Scotland – Wildlife on the Atlantic Edge

Cetaceans – Whales in Scotland

The Gulf Stream and its warm waters mixing with the cold waters off the mountains create a unique marine micro climate rich in plankton. This is the foundation of the food chain that attracts the whales and other wildlife from the end of spring to the end of summer. Sailing in the Western Isles of Scotland offers one of the best places in the UK for whale watching.

Between the Outer and Inner Hebrides it is common to see Minke Whales. Less common would be an Orca (killer whale) sighting. There is a pod of Orca that are often spotted off Mallaig and the entrance to Loch Nevis – no doubt using the Scottish fishing fleet to help round up their supper. The waters between Skye, Rathsay and the Applecross Peninsula are very deep, so make ideal hunting grounds for whales.

The luckiest sighting you may get is of a Humpback Whale and the magnificent display of their tails standing up in the air before the make an elegant decent into the depths of the sea.

In the Oban area the whole Firth of Lorn (the seaward approach to Oban) has been designated a Special Area of Conservation because it supports a vast array of land and marine wildlife. Further South the Gulf of Corryvreckan with its strong tides, spectacular whirlpools is a great feeding ground for the whales, You may see them as they surface for air before diving back down to the depths in search of food.

Beyond the Gulf of Corryvreckan out to the west is the Great Race, an offshore tidal stream of deep water that is rich in marine life. The lucky whale watcher may see different species of whale here, such as Orca (Killer Whale) that come down from the Hebrides, and perhaps even the rare Humpback.

Whale says goodbye to Schooner Oosterschelde
Photo Hannah van Haren

Cetaceans – Dolphins in Scotland

Bottlenose Dolphin are the commonest dolphins to be seen in Scotland.

Did you know Scottish bottlenose dolphins are considerably larger than their cousins living in the warmer waters off Florida, USA? Bottlenose Dolphins can be between 3 and 4 metres in length and are often seen in pods (groups) of up to ten animals. These pods can form to make much larger groups at times with amazing displays.

Bottlenose dolphins are grey in colouring, with a pale, almost white underside, of course the colours of individuals vary and markings or scars on their heads can enable you to recognize a dolphin quite quickly. The upper body varies from dark grey to grey brown and on the underside from light grey to white. The lower jaw is very distinctive as it extends out further than the upper jaw.

Bottlenose Dolphin are active, playful and can be seen jumping up out of the water (breaching) and swimming at up to 20mph when hunting in a real spectacle you will always remember. Bottlenose Dolphin eat fish, such as Atlantic salmon and anything else of a suitable size.

Pilot Whales by Volker
Pilot Whales off the bowsprit by Volker

Basking Sharks

The Basking shark (Cetorhinus maximus) is the biggest fish in Scotland and the second largest fish in the entire world. They can grow over 10m (33ft) long and weigh up to several tonnes! They can have a huge mouth which can be up to 1 metre wide on a full y grown basking shark, thankfully for humans they only eat tiny plankton. They feed by filtering on plankton by sieving out the minuscule animals from the water using special gill rakers. The rakers are specially evolved bones which sit in the gills and act in a similar way to the baleen in filter-feeding whales. They can filter up to 1.5 million litres of water per hour. But when you consider that they are up to 10m long and eat things smaller than a grain of rice – you need to do a lot of sucking!

The sharks are mainly here in the Western Isles in summer but some have been seen in the winter. Generally the best time to be to see them is May-September, with peak season between June-August. The main hotspot to spot Basking sharks is the Hebrides on the west coast where the vast majority of sightings come from. Look out for what appears to be two fins fairly close together, the front one is the top of the mouth which looks a bit like a nose.

The nose of a basking shark
Photo by Will Wagstaff: A basking shark with its mouth wide open

Birdlife – More than Eagles and Puffins

You don’t have to be “twitcher” to enjoy the splendor of bird watching at sea.

We try to ensure that all our vessels have good reference books onboard to help you identify the birds and sea life around you. The more you see and recognise the more interesting it becomes. On many voyages you will find a keen ornithologist either amongst the crew or the guests.

Any voyage in the Western Isles of Scotland can show up whole selection of birds, Shearwaters, in deed auks of many kinds, White Tailed Sea Eagles, and rarest of all the Golden Eagle, Puffin, Gannets, Gulls, Shags, Cormorants, fulmar, skuas, black guillemots and Terns

To watch a huge flock of Gannets diving on a shoal of fish is one the most awesome experiences to witness at sea. 


“Shags and Cormorants are difficult to tell one from the other, it does not help that Cormorants are bigger than Shags as unless you see them together and you are not looking at different ages you still have a problem identifying them. In general Cormorants have a lighter brown patch under their neck and body.

But here are some other clues, Shags will raft up in groups up to 100’s in number. The sight of a raft of shags relocating to a different place is amazing, the ones under water seem to emerge from the sea straight into flight. Like Phoenix arising…..” Adam Purser

The islands of Rum and Canna seem to be very good for spotting Sea Eagles. We have also seen them in the Shiant Isles and Golden Eagles off Mull.

Wild Ravens are common in the Western Isles and their deep cawing is a pleasure to hear. Hooded crows are common too.

St Kilda is a bird watchers paradise. There are over a million birds in the island group. There are huge colonies of Gannets and Puffins. It even has its own thrush.

Puffins on the Shiant Islands in NW Scotland
Photo by Debbie purser: Puffins on the Shiant Islands

Wildlife on the Shore

Other common sights include otters that like to forage at the water’s edge, seals that can be seen lounging about on the rocks or bobbing up and down out in the water, deer and feral goats that haunt the craggy island hillsides. 

Midge FREE Scotland

Photo by Gordon Hudson - seals on St Kilda
Photo by Gordon Hudson – seals on St Kilda

More Stories

28/02 Educational

2024 – Classic Sailing’s Year of Skills: Confident Crew

Throughout 2024, we’re shining the spotlight on the various ways our customers get more with a Classic Sailing booking. Sailing on a traditional vessel

Read More

21/06 Darwin200 Around the World

Oosterschelde – Unexpected Voyage Availability

Oosterschelde – Unexpected Voyage Availability

Read More
Pilot Cutter Review 2024 photo by Adam Purser

08/06 Festivals

Pilot Cutter Review 2024 Final Results and full story

Best Pilot Cutter Review for many years This year’s Pilot Cutter Review was the best for many years with eleven cutters joining in. It

Read More

30/05 Featured Ship

Adam’s day sail On Provident May 27 2024

Provident, Blue Seas and Sky, Dartmouth and 100 years I had a fantastic day sailing on Provident in Brixham on the Late May bank

Read More