A Local Gap for Local People

Spectacular wildlife, stunning scenery, a slower pace of life and money that, quite frankly, just looks weird. It's the stuff dream gap years are made of and it generally means spending thousands, a day in a plane filled with sweaty folk and, more often than not, three days on the commode as the local cuisine gets intimate with your innards.

The good news for those of us in southern England is that all this is only a few hours away. For those of you up North, the better news is it's closer still. Hell, if you live off the coast of western Scotland, you may already be there.

I'm going to bang on about the very lovely Isle of Mull for the purposes of this article, but many of the general principles apply to lots of bits of the UK.

So, Mull? Why in hell would I go there?

Well, certainly not for the nightlife. The major town, Tobermory, is very nice, very friendly and has a few good places to eat and drink to the wee small hours, but that's it as far as bright lights go. The people are just dandy though and there's a nice international volunteer community, who seem to make their own amusement with beach parties and the occasional celidh thrown in for appearances' sake. It's not all Horlicks and windswept walks, just don't expect to get part-time work as a podium dancer.

It's not a traditional backpacker's destination either: you will find yourself fighting your way through families and caravans at times. However, I found two places to camp that get you away from that sort of scene. Calgary Bay and the eastern end of Loch Na Keal. They're beautiful, peaceful and you can wake up in the morning, open the tent door and watch dolphins gooning about in a pointless, but entertaining manner. I'd describe where they are, but it's probably quicker for you to paste the words 'map' and 'mull' into your favourite search engine.

Essentially then, you come here for the outdoors and the things that live in it. There are two key pieces of British fauna that bring people to Mull. Firstly, there are the white-tailed eagles. These are sod-off great big (read as 'awe-inspiring') birds, but there's not much to base a gap year around. The nest locations are closely guarded and should be left well alone. The best thing you can do is visit between late May and early July and pay a few quid to go and take a look at the fledglings through a telescope.

The second is the friendly neighbourhood cetaceans. That's the whales and dolphins to you and me. Mull sits on the Gulf Stream, which means lots of foody bits floating around. This attracts minke whales, orca (killer whales), dolphins of the common and bottle nosed varieties, harbour porpoises and the not-as-mean-as-it-looks basking shark. They also get things called sun fish, but frankly even a photograph freaked me out slightly, so I'm glad the sightings are infrequent.

Where is it and how do I get there?

It's off the west coast of Scotland and you get there on the ferry from Oban. You can take the train to Oban from Glasgow, but I was feeling lazy and affluent, so I split a hire car with a couple of mates. It cost me about £50 for the week which, combined with the £50 return flights and the £4 a night camping, made this a very cheap week's holiday.

So, what's in it for me?

If you're even slightly interested in conservation, you'll know that where there are whales, there are people who want to stalk those whales. In a good way of course. They'll follow them about and note down all manner of information in order to make sure we're aware of exactly what's going on in their world. You'll also know that this is not a particularly lucrative field, so volunteers are integral to the whole affair.

There is a whole range of volunteering opportunities connected to the whale-watching industry in the Hebrides. Some of them cost, some of them don't; but then some of them require complicated equipment, skilled staff and expensive insurance in order that you are able to help. Some involve actual whale watching, others involve things like helping to manage the photo library of cetacean sightings to aid with future identifications.

Whatever part you're playing in saving the whales though, you do have the undoubted benefit of the rest of Mull on your doorstep. Great, if you like the outdoors. Probably a bit rubbish if Lakeside or Bluewater are your idea of paradise. 

Naturally, you can just go out and see the whales without having to do anything worthy about it. I know I did.