MARINElife Wildlife Officer Report 'MV Balmoral' Oban - Ardnamurchan Lighthouse & Loch Sunart

Louise Milne; MARINElife Wildlife Officer (WLO)
Weather: Cloudy with sunny periods. Winds: Light Breeze. Sea State: 2-3

Marine mammals:
Harbour Porpoise 3
Unidentified dolphin sp. 1
Common Seal 100+

Great Black-backed Gull
Herring Gull
Lesser Black-backed Gull
Manx Shearwater
Black Guillemot
Common Tern

Terrestrial Birds: 
Grey Heron                                                                                                                                              
White-tailed Sea Eagle

It was an early start for me and some other passengers who had decided to take the bus from Glasgow to Oban. The 2½ hour drive to Oban was very pleasant and afforded us the opportunity to catch glimpses of the Loch Long Gannet fishing for breakfast. The harbour at Oban was a hive of activity upon our arrival. Kayakers were preparing their kayaks; the Calmac ferry made manoeuvres to sail and day cruise operators touted for business.

Paul the purser gave me a friendly hello as I boarded MV Balmoral. I quickly set about re-familiarising myself with the ship. I headed up to the top deck were I met a few familiar faces from my trip last year up the Clyde. The weather was fair and the sea calm as we set off at 11am towards our first port of call, Tobermory, on the Isle of Mull.


Tobermory (Louise Milne)

The commentary stared almost immediately due to the fact we were surrounded by so much heritage and history. As we passed Duart Castle I spotted Gannet, Guillemot and Shag.

As we slipped up the Sound of Mull a solitary Harbour Porpoise swam between us and the Craignure ferry terminal on Mull.  At Tobermory some passengers disembarked while others joined us. The sun was shining as we departed Tobermory and headed towards the most westerly point in mainland Britain, Ardnamurchan point. I got chatting with a Tobermory local who informed me that one of the wildlife cruises had spotted the orca 'John Coe' and a Minke Whale the day before around Coll.

We had Coll in our sights as we left the Sound of Mull, so I kept my eyes extra peeled as we progressed. As we sailed on, one passenger did call out whale, but I'll have to report it as an UWO - an unconfirmed whalelike object! We did pass a bobbing raft of Manx Shearwater which one passenger was keen to have confirmed by me.

As we sailed towards Ardnamurchan Lighthouse we had a clear view towards Muck, Eigg and Rum.  Many sea birds sightings were made including Herring Gull, Kittiwake, Gannet, Guillemot, Black Guillemot and Common Tern. As we leveled with the lighthouse we had reached our most northerly point of the trip. With a graceful 360ᵒ turn, MV Balmoral charted a route down towards the entrance of Loch Sunart.

The Loch Sunart shoreline is surrounded by ancient Atlantic oak woodlands, some of the last remaining in Europe. Tucked into the woods is the stunning Glenborrodale Castle which has a commanding position looking over the various islands at the entrance to the sea loch.

Glenborrodale Castle

Glenborrodale Castle (Louise Milne)

On one of the islands, Carna, I spotted a hundred plus Common Seal basking in the afternoon sun. I also spotted a Grey Heron, Oystercatcher and numerous Common Tern.

Two Porpoise were also spotted as we sailed up the loch. On our return down the loch we had a 20 minute privileged sighting of a White Tailed Sea Eagle. It was being harassed by two comparatively small Buzzard. It was wonderful to watch this large raptor turning on a dime as it twirled on its back to bare its talons at the Buzzard. All of us who watched this drama had huge smiles on our faces for the full 20 minutes!

The day went very quickly but there was one last brief cetacean sighting before we entered Tobermory harbour. It was a lone unidentified dolphin, its dorsal fin silhouetted black against the rocks. At Tobermory I disembarked to have a quick look at the sightings list in the window of the Hebridean Whale and Dolphin Trust office. It confirmed that Orca and Minke Whale had been sighted around Eigg a few days previous.

Just as we approached Oban we had a rare sighting of two ships passing each other- the CalMac passenger ferry MV Isle of Mull and the cruise ship MV Hebridean Princess. The former having taken over the role and route of the latter in the late 1980's.

Calmac ships crossing

Calmac Crossing (Louise Milne)

We arrived back into Oban at 8pm where I boarded the bus back to Glasgow. This time I missed the road side view as I settled into a comfortable sleep all the way home!

My thanks to the crew and volunteers of MV Balmoral for their help, support and interesting commentary.

Louise Milne; MARINElife Wildlife Officer (WLO)