Location: Cromarty, the Black Isle, Scotland, UK
Rating: 5 Star
A fantastic, well organised boat trip through the stunning Cromarty and Moray Firths with friendly, knowledgeable staff. Of all the whale and dolphin watching tours I have been on in the world, this is one of the best. Not only are the chances of seeing bottlenose dolphins high throughout the year, but the boat captain is an expert at giving you incredible views of the dolphins without disturbing them. Can’t recommend these guys enough!
Excellent. Different from shooting on many other whale and dolphin tours due to the use of a RIB (Rigid-hulled Inflatable Boat) vessel, but this has its advantages. Being close to the water’s surface gives you a new perspective to shoot from at sea, and having designated seats throughout the tour (and no opportunity to walk around the vessel) removes the ‘crush at the front of the boat’ problem larger whale watching vessels always have. There is plenty of room by your feet to stow a large camera bag, and the company do offer dry bags if you are nervous about your gear getting wet. I have personally never had my camera or bag splashed at all on this tour, despite being so close to the water.
Most Recent Trip: August 2017
Total Number of Times Visited: I have lost count, over 10 times, we usually go at least once a year!
Park up on the street somewhere in Cromarty (there is always plenty of room) and head into the office, where you will be greeted by the team. A short introduction talk will take place describing the waters you will shortly be boating around, what you may see and the ethical code the company adheres to (the dolphin space programme) so they don’t disturb the dolphins while you spend time with them.
You then suit up in the protective waterproof gear and are issued a compact life vest (which will inflate if it gets submerged underwater, just a standard health and safety requirement for open vessels in the UK don’t worry!), if you need to grab a dry bag for your gear then now is the time to ask (I’ve never needed one). The boat captain will then take you all down to the docks and help you board the RIB, and once everone is settled you will be off. You pick your seat and aren’t allowed to move from it or stand during the tour, but don’t worry, the captain is great at getting alongside the dolphins so everyone can see and will switch sides if possible so both sides of the boat get great views of the dolphins.
The tour usually takes you to see the large abandoned based of an oil rig that has been left in the Cromarty firth and to the resting place of the HMS Natal, a navy warship that tragically exploded due to faulty ammunition when the captain was hosting a party onboard, killing between 390-420 people. Then you head out between the two Sutors (the large hills either side of where the Cromarty firth joins the Moray Firth) and will either head along the bird colony or go the opposite way, looking for dolphins the entire time. After going one way for a while, the boat will at some point turn so you can see the shoreline of both Sutors during your tour. Covering a lot of ground gives you the best chance of finding groups of dolphins (called ‘pods’) and also means that you don’t spend too much time with one group, you have plenty of time to enjoy (and photograph) the dolphins but you won’t spend the whole tour with one group.
About midway through the tour you’ll stop somewhere sheltered so the drinks and biscuits can be offered around. When the time is over for the tour you’ll head back into the Cromarty harbour, and sometimes the captain will treat you to a few ‘doughnuts’ in the RIB before docking (lots of fun!). You then head back to the office to take all the waterproof gear off and return it to the staff, and in my case buy postcards!
Value for Money:
Excellent. Lowest priced dolphin watching RIB tour in the UK (to my knowledge, please let me know if you have found a lower priced one!). For a two hour tour, adults are £28 and children are £21 (5-12 years). Not only do you get the chance to spend time with the incredible Moray Firth Dolphins, but you get a great tour of the beautiful Cromarty and Moray Firths and the bird colony located on the North Sutor. Full body protective gear (water proof) is included, as are refreshments halfway through the tour.
Bottlenose Dolphins (Tursiops truncates). The Moray Firth residents are one of the most northern populations of bottlenose dolphin in the world, and as a result these guys are much larger than those seen further south, I frequently hear people exclaim in surprise when they see these dolphins due to just how massive they are compared to those found in other parts of the world (and in captive facilities). They are also extremely ‘surface active’ (i.e. they jump out of the water or splash around at the surface) compared to other dolphin populations and species I have watched around the world. Of course ‘breaching’ (when they jump out of the water) is never guaranteed with wild individuals but keep your eyes on the ocean and if you’re going to see one this is a great place for it!
What else can you see?
Seasonally you can see many sea birds on the tour (summer is the best time, especially to see the bird colony in full swing) including guillemots, razorbills, shags, fulmars, kittiwakes, gannets and the occasional puffin. Grey and harbour seals can be seen from the tour occasionally, as can harbour porpoises (although these are not frequently seen as the dolphins harass and kill porpoises in this area). Minke whale, pilot whales and basking sharks have also been very infrequently seen (although not by me!).
Duration: approximately 2 hours
Boat – The boat is an open RIB so there is no roof over-head, however Ecoventures provides head to toe waterproof overalls for every passenger before you set off (and offers dry bags for belongings) so you should not get wet at all from any rain that may fall on the tour. Basically all that is onboard the boat are the seats for passengers and the console which the captain drives from. Seats are straddle style, well padded and comfy, with a handle bar to hold (or, if you are shooting you can easily grip the seat with your legs and use both hands for your camera, a distinct advantage over ‘standing room only’ at the front of larger whale watch boats). Drinks and biscuits are handed out mid way through the tour if you’d like some refreshments. There are no toilets on board, but the trip is only 2 hours so as long as you go to the loo before you set off you should be fine.
Tour Office – the Ecoventures ticket office has a lovely shop full of books, souvenirs and all sorts of things relating to Scottish wildlife in general and dolphins in particular. There are no toilets in the building, but the village public toilets are literally two doors along for customers to use. There are no refreshments for sale in the office either, but there are plenty of great café and restaurant options within Cromarty itself or on the drive through the black isle on your way to the office (see below) to visit if you need food or drink.
When you spot the dolphins!
When the trip is over…
How to get there:
Go to Inverness in Scotland, either by road, rail or plane. From there, you either must drive or get a bus. Bus number 26 (it may have other letters after the number, 26A and 26C both go to Cromarty) runs from Inverness to Cromarty and apparently takes between 40-50 minutes, look at the Stagecoach website find more details here. I have personally never taken this option, I always drive which is very easy, from Inverness you are looking for the A832 to the Black Isle (which is not actually an island) and keep following the road, Cromarty is literally at the end of this road! You’ll drive through villages called Avoch, Fortrose (where the legendary Chanonry Point is) and Rosemarkie on the way.
Where to stay:
There are lots of B&B options in Cromarty itself, although I have never been to one because they are always fully booked when I visit! You used to be able to camp on the green facing the Cromarty Firth, as there is no camping site within the village, but unfortunately as of 2015 the residents have asked that people not camp there due to abuse of this site. This is a great shame, and between this and my inability to book a B&B in the village means I can’t personally recommend anywhere actually within Cromarty to stay (a pity as it has several great places to eat or hang out for a drink in the evening). Two places that I love to stay at when visiting the Black Isle are:
Hill Haven B&B – a lovely, friendly B&B which is my go to place to stay when not camping. This B&B is located in the countryside above Fortrose, and the only downside to it is that it’s not really possible to walk into Fortrose from the B&B to get some dinner, but really this is a small niggle. The rooms and bathrooms are so beautifully decorated and well equipped that you literally want for nothing while there. The couple that own and run the B&B are extremely friendly, plus in my experience they have always gone the extra mile to make our visits special, and the breakfast is plentiful and delicious. A stay in this B&B is always something to look forward to!
Fortrose Bay Campsite – Now that camping is not allowed in Cromarty, this is where we pitch our tent on our summer visits. The location, literally on the spit of land where Chanonry point is located, could not be better for accessing the point without having to worry about parking and has stunning views of the Moray Firth. Well equipped with bathrooms and showers, this is a great campsite.
Where to eat:
Cromarty – Sutor Creek and Couper’s Creek are run by the same people and are both fantastic places to eat. Sutor Creek specialises in wood-fired pizzas which are phenomenal while Couper’s Creek is more for lunch, plenty of sandwiches, soups and a wide selection of ace ice cream. While I have not yet eaten there, the Royal Hotel on the harbour front is a wonderful place to sit and have a pint (or four) while enjoying the beautiful views across the firth in their conservatory.
Fortrose – The Anderson has a huge menu of great food, all executed to high standards. They have a wide variety of beers on tap and the owners are very friendly and invested in their customers having a good time.
Other things to do?
A visit to Chanonry Point, one of the best spots to see the dolphins from land in the UK, is almost a must when on the Black Isle. Make sure you go on a rising tide!
If you are a beer fan there are two fantastic breweries on the Black Isle (judging from how much time and money my husband spends at them on our visits!), the Black Isle Brewery and the Cromarty Brewing Company.
The landscape is stunning and there are many walks to take in all the amazing views, one of my particular favourites is the walk to Fairy Glenn from Rosemarkie which has lots of ace waterfalls.
If you’re trying to photograph wild dolphins for the first time, or if you’ve tried before and been frustrated by the results, don’t be so hard on yourself. Having the reflexes to get your settings right and capture fast moving dolphins, especially when they can be dark against a light sky or ocean surface which will mess with your exposure, takes practise. Try shooting other fast moving targets to get familiar with your camera and what settings you need to freeze creatures in motion, and what kind of light conditions you can achieve those settings in (birds on a bird table, or at a bird of prey display are often a good start). It’s also almost impossible to catch the first breach a group of dolphins does, it’s almost always the most spectacular but equally very unpredictable. However if you see one breach then train your camera on that area, dolphins frequently will do several breaches in a row so you’re much more likely to catch the subsequent jumps. Good luck!
Images taken while out with Ecoventures: