headland, taking your binoculars and telescope, and just waiting to see what happens. Whilst this might seem like a bit of a random thing to do, the truth is that we still have much to learn about the lives of these marine mammals on our doorstep. Whilst you may see nothing as a result of your adventures, you may also have an encounter with a rare species or witness a behaviour that few people have ever seen in the wild before.
Reader offer: Wildlife Extra readers can find out how and where to go whale watching in Great Britain with a dedicated new book at a special discounted price. Whales and Dolphins of Great Britain is the first comprehensive guide to watching whales, dolphins and porpoises in British waters, with all of the regularly seen species described in detail, as well as concise information on where to see them from land, from whale and dolphin watching boats, and from ferries. The result is a unique guide for anybody with an interest in whale and dolphin watching.

Whales and Dolphins of Great Britain is available at £9.95 (down from £11.95),. Contact Cetacea Publishing, Nook Farmhouse, Ashby Road, Shepshed, Loughborough, LE12 9BS. Tel: +44 (0) 845 1086385. Email: . Order on line: . Please quote Wildlife Extra as the coupon code and update the page to get your discount. Major credit cards accepted.

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British Columbia Whale Watching guidelines.
  • Approach whales from the side, not from the front or the rear.
  • Approach no closer than 100 metres and shift your motor into neutral or idle.
  • Keep noise levels down - no horns, whistles or racing of motors.
  • Start your motor only after the whales are more than 100 metres from your vessel.
  • Leave the area slowly, gradually accelerating when you are more than 300 metres from the whales.
  • Approach and depart slowly, avoiding sudden changes in speed or direction. Do not "leapfrog."
  • Avoid disturbing groups of resting whales.
  • Maintain low speeds and constant direction if travelling parallel to whales.
  • When whales are travelling close to shore, avoid crowding them near the shore or coming between the whales and the shore.
  • Limit the time spent with any group of whales to less than 30 minutes at a time when within 100 to 200 metres of whales.
  • If there is more than one vessel at the same observation site, be sure to avoid any boat position that would result in encircling the whales.
  • Minimize the time spent and the number of vessels with any one group of whales.
  • Limit time, as above, and then move out to allow other vessels access to good viewing positions.
  • Coordinate activities by maintaining contact with other vessels, and ensure that all operators are aware of the whale watching guidelines.
Notable marine sightings around the UK and Ireland, 2007.
  • 20th January. 6 Bottle Nose dolphins off Stonehaven. (Courtesy of Ian Sim/Seawatch.)
  • November. Humpback feeding off Stonehaven, Aberdeenshire, possibly in the area for 2 weeks. Interacting with Bottle Nose Dolphins. (Courtesy of Ian Sim/Seawatch.)
  • September. Minke whale found dead on Devon beach.
  • August. 2-3 Minke whales off St Abbs Head/Coldingham Bay in Berwickshire.
  • August. Minke whale in Fraserburgh Harbour.
  • July. Northern Bottlenose whale strands in River Orwell, Ipswich.
  • June. Humpback seen off North Devon.
  • June. 10 Minke whales sighted off the Isle of Man.
  • May. Several Minke sightings off Isle of Man, plus a Sei whale.
  • May. Repeated sightings of Orcas off Orkneys
  • May. Rare sighting of Bottlenose dolphins in the Channel, click here for details.
  • April. Several Orca sightings off Northern Ireland
  • April. Fin whale in the Moray Firth.
  • April. Orca seen off Isle of Man.
  • March. 2 Humpbacks seen off Anglesey/Isle of Mann.
  • March. 3 Killer whales seen off Shetland.
  • March. Sperm whale strands on Orkney.
  • March. 6 Killer whales seen off Orkney.
  • March. A pod of 15 Sperm whales seen by fishermen off Caithness.
  • January. A pod of nine killer whales seen in the Firth of Forth.
features/whales-dolphins The definitive field guide to the world's marine mammals.
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Photos, illustrations, maps, hotspots and plenty of information, by far the best book in its field. Includes information on all whales, dolphins, seals, sea-lions, Polar bears, sea otters, dugong and manatees.

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