Best tours to see Dolphins in Madeira

Madeira Island offers multiple options to observe cetaceans in their natural habitat. Do you dare to go on board?

Ana C.R.

Ana C.R.

12 min read

Best tours to see Dolphins in Madeira

Funchal | ©Jimmy Pierce

In 1984, Madeira Island went from being a whaling hotspot to a protected area for thousands of marine species. That's why if you were wondering what to do in Madeira, one of the best options is definitely whale and dolphin watching

From boats, catamarans, to renting your own sailboat, Madeira has many options for you to learn about all the species that live in the sea. So here is what you should consider if you want to see cetaceans on your next holiday.

When to travel to Madeira to see dolphins?

Dolphins in Funchal| ©Manoel Teixeira.
Dolphins in Funchal| ©Manoel Teixeira.

It is important to note that one of the advantages of Madeira, compared to other destinations, is that you will be able to see cetaceans all year round. The privileged location of the island makes it a perfect destination for those who wish to see these species in their natural habitat.

Thanks to its location, Madeira is a perfect place to observe different species of dolphins all year round.

Some species live in the vicinity of the island and are found from January to December. But also some seasons are perfect to see more exotic and difficult to spot species.

Book a Whale Watching Tour

What species can you find?

Common Dolphin Fin| ©Ricardo Liberato
Common Dolphin Fin| ©Ricardo Liberato
  • From January to July: Common dolphin: Compared to other species, the common dolphin is a little smaller in body size. You can also recognise them by their colouring: dark grey on top and light on the bottom. Another thing that distinguishes them from other dolphins is the number of years they live. Although this depends on their habitat they can live up to 30 years.

  • February to April and July to November: Striped Dolphin: This is a robust dolphin, so you will be able to identify it quite easily. Its colouring is bluish-grey on top and white underneath. It is one of the dolphin species that jumps the most and has a fairly high record, which averages 7 metres.

  • From March to October: Tropical spotted dolphin and Atlantic spotted dolphin: As its name says, the spotted dolphin is identified by its pattern of grey spots on its sides and by having small spots on its neck and belly. This species of dolphin is found in the Atlantic, Pacific and Indian Oceans. This is because they are very sociable and friendly with dolphins of other species.

  • May to September: Rough-toothed dolphin: This species is a bit more difficult to spot, as they tend to stay underwater for a long time. But if you travel during this period you will have a better chance of seeing them, as they usually reproduce during these months and choose the waters near the Canary Islands and Madeira to do so. It is considered one of the most intelligent dolphin species. This is due to the way it swims and its ability to hunt for food.

  • From May to October: Risso's dolphin, Risso's dolphin or Risso's dolphin: This species of dolphin is very sociable. Although they are usually in groups of 10 to 50 individuals, they have been found in groups of up to 4000. When they become adults, they are often easily identifiable by the wounds on their skin of the Risso's dolphin. This is because among Risso's dolphins, when playing or fighting, they often injure each other because of the shape and position of their teeth.

Book a whale and dolphin watching tour

When is the best time to see dolphins?

Sunrise in Madeira| ©Nick Ares
Sunrise in Madeira| ©Nick Ares

Dolphins have the advantage of being much easier to spot throughout the day. Whales, on the other hand, tend to be a bit more difficult to spot, as it depends on the time of day or the time of day you take the tour.

That's why I recommend, in case you choose to do a single tour on the island, to book a tour early in the morning or late in the afternoon. This way you will have more chances to see whales and dolphins.

You will notice that Madeira Island has a lot of options for these whale and dolphin tours and all of them offer options for all budgets. Prices vary according to the services offered by the tour, as well as the amenities and additional activities included.

It is important to note that none of the tours guarantee dolphin sightings. As they are wild species living in their natural habitat, there is no guarantee that they will appear. So remember that you will see dolphins if they feel like approaching.

The good news is that, unlike whales or killer whales, dolphins are usually much friendlier to boats. In fact, it is much more common to see dolphins than whales, as dolphins tend to "play" with the boats they encounter.

It is very common to see photos or videos where tourists are just a few metres away from dolphins. This is because these cetaceans are usually very playful, and use the waves generated by the boat to jump over them.

Also, thanks to the clarity of Madeira's waters, you will see how they try to follow the boats or swim underneath them. Sometimes it even looks like they are trying to race the boat.

If you are still hesitant to book a dolphin watching tour, remember that there is open communication between the pilots of all the boats, no matter which tour company they belong to. This means that if a boat sees dolphins and/or whales, they will communicate with each other to share the spot so that all tourists can see these beautiful cetaceans.

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Catamaran or boat?

Charters from Funchal| ©Dmitriy Fomenko
Charters from Funchal| ©Dmitriy Fomenko

The privileged location as well as its climatic characteristics make a boat trip always an excellent option.

For dolphin watching, although there are many different boats to choose from, most of the tour companies offer 2 options: the catamaran and the speedboat. Both options are ideal for whale watching, but here are the advantages for you to consider when deciding which one to choose. You can


  • Bigger boat = More freedom: This can be very useful, as often the dolphins or whales are not in front of where you are sitting. While the captain of the boat will orientate the boat so that you can watch the spectacle from all angles, having ample mobility can be an advantage.
  • Seating comfort: Tours usually last between 2 to 3 hours, and if you tend to suffer from back pain, more lumbar comfort can be helpful.
  • Toilets: Catamarans have toilets on board, which on longer tours is a major advantage.
  • Accessibility and space: Another plus point of the catamaran is the accessibility and space for everyone to enjoy the sightseeing. Some tours also offer refreshments and snacks, which makes it very convenient if you forgot to bring food or drinks.
  • Price The price of the tours tends to be lower on catamarans, as they have a larger capacity than a boat, so the price of the tour tends to be lower. It is important to bear in mind that sometimes the number of people on the catamaran means that you may have to wait for a photo.


  • Speed: The speedboat offers something that the catamaran does not, and that is speed. Speedboats can easily visit several spots, which increases the likelihood of seeing cetaceans. Many people enjoy the speed and the waves on this type of boat.
  • Smaller size: Another favourable point of the speedboat has to do with its size. Having a shallower draft allows the boat to easily access caves or beaches.
  • Closer to the water: Many people enjoy sailing on these boats because being closer to the water offers a better view of the dolphins. This is not a minor point, as dolphins tend to get very close to the waves produced by the boats.
  • All seated: While this may not seem that appealing, it is essential for safety and enjoyment. If you have children, they won't be able to get out of their seats, so you can always keep an eye on them.

Other dolphin watching options

Pirate Ship on a Caravel| ©Michael Gaylard
Pirate Ship on a Caravel| ©Michael Gaylard

In case you have small children I also recommend you to look into the Pirate Ship tour. This option is perfect for the little ones, as it consists of a ride around the island of Madeira in a replica of one of Columbus' Caravels. This tour is one of the best activities to do with children on Madeira Island

This replica of the Santa Maria makesa complete tour around Madeira Island, so there is a good chance of spotting dolphins.

Useful facts

  • Duration: 3 hours
  • Departure time: 10.30 am
  • Address: Marina do Funchal, 9000-055
  • Website: Click here

Finally, there is an additional option for adventure enthusiasts and people with experience at sea. Some sites in Madeira allow boat rentals, both crewed and bareboat. While this option gives you the freedom to spot dolphins, it is not one of the most recommended, as you will not have the knowledge of the locals to find the places where dolphins are usually spotted.

In case you are an experienced sailor and decide to choose this option, remember that Madeira is a protected area for these species, so you should sail carefully and respect the indications of the experts.

Also bear in mind that in case you come across cetaceans you should not feed them, do not pass through the middle of a place where there are dolphins or whales, and always keep more than 100 metres away. By avoiding sudden changes of direction or speed, and keeping the noise as low as possible, you may be able to see dolphins approaching your boat.

Choose the company according to your preferences

Booking online| ©Marek Levak
Booking online| ©Marek Levak

All tours are different and offer options for all budgets. All companies offering whale watching tours can be booked online, where you can also read reviews to help you decide.

I recommend that you do some research on the internet before you travel, as you can compare quotes, read recommendations and have all the information before making your choice. As mentioned before, no tour guarantees to see dolphins or whales. A good recommendation is to choose a tour that offers a free extra tour in case you don't see dolphins.

Although it is quite common to see dolphins, it can happen that you don't get to see them. If this is the case, make sure you have a flexible holiday schedule that allows for a second outing to try to see them.

I also recommend that you do not book the tour on the day you arrive in Madeira, as the island sometimes suffers from severe windstorms. This causes some flights to be delayed and you may be forced to restructure your plans.

Where is the best place to board?

Madeira Seaport| ©alealetojanni
Madeira Seaport| ©alealetojanni

This may depend on your budget, visiting times and where your accommodation is located. The most tours available, and therefore the greatest variety of options, are in Funchal.

This can be an advantage as it will allow you to research which best suits your budget, schedule or the amenities you are looking for.

Please note that depending on the time of year, some tours include additional activities such as snorkelling, swimming with dolphins, visiting other islands or scuba diving. Funchal is the perfect place for scuba diving on the island because of its crystal clear and warm waters.

Most tours of Funchal depart from "Marina do Funchal", which is located 1 km from the historic centre of the island's capital. I recommend that if you are staying near the centre, you walk along the bay as you stroll along Avenida Do Mar.

Walking is also recommended, as there are not many places to park in Funchal, so if you have rented a car you will need to find a paid car park.

In addition to Funchal you can find dolphin watching tours in Machico, Porto Santo and Calheta. These are ideal alternatives to the tours offered in Funchal, with boat tours from different parts of the archipelago. All have several options to choose from and are unique sites, so it's up to you to choose the one you like best.

Book a dive in Funchal

See dolphins from the shore

Black Dolphins| ©Ben Salter
Black Dolphins| ©Ben Salter

If you don't like boat trips or prefer to see the dolphins from land, there are also some options available. It's not the same as spotting dolphins from a boat, but with patience, binoculars and depending on the time of year you can see these cetaceans in their natural habitat from the shore.

Remember that the best time of year to spot dolphins from the shore is the summer. During these months it is very common to see dolphins jumping out of the water. They are also more likely to be seen if there are abundant waves. Dolphins tend to play and jump in the surf, so if it is a calm day, you are unlikely to see one.

The best place to watch dolphins from the shore may be on the shallower or less crowded beaches. For a very small island, Madeira has beaches of all kinds: Porto Santo has several resorts of varying depths, although depending on the time of year, it may be too crowded for dolphins to come ashore.

Another good option is Calheta Beach, located on the southwest coast of the island. This beach is a prime spot for dolphin watching, as its warm, crystal clear waters are ideal for waiting for dolphins to appear.

Locals often recommend a visit to Ponta do Garaju to watch the dolphins and whales from land. The highest points of the island are a good option, although I recommend that you bring binoculars and be patient to see something in the distance.

Ponta de Garaju was a strategic place to observe the movement of the whales and to warn the fishing boats of their position, when whaling was still allowed.

Today this point has a statue of Christ the King, a cable car, a beautiful black sand beach and the old whale fishermen's lookout point. If you are interested in getting to Ponta de Garaju or touring the interior of the island I recommend you check out the 4WD safaris available in Madeira.

Learn more about cetaceans

On Tour| ©Bas Janssen
On Tour| ©Bas Janssen

On the tours it is very common to be accompanied by a marine biologist, who will give you thousands of facts and information about cetaceans and all the species of Madeira's habitat. But in case you are still hungry for more information, you can visit the Museum "Da Baleia da Madeira" or Whale Museum in Caniçal; Madeira.

Located 30 minutes drive from Funchal, this museum tells the whaling history of Madeira and the species that inhabit the area. It explains the history of the whale hunters, their lookout points and the boats they used.

It is a perfect alternative for days when the weather does not allow for other types of excursions.

Useful information

of the museum

  • Days and Hours: Tuesday-Saturday: 13h00 -18h00 || Saturday and Sunday: 13h00-17h00
  • Address: Rua Garcia Moniz Nº.1, 9200-031 Caniçal, Machico - Madeira
  • Website: Click here

The weather in Madeira

Dolphins Underwater| ©Pedro Ferrão Patrício
Dolphins Underwater| ©Pedro Ferrão Patrício

Thanks to its privileged geographical position and its subtropical oceanic climate, Madeira has very pleasant temperatures that usually range between 17 and 25 degrees Celsius, all year round.

Madeira's tourist peak is during the months of July and August. During this time temperatures do not drop below 20°C and the sea water remains at a very warm and pleasant temperature .

For a combination of mild weather and fewer tourists, the autumn and spring months (September to November - April to July) may be the best time to travel.

Also, while autumn and winter may mean better prices for accommodation and flights, bear in mind that December and January tend to be the rainiest months.

At this time of year you can expect between 11 and 13 days of rain. So I recommend that you take this into account when planning your trip.

What to bring to see dolphins

Dolphin Tour| ©Ben Salter
Dolphin Tour| ©Ben Salter

If you wish to visit Madeira to see dolphins and whales, I recommend that you bring a windbreaker and an extra coat. This is because the boat trips tend to be very windy and usually leave early in the morning or at dusk, where temperatures can drop a little.

Remember to always leave with your swimming costume on, as it is quite possible that during the excursions you may dive into the water, either to snorkel, dive or swim close to the dolphins.

Regardless of the time of year you go, be sure to bring plenty of sunscreen. The sun exposure in Madeira is quite high, so I recommend that you take care of your skin. Last but not least, remember to bring your camera or have your mobile phone ready!

Although dolphins are fast swimmers and will dodge through the waves, if you put your camera on burst mode you'll probably be able to capture good memories of these particular friends.