Wildlife spotting on the Malts Cruise

14 April 2016

The Malts Cruise is an exciting opportunity to sail the Hebrides and see stunning wildlife and many species that few people associate with the British Isles. There are whales and dolphins abound, colonies of lounging seals, frequent encounters with the world’s second largest fish (the basking shark) as well as an abundance of seabirds skimming the white wave crests and nestled in the towering cliffs.

The Hebrides, although northerly located, have slightly warmer waters and climate than generally expected at this latitude. This is a result of oceanic mixing from the Gulf Stream currents coming up from the Gulf of Mexico, and the cold, sub-polar waters moving south from the Arctic. The air above the sub-tropical currents is warmer too, which protects the Hebrides from temperature extremes. The topography of the area results in reduced turbidity, less disturbed sediment, and thus a particularly clear water column. All of these factors play a role in attracting the unique collection of marine species present.

Whales and Dolphins (Cetaceans)

Sailing through the Hebridean waters, there are regular encounters with cetaceans. The Harbour porpoise is one of the most frequently sighted. Generally seen in ones or twos and only for a brief time; their presence is disclosed by a puffing sound as they surface. The bottlenose dolphin is a Hebridean resident, as well as the more boat wary, highly scarred Risso’s Dolphin. Getting towards the larger end of the spectrum, are the humpback whales as they travel between their African breeding grounds and Nordic feeding grounds. They are an impressive sight, reaching up to 17 m in length, and can be spotted by keeping an eye out for their ‘bushy’ blow of spray at the surface. Other large cetaceans in the area are the jet black and white Killer whales and the more frequently seen Minke whale.

When looking for cetaceans, it can be useful to scan the horizons for flocks of circling and diving gannets. They can be indicators of where cetaceans have rounded up fish close to the surface to feed. Also, keep your eyes and ears open for the sound of a blow as the cetacean surfaces. It is important to remember to treat approaches to cetaceans with care, as many species of cetacean are endangered and are protected. The WiSe Cetacean Code of Conduct suggests to, on sighting a distant cetacean, approach at a steady pace, no faster than 6 knots when within a kilometre. Do not approach within 100m, let them come to you and ensure that you keep any contact time under 15 minutes. At the end of the encounter it’s best to depart slowly and steadily so as not to startle them.

Seals (Pinnipeds)

The rocky coastlines of the Inner Hebrides are home to two species of seal: the Grey Seal and the Common Seal. Seals spend most of their time in the water, travelling long distances hunting, although they can be seen soaking in the sun year round on the rocky Scottish coastline. In the water the species can be quite tricky to distinguish – the main features to look out for are the forehead shape and nostril position. Grey Seals have a flat forehead and nostrils that are parallel, not meeting at the bottom of the nose. The Common Seals on the other hand have a more cat-like concave forehead, and nostrils that meet in a V shape. When on the land you it’s easier to distinguish the species based on size. Grey’s are larger with the males reaching 2.6m and the females reaching 2m. Commons are smaller (1.7-1.9m), with more spots speckling their pelt. They are more dispersed on the shores than the Greys as they have more of a liking for personal space.

Basking Sharks and Sunfish

Basking sharks can be up to 10m in length and are the world’s second largest fish. They are a gentle species with no teeth, feeding entirely on plankton. Sightings of the basking shark are quite common in Scotland through the summer as they come into the shallower waters of the Hebrides where the plankton is highly concentrated. From the surface, a passing basking shark can be mistaken for two sharks following each other because the tail fin breaks the surface quite a distance behind the dorsal fin. They swim with their huge mouths gaping and the white lines of their extensive gills visible. From above you can see the gills almost encircling the entire head.

Sunfish are rather bizarre looking fish that can be seen wobbling through the water column using dorsal and anal fins for propulsion. They can reach 4m long and weigh a tonne on average. They are laterally flattened into a disc shape and can be seen after feeding at depth on jellyfish, lying on their sides on the surface to be cleaned of deep sea hanger-on-ers by seagulls.


In the way of seabirds one of the most iconic to look out for is the puffin. It is very rare on the British mainland, but the Islands on the Hebrides are home to several colonies. One is on the Treshnish Isles off Mull. They are quite tame birds that will venture close enough to tug at shoelaces should you sit still long enough on the shore. Other birds to look out for on the cruise are the great skuas, arctic skuas, gannets, guillemots, ‘sea swallows’ or arctic terns.