A well-established nature discovery tour
Before boarding the Starquest to discover the fauna and flora of Gairloch Bay, a visit of the Marine Life Centre is a must. The centre is accessible free of charge to clients as well as casual visitors. Besides the traditional educational material, the centre has a large bay window for the observation of the wildlife on the shores of the loch. In addition, cameras placed outside above and under the water also enable visitors to observe the wildlife.
After passing through the centre, visitors are impatient to discover ‘for real’ the wonderful animals shown on the posters: seals, dolphins, whales, cormorants, skuas, eagles, otters and basking sharks. The information previously read greatly helps them in identifying these species.
A qualified guide to discover the local natural riches
After welcoming passengers on board, Ian French continues with a comprehensive briefing session on safety and procedures to be followed in the event of any incident.
The skipper launched this marine discovery activity 23 years ago. He fell in love with the region while he was conducting scientific observations of porpoises. This marine biologist and is currently pursuing a PhD. You are thus in the most capable hands to discover the local natural riches.
The outing last approximately two hours, which is not much when in search of a specific species. It is to be noted that it is a nature discovery outing and not a conventional outing devoted to sea mammal observation. Neither the performance of the boat, nor the duration of the tour enable provision of this service unless when coming by chance across a group of cetaceans lingering in the bay or during an exceptional event like a dolphin giving birth.
An outing at sea to observe rare animal species
The major attraction of the activity is the observation of uncommon species such as the wonderful Arctic loon (Gavia Arctica) which nest on the beach. This bird only lives at unpolluted sites in Nordic countries, the Hebrides Islands and the northwestern coast of Scotland.
By the same token, with a little bit of luck, it is possible to catch a sight of the red-throated loon with its beige plumage and red neck towards the end of the season. It is known for its elegant appearance and can stay under the water for a minute and a half in search of food.
The passengers also have good chances of seeing golden eagles (Aquila Chrysaetos) or common buzzards (Buteo Buteo), while some great skuas (Stercorarius Skua) will for sure come and fly around the boat in order to check if there isn’t anything to eat. Some wonderful Northern gannets can also be seen during the outing. The skipper stops the boat in order to admire these birds diving at record speeds. Ian French explains that this bird species has little bags distributed over its body that act like airbags that cushion the impact with the surface of the water at such speed.
Besides the large variety of seabirds present in the bay, it is also possible to observe common seals that reside in various locations of the bay. The observation is easier when the sea is calm. Seals are also present around the port where they wait for the return of fishing boats and for sailors to throw fish in the sea. This fairly widespread practice doesn’t seem most appropriate though as it makes the animals dependent on a feeding system that distracts them from their own fishing techniques.
Along the coasts of Longa Island
After reaching the entrance of the loch, the boat navigates along the coasts of Longa Island, which is situated to the north of Gairloch. The spectacle of the multitude of birds residing on this small and uninhabited islet is a striking one.
Our guide takes this opportunity to provide some explanation on the surrounding geological formations. He shows, amongst others, the areas where Maerl grows, particularly in sea areas influenced by the tides. The area is of prime importance for the development of sea urchins, anemones, and common crab and hermit crab nurseries. Some human activities such as trawl fishing and aquaculture, however, unfortunately disrupt the fragile balance of the ecosystems on many locations.
A commitment to environmental protection
Ian French makes it a point to record and forward all his observations of animals to various scientific bodies. He is also consulted when cetaceans are stranded or dead animal bodies are discovered in the surroundings of Gairloch.
The centre works in collaboration with the WDCS for the collection of acoustic data.
The information gathered from observations with accurate positioning is forwarded to WiseScheme, an organisation that is in charge of the accreditation of leisure craft owners or merchants who commit themselves to comply with a code of conduct during encounters with cetaceans. They are bound to get seriously involved by locating and forwarding quality information in order to establish traffic statistical tools.
The genuineness of the approach of Gairloch Wildlife remained unchallenged during our outing at sea; it was indeed quite the contrary. Besides his professional skills, Ian French shows extreme awareness for the protection of the animals living in the bay. He knows them by heart and really cares about them. During our outing, he spotted a female bottlenose dolphin whose movements at the surface hinted at pregnancy; the skipper put the animal’s safety first and avoided disturbing her by approaching to allow passengers to observe her. This reaction was highly appreciated.
One of the most remarkable natural sites in Scotland
A stopover in Gairloch and its surroundings is a must as this peaceful village offers various activities as well as charming accommodation structures. Navigation on the loch enables the discovery of the breadth and diversity of the landscapes.
The region boasts remarkable biodiversity both in terms of flora and fauna. The diversity of ecosystems that are found around the mountains, seaside, lochs and forests are well worth the visit. It is highly recommended to venture along the various hiking trails available.
Access to Gairloch through Inverness is easy thanks to a highly scenic road that crosses the Scottish Highlands. Don’t underestimate the road from Gairloch to Ullapool, which also offers amazing landscapes.
The Beinn Eighe Nature Reserve
The Beinn Eighe Nature Reserve is located close to Gairloch. It was the first National Reserved set up in the UK in 1951 and has also been declared a biosphere reserve by UNESCO.
The reserve houses one of the last pine forests in Scotland as well as various other arboreal species such as yew, oak, holly, rowan trees and silver birch. The landscapes are also made of exposed rocks, rock debris, peatlands, wet grassland and mountain slopes that harmoniously plunge down into Loch Maree.
The reserve was originally intended to be a wildlife sanctuary but it also serves as a site of reference for scientific observation in order to study environmental changes. A team of 14 scientists work there on various themes including the management of ungulate populations, namely fallow deer, as well as the preservation of the forest and rare plants.