Early summer is the best time to catch a glimpse of the creatures from the vantage points of the beaches and bays along the Banffshire coast.
It’s a beautiful coastline – sandy bays, cliff-top walks, fishing villages and stunning scenery – but the dolphins (and gannets, porpoises, puffins and the occasional whale) are a big draw.
A boat trip is your best bet – unfortunately, our booking with North 58 Sea Adventures, which runs wildlife-watching tours of the Moray Firth – is cancelled because of gale-force winds and driving rain.
We head instead for the coast, including Banff Bay with its golden sands, where the rain finally eases but the dolphins stay away, and Portsoy’s beautiful 17th-century harbour, where we spot seabirds aplenty, but still no dolphins.
“Maybe the dolphins have gone on holiday?” asks our seven-year-old, unconvinced.
“Where do dolphins go on holiday?” the three-year-old asks his big brother, who answers, wisely: “France.”
We stop for lunch at Banff Springs Hotel, which has one of the best views of the bay, so we keep our eyes peeled, just in case. The staff are friendly and, when the conversation turns to ice-cream, keen to pass on some insider knowledge.
“Portsoy has the best ice-cream shop in the world,” our waitress tells us. “Some say Cullen, but I say Portsoy. But then,” she acknowledges with a grin, “I’m a Portsoy girl, so I’m biased …”
Running away from the breaking waves on Cullen beach, we’re still searching for our first sighting. “There!” I shout, pointing to a silvery-grey speck in the distance, which promptly lifts off the wave and flies over our heads. “It’s just a bird,” chorus the boys for the millionth time.
The beach lies below an impressive railway viaduct, once a vital transport link and now a popular viewing spot over the (usually) dolphin-rich expanse of the Moray Firth.
“Does it count if we see a dolphin in the aquarium?” ask the boys, hopefully, as we pull into Macduff Aquarium’s car park, but there is none. Not even in the gift shop, where we finally admit defeat and emerge with a cuddly turtle and seal. It’s a wonderful aquarium, though – small, friendly and home to hundreds of native fish and invertebrates normally only seen by scuba divers who brave the North Sea.
On the way home, as one last, final treat, we stop in at Delgatie Castle for afternoon tea. It’s an odd castle, steeped in history and full of quirky character, but it grows on us as we explore from the top of the spiral tower all the way down – 97 steps, linking eight floors – to the tea room.
And then it’s time to continue our journey home. No dolphins, but it in the end, it didn’t matter. Scotland’s Dolphin Coast has much more to offer.