A Whale of a Time - Cetaceans, Sharks and Sunsets Cruise, August 2023

We named this cruise well. Over the course of ten days, it lived up to its billing and we saw everything in the title, in spades! Guests also enjoyed sightings of Otters, plus impressive numbers of seabirds and eagles, in a cruise which maximised our time at sea. 


Day 1 – Oban to Loch Drumbuie 

After a safety briefing by Skipper Tony and introductions to crew Hamish, chef Carleton and myself and Peter as wildlife guides, we set off on a lovely sunny afternoon up the Sound of Mull. With a settled weather window due over the next few days, Skipper was keen to head for the northern Minch for a good chance to catch up with the recent flurry of interesting cetacean sightings there.

Several Harbour Porpoise kicked off the cetacean list, together with heartening numbers of auks, particularly newly fledged Guillemot chicks on the sea still being fed, and their squeaky begging calls would be a background soundtrack for almost the entire trip. 

Our first overnight anchorage was in tranquil Loch Drumbuie. Dinner was relaxed and we were treated to the first of several beautiful sunsets, this time with Otters and a Harbour Porpoise and calf in the mouth of the loch, silhouetted against the setting sun. 

Day 2 – Drumbuie to Canna

The porpoise and her calf were still hunting in the sheltered waters of the loch as we headed out and it wasn’t long before our first pod of Common Dolphins joined us near Ardnamurchan Point. It’s always terrific to see guests enjoying their first bow-riding dolphins. It’s an experience that never fails to thrill and move in equal measure. 

Flurries of seabirds appeared as we passed Rum, with masses of Gannets, Manx Shearwaters, Kittiwakes, Fulmars and auks. Typically, these late summer food rich waters attract lots of marine life and Bottlenose dolphins were soon heading our way. They were unusually acrobatic for this species, leaping clear out of the water and bow-riding. Minkes were also feeding in the area and we’d seen at least six by the time we pulled into Canna harbour and after lunch we all went ashore for a welcome stretch of the legs. 

Day 3 – Canna to Loch Sealg via the Shiants

After a calm morning for the crossing to Skye, with several Common Dolphin pods along the way, we picked up owners David and Linda who were joining us for a few days. Heading north, guest Mike and I saw a large blow among feeding seabirds as we neared the Shiants, which tantalisingly never revealed itself into anything more substantial. The Shiants were eerily quiet, the first time I’d seen these islands after most of the seabirds had fledged, but Tony was able to give the guests a good look at the impressive geology of my favourite seabird islands. 

More bow-riding dolphins and Minkes awaited us at the entrance to Loch Sealg, along with adult and immature White-tailed Eagles and two Red-throated Divers, as Halmar Bjorge anchored at the head of the loch, a lovely sheltered anchorage nestled among heather clad hills. After dinner, we all enjoyed the first of Peter’s presentations on cetaceans, this one on Sperm Whales, understandably top of Peter’s wish list of cetaceans to see. Hopefully one day he’ll see them!

Day 4 – Loch Sealg to Loch Ewe via ‘circuits’ of the northern Minch

WTEs greeted us as we headed out of Loch Sealg and past Stornoway on a beautifully calm morning, full of expectations for a day looking for cetaceans in the Minch and we weren’t disappointed. A massive splash just 50m away heralded the arrival of a breaching Basking Shark, much to the excitement of everyone aboard. Amazingly, it exploded out of the water several times, allowing us a rare look at the whole animal in the air. Somehow guest Jeff managed to keep his cool and took some amazing shots, while I was rendered speechless, an equally rare event!

Basking shark by Jeff Dosset

Still buzzing from that encounter, we headed out on a tip-off from the local cetacean mafia to where a large whale had been seen but although we spotted a few distant blows, the best we could rustle up was a couple of lunge-feeding Minkes among the masses of seabirds, which was not bad compensation. Skipper Tony clearly had a cunning plan up his sleeve as he set course for a specific spot in the Minch where he’d ‘left’ two Humpbacks last week and sure enough, at least one was still there. We enjoyed superb prolonged views of our Humpback, which turned out to be a new one for the UK catalogue. Meet Echo! 

We were idling, almost drifting in HB, to let the whale decide what it wanted to do. So it was a privilege that it chose to spend quite a bit of time logging at the surface before diving and then reappearing regularly in almost the same spot. It swam relatively close, to about 50m away at its closest approach, and we were treated bit by bit to views of its scarred back and dorsal, then the upperside of the flukes and then finally the crucial underside, which helps in the identification and cataloguing of all Humpbacks. 

After just over half an hour, we left it in peace. To say we were on a high as we headed across the Minch in flat calm conditions would be an understatement and it was a fabulous crossing in stunning weather. Visibility was crystal clear and we could see Lewis and Harris behind us while ahead was an ethereal Middle Earth… I mean, the Sutherland and Wester Ross coastlines.

Surrounded by every shade of blue in sky and sea, the hills of Assynt, Fisherfield and Torridon became clearer as we headed into Loch Ewe. It’s not often you see the whole coastline of the NW Highlands spread out before you in one wide sweep and it was just glorious. Anchoring overnight just off the village of Poolewe, we were treated to another spectacular sunset at the end of a day we’ll all remember for a long time.

Day 5 – Loch Ewe to Plockton

It was a quiet but scenic sail along the coast, with views to Gairloch, as we headed for lunch in the shadow of Raasay, under the volcanic plug of Dun Caan. Yet another sizeable pod of Common Dolphins came steaming down the coast, heading south at speed. With the weather due to turn, we headed for an overnight anchorage in the shelter of Plockton. A welcome walk ashore saw most of the guests climbing up onto the moorland behind the village, with its far-reaching views to Applecross. It was a treat to add some small birds to our trip list, with Common Crossbill and Spotted Flycatcher of note. 

Day 6 – Plockton to Loch na Beiste

Next morning, we headed for Broadford Bay on Skye to drop off David and Linda, who were being picked up by a familiar face to many guests, one of HB’s past skippers, Tim, who’s much missed. He’s now retired from skippering and it made my day to see him again as we’d last sailed together a few years ago on a cruise around Mull. 

As the weather was still windy and with our first rain of the trip, we headed round the west side of Raasay for lunch, but the wildlife still didn’t disappoint as we saw WTEs above the bay. Our plan to go ashore was put on hold when the rain arrived, purely for Hamish’s welfare of course! Barrelling through the bad weather, we passed under the Skye bridge and pulled into Loch na Beiste for the night, the katabatic wind roaring off the hillsides providing a lively evening soundtrack. 

Day 7 – Loch na Beiste to Tobermory

More sea eagles soaring above the hillside greeted us as we left the anchorage and headed through the Glenelg Narrows on the right tide and sailed alongside the Sleat peninsula. Although the sea was a bit ‘lumpy’ it didn’t stop more Common Dolphins with calves leaping alongside HB and bow-riding for a while. Despite the spray, Linda and Helen seemed determined to get as wet as possible and to continue ‘whooping’ at the dolphins. As Helen aptly put it, what else can you say to a dolphin?! 

Lunch in the shelter of the entrance to Loch Nevis didn’t pause the eagle spotting and as we left, feeding flocks of seabirds once again signalled the presence of several Minkes, plus a ‘big black fin’ which was seen by Hamish was tantalising but never reappeared. 

Tobermory offered shelter from the westerlies and we tied up on the pontoons for the night, allowing guests to come and go as they pleased. Helen and I walked through the shady woodland of Aros Park to the lower waterfall, adding fungi to the interesting mix of flora already seen. Mike had a wander around the familiar streets of Tobermory while Linda and Jeff headed off on the lighthouse path.

Day 8 – Tobermory to Carna in Loch Sunart

A comfortable night and a fine morning saw us all ashore again, Helen and I walking in the opposite direction to the lighthouse, later joined by Mike, while Linda and Jeff went for a run. Somehow most of us, including Hamish, ended up in the bookshop and wallets didn’t emerge unscathed. 

After lunch we set off down Loch Sunart, with Helen spotting three immature sea eagles on the rocky skerries under Ben Hiant. A scattering of other seabirds and ducks were noted and busy counting Eiders in one bay, we’d reached 64 when bedlam broke out behind us, with Peter calling out ‘whale’ several times in a voice I’d swear was several octaves higher than normal. But it was the rare sight of an excited Hamish which gave the clue that those two had found something really special. 

And so it proved, as probably the rarest cetacean I shall ever see surfaced out in the middle of the bay, 3 Northern Bottlenose Whales. Initially all we saw was a hefty blow, long backs and tall dorsal fins but it was enough for experienced eyes to realise it was something very different. They soon dived, leaving us needing more, just to be sure of an ID and to get some decent footage. An impressively quick ‘emergency stop’ by Tony, a turn and gentle drifting of the boat saw us hoping they’d reappear. We all scattered ourselves around the deck, covering all angles and it was Mike who picked them up again, pretty much in the same spot we’d first seen them in. 

Over a precious few minutes I shall never forget, we all saw them surfacing, blowing and diving again and tried to get as much footage as we could, realising the rarity of what we were seeing. It was also a new species for all the crew, which doesn’t happen very often, given all their years of experience. We were also concerned that the whales were a considerable distance up Loch Sunart as they’re a deep water species and, as Peter pointed out, Sunart is probably the equivalent of a paddling pool to them. Once they’d dived for the final time, we reversed our route down Loch Sunart, feeling slightly stunned by what we’d just witnessed, and anchored off Carna for the night. 

Day 9 – Loch Sunart to Loch Spelve

It was a fine morning as we headed out of Loch Sunart and round the west side of Mull for our last full day at sea. The sea conditions only allowed a sail-by of Staffa but enough to show guests the stunning setting and geology. Rounding the west side of Iona in a lively sea, we eventually sailed into calmer waters alongside the Ross of Mull. Now on eagle watch, we saw a pair of Goldies showing off their flying skills as we sailed through the Croggan Narrows into Loch Spelve. Anchoring for the night in the shelter of Ardura, it was a lovely final evening.

Day 10 – Loch Spelve to Oban

The last morning of any cruise is usually a melancholy affair, with guests not looking forward to getting back to dry land and reality, but the wildlife hadn’t finished with us yet. Approaching Oban, we were surprised to see a large pod of Common Dolphins just offshore and once again, they headed straight for us. Soon after, we had at least 80 Gannets sat on the sea, plus loads of Manxies and a few Storm Petrels, which are all unusual in such numbers in sheltered waters, but the presence of dolphins and seabirds so close to Oban usually means the presence of rich feeding. It was a fine end to a super trip, with so many wildlife highlights.

After nabbing a berth at the pontoons, we all dispersed to collect cars or catch trains and to look forward to next time aboard. It was a pleasure guiding for this mad bunch! Thanks to all the guests for their enthusiasm and to new guests Helen, Linda, Jeff for all their eagerness to learn, and to regular Mike for his excellent knowledge of these islands, gained over 30 years of sailing these waters. Everyone embraced the concept of ‘all eyes on deck’ to help spot as much wildlife as possible. You were all great company and we shared some amazing wildlife experiences. It’s always enjoyable as guides when guests ask such interesting and thoughtful questions. 

Thanks to fellow guide, Peter for his terrific cetacean knowledge, sharp eyesight and good humour, and to Skipper Tony and crew Hamish for all the banter and for taking such good care of us, and especially for their expertise in finding cetaceans (although I think my lucky whale pyjamas surely helped?!) and thanks to Carleton for his cooking. Plus it was good to see owners David and Linda aboard for a fun few days. 

And Tony did eventually see an Orca…

Species Seen.

Birds: Total of all species (records entered into BirdTrack, Whale Track and iRecord) Birds:  Arctic Skua, Arctic Tern, Black Guillemot, Black-headed Gull, Blue Tit, Buzzard, Canada Goose, Chaffinch, Common Crossbill, Common Gull, Common Tern, Cormorant, Curlew, Dunlin, Dunnock, Eider, Fulmar, Gannet, Goldcrest, Goldfinch, Golden Eagle, Great Skua, Great Tit, Great Black-backed Gull, Greenshank, Grey Heron, Greylag Goose, Grey Wagtail, Guillemot, Hen Harrier, Herring Gull, Hooded Crow, House Martin, House Sparrow, Kestrel, Kittiwake, Knot, Leaches Petrel, Lesser Black-backed Gull, Lesser Redpoll, Linnet, Little Grebe, Mallard, Manx Shearwater, Meadow Pipit, Oystercatcher, Pied Wagtail, Puffin, Raven, Razorbill, Red-breasted Merganser, Redshank, Red-throated diver, Robin, Rock Dove, Rock Pipit, Shag, Siskin, Song Thrush, Spotted Flycatcher, Starling, Stonechat, Storm Petrel, Swallow, Tawny Owl, Whimbrel, White-tailed Eagle, Wood Pigeon, Wren (69 species)

Marine life: Basking Shark, Barrel jellyfish, Bladder Wrack, Bottlenose dolphin (30+), Channel Wrack, Common Dolphins (100+), Egg Wrack, Harbour porpoise, Humpback Whale, Lion’s Mane Jellyfish, Minke whale, Moon jellyfish, Northern Bottlenose Whales (3+), Pipefish, Risso’s Dolphins, Sea Lettuce, Serrated Wrack, Spiral Wrack, Sugar Kelp (19 species)

Other mammals: Feral Goat (Mull), Grey Seal, Common Seal, Otter, Red Deer (5 species)

Flora inc. mosses, ferns and lichens: Beard lichen, Bell Heather, Birdsfoot trefoil, Black Spleenwort, Broad-leaved Helleborine, Common Haircap Moss, Common Knapweed, Common Milkwort, Creeping Thistle, Cross-leaved Heath, Devil’s bit scabius Dogtooth (peltigera) lichen, Eyebright, Goldenrod, Hard Fern, Hare’s tail cotton grass, Harts Tongue fern, Hawksbeard, Heath Bedstraw, Ivy-leaved Toadflax, Ling Heather, Lobaria virens lichen, Lungwort lichen, Maidenhair Spleenwort, Map lichen, Marsh Lousewort, Marsh Thistle, Meadowsweet, Oakmoss lichen, Oblong Sundew, Pixiecup lichen, Polypody fern, Ragwort, Red bogmoss, Red Clover, Sea Ivory, Self Heal, Silverweed, Spear Thistle, St John’s Wort, Sunburst lichen, Tufted Vetch, Wall Rue, Water Mint, White Clover, Wild Thyme, Wood Ragwort, (47 species)

Fungi: Bolete species, Bracket species, Fly Agaric, Honey fungus, Hoof fungus, Slippery Jack (6 species)

Insects: Buff-tailed Bumblebee, Common Carder Bee, Common Darter, Large White Butterfly, Peacock, Red Admiral, Red-tailed Bumblebee, White-tailed Bumblebee (8 species)

Total = 154 species