The good ship Alpha Beta rolls around in the swell for about two hours before the first person on board gives their breakfast a sea burial. The sight of a green-faced Aussie called Tamara blowing chunks into the drink is enough to send a wave of nausea washing over all the other passengers. Almost as one, we remember the advice of the captain: If you feel seasick, look at the horizon.” So we do, with clenched jaws.

From inside the Alpha Beta, a sure-footed crew member with dreadlocks appears on deck clutching a packet of Ginger Nuts. “This’ll help if you are feeling ill,” she says, passing the biscuits around. “And don’t worry, this’ll all be worth it.” We nod and remind one another that having a tumble-drier for a stomach is a small price to pay for what lies ahead. Any minute now, a whale is going to breach near the boat, giving us memories to last a lifetime. By the time the Ginger Nuts are finished there’s still no sign of Moby Dick. Nor will there be for the next two hours we spend out on the water just off the Isle of Mull. A whale-watching trip with no whales – welcome to an eco-tour that’s going about as swimmingly as the Titanic’s maiden voyage.”

On paper, it seemed foolproof – an exploration of the Inner Hebrides, taking in the isles of Mull, Staffa and Iona, as well as the Ardnamurchan Peninsula. Brochures and travel websites promise imperious mountains, green rolling hills, glistening lochs and so much marine life you couldn’t swing a sporran without hitting a critter in the head. Unsurprisingly, a sizeable group of eco- travellers join me on a small bus that departs for the Inner Hebrides from Edinburgh. Judging by the chit-chat, everyone’s saved up some time for this opportunity to learn about the environment. Mother Nature, though, would be in no mood to play ball over the next four days.

As we zig-zag through Scotland towards the Isle of Mull, past Falkirk, Stirling and Inveraray, the countryside puts on a dazzling show with the stunning Loch Lomond headlining. Mull itself is unspoiled and sparsely populated enough to make new arrivals feel they are privy to pleasures the rest of the world is yet to hear about. The small town of Tobermory, in particular, is a hugely pleasant place to hang out for a while. Famous for providing the backdrop to children’s TV show Balamory, its main street is lined with such a wide variety of brightly coloured buildings, you expect to see a ‘sponsored by Dulux’ sign on the way in.

While Tobermory looks artificial, the warmth of its people is genuine and our group are in good spirits, holed up in a waterfront pub at the end of the first day. We enthuse about what the morning would bring – a trip to the nearby Isle of Staffa, a place with the sort of extraordinary stone formations that get geologists rock-hard. Through some miracle of nature, flows of lava, cooled down by colder bedrock, have rearranged themselves into mainly hexagonal columns. In addition to these amazing basaltic formations, Staffa is also a temporary home for puffins, the half-parrot, half-penguin bird that spends a large amount of its time at sea but seeks out terra firma to nest. For bird-watchers, seeing a puffin is like an audience with the Pope, so there’s an audible sigh from an American wannabe-ornithologist when, shortly after breakfast, our guide breaks the news that bad weather has moved in and swells around Staffa are too big to dock.

We can try and get close, though, so the group jumps onto a small vessel. The swell looks like something out of The Perfect Storm. The captain ensures us he has seen bigger waves in his bathtub. Tamara goes green. We spot a basking shark. It disappears within seconds. Staffa appears in the distance, where it stays until we head back to dry land at the rate of knots.

On the way in we go to the Isle of Iona which, for some reason, is easier to invade from the sea. Worth visiting because of its ancient abbey and nunnery that, within its grounds, house one of the most comprehensive collections of Christian carved stones in Scotland dating back to 600AD, Iona is interesting but unspectacular and after an hour of sightseeing most of the tour group are milling around the harbour-area talking to locals. We ask a fisherman about seeing puffins on Staffa in the near future. There haven’t been puffins there for about two weeks,” he shrugs. “It’s just too busy on Staffa. Too many tourists.”

Dejected, a few in the group head for a nearby gift shop and buy toy puffins. We catch a ferry back to Mull and as the group trudges onto the bus bound for Tobermory our guide ensures us the next day would make up for everything. Four hours on the water. A lot of birds and sea creatures. Don’t you worry.

Which brings us back to the good ship Alpha Beta and the whale-watching trip gone wrong. In desperation the captain steers the boat into a nearby cove and puts the kettle on. While we sip hot chocolate and eat more Ginger Nuts the crew of the Alpha Beta, Sea Life Surveys researchers, drop a microphone overboard and pass a pair of earphones around. Crustaceans communicate by tapping their shells and it’s time to eavesdrop. It sounds like bacon crackling in a pan or a round of polite applause. Cool. Next, a pint glass is dipped into the water to show the group what plankton looks like. Fascinating, but something a bit higher up the food chain would be nice. Try as he might, though, the captain of the Alpha Beta just can’t track down anything more noteworthy than a few lazy seals lulling on rocks in Tobermory harbour. As the bus leaves Mull a few hours later everyone on board agrees our trip should act as a cautionary tale – before doing an eco-tour in Scotland check weather reports and ask locals just how bountiful the waters really are.

Soon, though, our gripes start to disappear. The route back through the Scottish Highlands is just too beautiful to be miserable. We stop for a moment in the truly majestic Glencoe before heading towards the town of Fort William via one of Scotland’s most famous natural wonders. Ben Nevis might be a foothill when compared to other mountains but its peak is the highest in the UK. This calls for a photograph, but just as cameras are raised, a big cloud moves in and embraces Ben Nevis, bringing the curtain down on an eco-tour that, for all its obvious potential, had the bad fortune of catching up with Mother Nature in the foulest of moods.”