Skye Wildlife Boat Tours
This week my travels take me back to the Isle of Skye for a first visit of the year and a chance to marvel at the incomparable highlights of Scotland’s most visited island. Nestled at the top of my to-do list is a long-awaited experience of Elgol’s famous Skye wildlife boat tours. While the Bella Jane is a well-loved favourite, I was also keen to check out AquaXplore’s route out to the Small Isles and a chance to spot puffins, dolphins, basking sharks, minke whales and more.
The scenic drive from Broadford to Elgol encapsulates the Isle of Skye perfectly. The island has that incredible ability to deliver utter remoteness despite its status as one of Scotland’s most visited locations. While foreign accents, tourist prices and limited accommodation availability underline the supreme popularity of the place, a trip down any number of end-of-the-road drives will remind you that this is still very much the Scottish islands, and that overpowering isolation is never far away. The approach to the village on Skye’s coastline is as rewarding as a destination can get – facing the booming Black Cuillin Hills the scene is set for a memorable day on the water.
The Bella Jane. Ah yes. Weathered, atmospheric and romantically superb this is a vessel that has seen some stuff. Still quiet at this time of year I can picture it being a tight squeeze in the summer months when travellers-in-the-know make it down to these parts. I quickly (far too quickly, what is the matter with me?) spot the Talisker hanging on the wall. Our excellent captain, Robert, assures me that it is just for emergencies. My heart sinks. But no matter, the views on this tour are wonderful and the 45 minute journey out to Loch Coruisk flies in as we pass by a seal colony, bird life in abundance and some staggering vantage points of one of Scotland’s most beautiful and epic locations.
Loch Coruisk is tucked away under the watchful eye of the dominating Cuillins and feels almost lunar in its appearance and sullen broodiness. After my recent jaunt down to New Zealand, the scale of the mountain ranges there seems unmatched but the Cuillins belong firmly on that level. Notoriously difficult climbs for the most part (Danny Macaskill made a bit of a mockery of that with his biking heroics mind you) the Cuillins are omnipresent in southern Skye but I think are best seen from this boat trip. They boast that chilling cragginess in appearance that Skye is so famous for – jagged shards jutting out and making for an eerie and inhospitable skyline. As for Loch Coruisk it is a tricky spot to reach other than by boat which ensures that (off-season) you can have it almost to yourself.
I can’t think of a comparison for the Loch in terms of similar settings. Feeling utterly dwarfed by my surroundings it is almost chilling in its sparseness and becalmed atmosphere. Naked rock faces glare back at you and there are pretty much no signs of life anywhere to be seen. I absent-mindedly throw a rock into the water (I’m a boy, can’t help it) and am met with a startling sense of Oh S**t You Shouldn’t Have Done That. You know that scene in Lord of the Rings when the hobbits are throwing stones in the water outside the dwarf mine thing? And that hideous beast pops up and has at them? Flailing legs and gross terror experienced by all? Aye, it’s like that. Except that I’m still writing this though so there was no hideous beast and I lived to tell the tale of the one who dared disturb the waters of Loch Coruisk.
The scene is completed by the fabulously curious seal colony that hangs around on an islet just off the landing point for the Bella Jane. Bobbing around in that lovable way that they do it’s well worth getting the binoculars out and monitoring their antics. These guys swim around 30 mph and consume around 5-6 kilos of fish per hour. You’ll likely find them submerged with only their heads above the waterline or lazily beached on land digesting their catch.
This is also Ring of Bright Water country. A wonderful film that I remember from childhood, it was up there with Bambi in the traumatic-educations-in-the-circle-of-life for little Neil. How something as cute and harmless as little Midge the otter could be killed off was a tough lesson in harsh realities and the film is still vivid in my memory almost two decades after last seeing it. My psychological complexes aside though, this is where the story originates and where the author was based. Gavin Maxwell lived here and set up a shark-hunting station to go after the basking sharks that abound in the area. Well worth seeking out on ebay.
For those keen on yet more wildlife wonders, another of the great Skye wildlife boat tours is the Puffin Run and Small Isles Tour with AquaXplore. Also departing from Elgol, this tour is almost guaranteed to get you up close to some of Scotland’s most impressive animal residents. Minke whales and basking sharks are not regular visitors this time of year but I got up close to puffins galore as well as dolphins (who danced around our boat merrily, see below video) and an army of guillemots, shags and sea eagles.
The Small Isles involve Canna, Soay, Eigg and Rum in a fascinating archipelago off the south west of Skye. Very sparsely populated and remote, they offer a different take on the island experience that most visitors to Scotland will conjure up in their mind’s eye. Many will be familiar with the jaw-dropping dramatics presented by St Kilda and, while Canna is not quite on that unparalleled scale, the sheer cliff faces of the coastline are a stunning introduction to this little hideaway. The seabirds dominate the coastline, resting between feeding excursions, and the little puffins do kind of steal the show. Fist sized and handsome they proved hard to get close to (they can’t half move) but are instantly distinguishable. Canna is around 4 miles long and 1 mile wide – the tour will dock briefly and allow for a stretch of the legs. Look out for the spooky barely-there remains of an old medieval prison tower – just about visible on the approach – that is said to have held a wife who was too pretty for others to see. An egregious sin right enough.
While the Bella Jane Skye wildlife boat tours cruise along at a leisurely pace, the AquaXplore tour is high speed stuff and covers a lot of distance in its three to four hours from start to finish. So hang on to your hat. The trip for me was made with the passing of a dolphin school that were friendly enough to come right up to the boat and had us all scrambling for the cameras. Weather and timings may dictate which of the islands you can experience but this is an excellent tour and offers a very different angle to the equally great Bella Jane tours.
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