Scotland's wildlife is often a huge motivator for visiting the country. The low population density and unique climate here mean there is an abundance of many species seldom found elsewhere.
Whether you're an avid seabird watcher, a cetacean fan, otter-obsessed or seal-savvy, you'll find that a boat trip is a great addition to your self-drive Scotland tour.
All of the trips featured in this blog are single-day side trips which can easily be incorporated into your self-drive holiday itinerary, and they are well worth making time for.
You might see one of the numerous seal colonies that adorn Scotland's coasts or marvel at the thousands of puffins which come ashore every year to nest. If you're really lucky, you might catch sight of the rare white-tailed eagle, a whale, a dolphin or even the enormous basking shark!
As a self-drive visitor, your tour of Scotland happens at your own pace, so you can spend as much time as you'd like looking out for rare and elusive Scottish wildlife.
If you don't quite have time to fit a dedicated wildlife boat trip into your self-drive tour of Scotland, don't worry - you can often spot otters and seals (and even whales and dolphins in the summer) from the shore in many places along Scotland's coastline, and it's quite common to see them from the CalMac ferries as well.
Send us an enquiry if you'd like to visit Scotland on a self-drive holiday and take in the Scottish wildlife on a boat trip.
Title image credit: Emily Woolard
Puffin paradise with Staffa Tours
Image: Unsplash / Ray Hennessy
When to go: For peak puffin action, it's best to visit between mid-May and the end of July.
Departs from: Tobermory, Isle of Mull or Kilchoan, Ardnamurchan Peninsula
Why we love them: A friendly, family-run business offering a cost-effective and relatively quick way for visitors to experience both Fingal's cave on Staffa and spend time with the enormous puffin colony on Lunga.
Duration: Approximately 6 hours.
Staffa Tours' signature Staffa & Treshnish Isles Wildlife Tour is the best way to get close to puffins. Departing from the Isle of Mull or Ardnamurchan on the mainland, this trip allows visitors to land on both the island of Staffa, where they can climb up to view the imposing Fingal's Cave and visit a small puffin colony, and the island of Lunga, a puffin paradise where up to 3,000 of these delightfully cute seabirds come to nest each year.
The normal itinerary sees visitors spending 2 hours ashore on Lunga, which gives ample time to watch these hilarious birds wandering around, catching fish and taking care of young pufflings in their burrows.
If you love Scottish wildlife and you think there's nothing cuter than a puffin, this is a brilliant and cost-effective half-day wildlife tour to incorporate into your self-drive holiday.
Discover gentle ocean giants with Basking Shark Scotland
Image: Basking Shark Scotland
When to go: Basking shark season in Scotland is from early July until September, but the season starts earlier for Basking Shark Scotland, with puffin and seal lagoon trips on offer from April onwards.
Why we love them:Basking Shark Scotland are eco-conscious and sustainable in their approach, and these small group tours focus on enjoying getting up close and personal - and even swimming alongside - the most elusive of Scotland's wildlife in a low impact, educational and fun way.
Departs from: Dunstaffnage (near Oban) on the mainland, or Tobermory on the Isle of Mull.
Duration: It varies - a full day trip is the shortest option with the chance of seeing basking sharks, but for a higher likelihood of sightings, a multi-day tour is recommended.
Scotland is a world hotspot for basking sharks, and this family-run company aims to help visitors experience these giants of the ocean in a low-impact way, combining an incredible up-close experience for the visitor with minimum disruption for the creatures they want to view. Experienced marine biologists will tell you about the area, the sharks and what we know about the behaviour of these mysterious giants.
Run by Shane and Nikki Wasik and offering a range of tours departing from Oban or Tobermory, this luxury small-group tour option is a great way to experience Scotland's wildlife as part of your self-drive itinerary. Spaces on the basking shark tours often get booked up quite a long time in advance, so enquire now if you'd like to discuss incorporating a basking shark tour into your self-drive Scottish adventure.
Small Isles spectacular with Arisaig Marine
Image: Emily Woolard
When to go: Sailings operate from April until September. Whale and dolphin sightings tend to be best from May until the end of July.
Why we love them:Arisaig Marine manages to turn a popular ferry service taking visitors to the Small Isles into an experience in itself, with the opportunity to experience the abundant wildlife that's likely to pop up along the way. This is a great day out, where in many ways the journey is the destination. You'll get to set foot on some beautiful, remote and less-visited Scottish islands, and your experienced guide and captain will make sure you get a great view of interesting wildlife on your way.
Departs from: Arisaig.
Duration: Up to 2.5 hours on the boat each way, depending on which island you are visiting. See our separate post about island day trips for more information about visiting the Small Isles with Arisaig Marine.
The MV Sheerwater sails daily from Easter until September, connecting Arisaig with the Small Isles of Muck, Eigg and Rum. Its role as a ferry service makes it possible to visit these unique islands as a day trip, but to hop on and off without paying much attention to your surroundings would be to miss out on the fact that this stretch of sea offers some of the best opportunities to spot rare birds, whales and dolphins in the whole of Scotland!
The sightings often start as soon as the vessel departs, courtesy of the huge seal colony that makes the skerries outside Arisaig its home. From here, you can expect approximately an hour's journey time to reach the Isle of Eigg, where you'll get around 30 minutes to stretch your legs before departing on a further 30-minute journey to Muck, or a further hour to Rum (timetables vary between the Eigg-Muck and Eigg-Rum routes depending on the day).
With regular dolphin and whale sightings possible in this stretch of water in the summer and an abundance of seabirds at every turn, you can expect to have plenty to look at as you travel. The timetable is approximate because if something interesting appears, Arisaig Marine's team tend to try and make sure their guests get an excellent view before it heads off!
Low impact, high adrenaline with Ecoventures
Image: Unsplash / Guido Hofmann
When to go: Operates daily from April to October.
Why we love them:Ecoventures is focused on providing an exhilarating experience of wildlife in a respectful and responsible way. This small and friendly business has been recognised by the Green Tourism scheme and is an accredited operator with the Dolphin Space Programme, which ensures adherence to a code of conduct minimising disturbance to wildlife.
Departs from: Cromarty, Moray Firth.
Duration: 2 hours.
The Inner Moray Firth boasts its own colony of bottlenose dolphins, which hugely increases the probability of sightings even on a short trip such as this one. But that's not all you're likely to see on this Scottish wildlife boat tour - throngs of seabirds, porpoise and seals are common, and even the occasional minke whale puts in an appearance.
As you speed across the water in a custom-built RIB, your friendly and well-informed team will provide you with commentary along the way to help you understand the context in which these spectacular creatures exist, and will help you enjoy them in a way that ensures that they will remain calm and undisturbed by your visit. They also carry a hydrophone on board, which - in the right conditions - can give you the additional treat of listening to the dolphins communicating.
This is an unforgettable experience that - due to its short duration - will fit neatly into a day of your self-drive itinerary and make for a wonderful wildlife-spotting excursion as part of your tour of Scotland.
In search of orca with Hebridean Whale Cruises
Image: Unsplash / Lachlan Gowen
When to go: Mid-May to mid-September gives you the best chance of whale sightings.
Why we love them:Hebridean Whale Cruises focus on giving their visitors the highest possible likelihood of spotting whales through careful use of their specialist local knowledge. These guys don't mess about - their cruises head straight offshore and explore some known whale feeding grounds of the North Minch. These sites are regularly monitored by the team, so the day's itinerary will be planned to maximise your chance of a sighting. If you are lucky, you even may get to see orca on the 4-hour tour option!
Departs from: Gairloch
Duration: 2.5 or 4 hours.
With Hebridean Whale Cruises, you'll shoot straight to the heart of the action in their purpose-built RHIB, Orca 1, which can travel at up to 26kts. This allows them to reach common feeding grounds of the whales and dolphins that populate the North Minch, one of Scotland's ocean wildlife hotspots.
These quarter- or half-day cruises will fit nicely into your self-drive tour of Scotland and provide a lovely complement to the rest of your trip, giving you the chance to spot the largest of Scotland's ocean visitors during the summer season.