A British Isles and Ireland Discovery


Ocean Conservationists Ellie and Jenna were on board Ambassador's Ambience, discovering the amazing marine mammals that can be seen in waters around the UK.

ORCA Ocean Conservationists Ellie and Jenna (that’s me) boarded Ambassador’s Ambiance in London Tilbury on a hot August day. It may surprise many, even the very residents of the UK, that our surrounding waters are teeming with marine mammals! After spending 12 nights sailing clockwise around the UK and Ireland, I’d love to tell you some of our best highlights of the MANY cetacean (whales, dolphins, and porpoises) encounters we’ve enjoyed from the outer decks of the ship with our guests.

Awaking in the east of the English Channel on our first sea day, there was the possibility of spotting harbour porpoises and bottlenose dolphins. However, despite great spotting conditions at sea, it wasn’t until we reached the western part of the channel in the late afternoon that things started to get exciting. With nine separate sightings throughout the evening of common dolphins and harbour porpoise, one of these sightings stood out for us. We often tell guests to look for feeding behaviour from seabirds, such as circling above a particular area and swooping/diving, as they too feed on the same resources as many of the cetaceans. Upon spotting some diving gannets ahead, we looked closer with our binoculars at the water's surface, and sure enough, appeared some small black shiny backs with triangular dorsal fins moving in different directions in that one patch of water (feeding behaviour!), this was a group of at least seven harbour porpoises. Usually alone or in small groups, we tend to see them in larger groups in the south of the UK in August, potentially due to an abundance of food or for mating opportunities.

Our second sea day was certainly one to remember as we cruised along the southwest coast of Ireland, with feeding frenzies of gannets, fulmars, shearwaters, and gulls with common dolphins feeding below. In the morning, a pod of 70 common dolphins raced towards the ship from the port side to ride in the wake, and a minke whale was spotted lunge feeding ahead of the ship, surfacing close-by on the starboard side. But the highlight for many guests on deck was spotting five distant whale blows towards the horizon on the starboard side of the ship. The large whales surfaced together all in a line multiple times but were a bit too far to confirm their species. A guest with a powerful zoom took some photos, but it was still too far to tell if they were sei whales or fin whales, but certainly one or both species.

During our trip we only had one sighting of bottlenose dolphins which occurred as we left the vibrant city of Galway. Despite rough waters as we headed out from our anchor point, three dark silhouettes were spotted within the green roll of swell. What we were seeing was bottlenose dolphins surfing inside the swell with fins occasionally breaking through as they made their way to the bow of the ship. An hour later, in the rough water, we didn’t expect much, but a minke whale surfaced close by to the starboard side, causing a wave of excitement on deck. We rushed to the barrier to see if it resurfaced and out jumped two common dolphins, a double surprise!

We were extremely excited to get out on deck for our day in the Hebrides, we were greeted with stunning sunrise and beautiful scenery of the Outer Hebrides on our port side and the Inner Hebrides on our starboard side. The morning was full of dolphin sightings, including one lone Risso’s dolphin as we passed Staffin. It surfaced at the bow twice, revealing its pale scarred body indicative of an older individual, it then cruised by the ship before disappearing from view. It’s unusual to see them alone as they are usually in fairly large pods of more than 30 individuals. Over the morning, a total of 179 common dolphins were spotted with many bow riding, some repeated side breaches, and a pod of approximately 120 in the distance towards Raasay as we approached Portree. The Sound of Raasay is a deeper water channel, which encourages a variety of species to the area, the renowned productivity of these waters was confirmed with many feeding seabirds throughout our inward and outward journey. Many more dolphins and a number of minke whales were seen during our evening watch, with some lunge feeding behaviour observed from the whales, creating quite a stir on deck and in the water!

Nearing the end of our trip, we were on our approach to Orkney with a vivid pink skyline as the sun rose. With great conditions and dramatic island scenery, it was no chore to be on deck for an hour before a guest pointed to something that had just surfaced on ahead to the port side. It was our lucky day, a minke whale surfaced relatively close, giving us wonderful views of its splashguard (the bump before its blowholes), back, and curved dorsal fin. It surfaced multiple times, something we rarely get to see from these shy whales. But our luck didn’t stop there, about half an hour later, a pod of four Risso’s dolphins were surfacing ahead of us, giving us views of their beakless faces, large dorsal fins, and relatively few scars (indicating younger individuals). We felt so lucky to have had two Risso’s dolphin sightings in 48hrs, given I’ve only seen them twice over my seven years with ORCA… but yet again, our luck carried on! Less than two hours later, another pod of Risso’s, these were more scarred and therefore likely older animals. They rode the waves of the wake as they fell behind the ship.

In total, we saw 587 animals. We had a wonderful time enjoying the best of the UK and Ireland’s coastlines and islands and all the waters between with the embracing enthusiasm of Ambassador’s guests and crew alike!