A magical summer experience: where to sail with dolphins and whales?

Uncover the Mediterranean and Atlantic's best-kept secrets and dive into a thrilling underwater experience, swimming alongside these magnificent creatures.

Swimming and snorkelling with dolphins and whales in the vastness of the open sea is a breathtaking experience, regardless of whether you're in the Mediterranean or any other part of the world. Dolphins, and indeed all marine life, captivate us all, particularly those who long to interact with these beautiful creatures in their natural environment. Although luck plays a significant part in these encounters, there's no harm in giving it a helping hand.

Picture this: it's a hot day, the sky is clear and azure, the sun is blazing bright and you're cruising on calm waters as the early evening unfolds. The only thing missing from this perfect scene? Mermaids frolicking with dolphins or whales. Now, you might not be lucky enough to spot any mermaids, but dolphins and certain species of whales can indeed be found in the Mediterranean or the Atlantic near the well-loved Canary Islands.

Swimming with dolphins and whales in the Mediterranean while on a yacht is a dream of many nature enthusiasts and adventure seekers. The crystal-clear waters of the Mediterranean provide a perfect playground for these majestic creatures, offering a unique chance to see them in their natural environment up close.

Although it's all about luck and chance, snorkelling with dolphins and whales in the Mediterranean is not impossible.

Although it's all about luck and chance, snorkelling with dolphins and whales in the Mediterranean is not impossible.

What species of dolphins and whales can you see in the Mediterranean Sea?

If you're fortunate, or if you've planned your voyage around the best spots to encounter dolphins or whales, knowing how to distinguish between species can be quite handy.

Believe it or not, there are a staggering 36 species of cetaceans, which include different types of dolphins, whales, and porpoises, found in various European marine regions.

A good number of these cetaceans, like the common dolphin (Delphinus delphis), the sperm whale (Physeter macrocephalus), and the fin whale (Balaenoptera physalus), are deemed residents and frequent visitors in Europe. Apart from these, there are species that only make the occasional trip to European waters, such as the blue whale (Balaenoptera musculus) and the humpback whale (Megaptera novaeangliae). The harbour porpoise (Phocoena phocoena) is unique as the only species of cetacean that dwells in all European marine regions, including the Mediterranean and the North-East Atlantic.

In the Mediterranean you can even find sperm whales

Even sperm whales can be found in the Mediterranean.

Dolphins: the ocean's playful acrobats

The Mediterranean is home to several species of dolphins, the most playful of which is the bottlenose dolphin (Tursiops truncatus), often seen leaping alongside boats. However, there's more to the dolphin family in this region. Other species found here include the common dolphin (Delphinus delphis), the rough-toothed dolphin (Steno bredanensis), and different subspecies of the bottlenose dolphin like the Mediterranean bottlenose dolphin. It is worth noting that the distribution of dolphins can vary depending on the specific location in the Mediterranean Sea.

Bottlenose dolphin (Tursiops truncatus)

As one of the most recognised dolphin species, the bottlenose dolphin sadly also tops the list as the most common resident of dolphinariums. Found in several parts of the Mediterranean Sea, these dolphins can be identified by their sturdy bodies, short 'snouts', and conspicuous dorsal fins. While their colours can vary, they generally sport a dark grey back with a lighter grey or whitish belly. Renowned for their intelligence and sociability, bottlenose dolphins are typically seen in groups known as pods.

Bottlenose dolphin

Bottlenose dolphin

Striped dolphin (Stenella coeruleoalba)

A striking creature in its own right, the striped dolphin has an iconic colour pattern. Typically, it sports a dark blue-grey back with a lighter grey stripe running from the eye to the fin, completed by a white belly. Slim in build with a pointed snout and a distinctive dorsal fin, striped dolphins are known for their love of acrobatics. They often delight onlookers by leaping out of the water and riding the bow waves caused by boats. They tend to move in large groups, which can sometimes number in the hundreds or even thousands. In the Mediterranean, you'll usually encounter smaller pods. However, it's worth noting that these dolphins can become distressed easily, which can unfortunately result in mass strandings.

Striped dolphin

Striped dolphin

Risso's dolphin or grey dolphin (Grampus griseus)

Risso's dolphins are characterised by their hefty, solid bodies and blunt, rounded heads. With a colour palette that ranges from grey to light grey, these creatures are often covered with white scars and scratches. Over time, as these dolphins accumulate scars, they can turn almost entirely white. Generally, they prefer deeper waters but occasionally venture closer to the shore. Encountering these dolphins is a rare treat.

Risso's dolphin or grey dolphin

Risso's dolphin or grey dolphin

Common dolphin or short-beaked common dolphin (Delphinus delphis)

Common dolphins (also known as short-beaked common dolphins) are small to medium-sized dolphins with a sleek body, short snout and a striking dorsal fin. They have a distinctive colouration with a dark back, light grey flanks and a yellowish or tan hourglass-shaped pattern on their flanks. These dolphins are very active, jumping, riding the waves and riding the bow. They typically move in large groups and are the most common dolphin species.

Common dolphin or common bottlenose dolphin

Common dolphin or common bottlenose dolphin

Rough-toothed dolphin (Steno bredanensis)

This dolphin species is relatively lesser known. Its slightly flattened snout bears resemblance to its distant terrestrial mammalian cousins, earning it the title of the oldest member of the dolphin family. Predominantly found in the deep tropical and subtropical waters of the Atlantic, Indian and Pacific Oceans, it occasionally ventures into the shallower coastal waters of semi-enclosed bodies of water, including the Mediterranean. The rough-toothed dolphin stands out with a snout elongated into a long beak, flattened on the sides. Its body sports a dark grey hue with occasional irregular white or light spots on both sides.

YACHTING.COM TIP: We've written a number of articles focusing on Mediterranean wildlife. Check out our pieces on sharks in  the Mediterranean and the most dangerous creatures in Greece and Croatia.

Rough-toothed dolphin

Rough-toothed dolphin

Whales: the majestic sea giants

Most of the whale sightings in the Mediterranean Sea can be attributed to two species: the minke whale (Balaenoptera acutorostrata) and the blue whale (Balaenoptera musculus). A substantial number of these sightings occur in the Ligurian Sea — an area stretching from Toulon, past the northern tip of Sardinia to Corsica. There are also occasional sightings of other species like the sperm whale (Physeter macrocephalus) and Cuvier's beaked whale (Ziphius cavirostris), although they are less common in the region than sperm whales.

Blue whale (Balaenoptera musculus)

The blue whale holds the title for the largest living creature, and by current accounts, it is also considered the heaviest animal that has ever existed. This marine giant can reach an impressive length of 30 metres and a hefty weight of up to 190 tonnes. Its body is sleekly designed, a feature which allows it to attain speeds as high as 37 kilometres per hour.

A giant whale. NOAA Photo Library - CC, free work

Huge whale

Mink whale (Balaenoptera acutorostrata)

The Minke whale is among the smaller baleen (whalebone) whales, measuring a "mere" 8 metres in length and weighing between 5 to 8 tons. It has a yellowish to pinkish tint and thrives primarily in cold to temperate waters.

Sperm whale (Physeter macrocephalus)

As the largest toothed whales, Sperm whales can reach lengths up to 18 metres. They can be identified by their massive, square-shaped heads, which often make them easy to spot as it constitutes up to one-third of their total body length. A unique feature is their blowhole located on the left side of the head, emitting a distinctive and loud blow. They're unfortunately gravely endangered with an estimated population of around 2,500 in the Mediterranean Sea. Encounters with them in Croatia are rare, where they're strictly protected, and more likely to occur south of the Otranto Strait (the border between the Adriatic and Ionian Seas), where the sea bed drops abruptly into the depths.

Cuvier's beaked whale (Ziphius cavirostris)

Cuvier's beaked whales are relatively small, with adult males reaching about 7 metres in length, females being slightly larger. They have a robust body with a characteristic snout and a small mouth. Their colour ranges from dark to light grey, or even reddish-brown, and some individuals exhibit white or light patterns on their bellies. They possess a rounded forehead and a single, often inconspicuous blowhole located in front of the head. They are regularly sighted in the Mediterranean Sea.

Cuvier's beaked whale

Cuvier's beaked whale

Long-finned pilot whale (Globicephala melas)

Long-finned pilot whales, also known as loggerheads, are relatives of dolphins that also live in pods. In the northern hemisphere, they inhabit the Mediterranean Sea and the Atlantic Ocean between Europe and North America. As part of the dolphin family, they are quite large, with adult males reaching up to 6 metres in length. They have a robust body, a bulbous forehead and a pronounced dorsal fin. They are typically dark-coloured, often black or dark grey, with a lighter patch on the belly and behind the dorsal fin. A notable feature is their prominent blowhole, slightly left of the center of the forehead, which makes a loud burst when emerging. The northwestern Mediterranean houses a small population of black pilot whales, while another species, the Siebold's pilot whale, has been recorded once in the Mediterranean.

YACHTING.COM TIP:  Several whale species can be sighted in the Mediterranean Sea, including those that may have drifted from more remote locations, or those found beached or floating lifeless at sea. Such sightings should be reported to local authorities or marine conservation organizations.

Although it's important to note that sightings of dolphins and whales are never guaranteed, certain areas in the Mediterranean offer higher chances of encountering these marine animals. Now, we're going to suggest a few destinations known for such encounters where you might be lucky enough to swim alongside these remarkable sea creatures.

Dolphin group

Dolphin group

Sailing with dolphins in Spain

1. Canary Islands — here the chances are great

Spain: is a splendid location, not only for its sailing opportunities but also for dolphin and whale spotting. The Canary Islands, situated in the Atlantic, are particularly notable. Dolphins are a massive attraction in many of these islands, notably Tenerife and Grand Canaria. However, tourist-centric group tours don't always match the idyllic image of a dolphin sighting at sunrise or early evening, times when the likelihood of spotting these creatures is highest.

Another location where dolphins can be encountered is along the rugged Costa Brava coastline in northeastern Spain.

YACHTING.COM TIP:  If you choose to take an organised trip, perhaps in response to your children's pleas to see dolphins, consider opting for a private charter. These smaller vessels, typically accommodating a maximum of eight people, often come with an onboard marine biologist who can offer informative and engaging insights about all the marine species you might encounter. You should also look at online reviews of the various companies offering these "experiences" before making a decision. Unsatisfied customers are typically quite frank with their assessments, whereas those who had a pleasant experience often heap praise. Organised trips often follow responsible wildlife viewing practices, often led by guides experienced with animal behaviours and protective regulations.

2. Strait of Gibraltar — keep your eyes peeled

The Strait of Gibraltar, located between Spain and Morocco, is a renowned spot for marine mammal enthusiasts. It's a migratory route for various dolphin and whale species moving between the Atlantic Ocean and the Mediterranean. 

Common dolphins, bottlenose dolphins, and striped dolphins are frequently seen in these waters. Larger species, including fin whales and occasionally even the majestic killer whale (Orcinus orca), have been spotted here. As you sail the Strait, be sure to keep an eye on the water, as these playful creatures often jump and surf the boat's bow waves. Many local tour operators offer specialised trips for dolphin and whale watching, ensuring a safe and memorable experience.is another famous place for marine mammal lovers. It serves as a migration route for various species of dolphins and whales that travel between the Atlantic Ocean and the Mediterranean.

3. Balearic Islands — if you're lucky, you can snorkel with dolphins

The Balearic Islands, including Mallorca, Menorca, Ibiza, and Formentera, are surrounded by pristine Mediterranean waters brimming with marine life. These islands offer prime locations for dolphin and occasional whale encounters. 

The waters around the islands are home to the same species as those around the Canaries, but you can also spot Risso's dolphins. You may even be lucky enough to come face to face with these friendly cetaceans while snorkelling or swimming in these crystal clear waters.

YACHTING.COM TIP:  The Mediterranean coast of Spain, especially around the Balearic Islands and the Costa Brava, is a great place for dolphin encounters. Common species include the common dolphin, the striped dolphin, and the playful bottlenose dolphin. You might also spot sea turtles in these waters.

Dolphins from the perspective of a snorkeller

Dolphins from the perspective of a snorkeler

Croatia

When it comes to our beloved Croatia, the Adriatic Sea is a hotspot for dolphin sightings, particularly areas like Kvarner Bay, which stretches between the Istrian peninsula and the Croatian coast, and the islands of Vis and Cres. Be on the lookout for bottlenose dolphins, and you might even get a rare glimpse of the shy Risso's dolphin.

Italy and France

France and Italy: The Ligurian Sea, encompassing areas such as the French and Italian Riviera, offers ample opportunities to encounter dolphins and whales during your voyage.

1. Sardinia is ideal for a dolphin cruise

Sardinia, a beautiful Italian island in the heart of the Mediterranean, also promises dolphin encounters. The pristine waters of Capo Carbonara, on Sardinia's southern coast, are home to various dolphin species, including the friendly bottlenose dolphin. This area, with its picturesque beaches and fascinating marine life, guarantees unforgettable dolphin

Alongside the bottlenose dolphin, you might also spot the striped dolphin. Cruising along the coast or anchoring near secluded coves can improve your chances of observing and swimming with these remarkable creatures.

Italy's coastlines, including Sardinia, are also home to sea turtles, including the Caretta caretta, commonly known as the loggerhead sea turtle.

Italian Calabria

Italian Calabria

2. French Riviera

The French Riviera, also known as the Côte d'Azur, is renowned not just for its enchanting coastline but also for its diverse marine life. Common dolphins, striped dolphins, and Risso's dolphins inhabit these coastal waters. These sociable and energetic animals are known to approach boats, often riding alongside them and playing in the waves.

With a bit of luck, you might even spot a humpback whale or pilot whales, including the long-finned pilot whale. Several tour operators in cities such as Nice and Cannes offer dolphin and whale-watching trips, giving you an opportunity to marvel at these magnificent creatures in their natural habitat.

Greece — west coast in the Ionian Sea

The Ionian Sea, situated off the western coast of mainland Greece and the coast of Italy, is another promising region for dolphin encounters. Here, you can observe common and striped dolphins, renowned for their acrobatic displays and curiosity towards boats. These intelligent creatures might even investigate your presence in the water, making for a thrilling snorkelling experience.

In addition to the Ionian Islands, the Cyclades are also famous for frequent dolphin sightings. Sea turtles can also be spotted in Greek waters, particularly around the islands of Zakynthos and Kefalonia.

The Greek islands are among the most beautiful

The Greek islands are among the most beautiful

The Alonissos Marine Park in the northern Sporades is a protected area designed to safeguard marine life. It houses several species of dolphins, including the common dolphin, the bottlenose dolphin, and Risso's dolphins. We recommend reaching out to the Alonissos Marine Park Authority for guidelines and regulations regarding dolphin encounters.

YACHTING.COM TIP:  Besides dolphins and whales, you might also be enchanted by the more frequent and likely encounter with a sea turtle. For example, Zakynthos, Greece, is renowned for its beautiful beaches and the iconic Navagio, where you have the opportunity to meet the loggerhead sea turtle (Caretta caretta) nesting and swimming in the crystal-clear water.

Portuguese Azores and dolphins in the Atlantic

While not technically part of the Mediterranean Sea, the Azores archipelago in the North Atlantic deserves a mention for its remarkable marine biodiversity. The Azores serve as a resting and breeding ground for several whale species, including the sperm whale (Physeter macrocephalus) and the fin whale (Balaenoptera physalus). Dolphins, such as the common dolphin and the Atlantic spotted dolphin (Stenella frontalis), can also be seen in these waters.

Numerous whale-watching companies in the Azores offer guided whale-watching trips, where you can observe and, in some cases, swim with these magnificent creatures.

With a bit of luck (and a great deal of respect for nature), your chances of encountering dolphins, whales, and turtles in the Mediterranean are fairly high. Plan your voyage with our recommended locations in mind. After that, it's all about anticipation and keeping your fingers crossed for the thrilling experiences that may lie ahead.

Now you know all about dolphins and whales, it's time to find you a boat. Contact me for advice.

FAQs: What to know about dolphins and whales