Wild dolphins? You may think that dolphins can only be seen in zoos but we’ve got a surprise! Yes, there are wild dolphins in the Sado River and along the Portuguese coast! Jump on one of our dolphin watching tours and get to see dolphins in their natural habitat. We went in search of wild dolphins in the Sado estuary, 30km south of Lisbon. Find out everything about this amazing boat trip with dolphin watching in the Sado estuary.
Along the coast of Portugal several species of cetaceans can be found. Cetaceans are marine animals belonging to the mammal class. Thus, whales and dolphins are cetaceans. Along the Portuguese coast we can find many species of whales and dolphins. Some species are observed very often, as common dolphins and bottlenose dolphins. Sometimes, depending on the region and the season, we can even find sperm whales and orcas. These species can be found from north to south of the country and also around the islands, the Azores and Madeira.
In Lisbon, very occasionally common dolphins are spotted in the Tagus River. A little further south, in the Sado River, it is very common to find wild dolphins. The Sado River estuary in the Setúbal district is one of the few estuaries where a community of resident dolphins can be found. Dolphins in the Sado are a special case in Europe as there have only be identified two more communities of resident dolphins in estuaries: one in Scotland and one in Ireland. In the Sado, it is a community bottlenose dolphins, those who also see in zoos.
The estuary of the River Sado is home to a community of about 27 bottlenose dolphins. The local maritime tour operators have been closely monitoring the evolution of the community. The behavior and characteristics of each of the dolphins of the Sado were studied and documented. The way to identify the dolphins in the Sado is by its unique dorsal fin. The first dolphins were identified in 1981, already have descendants, and are called “Raiz”, “Negro” and “Mr. Hook “.
Dolphin watching boat tours in the Sado Esturary depart from Setúbal or Sesimbra. We tried the dolphin watching boat tour in the Sado with start in Setúbal. For the observation of wild dolphins in Setúbal, SeaBookings collaborates with a maritime tour operators of excellence that has been recognized for its merit with several awards and quality seals for respect for nature. The meeting point for the dolphin watching boat tour in the Sado is in the offices in Setúbal. The offices are a very cozy space where you can buy souvenirs, drinks to take on board and there is also an educational space about dolphins and the Estuary.
This dolphin watching boat tour in the Sado uses a luxury catamaran, very stable and suitable for all ages. The boat is stunning, I totally loved it! This boat leaves at the dock at about 200m from the office. On board of the dolphin watching boat there is a bar with drinks available and bathrooms. On the boat you can choose your favourite spot; or in nets on the front of the boat on the benches in the shade. There are places for all tastes.
The encounter with dolphins in their natural habitat is very special and inspiring. Although I have been working in maritime tourism for over 10 years and have had many opportunities to see dolphins, every encounter continues to be special. In their natural habitat, the sighting of dolphins is very different than the zoos and delights animal lovers of all ages.
I recall that, as the dolphins are wild, there is always a small chance of not being able to find them. However, as this community of dolphins is resident in the Sado estuary and the team of this boat trip is very experienced, we find dolphins on more than 95% of the trips. Even if you have tough luck and were not able to see any dolphins, the fantastic landscapes make this boat trip in the Sado worth it. The cruise on this catamaran is delicious to enjoy the sun and if it gets too hot you can take a dip in the refreshing blue water (not next to the dolphins). As we find the dolphins, the crew explains their behavior and shares some fun facts about the animals.
The boat tours with dolphin watching in the Sado Estuary can be done throughout the whole year. This cruise takes approximately three hours and may be slightly more or less depending on the sea and weather conditions. There are two daily departures from Setúbal (9.30 / 14.30). If you prefer a rigid inflatable boat, you can do a similar dolphin watching trip with departure from Sesimbra.
As in all tours, it is recommended to reserve tickets well in advance to prevent fully booked boats (especially in high season – summer). We recommend you bring a camera, comfortable footwear and clothing, a hat and sunscreen, bathing suit and towel and a light sweater because there may be some wind. If you have binoculars, you can bring them too.