In the company of dolphins

The Moray Firth and North East coast of Scotland are home to a resident population of bottlenose dolphins, around 200 or so in number and I am fortunate to spend my working life studying and photographing these big, charismatic predators.

Bottlenose dolphins in the Moray Firth

A boat is not always necessary to get access to these dolphins, as they can hunt for seasonal migratory salmon only a few metres from the shore of one particular peninsula – Chanonry Point on the Black Isle near Inverness. I am able to monitor which individual dolphins are using the area by recognising them through their very individual dorsal fins – a technique called “mark recapture”. I often share these pictures and data with my friends at Aberdeen University’s Lighthouse Field Station at Cromarty who run the official Photo ID project.

"Mark recapture" of bottlenose dolphin dorsal fin

These dolphins are also highly individual in nature, not just in dorsal fin appearance and have very distinct personalities that you get to know when you study them for an extended period – we are talking decades here as these are long-lived mammals – 50 years or so for females isn't uncommon. I have the honour of having a young male dolphin named after me ID#1025 “Charlie” who is the son of “Kesslet” whom I have studied for 20 years. The work that I do for the charity Whale and Dolphin Conservation (formerly WDCS) is to study 6 individuals in particular that the public can “adopt” and support us financially, constantly supplying my support team at head office with the raw ingredients to keep the programme going. It might sound all very romantic, studying dolphins for a living - but up here in northern Scotland it can be hard, arduous work, especially in the winter when the weather is challenging and the dolphins are farther out to sea hunting winter prey like herring.

Bottlenose dolphin and salmon

To photograph these dolphins from the shore I use some of my professional photography “toys” to get as good images as I can. You will see me throughout the year standing at Chanonry Point with my huge white Canon 500mm lens and high frame rate IDX camera body mounted on a big carbon fibre tripod getting pictures of the dolphins and observing their behaviour as they move in and out of the area. If I am lucky enough to get out with Aberdeen University or maybe one of the local tour boats in good weather then I can top up my image bank of dolphins out at sea using much smaller zoom lenses. When out on the Moray Firth I can come across individuals that I might not encounter around Chanonry very often as some of these dolphins have their own favourite areas and might not visit my “office” that frequently. It's great fun catching up with other dolphins that I haven’t seen for a while, especially the females if they have had new babies. Although I have been doing this for a long time now, I still feel my heart-rate increasing whenever I see a dorsal fin and I never get tired seeing them – I just love being in the company of my dolphins.

Charlie Phillips at his "office" on Chanonry Point

Charlie Phillips is an award-winning professional wildlife photographer, lecturer, and author who was Scottish Nature Photographer of the Year 2012. He is also Field Officer for marine mammal charity WDC. Follow Charlie @adoptadolphin on Twitter. Charlie's new book “On a Rising Tide” is available now from