Our first St Kilda trip for the season was a great success thanks to both fantastic guests and crew who both were eager to reach the magical archipelago despite occasional rough seas. And for the millions of birds and fantastic history the islands have to offer it is always worth it in the end with all guests hailing it as a trip of a lifetime.
We set out across the Firth of Lorne after our usual induction with sparkling wine, canapés, scones and safety briefing. In the Sound of Mull we counted hundreds of arctic terns who had now started nesting on the grey isles. We had the usual, frequently seen bird life, including three species of auks (tystie, common guillemot and razorbill) and four species of gulls (common, herring, lesser and greater black-backed).
More rare bird sightings for the afternoon also included great-norther diver. We also spotted some porpoises feeding along the shore on the Morvern side. After dropping the hook in Loch Na Droma Buidhe we sat down to dinner, the first one cooked by Chef Martin Hamilton for the season. He served up a fresh pear, ginger, mozzarella and chili salad for starter; salmon ballotine with crushed tatties; and spiced apple crumble for desert. Whilst enjoying dinner we also enjoyed the beautiful evening – the last light filtered through dark clouds and highlighted the many curves of Ben Hiant on Ardnamurchan.
On Sunday we prepared for the long steam ahead. The usual cavalcade of offshore birds appeared as soon as we poked our nose out (fulmar, Manx shearwater, kittiwake, puffin and bonxies) and there is also no doubt that this summer is proving to be a great one for big blubber. On our seven hour steam from the Sound of Mull to the Sound of Barra we encountered a total of four Minke whales! One passed close to the boat and as it swam past it turned sideways and we could clearly see its white belly. Suddenly we spotted a lot of feeding activity with hundreds of birds (gannets, kittiwakes and auks). After some intense scanning we found what we looked for – a pod of common dolphins! As we approached the dolphins took a break in feeding and came over to bow ride. We soon spotted even more dolphins and soon it felt like we were surrounded by dolphins leaping in excitement out of the water. Three tiny calves were also leaping out of the water – such an amazing sight to behold of these tiny dolphins projecting themselves out of the water close to the boat! Delighted with our eventful crossing we anchored at the lovely island of Eriskay and went ashore. We walked along the beautiful white beach to the village (spotting wheatear, meadow pipit, twite, ringed plover and red-breasted merganser on the way) where we enjoyed a dram in the famous pub “The Politician”, named after the ship that sunk nearby with a precious cargo of expensive whisky. Back onboard we tucked in to smoked salmon tagliatelle for starter; roast pork with all the trimmings and cranachan cheesecake for dessert. Content does not start to describe how we all felt!
Was it just me or was everyone extra quiet this morning? We all sat waiting the verdict from Skipper Rob – were we going to head for St Kilda or not? The weather forecast was giving stronger winds than anticipated but Rob said we were going to give it a go anyway. We all layered up for the long crossing and went to deck to wave goodbye to sheltered land as we steamed through the Sound of Barra. We were also lucky enough to get the best possible send off – three of the “Barra boys”, bottlenose dolphins resident to the south of the Outer Hebrides came shooting over to ride our bow. Those who wanted a closer look by leaning over the bow definitely got splashed by the waves but it was worth it to get a closer look at these chunky dolphins. The waves built up as we left the Sound of Barra, but everyone was still keen on pushing on. The crossing from Sound of Barra takes about seven hours and usually puts people’s sea legs to the test. But St Kilda is, after all, one of the absolute remotest islands and only a fraction of the population will ever get to even see these majestic islands. About half way out the guests on top deck spotted a Minke that was steaming in the same direction as us at great speed (maybe also headed for St Kilda?). Soon enough we also spotted our destination though the haze with the famous outline of Hirta, Boreray and the stacks easily recognizable. From the wheelhouse one of the guests had spotted a storm-petrel that the skipper was able to recognise as a rare Leach’s storm-petrel (St Kilda is the largest Leach’s storm-petrel colony on the east side of the Atlantic). A few more hours and we were actually steaming into village bay, greeted by the hundreds of puffins, guillemots and razorbills. We went ashore to meet the warden and stretch our sea legs. The old village was full of boisterous Soay sheep lambs and the glen echoed with the call of the St Kilda wren. The St Kilda wren is a sub-species of the mainland variety only found on St Kilda. We hunted the wren (successfully for some!) with our cameras and then returned to the boat for dinner of roast potato and garlic soup; sea bass with smoked haddock and pea risotto and sticky toffee pudding for dessert. (One of the guests who hails himself as an expert on sticky toffee pudding hailed it as one of the best he’s ever eaten!).
One of the best perks about visiting St Kilda on the Elizabeth G is that we always strive to give our guests a full day ashore. We set out with our packed lunches with the intention to climb Conachair and then make our way to the Lover’s stone. We had barely left the village before we encountered one of the rarer birds on St Kilda – a pair of Arctic skuas. One was of the stunning dark morph while its mate was an intermediate dark morph. We rested at the gap while taking in the fantastic view of Boreray, Stac Lee and Stac an Armin and admiring the hundreds of soaring fulmars. On our way to the peak we had our first run-in with a territorial bonxie (great skua). Just walk next to the tall guide and you’ll probably be left alone ;)! A well-earned rest again at the top (unfortunately in the cloud so no views) and then we ascended down to Mullach Mór (failing to dodge bonxies on the way). One of the guests then spotted another rare bird for St Kilda – a pair of golden plovers in full breeding plumage! We were awed to see this beautiful bird before continuing to the Lover’s Stone. This is a large rock that protrudes over the cliff, where the men allegedly had to prove their worth as bird men by performing a balancing act. With the strong offshore winds we decided against balancing and enjoyed our lunch at a safe distance from the edge instead. Re-energised by our sandwiches we decided to include Ruaval in our walk before heading back to the village. In the village the guests explored the ruined cottages, the museum, the church and the wee shop. We said our farewells to the village and headed back to the boat (the only boat in Village Bay until a small yacht turned up). Back on the boat we had dinner (chicken liver pâté; beef and ale casserole; and a surprise birthday coffee cake for dessert) whilst Skipper Rob entertained all the guests with stories about St Kilda. Few people know this island as well as Rob who has visited the island for decades.
To put it straight – Hirta is magical, but the part that I always look forward to most is when we head around the Stacks! Boreray, Stac Lee and Stac an Armin are home to 60,000 pairs of northern gannets. From a distance the islands appear white, but when you get close you notice they are white because of the sheer number of birds! We started off exploring around Hirta with Rob making a very impressive manoeuver through the gap between Hirta and Soay. Approaching the Stacks you start to realise how large they are (Stac an Armin is the tallest sea stack in the British Isles) and when you get even closer you start to wonder how on earth the St Kildan’s were able to scale these steep cliffs! But scale them they did and Rob points out to us the wee ledge that they used to leap onto from the boat. We stand in awe whilst surrounded by thousands upon thousands of birds – mostly gannets but also fulmars, auks and of course the bonxies that relentlessly attack the gannets to make them regurgitate their meal. At one point I count nine bonxies on one poor gannet. We watch gannets plunge into the water at close proximity, their bodies becoming arrows that gracefully break the surface. And we watch the gannets return to the nest to be greeted by its partner with excited beak clapping. For any true bird enthusiast St Kilda is one of the most fantastic wildlife experiences one can enjoy! All too soon we are heading east leaving the islands behind us. The crossing is a wee bit bumpy, but now everyone on board is a salty sea dog or so it would appear as no one seems bothered by the waves. After a few hours we are alongside at Leverburgh on Harris. The guests enjoy a walk to the local pub while Martin cooks up another storm: Nordic tattie salad with hot smoked salmon (Vivi’s grandmas recipe!); fish pie; and chocolate bread and butter pudding for dessert.
We set off thinking that we had nothing but smooth sailing ahead of us, but the Minch is showing its ugly side and is lumpy and bumpy despite the forecast for calm seas. But as soon as we round Neist point we get the forecasted weather and we strip off layers to enjoy the lovely sunshine on deck. We spot several porpoises taking advantage of the good feeding conditions around Neist. North of Canna we encounter a feeding Minke whale which disappears for a while and then resurfaces only a few metres off the bow! Before long we are in familiar waters again, Ardnamurchan lighthouse appears and we are steaming in to the Sound of Mull. We spot an eagle off in the distance, but it’s too far for us to identify. Perhaps it’s one of the white-tailed from Bloody Bay? We steam into Tobermory harbour and the guests go ashore to explore the colourful town before dinner. Our final dinner onboard consists of Moroccan couscous salad; Thai chicken curry and velvety smooth chocolate pudding (it’s so good Martin has been chased down the street for the recipe).
We always try our best to make the final day a memorable day and this Friday was no different. Before serving up brunch we were hoping to spot the white-tailed eagles on Morvern. Luckily the birds had got the memo and both the male and the female eagle was posing nicely for us. We didn’t linger long with the eagles, to give them peace but also because by now we were drawn inside by all the good smells. Martin and Sarah filled the table for the farewell brunch – No one will ever be able to say they walked hungry off the boat! All too soon we were fishing up the mooring lines and loading luggage and guests into the tender. A HUGE thank you to all the fantastic guests who made our first St Kilda trip for the season so special!