There are a number of wildlife icons in the Highlands and each have their role in shaping the landscape and our attitude to them. The red deer stag, particularly when roaring in the October rut, has attracted artists and sportsmen. The leaping salmon has shaped the way we treat our rivers and lochs and fishing for them is now a multi-million pound business. That iconic bird, the red grouse, has created the heather clad moorland that needs intensive management by burning, called muirburn. There are others such as gannets, capercaillie, ptarmigan and mountain hare but one that is increasing in popularity is the now famous bottlenose dolphins. The resident population in the Moray Firth is the only one in the north of Britain.
There are various ways to see the dolphins and one of the easiest is at Chanonry Point on the Black Isle. This was made popular by the BBC Springwatch team visiting there and seeing the dolphins and filming them. Another way is to take one of the boat trips specifically aimed at seeing dolphins. Such boat trips are based at various places including Inverness, Avoch and Cromarty and whilst on such trips there is plenty of other wildlife to see such as grey and common seals and occasionally harbour porpoises. These porpoises are much smaller than the dolphins and if the water is choppy they can be difficult to see. At one time there were problems about such boat trips disturbing the dolphins but in 1995 the first “code of conduct” was agreed by all the boat operators. One of the principles is to let the dolphins come to the boat rather than the other way round. This works because the dolphins are very curious and will often come close to a boat on their own accord.
Perhaps the best way to see the dolphins and possibly the most reliable is to visit one of the two centres devoted to seeing dolphins and seals. One is the Wildlife Centre at Spey Bay and it is open now and there are displays and an underwater world experience in the largest ice house in Britain. The other centre is the Dolphin and Seal Centre at North Kessock on the Black Isle. Both centres are run by the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society and admission is free at both centres. The North Kessock Centre which opens in June, is aimed at people seeing dolphins and seals and there is a superb viewing window overlooking the firth. Binoculars are available including a massive pair on a large tripod that dominates the room. The dolphins hunt by “echo location” and the clicks and whistling noise they make can actually be heard in the centre. Hydrophones in the firth relay the noises so that people can hear them. If no dolphins are hunting there is a recording that can be played. Likewise if there are no dolphins to be seen then a screen plays a video recording previously filmed at Chanonry point. From a distance it is difficult to appreciate the size of the dolphins but they can grow up to four metres in length. They are powerful swimmers and fast enough to catch fast swimming salmon. The centre caters for youngsters as well as adults and part of the success is the enthusiasm of the attendants, officially called “ Dolphin and Seal Co-ordinators”. The photograph shows the notice board outside the centre being updated telling people what has been seen that day. The centre is open every day from 9.30 am to 4.30 pm (Telephone 01463 731866).