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A whale of a time; ANNA LEVIN flippers her lid on a day-trip out of Tobermory in search of whales and dolphins.

TO MOST people the words `whale watching' conjure up images of bronzed, beautiful people tracking great mammals in warm blue oceans, somewhere in America or Australia.

So it may come as a surprise that Scotland, with many different species of whales and dolphins, is just as good a base for this activity. Sea Life Surveys in the Isle of Mull has been running whale watching trips for more than 10 years.

There was a buzz of anticipation as our group of whale watchers assembled on the pier in the morning. We had waited a few days for the weather to be suitable for the trip. Tobermory's colourful waterfront brightened up a grey day, but the rain had stopped and the water looked reassuringly calm.

Brennan Fairbairns, the skipper, welcomed us aboard and explained some of the research work Sea Life Surveys would be doing. It is working with a local charity, the Hebridean Whale and Dolphin Trust, to find out more about the marine life in the area.

Sophie Miller, the first mate, told us what to look out for: any movement on the water, splashes, or groups of feeding birds. Where there's birds there's fish and where there's fish there may be whales and dolphins.

We made for the whale spotting platform at the top of the boat and kept our eyes peeled as we moved out of the harbour. We were rewarded by a glimpse of porpoises, the smallest of the whale and dolphin family.

There were 12 of us on board, a mixture of first timers and regulars. Among the experienced whale watchers was 13- year-old Sam Fereday, on holiday with his mum and dad. Sam is hoping to see a minke whale: "I like it best when whales come right up to the boat. But dolphins are good as well."

We motored along the Sound of Mull, between the island and Ardnamurchan peninsula. We could just see the outlines of the mountains in different shades of grey. There was barely a ripple on the sea. Sophie told us this was perfect whale watching weather, as we can see any movement on the surface for miles around.

Right on cue there was a yelp of excitement from the deck and everyone leapt to their feet. "There, THERE, look it's a ... something. A splash!" It was, unmistakeably, a big, sudden splash. And another. Brennan steered the boat towards it. We scarcely dared breathe as we stared at the sea.

Then there was a disturbance on the water ahead, a patch of splashing as if the water was boiling. Among the splashes we saw small, sharp fins. "DOLPHINS!" They were coming towards us.

Common dolphins, slim and streamlined with precise markings and an hourglass pattern on their sides streaked around and under the boat, twisting and turning as they rode on the bow wave.

Brennan stopped the engine. Without the hum of the motor there was a spellbound silence, just the water lapping against the sides of the boat, the puff of the dolphins' blow as they surfaced to breathe and the odd squeal of excited humans.

In a while the dolphins left us and continued their fishing. "Right", said Brennan, grinning at his delighted passengers, "let's go and find a whale!"

And we did. Halfway to the Isle of Coll a long, dark back rolled out of the water, then disappeared. We watched and waited. A whale emerged right in front of us, so close we got a blast of its smelly breath. Sam wrinkled up his nose in disgust: "Yuck, mackerel pt!"

It was hard to tell if it was the same whale or another one. Brennan and Sophie photographed the whales with a special camera. They are building up a catalogue of individual whales which they can identify by scars or markings or distinctive shapes of thedorsal fins. This will help them estimate numbers in the area.

We were admiring seals at the northern tip of Coll when a big splash caught us unawares. This was too good to be true, dolphins again. Starlight and Sparkle are two bottlenose dolphins often seen in this area. They were big compared with the common dolphins we had seen earlier and we could see their white bellies as they played around the boat.

Then we saw a dark shape beneath the water. It was a small basking shark - small only by basking shark standards as they grow up to 10 metres long. The shark and the dolphins took no notice of each other but we were captivated by them both.

Heading home, we met the same group of porpoises we had seen on the way out. It was the perfect end to a perfect day.

When we set off in the morning, we knew there was wonderful wildlife out there but, according to Brennan, we were lucky to see it all in one day.

Mull it over:

Sea Life Surveys Breidwood, Beadoun, Tobermory, Isle of Mull, Agyll, PA75 6QA

Tel: 01688 302787

Cost: Adults - pounds 42; July/August, pounds 45 Four-hour family whale watch - adults, pounds 30; child, pounds 26; family offer (2+2), pounds 102; July/August, adults pounds 32; children, pounds 28

Web: http://www.holidayuk.co.uk/ scotland/sealifesurveys/index.html.

More details: The Hebridean Whale and Dolphin Trust is a registered charity, (no:SCO22403) dedicated to marine research and conservation. For more info contact: HWDT, 28 Main Street, Tobermory, Isle of Mull, Argyll, PA75 6NU. Tel: 01688 302620 Fax: 01688 302 728. E-mail: hwdt@sol.co.uk Website: www.gn.apc.org/whales.
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Title Annotation:Features
Author:Levin, Anna
Publication:Daily Record (Glasgow, Scotland)
Date:Jul 24, 1999
Words:928
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