Coast editor-in-chief Alex Fisher takes a wildlife watching sailing trip around some of the more remote islands of the Inner Hebrides where she learns about the history and nature on this stunning archipelago.
The sun is patterning the gently rippling sea with sparks of light as we clamber into the dinghy, eyed curiously by a huge seal on a nearby rock. The sea in the sheltered bay is calm, the sky blue and cloudless, and the small, deserted island ahead is inviting. I trail my hand in the cold water as we make the short trip to the shore and hop across rocks and pools onto the land. Wildflowers pepper the grass where a narrow path snakes towards the hillside. Heart pounding with anticipation, I climb higher, glancing towards the birds as they swirl above the sea. I reach the top of the ledge and gasp at the beauty that unfolds before me. All my adult life I have wanted to see this stunning sight, and what a privilege it is to finally be here. Thousands of puffins, with their seasonal, colourful beaks, stretch out before me. It’s breeding season and they have gathered on the tiny island of Lunga to return to their burrows, to raise their young. The largest of the Treshnish Isles, but still just 81 hectares, Lunga is a wildlife haven just west of Mull. We left Oban on the Scottish mainland early this morning, and it’s taken most of the day to sail here – and it was worth every moment. Keeping a respectful distance, I sit still and watch, fascinated by these creatures, who take little notice of my presence.
If you do make it to Lunga, it’s worth travelling a little further to see the incredible Fingal’s Cave on the Isle of Staffa. Made up of geometric volcanic basalt columns that loom over 60m above the sea, the sounds and echoes of the water in this natural cathedral inspired Felix Mendelssohn’s Hebrides Overture.
THE ROUGH & THE SMOOTH
We drop anchor by the small, community-owned isle of Ulva, where a delicious supper is prepared for the three crew and six passengers on Zuza, our home at sea for the next few days. Having worked as an offshore base for an international marine research project by the Royal Geographical Society, Zuza is the perfect expedition yacht for exploring these islands. As we head north towards our next location the following day, I am happy to be in such a steady and reliable boat, as the wind gets up and the waves are high, and I have to hold on tight to stop myself flying from one side of the cabin to the other! It’s hard to see wildlife in the grey seas we are sailing through, but as soon as we pass the Ardnamurchan Peninsula we’re sheltered again and the wind drops. As we enter Loch Moidart, the water suddenly becomes like glass, a reminder of how quickly the weather can change when you are out on the water. It’s a relief to drop anchor and dine against the stunning backdrop of Castle Tioram as pipistrelle bats flutter around us. Despite being unoccupied for hundreds of years, the silhouette of this dramatic ruin remains intact and will be the setting for a beautiful hand-fastening ceremony of the two American passengers the next morning. If I’d known I’d be attending a ‘wedding’, I’d have packed a dress along with my gloves, waterproofs and non-slip shoes!
WHAT’S THE STORY…?
After that touching ceremony with two strangers who now feel like friends (it’s amazing how quickly you get to know people when you share a yacht for a few days…) we head out of the loch and back towards Mull, seals bobbing their heads as we pass. There are dolphins, basking sharks and even a couple of orcas in the area, but on this short trip of just a few days, we didn’t see them. Today we are heading to Tobermory Harbour, where we’ll spend our last night at sea. Famous as the setting for children’s TV series Balamory, it does not disappoint, with its recognisable array of colourful houses circling the pretty bay. There’s a great walk around the headland to Tobermory Lighthouse and it’s lovely to stretch my legs on land even after only a couple of days at sea. With wonderful glimpses of the sea as you make your way through the forest path, which, when I visited was knee-deep in colourful wildflowers, it’s the perfect light exercise before heading to the pub.
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The next day, we return to Oban. The sea is flat and the sun is shining, so we drop anchor and eat lunch alongside the seals in the Sound of Mull. A sailing holiday is more than a break, it’s a real adventure – you never know what you might encounter. I was lucky enough to have wonderful, friendly passengers and crew and good weather for the most part, while making memories that will stay with me forever.
NEED TO KNOW
BOOK A SAILING TRIP
Alex travelled with Venture Sail Holidays, which runs many trips around the British Isles in a fleet of beautiful, classic boats, from tall ships to small motorboats. Explore vessels and trips at venturesailholidays.com, and book online or call 01872 487288.
WHERE TO STAY
If, like Alex, you book a trip leaving from Oban, stay at the Oban Perle Hotel. It’s just a few minutes’ walk from Oban station and harbour, where you will board your boat, so no taxi needed. Large rooms benefit from fabulous sea views and luxurious, modern bathrooms. There is also an excellent cocktail bar in the foyer, along with a restaurant and friendly staff (perlehotels.com/oban).
If you have a bit of spare time, it is worth exploring Oban. There are seafood stalls around the harbourside, where you can buy huge, freshly cooked scallops straight off the fishing boats that day for about a £1 each, served on paper plates and eaten sitting out in the open, looking over the sea towards Mull. If you’re a fan of whisky, this is a great place to try the best – make sure you sample Oban’s own (obanwhisky.com).
Venture Sail runs trips from various places around the country. If you decide to travel from Oban, the train journey with ScotRail from Glasgow Queen Street to Oban goes through stunning countryside. You can fly into Glasgow with EasyJet – there’s a regular bus service from the airport to the train station.