‘I’VE never seen a year on the west coast like it,” beams captain James Fairbairns from the helm of the Lucy Mary, the new small ship opening up the epic scenery and world-class wildlife of Scotland’s west coast.

“It’s been brilliant. We’ve seen minkes and even fin whales on our first two trips and we’re expecting big things from this adventure to the Small Isles.”

In charge of delivering the big things is Indy, our superb wildlife guide, always on hand with more smiles and his binoculars. The wildlife fiesta starts as soon as we leave Oban, before we’re even past Duart Castle into the Sound of Mull.

A brace of sea eagles, the flying barn door of Scottish birding, swagger overhead. Below a pair of porpoises splash by.

“Welcome to Scotland,” I proudly smile at my fellow half dozen passengers, delighted cruisers hailing from Scotland, England and Hong Kong.

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This is only the third time family-run Scottish company Hebrides Cruises have taken Lucy Mary out. I’m on a six-night Skye and the Small Isles: Hebridean Horizons cruise.

James is a happy man: “Lucy Mary could have been built for cruising the West Coast – she handles the waters really well and is so comfortable and luxurious for our guests.”

She is indeed luxurious, a plush former owner’s yacht: all hardwoods, original paintings and lashings of outdoor space.

I spend much of my time up on the fly deck with Indy searching for what James calls “beasties”. No one knows where to find our marine mammal cousins better than James, as his dad set up Mull Sealife Surveys and these West Coast waters course through his veins.

He sets a course for the Cairns of Coll. Sure enough amidst a throng of seabirds feeding we spot a huge splash. Then another. It’s a pair of minkes gloriously lunge feeding. Being just metres away feels like being inside a nature documentary.

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This bountiful wildlife isn’t a one-off. I see more minke whales off Knoydart and Skye, enjoy afternoon tea with a pod of common dolphins off Eigg and encounter bottlenose dolphins and porpoises too.

Then there are the otters and the birds. Two of the former; lots of the latter. I savour sightings of both great and Arctic skuas, storm petrels, gannets, Manx shearwaters, golden eagles, curlews, hen harriers and too many herons to count.

The Hebrides are, of course, not just a wilderness for admiring world-class wildlife. Contrary to how it sometimes appears in glossy TV documentaries, real people lead real lives in a land that may be haunted by the savage days of the clearances, but which these days is showing promising pockets of new life, much of it community-driven.

Back on Eigg, the An Laimhrig Community Hub – designed by island-specialist architect Will Tunnell, a good friend of mine – is looking great, working as well for locals as for visitors.

After my ritual yomp up 393m-high An Sgurr (below) I enjoy a pint of Eigg Brewery beer here, peering back towards Coll.

And then chat to a couple of well-kent Eigg faces who breathe positivity about this community-owned island.

I find green shoots on Rum too despite my concerns before landing and some surprising developments on Canna – I’ll report back on both of those next week for you.

Another community-driven highlight of this cruise is Knoydart, the peninsula known for being home to the island of Britain’s most remote pub, a mere 15-mile hike from Kinloch Hourn. It just opened again less than a week before my visit under community ownership.

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It’s been quite a saga and Stephanie Harris, the pub’s business development manager, is delighted: “It’s been a real journey with crowdfunding from all over the world and support in other ways. The Old Forge is back where it should be, at the heart of our vibrant community.”

The kitchen isn’t open yet at The Old Forge, but that isn’t an issue as I eat like a king aboard the Lucy Mary. Breakfast is porridge and/or fruit followed by the likes of smashed avocado muffins, or smoked salmon with scrambled egg. Lunch is light; dinners not so.

Starters such as turbot with charred watermelon and a salad alive with nuts and seeds, or local langoustines, are followed by lamb tagine or beef with a fried oyster. Dessert is delicious – how about rhubarb cooked three ways?

Cheese from Mull and Tain rounds things off. Chef Sam is a creative force, ably backed by the delightful stewardess Abbie who serves all the food and drinks.

Reluctantly all too soon it is time for our last supper, after which James and Indy’s nightly briefing rounds up everything we’ve seen and done.

It reads like a summer in the Hebrides rather than less than a week.

As I leave Oban I gaze back to Lucy Mary busying in the bay, getting ready to welcome her next lucky guests. I wave both goodbye and welcome to a thrilling new way to explore Scotland’s remarkable western littoral.