Seven months with the Moray Firth dolphins


Moving to live within 5 minutes of Chanonry Point has been a dream situation. Most British wildlife photographers will have heard of Chanonry – it is one of the best places in the world to watch bottlenose dolphins from land, and on a good day it is an outstanding wildlife photography location. With some luck it is possible to get good dolphin images on your first visit without much preparation. However, despite the profusion of great images from Chanonry this often isn’t the case and a large amount of time, patience and skill is required to amass a really good collection.

Although you can watch dolphins for hours on end often only metres from shore, they can be a surprisingly difficult subject for photography. When a dolphin does something (like breaching) it does it very fast indeed, and although quick reactions are essential they’ll only get you so far without knowing what to look for, where and when. As I discovered this only comes with time, and the best collections of images out there are the result of hundreds of hours of effort spread over several years.


At their best the dolphins can put on an astonishing show. Getting really good images of the action requires very fast reactions and shutter speeds of 1/1250sec at the slowest. Everything happens very fast indeed.

‘Kesslet’ – a favourite of many dolphin-watchers for her acrobatic antics. She is regularly seen in the Inner Moray Firth with her son ‘Charlie’ .

Dolphins hunting at Chanonry. Learning about the dolphin’s ‘body language’ helps a lot in getting these kinds of images.

Dawn light catching a dolphin’s blow. Some 4am starts were rewarded with beautiful light and opportunities for some interesting compositions.


I first started to visit Chanonry about 4 years ago and managed to get a handful of good images spread over a few trips. On my first visit with a DSLR I photographed a group of very active juvenile dolphins for 2 hours, one of which repeatedly ‘spy-hopped’ only a few metres away. I came away buzzing but unaware of just how fortunate I’d been.

I moved to live on the Black Isle in January, and from the end of March I started to spend 4 to 6 days a week at Chanonry. April was a great month with lots of bright conditions and crisp light ideal for photography. The dolphins started to appear in larger numbers, rather than the 1 or 2 which might appear a few days a week during March. I was lacking full-time employment so I sometimes would be on the beach for 6 or 7 hours a day, and after a few weeks it started to feel a bit like a new way of life. I had begun the rewarding process of getting to know the behavioural patterns and characteristics of individual dolphins, and started to learn which dolphins to watch for getting images of particular behaviour.

Spending so much time on the beach meant that I befriended several of the Chanonry ‘regulars’ – local people who spend a great deal of their time watching the dolphins, and almost every day I’d learn something new from them. Some days we would get only 1 or 2 dolphins being quite inactive, but on occasions we were rewarded with big groups of 15+ dolphins socialising and hunting.


‘Kesslet’ breaching at sunrise. 

‘Kesslet’ breaching on a calm day with bright conditions. The socialising behaviour of the dolphins can range from dramatic to hilarious, and can result in some wonderfully dynamic images.

Juvenile dolphins are often very active especially when in amongst larger groups. 

Two dolphins breaching in an ‘up-side down’ position

Double breachAn impressive double-breach.


The beginning of May saw a change to more challenging conditions at Chanonry Point. Unseasonably cold conditions, strong winds and overcast skies became the norm with lengthy periods of rainfall. Days on the beach would sometimes be tests of endurance and I’d get home chilled to the bone despite wearing several layers of winter clothing. Additionally the dolphin activity seemed to drop rather than increase as would be normal, and the consensus seemed to be that the season was not shaping up well. Plenty of tides would go past with very few dolphins at Chanonry, with far more being sighted up towards Cromarty instead.


Zephyr’ – possibly the most regularly-seen dolphin at Chanonry Point this season.  Known for her dramatic hunting behaviour, she often provides opportunities for spectacular images.

‘Zephyr’ with a fish late one evening. Chanonry Point offers uniquely close views of the dolphins hunting.

‘Zephyr’ at the start of a breach. In the Spring she would often be the only dolphin present at Chanonry but later in the season she would often be seen breaching with other dolphins close to shore.


However the third week of May was spectacular, with some large groups of dolphins hunting and socialising for lengthy periods. I got more good images in two hours on the 18th May than I had in the previous 2 weeks combined. The individual dolphins were becoming increasingly familiar to me and I’d become totally fixated with watching their day-to-day life from the beach.

The challenging weather lingered into June and many of the regular dolphin-watchers were repeatedly saying how the dolphin activity wasn’t at the level it should be for the time of year. It has been a very bad season for salmon in many Scottish rivers, and with a very sporadic salmon-run the dolphins have been increasingly distracted away from Chanonry to hunt other fish instead such as migratory mackerel or herring. Many of the regular dolphins at Chanonry have been spread widely around the coast instead of being concentrated in the Inner Moray Firth as would be more normal for the time of year.


The massive bulk of ‘Mischief’ approaching Chanonry Point. The Moray Firth dolphins are amongst the largest bottlenose dolphins in the world and ‘Mischief’ is one of the larger males. A truly impressive animal.

A young male in mid-flight. The dolphin was still fully submerged only 1/4 sec before this.

Dolphins moving fast. At times they can appear to ‘surf’ over the surface of the water at great speed.

‘Moonlight’ and her calf were regular visitors close to shore during May. The calves usually only surface for fractions of a second so good images of them can be particularly hard to get.


June was a frustrating month and I got very few good images at all. In addition to the lull of dolphin activity and poor weather I seemed to have a run of bad luck, with the best tides for dolphins being the few when I was elsewhere. At times it became very frustrating but it was hard to stay away, and if anything my temporary lack of success made me more determined. And even on a bad day there would almost always be something interesting going on –  a surprise visit from a Slovonian grebe, fly-pasts by Great Northern divers, a dead long-finned pilot whale and the never-ending banter amongst the regulars on the beach.


A large group passing Chanonry at speed.

‘Fin-shots’ are often discarded by photographers. They have their place however, and can make some good and simple compositions.

Shooting in all weathers has been a necessity this season, with some very challenging conditions on the beach. I took this image as an hour of torrential rain set-in.


 Going into late June and July I became far busier with other things and I was only able to spend 2 or 3 tides a week down at Chanonry. It was disappointing to see from friend’s photos that I missed what looked like some very good dolphin days with good light, and it just goes to show that even when you put hundreds of hours into a project, luck can still play a major role.


Dolphins approaching Chanonry during a cold dawn.


A young dolphin breaching high just off Fort George. For a short period in early July a group of young males would breach repeatedly off Fort George but not come any closer to Chanonry.

‘Sundance’ with a large salmon. A huge male, ‘Sundance’ can often be found in the middle of impressive breaching displays.

 More of ‘Zephyr’s’ hunting behaviour.


The second week of July saw some very quiet days indeed. A lack of salmon was obvious, as for example on one day when we excitedly watched 20 or so dolphins appear and forage for quite a while without catching a single fish. This was followed by 3 days in a row with no dolphins at all, unusual indeed for the time of year. Then a wonderful day came out of nowhere, with the most salmon caught in a single hour that I’ve seen so far. ‘Zephyr’ alone caught 4 fish in quick succession. Was this the start of something more consistent? No, as the next morning only ‘Zephyr’ appeared and failed to find any fish after 2 or 3 hours of foraging.

Late July brought some good days with some groups of juvenile dolphins being quite active. Repeated large splashes in the distance would give them away on their approach to Chanonry and we’d wait with excitement for them to arrive. However, more often than not the best of the action rapidly stopped as soon as the dolphins were close enough to the shore for good images, and I found myself becoming increasingly frustrated.

Thankfully everyone’s patience was rewarded by the first two weeks of August. We had some spectacular breaching displays day-after-day for a while – close to shore and in good light. A particular combination of dolphins behaved in the same way several days in a row – ‘Kesslet’, ‘Zephyr’, ‘Charlie’ and ‘Sundance’ (and others) often putting on a great show for us. Additionally I was thrilled to spot a very tiny dorsal fin appear amongst a group of dolphins early one morning, the first new-born calf of the year that I’d seen. A few weeks later and we were all delighted to see that ‘Zephyr’ had a new calf too.


Sideways breachingSoft early-morning light.

'Zephyr' breaching‘Zephyr’ breaching very close to shore.

Head-on breach‘Kesslet’ breaching head-on to my lens. This was probably the most unusual breaching shot I managed to get this season.


All wildlife photographers have ‘dream’ days that come around every once in a while, and the 10th August was just such a day for me. A calm and clear dawn was forecast to coincide with a rising tide so I had decided to go down to the beach to try some images of the dolphins at first light. When I arrived there were no dolphins, but just as a fiery sunrise started I spotted some ‘blows’ in the distance. The dolphins appeared fast and started hunting just at the right moment. ‘Kesslet’ caught a salmon but behaved in a way I’d never seen before – repeatedly lunging sideways out of the water whilst throwing the fish. My heart raced and I couldn’t believe my luck as she did this 7 or 8 times all silhouetted against the golden light of the sunrise. Not only this, but the dolphins then started breaching and I got my most unusual breaching images of the season.

During the first two weeks of August I finally managed to nail the majority of images that I’d wanted, after months of learning, improving and waiting. I continued to go to the beach for the rest of the month but less often, and I’m still turning up for a few tides as the dolphin ‘season’ draws to a close at Chanonry.

The last seven months have been incredible for me and it has been a total privilege for the Moray Firth dolphins to have become a part of my every-day life. Whilst photography has been a major aspect of it, learning about these amazing animals and simply observing them has been by far the most rewarding outcome. I’m still awe-struck by some of the things I’ve seen at Chanonry in the last few months, but even all the quiet days there have been days well-spent. I am already looking-forward to next summer and the 2016 dolphin season.

James

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