Sea mammals

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Watch this video and see some of Scotland's remarkable wildlife, from timourous red squirrels to playful dolphins.
Great Scottish wildlife

See some of Scotland's remarkable wildlife, from timourous red squirrels to playful dolphins.

  • A dolphin leaps out of the sea
    A breaching dolphin
  • Dolphins in the Moray Firth
    Dolphins in the Moray Firth
  • Moray Diving and Wildlife Cruises
    Moray Diving and Wildlife Cruises
  • Grey and white speckled seals on seaweed covered rocks by the sea
    Seals rest on some seaweed

With coasts to the north, east and west, Scotland is one of the best places to spot sealife in Europe. Home to many marine creatures, the seas around Scotland also welcome visiting wildlife during the changing seasons. From seals on the coast to minke whales in the open waters, you’ll never forget seeing these ocean creatures in the Scottish wilderness.

Seals

With an estimated 70 percent of Europe's population of grey seals and around 80 percent of the UK’s population of common seals in Scottish waters, the chances of spotting a few seals on your visit are high.

Other types of seal that have been spotted off Scotland’s coast include ringed and harp seals and lesser-sighted hooded and bearded seals.

They can be found everywhere from Tentsmuir Point in the east and the Isle of Mull in the west, to the harbours of Shetland in the north and right down to the Mull of Galloway in the south.

Many nature reserves and beaches provide information on where and when you are likely to see both grey and common seals. A great way to take a closer look at sealife and find out more about the species is to join a boat tour, from short hour-long wildlife trips to day-long cruises.

Grey seal

The grey seal is around 2 m long and can weigh up to 300 kg. The fur of both sexes ranges from dark brown to grey with light spots, though the cow is generally paler. Grey seals are most widespread on Scotland's rockier west coast. They feed on all types of fish - plus crabs, squid and sand eels - and breed in the autumn.

Common seal

The common seal is roughly 1.5 - 2 m long and can weigh up to 250 kg. The sexes are similarly coloured, with a dark grey back and a lighter, mottled underside. Common seals (also known as harbour seals) are often found around shallow inland waters, hauled up on sandbanks and around estuaries, but they are also spotted on rocky outcrops on the west coast. They fish over a wide area, feeding on anything from shrimps to whole herring, and breed between June and July.

When to see: winter, spring, summer, autumn

Where to see: Seals can be spotted in lots of coastal locations around Scotland, see a few suggestions below:

Otters

Scotland is a stronghold for the Eurasian otter which can be spotted across the country in freshwater rivers, canals and marshes, as well as in the sea.

Otters live in holts, such as burrows or caves, which are ideal shelter for breeding and protection. Known for their shy nature, spotting them requires luck, patience and silence. They have sensitive whiskers which are used for detecting prey, mainly fish, waterbirds, amphibians and crustaceans. Excellent and lithe swimmers, otter cubs are in the water by 10 weeks of age. At full size they can reach 35 in, not including a tail of up to 17 in and can weigh up to 10 kg.

With webbed feet, dense fur and the ability to close their ears and nose underwater, otters are well suited to a life in the oceans and lochs of Scotland. Look out for webbed footprints in the sand and droppings, known as spraints, for clear signs that otters have been in the area.


When to see: spring, summer, autumn, winter

Where to see: Otters are shy and require patience and time to spot in the wild. They are particularly abundant in Shetland, and are often spotted from the car while waiting to board inter-island ferries.

Whales

Minke whales

Minke whales are the most common type of whale in Scotland and can be spotted around sandbanks, headlands and small islands. Tens of thousands of minke whales are spotted in and around the North Sea each year.

Their body length averages between 7 - 10 m and can weight over 900 kg. Largely dark in colour with white undersides and pointed heads, they feed on fish and krill and travel individually or in groups of two to four. The best way to spot them is by joining a tour, and they are sighted more often between July and September.

Orca

Perhaps the most famous of these great mammals, orcas are known as killer whales and are top predators of the ocean. They are highly social animals and live in groups called pods.

Orcas can grow up to 8 m long, have a high dorsal fin of up to 1.8 m and weigh over 5,000 kg. They are distinctively coloured, black and grey with a white underside and a white spot behind each eye. Although still rare, sightings are becoming increasingly frequent in Scottish waters where they can be seen in pods of around eight, moving quickly, quite far offshore.

Other whales

At least eight other species of whale are also spotted off Scotland’s shores, including sei, sperm, fin whales, northern bottlenose and long finned pilot whales.

When to see: Chances are highest from April to September, when they come closer to shore.

Where to see: Coastal areas and open water around Scotland, including:

Dolphins and porpoises

Bottlenose dolphin

The dolphin's body is beautifully streamlined and extremely well suited to its life in the marine environment. Bottlenose dolphins may be seen all around the coast of Scotland, with the Moray Firth being home to the only colony in the North Sea.

The Scottish Dolphin Centre at Spey Bay is a great place for spotting the Moray Firth bottlenose dolphins, as well as other marine sealife. Aberdeen harbour is another area where the chance to catch sight of these marine mammals is high, particularly in the early part of the year.

Other dolphin species which have been observed from Scotland's shores include the white-beaked dolphin and the common dolphin while Risso's dolphin have been sighted in the Minch between the Isle of Skye and The Outer Hebrides.

Harbour porpoise

Although the harbour porpoise is the most common cetacean in Scottish waters and can be found in any shallow seas, they are more hesitant and harder to spot. They tend to gather together in pods of between two and five and are a greyish colour with a low, triangular dorsal fin.

When to see: spring, summer

Where to see: Bottlenose dolphins can be spotted in the waters of the Moray Firth, Outer Hebrides, Shetland and Orkney and are often seen swimming and playing close to boats and ferries. Other types of dolphin and porpoises can be spotted all around Scotland's coast.

Basking sharks

In the summer months it’s possible to spot these huge migratory fish, which are the second largest in the world, off Scotland’s coast.

Reaching 10 m long and weighing up to 7-000 kg, basking sharks are usually seen slowly swimming close to the surface with a huge fin, up to 2 m high, breaking the water along with the tip of the tail fin and the tip of its nose. With no teeth, they use their large mouths and gills to feed on plankton.

When to see: summer

Where to see: Basking sharks are best viewed from boat with a tour guide or as part of a scuba diving excursion.

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