Go Away! Whale Watching

Feature by Xavier Toby | 13 Oct 2006

Award-winning company Sea Life Surveys, the UK's first commercial whale watching operation, runs a host of different wildlife cruises from Tobermory on the Isle of Mull, catering to families and adventurers alike. Having never caught a glimpse of a whale, and since it was the season for it, I thought I'd give it a try. After perusing the website (www.sealifesurveys.com), to maximise my chances I decided on the 'Whalewatch Explorer' (£60 per person) which dedicated the most time (up to 8 hours) at sea searching for whales. I grabbed The Skinny's ever-diligent picture editor, Jane Fenton, and we were away.

Getting from Edinburgh to Oban using Scottish Citylink buses wasn't difficult, taking only a little over four hours. Arriving at 8.30pm we checked into the Oban Scottish Youth Hostel Association (SYHA) hostel, set in a picturesque location on the seafront only a few minutes walk from town. For the budget-conscious the SYHA has a great network of hostels throughout Scotland, however booking in advance is essential in the summer season. While the hostels are exceptionally clean and have excellent facilities, there is often a curfew (11pm at the Tobermory SHYA). Also, SYHA's hostels are popular with families; so if partying is your priority, look elsewhere.

Considering the bus travel times from Edinburgh and Glasgow it's a good idea to stay overnight in Oban before heading out to the Isle of Mull. It's also a lovely small town packed with history and cosy pubs, well worth stopping over for dinner and a few pints. That said, finding a meal after 9pm in Oban proved impossible, so we had to settle for a take-away fish supper.

It was an early morning ferry ride from Oban to Craignure on a Caledonian MacBrayne Ferry, which was comfortable even though the sea seemed, worryingly, a little rough. The short bus ride over to Tobermory was then about the same price as travelling from Edinburgh to Oban, but there weren't any other options.

Although the weather deteriorated, the small Sea Life Surveys boat - complete with enthusiastic guide and bearded captain - still pushed off. By 9.30am the ten of us on board were looking out to sea, eagerly awaiting the first sighting. While there were plenty of dull-coloured but apparently rare seabirds, through the now driving squalls of rain and white-capped, choppy water there wasn't anything else. The guide claimed that in this sort of weather whales would be difficult to sight. My spirits remained high, however: the earth's biggest animal couldn't be that hard to spot.

Over the next eight hours all we saw were the tiny fins of a few far off porpoise, a sunfish (like a normal fish that has been run-over, with a dorsal fin that really couldn't be bothered; apparently the fish was Jamaican, perhaps explaining its laidback attitude) and several sightings of a seabird known as a 'shag' (seriously), which did a great job of bobbing around in the water like something a lot more important. I did snigger the first few times the guide said, "shag" though.

Apart from these glimpses, the wind picked up, tossing the boat around and causing a few of the passengers to empty their stomachs at regular intervals. In fairness, it was apparently the roughest day the boat had been out in all season. Our landing was then delayed as we saved a man in his pants, whose yacht had lost anchor and was perilously close to being washed up on rocks. Maybe if he was wearing more he might've been rescued earlier.

If you've got more time, around Tobermory there is excellent coastal and woodland walking, and it's also worth taking a ferry trip to the nearby islands of Iona or Staffa. In terms of Whale Watching, many of those aboard had seen whales on previous trips, and according to the guide the strike rate during the summer season is very high. Maybe we were just spectacularly unlucky.