There are few wildlife experiences like it – to see dolphins, or even an adult humpbacked whale, surge right out of the water next to your boat. Children, in particular, are thrilled to bits – and whale-watching, once thought of as a novelty pursuit, is steadily becoming mainstream, and growing in popularity around the coasts of Britain.
The delight of seeing wild marine mammals up close is drawing more and more holidaymakers to whale-watching excursions, in the West Country, Wales and especially in Scotland, where in 2008, the last year for which there are figures, nearly a quarter of a million people took boat trips to search for cetaceans – the generic term for whales, dolphins and porpoises.
We've caught on to this form of marine safari rather late – in the USA, nearly five million holidaymakers annually take whale-watching trips from places like Provincetown on Cape Cod, while in Australia about 1.6 million, and in Canada about 1.2 million visitors a year similarly set out on cetacean watch. But we're catching up. More and more seaside resorts, whose small-boat skippers might once have offered only fishing trips or tours round the bay, are setting out in search of more majestic sea creatures, sometimes in a RIB, a rigid inflatable boat, which is very fast, or sometimes in more leisurely craft.
Bottlenose dolphins, which have two resident populations in British waters, in Cardigan Bay in Wales and the Moray Firth in Scotland, are the most commonly seen cetaceans around our coasts, followed by the more diminutive harbour porpoises, and the much larger minke whales, which are the smallest of the great whales.
But there is often a chance to see other dolphin species, such as common dolphins, which have a broad pale stripe along their side, and more of the great whales, such as the humpback with its tremendous "breaching" or leaping clear of the water, while the world's second largest fish, the huge basking shark, can frequently be seen in summer months.
Perhaps the greatest prize of all – certainly the most dramatic – is to come across a pod of killer whales or orcas, the striking black-and-white hunters which are the largest members of the dolphin family. Your chances of seeing them improve as you go north, with perhaps your best chance of all in Northern Scotland.
"People used to believe that it was impossible to observe whales, that the only way to study them was to harpoon them," says Vassili Papastavrou, whale biologist at the International Fund for Animal Welfare. "But we're now coming to understand what makes these great animals tick, their social behaviours."
"Whale watching is a huge industry – around 13 million people currently enjoy a trip each year in 120 countries, generating revenues of over $2bn," said Vanessa Williams-Grey of the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society. "We have promoted responsible whale watching as a wonderful way to connect with whales and dolphins in the wild and also to enjoy the wider marine environment.
"When done well (which means responsible boat handling and adherence to local regulations or guidelines governing behaviour around the animals), whale watching inspires, exhilarates and educates in equal measure."
Our whale-watching guide is not exhaustive; lack of space allows us to name only a few representative operators in each area. Listing them is in no way an endorsement, and we are sorry for those which are left out.
But we hope this guide will trigger your interest (if you're not interested already) and of course, as nearly all whale-watching tour operators are listed on-line, a more comprehensive picture is easy to build up.
It certainly makes a big change from sand castles and ice cream.
The main attraction in Wales is the resident bottlenose dolphin population in Cardigan Bay: as they're residents in the area, they can nearly always be seen. New Quay and Aberaeron (small towns loved by poet Dylan Thomas) are the two main starting points.
New Quay: Cardigan Bay Marine Wildlife Centre
cbmwc.orge, 01545 560032, evenings 01545 580444/mobile and boat: 07796 135490.
Sail out to see the dolphins in the survey vessel Sulaire.
New Quay: New Quay Boat Tripse
newquayboattrips.co.uk, 01545 560800. Trips to Ynys Lochtyn peninsula.
seamor.org, 07795 242 445
Explore Llanina Reef and New Quay Bay.
St Davids: Voyages of Discovery
ramseyisland.co.uk/whale/index.shtml , 0800 854 367 A 2- hour RIB trip.
Neyland Marina, near Milford Haven: Sea Trust Dolphin Surveys
seatrust.org.uk/site/Boat-Trips.aspx OR firstname.lastname@example.org, 01348 875639
Excursions to Pembrokeshire's coastal waters.
Dale, Pembrokeshire: Dale Sea Safari
pembrokeshireislands.co.uk, 01646 603110
Explore the beautiful Skomer Marine Nature Reserve.
Aberystwyth: Cardigan Bay Yacht Charter
eryr.net/cyc, 07789 680309
Scan the sea to try and catch a glimpse of dolphins while you relax aboard the 33-foot sailing yacht Celine.
Gwbert, near Cardigan: A Bay to Remember
baytoremember.co.uk, 01239 623558
Explore your wild side on an adventure wildlife trip in Cardigan Bay.
Pwllheli: Shearwater Cruises
shearwatercruises.com, 01758 740899
Step on board a purpose-built catamaran and take a trip that will allow you to explore the many beautiful sites of the Snowdonia coast.
The West Country
Minke is the main whale seen off the south-west, with occasional humpbacks. Good for less familiar species such as Risso's and white-beaked dolphins, but common and bottlenose seen as well, and plenty of harbour porpoises. Fascinating big fish: ocean sunfish (sometimes) and plenty of basking sharks.
Penzance: Elemental Tours
www.elementaltours.co.uk01736 811 200/07971 540280
Cruises around the Land's End and Lizard Peninsulas.
Penzance: Marine Discovery
A voyage on a sailing catamaran.
Falmouth: Orca Sea Safaris
www.kingharryscornwall.co.uk/frl/orca , 01326 214928
Trip to explore the Manacles reef in 12-seater rigid inflatable boats.
Newquay: Atlantic Diver
www.atlanticdiver.co.uk, 01637 850 930
Two boats offering some close encounters with marine life.
Plymouth: Plymouth Hoe Cruises
www.plymouthhoecruises.co.uk, 07971 208381
Short, dedicated eco-trip with nature commentary.
West Bay, near Bridport, Dorset: Naturetrek
www.naturetrek.co.uk, 01962 733051
A tour that shows you the seabirds and the cetaceans of Lyme Bay.
The farthest to travel to, but often the most rewarding: the island groups of Orkney and Shetland offer the best chance of seeing humpbacks, killer and pilot whales from the deep oceanic waters, as well as minke whales and a range of dolphin species. Watching can be done from the shore.
Orkney : Sea Orkney, Kirkwall
seaorkney.webs.com, 07808 811819
Tailored trips on the eight-metre Nicky Tam
Shetland : Shetland Nature, Vidlin Marina
shetlandnature.net, 07786 982773
Tours in the waters between the islands of Skerries, Fetlar and Yell.
Like Wales, Eastern Scotland has its own population of bottlenose dolphins, resident in the Moray Firth, north-east of Inverness. There are two land-based watching centres, at Spey Bay and North Kessock; locals suggest spotting the dolphins from Chanonry Point.
General: Dolphin Space
dolphinspace.org, 07921 106144
Local agency listing Moray Firth dolphin operators.
ecoventures.co.uk, 01381 600 323
RIB trips from Cromarty Harbour.
Cromarty: Cromarty Ferry Company
cromarty-ferry.co.uk, 01381 610 269
Ferry between Cromarty and Nigg: tends to attract the local dolphins.
Avoch Dolphin Trips Avoch
dolphintripsavoch.co.uk, 01381 622383
Small but tough boat with water-jet engine.
Buckie: Gemini Explorer
geminiexplorer.co.uk, 07747 626 280
Comfortable and stable former lifeboat.
Banff: North 58°
north58.co.uk/tours.html, 01261 819900
Fast-paced trips on RIB boats.
Banff: Moray Firth Boat Charter
morayfirthboatcharter.co.uk, 01340 820 007
If you are interested in a private charter then this firm offers them on the 31-foot Alucia.
Western Scotland: Mainland and the Hebrides
The widest range of options. One of the attractions of a whale-watching cruise in the Western Isles is that you may see golden eagles, sea eagles, seals, otters and a vast range of other wildlife, including red deer back on the land. Bottlenose dolphins, harbour porpoises and minke whales are all present.
Stein, Isle of Skye: Diver's Eye
divers-eye.co.uk, 01470 592219
3-hour daily wildlife trip.
Kyle of Lochalsh: Sea Probe Atlantis
seaprobeatlantis.com, 0800 980 4846
Glass-bottomed boat, semi-submersible.
Kyle of Lochalsh: Spirit of Adventure
the-spirit-of-adventure.co.uk, 01471 822716
Tailored dolphin trips around Skye and the Crowlin Islands.
Tobermory, Isle of Mull: Sea Life Surveys
Multiple boats and a wide range of daily tours.
Tobermory, Isle of Mull: Hebridean Adventure
hebrideanadventure.co.uk, 01688 302875
Daily and evening cruises in the Sound of Mull and Loch Sunart.
Gairloch: Gairloch Marine Life Centre and Cruises
porpoise-gairloch.co.uk/index.php, 01445 712636
Informative tours with expert guides.
Gairloch: Sealife glass bottomed boat
glassbottomboat.info/contact.htm, 01445 712540
Get up close and personal in a glass-bottomed boat.
Gairloch: Hebridean Whale Cruises
hebridean-whale-cruises.co.uk/index.php, 0800 008 6833
If you have the time then you can take longer trips into the whale feeding grounds of the North Minch.
Arisaig: Forever Changes
seawatchfoundation.org.uk, 01326 373360
Cetacean observation surveys for the Wildlife Trusts.
Oban: Highland Tiger
highland-tiger.com, 01631 720 609
Full-day whale-watching tours.
Oban: Chalice Charters
mvchalice.com, 01631 720609
Full-length shipboard Scottish wildlife and culture holidays.
seafari.co.uk, 01852 300003
The company's RIBs have some specially adapted child seats for the younger wildlife enthusiasts.
Seil, south of Oban: Sealife Adventures
sealife-adventures.com, 01631 571010
Three-hour trips to the Corryvreckan whirlpool.
Ardfern: Craignish Cruises
craignishcruises.co.uk, 07747 023038
The company's 60-foot catamaran takes wildlife enthusiasts on cruises to the Corryvreckan whirlpool.