WILD LIFE TOURISM ON MULL – where the bloody hell are you?

Grey seals - 'Quick get under water guys, here come the wildlife spotters!'

Grey seals – ‘Quick, get under water guys, here come the wildlife spotters!’

It looks so easy when David Attenborough does it. He whispers a few lines to the camera, parts the bushes and there’s the beast in question doing something photogenic.

We’re learning that real wildlife spotting involves good days and disappointing ones, even on Scotland’s Isle of Mull, a mecca for birdwatchers and nature enthusiasts.

Fortunately, although our trip is billed as the Around Mull: Wildlife Explorer itinerary there are plenty of other attractions to keep us happy in the Hebrides.

For starters we have the fun of exploring the islands from the Majestic Line cruise boat, the Glen Tarsan. ‘Majestic Line’ is a gently ironic joke, apparently. Our boat is charming, but hardly majestic; it’s a refitted fishing vessel, with accommodation for just ten passengers and for us it’s been love it at first sight. The cabins are comfortable, the crew and fellow passengers congenial and the food is superb.

Steaming up the Sound of Mull we’ve already seen wild goats on the rocky crags, curious seals surfacing beside us, and dolphins surfing on our bow-wave.

But gentle rain is falling as the Glen Tarsan’s tender delivers us to the jetty at Tobermory, the touristy fishing village where brightly-coloured shops lining the waterfront contrast with the leaden sky.

We’re going to explore the island with wildlife guides David Woodhouse and Arthur Brown. Eagles and otters are the star attractions it seems; they’re painted on the sides of our two minivans.

The shower gets heavier. ‘Don’t worry, we have the most pollution-free rain in Europe,’ says David, trying to be encouraging.

'There...just to the left of the trees, behind that rock...oh no, it's just another rock.'

‘There…just to the left of the trees, behind that rock…oh no, it’s just another rock.’

We set off driving the single lane roads, with marked bays where we inch past oncoming traffic. Mull has some of Britain’s most varied terrain; the peak of Ben More disappearing into the clouds, rolling hills dotted with patches of oak and birch forest, sheltered lochs and hundreds of kilometres of indented coastline.

I tell myself I don’t care about the wildlife; the landscape is the attraction.
It would be nice to see otters, all the same…

A little knot of birdwatchers, clutching thermos flasks and huddling in waterproofs, trains hopeful telescopes at a stand of pine trees. David sticks his head out the window. ‘Have the golden eagles flown today?’

Heads shake sadly. ‘We saw them yesterday, though.’ Yesterday? And they’re waiting out in the cold just to glimpse them again?? That is true dedication, even in Europe’s cleanest rain.

By a deserted beach strewn with seaweed, David passes out binoculars. ‘There’s a mother otter and her cub along here somewhere.’ We wait. We look. We wait.

There's an otter or two out there somewhere.

There’s an otter or two out there somewhere.

Black-faced sheep graze. What I think are sparrows hop across a sodden patch of grass. David soon puts me straight. They’re not sparrows; they’re meadow pipits, skylarks and the little one with the short tail is a twite. ‘That’s a real birdwatcher’s bird!’ he says.

My phone rings. It’s my wife, calling from Arthur’s group, very excited. ‘We’re watching otters, a family of them, playing and eating.’ Some people have all the luck!

No matter. That was just day two. Five still to come.

The Glen Tarsan chugs out to the puffin colony on the remote Treshnish Islands and returns via the towering cliffs and caves of Staffa Island. In the sheltered inlet between the islands of Gometra and Ulva we glide past basking seals, red deer on the hilltops and an eagle soars overhead. A golden eagle or a white-tailed eagle?

I’m getting obsessed. With the help of David Woodhouse’s introduction and the book in the Glen Tarsan’s library I manage to identify dozens of bird species. I know my whimbrels from my oystercatchers.

And I can tick off a twite too. Mr Attenborough would be happy.

A shag on a rock.

A shag on a rock.


Getting there: Train from Glasgow to Oban (where the cruise begins) takes just over three hours and costs GBP37.50 return.

Cruising there: Majestic Line Cruises run from April-September. The 6-night Around Mull: Wildlife Explorer Cruise costs GBP1880 p.p. See www.themajesticline.co.uk or phone +44 (0) 1369 707 951.

Cormorant. I know my cormorants from my shags now. I think.

Cormorant. I know my cormorants from my shags now. I think.

The writer was the guest of Majestic Line Cruises.

First published: NZ Herald, January 2015.


Filed under Travel- Europe

8 responses to “WILD LIFE TOURISM ON MULL – where the bloody hell are you?

  1. Stan

    Richard, you didn’t mention the fantastic seafood and the malt whiskey on the morning porridge !

  2. Cassie

    We hiked 5 days along the Hollyford track in NZ. The final hut had a seal colony and we were so excited. I had pictured myself spending the day in this isolated location just watching them play.

    I was so disappointed, the colony was not like in the David Attenbourough documentaries, 500 seals in a big mob. They were all hidden. Hidden behind boulders and in grasses and blended in with rocks. Kind of funny.

    • I’ve seen those seals at the end of the Hollyford Track, Cassie. On the day I was there they were out and about, though perhaps not 500 of them frolicking at my feet. I was happy to see them anyway.

  3. “when a TV presenter says ‘if we are lucky we might see…’ you know for sure that you will. I always think that about the Northern Lights, so many people leave disappointed without a sighting but a TV presenter is guaranteed a magnificent display.

  4. Ah, the Western Isles………one of my favourite destinations, despite the almost inevitable bad weather. As a cyclist, I have cycled more than a dozen of them, including the tiny islands of Eigg and Rhum. Must go back to ‘do’ Muck though…..Richard, you obviously have some strings to pull to be invited as a guest of Majestic Line Cruises…..good for you!

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