Exploring the Backyard

How well do you know the place you live? If you’re anything like me, probably nothing like as well as you could.

In the past, whenever I’ve been lucky enough to be abroad somewhere interesting, I’ve put maximum effort into getting to know the place. At 100 miles per hour, taking in as many sights as physically possible, and generally immersing myself in the spirit of the place.

So then, why not make a similar effort to go exploring closer to home? What is it about traveller enthusiasm that doesn’t translate?

Is it because we take where we live for granted? Maybe a bit. I’m not sure. But it certainly feels kind of wrong that I’ve been all round New Zealand but I still haven’t been to St Kilda.

It’s a weird one – but I am trying to rectify it because we really do have an amazing backyard, here in the Outer Hebrides.

For those who want to get outdoors, it’s a total adventure playground. Take the sea – which is the focus of today’s blog. Specifically, my guided wildlife cruise with Hebridean Adventures.

Their boat is the MV Monadhliath, skippered by Tony Morrison. It was a midweek day in mid-September and the plan was to go out at from Stornoway about 10am, back by 4pm latest, and get down to Keppoch Head and maybe the Shiants.

Skipper Tony Morrison gives a briefing before we depart

We would be looking for marine mammals and sea birds and there were a couple of volunteers from Whale and Dolphin Conservation among the passengers who were particularly focused. 

We weren’t out of the harbour before we spotted our first marine mammal – Sammy the Seal, of course – but we had also spotted a pod of porpoises before reaching the Arnish light. 

In fact, we saw numerous pods of porpoises, distinctive by their shorter stubbier dorsal fins, on our trip. So many that, after a little while, our crew guide, Robyn Palmer, explained the boat would not be slowing down to get a closer look at them as they were so common.

She also explained that if we did see any other mammals then skipper Tony would slow down and come in for a closer look. And later on, that’s exactly what happened.

The two women from Whale and Dolphin Conservation had spotted something interesting quite far away, and that turned out to be a pod of common dolphins.

This sighting was near Keppoch Head, an area rich in sea life – many of the boat’s sightings having been between Keppoch Head and the Shiants – and as the boat slowed down and turned to approach the dolphins, we were all able to get a closer look.

Leaving Stornoway and past Arnish

The powerful binoculars which had been handed round came in very handy and it was very exciting to get such a good look at these lovely creatures. Unless you count the sight of distant fins from the deck of the ferry, I don’t think I had ever seen common dolphins before.

They are very bonny indeed, with their grey and white two-tone appearance and it became apparent that there was quite a number of them. There were at least 10 dolphins in the pod and there were also one or two smaller youngsters among them.

We were able to watch them for quite a while. They came closer to the boat and seemed to be playing – there were numerous breaches – and some of the other passengers, who had good cameras, seemed to be getting good close-ups.

I tried to capture the moment on my iPhone but in my haste managed to snap only a blurry picture of my leg. Picture fail aside, it was really lovely and heartening to see these creatures. It did the soul good and the crew were also delighted, particularly as they thought the dolphins might have already left the area for the season.

Robyn added: “It’s always pretty exciting, when we see the common dolphins, because they show off the most. They like to play.”

They sometimes bow ride – although they didn’t on this occasion – and Tony explained how that happens. “There’s the pressure wave on the bow, below the surface. They effectively surf that.”

There are a number of boat operators working out of the Outer Hebrides but Hebridean Adventures focus on finding wildlife and exploring the wildlife-rich island areas.

Plenty going on at the Shiants…

They do full day trips – or ‘wildlife experiences’ – and half day trips, as well as overnight cruises lasting anything from two days to six. They will be working on their offering for next year, as they are hoping to build connections with other providers to build on the possibility of using the boat as a mothership for walkers, kayakers and others. Mick Blunt and Alayne Barton of walking holiday business Hidden Hebrides were on the Monadhliath trip the same time as me – the people you meet! – and have already said they hope to work with Hebridean Adventures in the next season, so look out for that. Sea voyages and off-grid walking… it works for me.

It is also a fact that, as well as opening up these types of wildlife experiences, Hebridean Adventures are contributing to the wider knowledge of our sea life, for scientific and conservation purposes.

They look out for all sorts of mammals on their voyages, including basking sharks, minke whales and Risso’s dolphins. Sea birds are also important, and can always be relied on to make a day worthwhile if there’s no sign of whales or dolphins.

Given that the area between Keppoch Head and the Shiants is so rich, the boat usually heads for the Shiants during the longer day trips, stopping there for lunch. We made good enough time to reach the Shiants during our trip and enjoyed a good look at the many birds on the clifftops as we sailed around the islands.

The peak season for whale and dolphin watching is July and August but Tony said that the whole season is from April to October – in a large part because of all the birds at the Shiants.

The people you meet…! Alayne Barton and Mick Blunt of Hidden Hebrides 

It will be interesting to see what happens from a business point of view next year because 2020 is the ‘Year of Coasts and Waters’. I’d imagine there will be an uplift for all the boat operators and Hebridean Adventures does seem to have quite a niche because of its focus on wildlife.

David Lambie, one of the owners of the company, came aboard when we arrived back in Stornoway and we got talking about what the summer highlights had been. David cited the spotting of individual Risso and bottlenose dolphins that had not been seen in these waters for nearly a decade. “We got photos and sent them to Whale and Dolphin Conservation researchers who identified the actual whales that hadn’t been seen in eight years,” he said.

The sightings were on different days, both in July – and they are going to be included in a Whale and Dolphin Conservation scientific paper. 

For Tony, his highlight had been seeing a minke whale breach – “that is spectacular” – but I left the boat incredibly contented, having seen the dolphins.

I was also feeling properly relaxed and that doesn’t happen too often. Maybe it was the sea air, the motion of the boat, plus the fact there wasn’t much to do but watch the sea while holding onto a cuppa in a thermos mug (nice touch; thanks Hebridean Adventures)… but it was all very soothing.

So soothing, in fact, that I kept nodding off on the return to Stornoway Harbour.

Leaving the Shiants

I had enjoyed a fantastic perch on the boat, too. Seats have been installed on the very top deck and they are excellent for viewing purposes. It did get pretty chilly up there – you have to wrap up warm – but it was a great place for watching the sea go by.

I got talking to the woman sitting beside me, as you do. She was on holiday from Stoke-on-Trent and originally came from Germany. This was her third visit to Lewis and her third time out on the Monadliath.

I felt pretty shame-faced telling her that this was my first time on the Monadhliath… and I lived in Stornoway. She laughed and we continued to talk.

“It is a very beautiful piece of Earth,” she said.

I had to agree.


Hebridean Adventures offer live-aboard cruises, day trips and land-based tours, which are all about exploring the wildlife-rich islands of the Outer Hebrides by land and sea. 

Find them at www.hebrideanadventures.co.uk, where online booking is available, or call them on 07871463755. The company also has a base near Stornoway harbour, on North Beach Street.

The Half Day Wildlife Experience costs £60 (under 14s £45) while the Full Day Wildlife Experience costs £120 (under 14s £90). The Half-Day Land-Based Tour, where you can visit the hotspots on the Isle of Lewis for views of whales, dolphins, eagles and more, costs £40 for adults (£30 for under 14s).

Passengers are asked to bring a packed lunch with them, although tea and coffee are provided.

Hebridean Adventures will continue doing trips in October and the Monadhliath is also available for overnight trips – the main ones are its Shiant Isles trip for two days and one night, costing £225, and the Seas of the Hebrides trip, for four days and three nights, costing £675.

MV Monadhliath is also available for private charter – the company say they love hosting groups of family or friends or hosting special interest groups and acting as a mothership for adventurers, be they kayakers, swimmers or whatever.

• Main image of the common dolphin by Muriel Halle and courtesy of Hebridean Adventures. All other pics by me.


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