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Frequently Asked Questions

Below are answers to several questions which I have been asked on a regular basis. If you have any other questions about the Dolphin Space Programme or responsible wildlife tourism, please do not hesitate to contact us by e mail.  projectofficer@dolphinspace.org.  

1. What is the Dolphin Space Programme (DSP)?

The Dolphin Space Programme is an accreditation and training scheme for wildlife tour boats in the Moray Firth, Scotland. Its aim is to promote and support responsible, high quality wildlife tourism that does not cause disturbance to the local dolphin population or any other marine wildlife. To meet these aims the DSP provides a code of conduct for wildlife tour operators to follow and provides training in responsible interactions with marine wildlife.

The DSP is a collaborative scheme which is overseen by a steering group comprising the Moray Firth Partnership, VisitScotland, the Wildlife Tour Boat Operators’ Society, the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society, the Northern Constabulary, Grampian Police, The Highland Council, Inverness Harbour Trust, the Maritime Coastguard Agency and Scottish Natural Heritage.

2. Why is it called the DSP?

The DSP is all about giving the wildlife the ‘space’ they need to go about their normal, everyday behaviours, free from disturbance from tourism activities. We also recognise that the name ‘Dolphin Space Programme’ conjures some amusing or intriguing images which we hope will help people to remember us.

3. How many wildlife tour boats are members of the DSP?

There are currently 10 tour operators in the Moray Firth who run wildlife watching cruises. All 10 are members of the DSP.

4. What kind of trips are available?

There are a wide range of boats and trips available. All DSP accredited operators offer wildlife watching cruises and some also offer fishing or diving trips. Trips vary in length from 45 minutes to three hours. All trips take in the beautiful coastal scenery of the Moray Firth and offer a wonderful opportunity to spot wildlife such as seabirds, seals and if you are lucky, dolphins, minke whales, harbour porpoises and basking sharks. Some areas are particularly good for different species – for example some of the best seabird colonies are in the outer Moray Firth, but you can also see many seabirds and red kites on trips from the Black Isle. Please feel free to contact us or call the operator directly if you are interested in spotting a specific type of wildlife and want more information.

The type of boat offering the cruises varies from one tour operator to the next. You can take your boat trip on anything from a traditional converted fishing boat, catamaran or ex-lifeboat to a ridged hulled inflatable boat (RIB). The boats vary in relation to the amount of cover they have and the facilities on board. The RIB’s are a little more exposed but full waterproofs are provided and they are great fun! Some people prone to sea sickness may also find that they do not experience sickness on a RIB as the motion is different. The bigger boats tend to have more under cover seating and more extensive facilities for those who want a bit more comfort. The boats operating from Nairn and Inverness are wheelchair accessible.

5. What times do trips run?

Times of trips vary depending on the individual operator, the season and the tide. Please contact operators directly for accurate timings. Contact details are available on our web site on the Boat Trips page.

6. Where do the tour boats operate from?

Wildlife tour boats operate all the way along the Moray Firth coast. From Wick, Portmahomack and the Black Isle in the North to Banff and Macduff in the east. Wherever you are, there is a local company who can provide a wildlife cruise for you. For more information on your nearest operator check the links on this site.

7. What time of year do trips run?

Most tour operators runs wildlife cruises from March until October. Exact operating dates vary between operators. Only one or two boats run trips in the winter and these are only on request.

8. How much will a boat trip cost me?

Prices vary between operators and depending on the length of the trip. Prices can be as little as £10 for a short trip (45 mins) with a maximum of around £25 for a longer trip (3 hours).

9. What am I likely to see on my boat trip?

All trips offer a chance to enjoy the beautiful coastal scenery of the Moray Firth and a wonderful trip on a boat. You are also likely to see seals and lots of seabirds. If you are lucky you may see our famous resident bottlenose dolphins.

Harbour porpoises, minke whales and basking sharks are also sometimes seen. Other species of dolphin and whale are occasional visitors to our waters. No sightings can be guaranteed. All these animals are wild and encountering them is unpredictable.

10. What do I need to bring on my boat trip?

What ever the weather bring warm clothes, preferably in layers. The temperature at sea can be very different from that on land. Waterproofs are a good idea. Hats, scarves and gloves will be appreciated on colder days.

Remember to take seasickness medication before your trip if you think you might suffer from sickness. If you are not sure whether you get sea sick, take medication anyway – its better than being sick and having a miserable time.

Cameras and binoculars are a great idea. Remember to bring protective, waterproof cases or bags for any sensitive equipment.

Most importantly bring a sense of adventure and fun!

11. When is the best time to see the dolphins?

This is a question we get asked a lot and it is a very difficult one to answer. The bottlenose dolphins that are seen in the Moray Firth are part of a resident population that uses the whole north east coast of Scotland. This is a relatively small population of dolphins and they can be spread out over a large area. In the summer (May-September) the number of dolphins in the coastal areas of the Moray Firth increases. This is due to the dolphins feeding on salmon as they enter and leave the rivers. The dolphins are present in the area all year round – however they can be harder to spot outside summer months as they may range over a wider area and look further out to sea for their food.

For the majority of the Moray Firth there is no predictable ‘best time’ to see dolphins.  At Chanonry Point – an excellent land based viewing point  on the Black Isle, there is some evidence that the dolphins are seen more often on a rising tide i.e. 2-3 hours after low tide. However, they are also seen at all other times of the tide as well.

12. What is a code of conduct?

A code of conduct is a set of voluntary guidelines. In the DSP these guidelines provide advice on how to safely approach marine wildlife without causing them any distress or disturbance. The full DSP code of conduct can be found here. 

13. Why should tour operators join the DSP?

Wildlife tour operators usually care deeply about the marine environment and marine wildlife. By joining the DSP they demonstrate this care and responsible attitude toward the marine environment. In addition to this, DSP members receive promotional benefits from the DSP and its steering group and are provided with free educational and interpretive materials for their boats. Lastly, visitors are becoming more ‘eco’ friendly and aware regarding environmental issues. Many people now look for some reassurance that their tourism activities do not cause harm to the natural environment. A DSP accreditation reassures visitors that the boat operator they have chosen has a wildlife friendly ‘seal of approval’.

14. Why is the DSP necessary?

The north east coast of Scotland is home to the only resident population of bottlenose dolphins in the North Sea. Although this species of dolphin is fairly common in a world wide sense it is quite rare in Europe, and in the UK we only have three resident populations (in Scotland, Wales and the South-West). The dolphin population in north east Scotland is small, probably only about 130 animals, and is vulnerable to a range of threats including pollution, coastal and offshore development, fisheries interactions and disturbance from boat traffic. We know that in other parts of the world badly managed tourism activities can cause disturbance and stress to dolphins and other marine animals and this can sometimes have long term impacts on their health and survival. The DSP is a management tool which helps to protect this dolphin population from stress and disturbance. Unlike some countries the UK does not currently have a licensing scheme for wildlife tour boats, meaning that there is no limit on how many tour boats there can be in any one area. In the absence of licensing, this voluntary scheme does its best to ensure that wildlife tour boats operate responsibly and do not cause disturbance to this important population of dolphins.

If you want to ensure that you are watching responsibly, please read our'Watching Wisely' document.

15. Are all the operators in this area members?

Yes! We are delighted to say that for the last few years all 11 wildlife tour boats in the Moray Firth have signed up to the DSP. This has not always been the case, but as the scheme has developed, improved and worked in close collaboration with tour operators, support for the scheme has grown.

16. What about operators in other areas of Scotland?

The DSP scheme currently only operates in the Moray Firth. However, many operators in other parts of Scotland recognise the need to behave in a safe and responsible manner around marine wildlife and have joined other accreditation schemes such as WiSe (www.wisescheme.org). 

17. What effects can boats have on dolphins and other wildlife?

Research carried out in other parts of the world, where boat-based cetacean (dolphins, whales and porpoises) watching has been practised for many years, indicates that cetaceans can show a negative response to the noise and behaviour of tour boats.  The potential effects of disturbance on cetaceans from boats can be broadly divided into three categories. These are:

• immediate effects arising from boat/cetacean collisions;
• short-term effects which include interruption or changes of essential behaviours such as respiration, feeding,  resting, socialising, communicating and group spacing.  Repeated disturbance of these and other important behaviours can result in stress and increased use of energy;
• long-term effects which can result in changes in distribution, reduced fitness and reduced breeding potential. 
Responses by cetaceans to disturbance may be particularly pronounced when boats approach fast, aggressively or erratically, cut across groups of animals and/or move over feeding and resting areas.

If you want to ensure that you are watching responsibly, please read our'Watching Wisely' document.

18. Wouldn’t it be better if we just all left the dolphins alone completely?

Some people might think that its better to just leave the dolphins and other marine animals alone. However, we believe that if carried out in a sensitive and responsible way, wildlife tourism can have significant benefits for marine environments and wildlife. Going out and experiencing wild animals in their natural environment can be a very moving, emotional and memorable experience for many people. These experiences are a wonderful opportunity to inspire people about the marine environment and the animals that live there, to encourage more environmentally responsible attitudes and participation in conservation efforts. In addition to this, wildlife tourism is now contributing to local regeneration and ensuring that the natural resources are protected. In the case of cetaceans, the popularity of whale and dolphin watching in many places in the world has acted as an important alternative to whaling and captive display of cetaceans.

19. What exactly is meant by responsible or ‘eco’ tourism?

Responsible tourism ensures that tourism activities do not cause harm to the environment, communities or species that are the focus of the tourism activity. Ecotourism goes a few steps further and requires tourism activities to actively benefit the environment and local communities. Ecotourism should have conservation and education benefits as well as being carried out in a responsible way.

20. What legislation protects marine wildlife from tourism activities and disturbance?

In the UK wildlife is protected from deliberate harm and disturbance by the Wildlife and Countryside Act (1981). In 2004, the Nature and Conservation Act (Scotland) added the term ‘reckless’ harm or disturbance to this protection as well as ‘intentional’ disturbance.

21. What is the difference between the DSP, WiSe and SMWWC? Why do we need all these different codes of conduct?

The DSP scheme was set up in 1995, before the WiSe scheme or the new Scottish Marine Wildlife Watching Code were developed. The DSP aims to provide specific protection for the small and vulnerable population of bottlenose dolphins found in north east Scotland. No national codes of conduct provide the level of area and species specific guidelines that the DSP provides However, although the WiSe scheme started in South-West England it has in recent years become recognised nationally as an excellent training and accreditation scheme for wildlife tour operators. The WiSe scheme provides training in responsible interactions with many marine species, including seals, seabirds, basking sharks and turtles, as well as cetaceans.

Over the years the DSP recognised that we needed to provide the tour operators in this area with training in how to approach other marine animals as well as the resident bottlenose dolphins. Rather than re-inventing the wheel, this led to a collaboration between WiSe and the DSP and now all DSP operators have taken part in WiSe training. 

In November 2006 the new Scottish Marine Wildlife Watching Code (SMWWC) was launched. This code provides guidance to everyone; the public, tour operators and researchers, who take part in wildlife watching activities. This code is an excellent way to raise public awareness about responsible wildlife watching and provides a national standard for these activities. However, it does not provide guidance that protects against cumulative impacts, is area specific or provides enough protection for vulnerable populations. Therefore the SMWWC recognises that local codes of conduct have an important role to play and recommends that where local codes exist that people should follow these codes. The DSP and WiSe were involved with the development of the SMWWC and the three schemes should be considered as complimentary.

22. What can the public do to support responsible wildlife watching?

The new Scottish Marine Wildlife Watching Code makes it easy for members of the public to know how to behave in a responsible way while taking part in wildlife watching activities. It provides guidance on best practice whilst watching from shore, on a boat or while in the sea e.g. while swimming, diving or snorkelling. In addition, members of the public can support responsible tourism by only choosing wildlife watching boats that have signed up to a local code of conduct or accreditation scheme such as the DSP or WiSe.

23. How have the efforts of the DSP improved circumstances for dolphins and other marine wildlife in this area?

The DSP provides guidance and support for 10 tour operators who conduct wildlife watching trips in the Moray Firth. Depending on the area that each operator works in the DSP suggests specific guidance to ensure that the dolphins are not disturbed by the activities of the tour boat. Some operators have agreed to limit their speed and/or the number of trips to particularly sensitive areas.  Others agree to operate in a particular designated area, or stick to a set route. All the guidelines are tailored to ensure that the dolphins receive the best level of protection in any given area. To ensure that it continues to give the best advice the DSP is constantly reviewed and updated in line with recommendations for best practice from around the world. The collaboration with WiSe also ensures that tour operators are trained to approach all marine wildlife in a responsible way, not just the dolphins. Without voluntary schemes such as  - which are based on experiences and research into wildlife watching conducted all over the world- it is possible that some tour operators might unwittingly behave in a way that caused disturbance to dolphins and other marine animals and this could have potentially serious consequences for their health and survival.  

24. How can we find out more?

For more information about the Dolphin Space Programme scheme, help with planning your wildlife cruise or dolphin watching excursion in the Moray Firth, e mail us on

 Written enquiries can be made to DSP, c/o Moray Firth Partnership, Leachkin Road, Inverness, IV3 8NW. Tel 01463725027

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