Another Day in Paradise.
If ever there was a perfect cruise that demonstrates why our guests return again and again to holiday on Hjalmar Bjorge, this voyage was it. Blessed with amazing weather, the combination of a leisurely exploration of the Outer Hebrides, landing on and exploring remote islands, swimming from deserted beaches, seeing a diverse range of wildlife in good company, and eating superb food on the best small ship in the fleet was hard to beat.
We enjoyed so many highlights, it’s hard to choose just a few but one frequently expressed comment from guests was amazement at the incredible seabird cities we visited. Each one was different. From the bustle of the Flannans auk colony, combined with experiencing a Gannetry at eye level, followed by the unique Shiants and the sheer size and spectacle of its seabird colony, to ending with the fitting finale of the Treshnish Isles where we were treated to close views of all the seabird species, and the overwhelming assault on the senses that is Harp Rock.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. As always, we sail from Oban…
Day 1 – Oban to Loch Drumbuie
After a safety briefing by Skipper Tony and introductions to crew Hamish, chef Luke and me as wildlife guide, we set off down our usual ‘commuter’ route from Oban up the Sound of Mull in a welcome cooling breeze after the heat of the day. Several Harbour Porpoise kicked off our cetacean sightings, together with heartening numbers of auks on the sea. A Red-throated Diver near Drimnin was a nice surprise, with seals, terns and Moon Jellyfish in good numbers as we sailed into our first overnight anchorage in lovely Loch Drumbuie (Loch na Droma Buidhe).
Nearly all the guests were regulars who had sailed on HB many times before, so the atmosphere at dinner was relaxed, and we were treated to the first of many beautiful sunsets (for all those who could stay awake long enough to see them on these long summer evenings).
As usual on HB’s cruises, our guests have a diverse mix of hobbies and backgrounds which always makes for an interesting experience for all of us, crew included. This time we had the pleasure of the company of keen walkers, birders and photographers aboard, as well as keen swimmers, who were all interested in the islands’ history and wildlife. It was also great to have two pharologists aboard and fascinating to learn about the history of the lighthouses we saw, helped by the encyclopaedic knowledge of Ruth and Carol. By the end of the cruise, we were all taking photos of lighthouses and splats (and I’m unlikely to forget solar powered lattice aluminium towers now!), while Ruth and Carol were taking wildlife shots.
Day 2 – Drumbuie to Vatersay via Mingulay
A calm sea greeted us after breakfast as we sailed past the extinct volcano of Ben Hiant on Ardnamurchan. Everyone was on deck, keen to see what our crossing of the southern Minch would produce. A few Bottlenose Dolphins were the precursor for the wonderful sight of the Coll superpod of Common Dolphins swimming towards us. I’ve seen this dozens of times over the years but it never gets old. It’s humbling to watch a wild animal deliberately choose to swim towards HB and bow-ride or swim alongside us. Our well-practised guests ‘assumed the position’ over the sides and bow to enjoy being mere feet from these acrobatic dolphins. And it really doesn’t get any better than making eye contact with a wild dolphin as it swims below you.
As if that wasn’t enough, we soon saw the first of at least 9 Minkes on the crossing, plus a supporting cast of Guillemots, Razorbills, Puffins, Fulmars, Gannets, Shags and Kittiwakes, and also a surprising number of Storm Petrels fluttering across the waves.
When we reached the other side of the Minch, we were treated to a round tour of Barrahead with its lighthouse, and the impressive steep cliffs and sea caves on the western side of Mingulay, teeming with seabirds, before heading steadily up the eastern side past Pabbay, Sandray and into peaceful Vatersay for our overnight anchorage.
After a long day at sea, most guests were keen for a short walk ashore and Hamish and Luke joined us for a wander, where Luke saw the first immature White-tailed Eagle of the trip. Keith managed to find a Great Yellow Bumblebee on the machair near the west beach and we heard our first Corncrake of the trip, while Erica enjoyed her first swim from the boat on our return.
Day 3 – Vatersay to Taransay via the Monachs
Waking to yet another glorious morning and after a leisurely breakfast, we sailed for the Monachs, where Hamish was able to land Ruth and Carol on Heisker to visit the lighthouse and the rest of the guests on Ceann Iar for a relaxing afternoon in stunning surroundings. Erica swam with the curious seals, while the rest of us explored different bits of the island, with its glorious beaches, Arctic Tern colony, and nesting Ringed Plover, Eider and Rock Pipit. Turnstones, in their full summer finery, were still passing through on their way to northern breeding grounds and the vibrant machair was alive with a welcome hum of insects.
After lunch we sailed for Taransay on a gunmetal calm sea, passing yet more jellyfish, with a Lion’s Mane and Barrel added to the mix of species we’d seen already. Another fabulous dinner and a leisurely evening anchored off Taransay was a special end to yet another wonderful day.
Day 4 – Taransay to Tamanavay
Equipped with packed lunches, a relaxing day ashore on Taransay was quite magical, with sunshine and light winds. Most of us chose initially to walk to the remains of the dun fort on Lochan Duin. Breeding Golden Plover peeped at us and Wheatear scolded as we swiftly passed by so as not to disturb them and we had our first Golden Eagle of the trip. Masses of flora coloured the slopes, but the path passed through parched areas of bog cotton and sphagnum moss we would normally have avoided as too wet, but it was worryingly dry underfoot after a lack of rain in recent weeks.
After the lochan, our guests chose to explore different parts of the island. Keith and Hilary headed for the summit of Beinn Ra, the highest point of Taransay, before searching for and finding the remains of the Viking Mill, downstream of Loch Sionadail. Amazing that so much of it remains visible alongside the stream. David and Sheila explored the western slopes of the island and Erica and Bill went for a swim on the secluded west beach. It was satisfying to find Otter prints on the beach after Chris Gomersall’s sighting of one on the same beach on the previous cruise.
For the rib journey back, I ‘perfected’ my technique of towing it onto the sandy shore rather too enthusiastically, ended up over-balancing and sitting down in the surf, which seemed like a good idea at the time, although I was threatened with a ‘good hoovering’ before I went back aboard. Sailing for our overnight anchorage of Loch Tamanavay, we encountered flurries of gulls and auks feeding in the entrance to the loch until a White-tailed Eagle swooped through the feeding flock. Red-throated Divers were feeding in the loch as we anchored for another peaceful evening which turned into ‘hunt the Cuckoo’ which we could hear but not see.
Day 5 – Tamanavay to Loch Carloway via the Flannans
Greenshank, Redshank and Common Sandpiper were feeding along the shoreline of Loch Tamanavay as we ate breakfast, while drumming Snipe is always a welcome background sound anywhere. We enjoyed a smooth journey out to the Flannans, passing our friends, the Hebridean Whale and Dolphin Trust’s elegant vessel, the Silurian, along the way.
For our first sight of the Flannans, the main island and its lighthouse appeared to be floating in mid- air on a sea of fog and two immature sea eagles perched on the sea cliffs greeted us as we sailed into the bay. There was too much of a surge to risk landing so we had a leisurely lunch, which gave us plenty of time to enjoy the bustle of the seabirds from the colony going back and forth with food for their chicks.
Sailing on to the Gannetry at Roaream was a first visit for many of our guests and as usual, it blew everyone away. There’s something about this Gannetry which is particularly special. Boreray is spectacular enough but seeing the Gannets more at eye level and flying en masse over HB usually renders everyone speechless. It’s hard to describe the wonder it induces just to be surrounded by Gannets everywhere you look and one guest described it as the wildlife highlight of his life so far.
Another calm sailing back towards the coast of Lewis saw us in our overnight anchorage in Loch Carloway for dinner, where we were greeted by yet more Red-throated Divers. We spent a leisurely evening, sharing the day’s experiences and admiring everyone’s photos.
Day 6 – Loch Carloway to Stornoway
For the first time in the trip, the prospect of the wind picking up later saw us headed north early from Loch Carloway, to round the Butt of Lewis with its lighthouse, a few eye-level Bonxies shadowing HB along the way. The swell lessened as we turned into the northern end of the Minch and our first Minke of the day appeared near Tiumpan Head, shortly followed by more Harbour Porpoises and some unusually showy and acrobatic Risso’s Dolphins.
Pulling into Stornoway Harbour, we berthed at the pontoons for the night, alongside the lifeboat and the Monadhliath, and it was good to see three boats side by side that Tony had skippered. We all braved civilisation, which was a bit of a shock after our deserted islands. Wandering around town, we ended up in the peace and cool shade of the woodland around Lews Castle where we all became unreasonably excited at the sight of our first trees since we’d left Loch Sunart! More woodland birds, flora and insects boosted the trip list.
Day 7 – Stornoway to Loch Dunvegan via the Shiants
Our wonderful chef, Luke had been easy on us so far, telling us what was for breakfast each day, enlivened by his cartoons but after a week aboard, he’d clearly decided to make us work for our breakfast! Today’s offering of mixed berries on toast soaked in maple syrup went down very well and was moderately easy to guess. Not so easy on other days! Here’s two more conundrums he hit us with - anyone who’s Scottish should be able to guess the second one. Answers at the end… if, sadly, not the actual breakfast.
Leaving Stornoway, we were lucky to spot several Minkes, yet more Risso’s, a few Bottlenose dolphins and porpoises which accompanied us on our way to the Shiants, which was also a new destination for some guests. This was my eighth visit, while Tony, Hamish and Luke have probably lost count by now. The combination of the spectacle of the seabird city, the stunning geology, the history of these islands, and the flora and other wildlife we see ashore all adds up to the Shiants being my favourite set of islands. As Luke rightly says, ‘it’s the best place ever.’
Hamish took us on a fabulous slow rib ride along the edge of the boulder field. Going slowly and carefully, at times he stopped the engine to let us drift so as not to spook the rafts of seabirds who paddled around the rib. I thought our photographers were going to topple backwards trying to use their long lenses as the birds were so close. Phone shots and short lenses were the order of the day for this bit.
After lunch on board, we landed on Eilean an Taighe for an afternoon wander past the bothy and up onto the plateau. We watched in some alarm as our resident mountain goat, Luke, virtually raced up the steep ringers’ path onto Garbh Eilean. Of course we were merely concerned for his welfare… nothing to do with the fact that we’d have starved without him!
Again the land underfoot was parched, with normally boggy areas bone dry, but we still managed a fair bit of botanising, with a mass of orchids and other bog plants added to the list. After the successful eradication of the Black Rat from the islands in recent years, it was also heartening to see so many ground nesting birds such as Wheatear, Skylark and Stonechat now thriving.
Skipper Tony treated us to a complete circuit of the Shiants once we were back on board, sailing right round the islands for a closer look at yet more seabird cliffs and past the sheer basalt columns which always bring Staffa to mind. One sub-adult and several immature sea eagles flying over the cliff tops were causing havoc amongst the gulls.
The weather was due to turn later, which meant that, sadly, we couldn’t overnight in our usual anchorage at the Shiants, so we headed south into Loch Dunvegan for our night’s shelter, passing plunge-diving Gannets as we entered the loch past yet another lighthouse.
Day 8 – Loch Dunvegan to the Isle of Rum
We woke to the first rain of the cruise which triggered a hunt for previously unused waterproofs, but we soon sailed into clearer skies, passing the cliffs of Neist Point and its lighthouse, which looked quite atmospheric with hill fog lingering in the gullies. A man overboard drill with a free-floating buoy enlivened the crossing and the buoy was ‘rescued’ but looked beyond medical help!
Although we were aiming for the wonderful island of Canna, a change of forecast midway through the day saw us doing a ‘handbrake’ turn towards Rum. Passing sizeable rafts of Manx Shearwaters, we headed into Loch Scresort for the night. Going ashore for a welcome few hours, we added more wildlife to the list, with Dipper, Redstart, Lesser Redpoll, Siskin and Chiffchaff (which is more uncommon in Scotland than the Willow Warbler), and masses of shoreline and woodland flora.
Day 9 – Isle of Rum to Tiree
Continuing our journey south in improving weather, we passed the impressive Sgurr of Eigg looming over yet another lighthouse, before stopping for lunch off Sanna Bay near Ardnamurchan Point. Continuing on past Coll and its amazing beaches and through a calm Gunna Sound, we sailed into Gott Bay, Tiree for the night.
Guests were keen for a walk before dinner, however short, so Hamish took us ashore for a wander and Erica managed another swim. Conscious we were entering our last couple of days of the cruise, we made the most of yet another calm sunny evening on anchor.
Day 10 – Tiree to Gometra
via the Treshnish Isles A short sail this morning took us past the Dutchman’s Cap, with yet another perched White-tailed Eagle, and we went ashore on Lunga to enjoy its seabird city. A short but steep walk led up to Puffin ‘terrace’ which always raises a smile as you’re so close to these charismatic birds. As long as everyone is careful not to stand on the burrows, which extend further back into the cliff than you’d think, it’s easy to get the most amazing views. I’m sure the motordrives of our photographers were emitting smoke by the end of the visit.
The walk along the narrow path towards Harp Rock takes you past Shags nesting under boulders right by the path and Razorbills seemingly in every crevice, plus another Corncrake calling from the nettle beds. When you arrive at Harp Rock, the sheer number of seabirds, not just the auks but Fulmars, Kittiwakes and Shags, and the sight and sound of everything is almost overwhelming. And while it’s easy to fire off photos galore, in the end I always find myself just lowering the camera and looking, absorbing the life of a seabird city as the adults bring food back to their growing chicks or changing over while incubating the eggs.
Back aboard for lunch, we sailed around Staffa, which is always impressive, and headed to Gometra harbour for our overnight anchorage. Most guests went ashore for another walk while Erica had another swim. Walking to the bridge that connects Ulva and Gometra at low tide gives a glimpse into beautiful Loch Tuath on Mull. A diverse range of flora grows alongside the path and we saw our first Dark-green Fritillaries of the trip, as well as adding Whinchat, Whitethroat and Hen Harrier to the trip list.
Day 11 – Gometra to Loch Spelve via Iona
Leaping Common Dolphins enlivened the crossing to Iona and we enjoyed a fun beach landing on White Strand. The guests split up, some enjoying the peace of the blindingly white north beaches, while others climbed to the summit of Dun-I for its wide views, and Erica was able to visit friends she’d parted from not that long ago when she spent several months volunteering in the Iona community. A final wander through the village allowed us to hear more ventriloquial Corncrakes and our lighthouse ladies, Ruth and Carol, were lucky enough to see one crossing the road, which was our only sighting of the trip.
Hamish picked us up later on the slipway by the ferry and we enjoyed another amazing buffet lunch aboard. How depressing this was to be our last lunch aboard! Heading round the west side of Iona and past the Torran Rocks, I was hoping we’d meet ‘my’ Bottlenose pod, which is a regular in the Sound of Iona or off Ross. Sure enough, they didn’t let us down. Off Ardalanish Bay, we spotted them close inshore and yet again wild dolphins chose to swim towards HB and spent ages bow-riding with us and generally wowing us all with their acrobatics.
As we sailed along the Ross, flanked by its impressive cliffs and amazing geology, we spotted another Golden Eagle and White-tailed Eagle. Heading past the natural sea arches of Carsaig Arches, which are easier to see from a boat than to walk to, we eventually sailed into Loch Spelve for our last night.
Day 12 – Loch Spelve to Oban
A very early start for the crew saw us sail out of Loch Spelve, heading for Oban to successfully grab a place on the pontoons ahead of everyone else. Our final breakfast is always a melancholy affair when such a fantastic trip has to end so quickly, before we all said our goodbyes and went our separate ways, until next time.
It was a pleasure guiding for this terrific bunch of guests. Thanks to Erica, Bill, Sheila, David, Ruth, Carol, Hilary and Keith for your interesting company, good humour and for sharing some amazing wildlife experiences.
One of the things I enjoy most about HB’s cruises is the breadth of interests from guests and crew. We love to learn about everything, whether it’s birds, cetaceans and other marine life, butterflies, bees and dragonflies, and every kind of flora, as well as the scenery and the history of all the islands we visit. If it flies, moves, walks, swims or grows – we’re interested! During the 11 days, we amassed a very healthy total of flora and fauna, with 84 bird species and a total of 223 species of everything - a full list is below.
Thanks also to our wonderful crew of Skipper Tony, crew Hamish and chef Luke for looking after us all so well, with lots of laughs and banter along the way. The crew’s calm competence, raft of entertaining stories, wildlife knowledge and shared wicked sense of humour made the journey extra special. We’ll all long remember Luke’s cooking and the variety of incredible meals that emerged over 11 days from that tiny galley. I headed off for my car with the grim thought that I was back to my cooking next week...
223 total of all species (records entered into BirdTrack, Whale Track and iRecord).
84 bird species & 5 cetacean species.
Arctic Skua, Arctic Tern, Blackbird, Black Guillemot, Black-headed Gull, Black-throated diver, Blue Tit, Buzzard, Chaffinch, Chiffchaff, Collared Dove, Common Gull, Common Sandpiper, Common Tern, Cormorant, Corncrake (seen and heard), Cuckoo, Curlew, Dipper, Dunlin, Eider, Fulmar, Gannet, Goldcrest, Golden Eagle, Goldfinch, Golden Plover (Taransay), Goosander, Great Skua, Great Tit, Greater Black-backed Gull, Greenshank (Taransay, Tamanavay), Grey Heron, Greylag, Grey Wagtail, Guillemot, Hen Harrier, Herring Gull, Hooded Crow, House Sparrow, Jackdaw, Kestrel, Kittiwake, Lapwing, Leaches Petrel (Butt of Lewis), Lesser Black-backed Gull, Lesser Redpoll, Linnet, Mallard, Manx Shearwater, Oystercatcher, Pied Wagtail, Puffin, Purple Sandpiper, Raven, Razorbill, Red-breasted Merganser, Redshank, Redstart, Red-throated diver (Lochs Tamanavay / Carloway), Ringed Plover, Robin, Rock Pipit, Rook, Sanderling, Sand Martin, Sedge Warbler, Shelduck, Siskin, Skylark, Snipe, Starling, Stonechat, Storm Petrel (30+ in the south Minch, scattered numbers elsewhere), Swallow, Treecreeper, Turnstone, Wheatear, Whinchat, White-tailed Eagle, Whitethroat, Willow Warbler, Wood Pigeon, Wren (84 species)
Barrel jellyfish, Bladder Wrack, Blue Jellyfish, Bottlenose dolphin (regular small pods, plus Ross of Mull regular pod off Ardnalanish), Channel Wrack, Common Dolphins (50+ off Coll), Compass Jellyfish, Cuvie Kelp, Egg Wrack, Furbelows Kelp, Harbour porpoise, Lion’s Mane Jellyfish, Minke whale (min 15), Moon jellyfish, Oarweed, Pipefish, Risso’s Dolphins, Sandeels, Sea Lettuce, Sea Potato, Sea Urchin, Serrated Wrack, Spiral Wrack, Sugar Kelp, Thongweed (25 species)
Feral Goat (Mull), Grey Seal, Common Seal, Otter, Red Deer (5 species)
Flora inc. mosses, ferns and lichens:
Beard lichen, Bell Heather, Birdsfoot trefoil, Bladder Campion, Bog Asphodel, Bogbean, Burnet Rose, Butterwort, Catsear, Common Century, Common Haircap Moss, Common Orache, Common Sorrel, Common Spotted Orchid, Creeping Thistle, Creeping Willow, Cross-leaved Heath, Cuckooflower, Curled Dock, Daisy, Dandelion, Dog Rose, Dogtooth lichen, Dune Pansy, English Stonecrop, Eyebright, Fairy Flax, Germander Speedwell, Hard Fern, Hare’s tail cotton grass, Harts Tongue fern, Hawksbeard, Heath Bedstraw, Heath Milkwort, Heath Spotted Orchid, Hogweed, Ivy-leaved Toadflax, Kidney Vetch, Ladies Bedstraw, Ling Heather, Lousewort, Lungwort lichen, Maidenhair Spleenwort, Map lichen, Marsh Cinquefoil, Marsh Forget-me-Not, Marsh Lousewort, Marsh Marigold, Marsh Thistle, Matchstick lichen, Meadow Cranesbill, Meadowsweet, Monkeyflower, Northern Marsh Orchid, Oakmoss lichen, Oblong Sundew, Oxeye Daisy, Pineappleweed, Pixiecup lichen, Polypody fern, Pyramidal Orchid, Ragged Robin, Ragwort, Red bogmoss, Red Clover, Red Campion, Ribwort Plantain, Sea Bindweed, Sea Campion, Sea Ivory, Sea Plantain, Self Heal, Silverweed, Spear Thistle, St John’s Wort, Sunburst lichen, Thrift, Tormentil, Tufted Vetch, Vipers Bugloss, Wall Rue, Watercress, Water Dropwort, White Clover, Wild Carrot, Wild Thyme (86 species)
Great Yellow Bumblebee, Blue-tailed damselfly, Buff-tailed Bumblebee, Common Blue damselfly, Common Blue butterfly, Common Carder Bee, Common Darter, Dark-green Fritillary, Four-spotted Chaser, Golden-ringed dragonfly, Green-veined White butterfly, Large Red damselfly, Large White Butterfly, Meadow Brown, Moss Carder Bee, Oil Beetle, Peacock, Red Admiral, Red-tailed Bumblebee, Scorpion Fly, Sea Slater bug, Speckled Wood, White-tailed Bumblebee (23 species) Breakfast quiz answers – the first photo’s breakfast cartoon was ‘posh eggs’, Eggs Benedict. The second breakfast photo is mixed berries and porridge, which would be poured in a drawer and left to cool and solidify. Porridge drawers used to be common among Scottish households and being Scottish, Bill got this one right!