Cetaceans and Flora Galore

Trip Report - Cetaceans and Sunsets Cruise 17-23rd September 2022 


Saturday 17th September 2022 – Oban to Loch Spelve

The sight of Hjalmar Bjorge on the pontoons at Oban is always enough to bring a smile to the face, not least because you’re about to see Skipper Charlie and Mel again, and Chef Steve… and you’ve remembered to pack your elasticated trousers!

This was my 11th cruise on HB and built a year before I was born, she’s in better nick than I am! It’s always nice to meet new guests and see familiar faces aboard and we had 5 regulars and 3 first timers on this trip. It was a relaxed atmosphere as we set off down the Sound of Kerrera, across the Firth of Lorne into Loch Spelve for our first night on anchor, one of my favourite places on Mull. First night dinners are always great for breaking the ice and finding out about your fellow guests, their interests and what trips they’d been on before, or what they hope to see this time.

Sun 18th September 2022 – Loch Spelve to Iona

Most of the party went ashore in the morning for a relaxing walk between Loch Spelve and Loch Buie while Charlie took HB along the coast to meet them at lunchtime. I stayed on board as I wanted to see the magnificent geology of the Laggan cliffs again, something that you can only appreciate from the sea. The shore party were lucky with views of Golden Eagle on their walk and the start of an interesting botanical week with lots of late flowering wildflowers, including Sheep’s Bit, Devil’s bit Scabius and Harebells, along with many thistles and knapweeds still going strong.

One of Steve’s delicious homemade soups warmed everyone up again and HB set off out of Buie and along the cliffs past Carsaig Arches and Malcolm’s Point, giving all the guests a chance to appreciate the stunning cliff scenery of the Ross of Mull, the journey enlivened by White-tailed Eagles.

Sadly, the murk descended as we passed Scoor, so we only glimpsed distinctive pink of the Ross of Mull granite, but the mizzle had cleared by the time we anchored in Iona Sound for the night, with the impressive outline of Mull opposite. All the guests had an interest in wildlife and natural history, so it was great to have so many pairs of eyes spotting things during the week. Something none of us had seen before was a raft of roosting Shags (a shagpile?) in the Sound, presumably taking advantage of sheltered waters for the night.

Mon 19th September 2022 – Iona to Bunessan

A lovely calm start to the morning and clear skies promised a good day and the plan was to spend most of the day ashore on Iona, which allowed guests who wished to view the Queen’s funeral a chance to get a signal, while others explored the island, although places like the Abbey were closed for the day.

Spreading out across the island, some guests explored the village and Nuns’ Priory ruins where Ivy-leaved Toadflax, Maidenhair Spleenwort and Wall Rue were surprisingly still in flower. In fact, masses of wildflowers still in bloom were to prove one of the themes of the week.

I set off for my favourite bit of Iona, the beaches on the north shore. They’re always quiet and relaxing, with views to Staffa and the Dutchman’s Cap across the clear blue sea. Flowers such as Sea Rocket, Glasswort and Oraches were still in flower, including some Thrift which was a surprise so late. It’s always amazing how they thrive in such tough, exposed conditions as the tideline.

I woke up a bit from my leisurely beach wander though when a massive blow erupted out of the sea, followed by the roll of a large back, over towards the Mull coast, leaving me speechless – a fairly rare occurrence. At that distance it could only have been a baleen whale and news emerged later on social media of a Humpback off Staffa earlier, a melee of lunge-feeding Minkes and a superpod of Dolphins, which led to Charlie deciding to head around Iona and out into these waters on our way to our planned overnight anchorage at Bunessan. So we set off and after a bonus pass by Staffa with its amazing geology, we continued slowly towards Mull – all eyes on deck so we didn’t miss anything. We were treated to good numbers of Guillemots, Gannets and Razorbills and the first of many Manx Shearwaters of the trip, making flying look ridiculously easy.  

Hazel’s sharp eyes spotted a Minke and as we hugged the coast of Mull, Linda saw a distant splash which proved to be the start of a superpod of Common Dolphins, which swam towards us and we were escorted into Bunessan in the best way possible, with dolphins all around us, leaping alongside and bow-riding. New guests had not seen dolphins before, let alone experienced bow-riding and it reduced two of them to tears, understandably. I can well remember my own first experience of dolphins aboard HB and bawled my eyes out. It was so emotional and such a privilege, hanging over the bow, nose to blowhole with a wild animal that had chosen to swim towards the boat and bow-ride the pressure wave.

We were all buzzing by the time we anchored in Bunessan and as if that wasn’t enough, we had several Bottlenose Dolphins leisurely fishing in a quiet corner of the loch. Dinner was superb as usual and Steve surpassed himself with sticky toffee pudding in whisky sauce. I just had to have seconds, essential quality control just to make sure it was as good as the first portion.

Tuesday 20th September 2022 – Bunessan to Loch Tuath

Clear skies and a lovely sunrise started the day. Cloudy evenings all week mostly meant that sunsets were a bit scarce but it was more than made up for by some stunning sunrises. Anticipation was high for more cetaceans as we headed out of Bunessan. Our original plan was to aim for Coll but an updated forecast proved to be too windy, so Plan B saw us heading towards Ulva and Gometra.

Flurries of seabirds feeding in one spot, including the incredible sight of plunge-diving Gannets, led to sightings of more Minkes and then a distant view of a dolphin splash. Even though a day boat and another cruise ship were nearer to the dolphins, the superpod of more than 100 Common Dolphins made a beeline straight for us, completely ignoring the other boats. Were we smug? Of course we were!

At such a distance, the dolphins must recognise the sound of HB’s engine and then porpoise a couple of times to see where we are and then ‘here they come’! It’s an incredibly humbling experience that they make an active decision to swim towards us. Whether it’s HB’s speed, power, the shape of her hull or the power of the pressure wave she generates off the bow, whatever it is, dolphins love HB.

After all that excitement, Charlie treated us to a quick detour up Loch na Keal and then we sailed alongside Ulva, spotting an immature White-tailed Eagle on one of the rocky islets, and thanks to Martin of Mull Charters, who was in the area, we were soon watching the two Minkes they’d spotted off Gometra. We were soon surrounded by more Common Dolphins and several distant big blows seen by Charlie and Steve from the higher vantage point of the wheelhouse could only have been the Humpback again, but it melted away before we could see it clearly.

One sadness today was the number of dead adult Gannets we saw floating on the sea – just the odd one here and there but by the end of the day it added up to double figures, which must still have been just the tip of the iceberg. It was a sobering reminder of the continuing impact of Avian Flu on our precious seabird populations.

After losing count of the number of dolphins we’d seen, we pulled into Gometra for another delicious lunch. As we relaxed, we were entertained by another immature White-tailed Eagle, several Buzzards and a ringtail Hen Harrier sparring. Although the rain had started by then, we all decided to go ashore for an hour just to stretch the legs and even in those conditions, you can still botanise and we were glad we did as we saw a wonderful display of the late-flowering Grass of Parnassus and patches of Watercress.

Gathering up his soggy waifs and strays, Charlie picked us up in the rib and we headed back out of Gometra harbour and into Loch Tuath for a more sheltered overnight anchorage in Sorbily Bay, by which time the rain had cleared.

Weds 21st September 2022 – Loch Tuath to Loch Sunart

Another dramatic sunrise started the day and we motored slowly out of Loch Tuath. As we rounded the north west coast of Mull, the lumpy sea eased when we made the turn and the tide was behind us and in such a powerful small ship, it was like surfing the rollers – great fun! Passing Calgary and Glengorm before crossing the Sound of Mull towards Ardnamurchan, we had a pair of White-tailed Eagles circling overhead for ages.

The sea calmed further as we headed into the sheltered waters of Loch Sunart, past the lush woodlands cloaking the sides of the loch. After lunch, Charlie put us ashore near the Otter Hide for a wander in the woods. It was fabulous to experience Scotland’s twin rainforests, both under water with the amazing variety of seaweeds along the shoreline, and in the Sessile Oak and Hazel woods where every tree is cloaked in lichens and mosses, and the floor carpeted in a lush ground flora, including a mass of ferns. This is how woodlands should look, not the overgrazed denuded habitat down south. Back on board for more flapjack (you can never have too much of Steve’s flapjack) and it was off to anchor near Strontian for the night.

Thursday 22nd September 2022 – Loch Sunart to Kerrera

Another calm early morning – I love these still, quiet starts to the day aboard HB. You can see a lot of wildlife first thing and just the tranquillity of being on the water is very relaxing. We all enjoyed a slow sail back up Loch Sunart, which was enlivened by several Harbour Porpoises doing their typical slow feeding ‘rolls’, plus a raft of Eider (whose call always christens them the Frankie Howerds of the bird world).

A morning ashore on the Isle of Carna allowed an exploration of this rich habitat and after lunch, we headed down the Sound of Mull, spotting more sea eagles. A spectacular rain and light show behind us over Mull accompanied our brief detour to the west side of Lismore by the castle before we headed for our last anchorage overnight at Kerrera.

Friday 23rd September 2022 – Kerrera to Oban

A short early morning hop saw us berthed at the pontoons at Oban in time for breakfast, Steve spoiling us with kedgeree. It was a depressing thought that it was back to my cooking next week. It had been a wonderful week aboard, with tons of wildlife and flora seen.

Special thanks to Hazel, Linda, Ann, Arthur, Trish, Kathy and Val for their company. It was a lot of fun and we all got on very well, and apologies to the crew if we kept you awake with so much laughter of an evening. It’s great to share a cruise with like-minded guests and we wouldn’t have seen half the wildlife we did if everyone hadn’t spent so much time on deck looking. Eight pairs of eyes, plus the hawkeye crew, helped a lot in not missing much.

And the ‘newbies’ soon got the hang of the food obsession which always develops aboard HB. You learn to take notice of the cutlery appearing as a good clue as to what kind of pudding might appear later – a large dessert spoon indicates something substantial, a small spoon indicates something creamy that will go straight to the hips, and no spoon at all is a good clue for the likely appearance of the yummy cheeseboard. And it always pays to walk past the galley porthole during the day for the waft of baking of cakes and flapjacks and all manner of goodies which Steve is conjuring up.

It was also lovely to sail with Hazel again. We first met on a trip a few years ago to St Kilda when she travelled with a friend, Liz. Liz was another regular guest aboard who had been on many trips and loved the boat.  So it was very poignant to see Hazel again, as Liz passed away this summer a few weeks before she was due to come on my June cruise. It felt fitting somehow that Hazel and I were on a cruise together again and during the week, we were reminded of places that we’d visited with Liz, or seeing places that we both knew she’d have enjoyed. Every time I stood on the foredeck, I was reminded of a few years ago, standing there back-to-back with Liz so we didn’t miss anything as we sailed. RIP Liz, a wonderful but no less important person than the other Elizabeth being remembered this week.

It’s always a melancholy feeling saying goodbye and leaving HB but it was time to say thanks to the crew for such a fabulous week, Steve for adding inches to our waistlines with his cooking, and to nag him to do more writing as he has a talent for it and that shouldn’t be wasted. I’m already looking forward to next year to make it a ‘round’ dozen cruises on HB.