For anyone who loves seeing legendary sites up close and walking around gorgeous landscapes, there’s a destination in the North Atlantic that has it all—actually, make that 6,000 destinations. The British and Irish Isles—which also include Scotland, Wales, and the 6,000-plus islands around them—pack in endless fascination for travelers. For nature buffs, a trip to this Atlantic archipelago is an especially magical experience. It’s a chance to see spectacular animals and rare plants in the wild, all while hiking in beautiful surroundings dotted with archaeological ruins and local charm.
A voyage around this part of the Atlantic brings unexpected daily discoveries along the cliffs, shores, and hiking trails of the islands. On a Lindblad expedition, you stand a strong chance of seeing dolphins, porpoises, beluga whales, and harmless basking sharks in the ocean; woodland animals like red deer and rabbits on hiking trails; and a dazzling display of local seabirds flying and landing all around you. Here are just a handful of the in-real-life natural sights to look out for as you explore these isles.
Close Encounters with Stunning Local Birds
The enormous seabird known as the northern gannet has been endangered since the 19th century, but it’s slowly making a comeback—and if you look carefully, you just might spot one (or an entire flock). On a recent Lindblad expedition near Ireland’s Little Skellig, voyagers witnessed tens of thousands of northern gannets flying overhead and landing on the island to nest. The gannets took turns feeding in the North Sea and returning to the island to make a nest in the stratified sandstone. This breathtaking ritual takes place for a few months starting in the spring, so travelers on expeditions in May and in the summer stand a strong chance of getting a close-up view.
Aboard a Lindblad ship, you’ll also sail around the historic Irish island of Skellig Michael, known for its sixth-century Gaelic monastery made of striking stone structures set on a terraced mountaintop—and more recently, for its appearance in the Star Wars films The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi. The island’s colonies of puffins even inspired the adorable, wide-eyed species called “porgs” which appear in the films.
For an even closer encounter with puffins, you can disembark with a small group of Lindblad voyagers on Scotland’s Staffa Island and take a walk to the puffin colony to watch as the birds fly out of their burrows and land right alongside you. The dramatic beauty of Staffa’s coast—its waves pound with such force that they formed a cliffside hollow known as Fingal’s Cave—inspired Felix Mendelssohn’s composition, the Hebrides Overture.
Sightings of Magnificent Marine Animals
Along the Irish coast, watch closely from your ship and you might spot basking sharks. Aptly named, these sharks like to bask in the sunshine in this part of the Atlantic, especially in the spring when they feed off the area’s blooming plankton. Although they look huge and imposing, basking sharks don’t prey on humans—and staring at them up close from on board the ship is an unforgettable sight.
The icy waters near Scotland’s Isle of Lewis have abundant animal life too. As your ship approaches the island, Lindblad’s undersea team may find the conditions perfect for capturing video footage of the colorful wildlife in the plankton-rich waters—feather stars, sea anemones, squat lobsters—to show guests on board. The Isle of Lewis is also known for its age-old fishing culture, and if you join a guided tour, you can see its fisheries in action and look out for trucks piled with just-caught crabs on their way to seafood markets.
Seal-lovers will also have an excellent chance of spotting their favorite marine mammals. Gray seals often cluster around Skellig Michael and also congregate at Scotland’s Fair Isle, a tiny island that’s been inhabited since the Bronze Age and has a current population of only 70 people. While Fair Isle is known for its namesake sweaters—and a Lindblad visit is likely to involve freshly baked scones and cakes— it’s also a terrific place to spot grey seals from your Zodiac. They like to crowd against Fair Isle’s cliffs, along with an array of local birds like guillemots, gannets, kittiwakes, shags, and fulmars.
Glimpses of Unusual Plant Life
Ice sheets in the British Isles wiped out much of the area’s endemic plant life ages ago, but the islands still have roughly 50 species of plants that only grow in this part of the North Atlantic. One of these is the Shetland mouse-ear, also known as Edmonston’s chickweed (Cerastium negrescens), a lovely white flower that grows in the rocks of Shetland in Scotland. It was discovered there by future botanist Thomas Edmonston when he was just 12 years old. In Orkney, a UNESCO World Heritage Site known for its ancient stone homes, burial grounds, and seaweed-carpeted shores, look out for the gorgeous purple-blue Scottish primrose (Primula scotica), which blooms in May. The British Isles also have countless other indigenous and cosmopolitan plant species with wonderful names and characteristics. One to keep an eye out for at stops in southwestern England and southern Ireland is the string-of-sausage lichen (Ustica articulate), with puffy stems that resemble little sausages and eye-catching tangles of green-grey branches that drape languidly over tree branches.