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How to spot whales and dolphins on your ferry crossing

Picture of white beaked dolphin



The waters around the Hebrides are home to a huge variety of wildlife and it is one of the best places in the UK to catch glimpses of whales, dolphins, and porpoises, collectively known as cetaceans. The variety of water depths, food sources, and habitats, means that many different types of marine animals have set up home on the West coast of Scotland, or use these waters for feeding, breeding, or migrating through, and this high level of biodiversity attracts many keen wildlife watchers.

23 species of cetaceans can and have been seen in the Hebrides, many of which are spotted on ferry crossings. Spring and summer are the best seasons to be looking for whales and dolphins in the UK as many migrate here from their breeding grounds to take advantage of food sources at this time of year. It is also when you are mostly likely to have better whale and dolphin watching weather conditions, with calm seas making it easier to spot animals.

Here are a few cetacean spotting tips to get you started so that you can hit the ground running when you board the ferry:


Birds can act like flags, leading you to potential whale and dolphin action that could be happening under the surface. Seabird species such as gannets are attracted to the same fish prey as whales and dolphins and if you see them diving into the water to hunt then it is likely that there might be whales and dolphins hunting from below the surface too and you may see them pop up if you look around the areas where the birds are diving.

A Gannet - Photo Credit ORCA

Photo credit: ORCA


The best conditions for whale and dolphin watching is when the sea state is calm. Too many waves and white caps can make it very difficult to see any animals. A splash is often the first sign of a cetacean and it may sound odd, but different animals displaying different behaviours will produce splashes that are different shapes and sizes compared the ones produced by the waves and the sea state.

Common Dolphin Splashes - Photo Credit ORCA

Photo credit: ORCA


Whales are famous for blowing big plumes of water into the air as they surface to breath. Some whales like minke whales will produce small bushy blows, whereas large baleen whales produce blows so tall that they can be seen from the horizon, a fin whale blow can be 10m tall! Keep your eyes open for plumes and clouds of white water emerging from the surface.

A Fin Whale Blow - Photo Credit ORCA

Photo credit: ORCA

Unusual shapes and objects

Sometimes it's worth inspecting any unusual objects or shapes that might be floating on the water, as this could be a whale resting at the surface or just underneath. Species such as sperm whales and pilot whales will do this logging behaviour and can sometimes be mistaken for logs of debris floating by.

Fin Whale Swimming - Photo Credit ORCA

Photo credit: ORCA

Signs of fish movement

Large schools of fish under the water can often change how the surface of the water looks. There have been reports describing sections of the seas as darker or bubbling and boiling, and this can be due to fish activity. Big aggregations of fish usually attract the attention of hungry predators so its worth keeping an eye on sections of the sea that look like there might be fish lurking beneath.

One more thing: Remember you don't always have to be on a boat to be able to see whales and dolphins. There are some amazing locations in the Hebrides where you can view them from land so it is always worth keeping an eye on the water if you are on a coastal walk or enjoying a picnic on the beach.

If you have any questions about the wildlife that can be seen on our ferry routes you can contact Jess our ORCA Wildlife Officer here

Good luck! We hope you spot lots of exciting species on your crossing!

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