“ 3.5 hour boat trip to spot whales and other wildlife off the coast of Mull „
The seas around the Western Isles of Scotland are teeming with life. The rich waters support a wide variety of creatures that live here all year round, or visit during the summer to breed. Animals such as dolphins, porpoises, seals, and literally thousands of sea birds can, of course, be glimpsed from the shore, but in order to get 'up close and personal' it's necessary to take a boat trip out on to the open ocean. Merchant Vessel Volante works out of its home port of Iona, a small island off the larger Isle of Mull. Its skipper, Gordon MacCormick is an experienced seaman and an accomplished wildlife spotter. Volante's 'whale and wildlife watching trips' give the tourist the best possible chance to encounter such marine leviathans as Minke whales and basking sharks. During our recent holiday on Mull, my girlfriend and I went on one of these trips and thoroughly enjoyed it. Booking beforehand is recommended, as is checking a day or two before that the trip is going ahead. Volante will not be put to sea in unsuitable weather, so a trip cannot be guaranteed. The whale and wildlife watching trip costs £35 per person and lasts around three and a half hours. Cast off is 10:15 from the ferry port of Fionnphort on Mull, or at 10:30 from Iona. At 33 foot long, Volante is not the largest craft on the seas, but is well appointed for carrying passengers. The passenger compartment is open air, with chairs laid out on three sides, but room to move around in the middle. This gives everyone a comfortable seat, but allows for changes of position when, as will inevitably happen, something is spotted on the other side of the boat. As the passengers have no cover, it's worth trying to ensure that the weather looks promising for your trip; being rained on for three and a half hours does not appeal to me. For our trip, however, the weather was simply glorious; blue skies and full sunshine. I can think of few better things to do on a sunny day, than cruise along in an open topped boat, even without the wildlife to look at, it was lovely. We did, however, see lots of wildlife! From the moment we set off, cruising down the Sound of Iona, towards the open sea, we were surrounded by incredible spectacle. Gannets, our largest sea bird, were fishing all around us. This huge bird has a six foot wingspan and a plumage so dazzling white it could be used in a Persil advert. Its method of fishing is breath taking. The gannets cruise along high in the air until they spot a fish. They then fold their wings, adopting an arrow shape, and plunge, straight down into the water. They connect with the surface at 60 mph; their dagger-like bill aiming straight for a hapless fish. Watching them plunge-diving around us was a great start to a great trip. We headed first for Fingal's Cave on the Isle of Staffa, passing puffins, guillemots, razorbills, and kittiwakes along the way. The birds allowed a reasonably close approach from the boat meaning that good photographs could be obtained. Fingal's Cave is one Britain's most amazing natural wonders. Like the Giant's Causeway in Ireland, it is formed from hexagonal basalt columns. There is a causeway here, too. The columns rise up to form a cliff, and suddenly end, producing the most amazing cave I have ever seen. The pilot was able to get really close to the cave entrance, giving us superb views of this amazing work of nature. After the cave, we went shark hunting. Basking sharks are the second largest fish in the sea, growing to over 30 foot in length. Our captain was able to get really close to these amazing fishes. Watching a shark the size of 'Jaws' moving steadily past the side of the boat, was a stunning experience. The sharks were so close that we could almost touch them. We could see their fins above the water, and their whole body underneath, including the cavernous, plankton capturing mouth; a superb sight. Even though they are harmless, it made us slightly nervous realising that a couple were the size of our boat! The sharks were the highlight of the trip as we did not see any whales. We did see other marine mammals including both species of British seal (common and grey), and porpoises. The porpoises lived up to their name; 'porpoising' out of the water then disappearing under the surface. The seals were seen hauled out on the rocks. Seen in this way, a good impression is gained of their size; a fully grown bull grey seal can be ten feet long and weigh half a tonne! Hundreds of thousands of sea birds breed on the islands of western Scotland and we visited several of the best colonies during our trip. We were treated to the sight of kittiwakes, shags, fulmars, and auks, all relaxing off shore in small groups. Terns were fishing all around us, feeding much more delicately than the plunging gannets. A great skua and a manx shearwater were also seen. It is also possible, on occasion to see sea eagles, although we did not. The three and a half hours passed extremely quickly for us. The sheer volume of wildlife here meant that there was always something new to see. We were often faced with delightful dilemmas; do we look port for the basking shark, or starboard for the porpoises? Exciting, hectic, and awe inspiring are just some of the descriptions I could use. There was a real sense of involvement, too, since we were asked to shout out if we spotted anything interesting. The captain had told us what to look for; as he could not see all around, we kept a lookout to the sides and rear. We both took away wonderful memories of this fabulous trip. Sights such as Fingal's Cave, basking sharks, seals, and plunge-diving gannets will live in our memories forever. If you are on Mull or Iona, this is a great way to see our wonderful wildlife. It made me realise that you don't have to visit far away places to see world class wildlife; it can be found off the western coast of Scotland.