On Easter weekend we stayed in the hills above Cardigan Bay, Wales with only one thing in our sights…the beach. It was unseasonably warm, so little was planned other than sculpting sand and playing in the waves. However, it was the sea itself that was to hold the secret to the most memorable moments of our little holiday.
The waters of Cardigan Bay are home to a group of around 250 bottlenose dolphins. Yes, that’s right, dolphins living in British waters. They are stay here year-round and are one of only two resident groups of bottlenose dolphins living in the UK.
The most northerly pod of dolphins in the world live in Scotland!
New Quay, a harbour town on the Ceredigion Heritage Coast, Mid Wales is the most popular place to go on a wildlife and dolphin-spotting boat tour. We joined SeaMôr Dolphins on one of their smaller boats, the Viking, for a late afternoon tour of the bay. The sea was curiously calm, and the sun was starting to dip towards the horizon. The scene was set for a spectacular sea safari.
Bottlenose Dolphin facts
- Bottlenose Dolphins are marine mammals. They are part of the cetacean family which also includes porpoises and whales.
- These loveable creatures grow to up to 4m in length and can weigh more than 400 kilos.
- Expert swimmers, their cruising speed is around 10km an hour but they can reach speeds of nearly 40km an hour!
- Like other dolphins, the bottlenose have a curved dorsal fin on their back.
- Bottlenose dolphins love to communicate with each other. They make lots of different sounds including clicks, squeaks and whistles.
Our small boat navigated its way slowly out of the harbour, heading first to a lobster pot so that we could meet and great one of these curious creatures. Did you know that each lobster claw has a different function? It’s a bit like having a swiss army knife for hands! We shook ‘hands’ with the lobster before releasing it back to the water and heading out into the bay. Our skipper was in radio contact with other dolphin-spotting boats, so he knew where to head to give us the best chance of seeing the local celebrities. We headed to a spot near some impressive sea cliffs just south of New Quay where we saw, and heard, the local bird population. This area is known to be a popular feeding spot for the dolphins.
Bird life…As well as marine life we also saw plenty of bird life, though not the elusive pair of peregrine falcons we were told lived on the sea cliffs. Peregrine falcons are the fastest animal on the planet, with a top speed of over 320km/hour (200 miles/hour) in a dive. They like living high up on sea cliffs so they dive at high speed to catch birds flying below. Other birds to look out for on Welsh coast include gannets and chough.
Within a few moments of nearing the cliffs we got our first sighting of a bottlenose dolphin. Our guide, Tom, confirmed that one of the dolphins we were seeing was known locally as Ghost due to the white markings on its fin. He also spotted a mother and calf amongst the dolphins surfacing near us.
Whales in Wales?
Dolphins are not the only cetaceans to visit Welsh waters. The body of water off the Welsh coast is called the Irish Sea and is occasionally home to these magnificent marine mammals:
- Short-beaked common dolphins are regular visitors offshore, but in the summer there’s a chance you could spot them from the coast
- Harbour porpoises are a common sight, especially between August and November in Cardigan Bay
- Not very often, but orcas (also known as killer whales) are occasionally seen from the coast
- Autumn is a good time to try to spot long-finned pilot whales (actually part of the dolphin family), though they prefer to stay in the deeper waters of the Irish Sea
- Minke whales are a relatively common sight in the Irish Sea
We turned our focus from the dolphins near the coast and looked out to sea, into the setting sun, where we saw a small group of dolphins seemingly at play. They were leaping out of the water and diving back in, occasionally slapping their whole body on the surface of the water, sometimes landing on top of each other. It was utterly magical. Our entire boat was mesmerised by the spectacle. Have a look at our video to see the show.
Leaping for laughs? Bottlenose dolphins can leap up to 5 metres out of the water, but why do they do it? It looks like a lot of fun, so perhaps it is simply playful behaviour. Scientists who study dolphins think that there might be some other reasons too. It could be one way they use to communicate with other dolphins, or maybe they’ve worked out it’s a good method to clean parasites off their bodies, or perhaps they’re trying to get a view of something in the distance.
We’d seen one of the best shows on earth. While it was hard to follow, I can highly recommend tucking into a selection of delicious fish and chips from The Lime Crab in New Quay (we had calamari and scampi as well as cod) while sitting on the harbour wall to complete the experience.
Some top dolphin-spotting tips:
Dress for the weather…even on a balmy summer’s evening the sea breeze can carry quite a chill, so pack some layers to add on when you’re out on the boat. And, as we’re in Britain, waterproofs might be a good plan!
Be prepared to get your feet wet – at low tide our vessel couldn’t make it to the jetty, so we waded a little way out to meet it. Not all boats have this requirement. I saw other groups being ferried to their boat in a rib.
Consider bringing snacks for the kids. You’re out on the water for around an hour and a half, depending which boat trip you choose. Little tummies can get rumbly, and if there’s not much to see food can provide a useful distraction.
It’s advisable to book in advance. We booked on the day and were very lucky to get a place on such a busy weekend with great weather. There are a number of tour operators sailing out of New Quay. It’s possible to book online at most. We booked in person at the SeaMor desk in a souvenir shop next to the pink ice cream parlour in New Quay.
I’ve read that the best times to spot the dolphins are during the summer months in the early morning, evening and immediately after high tide. Having said all of that, our successful dolphin viewing took place in the evening, but at Easter and just after low tide. As with all wildlife-spotting adventures, it’s hard to predict what you’re going to see!
Our dolphin trip was dog-friendly. Always nice to know when the mutt is welcome.