A Close Encounter with Dolphins
(All Photos by Donna Dailey)
'What's that in the water?' asks Kathleen, pointing ahead of the boat. We're standing on the deck of the Glen Tarsan, a former fishing vessel now converted to take wildlife and other cruises off the west coast of Scotland. We've left Skye behind and are sailing in wonderful sunshine towards the little island of Canna (population: 12).
'Is it a seabird?' Kathleen wonders. The Sea of the Hebrides is filled with seabirds, guillemots galore and kittiwakes by the score. But all eyes are now trained on the shape in the water, till someone shouts excitedly, 'It's a fin!'
And it is. Pretty soon we see a tail fin too, and the keen eyes of the skipper Iain, on the bridge behind us, says, 'It's a basking shark. But only a wee one.' He stops the boat, our home for six days, and we drift towards the shark as it scythes back and forth through the water coming slowly towards us. It's about fifty yards away when something spooks the young creature and it splashes beneath the waves, and is gone.
It may only have been a glimpse but it's more than we'd expected to see. Iain had briefed us at the start of the cruise, saying that he had seen no basking sharks so far this season. It was mid-August, and the sharks should have been here by now, but no-one knew why they hadn't shown up or where they were instead. 'That's the way it is with wildlife,' Iain said. 'There are no guarantees.'
Iain (right, watching for wildlife) had the comforting and soft-spoken manner that inspires confidence in a skipper. It was something in the gentle Scottish accent, and in the sharp eyes that had seen a lot and sparkled with quiet humour. We were nine strangers who were dependent on him and his sailing skills for our cruise in the Inner Hebrides. Dependent on him and his tiny crew of three. Gavin was the engineer, Andrew the bosun, and Stephen the all-important chef. While Stephen was fully occupied in the galley producing three meals a day, the others did everything from making the beds and cleaning the cabins to serving meals and clearing away afterwards. By the end of the cruise all the women wanted to either marry or adopt one of them.
As for the chef, nothing seemed to faze him. 'I've never failed to serve a meal,' Stephen told me as he took a break and we sat in the sunshine together one afternoon and admired the green hills of the Isle of Skye. 'If you can eat it, I'll prepare it!'
It's clear from the contentment you can see on his face that he has found the ideal job.
It wasn't the food, though, which had brought us to the boat, but the chance to see the wildlife that lives on and under these Scottish waters, and on the islands. Common seals became commonplace, but not so much that we didn't delight in every sighting. Lunch would be interrupted if a head was spotted in the water, even if it did sometimes turn out to be a rock.
One day the cry goes up: 'Dolphins in front of the boat!' Everyone runs out on deck, waits, and then one appears below the bow, clearly visible in the water. We lean over to watch and take photos. Then ahead another one breaches the surface, then another - are there two of them? Three? Yet another appears by the bow, then several more about 40 yards away. Then more in the near distance. We lose count.
On our final day the skipper points out a tiny shape in the distance. More basking sharks, bigger this time than the one Kathleen had spotted the day before.
Iain cuts the engine as more fins appear, and we try to count them. Six, perhaps? The boat bobs as they slowly make their way towards us, swimming back and forth and ever closer. Breathless, we wait. Now they approach us, right under the bow where everyone gathers. We gaze down at them, can see their gaping mouths just below the surface. One is about 16-18 feet long, the skipper guesses, a huge creature whose enormity inspires awe.
'For every one we can see,' says Iain, 'there might be another four below, as they swim in layers, back and forth, hoovering up the plankton they live on.'
I try to imagine another 20-30 sharks below the surface, in the dark silence of the Sea of the Hebrides.
'That was good,' says Iain, another man who clearly enjoys his work. He asks Gavin to switch the engine back on and we head to our evening anchorage off the island of Muck. In the lounge, Stephen begins chalking up his last night's menu. Haggis and Stornoway black pudding thermidor, says the first line. It's going to be a good night.
The Majestic Line runs cruises of between three and thirteen nights on the Glen Tarsan and its sister ship the Glen Massan from April to October. Most cruises sail out of Oban, on the west coast of Scotland. There are daily train and coach services to Oban from Glasgow.
Mike Gerrard has won several awards for his travel writing, and he and his wife Donna Dailey publish a number of travel websites including Greece Travel Secrets and Beyond London Travel. You can read more about the Majestic Line's chef in another of Mike Gerrard's Huffington Post pieces, Chef All at Sea.