It can be all too easy to fall into the trap of failing to see the tourist sights on your own doorstep. When I was growing up in Perth, I got to know the Highlands and Islands like the back of my own hand but I never visited Scone Palace five miles down the road. Likewise I spent ten years of my life in Edinburgh and only since leaving have I made a mental note of all the things I still need to see and do in and around the capital. I’m determined not to make the same mistake on the Black Isle, but it’s a challenge! The Black Isle is a fairly small peninsula but weeks, if not months, can sometimes go by between visits to Cromarty, Rosemarkie, Fortrose and the traditional fishing village of Avoch (pronounced “och” as in “och aye the noo!”). It was here I decided to spend the recent Scottish August Bank Holiday on a rare sunny day in the washout that is Summer 2015.
The Black Isle is one of the best places in the UK to see bottlenose dolphins. The dolphins are present in the Moray Firth throughout the year but sightings are more common in the Summer months when they feed on salmon close to the shore. In theory dolphins can be seen at any time of the day but the odds are seemingly best during a rising tide. Ironically I think I saw more dolphins during my camping stays at Rosemarkie in 2012, whilst still a resident of Edinburgh, than I have since moving to the Black Isle. However, I live in hope and I try to make regular trips over to the Moray Firth side of the Black Isle in search of these beautiful creatures.
There are various boat operators in the Inverness and Black Isle area offering tours to see dolphins. I travelled with Dolphin Trips Avoch, a member of the Dolphin Space Programme which encourages sustainable wildlife tourism in the Moray Firth. £15 got me a place on board the twelve seater Corbière and an hour of dolphin spotting and droll banter from the skipper! Clearly there are no guarantees on a trip like this but I had my camera, camcorder and binoculars at the ready, just in case. We zipped out of Avoch Harbour and along to Chanonry Point, a narrow spit of land separating the villages of Rosemarkie and Fortrose, and home to an Alan Stevenson lighthouse dating from 1846.
Before long, the action started and I didn’t know where to point my camera – I wanted to capture this sunny image of the Chanonry Lighthouse but meanwhile there were dolphins swimming under the boat in all directions! The dolphins moved on and we sped further out past Fort George and Rosemarkie, did a U-turn and raced a large Inverness-bound vessel with dolphins riding its bow wave! It was an amazing sight but capturing a decent photograph or video footage was nigh on impossible while bouncing over the waves at high speed.
Our skipper dropped the pace and we were rewarded with closer range views of yet more dolphins. They didn’t put on much of a show for us (no leaping out of the water on this occasion) but it was a great experience all the same. At a mere £15 for the trip, I can say with some certainty that I’ll be back on board the Corbière as many times as it takes in order to capture the perfect photograph of a Moray Firth bottlenose dolphin.
As the boat made the return journey to Avoch, I cast my mind back to my previous dolphin encounters. I recalled a day trip from Ardnamurchan to Mull in July 2009 and a pod of dolphins swimming alongside the Kilchoan to Tobermory ferry. However my best ever wildlife experience was undoubtedly during a week-long landscape photography course that same year, based at Doune on Knoydart.
When cruising up the Sound of Sleat in glorious weather, dolphins swam alongside the boat and leapt out of the water against the backdrop of Beinn Sgritheall and the entrance to Loch Hourn. That same week, I saw a white-tailed eagle flying over the cliffs of Canna, as well as minke whale in the Sound of Sleat and basking sharks at Doune. Incredible.
By and large I think I’ll stick to landscape photography but I can see how rewarding wildlife photography can be, although it can require every bit as much patience, if not more, as waiting for that moment when the elements and the landscape combine to create the conditions for the perfect photograph.
Have you seen dolphins in the Moray Firth or elsewhere in Scotland? Do you enjoy wildlife photography? If so, please leave a comment below!