Our first cruise of the season concentrated on Mull. Regular guest Irene was once again cajoled into writing this wonderful trip report, with fantastic photos by our wildlife guide and pro wildlife photographer, Chris Gomersall
Sat 13th April – Oban to Loch Drumbuie
After a long journey, it always lifts the spirits to see HB moored at the Oban pontoons where someone had obviously been busy with the paint brush as the old girl positively gleamed in the spring sunshine. We were all gathered by late afternoon and introductions made to fellow guests and our crew of Anna, Chef Steve and Skipper Mark. We were mostly a group of first timers on HB, although this would be my 7th… or is it 8th cruise on HB, I lose count! After the Skipper’s safety brief and introduction from our guide, Chris Gomersall, of what we might see during the week, we were underway.
As we headed up the Sound with a strong easterly behind us, we all made the most of the spring sunshine and gathered on deck to enjoy the scenery, with clear views to Beinn Talaidh on Mull and parties of Razorbills very evident on the lively sea. Anchoring in one of my favourite anchorages, Loch Drumbuie, for the first night aboard, with the sun highlighting the geology of Ben Hiant on the Ardnamurchan peninsula as we rounded the corner into shelter.
Our small group gelled quite quickly and much ice was broken over dinner as the conversation ranged easily from diving and racing to birds, Scotland and Costa Rica. It was a promising start and the week proved to be a nice mix of interests and personalities, with everyone keen to see as much as possible.
Sunday 14th April – Drumbuie to Loch Tuath
As the wind continued to blow strongly from the east, a landing ashore from our anchorage was the plan for the morning. A lovely walk through sheltered Sessile Oakwoods led to more open moorland with stunning views over Loch Sunart, passing the ruins of several settlements along the way. A Sessile Oakwood in spring is a glorious place to be – not only for the birdlife, with Willow Warblers seemingly everywhere with their plaintive song, but delicate spring flowers brightening the woodland floor. Waiting on the shoreline later, we added Grey Wagtail to our increasing bird list and a Greenshank which touched down for a short time was a surprise.
Picked up on the rib in time for lunch aboard, I was heartened to see Mark’s yellow wellies were out – a definite sign of spring! Although you really need to see them combined with his shorts to get the full ‘Compo’ effect…
Great Northern Divers proved a distraction over lunch, some of which were in their velvety summer plumage. After a fairly choppy crossing of the Sound of Mull, we hugged Mull’s north west coast to sail slowly round Bloody Bay and Glengorm, with increasing numbers of auks on the sea and the sighting of our first Manx Shearwaters and Gannets to add to the list. We sailed past Calgary’s distant white sands and into Loch Tuath to anchor in a sheltered bay at the eastern end near Ulva Ferry, where dinner was enlivened by a porpoising seal approaching the boat.
Monday 15th April – Loch Tuath to Gometa and back to Loch Tuath
A leisurely start to the day with a slow sail out of Loch Tuath was enlivened by White-tailed Eagles in flight, more than a few Great Northern Divers, a couple of Red-throated Divers, also in summer plumage, and several Black Guillemots. Rounding the corner of Gometra into more open seas, we circled that island to its southern side for a sheltered anchorage for the day, accompanied by more Guillemots, Razorbills and Manx Shearwaters. Even in the windiest of conditions, Mark always manages to find as much shelter as he can for guests and we lazed the morning away on board, the plan being to have lunch and then go ashore for a walk.
While we spent the morning aboard HB, Chris took the opportunity to show guests his past photographs of the species we’d seen so far. It was great to have Chris aboard as our guide throughout the week. The guests were a mixture of photographers, birders and those with a burgeoning interest in learning more, and Chris was superb in passing on his knowledge and pitching it at the right level for all the guests, both on the photography front and the wildlife. It was particularly impressive how he always included the importance of putting the welfare of wildlife first and emphasising the field skills element to all the photographers. We all learned a lot… and he’s good company too!
It was a two island afternoon for all of us, with most of us walking over the small bridge connecting Gometra and Ulva… some going for a walk, some like me content to find a sheltered spot out of the wind and do some birding, and others concentrating on their photography. It was especially good to see and hear lots of Wheatears about, a migrant fresh in from Africa, setting up territory for their short breeding season. A Ringtail Hen Harrier, an immature White-tailed Eagle and our first Golden Eagle of the trip kept up the raptor theme nicely.
With the wind due to increase and with more of a southerly element to it than had been forecast, Mark decided to return to Loch Tuath and a more sheltered anchorage for the night. We ended up in a slightly different spot than intended as Mark did one of his inspired last minute changes of mind and a ‘handbrake turn’ later, we were in a sheltered bay between Gometra and Ulva on the northern side.
Another delicious and relaxing dinner followed, with late night whisky and chat, where the conversation soon turned to a common theme throughout the week – Steve’s cooking. As Tim so aptly put it, ‘If you were a woman, Steve, I’d marry you!”
Tuesday 16th April – Loch Tuath to Loch na Keal via Lunga and Inch Kenneth
As the wind was easing, Skipper had planned a fairly packed day but our intentions for a prompt start were somewhat delayed as we left Loch Tuath when an adult WTE watched us from its perch on a rocky outcrop as we sailed out of the loch. Heading out into calmer seas than yesterday, we aimed for the Treshnish Isles.
All of us gathered on deck as we paused offshore from Lunga and the impressive sentinel of Harp Rock to see the rafts of Guillemots, Razorbills and Puffins on the sea, the air filled with the sight and sound of Kittiwakes calling their names. It was too early for the Puffins to be back in their burrows and not many auks were already on the ledges so we probably gained better views of them on the sea and for some guests, it was their first sighting of a Puffin.
Heading round the southern end of the Treshnish Isles, with Staffa off to the south, we aimed for the west coast of Mull again, this time our target being Inch Kenneth. Angela’s sharp eyes found us two Harbour Porpoises which showed tantalisingly briefly but consistently for a while as Mark slowed HB right down so we could all get the best views. One of the things I love about Northern Light cruises is the enthusiasm of the crew. Skipper Mark must have seen thousands of cetaceans and hundreds of eagles in his time cruising these waters and yet he still gets as excited as the rest of us when something is spotted.
Anchored in Inch Kenneth bay, we landed after lunch amid cloudy skies but lighter winds, the cliffs of Gribun a fitting backdrop for HB. After walking past the striking house, owned by the Mitford family at one stage, we visited the chapel with its surprisingly well-preserved gravestones and carvings. Spreading out, we all enjoyed a gentle walk along the southern end of Inch Kenneth.
It was my first visit to the island after years of seeing it from the Mull shoreline, so it was a particular treat for me to see its impressive cliff scenery on its west coast. Beachcombing produced the bleached white remains of coral maerl and the sighting of our first Ringed Plovers of the trip.
As we continued our walk, conversation soon turned to the next meal. As always Steve’s cooking was superb, with such care and imagination going into each dish and we all made valiant efforts to show our appreciation by eating as much as possible. You always know when guests are in the swing of boat life when conversation ashore in the afternoons is dominated by wondering which cake Steve is baking for our return! And speaking as one of only two veggies aboard, his thoughtfulness in providing us with such variety was much appreciated.
Safely back on board and with the wind due to rise again later, the current anchorage wasn’t sheltered enough so we headed round the corner into Loch na Keal, past the small island of Eorsa in mid-loch, and to the head of the loch where we anchored for the night.
Wednesday 17th April – Loch na Keal to Erraid
In keeping with another developing tradition for the week, we managed to ‘start the day with an eagle.’ Hearing a commotion from the gulls, I left my breakfast (only a raptor will get me to do that) and dashed outside to see ‘incoming!’… in the form of a massive adult WTE heading right over the boat, barely 20ft up. You can only fully appreciate their size when their shadow passes over you.
Momentarily distracted by the spectacle of 8 people trying to cram through one small doorway at the same time, I ran to the pointy end, followed by the stampede, and most of us enjoyed amazing views as the eagle flew slowly past us and onto the skerries. When I say ‘most’… unfortunately the crew missed it. Steve was superglued to the cooker, Anna emerged from the galley to see the saloon empty and Mark wasn’t in the wheelhouse at the time so also missed it… something we kindly reminded him of from time to time.
Leaving after our interrupted breakfast, we sailed slowly out of the loch and the same eagle obliged by remaining on the skerry as we drifted past, thanks largely due to Mark’s care in not disturbing it. He kept a sensible distance, slowed right down so our engine noise was reduced and just let HB drift past the skerry, only powering up again when we were at a good distance.
As nice as it is to see birds in flight, there’s something very satisfying about seeing such a spectacular bird and then leaving it in peace. This is exactly why I travel with Northern Light and Mark. It always impresses me that he puts the welfare of wildlife first and ensures it’s as little disturbed as possible.
A quick look at the landing for Eorsa ruled it out in the building south easterly wind and we headed out of Loch na Keal, past yesterday’s anchorage at Inch Kenneth. Sailing slowly along the Wilderness coast with its incredible geology, it was the first time I’d seen these cliffs in detail. We paused offshore at the Fossil Tree at the end of the Burg peninsula, where the impression of the carbonised tree can be seen, left behind after the lava flow that engulfed it had cooled. It was a view we all enjoyed with much less effort than walking to it!
Crossing the entrance to Loch Scridain, we anchored in the bay at Camus Tuath for lunch as Mark needed to wait for the tide to get across the sandbar to the anchorage for Erraid. A tiny tidal island linked to mainland Mull at low tide, it’s one of the locations featured in Robert Louis Stevenson’s Kidnapped. After another delicious lunch, we headed off and once landed on Erraid, Mark and Anna led us through the settlement, now home to members of the Findhorn Foundation, and up to the quarry which provided most of the stone for the lighthouses of Dubh Artach and Skerryvore, both of which can be seen from the summit of the island. We continued up to the observation tower with its wide-ranging views across the Sound of Iona and the Ross of Mull, and then up to a higher viewpoint on the moorland.
Most of the party carried onto Traigh Ghael, or Balfour Bay as it has become known, where we lazed on the beach and snoozed the afternoon away in the sudden heat before making our separate ways back to the jetty. Elaine and I walked across the moorland with Chris to a sandy bay teeming with waders being pushed in by the rising tide, with Ringed Plover and Dunlin looked very smart in their summer plumage.
Then it was back to HB in time for cake before dinner… another tradition we all threw ourselves wholeheartedly into, regardless of the damage to our waistlines.
Thursday 18th April – Erraid to Loch Spelve via Loch Buie and the Ross of Mull
Our final full day – where had the week gone? – and it was another breezy morning which brightened and calmed through the day and layers came off rapidly as the day progressed. A steady run alongside the Ross of Mull’s coastline produced more rafts of auks, good numbers of cruising Manx Shearwaters and Gannets.
The landscape changed from the low-lying Ross granite to the impressive cliffs of Malcolm’s Point and past Carsaig Arches, which I’ve always thought are better viewed from the sea. Passing through Carsaig Bay, we rounded the corner into Loch Buie for lunch in roasting temperatures, where we heard our first Cuckoo of the trip.
I stayed on board while most of the party went ashore to walk from Loch Buie to Loch Spelve where HB would pick them all up later. Being a regular visitor to Mull, I’d enjoyed that walk numerous times but I have only ever seen the spectacular Laggan cliffs a few times and again, they are best viewed from the sea. So Mark let me stay on board as HB sailed from Loch Buie to Loch Spelve, via the Croggan Narrows, to the familiar and much loved anchorage in Loch Spelve… this time heading for the western end to await everyone arriving on foot. By this time, the wind had dropped almost completely and the loch surface was as calm as a millpond, and we all enjoyed a lovely relaxing final dinner and sunset.
Friday 19th April – Loch Spelve to Oban
The calm conditions continued the next morning at sunrise and good views of Otter were enjoyed at first light, a mother and cub playing on the shoreline. It was a beautiful crossing of the Firth of Lorne in almost ethereal light and calm seas, with Chris spotting Bottlenose Dolphins on the way over.
After a final relaxed brunch where we did our best to empty the boat of any remaining food, it was good to have a final chat with all the guests and thank the crew. No real surprise that I got lumbered with writing the blog… again! Though fortunately Chris is providing the photos this time. Thanks to Mike, Tim, Angela, Jan, Morgane, Mark 2 and Elaine for your company, it was a lot of fun.
And after recovering from the surprise of someone else on board actually having a bigger bar bill than me, I joined the stagger up Oban High Street to collect the cars, load the luggage and depart, having had a superb week of wildlife and scenery around one of my favourite Hebridean islands. With a bird list totalling 80 species to reflect the group’s efforts during the week, it wasn’t a bad haul for early spring. I’ve now got till July to lose the weight Steve ‘forced’ me to gain with his cooking and my next, much anticipated, cruise with a return visit to St Kilda and, fingers crossed, out to the Continental Shelf.