The Mink and The Minke
Roughly 28 miles from the campsite, and a rather lengthy hour’s drive along winding single track roads, lies the U.K’s most westerly point. It’s a substantial 20miles further west than Cornwall’s Lands End, and with majestic views of the Atlantic Ocean stretching way out into the horizon interrupted only by the dramatic outlines of a few islands, it’s a worthy rival in beauty. It’s also a bit of a hot spot for spotting marine wildlife, boasting regular sightings of minke whale, common and bottle nosed dolphins, harbour porpoise and even orcas (not forgetting my new favourite animal, and the one that always seems to bring disappointment to other “Look an otter!”, “nope, that’s just a seal”). The bird life shouldn’t be overlooked either. It’s a great place to watch gannets diving at breakneck speeds and depending on the time of year you may be lucky enough to spot huge rafts of seabirds such as guillemots or manx shearwaters gathering together.
Just recently the Hebridean Whale and Dolphin Trust have had someone stationed at the Lighthouse monitoring and recording sightings of cetaceans. Between 12pm and 4pm on certain days you can join them as they scan the bonny briny sea for dorsal fins, breaching whales, and playful dolphins. So, with a forecast of bright sunny spells and relatively flat seas (in choppy seas everything looks like a dorsal fin, leading to a lot of false spots and frustration), we decided to head west on our days off.
The drive to the point is a wild experience in itself and is probably one of the best drives to take in the spectacularly assorted array of habitats contributing to the wildness of the peninsula. From Resipole the road snakes along the shores of Loch Sunart. Through the gnarled oak trees that bend to meet its surface, you snatch glimpses of sun speckled water and swathes of seaweed being patrolled by herons. The road steadily climbs and changes from hugging the coast to hugging craggy rock faces as the mighty Ben Hiant looms above the hauntingly beautiful Camas Nan Geall. The ‘Bay of Strangers’ houses an ancient chambered cairn tucked under a group of sycamore trees, the hidden chamber combined with burial grounds and standing stones hints at the long history this bay has to tell.
Leaving Ben Hiant in the rear-view mirror, the landscape becomes a mix of rugged terrain, volcanic craters and conifer plantations and we’ve often spotted deer silhouetted on the brows of the hills along this stretch of road line. Although we’ve never seen golden eagles here it’s a good place to look; there’s plenty of open land and the surrounding hills would easily allow them to hunt without breaking the skyline. Before heading truly west we took a slight detour and headed north from Kilchoan, a small village just passed Ben Hiant, in the direction of Sanna Bay.
Sanna is one of those picture postcard beaches, a long stretch of white sand met by clear, turquoise waters that meet the horizon almost unbroken. It is sheltered by sand dunes and machair, a Gaelic word for the low-lying grass plain that is grazed by sheep and alive with wildflowers and skylarks in the summer. It’s one of those beaches that is equally as enjoyable in the warm summer sun or in the harsh gales of winter that make the sea froth and your lips shrivel and sting from the salty air. Bill and I have wanted to swim here ever since we first headed over those sand dunes and saw the aquamarine waters laid out in front of us. It was a bit too chilly for Bill to jump in this time, but I cautiously waded out into the small breakers, aware of the full pull of the Atlantic in the undertow. It was such a strong pull that I wasn’t keen on wading out too far; doggy paddle doesn’t count as a proper swimming stroke. As I sunk into the cold waters I was aware of a puppy shaped head just above the surface out in the deeper water. The common seal seemed to follow me, watching me watching it, before submerging below the waves and into the rolling depths. My first experience of swimming with seals, I might just have to add a closer encounter to my bucket list.
After a quick towel off and a cuppa in the van, we were lighthouse bound, due west. What clouds were in smothering the sun had dispersed and the rest of our day was bathed in sunshine (very much welcomed after a chilly dip in the Atlantic). The warmth was clearly an invite to the local wildlife and on our approach to the lighthouse we were greeted by two golden eagles taking advantage of the thermals above the hills. The sheer size of these birds makes them instantly distinguishable from the much smaller buzzard, and the corvids that were mobbing the pair looked like minute blackbird shaped specks. Luckily the road was clear, so we could stop to watch these magnificent birds soaring effortlessly skyward until an approaching 4 x 4 forced us to carry on.
The lighthouse was busy and the two border collies, that take it upon themselves to heard up the visitors and usher to them towards the nearest stick to be thrown, were in their element. For some this is the highlight of the trip and each time we’ve stopped in there has always been someone perched on a bench with a coffee in hand, and a collie expectantly at their feet. Today we took our coffee to go, heading to the foghorn to sit on the rocks and look expectantly at the sea, waiting for it to throw us some wildlife titbits.
The sighting board had said that for the previous week thee had been 30 plus minke whale sightings, so hopefully we should get lucky. The minke whale is probably the most common whale around the British Isles, the west coast of Scotland being a particular hot spot for sightings. They are a small whale, usually given away by their long body and dorsal fin breaking the surface before rolling and diving. This means they are tricky to spot as they tend to disappear after diving. The guy running the watch explained that they like to hunt along the tide lines where the shoals of herring and sprats hang out. Amongst the chop and vast rafts of seabirds (we think they were shearwaters but they were too far out to tell), the tide lines drew deceptively calm stretches through the churning sea and it was one these lines that we fixed our binoculars, scanning back and forth for anything whale shaped.
“Mink!”, the shout came out from the tower above me and being in a mostly maritime environment I scanned the horizon furiously, “they’re a member of the mustelid family.” Ok, so now I was confused; one, they were talking about mustelids and two, no one was looking out to sea. Seriously! What was going on?! It was at that point, I noticed Bill pointing at the rocks below his feet and edging away sharpish. Mink. Out from a crack in the rocks peered a perfectly black face, except for a splash of white on its chin. This non-native, typically river dwelling creature was not what I was expecting to see in broad daylight on the U.K mainland’s most westerly point. Usually mink are active in dusk and darkness, but it is possible that it was one of this year’s recently independent kits, who sometimes move about in daylight hours. It showed no fear of humans and even slinked right past the nose of a sleeping dog, who was cooking itself on the hot rocks in the afternoon sun, as it made it’s way to a whiskey coloured pool for a drink. “Minke!” the cry came from the viewing platform this time. Neither Bill nor I knew where to look, glancing out to sea we caught the unmistakable white splash of water separated by the wake of a whale, and down below our feet we saw the black tuft of a tail vanish down a rocky ledge. A mink and a minke. What were the chances of that?
Trousers legs safely secured we took our seat back on the rocks and finished off the last swigs of coffee as an ominous group of clouds bubbled up above the horizon, illuminated by the reflection of sun on the water which added a dramatic finish. Amidst the diving gannets, shifting tides and building clouds, splashes of water gave away the location of a pod of dolphins. Even though they were just shimmering dots on the horizon, their shapes as they cut through air and sea were easily recognisable. The customers on the whale watching boat in the middle of this display were certainly getting their money’s worth. Basking in the last warmth of the afternoon sun, warming myself on the rocks, like the dog that was still snoozing just in front of us, after a chilly swim with a seal at Sanna whilst being treated to a whole world of marine mammals, was more than a pleasure. We had definitely made the right decision in heading west for our days off.