“Do you want to head for the shark or the dolphins?”
As questions go, it’s not a bad one.
In the distance to the right of us, the two fins of an 8-metre basking shark wobble gently from side to side as the extraordinary creature gorges on krill. To the left, coming closer, the tell-tale splash of a school of bottlenose dolphins doing what they do best – having what appears to be a ludicrous amount of fun.
The question comes from the guide aboard our small zodiac rib, Mike, as we pass through the Gunna Sound between the isles of Coll and Tiree in the Inner Hebrides.
It’s day three of an epic expedition around some of the UK’s – and, frankly, the world’s – most stunning scenery, a reminder that Scotland is at once just a few hours’ away from London and at the same time almost otherworldly in its beauty.
I’m staying aboard the Hanse Explorer, a superyacht used by EYOS expeditions for trips to the Antarctic, Svalbard and everywhere in between.
This four-day sail around the Hebrides embarks from Oban on the west coast, a two hour drive from Glasgow Airport. Within forty-five minutes, with a gentle drizzle reminding me that I was very much in Scotland, I had my first sighting: a school of common dolphins bow-riding in the wash from the Hanse.
It’s an amazing experience to look over the front of a boat and see dozens of dolphins playing in the tumult below.
As Mike says – a man who has seen just about every coastline and every creature on this green earth – “if you don’t get excited by dolphins, there’s something wrong with you.”
It sets the tone for the rest of the trip. And best of all, on a small yacht like this, you have the flexibility to get off at a moment’s notice when something interesting catches the eagle eye of Mike or our co-leader Kelvin. On the Hanse, just eight of us hop aboard the zodiac off the back of the boat and zip off into shallower water, or just to get closer to extraordinary wildlife.
The benefits of such a small yacht are clear. There aren’t many trips on which you can bank a boat on a deserted beach for the afternoon, gently kayaking around the island of Gunna, before relaxing in (Scottish) sunshine for a couple of hours.
Nor would you find any better way of accessing some of the Hebrides’ most beautiful scenery, like Loch Coruisk on Skye.
Finding a landing spot, I embark alongside my fellow travellers to hike to the top of the mountain above this stunning, hidden-away lake. The three or four-hour stroll is good for the soul; in 2020, of all years, fresh air and the glorious normality of walking in the open air is truly wonderful.
The views, unsurprisingly, are exceptional – water, rock, and greenery in every direction. The great beauty of the west coast of Scotland is the sheer depth of the landscapes; a hill invariably gives way to a mountain, a stream to a lake, and even the clouds seem determined to play their part in this heavenly landscape tapestry.
Returning to the Hanse on the zodiac, we are greeted by crew members offering hot chocolate with a nip of brandy. I told you this trip was good for the soul.
Food on board is as exceptional as the scenery. Six course meals are the norm – prepared below by chefs who trained in some of the world’s best restaurants.
And the team at EYOS, ensuring that we had enough of the local colour, also stocked the bar with some of the best whisky in Scotland.
If there’s a better welcome back to a boat after a zodiac expedition in and out of stunning sea caves – getting so close that on at least one occasion we got gently stuck – than a 16-year-old Lagavulin, then I haven’t found it.
Options for activities are almost limitless.
In the space of four days, I kayaked with seals (who moved from baffled to curious) and swam in ice-cold water before returning to the boat’s on-board sauna.
I had a gin and tonic on the deck looking over the Sound of Mull in a rare burst of Scottish summer, and had a glass of champagne whilst admiring the extraordinary Fingal’s Cave on the island of Staffa.
And I fell in love, all over again, with Scotland – and with the waters around this extraordinary island. And on the Hanse, boy, do you do it in style.
As for the answer to the question, of basking sharks or dolphins? Well: nothing beats a dolphin.