It was my second summer in Scotland. Like last year I had just arrived, I decided this year to use the experience I built up and to stay in Scotland the entire summer to explore more of the country underwater and beyond. The two scuba diving weekends I spent in Lochaline, exploring the Sound of Mull, were above all expectations: incredible wildlife to watch, stunning shipwrecks to explore and dramatic landscapes to admire. Taking into account that on the first weekend, mid-August, I was lucky, I just can’t wait to go back diving with basking sharks another year.
Where is the Sound of Mull in Scotland?
The Sound of Mull is a channel on the west coast of Scotland between the mainland and the island of Mull opening onto the Hebrides sea. Located between Oban and Fort William, the best place to go for scuba divers to explore the Sound of Mull is Lochaline, on the Ardnamurchan (pronounce “Arnamoorran”) Peninsula.
If you look at a map, you might wonder how to get there without spending hours following the craggy coastline. In reality, thanks to the Corran Ferry, south of Fort of William, it will only take 3h30 from Glasgow or 4 hours from Edinburgh to drive to Lochaline. The only negative thing is the price of the ferry: £8 for a 5-minute crossing. Hopefully, the cost should decrease with the new road equivalent tariff law entering into force in October 2015 in the area.
A couple of miles after the ferry, the single track road leading to Lochaline, along with the lochs and through the hills and the woods, is amazingly scenic. It takes a good 45 minutes to 1 hour, depending on the weather, to reach Lochaline from Corran Ferry. If you are travelling with non-divers, they can also enjoy a day on a boat exploring the Sound of Mull, watching wildlife and enjoying majestic landscapes.
From the harbour of Lochaline, you have a beautiful view of Ardtornish Castle, and then later you have Calve Island and the picturesque harbour of Tobermory on the Isle of Mull. The boat trip usually goes beyond the Sound of Mull to the islands of Coll and Tiree, where basking sharks are often found in larger groups than in the Sound of Mull itself.
Mull Island: a paradise for wildlife lovers
If you love going in the outdoors to watch birds in the woods or whales at sea, the Sound of Mull is the ideal place for you. Before putting your dry suit on and getting into the sea, look carefully around you, you might be able to spot sea eagles, puffins, cormorants, gannets in the air; and basking sharks, whales, seals, sunfish, dolphins, porpoises, sea otters at the surface of the sea.
Underwater, you can dive on the wall of Calve Island or on the many shipwrecks of the Sound of Mull which are covered in life by colourful soft corals such as dead men’s fingers, plumose anemone or dahlia anemones. To fully take advantage of the fantastic colours on the wall, a good torch-light is necessary. While diving, you can meet edible and velvet crabs, squat lobsters, sun starfish, dogfish and the beautiful cuckoo wrasses which are so colourful that you wonder if they got lost as they look like tropical fish.
I’ve also been very surprised by the number of jellyfish I saw. Hopefully, we were wearing a dry suit, a hood, gloves and a mask. From the cute moon jellyfish to the giant lion’s mane jellyfish, they are everywhere! They are beautiful but be careful when ascending from a dive, always look up (like always)!
My encounter with basking sharks in Scotland
As their name is indicating, they like basking in the sun at the surface in the summer. They are found swimming close to the shore but not exactly next to it too. It means you have to go in the blue to see them.
These 2 points explain why this adventure consists only in snorkelling, as there is no point to scuba dive with them as you are going to stay mainly at the surface. This adventure is hence accessible for anyone who knows how to swim and use a snorkel!
The basking shark is the 2nd largest fish in the world after the whale shark. Its length varies from 6m to 9m with a weight that could be more than 4 tonnes. In addition to their impressive size, their main characteristic is their mouth size that they can completely stretch to filter as much water as possible. They open their jaws very wide only to do this: they are peaceful plankton eaters. Their lifespan is not precisely known, but it is estimated to be 50 years.
In the UK, like in Malta, New Zealand and Florida, USA, they are an endangered, protected species. Their migration journey during the year is still a mystery. Basking sharks are found in polar waters like mild temperature waters at the surface in the summer, but in the winter they go to depths down to 900m to hunt some deep-water plankton. This is why it ‘s hard to know where they are exactly going.
While doing research on the basking sharks, I realised that many people were worried that basking sharks could attack, kill or eat humans! Not at all: they are like peaceful aquatic cows. Once concern I understand a bit better is the fear of being swallowed by accident by them as they filter the water.
During the time we were in the water, I realised that we were rarely staying long underwater. We spent much time trying to spot their fins on the surface, to then gently swim toward them. As the visibility is far from being crystal clear in Scotland, we mostly saw them at the very last moment. I can tell you that even if they are called slow-moving sharks, they go fast.
They are close to the surface but still a bit deeper than divers. Honestly, the risk of being accidentally swallowed must be almost zero. I think you would need to make it on purpose and still, it would be hard as you need to guess their trajectory.
Best practices to enjoy your dive with basking sharks in Scotland
For the same reasons, taking pictures or shooting videos is challenging. The important point is to stay on the boat to spot the sharks first. Then the skipper will get the boat slowly near the sharks to avoid you to swim for a too long distance and in the end miss the sharks.
It is crucial not to jump in the water otherwise you would scare the basking sharks. You should instead glide slowly in the water with your mask and snorkel. Then it is a bit a matter of luck; you need to guess which direction they are going. Important Tip: Do not forget to take enough weight with you. As you go snorkelling, you cannot count on the weight of your equipment to compensate for the positive buoyancy of your dry suit.
Before going to Lochaline, I was a bit concerned that I might be scared of their size. This is not what happened as they are very peaceful animals. Their tiny black eyes, very close to their giant mouth, give them an adorable look.
Even if it’s tempting, do not try to touch them and always respect a distance of a couple of meters with the basking shark. Do not forget it’s a wild animal. Having said that, as we could only see them most of the time at the very last moment, and they also swim faster than I expected, you can sometimes find yourself right on their trajectory and being touched by their tail.
To make your cruise enjoyable as you are going to spend an entire day at sea, think about taking seasickness pills during your breakfast. The winds and the tidal currents are quite strong, so even if you think you are not usually seasick: don’t take a chance, take the pills!
When is the best period to dive with basking sharks in Scotland?
The season is theoretically from July to September, but to get better chances to see them, I warmly recommend to go in August. It is important to point out that with Nature nothing is guaranteed.
In my case, we were lucky on the first weekend, mid-August. We spotted a group of 6/8 individuals right in the middle of the Sound of Mull, only 2 hours by boat from Lochaline. The same day, another boat made the entire trip to the Isle of Coll, 4 hours from Lochaline, they saw a group of about 20 individuals!
On the second weekend, end of August, the weather was less sunny. It could have been one of the reasons why we were less lucky. We made the 4 hours trip to Coll, but we only had a glimpse of the fin of one basking shark. To compensate, we were lucky enough to see a sunfish at the surface! Divers go to Bali to see mola-molas, and you can actually also come to Scotland to see them.
By going to the Sound of Mull in August, it is also the perfect season to visit Scapa Flow for some world-class wreck diving.
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