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Cruising Scotland's Inner Hebrides on board Hanse Explorer
Ever considered a superyacht cruise in Scotland? For those thinking of cruising closer to home on a staycation this summer, Emma Bamford discovers the UK's inner Hebrides on board 48-metre Hanse Explorer
I’m in a Zodiac, out on the water on a brisk summer’s day, and there’s a basking shark incoming. It is huge – bigger than the 5.6-metre RIB – and heading straight towards me, the blade of its dorsal fin slicing through the surface skin of the sea. The water is calm and so clear that I can see the mottles on its skin, the gashes of its gills, the snub tip of its nose.
Then it opens its gigantic maw to scoop up gallons of Atlantic seawater rich in plankton and I get a view right into its body, at the pinky-white pillars of its baleen plates, its cavernous mouth. It all but ignores us as it carries on quietly sucking up its breakfast, swimming gentle circles around the Zodiac, almost close enough to touch. Such an awe-inspiring moment of connecting with nature makes it easy to forget the worries of the wider world.
When I visit the Inner Hebrides, the archipelago of 35 inhabited and 44 uninhabited islands off Scotland’s north-west coast, Covid-19 has paralysed the world. Flights are few and far between; countries have closed their borders. Health worries and fears about world economies are high and stress levels are through the roof.
I can’t tell you what a relief it is to step on board 48-metre Hanse Explorer. I embark in Oban on Scotland’s west coast, having completed a Covid-19 PCR test 72 hours earlier at home. Within five minutes of embarking, Andriy Bratash, one of Hanse Explorer’s two captains who work on rotation, has pricked my finger for an antibody test. As soon as the tests prove negative, we take off our masks and largely forget about the pandemic for the rest of our time on board. (The crew, who have also been tested, wear masks to serve food and drinks. Guests don a N95 surgical face covering for the buffet breakfasts, but apart from that, life is gloriously mask-free.)
Expedition yachts provide a wonderful answer to the question of how to travel while isolating. The ice-classed Hanse Explorer was built for getting away from the crowds, cruising in places few others can get to. We have a captain and crew well used to exploring the furthest reaches of the planet – itineraries have included Greenland, the Northwest Passage, the Falklands, Antarctica, the Pitcairn Islands and the Tuamotus.
We also have on board two expedition leaders from EYOS Expeditions, Kelvin Murray and Mike Moore, who between them have 50 years of experience working and guiding in the world’s most remote locations. Their enthusiasm and stories of the raw nature they’ve encountered are intoxicating, and they’re no less impressed by the Inner Hebrides than by higher latitudes. “This landscape reminds me of Svalbard; I keep expecting to see a polar bear,” jokes Murray.
The aim of the trip is to enjoy the rugged mountains, lochs, beaches and forests of the Inner Hebrides, keeping away from other people and getting close to the wildlife. We have two things against us: first, the weather. As any Brit knows, holidaying in home waters is a risk, even in the height of supposed summer. During our trip the UK is hit by Storm Francis, which brings 60-knot gales to the Highlands. But for our experienced hosts this is no problem – they control what they can by adjusting the itinerary, keeping us in the lee of islands for flat waters and lighter winds.
Hanse Explorer’s three Zodiacs can be launched from the top deck in just two minutes, meaning we are able to take advantage of every rain-free spell, however short. The crew are ready in the lower deck mudroom to help us into waterproof gear and they’re waiting with vin chaud, cognac-laced hot chocolate and a pre-heated sauna on our return. At mealtimes in between mini expeditions, head chef Marcus Gan and his team work tirelessly to keep us refuelled with dishes such as fillet of roe deer with onion confit, green apple gazpacho with smoked mackerel and fennel salad, and Andalusian-style lemon sole.
The other obstacle we face is the wildlife itself. Nature is not like Netflix – it doesn’t appear on demand. At first, we rely on Murray and Moore to point things out. “Look for tidelines,” Murray advises. “That’s where you’ll find plankton and fish and therefore whales and dolphins. Same thing if you see a flurry of birds. They see fish, and whales and dolphins might be there.” I quickly get my eye in, and soon I can spot dolphins incoming, or the dorsal fin and tail tip of a cruising basking shark 500 metres away.
Suddenly the wildlife is everywhere. We are not long out of Oban, sailing through the Sound of Mull, when a pod of up to 50 short-beaked common dolphins, including mothers and calves, swim over to ride our bow wave. As we pass Tobermory, with the Isle of Mull to port and Ardnamurchan Point to starboard, we spot harbour porpoises and minke whales, plus northern gannets and Manx shearwaters, large seabirds related to the albatross.
The following morning we breakfast at anchor in Loch Scavaig in south-west Skye, then tender ashore past common seals sunning themselves on rocks at low tide. As we hike along the shore of Loch Coruisk, among lichen-spotted boulders and orange and magenta heather, the shadowy Black Cuillin ridge glowering over us, a herd of red deer scurries further up the glen as a white-tailed sea eagle soars above the sea cliffs. Later that day we explore the sea caves and stacks of the coast near Loch Eynort, and as we nose into extraordinary pink-coloured caves (coralline algae gives them their rosy appearance) we are dive-bombed by roosting shags and cormorants. “Sometimes they’re trying to rid themselves of parasites,” Moore explains. “Think of it as like trying to scratch an itch. They’ve got no fingernails, so a good splash can do it.”
Wherever we go – the waters of Mull, Muck, Eigg, Skye, Soay, Canna, Rum, Gunna, Coll and Tiree – there is something to see: dolphins, razorbills (think flying penguins), seals basking on rocks, their flippers pressed together like steepled fingers. And every now and then, a cry of “Whale!” or “Shark!” goes up, and we all pile onto the bow or into the bridge with binoculars in hand – Hanse Explorer operates an open bridge policy – or dash down to the mudroom to get our kit on and into the Zodiac.
The amount and variety of wildlife we spot is outstanding, and I soon realise this isn’t just pure good luck. Our expert guides are constantly, quietly liaising with crew to enhance our odds of what we might see. “I’ve been keeping an eye on whale sightings reported online,” says Moore. One morning we get up close with basking sharks in Gunna Sound – this stretch of water between Coll and Tiree is one of the best places in the world for spotting them – and a minke whale wheels its back out of the water at the exact same time two sharks circle the RIB. Sharks to the left, dolphins to the right, a whale up ahead – we’re spoilt for choice. “If you get tired of looking at dolphins, you’re tired of life,” says Moore as yet another pod competes to leap over our wake like horses in a steeplechase.
On our return trip to Oban, the rain breaks just long enough for us to hop into the Zodiac for a last explore of Duart Bay, Mull. As we pootle close to the shoreline a golden eagle comes in to land with a muscular swoop on a fence post only a few metres away. Even Moore, a passionate ornithologist who spent a year living deep in the Highlands of Papua New Guinea and who contributed to the field guide to birds there, is impressed.
And there’s no risk of missing a sighting due to fumbling for a smartphone or DSLR: throughout the trip, photographers Saskia Coulson and Colin Tennant are on board taking photos, videos and drone footage. “I always tell guests on trips like this to relax and let us take care of the photos,” says Tennant. “Just enjoy what you’re seeing.”
It’s a primeval landscape here in the Inner Hebrides, and there’s something about watching an animal live in the moment, hearing the patter of smirr on the heather or glancing up to see charcoal clouds hanging low over the mountains that brings home how little has changed here for thousands of years. It could be 2021CE; it could be 2021BCE. Being somewhere like this takes you out of time and out of yourself an, pandemic or no pandemic, that has to be a good thing. We can learn a lot from nature. EYOS Expeditions will be running per-cabin excursions throughout 2021 in Antarctica and Scotland, eyos-expeditions.com
This feature is taken from the June 2021 issue of BOAT International. Get this magazine sent straight to your door, or subscribe and never miss an issue.