We have sailed from Oban on Britain’s only remaining ketch, the 112-year-old Bessie Ellen. It’s taken us two days to sail here, so we are not going to be deterred by the high seas, crashing waves and strong winds battering the hexagonal rocks leading up to the cave. We’re getting soaked by the waves that crash over and through us, but when we reach the entrance to the cave itself we are struck into silence as the sea rages down the 227ft cavern. The rocks withstand it. This is wilderness and it’s just off the west coast of Scotland.
This level of remoteness, added to the lush feeding grounds of the North Atlantic Drift, means that currently this is a fabulous place to spot wildlife. The islands of Staffa (where Fingal’s Cave is to be found) and nearby Lunga are great places to watch puffins, the avian equivalent of pandas in terms of their popularity. At the time of my visit (early May), courtship and nesting is well under way. There are thousands of puffins on both Staffa and Lunga. Right now, they are busy pulling up tufts of dead grass and taking it to line their underground burrows.
Because puffins are confiding birds (meaning they don’t mind being around humans), you can get within three feet of them and have a fabulous, close-up view of their daily spring routine. The only thing that does shake their nerve is the menacing shadow of the Arctic Skua which circles overhead looking for lunch. One ventures close and immediately there is a mass take-off of puffins. Skuas are known for mobbing smaller birds such as the puffin or the manx shearwater, and forcing them to cough up the food which they have foraged at sea or to predate their nests. The puffins take the view that there is safety in numbers and head out to sea forming rafts to escape the skua’s attentions.
Depending both on when you travel and the weather, the Hebrides afford a huge array of wildlife: minke whales and bottlenose dolphins; grey seals; gannets, guillemots, razorbills, kittiwakes, fulmar and petrels. The sea birds are all drawn by the sand eels that live in vast numbers in the chilly Scottish waters.
But, the waters are warming, according to Dr Richard Luxmoore of the National Trust of Scotland. In the last 30 years, recorded sea temperatures around the Hebrides have risen by between 0.5 and one degree Celsius. ‘If we had that kind of warming on land,’ says Dr Luxmoore, ‘we would have to multiply those numbers by four. So that’s the equivalent of a four to five degree rise in air temperature. And we are worried about a two degree rise on land leading to major catastrophes.’
Quietly, he confides that there is such a catastrophe happening off the west coast of Scotland right now. The sand eel, as it turns out, does not cope well with a rise in sea temperatures. This means less food for breeding birds, which in turn means that fewer birds breed successfully. Since 2000, there has been a 90 per cent decline in the kittiwake population on neighbouring St Kilda.
‘When you think of sea bird cliffs, you think of the kittiwake,’ says Dr Luxmoore. ‘But I think that the kittiwake will be extinct in Scotland in 50 years time.’
The skipper of the Bessie Ellen, Nikki Alford, also reports seeing changes. ‘I’ve been sailing these waters for a long time,’ she says, ‘and so you notice what’s happening. ‘There aren’t so many puffins. We used to see so many basking sharks every year. And we haven’t seen one minke whale yet and it’s already May.’
Yet there is hope. Wildlife tourism brings £276 million to Scotland annually, an amount that Dr Luxmoore believes is ‘hugely important’ to securing the future of colonies like that at Lunga.
So, back on board ship, we head for a quiet anchorage for the night. Oystercatchers chatter. Cuckoos call to each other and three bottlenose dolphins gracefully accompany us on our way. For now, there is an incredibly array of wildlife to see just off our own coastline.
The Bessie Ellen offers a range of experiences for novice – and experienced – sailors. You can go on board for a one-day taster, or head to sea for three-, four-, and even nine-day trips according to the schedule. She sails from Oban, Plymouth and the Isles of Scilly for 48 weeks of the year. To find out more, visit bessie-ellen.com
For more on the life of the Bessie Ellen, see the December issue of Geographical, on sale now.