“ Address: Penmore Mill / Dervaig / Isle of Mull / Scotland / PA75 6QS „
The islands of the Inner Hebrides have much to offer visitors interested in wonderful wildlife and spectacular scenery. With hundreds of thousands of seabirds nesting each year, marine mammals such as seals, porpoises, and even Minke whales, this is a great place to get close to rare and beautiful wildlife, in breathtaking surroundings.
The best way to see these marine creatures is to take an organised wildlife watching trip on a boat out of the larger islands. One of the best is operated by 'Turus Mara' on the Isle of Mull: on our recent trip to Mull, my girlfriend and I did just that.
Turus Mara operates out of Ulva Ferry on the west coast of Mull. Directions for finding the place are given on their website (www.turusmara.com) along with the instruction to allow much more time than you think you need to get there. We found out why when we travelled there. Many roads on Mull are single track and the average speed can be very slow. The road from Salen to Ulva Ferry is one of the worst: steep, narrow, winding, with poor visibility and few passing places, this is not a road for nervous drivers. We were thankful when we finally arrived.
Booking beforehand is highly recommended. We arrived just in time and were able to step straight on to the boat after confirming that we'd booked.
Turus Mara operates two boats, both large (around 50 foot long), with seating for over sixty passengers. We were on 'Hoy Lass', this boat has much of its seating 'indoor', offering great protection from the elements.
The trip we'd chosen is a very special one: a six hour tour from Mull to the Isle of Staffa, then on to the Isle of Lunga. This trip allows an hour on Staffa and two hours on Lunga to see the sights (the website lists this trip as 'Puffin Therapy' which gives some indication of what we'd see). The tour is not cheap, but offers reasonable value for money at £50 for adults, £25 for children and £130 for families. Other, less expensive trips of shorter duration are available.
Our first destination was Staffa, but we had 45 minutes of motoring across the beautiful seas around Mull to get there. The scenery here is simply stunning and being on the sea allows spectacular views of Mull's mountains and rocky coastline, and the various oddly shaped smaller islands with their deeply indented shorelines.
Our skipper kept up a running commentary of what we were seeing: his very dry sense of humour had us laughing out loud for much of the journey.
We reached Staffa which is the location of the stunning Fingal's Cave. The causeway and cave here are formed from hexagonal basalt columns (like the Giant's Causeway in Ireland). Seeing this amazing formation, it was easy to see why ancient people thought that they had been built by giants (they actually formed from rapidly cooling volcanic rock).
This incredible setting inspired Mendelssohn to write his 'Fingal's Cave Overture'. This piece was played for us as we approached the island; hearing this stirring music as we approached the place it had been written for, was a wonderful touch.
We had an hour on Staffa which enabled us to walk the causeway and step into the cave. The cave itself is breathtaking - it looks too symmetrical to be natural. Standing in the cave mouth with the sea rushing in to the back of the cave, looking black in the dim light was amazing.
The route to and from the cave is not for everyone, however. There is a handrail, but a steep drop awaits anyone who stumbles. Those afraid of heights or not steady on their feet should not attempt it.
Soon we were on to Lunga for a completely different experience. Lunga is home to a huge seabird colony with guillemots, razorbills, kittiwakes, fulmars, shags, and storm petrels all breeding in their thousands. The highlight was, of course, puffins!
We disembarked to find another hard journey ahead of us. This involves crossing a rocky shore, then climbing a steep hill to get to the puffin colony: a hard walk, but worth it. Again, this is not for those with walking difficulties.
Once we crested the hill, we were greeted by puffins, loads of them! The birds are incredibly tame and, with care, allowed the entranced humans within a couple of feet. Lying down is the best way; here you are literally face to face with these comical, entrancing, beautiful creatures.
The puffins stared unconcernedly at us, occasionally making a noise that seemed like a cat purring. Amazing, and easy to see why it's called 'Puffin Therapy'. You WILL feel better after visiting these birds. The puffins were flying all around, constantly arriving with sandeels crammed into their colourful beaks, then disappearing down into their holes (old rabbit burrows) to feed their young.
After the puffins, we moved on to the rest of the island. One surprise was seeing black rabbits. These breed on Lunga and look really strange with their sleek black fur, looking so unlike their mainland cousins.
The end of the island hosts the main colony of seabirds. Here, an avian cacophony, and an assault on the nose awaits! The seabirds nest on cliffs, perched on seemingly impossibly tiny rocky ledges to incubate their eggs and raise their chicks. This was a really busy place with birds flying in all the time, sometimes only feet above our heads. The smell, when the wind was in the right (wrong!) direction, can only be described as 'fishy poo'!
We did not get quite as close to these as to the puffins, but close enough so that binoculars were redundant. Watching the fluffy little chicks waddling around was captivating, they were extremely cute.
Photography is easy here; puffins and the rest of the birds can be photographed with the most basic of cameras. If you take your camera, you will get superb pictures.
All too soon it was time to make our way back to the boat. The trip was not quite over yet, however, as the captain took us to visit a seal colony. Here we were able to get within a hundred yards of both grey and common seals. They were hauled out on the rocks giving us excellent views of these large marine mammals. Some of the females had pups which were adorable.
As we were almost home, we got a real bonus. A basking shark was spotted and the captain was able to manoeuvre the boat to within a few yards of this huge fish. Seeing this small(!) twelve foot shark gave most of the people in the boat their first view of the second largest fish in the sea.
We returned to Ulva Ferry tired but happy. This had been a busy, exciting, and even educational voyage and everyone on board had enjoyed themselves immensely. If you're visiting Mull, this is definitely something to put on your itinerary. The memory of Fingal's Cave and the puffins will stay with you forever.