There were plenty of reasons not to do what I did yesterday; forecast heavy rain, forecast heavy seas and no certainty of success after 14 hours on a boat.
On the other hand, yesterday was the only day this week, this month, this year, maybe this decade, when I could stroll down the road and get on a ferry at Oban which would call at Coll and Tiree and then cross the Minch to Barra before retracing its steps. So I went!
It rained a bit, but not nearly as much as had been suggested, and the sea was interesting rather than heavy. I didn’t see any Basking Sharks (it’s on the early side, but how many did I miss?) or any whales (always a long shot) but there were dolphins (Bottle-nosed?) in and around Coll harbour. We rarely get dolphins in east Northants, so they were a delight.
There were lots of seabirds though; Gannets, Guillemots, Razorbills, Puffins, Shags, Fulmars, Kittiwakes and Arctic Terns. Also an Arctic Skua, several Great Skuas and an adult Long-tailed Skua. That last bird was worth the 14 hours on the ferry by itself – beautiful and my first for decades. But my main memory will be of the large numbers of Manx Shearwaters that were in the Minch.
Most of the world’s Manx Shearwaters nest in the British Isles and one of the largest colonies, tens of thousands of pairs, is found at the top of the mountains of Rhum – I could see Hallival and Askival in the distance.
On the outward journey the small relatives of albatrosses were heading in all directions – skimming close over the waves on stiff wings (shearwatering, in fact). They alternated looking dark (back, top of the head and upper wings) and white (underparts) as they glided, stiff-winged, through the troughs and over the crests of the waves
On the return journey, all the Manx were streaming towards Rhum to visit their burrow nests high in the mountains of Rhum. As my ferry entered Oban harbour, those mountains would be loud with the strange, to our ears, ‘strangled-chicken’ cries of shearwaters. This bird, so at ease in the air over the open seas, would waddle the last few feet to its nest in the mountains with Viking names.
The Long-tailed Skua was memorable, but the Manx Shearwaters were the signature bird of the trip and of those seas.
I felt that I had well and truly seized the day. If I had been put off by the forecasts I would have missed a treat.