2020VISION Assignment: Moray Firth bottlenose dolphins

The Moray Firth dolphins are really exciting to watch as they interact and hunt - but you need patience, patience and more patience, says John MacPherson.

Bottlenose dolphin on the hunt at Moray Firth

The Moray Firth dolphins are really exciting to watch, as they interact and hunt. But you need patience, patience and more patience. John MacPherson has been standing around doing very little as part of his 2020VISION assignment.

iWitness Assignment: Moray Firth bottlenose dolphins

Location: Moray Firth, Inverness

Photographer: John MacPherson

An iWitness assignment? Exciting? A dramatic location? Dragging huge lenses through flesh-tearing thorns? Enduring clouds of blood-sucking insects in a remote place?

Err, um, not exactly.

In my case it was about 15 minutes from my house and I was ready to shoot. Well, 'ready to stand around' would be more accurate. Dolphins don't perform to a schedule. You need to wait. And wait. And wait.

© John MacPherson

Keeping a look out for the telltale fin of a bottlenose dolphin © John MacPherson

One of my regular idling spots is at the mouth of the River Ness, on a small point that juts out near a housing estate, with an industrial estate and harbour complex in front. Hardly exotic!

Dolphin activity often coincides with tidal movement, so one afternoon I arrived at low water. A couple of lads were sat drinking beer and smoking dope on the point, enjoying the warm day.

"Seen any dolphins?" I asked.

"Aye! Saw a couple 30 minutes ago," came the inebriated response.

"And one jumped."

Then, pausing for effect, he added, "But we never saw it come back down again!"

Just what I needed, a couple of comedians to share the afternoon with!

“I think it was Kesslet and Charlie,” said one drinker. Even the drunks know the regular dolphins!

Four hours later, the tide is almost full, and my companions are long gone. My eyes ache from staring at gently rippling water, and I need a cup of tea.

All I’ve seen moving are a couple of plastic bottles coming down the river. I see a fin far off across the Firth, I get a frame with the reflection of the RNLI building in the water. Then it vanishes. Nothing. Gone.

I turn round to stare further up the Firth with my binoculars. And hear a splash. Behind me! Aaaaargh! A tail disappears into the water in front of my tripod!

© Lorne Gill

Bottlenose dolphin explodes up out of the water © John MacPherson

A dolphin has managed to sneak in, hardly breaking the surface, and just launched itself after a large salmon.

The water bulges, betraying the dolphin’s location just below the surface, before it erupts and turns in midair shooting off in the opposite direction. Then a fish flies into the air, tail first. When they do that they’re doomed.

Five minutes of chaos ensues as water flies and fish spin skywards, before I realise there’s actually two animals present. Fins break the surface, water strains and explodes, and at one point an animal shoots past within four feet of me beneath the surface before racing away with a fish.

Then it quietens. A fin appears further out. Then another, heading past the channel marker.

I head home. I am reviewing the images in 30 minutes with that cup of tea. Aaaaah!

Photography Tip

Whether you use a monopod or tripod, learn to shoot ‘over the top’ by pointing the camera rather than looking through the viewfinder.

If your face is buried in the narrow window of the finder you can’t see what's going on around you and you’ll miss the action when it suddenly happens to your left or right.

It’s the same principle that shotgun shooters use. It takes some practice but once mastered your ‘hit rate’ of crucial action sequences will increase significantly.


2020VISION is a multimedia project that highlights the link between people's wellbeing and the restoration of natural systems.

Uniquely, it pairs the talents of 20 of the UK's most skilled outdoor photographers with writers, editors, videographers, sound artists and scientists to make a compelling case for rewilding landscapes - for wildlife and for people.

To see some of the best images taken on 2020VISION assignments so far, click here.

To find out more about 2020VISION, click here.

To find out more about John MacPherson click here

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