True Highlands Blog
With a myriad of lochs, inlets, islands and firths, Scotland’s seas are vast – It’s coastline makes up 10% of Europe’s total! Our waters may be chilly, but that doesn’t stop a huge variety of wildlife from making it their home.
Over a quarter of the world’s whale and dolphin species can be spotted here, and the Moray Firth is home to the world’s largest bottlenose dolphins (up to twice as large as their tropical cousins). Grey and common seals are a familiar sight in our harbours as their curiosity draws them to human activity, and further offshore during the summer months, the world’s second largest fish, the mighty basking shark, cruises among the western islands feeding on the ocean’s tiniest creatures. Deeper down on the seabed lie little-known but equally fantastic creatures, from the menacing-looking Atlantic wolfish to cold-water corals forming intricate structures fanning out from the rocks.
Whether you’re watching from above the waves or diving below them, Scotland’s waters have plenty to offer any wildlife enthusiast. Here is a small selection to tempt your curiosity…
No list of Scottish sea life would be complete without the charismatic bottlenose dolphin. No words or photographs can capture the experience of seeing these creatures leaping from the waves in front of the bow of a boat – or even from the shore. The Moray Firth is the most northerly that these dolphins live and so they are the largest in the world – those extra layers to keep them warm mean that they can weigh up to 300kg (660lb). Chanonry Point on the Black Isle is famous as the best place in the UK (or even Europe) to see dolphins from the shore, thanks to a narrow spit in a deep channel through which the dolphins chase the salmon from May-September. The best time to see them is 1-2 hours after low tide, as the tide is coming back in and the salmon follow the current.
Like all dolphins and many whales, bottlenose dolphins are highly social and live in pods of 10-30 members (although ‘super-pods of over 1,000 have been spotted!). This is evident as you watch them rise to the surface, leap and forage alongside one another. You may even spot a mother and calf swimming side by side – look out for vertical stripe-like lines on the calf’s side, remnants of when it was curled inside its mother.
These incredible dolphins (not whales, as commonly thought) are often spotted off the northern isles of Orkney and Shetland, and in the waters off the Outer Hebrides. Occasionally they venture further south, although soon return to the colder sub-polar waters. Orcas have some of the most diverse social assemblies of any cetacean (whales and dolphins), with matrilineal societies (led by the females) showing behaviour that can vary greatly between pods even sharing the same waters.
They are one of the few non-human animals to have ‘grandmothers’ – individuals surviving longer than their ‘useful’ reproductive lifespan – as the lessons that these wise, old grandmothers can pass onto their descendants is so important.
Only recently have researchers began to understand the Orca pods that inhabit Scottish waters. Orcas found off our northern and eastern coasts are migratory, travelling between Scotland, the Faroe Islands and Iceland, chasing shoals of herring and mackerel. Those sighted in the western waters are ‘residents’ and do not travel as far – this is a much smaller pod (around 9 individuals).
One of the more common whale species in Scottish waters, pilot whales (which belong to two species, long and short-finned) travel in large pods. The family bonds binding these pods are actually what lead to pilot whales being one of the most common whales to beach themselves – if one member of the pod is sick and beaches, the rest will follow suit. Rescues of beached pilot whales often require re-floating of all but the ‘sick’ individual, as they are known to beach themselves again and again.
Pilot whales can be recognised from above the water by their long, low dorsal fin towards the back of their body, and if you’re lucky enough to see them breach, an anchor-shaped white patch on their chin.
Common and grey seals
Two species of seal live in Scotland: the common (also known has harbour) seal and the grey seal. So how do you tell them apart?
If you’ve ever looked at a seal and thought “that looks just like a big, wet dog!”, you were probably looking at a grey seal. Their elongated faces and ‘roman noses’ (particularly the old, large males) and larger size can make them look intimidating – and for good reason, as they can be ferocious if threatened! Common seals have ‘cuter’ faces, with more flattened nose, high forehead and big dark eyes, looking more like the typical cartoon seal. The common seal’s nostrils join at the bottom in a ‘V’ shape while the grey seal’s are parrellel and don’t join – but trust us, you don’t want to be close enough to find out!
Grey seal pupping season (around November) is when they are at their most distinctive, as they give birth to white, fluffy, teddy-like young.
Dipping beneath the waves, we come across a creature that looks ferocious – but you only need to worry if you’re a sea urchin! The Atlantic wolfish has a set of fierce-looking teeth that protrude from its mouth – often only spotted when you’re nearly face to face as they hide in rock crevices on the sea floor. Their teeth are fortunately not for biting passing divers though – they use them to crunch open unsuspecting sea urchins.
Little-known outside the marine biology world, yet one of the sea’s most intricate and colourful inhabitants, are nudibranchs (or their not-so-appealing name, sea slugs). Measuring just millimetres in length, these are a favourite find for many divers worldwide. Taking on many forms and colours, nudibranchs (‘nudis’) can have leaf-like structures sprouting from their backs (which some even breathe through), multicoloured stripes and spots, ‘furry’ backs and curling bodies. Some even photosynthesise like plants – one of the only animals in the world to do so – by absorbing chlorophyll from their food.
While most can only be seen when diving, keep an eye out in west coast rockpools for one of the larger species, the sea hare (unfortunately it looks nothing like a land hare).
Perhaps one of the oddest-looking fish in the sea (and also the largest fish that isn’t a shark) is the ocean sunfish, often called by its Latin name of ‘Mola mola’. These dopey-looking, dinner plate-shaped fish bask on their side at the surface (hence their name) with vacant-looking eyes and a permanently-open mouth, looking like a defenceless dinner for any predator that might come along. However they have a thick, leathery skin and can swim fast in short bursts to escape any creature that might see them as dinner.
The sunfish is found mostly in tropical waters where it can grow over 3m across – here in cooler waters they don’t grow quite as large, but can occasionally be spotted as far north as the Moray Firth and the Hebrides.
Every few years a humpback whale is spotted in Scottish waters. These magnificent whales, recognisable by their white, ‘wavy’ edge to their fins and tail, normally inhabit warmer tropical and sub-tropical waters. They migrate between the tropical seas where they give birth and raise their young for the first few months of their life, and the slightly cooler waters that hold most of their food. This long-distance migration is why we rarely see them on the east coast of Scotland – the North Sea is a bit of a ‘dead end’ for migration – however occasionally one does show up after finding itself a little off-course!
Yes, you heard us correctly! Although walrus are usually at home in the Arctic, occasionally individuals have been known to show up on the beaches of Orkney and Shetland – most likely a little lost. It is thought that since 2002, 13 walrus have shown up on the northern shores of Scotland, and there are tales of one being sighted regularly in Aberdeenshire in 1954. More recently in 2018 a walrus, who has been nicknamed “Wally”, has been spotted sunning himself on the west coast, Wick and Orkney. He seems to have taken up residence!
Enjoy the seas and all it has to offer and if you happen to see plastic or other rubish which shouldn’t be there, pop it in a bin.
Tags: dolphins, keep our seas clean, marine biology, marine tourism, reduce plastic waste, scotland walrus, scottish sealife, scottish seas, sealife, wally the walrus, walrus, whales