Oban to Barra and the Shiants

Categories // Wildlife Officer Sightings

Oban to Barra and the Shiants
Common dolphins heading towards the MV Clansman on the Oban to Barra crossing.

Check out the latest news from Jess, our Hebrides Wildlife Officer! 

1One of many common dolphins that wowed passengers on CalMac’s MV Clansman this month.

This month I sailed on the ferry from Oban to Barra for the first time. I was excited to experience this route as it also sails via the islands of Tiree and Coll and I had heard very exciting stories of basking sharks, Minke whales, many different dolphin species , harbour porpoise, and seabirds.

On a Wednesday during the summer, the crossing starts from Oban at 7am and sails through the sound of Mull and out to Coll and Tiree before then heading to Castlebay on Barra. Beautiful views of Mull on the left and the Morvern peninsula on the right are usually visible after leaving Oban but fog and heavy rain made it a bit of a bleak start to the day. Despite the weather, within 30 minutes we spotted some cetacean activity but the mist made it hard to identify the species,  I suspect they were porpoises.

Our seven-hour trip to Barra didn’t prove to be particularly successful for sightings apart from some distant common dolphin pods, but on the return trip our luck really picked up. Between Tiree and Coll, around 40 common dolphins made a dash for the ferry, jumping high and gracefully towards us, giving passengers a great chance to take some videos and photos.

We then sailed south of Ardnamurchan point which is known for being a great place to see cetaceans from and sure enough, a Minke whale startled and delighted us by surfacing close to the ferry three times before disappearing again. A final cherry on top of the cake was when we returned through the Sound of Mull in the evening and were able to enjoy the scenery as the weather had cleared, and we even spotted several harbour porpoises in the calm sea state.

3Passengers Carrie Anderson and Shirley Crosbie were delighted to see a species from all three of the cetacean families, minke whale, common dolphin, and harbour porpoise, on board the MV Clansman, after a holiday to Tiree where they enjoyed puffin encounters and beautiful beaches.  

This has been my most productive crossing for sightings so far with over 50 individual marine mammals recorded on the ORCA Ocean Watchers App and I can’t wait to do it again, but perhaps in better weather!


One of my regular ferry crossings is from Uig on the Isle of Skye to Tarbert on the Isle of Harris and Lochmaddy on North Uist. These crossings sail right across the Minch and even if there are not many whale, dolphin, or porpoise sightings, it’s always a great crossing to see seabirds.


Recently I have developed a big interest in and respect for seabirds, and it’s partly because I read an amazing book called The Seabirds Cry by Adam Nicolson. The book frequently refers to The Shiant Isles which are located in the Minch, 12 miles from Skye and around 4 miles from Lewis. The Shiants are a seabird haven, an important nesting site for puffins, razorbills, guillemots, fulmars, kittiwakes, shags, and gulls, and after reading all about them I was delighted to learn that I would be sailing past The Shiants on the ferry from Uig.

7Passengers have been excited and surprised to learn it’s possible to see puffins on this crossing, many of which will nest on the Shiants as it hosts 10% of the UK puffin population in the breeding season.

8As we sail on the MV Hebrides we often come across rafts of razorbills and guillemots.

Since reading the book I have been visiting and admiring the amazing seabird nesting colonies around the UK such as Bempton Cliffs in Yorkshire and Bass Rock and Craigleith in North Bewick, and The Shiants was on the top of my wish list. So you can imagine how amazed I was when my friends from the ‘Go to St Kilda’ boat said they were dropping off an artist to the Shiants and invited me along to do an ORCA survey on the App!

Although we didn’t see any cetaceans it was a beautiful day and it gave me a chance to get a closer view of the birds we had been seeing from a distance on the ferry.

9A mixed group of razorbills and puffins.

 10A razorbill in summer breeding plumage, there are thought to be eight to eleven thousand razorbills on The Shiants.

The Shiants are really magical, bleak, isolated, and inspiring, and are a great feature to point out to passengers on the Uig ferry crossing. Thanks to The Shiant Isles Recovery Project, a collaborative project that eradicated invasive non-native black rats, it is hoped that the islands will also soon be used by Manx shearwaters and storm petrels to nest on too.

You can find out more about the Shiant Isles here: https://www.shiantisles.net/

11Enjoying a brew in the sunshine outside the 150-year-old bothy on The Shiant isles, the only building on the islands which has been used for years as a base for adventurers, researchers, and conservationists.