The sea is in the blood of Rob Barlow, owner and Skipper of Hebrides Cruises. Both his grandfather and father, originally from Kent, were fishermen and Rob’s four brothers all work in sea-related occupations. In 1970, his parents moved to Tobermory on Mull and in 1975 on leaving the RAF, Rob joined them. While in the RAF, Rob had gained his Commercial Divers Certificate and he teamed up with some scallop divers in Tobermory. This was his introduction to the natural marine environment of the Hebrides which fired his already deep rooted passion for the sea, leading to the purchase of his first boat, the “Skua” and fishing for scallops for a living.
From the beginning, Rob was concerned for the effect fishing had on the environment, opting for hand-dived scallops rather than dredging. Hand dived scallops is one of the most environmentally friendly forms of fishing there is, hand picking the scallops, leaving the small undersized ones to grow, with minimum disturbance to the seabed. In the late 1980’s Rob was the first scallop diver to join the ‘Scallop Association’ which consisted mainly of Scallop Dredging Boat owners. He found it daunting to give the scallop divers’ point of view on scallop fishing and the damage dredging was causing. This deepened his interest in protecting the marine environment and highlighting the realities of what was happening to the seas.
During this time Rob was getting embedded in the local seafaring community becoming DLA and crew member for Tobermory Lifeboat and serving in Tobermory Coastguard, eventually achieving his Long Service Medal after 31 years. He was gathering an impressive number of certificates related to diving, radiography, offshore firefighting and survival, airframe engineering and WiSe. This helped him start Mull Marine Services with a larger vessel providing commercial diving services all over the Hebrides and, of course, hand dived scallops.
In 1990 Rob purchased another vessel providing group charters and cruises to the Inner and Outer Hebrides and specialising in trips to St Kilda.
By the year 2000 Rob became very aware that on his diving trips, less and less fish were seen. He says “When I started diving you would see common dog fish on every dive, also common skate, some very large, monkfish, thornback ray and many others. Not only was there a noticeable lessening of fish in the waters but a big increase in the amount of rubbish on the seabed” This had the effect of Rob getting involved in protecting the marine environment of the Hebrides and ensuring none of his own activities were detrimental to nature.
In 2003 Rob launched Elizabeth G Charters, named for his new vessel with excellent seakeeping qualities. For six years he was contracted by the National Trust for Scotland to transfer volunteers from Oban to St Kilda and carry out bird surveys and never once failed to reach the destination. He also specialised in diving trips to St Kilda, one of the best diving destinations in the world, and a growing demand for tourism charters to St Kilda and the Outer Hebrides.
In 2014, Rob relaunched his company under the brand name of Hebrides Cruises to provide a choice of authentic wildlife cruise itineraries for those interested in the natural environment of the Hebrides with 10-night trips to St Kilda and the Outer Hebrides a speciality. Rob’s daughter Emma joined the company as sales, marketing and shore manager. Setting the company apart from other small-ship cruise operators was the wildlife & marine expertise of the hand-picked crew with a specialist wildlife expert on board every cruise, who also acts as guide on shore trips.
As part of his commitment to the environment, Rob had developed a close relationship with the Hebridean Whale and Dolphin Trust and helped develop their unique “Whale App” which records cetacean sightings on the west coast of Scotland. All Hebrides Cruises Crew undergo "WiSe" training to ensure they are educated on how not to disturb the marine creatures during our activities. Rob has the WiSe Master accreditation - the professional standard 'Plus' - the gold-standard level of membership. WiSe Masters commit not only to the WiSe Codes of Conduct, but also to provide sightings data to the relevant sightings collection organisation, plus provide photo-identification images to research groups where appropriate.
In 2017 a second vessel, Emma Jane, named for his daughter, made a fleet of two vessels, with the added attraction of ensuite cabins and a gourmet menu onboard, with hand-dived scallops on the menu of course!
Hebrides Cruises is very much a family business with a love of nature and the marine environment at its core. Skippers, Wildlife Experts, Chefs and Bosuns are very much part of this family and many return year after year to ensure guests have the holiday of a lifetime. Everyone is looking forward to the 2020 season with 50% of guests returning to cruise again.
In 2020 Rob will celebrate his 250th trip to St Kilda and will of course be hand-diving for scallops to serve on board!