Last Sunday an old friend invited me out on his rather cool new boat for a spot of whale watching in the sound of Mull. Having spent years going back and forth on the ferry from Oban to Mull, seeing the occasional pod of Dolphins and latterly Basking Sharks, I didn’t need any persuading. However, nothing could have prepared me for the amazing sights we would encounter on a sunny afternoon in August in Argyll.
I have been out on boats around this area before and I know that sightings are pretty regular, so I was confident my 7 year-old son would get the chance to see his first Dolphin, Whale or even a Basking Shark. Alexander has had a fascination with sharks since he was a baby and I really hoped we would see one or two on our trip. This time we were blessed with at least half a dozen individuals, so close to us that we could reach out and touch their dorsal fins as they passed! For nearly 20 minutes the sharks swam gently around us, under us and alongside us, seemingly oblivious to us or the boat.
Basking Sharks are quite astonishing creatures. Massive, silent and harmless these magnificent sharks grow up to 10 metres in length and are the second largest fish in the world, second only to the Whale Shark.
Once common in the waters of the Hebrides, sadly these creatures were almost hunted to extinction during the 40s and 50s. Ironically, one of the most successful hunters was the author Gavin Maxwell of Ring of Bright Water fame, who along with his partner Tex Geddes ran a whaling and sharking station on Soay Island. They killed thousands of Basking Sharks for their ambergris which was used to make perfumes.
These beautiful silent creatures feed only on microscopic zooplankton which is found in abundance in Hebridean waters and can filter the equivalent of 2,000 tons of water per hour through its open mouth. This is the equivalent of swallowing an Olympic swimming pool of water every hour!
Due partly to their passive nature and slow swimming speed, you can now get up close and personal with a live shark in its own habitat. They tend to travel in circles near the surface which means diving with these wonderful giants of the deep became popular on Islands like Mull and Iona.
Back on our boat trip, shortly outside Tobermory Bay, our skipper opened up the engines and to our absolute delight we saw a pod of Dolphins surfing our bow wave, diving down to then reappear and leap in the air.
Time and time again, the Dolphins would pass the boat, spin on the wave and leap a meter or two clear of the water. At one point we had two separate pods of around 10 animals each, leaping and breaching in perfect timing, in what appeared to be a competition!
All of this was happening within 20 metres of our boat. Often a Dolphin would pass under the boat and suddenly erupt next to it, giving us all a soaking. I cannot begin to tell you how our interaction with wild, intelligent creatures affected everyone on the boat. From my 7 year-old son to our 77-year-old skipper, we were not only transfixed but full of joy. There is something totally wonderful about interacting with a wild creature in its own environment. The Dolphins didn’t have to do anything for us, there was no coaxing, no reward, they were simply showing off and having fun.
Such is the diversity of wildlife in these waters that it was only a few short minutes before my 7 year-old looked out and cried “FIN!” As we all spun around a rather strong smell hit us! This is the tell-tale sign that we had found a pair of Minke Whales.
Although the smallest of the Baleen Whales seen in Scotland’s waters, the Minke Whale is still an impressively big animal: females are up to 8.5m (28ft) long and males only a little smaller. When a Minke surfaces, most often all that is seen is a long, arched back and a sickle-shaped dorsal fin. Pale grey markings on its side may show as light chevrons between the blowhole and the dorsal fin and there is a pale band on each flipper. The blow from a Minkes double blowhole is inconspicuous and rarely more than 2m (6ft) tall. Minke rarely breach clear of the water but they may ‘spy hop’ – rising partly out of the water vertically to check their surroundings. And they regularly approach boats.
For a few minutes we watched the pair swimming around us and under us, again without any sign that our presence was unusual to them. The nickname ‘Stinky Minke’ has been given to these creatures’ fishy breath which can be smelled from hundreds of meters away!
So in a few short hours we had seen Dolphins, Basking Sharks, Minke Whales and a couple of little harbour Porpoises as we exited Tobermory Bay. Pretty amazing by anyone’s standards, but yet more was to follow.
The rocks between Mull and Coll provide a resting place for Cormorants and Shags and near the cairns of Coll we spotted literally hundreds of these birds standing together, drying their wings in comical fashion.
There were so many of them that we barely noticed the thirty plus Atlantic Grey Seals basking on the shore below them. It was only our eagle eyed spotter who saw the movement as these lovely animals, with eyes like liquid silk, all headed for the safety of the water, except for a couple of larger bulls who just shifted position in the sun and carried on! However, seals are extremely inquisitive and before long, a dozen or so heads appeared in the water to see what we were up to! These seals are naturally comedic in appearance and yet you feel like it’s you who is putting on a show for them!
On our way home in the distance our young spotter cried “FIN”, and indeed it was a fin, but like nothing any of us had ever seen before. A single large fin seemed to slap rhythmically on the surface every minute or so. Lots of theories abounded! Was it a turtle, a large sea bird in trouble, an injured dolphin? We found, when we got closer, a huge pectoral fin with an even bigger almost circular body underneath. An Oceanic Sunfish! While still rare in northern waters these strange nomadic fish which can grew up to 15 feet in diameter are becoming more common in the waters around Mull and Iona. Our Skipper who has been at sea for 60 years reckoned this was only the second he had ever seen.
To cap the most magnificent of days, as we were making our way home past Glengorm Castle on the isle of Mull, perched below the craggy rocks we saw a movement on the rocky shore. The binoculars revealed a fully grown White-Tailed Eagle quietly sunning himself.
As we inched the boat closer, this magnificent bird which sits a metre tall with talons twice the size of a man’s hand, turned and looked at us. I think we all had the feeling that there was only one boss here and he was happy to indulge our photography! For almost 15 minutes we were able to observe and film this apex predator before he majestically flew off to scan his territory.
Mull and Iona and the surrounding waters are now considered to be a world class venue for watching Whales and Dolphins. Add to the mix a few White-tailed Sea Eagles and the world’s second biggest shark to the 24 species of cetaceans including Killer Whales (Orca) and you have a naturalist’s paradise.
Many operators including Staffa Tours regularly encounter these wonderful animals and these days Mull and Iona even offer the opportunity to dive overboard and swim with the sharks!
I cannot easily describe the feeling of being so close to a wild creature that is actually interested in humans and demonstrates its athletic prowess in a display of sheer unbounded joy. From the youngest on our boat to the oldest, we all felt something magic and we simply couldn’t stop smiling all the way home.
Come to Mull and Iona, take a trip and see for yourself. Things will never be quite the same again!