Nature Photography,  Photography,  Travel,  Wildlife Photography

2021 The Year of the Otter

It has been an almost lifelong dream to see otters in their natural habitat. So it’s only logical we should yearn to photograph an otter, once we became camera-toting enthusiasts. When the pandemic brought world travel to an emergency stop, 2021 presented the perfect opportunity to explore what our stunning UK shores and countryside have to offer.

Why We Used Guides to Photograph Otters

We have always been advocates of using local professional wildlife photography guides. They know the area and the subjects. They understand the normal behaviour patterns – which may vary in different locations, and from animal to animal (or bird to bird). This is incredibly important if you are wanting to be certain you are photographing wildlife in a non-intrusive way. And therefore, pairing wildlife knowledge with respectful situational photography expertise is also invaluable. Especially so when it comes to our native Eurasian otter. Persecuted in the past, they are inherently shy – cautious to the point we might even be tempted to call them cunning. More of that later.

Knowing how (or rather when) to stop and focus, and more importantly, when to retreat, is as much a part of the fieldcraft. The specific habitat is also a factor. And that’s something a local guide will have in spades. And will protect at all costs – while keeping you on the right side of (wildlife) good practice.

Preventing an otter from returning to its holt, intentionally or otherwise, is an offence. It also could result in a mother and cubs being separated, if an otter family heads home through fear. And that could result in the death of any cub left behind. So if you plan to photograph an otter, then learning about their habitat, and how not to obstruct or harass is key. These are the first things we always respect before we ever get the camera out and attempt to capture their behaviour through a lens.

Only then can we start to apply the generic stuff such as how to stay on the right side of the wind, or what to wear to avoid disturbance through sound and smell. Or just how much our shape and clothing contrast can make the difference between succeeding and failing to photograph an otter.

So when we finally decided to take a trip to photograph otters, we chose a guide with knowledge of the wildlife, the location and photography. Both times.

Shetland Otter Photography in summer

It all began in Shetland. In a week in July that turned out to be almost one of the warmest so far. Two guides – John Moncrieff and Helen Perry shared the guiding over three days. Shetland’s coastline is famous for its voes. Mostly inaccessible by road, but nice and secluded for the wildlife. You might be fortunate and spot activity from a distance. But to get the opportunity to actually photograph otters, be prepared to walk to reach the shoreline.

Some days we simply set off in a location where otters had been historically sighted – and not always with a successful outcome beyond a few thousand steps on the fitness counter, and the previous night’s delicious Lerwick landed fish and chips worked off.

bundle of otters

That does have its advantages though. When you do find an otter, you are more or less guaranteed to have it to yourself. And when you get a shirt sleeves day and come across a mother and three growing cubs, you could sit discreetly for hours while watching the ‘kids’ play. Or just watch them have a sleepy bosie (that’s a cuddle in Scotland). Or have one yourself.

four otters in a group on a rock

Shetland taught us a lot. The excitement of that first encounter. The shared disappointment of walking a few miles and seeing nothing. And the resignation of the day that just wasn’t meant to be when you have just found a ‘wee’ spot and see one coming down from the hillside, in the distance, and being unable to get anyone’s attention (or get your pants up fast enough) to do anything about it. But I saw it with my eyes and that was enough that day.

Mull Otter Photography in autumn

Mull, is quite different. The coast is made up of several sea lochs, most are fairly accessible and visible from the road. This also makes it a great tourist spot. We imagined it teaming with campervans and families in the summer. And dog walkers at any time of the year. That presents two risks to be able to photograph an otter. Risk No 1. Otters will avoid dogs. So if you want to watch an otter at a reasonable distance, you’d be as well leaving pooch at home. And definitely keep them on a lead where otters are known to frequent if you don’t want to risk a stressful encounter.

Risk ‘number 2’. There I was, looking out to sea when I felt the dreaded soft slippery squelch underfoot. Dog poo!! No otters in the vicinity, I spent the next 20 minutes noisily trying to get the stuff off my boots. It’s hard to be quiet when you are walking it off on the pebbles. Rinsing my boot in the water, cursing the deep cleated soles I had been grateful for the previous day on the slippy seaweed and rocks. I wasn’t getting back in the car until we had scraped every last bit out with the tip of a gull feather. It gives a whole new meaning to my Muck boots. We have dogs and it’s bad enough cleaning up after your own, but we do. Someone else’s? Boak! Come on dog owners, bag it up and take it away next time, yeah.

Also, by comparison with our July trip to Shetland, Mull in October was wet. We must have chosen some of the wettest days this year. Our instinct was to assume no sensible otter would be out on the water on a day like this. But they have to eat, often, and plenty.

otter on seaweed in rain

So when our guide Pete Walkden, helped us reach a position to safely photograph an otter, what else could we do but hunker down, while being pelted with cold pellets of rain. Imagine sitting in a pool of wet seaweed (thank heavens for my new Alpkit overtrousers and birthday Muck boots) having buckets of cold water thrown at you. Like being on Tiswas but without the humour.

We watched as a dog otter fished the loch, occasionally coming back onto the rocks to feed. For over two hours he filled his belly. Each time he came ashore he would (cunningly) position himself in a new place. Sometimes we lost sight, other times, the wrong side of the wind. Shifting our position became a welcome chance to move stiffened limbs, shake out the pools of water in our creases. Now try moving, unseen, carrying a camera, while not falling over on seaweed-covered wet rocks that even Torvill and Dean would find challenging (unashamedly stolen line from Pete).

otter on yellow seaweed

It takes a lot of patience, a fair amount of luck, and a heap of skill to get into a position to be able to photograph an otter. And to do so safely (ours) and without detriment or disturbance to the animal. It also takes grit and some flipping good waterproofs – because getting right down into the drenched seaweed is sometimes the only way to not be seen and disturb them.

So this was not the day to discover most of your wet weather clothing was not as waterproof as you thought (says three of us, back in the car, wringing our layers out and trying to dry them in front of the heating vents). Or to realise you had somehow omitted to extend your lens fully (we said we must never talk about that again).

Flying solo

Two trips, two different experiences, three fabulous guides and it was our turn to try and put what we had learnt into practice. It was our final day on Mull. And time to go and see if we could possibly find and photograph an otter. Flying solo without the aid of a parachute or safety net.

We drove up and down the now-familiar routes. We had worked out the tide times. This can be helpful – but some otters don’t read the book. The shore was also surprisingly free of humans. The quietest we had seen all week, in fact. We briefly sighted one, on its way out for an early morning fishing session. An otter that is, not a human. At a distance that was even testing the binoculars. We waited for a while then moved on.

Scoring blank after blank we came to the conclusion the otters (and the humans) were all on an away day. After a spot of lunch, we started to wend our way back in the direction of home. Packing to do and tea to find. Pulling in along the way, checking and discounting every potential sighting as a ‘notter’. The loch was particularly busy with otter wannabes today.

And then we saw him. When you know, you know.

Time to put our training into practice. First – watch and learn. Understand their behaviour. Patience pays off.

Next, the senses. Sound, smell, sight. Knowing that our own behaviour can disturb an otter that needs to eat often to survive makes you think a lot about if and how to approach the task. We whispered a plan. Mentally checking off the things to consider before heading to our first vantage point.

Ready? Yes. Now let’s go photograph an otter.

otter waking in the sunshine

Spending over an hour, we watched him fish, snooze, dry off, scratch, groom and then fish again. We even managed some video footage – see the end of this blog. By the time we decided to call it a day (my own fish pie was beckoning) we had shifted position just once. Taking an opportune moment while he was looking the other way.

This dog otter, though always alert and watchful, seemed settled and content. While resting he turned his back to the road, yet chose a spot close to the water’s edge – no doubt knowing he could slide away unseen if he needed to. When he fished he stayed close to the shore, returning only to share his fish supper with us (not literally of course) as we watched quietly. This otter was showing no stress by our presence – or indeed that of the onlookers behind.

While we have seen and tried to capture similar moments, while on Shetland earlier in the year, this one felt just a little bit extra special. We had used the fieldcraft Pete – and John and Helen before him – had taught us. And been rewarded with something really quite precious.

otter eating fsh among seaweed on water

We left him fishing back out on the loch, feeling happy and privileged, even a little emotional, to have been able to share a little of this time with him. Stay safe and live long, fella.

2021 might well be the Chinese year of the Ox – but it will forever be our year of the otter.

How close did we really get?

How often do you view an image of wildlife and think ‘wow, that’s awful close’.

But modern photography equipment is amazing. And getting better and better. To give some sense of scale, these images were shot with a Canon R6 with either an RF 100-500mm lens or EF 100-400mm lens plus 1.4x extender.

We were working at the very edge of (and probably beyond) the workable distance of our kit. There is also a significant post-processing crop on most, too. So we were really much further away from the otters than it might seem. At least 30 metres and more. The key thing for us is to make certain, before we ever point a camera their way, that our presence is not disturbing their normal behaviour or causing them any stress or disruption. If in doubt, just enjoy watching with your eyes or binoculars.

two otters on yellow seaweed

Because if like us, you set out with a plan to just have a nice day, by the water, and see if anything comes along you won’t be disappointed. Trophy image hunting is not our motivation. We really do enjoy just watching the wildlife as much as the photography. Though you might occasionally find us ‘chimping’ at the camera screen if we happen to capture a shot we are personally proud of. Even if it won’t win any awards.

Our guides

If this has whetted (or perhaps that should be ‘wetted’) your appetite and you would like to try to photograph an otter for yourself, then do consider getting a guide. If only at least for your first outing. An upfront investment that will reap rewards over and over again.

They know their subjects well enough to be able to see if they are going about their normal behaviour without being affected by your presence.

And we have learnt a lot, laughed a lot, and hopefully made some new friends and fellow photographer contacts we hope to meet up with again. You just can’t put a price on that.

There are lots of ‘guiders’ around of course. These are the links to the three we have used in pursuit of our otter love.

John Moncrieff (Shetland): https://www.facebook.com/JohnMoncrieffPhotography

Helen Perry (Shetland): https://www.facebook.com/helenperrywildlife

Pete Walkden (Mull): https://www.petewalkden.co.uk/

They all guide on other wildlife, besides the otters. You might even get an incredibly tasty sandwich too 😋

For video footage of our final day with the otters then check out our YouTube channel https://youtu.be/szWUevmELhk

Smith Wild Photo October 2021

2 Comments

  • Mark Nicolaides

    That’s a great article.

    Really good to hear the philosophy behind your photography and how much you really enjoy being with the wildlife. Your approach makes perfect sense: You’re at your chosen location for a limited time, you have clear intention of seeing and photographing otters, and you don’t want to impinge the otters’ way of life. Plus, ultilising the knowledge and resources of your guides who are obviously more than willing to assist you, means you were able to successfully ‘fly solo’ thereafter, without distburbing the otters; sounds like a good way of going about your business.

    By the way, you mention that you’re not a ‘trophy hunter’, but your images look pretty good to me!

    Also, I totally concur with what you said about spending a little bit of his time with him; their lives are so interesting and normally, hidden from us, and so any glimpse afforded by them (or circumstance) is so gratefully received, eh?

    Thanks for taking the time and effort to put this piece together.

    • Marie T Smith

      Thank you so much, Mark. That means a lot. We wanted to convey how important it was/is to us to not cause the wildlife any stress. Even just to watch. Then anything else is a bonus. We are incredibly grateful to all three of our guides who have shown us their own, individual, approaches to enable us to begin to feel confident enough to respectfully get an image or two. It is a good feeling when you realise you have a few worth keeping – so thank you for your kind words and compliments. That means a lot too.

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