If you’re at the shore, chances are there’s a whale-watching tour nearby. While whale watching seems to have become ubiquitous, and while spotting a breaching whale is certainly magnificent, there’s an alternative that provides a more unique experience: dolphin watching. While dolphin sighting might not be the king of offshore excursions just yet, there’s no denying the thrill of seeing a pod of these graceful marine mammals swimming past your boat.
Unlike whale watching, where it can take hours to see a single whale — and even then, the whale isn’t going to great lengths to give you a show — dolphins almost always travel in groups and are known for their lively energy. Here are the best places in the world to go dolphin watching.
Iceland is arguably the best place in the world for dolphin watching. When it comes to sheer variety, it’s certainly tough to beat. Seven different species of dolphin swim off Iceland’s shores, including white-beaked dolphins, white-sided dolphins, striped dolphins, bottle-nosed dolphins, common dolphins, killer whales, and pilot whales (yes, the last two are technically dolphins). For white-beaked dolphins alone, there are an estimated 30,000 around the coasts of Iceland.
Although the controversial practice of whaling is popular in Iceland, that does not apply to dolphins. There has never been a culture of widespread, active dolphin hunting in iceland, which is good news for those hoping to see the creatures in abundance. Several boat tours get you up-close and personal with dolphins, as well as provide panoramic views of the sub-Arctic landscape. Salka Tours departs from Husavik in the north and allows visitors to glimpse dolphins, whales, and even puffins.
2. South Padre Island and Port Isabel, Texas
The Gulf of Mexico is one of the best places in the US for dolphin watching, particularly South Padre Island and Port Isabel. Conveniently, the Sea Ranch Marina operates dolphin watching adventures in both Texas locations. Sea Ranch One, off South Padre Island, provides access to Laguna Madre Bay, where you will see not only bottlenose and spinner dolphins but also catfish, flounder, kingfish, ladyfish, smooth butterfly rays, blacktip sharks, and more.
Located at Southpoint in Port Isabel, Sea Ranch Two offers dolphin-watching excursions and even glass-bottom boat rides for the optimal viewing experience. There are also several dry stack slips available at Sea Ranch Two, in case you’d like to bring your own boat.
3. Key West, Florida
Key West is known as one of the most popular vacation spots in the US, mainly due to its beaches, but its most enticing asset is actually its dolphin population. The most common dolphin here is the bottlenose, with an estimated 300 of them residing here regularly. What really sets Key West apart from other dolphin-heavy areas are the interactive experiences, with a variety of opportunities to dive and swim with the dolphins, and observe them in their natural habitat.
Fury’s Key West Dolphin Watch and Snorkel Tour brings you on a catamaran trip through shallow reefs, where you can snorkel right alongside the dolphins. The tour operators are Dolphin SMART certified, meaning the company has been recognized as responsible and unintrusive to the dolphin’s environment. There’s also an area called Dolphins Playground, located in Key West’s shallow backcountry. This breeding ground for dolphins is surrounded by mangroves, and it’s a great place for visitors to go dolphin-watching.
4. Hong Kong
Hong Kong is one of the most unique places to see dolphins in the world because it’s home to the rare pink dolphin. First spotted in the 17th century, pink dolphins are also known as Chinese white dolphins because adults can be either pink or white. When they’re born, they are initially colored black, then slowly turn grey before developing their pink or white hue.
Although there are only a few hundred dolphins in the waters around Hong Kong, the dolphins living there are quite active, and you’re likely to see several on a tour. Hong Kong Dolphinwatch operates cruises from Hong Kong Harbor, which run about three-four hours and usually result in several dolphin sightings.
Unfortunately, habitat loss, pollution, and vessel collisions have reduced the already low Hong Kong dolphin population recently, so if pink dolphins are on your bucket list, you’d better plan a visit soon.
5. The Indus River, Pakistan
For the villagers on the banks of Pakistan’s Indus River, living alongside dolphins is commonplace. For visitors, however, it’s one of the most unique dolphin-watching experiences in the world. Rather than viewing the creatures in a controlled playground, or taking a guided snorkel tour, here you can get a truly rugged tour steeped in local tradition.
The Indus Dolphin Boat Safari is your best bet. The safari is run by the people who live and work along the river, operating wooden boats propelled by oars and sails. These boats are used to minimize disturbance to the animals and be as non-invasive as possible. The safari does not allow people to actually go into the water to swim with the dolphins, but you’ll be able to listen to their sounds using a hydrophone.
This tour allows you to not only get familiar with the river’s dolphin population but also brings you on a more comprehensive multi-day adventure. Beginning in Lahore, you’ll drive Taunsa Barrage, where you will spend the night camping. The next day you’ll go boating on the Indus river from Taunsa to Shar Gharbi, camp overnight, then spend another day on the boat in Ghazi ghat. On the fourth day, you’ll return to Lahore via car from Ghazi.
6. Scottish Dolphin Centre, Scotland
For dolphin watching in the UK, there’s really only one place to go for the most comprehensive experience, and that’s the Scottish Dolphin Centre at the mouth of the River Spey. The center offers land-based dolphin watching where you can see some of the largest bottlenose dolphins in the world, and there’s also an entire facility dedicated to dolphins and other aquatic animals. It has an exhibit on giant whale bones, a video that lets you see the ocean through the eyes of a dolphin, and a huge house made of ice.
In addition to seeing dolphins, on guided walking tours you can also spot seals, gannets, otters, and more. If you’d rather venture on your own, you can take the Speyside Way solo and explore the footpath at your leisure, enjoying fantastic views down the river.
Don’t be discouraged just because you can’t board a boat for the tour — sightings are quite common, as there are plenty of active dolphins swimming close to shore. And the data collected from the sightings helps inform conservation decisions.
7. Bohol, Philippines
It might be a long flight to the Philippines, but it’s worth it. You might go to the Philippines for the pristine white beaches, but the dolphins might just be the most memorable part of your trip. The Bohol Sea is home to risso’s dolphins, bottlenose dolphins, spinner dolphins, spotted dolphins, melon-headed whales, dwarf sperm whales, short-filled pilot whales, Bryde’s whales, and even the occasional blue whale.
Although the sea around Bohol used to be popular among whale hunters, new marine preservation laws have banned hunting, and whalers now operate guided whale- and dolphin-watching excursions. Most dolphins can be spotted in the sea around Pamilacan Island, and it’s common to see large pods. Since the dolphins are most active at night and in the early morning, a dawn tour will probably give you the best views.
Several tour options are available, many of which also offer the opportunity to get in the water and snorkel with the dolphins.