TOWARDS the end of this month marks the start of the best season for watching whales off the west coast of Scotland. Travelling up to the Isle of Mull and getting out into these whale-rich waters is about as sure a way as you could wish for romanticising the often bleak weather of western Scotland.
Sealife Surveys - based on Mull - offers the chance to take part in an ongoing census of whale and other marine life off the Hebridian coast, while also having a guided holiday. These whale-watching grounds on the Inner Hebrides are becoming famous in Europe for the dense concentrations of pods (the word for a group of whales). Most are of the smaller species with occasional visits from larger whales: minke whales, black baleen (crustacean-eating whales about 15ft long), harbour porpoise, killer whales (orcas) and common Risso's dolphin are the most common. Basking sharks are also common around the bays. Their fearsome-looking mouths belie their harmlessness to man - like most of the larger whales, they eat nothing but plankton and small shrimp.
Sealife's special late autumn and early spring trips include Autumn Babies - viewing the Minke whale, porpoise and Risso's dolphin calves, grey seal pups and migratory wildfowl and waders - and Wild Water in April, which takes to the rougher seas, with sightings of puffin, guillemot and razorbill colonies and the first whales of the season. And if you arrive during a spell of really rough weather when the boat cannot go out, you will be guided through the coastal moors and woods, where you should see otters - the island is a breeding stronghold for the species - while the inlets have seals, spectacular bird life, herds of red deer, wild flowers, and secret caches of wild mushrooms hiding under the trees. Sealife asks that you record any animal you see, along with details of the circumstances, time of day and weather conditions. The data is supplied to research groups at Oxford, Bristol and Aberdeen universities as well as the International Whaling Commission. If you want to do more than record, you can join an on-site research team analysing and processing data collected on the boat. Part of the money you spend on the trip goes to Sealife's own charity, the Hebridian Whale and Dolphin Trust. Sealife is open to all budgets, with choices of full board and hotel standard accommodation, camping plus meals in the lodge, or camping and cooking for yourself. …