REVIEW: A West Coast wildlife cruise that ticks all the boxes

Morag Bootland grabs her binoculars for a wildlife cruise on the West Coast.

AN INVITATION to cruise around the Inner Hebrides and Scotland’s West Coast on an ex-Norwegian ice-class rescue vessel named Hjalmar Bjorge (which will henceforth be known as HB) was always going to pique my interest. What with my probable Viking heritage, Piscean passion for being on or in the water and my love of wildlife watching, this was ticking so many boxes.

This hardy little ship, which is owned by Northern Light Cruising, was to be my home and transport for six days of exploring, wildlife watching and indulging in some fine food courtesy of chef Steve (more on this later). The loose plan was to cruise around Mull and Iona, but part of the charm of cruising around Scotland is that the weather dictates a flexible itinerary. HB carries a maximum of 12 passengers, so if guests agree that there is something off-piste that they’d like to do or see then Charlie, the captain will do his best to accommodate their wishes.

Day 1
I travel to Oban for mid-afternoon and find the pontoon just a short stroll from the railway station. Hopping on board I meet the friendly crew and my fellow travellers over tea and cake before it was full steam ahead for the Isle of Mull and the shelter of Tobermory Bay. Wrapped up against the chill wind we sit on deck and are rewarded with our first view of a white-tailed sea eagle and some harbour seals as we make our way up the Sound of Mull.

Safely anchored for the night, the brightly coloured houses of Tobermory look just as pretty reflected in the water after dark as they had in the daylight. We sample our first dinner on board and Steve really set the bar for what was to come with a rich mackerel pate followed by a huge piece of flaky hake, balanced atop puy lentils and samphire with a rich saffron butter. A fishy feast fit for our first day at sea.

I sleep like a log in my comfy cabin, which was to be a constant for my six nights on board. It can only be down to the sea air because it can’t possibly be connected to the ever-decreasing bottle of The Botanist gin in the ship’s bar!

Day 2
The morning brought sunshine and showers and a hearty breakfast before disembarking for a wander around Tobermory and along to the waterfalls and pier at Aros. Back on board we head for the shelter of Loch Sunart as the wind picks up. Another white-tailed sea eagle circles overhead as we enter the loch and we stop off in the lee of the Isle of Carna for lunch, before pressing on towards Strontian, which would be our overnight anchorage. When we arrive, I’m unable to contain myself and decide to have a dip in Loch Sunart, despite the white horses stampeding down the loch. It was short, but exhilarating, and the luxury of knowing I’d be hopping right back aboard for a warm shower in preparation for dinner made it all the more pleasurable.

A huge plateful of lamb chops with honey and whisky sauce was devoured with gusto and the cheese board with crackers and the gloopy delight that is stroop (a Dutch culinary wonder made with boiled-down apples) went down a treat.

Each evening we’d record all of the flora and fauna that we’d spotted throughout the day and I really loved this opportunity to chat about the incredible wildlife that can be found around the West Coast. My fellow travellers were keen wildlife-spotters and birders too which gave me the opportunity to learn loads as we the trip progressed.

Day 3
The morning dawns calmer and we head back along Loch Sunart. Charlie tells us that the waters to the west of Mull are still a bit too wild to make it a pleasurable trip, or to allow us to spot much wildlife, so we head for Ardtornish for lunch before setting course for the shelter of Loch Spelve for our evening anchorage. HB is more than capable of dealing with anything that these inland seas can throw at her, but in order to see any wildlife we’re all agreed that it’s best to stick to calmer waters. Each time the weather changed our plans I was pleasantly surprised by the places that we went and the treasures that we found, and I was soon enjoying the fluctuating schedule and looking forward to finding out where it would take us next.

Loch Sunart isn’t finished yet though and she gifts us a golden eagle circling overhead (missed by me as I was topping up my cup of tea), the herd of red deer that enjoy grazing on the lawns of Laudale House and an otter perched on a distant seaweed-covered rock as we travel back towards Mull.

In the shelter of Loch Spelve Charlie takes us ashore on the tender for a wander. I walk as far as Loch Uisg and take a quick dip in its fresh water, swimming out just far enough to be able to get a 360-degree view of the hills rising on each side of the glen. A quick change on a blustery shore and a swift march back to meet Charlie and the tender sees me have my closest encounter ever with a white-tailed sea eagle. It must have been perched on the ridge to my left, but I was only aware of the massive bird as it took to its enormous wings and flew over the telegraph lines running just above my head, before effortlessly circling higher and higher until it became just a speck against the clouds. I had fumbled for my phone to take a snap, but my still-chilled fingers just wouldn’t do as they were told and I missed the opportunity. But the post-swim glow and the buzz from my encounter with this impressive raptor had me grinning from ear to ear as I met up with everyone to head back to the ship.

Steve’s dinner was faultless again. Sole with mushroom, chorizo and feta, followed by a blueberry crumble. We sat around the dinner table enjoying a drink and chatting about the day’s adventures before partaking in yet another incredible encounter, this time with the Milky Way. Hats and gloves in place, we climbed up to the top deck and lay down on the comfy padded seating to look at the night sky. As our eyes grew accustomed to the darkness the universe revealed layer upon layer of stars, planets and satellites. Lying in silence watching shooting stars zipping across my field of vision it was hard to imagine how the evening could be more perfect. And then we heard them. The throaty bellows of rutting red deer stags bouncing around the glen, magnified by the hills and echoing all around us. It was Mother Nature at her very best, reminding us that just when you think the natural world can’t be any more amazing, she always has a trump card up her sleeve. I lay there until the evening chill and tiredness drove me back to my cabin and into a deep and restorative sleep.

Day 4
Feeling energised, myself and a few other guests decide to walk from Loch Spelve to Loch Buie, where Charlie would pick us up in time for lunch. The walk is around 3 miles and takes in Loch Uisg (where I swam the day before) as well as some standing stones and the ever-present possibility of seeing wildlife. We spot a hen harrier, a crossbill and a fallow deer stag close to the standing stones. The weather changes minute-to-minute and we’re treated to rainbow after rainbow as we hike along the road. There’s time for a delicious hot-chocolate in The Old Post Office Café, which you can’t miss with its distinctive bright red roof, before returning to HB for an awesome mushroom risotto.

We push on along the south coast of Mull with some of the most amazing geology I’ve ever seen. There are incredible basalt columns illuminated by the afternoon sun and waterfalls tumbling down the rocky cliffs. Seabirds aplenty nest here and pockets of grass provide grazing for small groups of red deer. We are lucky enough to spot a sea eagle as we pass by hidden bays with white sandy beaches before arriving at Ardalanish Bay for the night. Scallops and black pudding followed by pork chops and a decadent chocolate and raspberry mousse are on the menu, as is another evening of star-gazing on deck.

Day 5
I wake to a rim of dawn sunlight around my porthole. The clouds are pink and the sky is blue as we enjoy a cooked brekky before deciding to head to Oronsay. The crossing is a little bumpy but very exciting thanks to a flock of seabirds gathered above a shoal of fish. A sure-fire sign that there’s something big in the water. The birds flap frenetically and dive at the fish, a blur of gannets, kittiwakes and shearwaters. Then one of my fellow guests spots a minke whale rising from below the cloud of beaks and wings. I miss it every time it rises, but there’s photographic evidence of the cetacean to be reviewed later in the day.

But this wasn’t to be our only cetacean today. A small pod of common dolphins come whizzing over to HB to ride the bow of the ship. I’d like to tell you how long they stayed with us, but in truth I was so excited that I completely lost track of everything! Each time they breached, zig-zagging across the bow I whooped with joy, this was yet another highlight of the trip.

The beaches of Oronsay are a series of sandy inlets separated by jagged rocks. We have a hearty bowl of dhal before heading ashore. I’m in half a mind to walk to Oronsay Priory with some of the group, but the silver sand and turquoise water of this perfect Hebridean beach is too tempting. I swim out with the cloud-shrouded Paps of Jura looming ahead and then wander on the sand; exploring rockpools, finding shells and enjoying the solitude of having this glorious beach all to myself.

Back on board we head towards Jura and spot distant sea eagles glide above the hills. As we anchor seals pop their heads out of the water and we see that the ridges around the sheltered bay are peppered with red deer and feral goats. The stars once again put on an incredible show and this time it is soundtracked by not only the stags, but also be the ethereal song of the seals.

Day 6
My last day at sea dawns calm with a glorious sunrise. We head back towards Mull and glimpse a couple of porpoises as we go. Passing by Oronsay, Colonsay and then on to the Garvellachs and the ruins of St Brendan’s Monastery which is thought to have been founded here around AD 542.

Lunch is taken by the Isle of Seil and although the plan is to anchor for the night at Kerrera before our return to Oban in the morning, there’s one last alteration. There’s a storm brewing and the advice is to head to port, so we are full steam ahead for the safety of Oban where we spend a wet and windy evening safely berthed at the pontoon. Wandering around this busy town I watch vessel after vessel return, seeking shelter from the gale force winds and torrential rain that are to come.

The morning dawns grey and as wet as predicted, but there’s time for breakfast and farewells before I head off to catch a train home. Reflecting on my time cruising on Hjalmar Bjorge I struggle to think of a more relaxing way to holiday. The comfort and warmth of the ship, the crew taking care of us, Steve’s incredible food created in the tiny galley, new friendships made with guests and above all the beauty of Scotland and the diversity of its wildlife and landscapes. I’d do it all again in a heartbeat.

To find out more about a cruise aboard Hjalmar Bjorge in 2023 head to www.northernlight-uk.com or call 01599 555723. The Northern Light Cruising Co. is part of the Hebridean Adventures family.