Captain James Fairbairns cuts the engine. We ease across the Sea of the Hebrides towards our targets, guided by a mob of feeding seabirds. We’re armed not with harpoons; only Canons and camera phones. Suddenly there is a massive splash. A smooth, dark grey leviathan breaks the surface; another soars open its jaws lunge-feeding. “Whales ahoy, minkes!” yells wildlife guide Indy in a spirit-soaring scene that feels like an Attenborough documentary. Welcome to Scotland’s newest small cruise ship, Lucy Mary.
“I’ve been sailing the Hebrides for decades and this is the best marine mammal season I’ve ever seen. Dolphins and minkes; humpbacks, fin whales and orcas too. There is so much food around for our ‘beasties’ – they’re everywhere,” enthuses James. The sun glints off the gentle swell, across eyes that have been scanning these waters since his pioneering father Richard set up Sea Life Surveys in the 1980s. “My dad devoted his life to marine mammals and I inherited that passion.”
This passion for marine mammals and the spectacular waters of the Hebrides – a mountain- and white beach-kissed archipelago that has enraptured everyone from Mendelsohn to Turner – ripples through the crew of Dutch-built Lucy Mary. Wildlife guide Indy could scarcely be more enthusiastic; steward Abbie is on hand with food, drinks and a winning smile; Sam cooks up a storm in the kitchen. This is a slickly luxurious ship, welcoming “guests” rather than just passengers.
Life aboard is a joy. There are eggs Benedict for breakfast and bright, flavour-packed salads for lunch, topped up with the ritual of afternoon tea, the latter sublime on a Hebridean beach. Dinner is the highlight with lobster-sized langoustines and perfectly cooked Scotch beef alongside Sam’s Asia-inspired dishes. Hardwoods and original art abound on this former owner’s yacht. It’s more Monaco than Mallaig, but crucially – as James says – “takes these waters very well”.
I’m on her third ever sailing out of Oban. Lucy Mary is family-run Hebrides Cruises’ third vessel after expedition-style Elizabeth G and hot tub-sporting Emma Jane. “We’ve been out twice and seen fin whales twice,” says James. I see at least one whale five out of our seven days. Then there is the otter before breakfast off Ardnamurchan, the brace of sea eagles circling for dinner off Muck and the pod of splashing 30-40 common dolphins that provide a ridiculously dramatic backdrop to afternoon tea in the Small Isles.
Swirl in more dolphins dancing off our bow, too many porpoises to count and another otter, and it’s a world-class wildlife experience.
And Nirvana for birders. As well as those hulking sea eagles (with wing spans up to 2.4 metres) we encounter both Arctic and great skuas, diving gannets, gliding Manx shearwaters and sleek storm petrels.
Despite Indy’s knowledgeable efforts I still cannot always tell the difference between a shag and a cormorant, but it’s impossible not to get caught up in the excitement of Phil and Ann, enthusiastic birder guests.
My enthusiasm rises sailing beneath the brooding Highland massifs that guard the entrance to Loch Nevis. The Old Forge – the UK mainland’s most remote pub (a mere 15-mile walk from Kinloch Hourn) – is easily accessed by a ship ideal for squeezing into remote spots and little coves in a way the massive cruise ships simply cannot.
The pub has just re-opened under community ownership, another sign that the communities around the Hebrides that were decimated during the 19th-century Clearances are fighting back.
I find the impressive new An Laimhrig community hub gleaming on Eigg, talk of a trio of new houses on Canna and meet Stuart McKie, who has just saved the only shop and – with his girlfriend Jennifer Thompson – has boosted Rum’s population to 34.
There are eight of us aboard the Lucy Mary, though she can sleep 10. Duncan, a senior Hong Kong civil servant, has seen a lot of the world, but savouring another ochre and tangerine Hebridean sunset he tells me: “I’m blown away. I’ve seen nothing like this place anywhere in the world. Why would you fly to New Zealand or Canada when you’ve got this on your doorstep?”
Easing back into Oban Bay, Captain Fairbairns says: “People are usually stunned by what we have in the Hebrides. With such an abundance of marine life in recent years there has never been a better time to sail these waters.”
Or a better ship I think, as I reluctantly leave my plush hardwood cabin behind and lose another part of my heart to the epic land of whales, seabirds and communities that is the Hebrides.
Hebrides Cruises offers six-night Skye and the Small Isles: Hebridean Horizons voyages on Lucy Mary from £2,750, including all meals, wine with dinner and trips ashore. The same cruise on Elizabeth G costs from £2,200. Four-night autumn wildlife cruises from £1,475pp. Also available for private charter.