Chanonry Dolphin Spotting

Photograph of dolphins at Chanonry Point by Norman Young

Chanonry Point, near Fortrose on the Black Isle, Scotland, has become a popular place for photographers, wildlife enthusiasts and tourists, to spot dolphins.

It is possible to see dolphins, and other aquatic mammals such as whales, around the entire coastline of the UK. Sightings are rare, and usually distant from the shore.

There are some places where sightings are possible much closer to the shore, such as along the Moray Firth coastline from Spey Bay to Tarbat Ness. However, the Point, at Chanonry Ness, beside the lighthouse, affords the possibility to see them just yards from the shore and sightings are frequent, albeit never guaranteed.

The formations of land around the Moray Firth create a narrowed twist in the channel, between Chanonry Point and Fort George on the other side. This produces strong currents and turbulence in the water, arising from incoming tides meeting the outflow from the inner firth. It also produces underwater sand or shingle banks which can shift and change in shape, almost with each tide, especially in stormy conditions.

The popularity of the location for dolphins is believed to be due to the abundant supply of fish, which come into the inner firth with the rising tide. As the fish make their way over the sandbanks in the shallower water, near the Point, the dolphins approach from the inner firth to surprise them, often working two or three abreast. Confounded by the water’s turbulence and ‘wall’ of dolphins, the fish have no route to escape in the shallows.

Dolphins can be seen at any time in the area, but the most popular time is considered to be starting from around an hour or two following low tide.

Having said that, I have seen dolphins feeding nearer to high tide, and all times in between, low to high tides. You will need to be patient as sightings cannot be guaranteed at any time, nor on any day.

There will almost always be a ‘scrum’ of photographers on the water’s edge and a crowd on the shingle bank during a rising tide, unless the weather is poor.

There isn’t really a ‘best time of year’, although theoretically late summer, into autumn, may be slightly better, when salmon come home to the rivers of their birth, to spawn. Sightings happen outwith traditional spawning seasons, as fish do swim around all the time, not limited to spawning. So go at any time expecting sightings, but prepared to be disappointed. I’ve had sighting on perhaps 75% of my trips.

Sometimes all you’ll see is a few tails or fins. But other times there can be great ‘performances’ with breaching or wrestling with the fish above the water as they swallow them. It can be brutal. These are wild animals.

Look out for passing boats, especially larger cargo ships, as they navigate the channel. Dolphins often like to surf the bow waves.

Capturing a photo of dolphins as they breach, on some occasions they launch themselves out of the water almost like an ‘exocet missile’ (yes, I’ve seen them do that), before landing with a huge splash, is not easy. It’s almost like they know they’re being watched and put on a show, but you’ll need to be alert, and fast.

If you have a fast camera that auto-focuses very quickly, that’s ideal. There is little to no indication of where they will breach, and the zone for potential sightings is huge. Animals are often creatures of habit, so if they breach in a certain place, they may repeat, but there are no guarantees.

A telephoto lens can be useful, but you need luck and skill to be pointing at the right place at the right time. So a standard or wide angle field of view could be better to at least capture a shot with a dolphin in it, but they will appear to be further away in your final image.

They can come within feet of the shore, but they can be 10 or 20 yards away, or very far out.

Due to the low angle, looking across water, cameras can tend to focus on the waves and not on the dolphins, so expect some missed-focus images until you figure out how your camera model best copes with that type of scenario. I set mine to focus at the centre with continuous autofocus. I also set it to take maximum frames per second on holding down the shutter release, aiming to get the dolphins in the centre of the image, which can be cropped to refine composition on the PC at home. Every camera is different, so that may not work for everyone.

Other issues to expect are that, the longer telephoto used, the shallower the depth of field. So accurate focusing becomes more important. Also, there can be a haze from vapour rising from the water, even on an apparently clear, fine day. This could take the sharpness off an otherwise properly focused image. You may not see it with your eye, or on a small LCD screen, but once you get home and view your shots on a computer, your perceived sharp shots may have a ‘shimmer’.

I normally use a tripod or monopod, as holding a camera and lens up, prepared to shoot at a moment’s notice, is wearisome on the arms. The tripod head is kept loose to allow fast repositioning on horizontal and vertical axis, it is simply a support for the weight, and it will also provide a bit of stability for sharpness, even when using VR or IBIS.

Something I am always aware of when taking photographs is to ‘watch the background’. It is too easy to focus on the action and fail to notice distracting objects or clutter behind the prime subjects. At the Point, there are numerous buildings or other objects on the far shore to get in the way of a good composition. Depth of field from aperture choices and telephoto lenses mean they will likely be out of focus, but they can still contribute distracting highlights that are a conflict of attention within a composition. Given the nature of the subjects, and the location, there is little can be done, other than hope that the action happens without difficult backgrounds. The best breaching shows I’ve captured, have happened with less pleasant backgrounds. I’ve attempted to tone them down in post-processing without artificially removing them or doing too much that they look unreal. I’ve left them in the series as they are too good to leave out. Often photography is about choices and living with the best compromise.

Take some food and drink, although, there are no toilets nearby, so don’t drink too much.

I often take a portable stool to rest my weary legs. It’s more to carry, but I’m usually there for the long haul. Don’t expect to arrive and see dolphins and be gone in a few minutes. Or maybe you’ll be lucky?

There is a ‘pay and display’ car park 100 yards from the Point. If I recall correctly, there is a maximum time of 4 hours allowed. It is frequently very busy, so you will struggle to get a space, and access is via a long single track road. There is frequently gridlock, during the day, so be prepared to be stuck, and for stupid and inconsiderate behaviour from other road users.

I prefer to park in Fortrose or Rosemarkie and walk. It is over a mile, each way, but the exercise is good, and it avoids the possible aggressive behaviour at the car park near the Point.

There used to be a shuttle bus which ran in the summer between a car park in Fortrose and the Point. Not sure whether it has been running in times of pandemic restrictions, I suspect not, nor whether it might restart.

There are ‘Dolphin Tour’ boat trips available from Inverness and from Cromarty. I’ve yet to met anyone who has seen dolphins while on one of these trips, however you may be lucky, and it will probably be a great experience. There are fast RIBs and more sedate ‘boats’ to choose from.

One last thing. While standing on the shore, scanning the water for dolphins, be careful you don’t fill up your memory card, or use all your film on the scenic lighthouse, passing seagulls, canoes, yachts, ships, or local rowing teams practising their strokes. There’s often a seal bobbing around too. So take plenty of spare capacity.

Visit my dolphin portfolio, including some shots that exhibit some of the issues I’ve experienced. Enjoy.