Searching for Seals

The weather has been superb in the Highlands, hitting the mid 20’s (high 70’s F) this past week with abundant sunshine. It was too pretty to work at the computer yesterday so, always searching for cool daycation subjects to write about (so it’s not really playing hooky!) I decided to tick an item off my Oban bucket list and finally check out a seal colony boat trip.

There are two seal colony cruises leaving from the bay, and I chose Allan’s Wildlife Trips, located at the Railway Pier.  A chalkboard sign advertises their slip and the cruises run every hour, at a cost of ten pounds. I happened to arrive just in time for the next sail and was welcomed aboard by a cheery crew. The MV Purple Heather has a clear plastic covering over the top to protect from rain, but it was letting in the lovely sun on that day, so it’s the best of both worlds. The bench seats were less than half full for that particular cruise, so there was plenty of room for everyone to spread out and be comfortable.

We cast off and began our one hour trip with a scenic view of the Oban waterfront from our stern.


As we sailed across Oban Bay, the big Caledonian Macbrayne ferries Isle of Mull and the Clansman steamed past-their wake was the roughest part of our journey on this day when there was hardly any wind.


We sailed past ivy-covered Dunollie Castle, ancient seat of the Clan MacDougall since the 12th century.

Dunollie Castle, seat of the Clan MacDougall since the 12th century

As we squeezed past the north end of Kerrera, we got a clear view of Hutchinson’s Monument. This obelisk, which is visible from the Oban waterfront on a clear day, was built in 1883 as a memorial to one of the founders of what would become Caledonian Macbrayne to celebrate the importance of the first ferry service to the western isles- as I learned from our skipper Allan.


We cruised out of the bay into the open waters of the Firth of Lorne, with sweeping views to Mull and Lismore. We did not see any dolphins on the way, but contented ourselves by watching a hang glider float over our heads and into the clouds.

Shortly we arrived at a tiny rocky island and Allan explained that while the seals usually bask there, on this day they were on another island further up. We did get a peek at several seal heads bobbing up and down in the water near the tiny island, though, and before we passed it, one treated us to a cheeky splash out of the water. In minutes we reached the larger island, this one with verdant grass on top and warm, dark rocks toward the shore. Sure enough, at least a dozen harbor seals and pups (Phoca vitulina) carpeted one edge of the island.

Harbour seals bask on a small island in the Firth of Lorne
Harbour seals bask on a small island in the Firth of Lorne

Each adult seal has a unique set of spots-some were light on dark and some were vice versa, and these were an average of at least five feet long. The pups were about two feet long and were shiny black/brown. The grown-ups sunned themselves while the pups, just like children, bravely took turns diving into the water, paddling around for a moment then splashing back to shore to the safety of their mums for a few minutes, then the process would start again.

Seal pups practising swimming near mum.
Seal pups practising swimming near mum.

Seal pups can dive and swim within hours after birth, so these must have been very young. Allan turned off the boat motor so we could float and enjoy the view for about ten minutes, then we chugged back toward Oban.

Allan pointed out atmospheric 14th century Duart Castle, seat of the Clan MacLean, on the isle of Mull in the distance- I imagine it could only be seen from that far on a crystal clear day, so we were lucky. We saw seabirds and a jaunty family of ducks paddling past us.

Duart Castle in the distance overlooking the Sound of Mull
Duart Castle in the distance overlooking the Sound of Mull

On the way back, we passed a salmon farm. Half a dozen large netted cages floated on the water off Kerrera, fed by big floating pipes of fish food coming off a barge being pumped to the fish, who were furiously jumping out of the water like it was the upstream swim of their lives.

Salmon farm
Salmon farm

Scotland’s west coast and the Hebrides have been explored and settled by boating peoples for at least eight thousand years. These waters-from the Atlantic Ocean to the bays to the sea lochs to the rivers inland- have always been motorways for its inhabitants and visitors, whether they were Celts, Vikings or Scots. So to truly understand this area, you have to experience it partly by boat. Island hopping is always fun, but even a short hour-long trip like this is a great way to hit the water and see Hebridean wildlife in situ. Thanks to Allan for a great Daycation!

Sometimes on these trips you can see dolphins and minke whales, but we did not see them on this day. But the seals were great and the cruise was comfy, friendly and well-run. A few more wildlife sightings and this would have gotten more wellies, but Allan’s Wildlife Trips does not disappoint, so I give it four Shellie’s Wellies!




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