Last time I went to Gairloch in the Hebrides almost exactly a year ago, I managed to get a picture I am still very proud of- A minke whale spy hopping around the bow of the boat. Seeing it that close up, both as curious as the other, reinforced my passion for cetaceans and I was hoping that this year’s experience would be no different….
After a rainy 7 hours of travelling, we arrived at The Old Inn, the bed and breakfast where we would be spending the night after I won a photography competition with Hebridean Whale Cruises. I was a little bit apprehensive at this stage as it was still tipping it down so there was quite a high chance that the wildlife watching cruise I had been booked on to later that day would be cancelled as I was really really looking forward to it. Still, not much you can do about the British weather is there?
A quick few games of a children’s animal quiz and a bottle of Irn Bru later, it was time to leave for Orca 1, the Hebridean Whale Cruises boat, despite the sprinkling of rain. After getting suited up and onto the boat, we set off on our adventure into the Minch and through Loch Gairloch. Now to begin with, everything was going to plan. My glasses were on, I was scanning the water for any signs of life and everyone was happily enjoying the ride. Then the rain hit. My glasses steamed up so I was effectively blind and then we all had to turn around to shield our faces from the burning sensation of the droplets hammering at our faces. It seemed that this year was going to be a lot different to last year.
Eventually we made it to the whales’ feeding grounds and as the boat stopped, we waited patiently and looked for any signs that they were there. All of a sudden, a plume of evaporation decorated the cool air and the back of a whale cut through the surface. It was a way off but there were definitely here.
We spend the next few hours watching around 9 different whales all around us, feeding on the shoals of fish. It’s been a while since I watched for whales as apart from last year, the last time I had seen a whale was onboard The Pride of Bilbao crossing the Bay of Biscay so it was such a good experience to see that many in one area. Seeing a couple of whales lunge feeding out of the water was exhilarating and whilst we didn’t get to see any dolphins, the minkes more than made up for it. We did spot a harbour porpoise at the beginning but it was a very fleeting appearance. Unfortunately, due to the rain I didn’t really manage to get any decent photographs of this trip as the lens was covered in water droplets but I did have a good go at it- I wasn’t giving up!
It was also lovely to see so many puffins, among other seabirds, sitting on the surface so close to the boat. There’s something about puffins clumsily taking off that makes them so intriguing and comical and I had only ever seen them from a distance before or quickly flying past. Likewise, seeing the grey seal in the harbour was a highlight but we were in the boat pulling away at the time so I didn’t get to see it for too long.
However, a few days later on another wildlife cruise with the Gairloch Marine Cruises, I did manage to see some more seals and for a lot longer too. I wasn’t actually initially planning on going on this boat but after seeing all those whales on the first one, I was itching to get back out to sea. Unlike Orca 1, a very fast RHIB, this boat, MV Starquest, was nice and relaxing and let you wander about to see everything depending on which side the wildlife was on and it was a nice change to try something different. It also took us to a couple of different areas as well which was lovely as it meant we got to see some more of the birdlife that inhabits this area of the Hebrides as well as the seals I was so desperate to see.
As we set off, we headed towards a little island just cut off from the mainland and were told to keep an eye out for both common and grey seals who were often spotted swimming around in the water or lazing upon the rocks. We all scanned the water and it wasn’t long before we spotted three pregnant females lying on a small slice of rock jutting out of the water. They all looked so serene and relaxed it made me want to have a relax with them and I was glad that I had a non blurry lens to get some pictures this time and I managed to get the shot as one lifted it’s head and seemed to smile.
After one last look, we then set off towards Queens Cove on another little island further down Loch Gairloch where we were hoping to see some of the resident sea birds. Although we did see a number of bossy Skuas who seemed to pester a little fishing boat for food, cormorants, shags and guillemots, the wildlife was a little sparse according to the guide. To me we saw a lot and wildlife I wouldn’t normally go out to see but considering the calm water and sunny sky, it was a little unfortunate there wasn’t more around. Never mind though, wildlife is always unpredictable- that’s half of the excitement of wildlife watching.
On the way back we saw another island full of young gulls, some only 15 days old. I was amazed to discover that they were only that age and yet looked much older and even more so that it then takes them up to 7 years to fully transform their younger feathers to adult feathers. I really find it interesting that each species differs so much and has adapted so well for survival, something which is so important to this planet.
After spending a few interesting days in Gairloch, it was time to set off back to Cardiff with the memories and photographs of all the creatures we had seen. I’m so glad that I was able to go on two very different boat trips and can definitely recommend them both to anybody who wants the perfect Hebridean nature experience as they’re both so different and so suit everybody. It may not have been the same experience as last year but just like the weather, nature is surprising and that’s why I want to work alongside it: it’s exciting, exhilarating and I wouldn’t want anything else.
To book the cruises please visit: Hebridean Whale Cruises
(You won’t regret it!)