Welcome to whales - in the Hebrides

The west coast of Scotland offers a wealth of marine life. And now is the best time of year to explore it, says Rupert Isaacson

TOWARDS the end of this month marks the start of the best season for watching whales off the west coast of Scotland. Travelling up to the Isle of Mull and getting out into these whale-rich waters is about as sure a way as you could wish for romanticising the often bleak weather of western Scotland.

Sealife Surveys - based on Mull - offers the chance to take part in an ongoing census of whale and other marine life off the Hebridian coast, while also having a guided holiday. These whale-watching grounds on the Inner Hebrides are becoming famous in Europe for the dense concentrations of pods (the word for a group of whales). Most are of the smaller species with occasional visits from larger whales: minke whales, black baleen (crustacean-eating whales about 15ft long), harbour porpoise, killer whales (orcas) and common Risso's dolphin are the most common. Basking sharks are also common around the bays. Their fearsome-looking mouths belie their harmlessness to man - like most of the larger whales, they eat nothing but plankton and small shrimp.

Sealife's special late autumn and early spring trips include Autumn Babies - viewing the Minke whale, porpoise and Risso's dolphin calves, grey seal pups and migratory wildfowl and waders - and Wild Water in April, which takes to the rougher seas, with sightings of puffin, guillemot and razorbill colonies and the first whales of the season. And if you arrive during a spell of really rough weather when the boat cannot go out, you will be guided through the coastal moors and woods, where you should see otters - the island is a breeding stronghold for the species - while the inlets have seals, spectacular bird life, herds of red deer, wild flowers, and secret caches of wild mushrooms hiding under the trees.

Sealife asks that you record any animal you see, along with details of the circumstances, time of day and weather conditions. The data is supplied to research groups at Oxford, Bristol and Aberdeen universities as well as the International Whaling Commission. If you want to do more than record, you can join an on-site research team analysing and processing data collected on the boat. Part of the money you spend on the trip goes to Sealife's own charity, the Hebridian Whale and Dolphin Trust.

Sealife is open to all budgets, with choices of full board and hotel standard accommodation, camping plus meals in the lodge, or camping and cooking for yourself. There is a washing machine and drying room for all guests. When out on the boat you have the comfort of a 40ft trawler yacht with a roomy viewing platform and indoor cabins for rough weather. Land days combine transport by Land-Rover and on foot.

The Hebrides are magical at any time,but in the spring, off-season, there are almost no other tourists around on land or water. A three-day weekend is feasible from London if you fly to Edinburgh or Glasgow, then take the train to Oban. And at the first sight of a tell-tale fin or humped back breaking the waves, your cold-weather blues will be forgotten - or at least put on hold until you get back to the city.

whale watching fact file

Contact

Sealife Surveys, Dervaig, Isle of Mull, Argyll PA75 6QL (01688 400223).

Season

May to end September.

Tariffs

A seven-day package costs pounds 552, five days costs pounds 415 and three days costs pounds 273. All packages are full-board (vegetarian and special diets catered for). A two-night mini package is also available for pounds 155, as are day- trips of between four and eight hours which range from pounds 32 to pounds 48 per person, (less for children). Prices vary slightly according to season. In general there is a pounds 100 non-refundable deposit required and the balance is due 6 weeks in advance. Credit cards are accepted. Late bookings are sometimes accepted if space is available. Accommodation is in a lodge with twin rooms. Clients should arrange their own holiday insurance. Safety Staff trained in first aid.

Getting there

By plane or train to Glasgow, then rail to Oban for the ferry to the Isle of Mull. Guests for the longer trips will be picked up at the Mull ferry-port; day trippers make their own way.

Disabled Facilities

The lodge has special facilities for the disabled. The boat can take disabled people if they are willing to be carried on and off.

Children

There are education tours and exhibitions for children.

Affiliations

Hebridian Whale and Dolphin Trust, Holiday Mull, International Fund for Animal Welfare, Scottish Activity Holiday Association, Scottish Tourist Board, West Highland and Island Area Tourist Board.

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